Friday, December 19, 2008

Question for the Community: Civil or Religious Marraige

A pastor in my Presbytery posed a question on his blog last week that I found to be very interesting.  With his permission, I am going to pose the question to you all.  (This is abreviated a little bit, but no facts have been taken out.  You can find the whole post, including what the pastor suggested HERE.)

This is a real life scenario, not one made up to make a point.

A couple wants to join a congregation and have their children baptized. The church leadership and pastor welcome this family into the fellowship of the church. The couple is not married and is on the lower end of the economic scale. After they joined the church the pastor has a conversation with them about marriage. Here's what he finds out...

They love each other very much, they are passionate in their desire to follow Jesus Christ, they want their children to grow and know Christ, but because of their income levels if they were legally married they would lose the health care benefits they receive from the state for their children. This is a real concern for them. They are not trying to mooch off the state, they are simply caught in the poverty trap.

What would you do as their pastor? Tell them they need to get married because its the right thing to do? Leave the whole subject behind and forget about it?

Any thoughts, oh Presby Bloggers?

29 comments:

John Shuck said...

If they wanted one, you could do a Holy Union service like I do for gay couples who can't get a marriage license.

Most importantly, welcome them and accept them as a family and be grateful they care to come and participate in your community.

B-W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B-W said...

It doesn't really answer your question, but it certainly does highlight the need for state governments to change their tax laws so as not to penalize people who want to get married.

It's actually a bit annoying that Christians don't get more involved in pushing for something like this. So many Christians were so quick to deny the rights of homosexuals to have a secular marriage on the basis of their religious beliefs, but they don't actively work to make marriage easier for those (heterosexuals) who would otherwise be living a "sinful lifestyle" (in quotes because I know there's disagreement here) but have these very real economic issues to grapple with.

Elaine said...

I don't have an answer, but this reminds me of the first student loan discharge case I ever tried. To discharge student loans in bankruptcy, you must establish that repayment would constitute an unde hardship on the debtor or the debtor's dependants. That basically translates into, if you repay the loans your kids don't eat.

The case was being heard by an almost elderly Judge who was a devoted husband and Father. During the course of the proceedings the couple (with two small children) had separated. The wife testified that they had separated, would divorce and would remain separated; because with the husband out of the house she and the children qualified for government assistance.

I will never forget the look on the Judge's face.

Elaine
Norman, OK

Viola Larson said...

Right at the beginning I apologize. I don’t know how else to do this and I know your site is not official but I like the idea of Presbyterian Bloggers from all different opinions coming together but I can’t join because of John Shuck’s treatment of Evangelicals and others on his blog.

To me it is hypocritical for him to put on a smiling face here and then say such things as he did yesterday on his blog about Pastor Rick Warren writing "Obama is making one dubious choice after another. His latest? Selecting fundamentalist celebrity Rick Warren to invoke his homophobic, war-mongering, narrow-minded god at the inauguration." And also allowing comments on his blog such as this: "When you "throw a bone" to vermin like Warren, you aim for the face."

I have written on this at my blog at http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2008/12/slur-on-rick-warren-by-john-shuck.html "A Slur on Rick Warren by John Shuck: enough is enough" and I am pleading with official people as well as Presbyterian Bloggers to get them to please speak out about this. If you want to talk to me my e-mail address is v.larson@worldnet.att.net.

I expect to be deleted but at least I will know I tried.

Drew Tatusko said...

@Viola, with all due respect unless we want to re-visit Donatism, it would serve this community better if you direct your comments directly at Rev. Shuck. Such is decent and in order.

I am sure that he would agree that his views do not represent everyone nor are they intended to. I would much rather hear how you would address the situation with the couple in this scenario rather than post what looks to be trolling in an ad hominem fashion. If you disagree with his response to this scenario, it would be helpful if you stuck to that issue. I am sure that we would all benefit from the conversation.
-------------
Forget about marriage for a moment. The important thing is that these folks need help to ensure that their family is taken care of. Not sure what can be done with legal action to see what loopholes there are in the system or other social service programs for familes who are stuck in this donut hole (a lot of people are based on how deductibles work). But this is where the church needs to be pro-family and help this family figure out how to insure their health.

