Is marriage sacred?

In arguments about gay marriage you sometimes hear suggestions that we should have a strictly civil version of marriage (or union) for the public realm that applies to gay and straight people alike, while leaving “sacred” marriage to religious bodies. This may or may not be a good idea, but what I wonder is whether there’s good reason for thinking of marriage as “sacred” in the first place.

In the Lutheran tradition, at any rate, you could argue that marriage is part of the “kingdom of the left”–God’s ordering of civil institutions for the sake of human well-being in this world. Lutherans don’t see marriage as a sacrament, and it’s debatable whether it should be seen even as especially sacred, at least any more than any other legitimate calling. The justification for marriage, like any other institution belonging to the left-handed kingdom, is that it conduces to human well-being. It’s not a matter of salvation, which belongs exclusively to God’s right-handed rule: the proclamation of free grace, forgiveness, and salvation in Christ.

What this line of thinking might lead to is not the abandonment of civil marriage, but the abandonment of religious marriage! This isn’t necessarily to say that churches shouldn’t continue to bless marriages; churches properly bless a whole host of things. (I once heard a gay Christian point out that churches bless everything from pets to apartments, so why couldn’t they bless his relationship? Good question!) What it does mean is that the church, in blessing such a union, isn’t creating some special “religious” relationship. Rather, it’s recognizing that union as a place or station in life where people can serve God, grow in virtue, be restrained from sin, learn to love each other, and contribute to the common good. But there wouldn’t be any reason to talk about “religious” marriage as having some sort existence distinct from or parallel to “secular” marriage.

Obviously, this position won’t be acceptable to Catholics and others who regard marriage as a sacrament. But in the case of Protestants, for whom the church’s raison d’etre is the proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament, it’s far from clear to me what authority we have for investing various human institutions with “religious” or quasi-sacramental significance.

I’m not at all wedded to this position (you’ll pardon the expression), but it’s worth thinking about.

8 thoughts on “Is marriage sacred?

  1. I agree with you completely, and am probably more wedding to this line of thought than you seem to be. On my (now former) blog I wrote about this issue several times, including here: The Church’s (confused?) Role in Performing Weddings.

    Weddings are (most significantly) the formalizing of a civil/legal union, a legal relationship that confers rights and privileges and responsibilities. Though the clergyperson declares the couple married and has the authority to sign on the dotted line of the marriage certificate, the religious leader herself (be she a priest, rabbi, pastor, minister, etc.) doesn’t have the authority to grant a marriage license. That is, the authority of granting marriage licenses – that is, of allowing people to marry and thus enter into legally-binding agreements – is held solely by the state. The state simply outsources the pronouncement and declaration of marriage to clergy – but the authority itself still resides with the state.

    I think the church should get out of the business of signing on the state’s dotted line. Let the whole thing be clear: this is a legal matter, one best dealt with in a legal or civil setting. Bu then – and perhaps immediately – let those couples who identify as people of faith come to the house of faith to have their relationship blessed. I believe the medieval European practice was to be declared married on the steps of the church (ie, in the world) and then to proceed to the altar for the blessings of God and the church. This is also what happened (over two weekends) at a wedding I witnessed in Ecuador years ago. This seems much more clear about what the marriage is . . .

    However, I will quibble with one thing you wrote. I would suggest that marriage is sacred, whether or not it is brought before the church . . . just as is any trust, any relationship, and responsibility. Perhaps I have an overly broad understanding of what is sacred, but something need not be brought before the altar (in my opinion) for it to be sacred . . . just my two cents.


  2. Chris, thanks for the comment. Regarding your last paragraph, I don’t think we disagree. “Sacred” was probably a bad word choice. What I meant to distinguish was those instituted rites (i.e. baptism and communion) that we believe convey saving grace from those that (as far as we know) don’t. But I agree that marriage (and other relationships and responsibilities) can be “sacred” in a broader sense.

    1. Gregg

      Seems like if we use the definition of “sacred” (“connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration: “sacred rites” OR Religious rather than secular.”) then it certainly is sacred since God established marriage in Genesis 2.

  3. This is why we Anglicans so carefully distinguish between the Dominical Sacraments and Sacramental Rites. Sacramental Rites are rooted in the former. I tend to think of marriage as a matter of serving the common good and vocation, and as a locus of discipleship. The institution of marriage is sacred in the sense that it appears rooted in the good for human beings as we are created, and marriages can be loci for increase of goodness in the world–but not always. There is a betwixt and betweenness to marriage, which earlier rites recognized by leaving the couple to be blessed at the church doorstep or in their home rather than in the sanctuary.

  4. What I meant to distinguish was those instituted rites (i.e. baptism and communion) that we believe convey saving grace from those that (as far as we know) don’t.

    FWIW in the Catholic Church “vocation” is tied in with salvation. The vocation of sacramental, Christian marriage is supposed to convey saving grace, just as the vocation to priesthood or religious life. I’m aware of the word “saving” here: what I mean is that one’s spouse and children become a channel for God’s salvific grace, much as Baptism or the Eucharist.

    So for example the Catholic Encyclopedia explains that, [Christian marriage] would not be a solemn, mysterious symbol of the union of Christ with the Church, which takes concrete form in the individual members of the Church, unless it efficaciously represented this union, i.e. not merely by signifying the supernatural life-union of Christ with the Church, but also by causing that union to be realized in the individual members; or, in other words, by conferring the supernatural life of grace. …[The] effect of Divine grace [is] produced, not only in conjunction with the respective religious act, but through it.

  5. Chrisp909

    Lee, very well put. You offer a very interesting point about marriage being a part of the “kingdom of the left hand”. That is an aspect I had never considered.

    In support of your point, as you know; Jesus in his own words describes marriage as an earthly institution that will mean nothing in the kingdom of God. Matthew 22:23-33

    But I assert that marriage is not sacred to the church and has not been in many years.

    Christian and catholic churches of every denomination involve themselves with damning homosexual marriage, while divorce rates climb behind their own doors. There is no difference between the divorce rates in the general populace and in Christian or catholic churches.

    If the sacrament of marriage is so important why doesn’t the church condemn the all the “irreconcilable differences” divorces in our country and all over the world?

    Why doesn’t it more loudly protest the extramarital affairs that happen right inside its own house?

    The church has castrated itself on this matter, as far as I am concerned and should be concerned with real matters of faith and righteousness that Jesus and Paul have laid down with unquestionable certainty and not waxing philosophic, “WWJD if he were here and could vote for or against gay marriage?”

  6. Pingback: Marriage and the Law-Gospel distinction | A Thinking Reed

  7. Interesting. Not having been a Christian for long, I had thought all denominations believed, like Catholicism, that marriage was a sacrament. Must look up “left-handed kingdom”. As the child of a mother married four times, I find it hard to believe all marriage is intrinsically sacred.

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