Abolishing Legal Marriage

In light of the current discussion in the Australian Parliament about marriage equality I thought I would post some ‘chunks’ of quotes from a very thoughtful article by Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley from Ekklesia on the future of marriage in society from a Christian perspective.

I really appreciate their post- Christendom tone and their positive, inclusive articulation of the contribution of ‘Christian marriage’ to the common good .

The link to the full article is below but I thought I would post some of my favourite bits as much to talk through with Christian and non-Christian couples and what we agree to in my role as a celebrant…

…Meanwhile, the Gospels are often downright hostile.  A search for Jesus’ sayings about ‘the family’ suggests that, while he cherished covenental values, had married companions and abhorred the practice whereby men could summararily divorce and disinherit women at will, he saw blood ties or contracted family bonds as less significant than the creation of a new kind of community.

That community was rooted in those who were often despised and ‘impure’ within the established political order. But it reflected the levelling, forgiveness-generating, favour-free, all-embracing, demanding love of God’s coming kingdom. And for that, Jesus said, one should be prepared to abandon all if necessary – even family as we have understood it thus far.

Marriage and the Christendom settlement

How, we might ask, did the church proceed from this rather unsettling, subversive message to its subsequent comfortable embrace of worldly power? How did it become the cement of the existing society, rather than the progenitor of a new one? And how did it come to be the upholder of an institution which tries to hold together (some might say with increasing difficulty) the covenant-based approach to relationships enshrined in the Christian message and a contract-based civil-legal arrangement based on very different principles?

These are good, tough, radical and not at all comfortable questions. And the answer lies, in good measure, in the history of what we have come to call Christendom, the arrangement by which the church finds protection and privilege from the king and the state by offering its blessing and support in return.

Specifically, it incorporated into its reading and practice of its own traditions understandings derived and adapted over time from the Roman courts. Marriage in these terms meant securing the succession of the (male) hierarchy. And by the time of medieval scholasticism the married state was often thought of in functional terms as asserting the regulative perogative of the church and controlling the fornicating disorder of the masses, albeit in a way inferior to the ideal of clerical celibacy.

There were radical shifts in understanding during and following the Reformation, but even in places like Victorian England marriage was chiefly for the more wealthy and educated, while ‘common law marriage’ (cohabitation) was the more usual estate.

The revival and spread of marriage in the general population was based on a fusing, of course, of civil and legal provisions with Christian meanings and rituals, because the church and the state were seen as mutually reinforcing institutions with a common grounding.

First, from the Christian perspective, now that we can no longer rely on the state to ensorse or define ‘Christian meanings’, how might the churches meaningfully rediscover a Gospel-oriented (subversive) vocation of ‘Christian marriage’ – one long subsumed in the formalised obligations of the Established church towards many non-church people sceptical of its identity and calling?

Second, in terms of the concerns of those in society as a whole, how do we enable people who are (in fact) choosing different ways of developing human relationships in a plural setting to discover, celebrate (and find formal arrangements which embody) values like faithfulness, nurture and commitment, as well as providing legal security?

That latter question includes long-term live-in relationships (cohabitation), lesbian and gay partnerships, and also partnerships not necessarily based on sex or romance – which are usually ignored altogether.

The difficulty at the moment is that these distinct matters are all viewed unhelpfully under one single framework, that established by legal, heterosexual marriage. And while this can be adapted and attenuated (as in civil partnerships) or extended (as in gay marriage) this is done awkwardly, with much disagreement, and with more than a few holes.

What is called ‘marriage’ today is essentially a civil contract which can be dissolved or re-entered as many times as necessary. Superimposed on that is a Christian ideal of lifelong fidelity which many accept as a ‘nice idea’ but which is not necessarily what they are really choosing, and whose basis in a community of faith they often do not understand or accept

Some faith groups opposed to the full recognition of gay people are resisting this shift in legal definition, and would thereby deny others their full wishes – even though they are not churchgoers.

Practically and theologically, Ekklesia sees no reason why Christian marriage should be restricted to heterosexuals, and many vital reasons why it should not. That is a (controversial, legitimate and important) argument within the church about its own customs, doctrines and practices. But in this as in other areas of life, the church’s view does not have to be imposed on the civil arrangements of those outside the church.

Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently argued that the government Law Commission‚Äôs proposal about granting legal rights to live-in (cohabiting) couples would risk, ‘further undermining marriage’.