If they want to know and love Christ, let the church allow Christ to love them in the form of tangible voluntary help - even if it means starting a fund raising drive for all families like this one in need.

After we do that, then we can talk about marriage. the fact that they love each other and love their kids enough to sacrifice the desire to be married is something to be commended, not chastised. Until we fix the injustice of equity in health care here, the marriage issue is moot in my judgment.

As far as baptism, if the book of order has no problem with their child being baptized in this context, then do it. If the book of order does have a problem, then find an exception that is fair.

Viola Larson said...

Drew,
I did address John, and he ignored me.

Drew Tatusko said...

@Viola

Be that as it may, I am not sure this is the forum to aire a personal issue you have with Rev. Shuck.

I am interested however, in how you would handle the situation that this post is asking us to discuss.

John Shuck said...

This discussion about marriage is an interesting one. Some have suggested that both the state and the church ought to get out of the marriage business.

Let the state deal with civil contracts and the church with spiritual covenants.

I might be mistaken, but I think in France the church is separate from the civil contract. If you want recognition in both you have to have two sets of authorities, one civil and one religious done separately.

I don't know if there is the political will for that in this country, but it is interesting to ponder.

brooke said...

i agree with john s. marry them within the church if that's what they want. more importantly fully support them as the family unit that they are - marriage or no marriage.

this may be an unpopular thought, but frankly i think that as a society we spend waaaaaaaaay to much time and money discussing marriage and trying to get rights to marry and denying the rights to marriage. just think what could happen if all the time and money that is spent on marriage were spent on feeding the poor, guaranteeing health care for everyone, making sure that everyone who wants access to education can get access, making sure that no one is homeless. what a much better world that would be.

Doug Hagler said...

This one's sort of easy for me for some reason. I'd be happy to perform a marriage ceremony and then just not fill out the state paperwork. I mean, honestly, the ceremony is the meaningful thing. The paperwork, to me, is just that and no more.

I think we let the state have WAY too much power in saying what marriage is. Marriage should have NOTHING to do with tax status or health care benefits from the Church's point of view. Is it not real if the state doesn't acknowledge it? Not to me.

In the case of homosexual marriage it is an access-to-rights issue, but this couple is foregoing their access to rights because claiming them won't benefit their children's health. They have the choice of how they want the state to view their relationship, and they make it. Its That sounds like a wise decision coming from conscientious parents to me.

It could even be a great teaching/learning moment for us to talk about what marriage actually is, and should be. A state insitution? Not in my point of view.

Stushie said...

For once, I agree with Doug. The State may think it gives me the right to marry people, but the rite actually comes from the church.

Drew Tatusko said...

This is one reason outside of same gender relationships where it only makes sense to get rid of marriage language from government altogether. Let the church decide which relationships it wants to bless and let the states decide which relationships are legitimate for economic and social purposes. The state does civil unions, the church blesses marriages.

Sarahlynn said...

My husband has long been a supporter of the idea of separating legal and religious marriage. I've been more hesitant, but perhaps I'm coming around to see it his way.

If you're curious, here he is: http://pcusabloggers.blogspot.com/2008/07/my-controversial-view-on-marriage.html

And here I am, in response:
http://pcusabloggers.blogspot.com/2008/07/my-controversial-view-on-marriage_07.html

blugras presbyter said...

Appreciated the comments. Perhaps the time is approching for a revolution.
The first question I ask couples during the pre-marriage work is 'Why get married in the church? You're just as married in the legal sense, if you go to the local courthouse or wedding chapel." I get some ineresting answers, which lead to great discussions about, why the church?
But, if I'm serious about it, why does the state have be involved? It's always been to extract fees and taxes. If the blessing I give never mentions the "authority" clause, then why does the state need to be involved in the wedding?

blugras presbyter said...

