Should Churches Consider Only Offering Non-legal Marriages?

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Wedding Rings
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In this article I want to raise a legitimate, but controversial, question which I think the church might soon need to begin to consider. The question regards marriage and whether it is wise to continue to adhere to civil marriages as opposed to purely "religious" marriages. I genuinely hope this to be a dialogue in good faith. The question is: should churches begin to consider marrying people, but not legally?

A Brief History Lesson

During the middle ages, a tension began to exist between the church and state. This tension grew as the phenomenon of nationalism developed. The question was: who rules the lives (civil and otherwise) of the people? Initially the answer was obviously "the church", as it was responsible for the mortal and immortal well-being of the people. Also, at that time the political situation in the Europe was terribly fragile and uncertain. People throughout Europe would rather primarily identify themselves as "Christians" than as, say, "German" or "French". But as political systems in Europe started stabilising after a turbulent time which saw the fall of the western Roman empire, states started asserting more and more authority over its citizens. One of the many aspects of civil life which was affected by this tug-of-war between church and state was marriage, which is the focus of this article.

The development of this history is long and complex, but for our purposes it suffices to say that after a period where only religious marriages were considered valid, the French Revolution brought back the notion of a civil marriage in a big way, with religious marriages being invalid unless a civil marriage had first taken place. Napoleon would shortly thereafter spread this system throughout the rest of continental Europe.

The assertion that marriages should be "handled" by the state was probably a valid one, as there are legal implications of marriages (e.g. financial, population statistics). It is necessary for the government to keep records of marriages and legislating marriage probably is the most effective way of ensuring this. Moreover marriage is not something to which the Christian church can lay an exclusive claim. Although Judeo-Christian tradition explains where the institution of marriage comes from, marriage preceded both Christianity and (established) Judaism12. The Graeco-Roman world into which Christianity came already had laws regarding (pagan) marriage, and marriage was also practiced by the surrounding barbarian nations. In fact, marriage is a near universal human institution. It might be far removed from its origins, but that does not make it any less recognisable. To accommodate religious freedom (which is not a bad thing, if only to allow Christians to practice their religion freely), Christians need to relinquish their exclusive claim to the institution of marriage, as would any other religion. Doing this would make the state the logical choice to administrate marriages.

The Problem of Modern Civil Marriages

Recent developments in civil marriage legislation in several countries have, however, given rise to concern. The concern is not the oft-touted "sanctity of marriage". In a pluralistic3 society, what defines a "sanctified" marriage? Rather the problem is when states want to start dictating who should sanction what types of marriages to the detriment of religious freedom.

Building on the claim which I just mentioned that no one body can define a "sanctified" marriage, governments with liberal agendas have recently begun advocating innovative ideas regarding marriage which has, until recently, been unheard of in the western (if not the entire) world. Same sex marriage is a prime example. Marriage has traditionally been (almost universally) a heterosexual institution. But with the gay rights movement came the idea of same sex marriage to radically push the agenda of equality. Liberals were quite taken by the idea (even though it is a minority issue). And in some countries governments are resorting to increasingly innovative tactics4 to try and push through their laws. But even in the USA, which has traditionally been conservative on the issue of same-sex marriage, is moving towards a much more liberal stance on the topic. But even more innovative is proposed legislation in Mexico City for temporary marriages, which can optionally (and with mutual consent) expire after a fixed amount of time. These proposals upset the church because they pervert what the church believes to be the purpose of marriage (a view shared by other religions, as well as certain people of secular persuasions). But while the church cannot dictate to the government, it should at the very least have the freedom to refuse to conduct such marriages.

A Controversial Suggestion

In light of these recent developments, I want the church to consider the following suggestion: should churches (at some points in the future, if pressure from governments necessitate it) renounce their rights to conduct civil marriages (which is granted to them by the government anyway)? Then, if the members of the church wants to marry, the church marries them only "religiously". The church would then keep record of which couples are married (but no legally) and thereby sanction them matrimonially and conjugally. The church would then bear wholly the responsibility of looking after the married couple and all aspects of their marriage (a responsibility which it should already largely be bearing): to make sure everything is still well, that the rearing of children is wholesome, providing council in difficult times and, if absolutely necessary, enforcing a divorce. Because the church would not conduct legal marriages, governments cannot interfere with its views on marriage; at least not without trying to dictate the internal structuring of the church. If they try to do this, they would also have to dictate which church members serve on the local church council, who should be sides men, and who gets to appointed to be the greeters at the door.

