One Marriage License or Two Fishing Licenses?
How legal marriage has skewed the Christian view of marriage
By Jeffrey A. Schooley
In early June 2007, I drove to the Summit County (OH) court house with my friend Than to get my marriage license. My wife-to-be, Brianne, was planning to meet us there. She ran late. Than and I sat for 10 minutes looking like we were staging a protest in favor of gay marriage before getting up and walking around a little bit. While we were walking, we encountered the game and wildlife department. I saw that a fishing license that year cost $22.50. I thought little of that.
A half-hour later, Brianne showed up. She and I went to the marriage license office, answered a few questions about disease and blood relationships and were asked to pay $45 for a marriage license. In an instant, the fishing license popped back into my mind. Never one to miss a joke that will crack me up, I asked Brianne if she wouldn’t rather go get two fishing licenses. They were, after all, the same price as one marriage license. The clerk at the window – the one who had already eye-balled Than and I suspiciously – looked even less amused than before. Bri just rolled her eyes. She knew what she was marrying.
This story is important because it reveals much about how our culture views marriage. It is a purchased, contractual agreement that is as binding as the partners invested in it permit it to be. It also reveals the over-inflated view the state has about itself in these private partnerships, as the state is the agent that can – literally – grant license to marry. Finally, it reveals the internal conflicts the state has about marriage, because a license for it only costs double a fishing license … but a fishing license needs repurchased each year. I still don’t know if the state only making couples pay once means it values marriage more or less than driver licenses, fishing licenses, and the like.
None of this, of course, would bother me very much as a Christian pastor and theologian, except that I know how much Christians learn their values from their culture rather than from their Christ. If Christians could just acknowledge that the state has its weird, pagan rituals that do not threaten the sanctity of the Christian covenant (or sacrament, for the three Catholics who might read this Presbyterian blog) and then move on, I wouldn’t have to tell this story. But the sad reality is that Christians often and regrettably mix up what the church should do with marriage with what the state wants to do with marriage. The result? Neither good Christians nor good citizens.
To the state, marriage exists somewhere between a legal right and a legal partnership. To be sure, the movement for marriage equality by the LGBTQIA community has raised our consciousness about viewing marriage as a right. However, in winning the war, marriage may have lost some cultural esteem and to such a degree that it is regard primarily as a partnership with some attending benefits.
It is, to be sure, unfair to say that the legal view of marriage has been eroded by the fight for marriage equality. In fact, it is more likely that divorce – and especially the rise of the legal, “no fault divorce” – revealed just how much the state views marriages as a contract that can be signed and broken, so long as both individual, autonomous parties within it have come to such an agreement.
Finally, the state regards marriage as the building blocks of society. Without getting into arcane debates about whether such a statement is universally true or not, I think we can safely agree that marriage has been foundational for American society. Of course, it may very well be that the state merely leached off of a pre-existent institution to its own ends and, like any good parasite, has sucked enough of the health out of the host so as to kill it. But, suffice it to say, the state still regards marriage as foundational for a functioning society.
Now, compare this to the Church which regards marriage as a covenant (for Protestant) or a sacrament (for Catholics… though most Protestants would treat marriage this way, even if it is just a covenant). Marriage, as I’ve tried to elaborate before, is about two people coming together to fulfill the mission of the church. Marriage is a unique way of witnessing to the covenantal faithfulness of Jesus Christ by maintaining such faithfulness in a particular, concrete interpersonal relationship. The home created by a marriage becomes a means of loving one’s neighbor in a way that a non-marital home couldn’t. (Non-marital homes can, of course, love their neighbors, but there will be differences).
So what happens when Christians find themselves more formed by the culture than the covenant? They find themselves using language that is terribly foreign to the Gospel. They start talking about marriage rights, when really marriage is about responsibility. They start talking about contracts, when marriage is about covenant. Maybe worst of all, they start talking about the building blocks of society, when the true basis of any and all societies is God’s continued love and providence of creation – even as we rebel. Christians never sound more like pagans than when they believe an institution or idea they have a hand in creating is somehow foundational to human existence.
So I want to encourage Christians to let go of the legal debate around marriage (though I realize with the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that there isn’t much debate left). I hope Christians recognize that the state simultaneously undervalues and over-values marriage in a bizarre, chaotic way that is so far afield from the Christian view of the matter as to be completely irrelevant.
Oh, if you ever feel tempted into that absurd world again, just go buy a fishing license with a friend and remember that – for the state – you’re more or less married.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.