Appreciated the comments. Perhaps the time is approching for a revolution.
The first question I ask couples during the pre-marriage work is 'Why get married in the church? You're just as married in the legal sense, if you go to the local courthouse or wedding chapel." I get some ineresting answers, which lead to great discussions about, why the church?
But, if I'm serious about it, why does the state have be involved? It's always been to extract fees and taxes. If the blessing I give never mentions the "authority" clause, then why does the state need to be involved in the wedding?

Mark Smith said...

I would marry them, but without a marriage license.

Then, treat them like a married couple in the church.

Ultimately, I believe that the solution to our gay marriage fights is to separate civil and religious marriage as is done in the UK.

Sarahlynn said...

"The first question I ask couples during the pre-marriage work is 'Why get married in the church? You're just as married in the legal sense, if you go to the local courthouse or wedding chapel." I get some ineresting answers, which lead to great discussions about, why the church?"

You've just brought back some very pleasant memories about how my husband and I decided upon our church home. We were trying to decide between two very different congregations, and our first premarital meeting with the pastor of the church we ultimately chose started just like that . . . and spurred an awesome conversation.

John Shuck said...

I would marry them, but without a marriage license.

That is interesting. I wonder if that would be called a marriage then? If for example, someone were taken to church court for doing that, would the court rule like they did with Janet Edwards?

In other words, is the civil/legal part an inherent part of the PCUSA marriage rules?

It would seem that a gay couple or straight couple would have the same status here.

Mark Smith said...

John,

You may have a point.

W-4.9001 includes: "Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man."

I believe that could be read to prohibit a marriage that does not include the civil component.

There is a paragraph on recognizing a prior civil marriage, but not one on performing a marriage without it being state-recognized.

Interesting side note - did you know that the BOO requires that marriages of a church member outside of the church be kept on the marriage roll? I wonder how many churches do that? When I got married Roman Catholic (to my Catholic wife) and told my Presby church to do whatever is necessary to recognize it, they kind of shrugged their shoulders.

Jodie said...

To answer the original question, I would leave the couple alone. If I felt a need to act, I would channel my energy and focus on the underlying problem: There should be no economical disadvantage to getting married. The laws should be changed, and there is a way to do that.

I grew up in a country who's official religion was Roman Catholicism, and so my understanding is colored by the contrast I see between what Americans do and other countries do in defining marriage.

We forget in America the origins and benefits of separation of Church and State. Even as recently as Spain in the 50s, for example, unless you were married under the Roman Catholic Church you were not legally married, and your children had no inheritance rights because legally they were bastards.

Presbyterians in Spain could not marry or even be buried within the city limits unless they converted to Roman Catholicism.

Recognizing the evils caused by an alliance between the Christian faith and the State, America is by design a secular nation. In this nation it is recognized that marriage and family is a fundamental social construct (as it is with most societies around the world, regardless of its religious practices).

Contrary to some popular myths, the history of marriage is not religious. In much of Western Civilization the contract of marriage has its origins in property laws.

So in America, no one religious institution gets to define marriage.

In Roman Catholic tradition marriage is a sacrament. In that context a marriage ceremony actually causes some mystical spiritual transformation to take place on a heavenly plane of existence.

But we Presbyterians and other denominations that come out of the Reformation do not subscribe to this doctrine.

In our understanding, the function of the religious ceremony is to wrap a religious rite of passage around a secular contract, and to pray for God's blessing on said contract. The action that occurs is a vow two people take with God as their witness.

(By the way, we have become very casual about the meaning of taking a vow with God as our witness. Technically one should be willing to sacrifice one's own well being and life before breaking such a vow for any reason - but that understanding is by and large considered archaic even by the most conservative fundamentalists- everybody these days seems to focus on escape clauses)

Contrary to my Roman Catholic nation of origin where the only religious authorities who had the right to declare a couple married were the Roman Catholic priests, the United States extends to all clergy, regardless of faith tradition, the legal authority to declare a couple married.

But they do so only with the authority granted to them by the State. For the good of the commonwealth, marriage is first and foremost a civil union. Within its secular context, its definition is fluid and subject to the evolving will of the People.

That is the Reformed tradition and the American Experiment.

