Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Married in the Eyes of the Lord

A couple recently asked me if I would perform a wedding ceremony without a marriage certificate. They wanted to be "married in the eyes of the Lord." One of the persons wanting to be married was a widow and receiving her diseased husbands social security. Essentially they could move-in together and live as if they are married without conssequence, but out of Christian commitment, they wanted to be married before moving in together and did not think their marital status should be the state's concern. After looking up the state statute and penalty for breking it, I informed the couple I could not perform the ceremony, but I was conflicted.

Especially for older couples without significant income, it seems that our laws encourage cohabitation rather than marriage. Unless there is a law that a person cohabiting cannot receive a deceased spouce's social security, there truly is a "marriage penalty" particularly for the elderly who are widow(er)s and may be financially fragile. Has anyone else experienced this? What are your thoughts?


Craig L. Adams said...

Yes. You made the right decision, Eric. You should not preform any marriage-like ceremony in cases like this. And, yes, it is very unfortunate the older couples are forced to cohabitate to avoid losing their income.

Luke said...

I'm going to disagree. I've been wondering a lot lately whether it is really the business of clergy to function as agents of the state. "By the power vested in me by the state of New Jersey, I now pronounce you..." Is that really the power that Christian clergy should be invoking?
A number of UCC churches among others have made the decision to not perform legal marriages any more out of protest against gays not being able to marry. I'm on the opposite end of the ecclesial side of that debate (the civil issue doesn't interest me much at all), but I think they have a point that there is something off about the Church functioning in that capacity.
Certainly Christian marriage isn't about government recognition, but rather something done before God and before the gathered community. It isn't the legal document that makes someone married from the Christian perspective, but rather the affirmation before God and the Church.
This shouldn't be problematic at all. The reason it is because we as Christians are relying on the force of law to keep marriages together (how does that seem to be going?), rather than the strength and support of the Christian community.

Eric Helms said...

Thanks for the comment Craig. Luke, I tend to agree with you in more ways than one. This issue is clearly related to same-sex mariages, and I am not where the UCC is on that either. But I also agree that Christian has little if anything to do with the state law of what it may or may not mean to be married.

Ultimately I decided not to perform the ceremony because I also believe that except in cases of clear injustice we should obey the laws of the land.

I think separating Christian marriage from civil recognized unions could be beneficial in many ways--in addition to paving a way for couples like this one to be faithful while not being adversely affected and ensure that homosexuals at least have basic civil rights as provided by the American constitution without putting the church in the middle. We could still hold to a believe that sex between people of the same sex is incompatable with Christian teaching while not infringing on civil rights.

Craig L. Adams said...

I want to clarify, just a bit. I think performing the ceremony in a case like this is dangerous (legally) for the couple involved. The performance of a marriage-like ceremony (I think) could be used by someone as a basis for contesting their right to receive their income.

I posted a comment because I wasn't as wise as Eric many years ago, and agreed to perform a ceremony like this. I was totally wrong & should not have done it.

In the USA church and state are (apparently) hopelessly entangled on the issue of marriage. A marriage-like ceremony could be legally recognized as a marriage even if no legal documents were signed.

It's a mess. Luke says: "It isn't the legal document that makes someone married from the Christian perspective, but rather the affirmation before God and the Church" but the problem is that, as it stands (to the best of my knowledge), a marriage-like ceremony or the record of a marriage in a family Bible could be argued as the basis for recognizing a marriage from a legal standpoint.

Luke said...

Wow. That would be a law I would consider breaking, I suppose. I didn't believe it was true until I found it. There are other tragic conflicts that could come about when clergy act as agents of the state when it comes to marriage. What if one or both parties are members of the congregation, but happen to be in the country illegally? Legal marriage isn't possible in that case either. And the pastor should decline to marry them? Yikes.

The side of it that you are talking about, Craig, is a bit more credible for me. The state can define marriage as it wishes. In the case here, the couple should be aware of the legal risks, but I don't think that should stop a clergy-person from counseling the blessings of Christian marriage.

Eric Helms said...

That is interesting Craig, I never thought about that possibility. Luke, I guess I understand the law in this case. If a widow receives social security because her husband is deceased and it is assumed that his income helped support her, then getting married to another person would theoretically take away the rationale for the state to continue to support the widow--that isn't particularly unjust.

Of course the issue of marrying illegal immigrants is similar, though a different law. I think certainly the church should be hospitable to people regardless of their "legal status." I don't think immigration laws are particularly unjust, but it does seem that their enforcement is. I find it less likely that an illegal alien from Canada would be deported as quickly as one from South America or Mexico. I don't know what I would do in that case.