My wife and I have long discussed at which precise moment we became married. Was it when we said “I do” after the reciting of the vows, was it after the dedication prayer, was it at the official pronouncement, for the first time, of “Mr. and Mrs. Adam and Kristin Kiš”? Thirteen-and-a-half years on, we still don’t have a definitive answer. But the signing of the marriage certificate has never been a candidate for me. That was an afterthought, a necessary but fairly inconsequential piece of the wedding ceremony. For me, one of the spiritual moments of the wedding ceremony are the best candidates for crossing that threshold between unmarried/married.
Why does it matter? For millennia, people have been getting married, and the vast majority of that time was without marriage certificates. If I hold the signing of the marriage certificate to be the definitive threshold between unmarried/married, then I deny the validity of Adam and Eve’s marriage, or Mr. and Mrs. Noah, or Priscilla and Aquila (although the Romans were given to documenting tons of things, so for all I know, the latter actually might have possessed a marriage scroll or something).
Anyway, my point is that a marriage document of some kind is an extreme latecomer to the marriage game. Billions of people around the world and across time have gotten married and lived faithfully together until death without ever having it officially documented by the state. Billions of people likely still do today. In many developing countries, despite the trappings of a modern state (legislature, head of state, military, etc.), documentation is woefully lacking. In the United States, we’re struggling to document unregistered aliens; in the developing world, many countries are still struggling to document their own citizens. Children are born in remote villages, grow up, marry, have children of their own, and die – all without ever having held a birth certificate or marriage certificate, and without registering a death certificate when they go. Does this mean that they didn’t exist? Does a birth certificate cause a human being to actually become real? Of course not.
And the same holds true for marriage certificates. It is not the marriage certificate that makes me married to my wife; it is our commitment, it is our vows, it is our promise to the Lord – it is anything but the certificate. The certificate is merely an official acknowledgment by the state that something has already happened (much like a birth certificate). We became married in mind and in spirit long before we were married on paper. And that – although it still remains a mystery about precisely when during the wedding ceremony it came into effect – is the crux of the matter.
Why then all this hubbub about gay marriage? Why do I hear many Christians intoning that gay marriage is a threat to heterosexual marriage? So what if two people of the same sex can get the same certificate I hold? The certificate is the least significant part of marriage to me anyway. Certificate or not, gay couples can never have the same kind of marriage that I do. They can legislate the right to a piece of paper, but they cannot legislate God’s blessing upon their union no matter how hard they try – a blessing that is of paramount importance to my marriage. Legal fiat can only go so far, and to bemoan that gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage is to inadvertently imbue the state with more power than it really has. How preposterous to imagine that the state can legislate God’s blessing, that the state can adequately interpret the Bible, that the state has the authority to define morality! It’s ludicrous!
From a legal perspective, all that a marriage certificate does is to define who can jointly own property, who can exercise joint custody over children, who is entitled to certain benefits when one of the parties dies, and so on. It does not grant permission for the named parties to have sex with each other. In fact, it says nothing at all about sex. Plenty of people who are not married have sex with each other with no sanction from the state. And plenty of people who are named beneficiaries on each other’s wills or who jointly own property do not have sex with each other (even some people who are married don’t have sex with each other, either, although that’s another issue altogether). A state-issued marriage certificate is not at all about who gets to have sex with whom – it’s about legal rights and privileges. How unfortunate that they use the word “marriage” to describe the relationship between the named parties, because the legal rights and privileges that the certificate bestows are not at all about marriage; they are not about commitment, they are not about God’s blessing, they aren’t even about sex. But for better or worse, that’s what it’s called. Big deal.
God is the sole decider of what marriage is and what it isn’t. His declared will is not voted by a legislature, it is not ratified by a referendum, and it most certainly isn’t perceived through the workings of a state. He has already stated what His definition of marriage is. End of story. Let the state do whatever it wants. By acting like it bears significance upon spiritual matters, we are actually ceding more power into its hands than it deserves. We are pushing the state into the church’s realm, which is a road I’m pretty sure we don’t want to start down.
Adam D. Kiš is a lifelong Adventist who completed Kindergarten through Bachelors degree at Andrews University. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Florida and worked in various countries in sub-Saharan Africa for some six years with ADRA before moving to the Philippines, where he currently resides with his wife and two kids. Kiš is the Director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center and Assistant Professor of Research and Statistics at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS).