TGC Asks: Should Pastors Separate the Christian Wedding Ceremony from the Civil Rite?

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker did not surprise observers when he decided on August 4 to overturn Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. But as Albert Mohler and others have noted, Walker handed advocates of homosexuality a clear victory with strongly worded language that dismissed defenders of traditional marriage as irrational. He dispatched with centuries of custom and wisdom, taking it upon himself to redefine marriage and assert, “Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage.” He also drove a wedge between religious and civil marriage:

Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter. Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage. Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.

Religious and civil marriage have historically been closely linked in America, many of whose founders inherited their views from 16th-century Genevan reformer John Calvin. Splitting with fellow reformer Martin Luther on the issue, Calvin required engaged couples in Geneva to register with civil magistrates, according to John Witte Jr., author of From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. They received from the magistrate a marriage certificate, which they gave to a pastor. He would then announce their pending marriage for three weeks in a row, thereby inviting anyone to offer objections privately. If authorities heard no objections or found them unpersuasive, the couple would be married in the church within six weeks. Thus, Calvin set a pattern linking religious and civil marriage that persists in America today.

Perhaps the time has come, however, for pastors to rethink this position. Some leaders, including D. A. Carson, have already declared their preference for more clearly differentiating between civil and religious marriage, citing practices in other nations, particularly France. I surveyed four experienced pastors for a new feature, TGC Asks: Should pastors separate the Christian wedding ceremony from the civil rite?

Steve Dewitt, senior pastor at Bethel Church in Crown Point, Indiana:

Steve DeWitt

This is an interesting question for a pastor in Crown Point, Indiana, a city known in years gone by as the place to go to get married at any hour of the night. There was a local judge downtown who would marry anyone anytime. Many came to do so, including Ronald Reagan and Muhammad Ali. Is marriage simply the signing of a government-sanctioned certificate by a judge? Or is Christian marriage more than that?

Thinking about your question brings to mind the pressure that pastors feel in the midst of the chaos of a wedding. We have to get many things right: leading the wedding ceremony, remembering all the queues, hitting all the protocols, delivering a challenge to the couple, leading in the vows, etc. The pressure of it leads many pastors to prefer a funeral over a wedding (myself included). What makes a wedding “Christian” is a Christian man and a woman covenanting to follow God’s plan and fulfill God’s purpose for marriage.

At the same time, a pastor in the American culture acts as a steward for the state in the civil rite. We are required to make sure the couple signs their wedding certificate making them officially married in the eyes of the government. In my state, the certificates contain nasty warnings for religious leaders who fail to properly fill out, sign, and file the wedding certificate.

This leads to the interesting question: When is a couple actually married? In the eyes of the government marriage happens when a sanctioned official declares it and the signatures of the couple affirm it. In the eyes of God, I believe, it happens when the couple, in accordance with God’s created plan for marriage, vow to be husband and wife to one another. What if they forget to sign the certificate or it is lost in the mail? Are they married? In the eyes of God, yes. In the eyes of the government, no.

I suggest that in today’s culture, the reverse of this is steadily creeping toward us. We now have marriages where the couple is “married” in the eyes of the government but not married in the eyes of God. This is another example of a secular worldview redefining a created purpose of God. Currently, in the eyes of our government, a fetus is not a human. It is non-human or not-yet human. Yet in the eyes of God, the unborn child is fully human and worthy of all the dignity and preservation that this status requires. The eyes of God and the eyes of the government are seeing things differently. Is God threatened by the redefinition of marriage? Hardly. But what is threatened is the reflection of God himself in marriage. It will be our challenge, as Christian and civil definitions of marriage grow further apart, to preserve Christian marriage and the celebration of it in the wedding ceremony as God defines it.

Perhaps what we will soon need is a new word that captures what God intends marriage to be. For a long time, marriage has been a good word to describe this most important relationship. But as marriage in our culture is less and less what God intends, perhaps a new word or phrase and definition might allow us to rightly describe this wonderful and theologically rich union; Trinitarian plurality in unity, Christ and the church, or agape love in family oneness.