We do not see why this should be so – unless, as at present, civic and religious understandings have to be run together, in which case a conflict of perspectives is produced without any natural way forward

From a specifically Christian viewpoint

As we have been pointing out, ‘Christian marriage’ is not just another term for a legal and civil partnership arrangement; it has the potential to be about something much more – the transforming possibilities of God; a covenantal commitment, rather than a civil-legal agreement.

Understood in these terms, Christian marriage is about the grace of God enabling us to achieve more than is humanly possible. No process of civic relationship registration or tax advantage can guarantee or enforce that. For the church to suggest that it can shows a singular lack of confidence in the divine grace by which it claims to have been formed and to live.

What Christian leaders need to develop are communities of hope (which is what the church is meant to be) that really can support and sustain the faith, love and commitment it entails. This, not the attempt to define more openly who can marry in church, is what is required to ‘strengthen marriage’.


  • It is not the state’s job to promote Christian marriage, it is the church’s job.
  • You cannot abolish Christian marriage, because its ground is the grace of God.
  • What is ‘sacrosanct’ is not the legal institution of a civic partnership, but God’s offer of unity-in-diversity (communion) expressed through our freely-entered relationships.

So the church cannot expect to define what marriage is for everyone (believer or not).

Nor should the state or the government get to determine the religious meanings and impact of marriage and commitment within faith communities. It works both ways.

But the church can and should develop, and offer as a sign of hope, its own distinct understanding of human relationships as communion before contract, equality before social division and patriarchy. Marriage can be seen as a foundational expression of that.

Understood in this way, the role of the church is not to impose its will on society, but to invite people to look at the alternative (not-just-nuclear) community created by Jesus, to take it seriously, to see its promise, and to respond to it.

Indeed, de-linking civil arrangements for long-term couple relationships from Christian covenantal commitments will require the churches (and other faith communities) to work much harder to develop further their own understanding and practice of marriage as part of a wider community. This is a rather tougher, but more meaningful, job than simply “getting people down the aisle”.

Christians should, at the same time, be able to affirm different civil arrangements to express faithfulness and love – without necessarily having to accord them the same meaning as Christian marriage within their own understanding and practice.

If the churches’ concern is to enable society to develop life-long, stable relationships for the benefit of persons and the community, and if Christian marriage isn’t what many people recognise, then they need to recognise that society as a whole needs an honest conversation about what kinds of civil partnerships are really possible.

By dragging its feet on civil partnerships and opposing gay marriage in wider society, as at present, the church is ironically hindering people from forming the long-term stable relationships it says we need.


Full Article here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/article_abolishmarriage.shtml


5 Replies to “Abolishing Legal Marriage”

  1. ..yeah but ultimately…. God defines marriage.. human beings (christians not excluded) will evolve to define its own meaning. From the first fall of humanity in adam & eve, humans have continued to evolve in its consequential nature just as what the Bible had warned. We have come so far (without relevance with God) in progress, we think we can do and think anything. Would it surprise if one day we are synthetically creating human beings…. then another great christian debate on whether God accepts it, or will this human have a soul, blah blah blah.

    There is no doubt we will continue to progress in complexity, and the more we distance ourselves in God or even challenge God the more we think we can think like a god & do things like a god! Hmm all that power, all knowledge, all these words, philosophies blah blah. Problem is…. all these has a mortal stop sign on earth. All our endless pursuit to fame, progress, money, achievements, friends, etc we will eventually leave behind on earth!

    Believe it or not in eternal life. The difference is one will get it wrong and the other will get it right. One will lose all and the other will gain everything. The other significant thing is that you can be a believer in God through the saving grace in Christ and yet live a fulfilled life on earth.

    Ultimately God has the final say. And He is in control beyond life on earth. We humans can create anything and everything to suit our lifestyles and progress in this world. But it all amounts to nothing without the relevance of a relationship with God. Cos eventually our human pursuits progresses to an end!

    …relevance to this marriage doctrines??? Humans will progress to always suit our lifestyles. Yes even the word marriage has progressed to suit our worldly forms. Who are we kidding God? the original author of “marriage”?

  2. The word marriage has a Biblical root meaning! I think it has been used with a distorted connotation to suit the WORLDLY progress. Ahhh the evil one tend to do that! Perhaps civil unity should push for a different WORD altogether? Then perhaps it won’t be seen to disrespect the true meaning of marriage, and won’t poke too many stomachs in the Christian realm. Then again to the unbeliever, what’s the difference, we want our equal rights???

  3. one thing for sure. God is the author. Non believers will always have trouble understanding this concept. Even believers will not get this fully right! We can debate it as much as we can to all suit our liking! God’s words don’t change to suit us!

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