This article was originally published on Advocates for Truth as “Government and Marriage.”
Many have debated the proper role of government in marriage. As Christians, we believe that marriage is fundamentally a spiritual institution, being a physical manifestation of a greater spiritual reality (Genesis 2:23-24, Malachi 2:13-16, Ephesians 5:31-32). At the same time, civilizations for thousands of years have acknowledged that marriage has a social or civil component to it. Should this be the case? How should Christians think about the government’s role in marriage?
A Brief History of Marriage
In our modern culture, it has become easy to romanticize marriage and ignore its long and complicated history. While marriage has largely become an expression of love and individual choice, it has not been so throughout history. Therefore, it would be beneficial to go through several of the factors which have shaped marriage and the government’s role in it.
A. The Broader Culture and Human History
Sociologically, for thousands of years, marriage served primarily as a means of building economic wealth and strengthening diplomatic ties between various families, tribes, and nations. This, likewise, served to regulate various political rights within society. Among the wealthy and elite (such as kings), marriage often took the form of polygyny. Polygyny is a form of polygamy where a man is married to multiple women. However, despite this being widely practiced, most common marriages were just one man and one woman.
For the most part, women were given little choice in who they married. It was viewed as a decision to be made by the family for the benefit of the family, not an individual decision. Notions of consent in choosing who to marry did not emerge in the Anglo-Saxon tradition until the 12th century. And the idea of love and romance being the foundations of marriage did not take hold until the Victorian era in the 19th century. Before then, love and romance were a nice bonus, but not an essential part of marriage. More practical issues such as economics, social relations, and having children took precedence.
Government generally had limited, if any, direct involvement in regulating marriage. There were exceptions like Rome, which created laws during various periods to encourage people to marry and have children. Ancient cultures understood the need for people to have children, lest their society dies out due to population decline. (Remember, people didn’t live as long and died more frequently back then. Therefore, it would be necessary to have more children to replace those who died.) Thus, activities such as homosexuality, while tolerated to various degrees, were not seen as normative. Those who engaged in homosexual activity were still often married to someone of the opposite sex so they could have children.
B. Government and Marriage in the United States
The United States also has a complicated history when it comes to the intersection of marriage and government.
Up until the mid-19th century, many marriages were either common-law marriages or marriages performed by a church. Generally speaking, common-law marriages allowed for a man and a woman to be married in the eyes of the community without formal recognition by the government or church. They lived together and presented themselves to the community as married. Such marriages could eventually be recognized by the state or church. However, these types of common-law marriages became outlawed by more and more states over time, thus requiring greater involvement from the state in order for marriages to be formally recognized.
As time has progressed, many other issues have played a role in the US government’s involvement in marriage.
- Race has played a significant factor in entangling government in marriage. From colonial times until the mid-1900s, many states had laws against interracial marriages. The Supreme Court upheld such laws in Pace v. Alabama in 1883 but later overturned it in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
- Religion has also had a role in tying marriage and government together. The rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also called Mormons) led to the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, which outlawed bigamy in federal territories. This was intended to target the polygamy practiced by the Mormons at the time. This law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1878 in Reynolds v. United States.
- Women’s rights have been another factor in how marriage laws have developed. Mississippi was the first state to give a woman the ability to own property independent of her husband in 1830. By 1900, all states had laws allowing women to have property in their own name. Until the early 1930s, a woman’s citizenship could also have been tied to her husband’s. If she married a noncitizen, she could also lose her citizenship. Later in the 20th century, marital rape was another issue that emerged during the 1970s and ‘80s. By 1993, it was a crime nationwide.
- Sexual orientation became the new frontier in marriage in the late 20th century, striving to remove gender difference as a requirement for marriage. In 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriages nationwide.
In addition to these specific issues above, there have been broader cultural developments and shifting attitudes towards marriage in the last 100 years, including:
- The loosening of divorce laws (particularly “no-fault” divorce)
- Disrupting the relationship between sex, marriage, and the procreation of children (hook-up culture, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc.)
- The relaxing of gender roles, while perhaps good in some ways, have made the male/female gender binary seem less rigid and more interchangeable within marriage
- Marriage being seen as being the product of individual choice for romantic, sexual, and personal fulfillment
These changes have weakened society’s understanding of marriage and have also shifted the government’s role in regulating marriage. Instead of the government viewing marriage through a Christian lens or even through a purely sociological or political lens, it has also started adopting the culture’s romanticized view that marriage is purely the result of two individuals’ love for one another; it is no longer based on gender difference, having children, or reflecting any greater spiritual reality. Governments must now strive for “marriage equality/equity.” An ever-wider definition of marriage must be given the government’s stamp of approval and formally recognized as legitimate.