The biggest negative implication of this proposal is that Christians would be exempt from all the legal benefits which married people enjoy. But as marriage rates drop over the western world and the number of people who cohabit increase, one has to wonder that if secular society does not deem the legal benefits of marriage to be worthwhile, why should Christians?


My aim with this article was to start a dialogue. I do not know whether the church should adopt a policy such as the one which I have outlined here, but I want people to think about it. The purpose of this proposal is not to increase strife, but allow Christians who are fighting the battle for marriage to give it up. They could then expend their energy on evangelism and fighting the root cause of sin, rather than the symptoms.

  • 1. Abram, whom God promised would become a great nation and eventually became the father of the Israelites, was married to Sarai; also Lot, Noah, as well as presumably many of their contemporaries were married.
  • 2. The institution of marriage has clearly been given by God to all peoples as part of His common grace towards humanity.
  • 3. "Descriptively, a situation characterized by a number of alternative religions and diverse perspectives on religion, with the resulting problem for adherents of each view of what attitude to take toward the other views."Evans, Stephen C. Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2002.
  • 4. For more information on why the proposed legislation bans the Church of England and Wales from conducting same sex marriages, see this link.




Hi Wessel,

Hi Wessel,
I can only speak for the South African legal position re civil vs 'purely religious' marriages. It does appear that with the Civil Unions Act allowing same sex marriages, churches are almost compelled to marry same sex couples. However, the beauty of the SA Constitution is any person may legitimately refuse to marry a same sex couple on the basis of their right to freedom of religion. It has happened that a same sex couple has challenged the decision of a church official to refuse to marry them, but I don't believe that any court would compel such an action if it offended the right to freedom of religion badly. Basically, the courts balance the right to equality of same sex couples with the right to freedom of religion, and since all rights are limited to some extent, I cannot think of a situation in which a person would be compelled to perform a same sex marriage.

That being said, that is the South African position. Our Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world and I can almost guarantee that the position would be totally different in other countries (such as the UK, as you rightly point out). In theory, I also don't see a problem with having 'purely religious' marriages and removing the civil legislation element from marriage. The only trouble comes in when there is divorce, but that should be easy to remedy inter partes and not necessarily through the courts.

Not Now, But Perhaps Someday

Thank you for bringing a legal perspective to the matter, Yvette. I agree with you that the South African (and, as far as I know, European and American constitutions firmly entrench the right to freedom of religion. My reason for writing this article is not because I fear some imminent danger for the church. (When I referred to "the church" in my article, I meant it in the broadest possible sense.) But rather I believe that it could be on the horizon. From what I understand, especially from certain individual European political figures, there have been threats made against religion where it can potentially discriminate against other people. Also, the recent case before the European Court of Human Rights where some Christians complained about being discriminated against because of their faith: while Nadia Eweida won her case (because, as far as I can tell, the discrimination was against her person and she was not affecting anyone else), Lillian Ladele lost her case, because to uphold her rights could potentially discriminate against other people (specifically those of same-sex couples). This is actually exactly what you said: "the courts balance the right to equality of same sex couples with the right to freedom of religion". But what I am wondering is how that balance might one day shift.

I've also been tending in that direction.

I feel that we can't impose our Christ-grounded morals on non-Christians. And since I completely agree that everyone should be equal before the law of the land, it follows that those who wish to marry should be able to do so. What I object to is the insistence that those who the church feel should not marry (e.g. homosexual couples) have the right to demand to be married in the church.

In practice, I suspect that most Christian couples would enter into a civil marriage as well, but those are two separate processes, with different outcomes.

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Carin. Yes, the insistence of non-Christians to be allowed everything which the church allows its (confirmed) members is puzzling. Of course this is a complicated issue and much can be said about it back-and-forth. Some churches will allow such weddings because they want to show God's love and not want to ostracise anyone. Whether I agree or not, the fact remains that they might be sincere and believe that they are furthering the Kingdom. But other churches might refuse, and they should have the liberty to do so. I am sure that same-sexed couples will always be able to find a church which is willing to marry them. But they have no grounds to demand that a specific church or denomination should marry them.

I just want to again emphasise that I think Christians should continue with dual civil/religious marriages as long as possible. My suggestion should only be considered in extreme circumstances; which, thankfully, I do not see happening soon.