Married in the Eyes of God But Not the State?

Married in the Eyes of God But Not the State?:

A Casualty of Casuistry

Rev. John A. Frahm III

13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. 17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.   1 Peter 2:13-17

Increasingly in our circles, one hears of assertions of “pastoral discretion” being invoked to support an “exception” in regard to marriage for cohabiting couples who are members of our congregations.   The most commonly stated reason for such is financial in some form or another.   The loss of benefits, purging of assets upon entering into a nursing home, or some other inheritance ramifications are cited as legitimate examples for pastors to conduct a “wedding in the eyes of God but not of the state.”  This is emerging epidemic due for attention from those supervising our polity, as the first generations that passed through the sexual revolution of our culture are entering retirement age and natural marriage is under assault.

It is clear in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope that if clergy exercise jurisdiction in civil matters of marriage it is by human authority and not constitutive of the office of the holy ministry in and of itself.   The Treatise describes the situation where the bishops, who exercised such responsibilities only by extension of civil authority (left-hand kingdom) abused their powers and that therefore it is appropriate to re-establish civil authorities to handle such disputes regarding marriage:

There remains the jurisdiction in those cases which, according to canonical law, pertain to the ecclesiastical court, as they call it, and especially in cases of matrimony. This, too, the bishops have only by human right, and that, not a very old one, as appears from the Codex and Novellae of Justinian that decisions concerning marriage at that time belonged to the magistrates. And by divine right worldly magistrates are compelled to make these decisions if the bishops [judge unjustly or] are negligent. The canons also concede the same. Therefore, also on account of this jurisdiction it is not necessary to obey bishops. 78] And, indeed, since they have framed certain unjust laws concerning marriages, and observe them in their courts, there is need also for this reason to establish other courts.

Marriage is understood to be a matter obtained via the left-hand kingdom, though not without right-hand kingdom implications and concerns, to be sure.   Since Lutherans use a different theological definition of a sacrament we do not enumerate marriage as a sacrament in the sense of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper or even Absolution, however, it does remain a mystery of God’s design and creation, with implications for the proper understanding of the Gospel.  Apology XIII observes in a rather balanced way:

Matrimony was not first instituted in the New Testament, but in the beginning, immediately on the creation of the human race. It has, moreover, God’s command; it has also promises, not indeed properly pertaining to the New Testament, but pertaining rather to the bodily life. Wherefore, if any one should wish to call it a sacrament, he ought still to distinguish it from those preceding ones [the two former ones], which are properly signs of the New Testament, and testimonies of grace and the remission of sins. 15] But if marriage will have the name of sacrament for the reason that it has God’s command, other states or offices also, which have God’s command, may be called sacraments, as, for example, the magistracy.

The Augsburg Confession understands marriage as something enacted under the auspices of civil government (see AC XVI).   Notably, AC XVI also points out strongly:

They [our churches ] condemn also those who do not place evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices, for 5] the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. Meanwhile, it does not destroy the State or the family, but very much requires that they be preserved as ordinances of God, and that charity be practiced in such 6] ordinances. Therefore, Christians are necessarily bound to obey their own magistrates 7] and laws save only when commanded to sin; for then they ought to obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29.

While we would no doubt state that the nature of marriage itself is a reflection of the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the Church, marriage itself is contracted under the kingdom of the left, under the regulations of civil government.   When the church capitulates to the debauchery of the culture in its confession of marriage, the preaching of the Gospel suffers, and the message is distorted.  As the second epistle of John makes clear, we only know God truly through the rightly taught Word and not in some way abstracted from the Word.   In both right and left hands of God’s rule, He works through such authorities in this fallen world of people, as imperfect as they are.  This is clear in the explanation to the Fourth Commandment in both catechisms.  Being subject to authority is a matter of the right and the left-hand kingdoms (Hebrews 13:17; Romans 13:1-2).