As you can see, the government has had a mixed role in marriage. For most of human history, marriage was an agreement between two families and recognized by the community. The State has generally not been involved. In the United States, the government slowly began involving itself and placing more limitations on marriage during the 17th-19th centuries but has been removing many of them during the 20th-21st centuries. Some of this has been good and some of this has been bad.
From a Christian point of view, what is important to recognize is that, first of all, marriage is a pre-political institution. God instituted marriage in Genesis 1-2, prior to the creation of any human government. Government, if it is involved in marriage, can only recognize what God already has created. If it either forbids or allows marriages in a manner not in accordance with Biblical principles, then this violates the government’s God-ordained purpose (Romans 13:3-4).
Secondly, Christians should recognize what cultures throughout history have long recognized—that marriage is fundamental to how a society functions. The family unit is the first building block in how we learn to interact with others. It is a miniaturized version of the larger society if you will. Civilizations can rise or fall depending on how they treat marriage, family, and children. While this doesn’t necessarily indicate whether governments should make laws concerning marriage, it at least should impress on us the foundational nature of marriage to society.
The Bible and Marriage
The overall picture of marriage as portrayed in Genesis 1-2 and the New Testament is of one man and one woman—two becoming one flesh (Mark 10:7-8, 1 Corinthians 7:2, Ephesians 5:31, 1 Timothy 3:2). It is a physical representation of the greater spiritual relationship which exists between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Though marriage is physical in nature, it is also a spiritual act. God is deeply involved in marriages (Malachi 2:14-15).
Nevertheless, in the Bible, although most marriages were between one man and one woman, we also see numerous examples of polygamy. From Lamech (Genesis 4:19-24) to Jacob (Genesis 29:30) to David (2 Samuel 3:2-5) to Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-8), from the righteous to the unrighteous, polygamy can be commonly seen. However, we should be careful in drawing any type of moral conclusions from the fact that polygamy existed, that patriarchs like David practiced it, or that God seems to overlook it numerous times. In most cases, polygamy is described as having negative consequences or being the product of unrighteousness (Genesis 4:19-24, 29:30-30:24; 1 Samuel 1:1-7; 1 Kings 11:1-8). In addition, it goes against the blueprint established in Genesis and numerous other biblical principles throughout the Bible. It is never mentioned as having been practiced by those in the New Testament.
With regards to the subject of civil authorities and marriage, the Bible does not directly address this. This would leave this issue in the realm of Christian conscience and wisdom. Let’s discuss some pros and cons for government involvement in marriage that Christians can consider.
What is the Government’s Motivation to be Involved in Marriage?
There could be several reasons why the government has a vested interest in marriage.
- First, the government has an interest that its citizens make more children. Without a certain level of population growth or replacement, a civilization will literally die out. Of particular interest to the government, a declining population will mean that there will not be enough new taxpayers to replace the ones who are dying and that there will be not enough young people to fight in the military should the need arise. Marriage is the most natural way for children to be born and raised to fulfill civic duties like these.
- Second, the government has a vested interest in protecting children, who often cannot protect themselves. Studies have repeatedly shown the importance of a child having both a father and a mother. If the government encourages men and women to marry and stay together, this will lead to better outcomes for children.
- Lastly, marriage has been long-understood to have other societal benefits. Those who marry are less likely to be in poverty and demonstrate advantages in both mental and physical health compared to those who are unmarried. If a government encourages marriage, this will likely lead to reductions in the strain that it would put on our social welfare and even healthcare systems.
Yet, government involvement in marriage can be a double-edged sword. The biggest drawback to having government involvement in marriage is the moral influence that its laws carry in society (Romans 13:3-4). If the government holds to a distorted or incorrect view of marriage, gender, sexuality, etc., then this will reinforce such views in its citizens, leading to moral and cultural deterioration. Since marriage and family play such a fundamental role in society, a government which advocates for things like easy divorce, same-sex marriage, and the like can very well be digging its own civilizational grave.
Marriage is a pre-political institution which God created to be a reflection of the spiritual reality between Christ and the Church. It serves as a foundation of society and how he intends us to live in community. Governments can only recognize these truths and don’t have the capability to change these fundamental realities created by God. Thus, by recognizing (or not recognizing) the truths about marriage, the government can have a significant influence for good (or for bad).
Given the fundamental nature of marriage to society, it seems almost inevitable that the government (as the God-ordained authority which oversees society) will involve itself to some extent. Nevertheless, the degree to which the government should be involved in marriage is not directly addressed in the Bible and is a matter of opinion. So long as the government does involve itself with marriage, Christians would be wise to advocate for laws which help and strengthen marriage according to biblical principles. This will lead to benefits for everyone and helps us to love our neighbors well.