Personally I vote to uphold the Reformation and the American Revolution.

John Shuck said...

Jodie,

That was a great post. The absolute wrong way to go is to make this nation more institutionally religious.

We forget so easily what our ancestors left.

Mark Smith said...

I'm thinking about the ecclesiastical legality of performing a marriage without civil registration.

In Spahr vs. PC(USA), the GAPJC ruled - using the sentence that I quoted above - that anything that is not a marriage between a man and a woman is not a marriage at all. Therefore she could not be charged with anything.

Using the same logic, a marriage ceremony without the corresponding civil contract is also not a marriage. That means two things: 1) a minister cannot be charged with improperly performing the ceremony (in a church court - state law may be important) and 2) the church would not recognize that marriage.

The PC(USA) only requires marriage for one purpose - ordination. It's right there in the current G-6.0106b. Therefore, persons married without the benefit of a civil contract who self-acknowledge sexual relations cannot be ordained.

So, you really have to ask the original couple if they want to be ordained at some point and continue to have sex. If the answer is Yes, then you should not perform the ceremony. If the answer is No, then it's not an issue and performing a ceremony without civil registration is fine.

Personally, I like Jodie's answer best.

John Shuck said...

It is like a marriage that isn't a marriage. It doesn't exist. In the end, the only thing that really counts is the civil contract.

So do what you want. I celebrate Holy Unions under the "transitions in life" section. I guess I would do that for straight couples too.

I have never did a thing for a straight couple, who didn't want the civil contract, although I did do a thing for a couple who had already had the civil contract.

Interesting side note - did you know that the BOO requires that marriages of a church member outside of the church be kept on the marriage roll? I wonder how many churches do that?

Talk about meddling. Although, if people want to be recorded in the book....

Life is changing a lot faster than the Book of Order. : )

John Shuck said...

persons married without the benefit of a civil contract who self-acknowledge sexual relations cannot be ordained.

But you can get a civil contract signed by an atheist stoner dressed as Elvis at the Wal-Mart and you are ordainable.

In the PCUSA the marriage ceremony means absolutely nothing even for the church.

Jodie said...

"In the PCUSA the marriage ceremony means absolutely nothing even for the church."

Ouch. Do you really think so? That sounded overly harsh. I mean, it is true in a way, but I think it maybe misses the point of the ceremony.

I see ceremonies as very powerful and effective vessels of meaning.

They are just not magical incantations.

As rites of passage they are essential in the development of healthy psyches. They can draw people along the curve from childhood to adulthood, from carefree youth to the responsibility and focus of parenthood. (Not something Elvis Presley can do in Vegas). We as a culture should use rites of passage way more than we do.

I would say that the marriage ceremony presents a rich vocabulary of meaning. It talks of life and death and birth and rebirth, and all the pivotal points in the narrative arch of our lives. That's why people cry at weddings.

I would also say that it is not the ceremony that gives the meaning, but we who participate in the ceremony that give it the meaning it has. And we choose the meaning we wish to impart.

The question is, what do we want to say and are we really saying it?

John Shuck said...

Sorry Jodie,

That did sound harsh.

I meant it means nothing in the pragmatic sense. Kind of like a Holy Union service for a gay couple. It means a lot on the level of things that are truly important--that can't be measured in terms of legal things and material things--but in terms of who can be legally ordained and who gets half the house in a divorce then it means nothing.

That is a good thing. A religious ceremony should have just intrinsic value. Its meaning should be that it gives you no material advantage--but its value is in the love it symbolizes.

We really should separate these things.

Also, while I am spouting oracles from Olympus, I think we should remove the marriage requirement from who can be ordained and who cannot be ordained.

Be adults.

A civil piece of paper doesn't make your intercourse more blessed.

Jodie said...

Along with having to keep track and repent from all the other things the confessions call "sin". Have you ever gone down the list? Some of them are pretty weird.

But being adults, that could be a problem.

I mean, next thing you know, Viola would be bringing charges against you for not being adult enough, and this time she would make it stick!

;-)

John Shuck said...

Well that is the truth!