Christians are bound to obey their magistrates and laws except when sin itself is demanded.  But the conduct of a wedding is not a “peculiar church power” but a civil matter, no matter the desire for the religious context and blessing.   When a marriage is conducted properly under the auspices of the church, it is an exercise of both the right and the left-hand kingdom, so long as the proper civil authority is not subverted.  The sentiment or romance of a man and a woman do not alone make for marriage.   The fruits of the sexual revolution have referred to traditional marriage as simply a “piece of paper,” but the piece of paper also matters.  The civil enactment of marriage makes clear that while there are private aspects to the intimacies of marriage, marriage itself is not simply a private or personal matter.   Marriage cannot be reduced to the internal, subjective realm.   Neither can the Gospel nor its concomitant implications.   The Gospel does not unravel the two kingdoms nor does it undo the divine design of creation.   The order of redemption or salvation is not contradictory of the order of creation.   Addressing a radical reductionism of the gospel, the Apology puts it this way:

For the Gospel does not destroy the State or the family [buying, selling, and other civil regulations], but much rather approves them, and bids us obey them as a divine ordinance, not only on account of punishment, but also on account of conscience.

To the present question at hand, we should point out that hardships are not the same as being commanded to sin.   Financial burdens such as taxes, fees, and obtaining a license and filing of certificates do not constitute a case for disobeying proper authority.   While one might be greatly distressed by the financial burdens either federal or some state governments impose upon married couples in various circumstances, such instances, as difficult as they may be, do not constitute cause to depart the obligation to honor marriage under the civil authority of the left-hand kingdom.

To be sure, some states do have burdensome regulations that cause a loss of assets for married couples under some circumstances of elderly care.    Some regulations do affect inheritance stipulations.   It would be wise for Christians of some expertise and civil vocations to address these burdens through legal, democratic, and other means of redress, litigation, or legislation.  However, in the matters of the church, clergy simply do not have the “pastoral discretion” to “make an exception” under the table to skirt financial implications of marriage, detour around a regulation, or defraud the state by treating something which is not as though it is.

4 Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge. 5 Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”   Hebrews 13:4-5

Since we understand in Scripture and the Confessions that marriage is contracted under civil authority, and when conducting a marriage rite, a pastor takes on certain legal obligations as a minister of the civil authorities by human right (de jure humano), he would likewise by the same understanding be defrauding the state along with the couple involved, were he to conduct a “wedding in the eyes of God but not the state.”   According to Lutheran theology the very assertion of such, excerpt perhaps under some hypothetical circumstance which has not yet happened (under a public state of confession not just by individuals but by the church in a particular fellowship), would be a contradiction in terms.   Clergy do not have a divine right (de jure divino) to conduct a wedding legally according to their office as pastor, but as allowed by civil law by human right.   Clergy teach, lead prayer, and pronounce blessing in the context of the civil enactment of marriage.   But the two things are distinct and can become separate activities if needed in the future.

The sad thing is that this basic understanding of marriage and civil authority is absent where the “exception” is offered rather than pastoral encouragement to either bear the cross of the financial burden or in the case of couples contemplating marriage at a later age, simply remain celibate and decline entering marriage (perhaps again) in old age if the financial burden is untenable.   Unfortunately, sometimes people cohabit before discussing it with the pastor or considering all these things, and that is a messy situation.  We bear in mind the words of Paul:

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.   Galatians 6:1-2

In our day, another problem the ecclesiastical supervisors and others should consider is that where such compassionately intended but wrong-headed “exceptions” are made, the church is potentially painting a target on its back for unwelcomed attention from civil authorities and putting other rights and benefits for the church in this country at risk.   As we are emerging into this “Post-Christian” or “Post-Constantinian” era of history for the church in the western world, we need to be wary of short-sighted and ill-informed casuistry undermining not only our confession of the truth, but also our standing in the public square under civil authorities with its protections and obligations.   In these days when civil authority is confused enough, to put it nicely, about the nature of life and marriage and religious liberty, we need to exercise caution with a view to the larger picture and not simply the emotion of a situation in front of us on a local level.    Financial hardships can be handled and assisted in other ways.   And we always need to preach the bearing the cross through all the vocations of one’s life.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.  15 Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.  Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work…   Titus 2:11-3:1

Thanks be to God, we have seen in mercy no laws yet requiring mandatory abortion or mandatory “marriage” of people of the same sex.   There would be clear cases where Acts 5:29 would be applied since there the civil authority would have clearly stepped beyond what is legitimate as an expression of God’s rule through the left-hand governance under natural law, reason, or good order (also Revelation 13).   Romans 13 is not unconditional subservience.  Taxes and fees have never been convenient and yet Romans 13 is clear.  Pay what you owe (but it does not say pay extra).   Honor the authorities, but put no trust in princes.

