By / Oct 18

It might surprise you to learn that one of the most consistent questions I get emails about at the ERLC is whether it is ethical or biblical for pastors to officiate religious wedding ceremonies or “commitment ceremonies” for widowed or widower church members who do not want to get legally remarried for fear it would jeopardize their Social Security survivor benefit. 

The answer, I believe, is an easy “no” to this question, which I’ll explain more below. This isn’t actually an ethical dilemma inasmuch as it is a painful circumstance with monetary implications.

I cannot speak to the specifics of Social Security, as I’m not an expert in that area. It may be the case that remarriage might have no effect at all. I would advise consulting the Social Security Administration’s website on how remarriage can impact individuals’ SSI benefit.

Without getting into the weeds of what triggers particular situations, the larger ethical question, stated more bluntly, is this: If Social Security is negatively impacted by remarriage, would it be okay to get remarried only in the eyes of God and not the state so that I can protect my income? 

Two ethical horizons

There are at least two ways to answer this question. 

The first ethical horizon is to acknowledge one of the motives underneath this scenario: Deceit. While a couple may have positive intentions to rightly marry in the eyes of God, as our laws in the United States now dictate, marriages are to be brought before the jurisdiction of the state. Marriage does not belong to the state. Rather, marriage is an institution the state believes is necessary to protect the safety and well-being of its citizens. Government, for example, needs to know who to hold accountable for the well-being of children that result from a marriage. I believe Christians are to obey just laws, which I believe this is, even if some do not like the implications of it (Matt. 22:15-22; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).

The second ethical horizon to discuss is how marriage is understood in this scenario, which I think is a mistaken one. I referenced above that marriage does not belong to the state; it does not come into existence or find its legitimacy just because the government says so. Marriage is a creation ordinance ordered by God, but belonging to both the creational order and sacred order (Gen. 2:18-24). Marriage exists within the architecture of creation necessary for human civilization. Marriage simply reflects the reality of male-female complementarity. 

Seen from this perspective, government necessarily has an interest in it because it serves the common good by uniting man and woman in a bond of permanence, sealed by procreative potential. At the same time, marriage is ultimately understood, not as just a male-female creational relationship, but as a shadow of the Christ-Church union (Eph. 5:22-23). Marriage is something more than an institution that exists under the canopy of the state and the common good, but it is never less than that.

Render unto Caesar

A reader might respond, “Okay, but marriage ultimately belongs to God, not the state, so I can have my spiritual marriage legitimately authorized by God without it needing authorized by the state. In this case, I am rendering marriage to its highest authority, God.”

The problem is that the “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” statement of Matthew 22:21 does not mean that Christians can give to God what belongs to God while forgoing the legitimate areas that also belong to Caesar. It simply means that marriage has dual and legitimate overlapping interests that impact it as both a sacred and legal institution.

So, to make this clear: Pastors should not facilitate deceit, which is what is happening if a couple desires to be married in the eyes of God but refuses to submit to the laws of the state.

By / Aug 16

Fifty years ago this summer, California implemented the first no-fault divorce statute in the nation. Here are five facts you should know about the policy that changed marriage in America.

1. No-fault divorce is the term for the dissolution of a marriage on a finding that the relationship is no longer viable, without any need to show “fault” or marital misconduct. Before passage of no-fault, marriages were dissolved on the basis of marital misconduct, such as abandonment, adultery, and cruelty. “Just like in every other lawsuit,” says Beverly Willett, “plaintiffs had to allege and prove a violation of their legal rights—the very definition of justice. But lawmakers abolished this requirement in divorce cases.”

2. The first modern no-fault divorce law was enacted in 1917 in Soviet Russia. A primary goal of the Bolsheviks was, as Elizabeth Brainerd explains, to “break down the traditional ‘bourgeois’ structure of the family in order to equalize the status of men and women.” They did this by implementing a number of changes to the Family Code, including allowing civil marriages (whereas before only religious marriage was allowed) and instituting no-fault divorce. By 1926, to get a divorce a spouse needed only to register with the local bureau of statistics and the other spouse would be notified three days later. “The results were what we would expect: “Divorce became much more common,” says Brainerd, “and for men, re-marriage emerged as a new and widespread marital institution in the wake of divorce. Women were much more likely to remain divorced.” When Joseph Stalin came to power ten years later he reversed the policy because of its destructive impact on the family

3. In 1966, California Governor Edmund G. Brown established the Governor's Commission on the Family to undertake a "concerted assault on the high incidence of divorce in our society and its often tragic consequences.” The Commission issued a list of recommendations, including eliminating “existing fault grounds of divorce.”

Three years later, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act of 1969 into law, making California the first no-fault divorce state in the nation. As Elizabeth Schoenfeld once wrote, “with a stroke of his pen, California governor Ronald Reagan wiped out the moral basis for marriage in America.” Five years after passage of the California law, no-fault divorce statutes were enacted in forty-five states. New York became the last state to pass a no-fault law in 2010. Reagan later admitted that signing the no-fault divorce bill was one of the biggest mistakes of his political life.

4. From 1867 to 1915, the divorce rate remained 1% or less (one divorce for every 1,000 population) and remained less than 2% until 1940. The first year the divorce rate exceeded 3% was in 1969, the year California became the first state to adopt no-fault divorce. The divorce rate peaked between 1979 and 1981 at 5.3 percent. Since then, the divorce rate has steadily declined along with the rate of marriage. (From 1968 to 1987, the marriage rate stayed at or above 9.9 percent. It dropped to 9.7 percent in 1988 and 1989, climbed back to 9.8 percent in 1990, and dropped steadily until 2017 where it remained at 6.9 percent.) The current divorce rate is 2.9%.

5. The effects of no-fault divorce were much greater than just the direct impacts on the divorce rate, says Douglas W. Allen. Writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Allan notes,

The law influenced the rate at which women entered the workforce, the number of hours worked in a week, the incidence of spousal abuse, the feminization of poverty, and the age at which people married. It influenced a series of other laws related to spousal and child support, custody, joint parenting, and the definition of marital property. Many of these changes had subsequent impacts on the stability of marriages. In short, the actual outcomes of no-fault divorce were completely unanticipated and unintended.

Perhaps the most unexpected result of the no-fault divorce revolution was the creation of a divorce culture, says Allan:

By inadvertently allowing for opportunistic divorce, the law created a whole new class of inequality as many women and children entered poverty through divorce. The sheer size of this group over the span of thirty years has influenced everything from greeting cards to day care centers. The divorce culture has led to a society with more coercion, individualism, and less commitment. Schools now teach ‘life skills,’ ‘job counseling,’ and ‘secular ethics’; these lessons were, at one time, universally taught by families.

By / Nov 1

Are you and your church prepared for the moral revolution surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage happening across America? While human sexuality and social institutions are being redefined before our very eyes, the Bible presents marriage as an unchanging picture of the gospel through the union of one man and one woman. The gospel announces that the story of Jesus is greater than the sum total of our sexual desires.

This helpful ebook by Russell Moore helps explain what the gospel means for the future of marriage and sexual identity.

By / Oct 6

On Thursday, Texas Congressman Randy Weber introduced important federal legislation designed to help clarify state authority in crafting state marriage policy. This comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning section three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The federal legislation, the State Marriage Defense Act of 2014 (H.R. 3829), seeks to resolve legal unknowns by mandating that the federal government recognize marriages based on where a couple resides, not where their wedding was performed or celebrated.

Download the full issue brief for more information.