The strength of the Protestant reformation was the axe it applied to contemporary Catholic doctrine. Is it prohibited in scripture? Then let no papal bull allow it. Is it allowed in scripture? Then let no writ forbid it. Is it not spoken of in scripture? Then let one neither forbid nor require it.
One of the many categories to get the axe was that of sacraments. Catholics had a nice round list of seven, several of which are nowhere spoken of in the Bible. Furthermore, they were understood as means of receiving grace, rather than signs of grace already received. So the list was understandably shortened. Holy orders and last rites do not belong on the same list as baptism and eucharist. But one in particular got thrown out perhaps too hastily, one whose consequences are now coming to bear in the modern American political scene: marriage.
To be sure, the Catholic church had an extremely unhealthy view of marriage at the time – a “necessary evil”, going even further than Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9. Luther’s criticism of the whole idea of the holy orders – particularly of the celibacy of priests, nuns, and monks – is something the Catholic church could still bear to hear, given the endemic sexual abuses within its orders.
But the baby got thrown out with the bathwater here. By relegating marriage to a civil institution, we miss the rich spiritual symbolism behind marriage. And even with that in mind, we miss the primacy of that symbolism.
First, let’s define sacraments by the two that everyone agrees on, baptism and eucharist.
In short, a sacrament is a means by which we display externally as a symbol of something spiritual, or at least not present. Before Christ, animal sacrifice was such a sacrament analogous to baptism. The animal itself did not cover sins, but was a symbol of something greater. The passover, likewise, celebrated the exodus from Egypt in the same way as we now celebrate Christ’s sacrifice with the Eucharist.
Marriage, in all its aspects, certainly fits this definition. The Bible uses richly sexual language in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship with Israel, and later the Church (all throughout Ezekiel, for example) – the former compared to a prostitute (Hosea), who through redemption as the latter will be presented as a spotless bride (Revelation). God is frequently likened to a bridegroom who is returning for his bride, the Church.
The analogy goes the other way around too. In Ephesians 5, Paul speaks of the wife as subject to the husband in the same way as the church is subject to Christ, and of the Husband as responsible for the safety, both physical and spiritual, of the wife, in the same way that Christ sacrificed himself for the Church.
So why have Protestants traditionally considered marriage a civic matter?
Martin Luther argued that “Marriage is a civic matter. It is really not, together with all its circumstances, the business of the church. It is so only when a matter of conscience is involved.” This sentiment, I think, stems from several sources, not least of which is the reaction against the Catholic church’s pathology of marriage. But more significant to our modern context is a reluctance to deny the title of “marriage” to unbelievers. Their unions are celebrated and carry on in much the same way as ours, so it’s tempting to call it the same thing.
But it is really not the same thing. What protestants fail to appreciate is the primacy of the symbol. God does not compare his relationship with the church to marriage just because there’s nothing better to compare it to, as if marriage was prior and God just used that as an example. Marriage (and therefore sex) exist for the sole purpose of symbolizing the relationship between God and the church. Sex, as one of the highest forms of physical ecstasy, serves the purpose of broadening our palate of “good”, of heightening our knowledge of it. Add on top of that the bedrock deep emotional attachment, affection, and commitment, and one has the whole spectrum; a microcosm in which to taste the goodness of God through one’s spouse.
No doubt marriages with and without this foundation can look superficially similar to one another. So can devout Christians and so-called “good people”. The Christian and the hippie may find themselves working together at Habitat For Humanity, but could their worldviews be more different? It is the core of Protestant doctrine that superficial similarities in works count for nothing without a regenerated heart (Isaiah 64:6). We’ve simply failed to extend that to marriage.
Indeed, if marriage were primarily a civil institution, what good would it confer upon the unbeliever who partakes? Certainly no final spiritual good without Christ as the center. Is marriage nothing more than a common grace, akin to tasty bagels and sunny days, enjoyable by believers and unbelievers alike? That position, I think, is untenable given the amount and intensity of treatment in the scriptures.
The idea of marriage as a primarily civil institution is also the root of the Evangelical opposition to gay marriage. All the treatment of marriage in the Bible, they see, is not for furthering the sanctification of the believer, but for maintaining the bedrock of civilization (as some dramatically call the institution). Suffice it to say that such a line of thought evidences a lack of faith in the work of God to the highest degree.
In fact, Christians cannot have it both ways. If marriage is a civil institution, then the Church (and everyone) has an interest in promoting marriage as an institution, but the Biblical arguments for permitting gay marriage in the church all of a sudden work. It would have simply been a cultural injunction against temple prostitution. Promote civil marriage as the bedrock of civilization, but marriage for everyone.
If marriage is a sacrament, however – if the symbol is primary – then Christians can no more condone gay marriage than baptism in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Yet in this they may not use the state to enforce it, for an unbeliever “marrying” another of the same sex no more defiles the sacrament than one who marries another of the opposite sex, for neither participates in the sacrament at all. It would be just as ridiculous as mandating by law church attendance on Sundays, which most (hopefully) would agree would do little if any spiritual good for anyone.
Sacramentalizing marriage is thus not only a more healthy (and more Biblical) way to approach the matter, but also a dose of common sense to a church tilting at political windmills. The richness of the symbolism confers a seriousness to it. And given the state of what passes for marriage today, it could use some of both the somberness of the eucharist and the excitement of baptism that come with the realization that one is partaking in the symbol of divine union.