Life lived under both kingdoms is a life lived under the cross as one baptized into Christ.   There may come times, as can be learned from the history of the church, where faithful Christians are called to pay the price under civil authorities which overstep their bounds and make not only burdensome demands but sinful and idolatrous demands.   Then the beast must be resisted and then we must not allow ourselves to be marked as cattle belonging to a lord who is not the Lord God Almighty.   The men who serve as pastors must be real men who will stand firm and encourage others to stand firm, not by their own reason or strength but by the strength that God provides in the fellowship of the Church.   We walk in this world a lonely way… together in Christ.



About Pastor John Frahm III

Rev. John A. Frahm is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Boulder Junction, WI. He has previously served parishes in Colorado and the Midwest. He is a 1998 graduate of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada and was ordained by Dr. Ray Hartwig in 1998. He was editor of the former website Reformation Today, and has published articles in The Bride of Christ, Logia, and The Lutheran Witness magazines and was a charter member of The Augustana Ministerium and helped write study materials for the ACELC. He has also served as a circuit visitor in the LCMS and has taken an interest in civil liberties He has also been a guest on Issues Etc. In college years, he was active in Lutheran campus ministry activities and was the first president of Region 4 of Lutheran Student Fellowship, helping to organize the first LSF national gathering for college students. Pastor Frahm was born in Arlington Heights, Illinois and was raised in southern Minnesota. He is married to Jennifer, a Michigan native. Jennifer currently works as an instructional designer. Pastor Frahm believes our biblical, confessional, and liturgical heritage is an asset to be boldly and forthrightly applied and used for the mission of the church.


Married in the Eyes of God But Not the State? — 31 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article! I’m not sure how it is everywhere else, but many here in the FL/GA District think they’ve found a “loophole” in dealing with cohabiting couples. Rather than calling the couples to repentance, they use their sophistry and logic to avoid confrontation and preaching the Law. Thanks for this great article.

  2. No one ever said it was easy being a Christian. The law is the law, and Christians should make every effort to abide by it, however difficult it may be. The world is always watching us!

  3. A good lawyer can get around the legal problems -= Prenuptials, etc.

    Part of the definition of a marriage is that it is publicly known. It is the government that regulates and controls this.

  4. Pastor Frahm is correct in regard to state regulations and financial matters. At the same time, it is my understanding that in early church, Christians did not “legally” marry because the state rites were tied with the worship of the pagan gods. Nor did they immediately create a Christian marriage rite. This potentially comes into play with the state redefining marriage in a way that is contrary to both Scripture and history. So I do believe the underlying question will continue to be discussed among us. The question being at what point does the church divorce itself from the state on the business of marriage? Clearly the financial considerations do not rise to this level. But the intrusion of homosexual marriage might force our hand in some way.

  5. Just to muddy the waters with historical precedent, there was a time when confessional Lutherans in Germany were forced to remain outlaws when it came to marriage, as the state church was the only entity that had the legal authority to marry people.

  6. Excellent article and very well written. We simply cannot compromise in the area of Biblical marriage.

  7. I don’t know. With marriage, you’re walking a fine line between the two kingdoms in that even though it’s not a specificially “Christian” act in the sense of only Christians participating in it, it is God-ordained and God-directed nevertheless.

  8. @Jeremy aiello #8

    You can’t walk between or outside the two kingdoms. God operates with His two kingdoms. Our Confessions are clear. I’d recommend reading Marquart on the Church to review the basics on the two kingdoms doctrine. Marriage is designed by God in creation but must be received under God’s authority not as we feel He should direct it or think our feelings are the direction of God. I’d encourage you to get acquainted with the doctrine of the two kingdoms.

  9. Many times the problem is not with the state, when there is a second marriage. Rather, one or both (?) partners would lose a company pension received as a dependent from their first marriage, if they re-marry. [Dependents’ Social Security is not lost, presently, although they may think of that.]

    [I’m not suggesting that this kind of dishonesty should be practiced by our pastors or members.]

  10. True. But pastors offer faux solutions in such situations to get around (defraud) the state or a pension provider. It makes the pastors look nice, etc. However God defines true kindness. Pastors can’t make exceptions around Scripture. So often in a rush of emotion people start living together before considering the morality and practical ramifications.

