Authority to define marriage rests with church, prof says

WAKE FOREST, N.C.?Mindful of proposed Texas legislation that seeks to strengthen marriage, Christian ethicist David Jones urges Southern Baptists to employ a biblical understanding of marriage prior to supporting family law reform. Expectations that the state is able to provide lasting solutions to the spiritual problem of martial decay are based on false hope, said Jones, associate professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

“Generally speaking, I think the Southern Baptist Convention should support it,” Jones said, referring to covenant marriage laws, which would require marriage license applicants to choose between a standard marriage and a covenant marriage.

“However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that the state has the ability to define marriage, nor should we view external laws as the only (or even proper) way to fix the moral erosion of the institution of marriage.”

Noting that covenant marriage legislation possesses potential to curb divorce rates, Jones believes the best way to “fix the estate of marriage is to internally understand the nature and purpose of the institution.”

What is a marriage covenant?

Marriage covenant laws imply a covenantal union is one of two marital categories, of which one is a standard version and the other a more stringent, binding commitment.

However, Jones points out that marriage is by definition a covenant. “Whether you are a Christian or not, it is impossible to have a marriage that is not a covenant marriage,” said Jones, a contributor to the 2004 book “God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation” by Andreas Kostenberger. “The institution of marriage is, by divine design, constitutionally covenantal.”

In short, a proper definition of covenant marriage must include permanence of the union and recognition that “three parties” are rooted in the agreement?God, husband, and wife. Although secular marital laws seek a return to traditional values, the legislation only speaks to spousal relationships. The laws also include caveats for dissolution of marital unions.

Among the ethics courses Jones teaches at Southeastern, his class “Marriage and Family: Foundations” underscores the differences between prominent views of marriage. Class notes describe the covenantal model of marriage as a creation ordinance rooted in divine law, which creates a permanent bond between a man, a woman and God. This God-centered model for understanding marriage was the prevailing model in the church from the cross until the 16th century when a sacramental model of marriage was introduced at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent.

However, modern views of marriage stem from Enlightenment-era thinkers who hailed matrimony as “a bilateral contract that is voluntarily formed, maintained, and dissolved by two individuals.”

A contractual view of marriage is inherently man-centered, Jones said. Today, marriage is no longer conceptualized as an “institution in which two individuals participate,” but rather a contract created by two parties. This relatively new understanding of marriage did not become widespread until the 19th century, Jones said.

Who has the authority to marry?

In distinguishing between a covenantal and contractual view of marriage, questions of authority inevitably arise. In a contractual view of marriage, authority to marry rests squarely in the hands of the state as it dispenses marriage licenses and grants divorces. Although couples are free to marry in a church, officiating ministers perform wedding ceremonies “by the authority vested by the state.”

“The minister basically becomes a civil authority in order to legally marry you,” Jones told students in his marriage and family class. “So, you can see, a church wedding is really window dressing. The minister only has the authority to marry you based on the authority of the state?not the church.”

While the state has been entrusted by God with maintaining order in society, Jones said it is the body of Christ that should bear the responsibility of defining and defendi

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