On a Thursday morning in November of 1644, Samuel Rutherford commented upon a report from the Committee of a Directory for Marriage.
Rutherford and his colleagues, a group of some of the most learned and venerable theologians in all of Europe, were assembled at Westminster Abbey with the task of developing a confession of faith, a form of church government, and a directory of worship for all of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Marriage, Rutherford said, was not only not a sacrament, it was also no part of worship. He also claimed that the essence of marriage was the consent of the parties rather than the marriage vows. Lazarus Seaman, one of the English Presbyterian members of the assembly, seems to have suggested that if Rutherford was right the whole debate about marriage in the context of worship was moot: Perhaps this was simply a matter for the magistrate. The Earl of Pembroke, getting nervous about where this discussion was leading, urged caution because this was a matter of great consequence. “I would be sorry any child of mine would be married but by a minister,” he said.
Rutherford, of course, never said that marriage was not a religious matter. To the contrary, he viewed marriage as civil contract containing something “divine”, and that it was an institution ordained and regulated by God. It was, after all, taken for granted that the origin of marriage went as far back as the Garden of Eden, where Eve was given to Adam as recorded in Genesis 2.
So while Rutherford viewed marriage as a civil union by the consent of the parties, its origin and in some fashion even its nature was viewed as divine. And in the end, the Westminster Assembly judged it “expedient” that marriage be solemnized by a minister of the word: Marriage was understood to be an ordinance at once both civil and religious.
This last point has been utterly lost on the Iowa Supreme Court, which last Spring declared its agreement with a lower court ruling that Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Writing for the court, Justice Mark Cady explained that there were contradictory religious views on the definition of marriage (Buddhists, Quakers, and Unitarians were cited as examples of religions accepting of same-sex marriage), and this “…largely explains the absence of any religious based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban.” He goes on to mention the separation of church and state and notes that it is the duty of courts to ensure government avoids religious debate. Furthermore, he asserts, religious understanding of marriage remains unchanged. Religious denominations are still free to define marriage as they always have. It’s just that “…civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.”
So in Iowa, we apparently now have religious marriage and we have civil marriage. The latter is the court’s silly attempt to make that which is inherently religious entirely secular.
There are other reasons to be critical of this ruling and written opinion. Take, for instance, Justice Cady’s rather Pollyanna view of the liberty of religious denominations in the future. If Sweden or Canada are any indication of what the future might bring, speaking out against same-sex marriage or condemning homosexuality as sin may well one day become a hate crime. Defining marriage in a traditional way might have to be done very carefully indeed.
Speaking of which, when the Westminster Assembly completed its work on the Directory for the Public Worship of God as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith, they wrote the defining sentences on marriage in each document with nearly the exact same phrase: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman.”