  11. I find it rather interesting that there is no response to this point. The state has indeed totally rejected marriage turning it into a ritual that most pagans would reject. Marriage as a state institution is dead. If I were getting married today I would seriously consider a pastor marriage with no bastardized state registry. We are in the waning days of a rapidly deteriorating county. As time progresses the Church will increasingly be divorced from a wickedly ruled State. Eventually one will be able to get a marriage certificate for a marriage between a “person” and a goat.

    The above quotes from the BOC were written under the assumption that a marriage consisted of one man and one woman. Now all bets are off. There’s really in most instances few benefits to a state registered marriage for older couples . In short under today’s civil conditions the Church should give couples a choice to register or not with a totally corrupt civil government.

    I am fully aware that the above is outrageous; but Civil reality is outrageous to an Orthodox Christian. Look at the new reality for a majority of So called Churches that no longer even believe the Bible much less the BOC. I have personally watched as a group of LCMS elders swore allegiance to follow the BOC with no intention of doing so. This assumption is based on the elders knowledge of the BOC? To a large degree the State (AKA secular society) rules over many Churches. LCMS Churches included. If this weren’t true there would be no posts of deviant practice in LCMS Synod Churches. Supposedly a Church is for sinners but there is no Law and Gospel much less any Bible or BOC in many Lutheran churches, you can pick any synod. Today I strongly feel a pastor can
    exercise Discretion where marriage is concerned in a state where one can marry a goat…… eventually! @Rev. Jody R. Walter #5

  12. @Mark Huntemann #12

    I can empathize with the emotion on the erosion of marriage but I stand by what I wrote above. As much as I would see trends of foreboding things as well, let’s not get into predicting things. We are not forced to conduct the illicit pseudo marriages therefore we are bound to honor what remains that is proper. The fact remains despite our sight we live under two kingdoms not one. Taxes are used often questionably and were under Caesar nonetheless improper usage does not negate proper submission to civil authority where it remains proper. Otherwise we would best get ready to not pay taxes, deny traffic laws and much else. The above quotes were written in the BofC assuming God works through even corrupt civil authority. Would we have a Donatism of the left hand kingdom? As stated above, if we are threatened by civil authority to do illicit marriages then we must resist.

  13. “improper usage does not negate proper submission to civil authority where it remains proper”

    More to the point……..

    “submission to civil authority where it remains proper”

    Civil authority is no longer proper. Thank You that is my point.

    “civil authority to do illicit marriages then we must resist”

    Marriage as defined by Civil authority is illicit. Again you make my point.

    Thank You for your response.

  14. Very true!

    But how can you in good conscience register a marriage with a Civil authority that no longer defines marriage in a way that is not even recognized by pagan Civil authority?

    You have in fact endorsed the Civil authority definition of “marriage”; have you now been a willing participant with the Civil authority? Do you not endorse?

    If you register a Man and Woman with the State, you are an agent of the state. You now have to marry the “person” and a goat. Civil law demands it. End game!

  15. In all seriousness I strongly feel the Orthodox Churches have to start withdrawing from being agents for the state now. Otherwise pastors will be unable to withdraw later from the state as law quickly changes. Precedence will play a large part in defending yourselves later on from being forced into performing untenable practices as State agents.

  16. In the scenario of things getting worse I think better solution would be to have the couple get married via civil means and then come to the church afterwards. In that scenario pastors would no longer conduct weddings but bless the couple.

  17. All clergy have to do is say you don’t conduct any civil ceremonies. Bless the civil marriages conducted elsewhere.

  18. With all do respect: Have the Man and Woman married in the Church and if they need an agent of the State to do something more, fine.

    The Church should not be an agent of a State that no longer has any need of the services of the Church. The stranger thing is a Republic can’t exist long without belief in a Divine Authority. History has taught the lesson well.

  19. Again, thank You for responding to my thoughts.

    Let’s let the LORD GOD have the final word.

    ¶ Nisi Dominus

    Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it.
    Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
    It is but lost labour that ye haste to rise up early, and so late take rest,
    and eat the bread of carefulness;
    for so he giveth his beloved sleep.

    Lo, children, and the fruit of the womb,
    are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord.
    Like as the arrows in the hand of the giant,
    even so are the young children.

    Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them;
    they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.

    Quom nimis multum justus solummodo satis

    Ἰησοῦς Χρειστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ

    “In hoc signo vinces,” “Vexilla regis prodeunt fulget crucis mysterium.”

    From the greatest weakness flows the greatest strength.

    Ignorance is the fertile field plowed by Heretics!

    lex orandi lex credendi lex vivendi

    The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility:

    of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria),

    celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia),

    and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia).

