Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

The Church, the State and Gay Marriage


I’ve been thinking a bit about the decision before the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I recently read an article by Tony Campolo in which he asked, why is the government at all involved in marrying people? If marriage is a sacred institution, why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation where we believe in separation of church and state?

These are good questions. I’ve been officiating weddings for over 30 years. As part of the ceremony I’ve always said, “And now, by the authority given to me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and according to the laws of this state, I do now pronounce you husband and wife.” As far as I know, that’s the only thing I do as a pastor (preaching, praying, leading, counseling, funerals) in which I am required to act as an agent of the state. Campolo asks, “Doesn’t it seem inconsistent that during such a highly religious ceremony, I should have to turn the church into a place where government business is conducted?”

I also fear that someday this could lead to the government dictating to ministers who they can and cannot marry. Recently, I sat with Evangelical believers in the Dominican Republic who have dealt with a similar problem. Historically, in the Dominican Republic, the government stated that only Catholic churches had the authority to officially marry couples. Evangelical Churches could only bless religious marriages after couples had been officially married elsewhere. As a result, many Evangelicals have been forced to live in “common law” marriages without the official sanction of the government. Do we really want the state deciding who can and cannot get married?

Campolo suggests a way out of this apparent conflict and the tough questions being raised about whether our nation should approve of gay marriages. He believes that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and just give legal status to civil unions. This would apply to both gay couples and straight couples, while marriage would be left in the hands of the church. So if a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, they go down to city hall and register, securing all the rights under the law. But, if the couple wants to be married, they go to a place of worship. Marriage is viewed as an institution ordained by God and is out of the state’s control.

Of course, gay couples could go to churches that support gay marriages and get married there, but those like myself who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman would go to places of worship where conservative beliefs about marriage are upheld. Marriage would be preserved as a sacred institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody’s personal convictions about this controversial issue would need to be compromised.

Read Tony Campolo’s full article.

8 thoughts on “The Church, the State and Gay Marriage

  1. What a great solution, Mark!

  2. Regardless of how the law/state defines marriage, it has always been my understanding that the church had the right to deny marriage to same sex couples? Why would that change based on the definition? What happens in the Dominican Republic is comparing apples to oranges because thankfully we live in a country with a strong constitution that protects these rights and are hardly threatened. I also wonder what gay couple would request a marriage from a place they didn’t feel welcome? This starts to sound paranoid and off-target to me and isn’t a strong argument for or against anything.

    Your correct to notice that not all couples are getting married following your definition of marriage and it’s not just about the gender of the person they’re marrying. People get married for a myriad of reasons and whether you agree with them or not, the legal benefits are some of them. Currently civil unions do not have the same protection under the law that marriage does. I could possibly be swayed by your argument if “marriage is viewed as an institution ordained by God and is out of the state’s control,” then this institution of God would lose the state and federal benefits it today receives. Would you be comfortable taking away all the afforded legal benefits of marriage and granting them solely to civil unions? While I understand your argument to separate church and state, it goes far deeper than renaming who does what.

    While I appreciate your convictions, I strongly believe that people should be able to marry the person that they love. It doesn’t have to be your church and I’m ok with that. Not long ago, couples that resembled my spouse and I were denied the same access to marriage based on similar reasons. Now, no one would think twice. Maybe that’s the slippery slope you’re afraid of.

    • I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. You raise some excellent questions! I don’t have all the answers worked out, but I wanted to simply float this idea out there. I definitely feel that those who registered for a civil union would have all the benefits of married couples today.

  3. Would this mean that since we’ve never been married in the church, our 34 years of government-approved marriage is null and void? This might be good news to those who must compete against March Madness …hmmmm. 🙂

  4. Good idea. Our government seems to be moving away from what we used to know as democracy.

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