The ultimate question is: Is a marriage truly a marriage only when legal in the eyes of the government? Biblically speaking, it is obviously what is known as a “covenant“. Though this designation may be considered synonymous with “a contract,” it is in a special category of contract because of the expected life-long aspect of the agreement, as well as the intertwining of lives on a uniquely personal basis. Not that everyone sticks to the contract, but these ideas are still core to the meaning of marriage, no matter if they are regularly disregarded. Even in what people would call a purely civil marriage contract, longevity of commitment to the sharing of daily lives is what makes the agreement meaningful.
In order for a covenant of this nature to really be taken seriously, there almost always has to be some sort of community witnessing and validating of the bond. It may be that occasionally a couple may find themselves on a deserted island and have no one else to turn to to help them celebrate such a union (I’ve seen it in the movies, so it must be true), but most of us are part of families and social networks that are more than willing to scrutinize whether we are sincere in such a bond, then go to a party with us afterward. Which brings us back to the initial question. Is there a valid reason for the government to be involved in all of this?
Another way for a Christian to ask it is: Does God care if the marriage is “legal?” A follow-up concern might be: If the government gives itself the power to legitimize marriages, is it wrong for a Christian to question this? It is true that current dictionary definitions list “legal contract” as part of the definition of marriage, but one could easily argue that that is just a cultural definition that has grown into being as governments have assumed a role in the marriage contract.
It seems that in all of this, a liberty-minded Christian finds that, once again, the real issue is whether any given government inherently has “authority” from God. Authority minded “ministers” and other religious figures are quick to back up the concept of governmental authority, because to question it weakens their own place in the hierarchy of power. And before you try to tell me that “your pastor” isn’t authority minded, try questioning his decisions about how he runs his particular religious organization. However, that is not the main topic at hand. I have previously written here about how a Christian might view whether or not governments are established by God.
The common libertarian (or classically liberal) perspective, as discussed in the above link or in this article that is a good discussion of the main Biblical sections used to authenticate governmental authority, is that no government has nearly as much authority as many Christians are willing to bow down to, if said government really has any at all. Too many Christians approach governmental institutions with the attitude that those who run these institutions are barely removed from daily counsel at the throne of God. To question this “authority” is tantamount with questioning God. Possibly worse is the idea that to gain a position of power in the government is to have the authority of God!
This leads to wondering why any person who is given (or assumes) the title of pastor or priest or rabbi wants a license from the government to enable them to sign legal marriage documents. From a religious point of view, shouldn’t it be the other way around? Just kidding, really, although you may recall that has been a political model in the past. As for the current situation, maybe it is because licenses are the way the government allows certain people to have a monopoly over providing (and getting paid for) certain services. Yes, I know, it is done in the name of maintaining standards, but read here if you truly want to understand what “professional licenses” are all about.
So far in our society, there is nothing about signing a legal marriage license that limits what other sorts of religious ceremonies people want to have. Most of the time, signing of the legal documents is not even part of anyone’s ceremony, so there is no need for the two aspects of marriage to be connected by a religious figure condoned by the government.
The simple fact is that the government views a marriage license more like it does a car registration. It is a way to control people at the same time as collecting money. It seems to me that having any religious figure licensed by the government is not a far cry from the communist model of requiring any religious group (or any group, for that matter) to be approved by the government. And, in effect, a governmental marriage license creates both a false sense of what it means to be married and gives the government “rights” in the marriage contract. It is no longer just a covenant between the husband and wife in the presence of the community, but instead something that can be charged for, manipulated, and even broken by the government.
Unfortunately, there very well may be practical reasons to be “legally” married. If a couple is not legally married, it affects how the government could potentially interfere with their children, particularly from the father’s point of view. It can also affect family finances, although it may be difficult to determine if this is for the good or bad. Even though the marriage may last until death-do-us-part, the laws about it are so easy to change before death and consequences of the laws go on after death. True, the government has already greatly inserted itself into family affairs, but jumping through legal hoops can give a modicum of a buffer against trouble with the government.
I find myself concluding that there is no Christian or moral basis for a legally recognized marriage. There is no act that can be made more or less moral because a law has been made about it. Disregarding a government model for recognizing marriage does not render a person immoral. The governmental contract has not even caused people to be more committed to marriage. Marriage is a covenant, distinct from just sharing a bed or preferring one person for an extended period of time, but there is nothing the government can do to make a person more or less married in the true sense of what it is meant to be.