Ryan Kelly

Ryan Kelly, pastor for preaching/teaching at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico:

While I don’t think we’re a year or two away from it, I do think eventually it may come to the need to separate the religious and civil parts of the wedding ceremony. This wouldn’t be my preference, and I’m in no hurry to get there, but I could imagine the institution and/or definition of marriage so devolving in our culture that faithful pastors would be in favor of such a separation. They would simply choose to, in a sense, reclaim the institution of marriage by separating it from the state’s view of marriage.

That said, it may not be a decision that the clergy will get to make—perhaps government will make it for them. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the scenario in France—there is a civil ceremony, and, for those with a religious inclination, it is followed by a religious wedding ceremony. In other words, in France, unlike the United States, clergy cannot act on behalf of the state to legally marry.

Now, I understand that the California state senate has just recently passed in May the Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act, which allows clergy to perform or deny any wedding. So that’s one indication that a separation of religious and civil parts of the wedding is likely not right around the corner. But if we continue to follow the trends in western European cultures like France, it certainly may come to that.

Jay Thomas, college pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois:

Jay Thomas


I see two problems with this judge’s reasoning:

Marriage is not just a civil term, but a theological and moral term. It is one thing to permit a legalized relationship with all the benefits provided for a civil union within the state, which may overlap with marriage, but it is quite another thing to assume marriage is simply another term for a legal union. Christians thus have a compounded view of marriage. We believe in the moral  and ultimate realities of marriage AND as citizens of the modern state we have to abide by the civil implications for us. The first is the fundamental reality. The second is what we inherit and should honor as exilic witnesses and sojourners, not unlike taxes.

We are increasingly not being allowed to determine independently whether we recognize what we deem a biblical union or divorce, and how the state will treat us on hiring practices and church membership is going to reflect that, as it is already in some places. The state is going to intervene more and more, at least in very liberal areas where people begin to litigate. Our tax status and, in some cases, person legal infringement are going to manifest themselves as battle grounds. Therein lies the rub, by the state approving the term “marriage” it is very much actively promoting the moral, not just legal, status of gay unions.

So no, pastors should not and cannot separate a Christian wedding from a civil rite. Now, I think there is room to consider marrying unbelieving heterosexuals, as marriage is a creational institution between a man and a woman and you can preach the gospel to them in their counseling and ceremony, but there is no biblical room for any romantic and sexual union between homosexuals. Period.

Bob Bixby, lead pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church in Rockford, Illinois:

Bob Bixby

I have performed a number of weddings both in Europe and here in the States. In Europe the civil wedding is a separate affair that is done in the town hall, usually by a mayor or deputy-mayor. Christians, or all religious couples, typically schedule the civil wedding, a formal but brief affair, right before the church wedding. Most devoutly religious couples are very careful not to consummate their marriage until there is a church wedding, thus the proximity of the civil ceremony to the church ceremony.

All of this has had a profound impact on the way I do ceremonies here in the States. It is an unusual blessing to be able to have the legal authority to say, “By the authority that is vested in me I now pronounce you man and wife.” What most Americans do not realize is that the American wedding ceremony performed by a minister is the only occasion on earth where God’s three institutions meet in one meeting. Government, family, and church are united in one ceremony here in the States. Therefore, several couples I have married, recognizing the significance of this have worked into the actual church ceremony the signing of the marriage license by the pastor and witnesses,  something that is usually done later on somewhere between cake and dance and out of perfunctory necessity. I think it is very special, however, to have special music playing while the whole congregation witnesses the legal element of the wedding union.

On one level I agree with the statement from the judge. He is right to say that the church can recognize or not recognize a civil wedding. We would not recognize a gay union. However, as a pastor in Europe I left it to the discretion of the couple to determine whether or not they would consummate their marriage after a civil wedding and prior to the church wedding, but to my great satisfaction and constant amazement most couples chose not to act married in any way until they had received the blessing of the church.

The result of the civil unions is that it has ultimately cheapened the significance of the civil union and the uniting of the three divine institutions—government, family, church—in one ceremony. Consequently, I can foresee our Christian weddings becoming more like what has already been the practice in Europe for years: a separate religious ceremony that holds greater significance in the eyes of its adherents despite what the state does or does not recognize.

