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Volume 9, Issue 3: Presbyterion

Preachers and Marriage Licenses

Douglas Wilson

"Do you have the marriage license?" "Do you have a preacher lined up?" Such questions are common as a wedding is planned, and they each reveal how we have not thought biblically about the role of civil and church authorities in a Christian wedding. Some have simply gone along with the prevailing assumptions, while others have reacted to this and have maintained that neither the church nor the state have a lawful role to play in a wedding. Both acquiescence and reaction are errors.

In our culture, church weddings are standard, and it is often assumed that without a preacher to tie the knot, the knot will not be tied. Further it is assumed that weddings are gifts of the state to be bestowed on good boys and girls who come in to get their license. We somehow, unbelievably, have come to think that in ordinary cases, we are dependent upon the good pleasure of the church and the state. Not surprisingly, when many have assumed the church and state to have this power, others have denied it, claiming that weddings fall under the government of the family only.
According to Scripture, what role may the church play in the formation of families? The government of the home and the government of the church are quite distinct. When the minister pronounces a man and woman husband and wife, is he a usurper? Is this a vestige of some medieval priestcraft? When properly understood, the answer is no. The church has an authoritative voice in teaching and defending the scriptural boundaries of marriage. Herod was not lawfully married, and John the Baptist said so. A man may not marry his sister, and he may not marry his boyfriend. When dealing with members of the church, the church may authoritatively respond to all attempted marital disobedience. For example, if a young woman in the church determined that she was going to marry a non-Christian, she should come under the discipline of the church. This would mean that the church would be absent from the wedding, refusing to give her blessing.
In a biblical wedding an oath is being taken which directly affects the constitution and membership of the church. In the New Testament, members of the church are frequently brought in by household. In any moral culture, formal recognition of lawful sexual relationships is absolutely necessary. The society of the church is such a moral culture, so in the interests of propriety and good government, our practice of having an officer of the church administer and witness the vows is clearly acceptable. But in this, the officer of the church is acting as a witness and minister--and not as a priest. Marriage is not an ordinance of the church; it is a creation ordinance in which the church has some interest. A minister must never reckon that the authority to "solemnize weddings" is included in the "power of the keys."
The case is similar with civil authorities. The fact that our modern statist masters want to license everything from barbering to interior design has led some Christians to say that these overweening authorities have no lawful role at a wedding. This is false. The civil magistrate has authority under God to say that a marriage between Billy and Bobby is an abomination, and should be attended with civil penalties. In the book of Ezra we see a lawful use of civil authority to enforce the teaching of the church on marriage and divorce. "Then Ezra arose, and made the leaders of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear an oath that they would do according to this word. So they swore an oath. . . . And they issued a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the descendants of the captivity, that they must gather at Jerusalem, and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the instructions of the leaders and elders, all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly of those from the captivity. So all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered at Jerusalem within three days. . . . Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have transgressed and have taken pagan wives, adding to the guilt of Israel. Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives" (Ezra 10:5-11; emphasis mine).
Disobedience on this question of marriage was attended by two sets of penalties--civil and ecclesiastical. Those who did not come to Jerusalem would have all their property confiscated (civil) and would be excommunicated (ecclesiastical).
On the face of it, the practice of having weddings registered in such a way that makes adjudication by the state a possibility makes good biblical sense. Weddings result in joint property, and children, and in a fallen world this means disputes over property and disputes over children. Solomon had to determine one child custody dispute (1 King 3). Such disputes are within the sphere of the civil magisrate. The statists should stop issuing licenses, as though they were the lords of marriage, but there would be no impropriety for the state to pass a law requiring proper registration for any lawful marriage. Further, there would be no impropriety in the state's refusing to acknowledge the registrations of biblically unlawful weddings.
A wedding is a covenantal act involving two families, resulting in the formation of a third family. At such a wedding, the state and church have a strong interest, and should have their ministers and witnesses present. But such ministers and witnesses must remember their place; they have authority as far as the Word gives them, and no farther.
Only Christ is the Lord of weddings.

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