Marriage today is a hot topic in the United States. Slowly, one state at a time, same-sex marriage is being legalized. The left generally supports it, and the right is generally against it. We all know the arguments on both sides pretty well by now.
One of the main arguments used by the right is that marriage was instituted by God as being between one man and one woman; that marriage is Biblical. Of course, we know all too well that “Biblical” marriage is not limited to one man and one woman. Granted there may be only one man involved, but certainly not one woman! Just think about King Solomon!
Part of the right’s argument is that marriage is a religious institution, and most people you encounter there will assert that it has always been this way. But this is far from correct. Marriage, historically, has been about property. Until the 20th century, women had no voice. Women were literally property, human property, in much the same sense that slaves were the property of their owners. The only real difference between women and slaves in this respect is that the former were not “forced labor.”
A woman remained under the ownership of her father until marriage, at which point there was a ceremony for transferring the ownership from the father to the husband. It was not a religious ceremony, but in fact a legal one. It was a civil business transaction with witnesses, and an agent who oversaw the transaction. Usually there was an exchange of money involved, the husband having to purchase the woman from her father. This was called a bride token. Bear in mind also that most marriages were arranged by the parents.
To this day, marriage in most of the developed world remains a civil contract, with marriages being arranged. In many parts of the world, women are still considered to be the property of their fathers until marriage, at which point they become the property of the husbands. In most of the developed world, it is actually illegal to be married in the church, since the church is a religious institution, whereas marriage is not. Couples are required by law to be married by a magistrate in the courthouse or statehouse, after which they may have the marriage solemnized in a religious ceremony. My parents were married in Rome, Italy by a civil magistrate, and on a Friday, no less! (Italians don't get married on Friday, because supposedly it's considered bad luck.)
In England, clergy of the Church of England may conduct marriage ceremonies, but only because the Church of England is the State Church. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and other clergy are forbidden by law to conduct marriage ceremonies, but may solemnize.
In the United States, it’s quite different. Clergy are permitted to act as agents of the State and conduct marriage ceremonies. Most states require that clergy be licensed in order to do this; without the state-issued license no marriage would be valid or legal. Ohio, where I live, is one of those states. Ohio clergy must submit to the Secretary of State a copy of their credentials, along with a filing fee of ten dollars. Any marriage I conduct, even as a minister, I am doing so as an agent – a legal representative – of the State.
Does this mean I’ll marry any couple that calls or knocks on the door? Yes and no. In theory, someone could call me on the phone, and say, “We just got our marriage license, we just left the courthouse. Can you marry us this afternoon?” I could say yes, do the ceremony and collect my fee. But I hesitate to do that. Even though as a State agent, I could do a simple mechanical ceremony, I choose not to. Even my basic non-religious ceremony is quite spiritual in nature, and it is important to me that I take the time to meet with the couple beforehand, so as to get to know them at least a little bit, and also avoid any “Las Vegas” weddings. On the other hand, my great-grandparents eloped on the Winter Solstice in 1898 to be married by a Justice of the Peace after having known each other for only a few months. They were married until parted by death in 1957, and had a very happy marriage. So who’s to say?
So for me, a marriage ceremony – no matter how religious the verbiage of it may be – is still a civil ceremony. Therefore I will marry, if able, anyone who asks for it. Even if they just got their license an hour ago, the fact they want a minister to do the ceremony says something. It tells me that religion, faith, God, plays some part in their lives. Otherwise, they’d have the clerk or notary at the courthouse conduct the ceremony. So if I can make the language of the ceremony just a little bit more religious than bare-bones civil, I think of it as planting a seed. With any luck, that seed will sprout and grow. But that is up to the couple.