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  • Filipe Niel

    Here in Brazil weddings work a lot like Pastor Bob described happening in Europe. I tend to see a married couple in God’s eyes as a heterosexual couple that has committed before the civil authority that God has placed in their lives to be husband and wife to one another. I see the church ceremony as a thanksgiving service, where the (already civil married couple) gather their family and friends to thank God for the gift of marriage.

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  • Joe

    “What most Americans do not realize is that the American wedding ceremony performed by a minister is the only occasion on earth where God’s three institutions meet in one meeting.” – Bob Bixby

    Well, “the only occasion on earth” except for the Canadian wedding ceremony and probably also wedding ceremonies in a number of other Commonwealth countries.

    Nevertheless, great article Collin (and Steve, Ryan, Jay & Bob)! Very helpful food for thought given the situation here in Canada as well.

  • HC

    Don’t kid yourselves Pastors… there will come a time when the homosexual crowd will DEMAND church weddings too and that the Church MUST recognize their (dis)union. If you think they won’t, just realize that the whole “gay marriage” issue here is not marriage, but (forced) approval of the culture upon their perversity.

  • bob

    I had this exact thought only 2 days ago. The answer is, in my opinion, yes, Christians must start to distiguish a biblical marriage. We need to think with discernment, “how”?, in this vile secular world.

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  • Charlie Grinn

    Sure, it makes perfect logical sense.
    Just as there is and always has been the false, yet professing to be christian, church, (even back in the Old Testament with the ‘remnant’ as opposed to the israelites who really werent Israelites in the way that Jacob was originally re-named by God,
    There is also marriage in God’s eyes vs marriage in the world’s eyes. Two distinctively different things.
    We have the babylon marriage vs. the New Jerusalem marriage. Just as we have the world system including the false church (babylon) vs the real Church (New Jerusalem).

  • John

    My question would be, why would Christians need to go to the state at all? Co-habitating couples receive most of the legal benefits once reserved for married couples already. So why not just go to the church and skip the civil ceremony altogether?

    • Jonathan

      John, the problem I see with your idea is that we should submit ourselves to the governing authorities (Rom. 13) insomuch as they do not go against the Word of God. The government may give cohabiting couples rights that they biblically should not have, but I don’t think that negates the necesity of following the laws to be legally married. Here in Colombia the only religious marriage that’s accepted is that of the Catholic church. For that reason we encourage people to get married in a civil ceremony, and then celebrate the marriage in a church ceremony.

      • John

        Jonathan, you make a good point. Still I believe that judges, in the USA, have undermined any reason for a civil ceremony. You are right about submitting to governing authority as long as it doesn’t require us to transgress God’s law. Where you live a civil ceremony makes complete sense. But is it going against government authority if it is legal to live together without the need of a civil ceremony as it is here?

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  • Jared B. Tremper

    We may be simply returning to first century realities with a chance to be salt and light again. I wonder if the church in America may ultimately need to disband as 501(c)(3) entities and regroup more like the house church movement of China. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to sort through biblical priorities here and drive towards gospel saturation with all the risks to our public respectability the true gospel invites.

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  • Christian and Libertarian

    The good news about this question = we don’t need to separate them because they were never the same thing.

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  • Moe Bergeron

    Interesting questions. I did not notice if anyone mentioned the fact that officiating at a marriage is not a duty defined by God’s Word for pastors in the first place. The honor was always a privilege granted by the state. Officiating at funerals is another task that is generally accepted to be the Biblical role of a pastor but once again the Word of God is silent. The fact is we need to first examine the role of pastors with God’s Word before we complain to the state concerning its failure to honor God’s word.

  • Nicholas J. Gausling

    The answer is in Genesis. There was no state / civil government in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were married under a direct ordinance of God.

    Christians who insist on battling sin by relying on the state WILL fail. They will waste their time, energy and passion and have little to show for it. Stop legislating and start sharing the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit will slay sin and transform society.

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  • Doug Enick

    Steve DeWitt, I never knew Ronald Reagan and Muhammad Ali were married. ;)

    Bob Bixby, I love your idea of incorporating the signing of the marriage license into the wedding ceremony itself. I wonder that I have never thought of that before.