    These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.

    For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.

  20. @Mark Huntemann #20

    I can empathize where you are coming from, but just because a marriage is enacted through the civil legal system and through the church, that doesn’t make us agents of the state. We have our own rites and vows before God. Rather than bemoan the state’s capitulation to special interests groups, we need to do our best to teach people how to be Christian husbands and wives as taught in Ephesians 5. We need to be the image of the god instituted marriage to those who are looking at us. After all, one of the most potent arguments made to the public in support of the redefinition of marriage was that Christians arguing for Christ’s definition of marriage were not living it out. That’s where our focus needs to be.

  21. This article is far from the final word on this issue. I’ve heard of one situation where a couple wanted to get married that worked at the same company. The company did allow married couples to work for them. A civil marriage would have resulted in one being fired. Now what? If times are tough and jobs scarce?

    A lot more study will be needed on this issue.

  22. Throughout Scripture and throughout secular history, whatever ceremony that was used was to make the status of the married couple publicly known. In modern times with the movement of people, it is public through the government records. Can it be a marriage if it is not publicly known?

    People have sacrificed a lot more than one of two jobs to follow God’s will.

    On the other topic: Just because perverts can get married does not make your marriage or any other marriage invalid.

  23. No one is making said folks get married or cohabit. Bearing a cross of changing jobs is just the beginning of bearing a cross in marriage.

    Pastors who contrive state or company defrauding faux solutions are teaching people not to bear crosses for the sake of their faith or marriage and are instead promoting fornication under the religious veneer of a pastoral exception, as if pastor had any authority around Scripture. Marriage is enacted publicly in the left hand realm. Period.

    Saying it is fine to ignore Scripture on this because of a financial or lifestyle burden runs the same logic as quality of life reduction reasoning for abortion or any number of questions. What happened to “for richer or poorer”? It is a matter of repentance and faith. Pastors making illegitimate exceptions are undermining faith and repentance.

    We don’t do our consciences a favor digging in on a bad casuistry decision done for emotional reasons.

    If we get coerced from civil authorities on something wrong then we don’t conduct any weddings under our office. Just bless the public civil enactment later on.

  24. When I read the Lutheran dogmaticians on marriage, and specifically what creates a marriage, I learn that the uncoerced agreement between a man and a woman makes them married. Lutherans consider the engagement to be the same, except for coming together, as marriage. Lutheran pastors treated the breaking of an engagement to be like a divorce. It breaks the agreement. The marriage rites were the church’s public blessing of the marriage that had already happened when man and woman agreed to be married. Part of that public blessing was for the pastor to fill out the paper work that the state requires. Indicating not that the church or the pastor actually created the marriage, but that the church recognizes that this man and this woman are married and is happy to tell the world. You should also read what happens if a man and a woman agree to be married without the consent of their parents. That’s a big no go!

  25. Most of this article is good. The lacking thing is that the doctrine of the two kingdoms often drives out the consideration of the third estate, the home. I think biblically, marriage was a matter dealt with by the fathers of two homes. The Church blessed it, the state recognized it, but the home established it. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

  26. Well Israel was church and state and the public nature of it meant that it wasn’t only between families. I’m glad you think most of it is good.

  27. What if the state were to forbid male-female marriages outright? While perhaps not even remotely possible, the thought experiment puts into sharp relief what is wrong with discussing marriage chiefly in terms of the officiant (i.e., who performs the ceremony).

    Marriage is a voluntary (that is, the intentional use of the unencumbered will) agreement to live together as husband and wife in a lifelong, mutually-exclusive sexual union, for the purposes of procreation and the raising of offspring, and for mutual aid and support. As such, betrothal, not engagement, actually begins the marriage, which is consummated during the nuptial union.

    Marriage is contracted publicly between husband and wife (with a formal announcement, such as the banns), while the rite is performed before two or more witnesses. There are no “secret” marriages.

    If the state, as in the above thought experience, abandons its God-given role in arranging for and officiating the legal contraction of marriage, then it is incumbent upon the citizenry to assume that function.

    In such an instance any adult citizen, including a pastor, could officiate. There is ample precedent in Lutheran history, as when (in the reverse) Lutheran princes called pastors to churches, given that as Christians they were acting in the name of the Church, and not as secular rulers.

    This really isn’t that hard.

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