In America the state, not the Bible, not the church, regulates, defines, and redefines marriage. Americans cannot be legally married without complying with and gaining the government’s permission.
Yet prior to the 16th century this was not the case. No government regulated marriage, only churches and synagogues recorded and regulated birth, marriage, sex, and death. In fact, the overwhelming misunderstanding of the First Amendment and the concept of “separation of church and state” contribute to overall confusion as to why the American government institutionalized marriage.
Understanding America’s historical roots provides significant insight. In the early 1600s, English Puritans immigrated to America in part because they rejected the Church of England’s position on marriage. The Puritans asserted marriage was a civil contract, not a religious ceremony.
Once they arrived to the New World, the Puritans instituted their own marriage laws—which became the customary model for marriage throughout New England. They legally required marriages to be “agreed” or “executed” (not “performed” or “solemnized”) by a magistrate, not a minister. They also legalized divorce if the terms of the marriage agreement were broken.
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Unlike its European counterparts that instituted civil marriage in the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States left the issue of marriage to the states, resembling a mélange of western Christian marriage traditions within a federalist system. Other colonial regions followed different traditions: Virginian law modeled the Anglican position on marriage; Quakers brought their version to Delaware, and Catholics in Maryland and other states.
All of these traditions were significantly impacted by the Protestant Reformation whose leaders overhauled previously existing and long held quasi-church-state authority over marriage. The early American settlers followed the example of the reformers who had transferred the “ordinance of marriage” (previously overseen by the Roman Catholic Church) to the secular state.
Martin Luther, the Catholic priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation in Germany, argued marriage was a “worldly thing … that belongs to the realm of government.” John Calvin, his Swiss counterpart, remodeled Christian marriage by enacting the Marriage Ordinance of Geneva, which regulated and enforced “the dual requirements of state registration and church consecration to constitute marriage.”
Nearly five centuries later, Protestants continue to insert government into marriage, demanding it be regulated in the civil realm. In 1996 former president Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law, which was partially dismantled in 2013 and fully rejected on June 26, 2015 by the Supreme Court.
The federal government did not codify marriage until 1996; such licensing had always been determined by the states. Since 2004 the majority of states have granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However, in many cases, such as in Iowa or Alabama, licenses for same-sex unions were administered despite state statutes or constitutions prohibiting it.
Unelected judges began overruling the majority will of the people, first in California with Proposition 8 and later in Iowa. Marriage became a legal and political quagmire that could have been avoided.
If the early settlers had followed the early church’s example evidenced throughout the New Testament perhaps biblical marriage would not have been transformed into a regulated government institution.
If marriage had been left to the church, its leaders could marry only its members who practice and follow its beliefs. Civil unions and legal matters among any parties could be left to the government in order to provide the full range of civil liberties citizens in a quasi-democratic republic expect.
Granted, 17th century Puritans rightly viewed the government as agents of God’s authority yet they morphed this belief with aspects of legalism and reinforced some of the same mistakes and compromises the 16th century protestant reformers made. Five centuries later the consequences of those decisions, and the failure of their descendants to change them, resulted in the confusion that today validates the government’s authority to regulate and redefine marriage.