My wife and I were having our ongoing, sometime argument about weddings again recently. No, not specifically ours. She’s realises she’s pretty much locked into this one, however she may feel about it. No, we were talking about other people’s weddings.
The argument takes various forms. Sometimes it is about my hatred of weddings (for which you can read more here). We always have a discussion about any wedding to which we’re invited. It usually starts with the announcement from my wife that we’ve been invited. That quickly moves into the I-definitely-don’t-want-to-go response from me. That, in turn, morphs into the angry you-can’t-say-no-and-you-can’t-let-me-go-on-my-own phase. I almost always end up going to the weddings we’re asked to attend; I almost never want to go (obviously, if you’ve invited me to a wedding and I came, I don’t mean yours. Yours was definitely great.)
But a lot of our friends and relatives have gotten married now. In fact, we’re moving into the rather sadder phase of life where the weddings we once attended are ending. We’re not invited to quite as many weddings as we once were, so the argument rarely centres around how much I want to go to them any more, which is – if we’re still unclear – barely distinguishable from zero.
No, our argument tends to be one of principle. The principle of the church’s role in weddings. If I had it my way, nobody would ever get married at the church. Weddings would take place only at the registry office, conducted exclusively and clearly by the state. The church wouldn’t be involved in any legal proceedings at all. The church may conduct a thanksgiving service for the wedding should it be wanted but it would not conduct the wedding itself. I broadly share Don Carson’s view here (his fifth point is the relevant one).
Whilst, like Carson, I don’t think it is sinful for churches to officiate weddings – I have done so myself – we have to be clear that when we do so, we are doing it as agents of the state not principally as ministers of the gospel. I prefer the French or Dutch model in which the state, and only the state, conduct marriages. The church may bless, give thanks, join together as a church family in celebrating the marriage in a service that has no legal standing, but it does not conduct the marriage itself. That is the role of the state and it helpfully clarifies that it is a God-given creation ordinance for all people across all time, not a specifically Christian sacrament.
But I recognise, realistically, that is not the culture we live in (thanks a bunch Anglicanism!) Given we have not embarked on my glorious rule, I appreciate churches will conduct marriages or convey something else entirely problematic. Given it isn’t sinful to do it, and it can be culturally problematic not to do it, I accept I am probably still going to conduct weddings. The question – and the centre of our discussion – is who exactly should we do them for?
My wife thinks we should be quite open handed in whom we will marry. What a good gospel opportunity, she reckons. I question that rationale. I’ll be honest, I think they tend to take us away from the work of the gospel rather than helping to advance it more often than not. She also thinks, if we call marriage a social good (which it obviously is), isn’t it right for us to actively encourage people to get married and conduct the wedding for them? Whilst I think it’s right to encourage people into marriage, I am less convinced that the church necessarily ought to be the vehicle they use to do it. I think, for example, *ducks for cover from nutbar libertarians* that taxes are a social good, but I don’t think the church ought to be collecting them. She thinks we communicate something unhelpful by not doing them; I think we communicate something unhelpful by doing them.
Frankly, if we’re going to do it at all, I would prefer to only conduct marriages for church members. If we are going to preserve the idea that marriage is not a church sacrament, and we are clear that the church may give thanks for marriage but itself doesn’t marry anyone, it makes more sense to give thanks for the marriage of those who belong to the church family. Moreover, this makes clear that – though others can rightly get married and are fully married in every way when it is conducted entirely apart from the church – it is the gospel that specifically transforms marriage and makes it into something peculiarly Christian. And how can we make that clear for Mr & Mrs Smith who have no real connection to the church, and even less so for Mr & Mrs Jones who do come to the church regularly but aren’t in membership because we aren’t at all clear they have grasped the gospel at all?
In a world where I can’t insist only the state conduct marriages, I think it better for the church to recognise and celebrate the marriages of those that belong to it. We can applaud the marriages that happen in registry offices, going along to celebrate the goodness of the gift given as a creation ordinance. But in the church, we can give thanks that in this marriage, the gospel has transformed it into a true picture of Christ and the church to which the couple belong.
What is more, on a practical level, if we are going to officiate weddings, we need a clear policy for why we will do some and not others lest we bear the wrath of litigious activists bent on advancing their agenda. A clear and direct line would be that of church membership. It allows us to be clear that the church is not the arbiter of who is or isn’t married, that marriage is a good for everybody (not just Christians) and that it is the gospel specifically at work in the lives of those being married that shows the fullness. If we call all marriages good, we make that clear wherever they are conducted. If we think it is the gospel that truly transforms marriage, it makes sense – if we’re going to do them at all – to make sure we are, therefore, celebrating those gospel centred marriages embarked upon by those we can affirm as believers.
I appreciate this view isn’t likely to be popular. I know it sounds a bit tight to say I don’t think the church should marry anyone but, given our cultural context, I’ll willingly concede to the marriage of church members. But I fear a greater problem if we don’t draw such a line. I fear our time taken away from actual gospel work in favour of pseudo-gospel work driven by culturally misguided views of why the church exists at all. I worry that in a bid to do something good, we will lose what is most good and even communicate what may well prove to be, in the final analysis, detrimental.