Don’t Sanction Marriages without the State, Report Urges

Don’t Sanction Marriages without the State, Report Urges
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Editor's note: This article was published online Nov. 25, 2020. The Christian Reformed Church's Council of Delegates has since canceled Synod 2021. Parts of that synod's agenda that cannot wait will be taken up by a special meeting of the Council, in much the same way as occurred in 2020, the first time synod was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Is it OK for Christians to marry in the eyes of the church but not in the eyes of the state?

After wrestling with this question, a denominational task force is offering its report for Christian Reformed churches to review.

The Ecclesiastical Marriage Task Force was appointed by Synod 2019, the annual decision-making body of the CRC. Classis Georgetown, a group of churches in West Michigan, had requested clarification on church policy since congregants sometimes request a non-civil or ecclesiastical marriage.

Defining ecclesiastical marriage as “marriage sanctioned and solemnized solely by the church to the exclusion of the state (civil government),” the task force asks Synod 2021 to “strongly advise” CRC pastors not to officiate such marriages. Synod is expected to meet in mid-June.

Avoid Legal Conflict

“Sanctioning such a marriage … will bring the church into a dangerous situation whereby we will be serving as arbitrators of quasi-legal relationships, which could easily put us in legal conflict with the states and provinces in which we reside,” the task force report warns.

As part of its process, the task force “listened to the stories of those who were seeking or raising the question of ecclesiastical marriages.”

Situations mentioned in the report include:

  • couples with one Canadian and one American spouse who choose to have separate ceremonies for immigration reasons—a church ceremony in one country and a legal ceremony in the other country;
  • widows and widowers who are interested in non-civil remarriage to avoid losing government benefits or complicating their children’s inheritances; and
  • immigrant couples who were married in their country of origin or in a refugee camp without government documentation but with family and community accountability.

Don’t Tolerate Deceit

The report is unsympathetic towards couples who eschew legal marriage for financial reasons, calling this practice “deceptive and unlawful.”
“If people are entering an ecclesiastical marriage explicitly in order to avoid obligations of a civil union, is the church not simply aiding in perpetuating fraud? Such action cannot be condoned,” it states.

Respect Immigrant Cultures

Taking a much different tone, the committee asks synod to advise churches to “respect and honor” marriages of immigrants who arrive in North America without a civil marriage. It adds, however, that churches should “counsel [such immigrants] in the understanding of Christian marriage and its relationship to civil authority in our countries.”

Not all countries even offer civil marriages, the report points out, and these marriages are often strong and well-supported: “In the interest of grace and acceptance, we want to acknowledge the beautiful Christian marriage traditions that have developed in various cultures.”

As for situations in which a couple wants two separate ceremonies, one legal and one a larger church ceremony, the report advises that “it would be best to obtain the civil marriage first.” However, the writers acknowledge that in some situations, such as when a county clerk’s office is closed for COVID-19, obtaining a civil marriage may not be possible. In any case, pastors should seek expert legal advice before officiating at such a wedding, the report cautions.

The report includes a history of the relationship between biblical marriage and the state, noting that John Calvin viewed marriage as jointly sanctioned by church and state.

The report is one of three study committee reports coming to Synod 2021, expected to be convened June 11-17 in Sioux Center, Iowa. All three are available online from CRCNA synodical services, and summaries are published there in English, Korean, and Spanish.

About the Author

Roxanne VanFarowe is a freelance writer who lives in the woods with her artist husband James and their five children in Hillsborough, North Carolina. They are members of Blacknall Presbyterian Church in Durham.