Photo by Andrew Malone
Photo by Andrew Malone

Well, the Illinois Senate did not vote on same gender marriage during the lame duck session yesterday, so it will be taken up during the new legislative session sometime later this year. Since this is still a live issue in Illinois—and clearly quite live across the church and nation—I’ll take this opportunity to write one of my “lost” posts from the last months of 2012.

For four weeks in November and December my colleague Adam Fronczek and I taught an adult education class at Fourth Church on “The Church and the Definition of Marriage.” In large part this was in response to debates about same gender marriage during the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) this past summer. (Beginning January 13, Fourth Church will also be field testing the Study on Marriage commissioned by GA.)

Adam and I both used the second edition of John Witte’s From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition as our basic text. It is a very comprehensive study of the history of marriage in the West. Based on this history and our class conversations, I came up with this list of observations:

  • In both civil and religious tradition, there are some consistent understandings of what marriage is.
  • Yet many elements of our understanding of marriage and legal definitions have always been in flux.
  • Christian understandings of marriage draw equally from secular traditions and from biblical and theological traditions. In many respects, the early Christian approaches to marriage simply overlaid Greco-Roman understandings with biblical imagery.
  • The biblical witnesses to marriage are complex and polyvocal, and cannot be directly mapped onto contemporary issues and conversations.
  • Questions about marriage, like many other issues, brings into focus diverse and often competing hermeneutical approaches to the Bible, theology, church tradition, and civil law.

During our final class session, I shared my personal opinions on contemporary marriage issues. I stressed then and will repeat now that these are my views, not those of the pastoral staff or session of Fourth Church.

There is no such thing as “biblical marriage”—unless we mean a patriarchal relationship in which women are the property of men, men can have multiple wives and concubines, and there are few checks on the physical abuse of women by their husbands. Sure, there are some beautiful concepts, ideals, and traditions about love and marriage in the Bible. But, practically speaking, these are almost always cherry picked apart from the marriage traditions we find problematic or simply wrong in our contemporary culture. Like in all issues of biblical interpretation, the Bible bears witness to a variety of perspectives on marriage—some good and some bad—and it is our task to sort through these voices and be in conversation with them in light of our contemporary situations.

Because Christian marriage traditions are essentially a synthesis of biblical and theological concepts with attitudes and practices that were already established in culture, it stands to reason that as cultural perspectives on marriage (and sexuality more generally) change, the Christian tradition can be changed and adapted accordingly. Enlightenment perspectives on marriage are more influential now than the Greco-Roman perspectives that were held in common during the early centuries of Christianity. Contemporary Christians should be just as capable of synthesizing these values with Christian faith as our forebears were in their time and place.

Civil debates about marriage expose the reality that “separation of Church and state” is a concept that is used when it is convenient and completely ignored when it suits one’s agenda. The problem with political debates about marriage is that people routinely interject religious perspectives into a conversation that should be restricted to the civil rights of citizens. The solution to this is to actually practice the separation of church and state with regard to this issue.

“Marriage” is a term that should not be used in American civil law. Instead, the state should only be concerned with “civil unions”—for both heterosexual and homosexual couples. These unions, as civil contracts, should confer equal rights and protections regardless of the genders of the partners.

“Marriage” is a term and concept that should only be used within the context of faith communities. And each faith community should have the right to define marriage however it wants to. Marriage is a religious covenant that couples may choose to enter into as an expression of faith. Faith communities alone should be involved in defining what “marriage” means to them.

Practically speaking, this means that every couple should be required to enter into a civil union through a legal process managed by the state. Clergy should no longer act as agents of the state and sign marriage licenses, a process that is different in every local jurisdiction and the clearest example of how church and state are not actually separate. If a couple who has entered into a civil union wants to be married, they would take that up with their religious community. (Like others, I think that clergy throughout the country should stop signing marriage licenses and require couples that want to be married in their churches to first enter into civil unions according to the laws of their state.)

I want debates about marriage in my state (or federal) legislature and in my religious denomination to be completely separate matters. When it comes to the state, based on democratic principles of equal civil rights, there are no good arguments for withholding rights and protections from same sex couples that desire to be joined in civil unions. I also happen to believe that Christian marriage should be inclusive of same sex couples, but that is a debate for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and should have nothing to do with civil law.

What do you think?

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. So long as those with civil unions would be treated equally with regards to taxation, hospital and healthcare policies, education and having legal rights to children, I would be fine with this. It makes sense. What I’m concerned about is the old “separate is not equal” problem. If you have some who have civil unions and some who have marriages, it gives people a way to discriminate between the two. How would you avoid this?

    • If marriage is used only in regard to religious ceremony, then anyone with a legal civil union would have all the same rights.

      This is exactly what I would like to see–I do not like being an agent of the state in this (or any other) matter. I do know pastors that have stopped signing marriage licenses–they are happy to do weddings, but in order to be legally married, people must go to the courthouse.

      • I’d like to know if the pastors who are doing this get pushback from couples. When I’ve raised this at Fourth, the concern raised is that it would add a burden to couples, many of whom may not care to participate in such a move.


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