September 23, 2014

Considering RC Sproul on Marriage

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

I have recently given a brief overview of some thoughts regarding the institution of marriage (here and here) and then did a follow up piece that was more practical in nature, considering whether the State should approve of homosexual marriage (I answered “no”).  Well just yesterday, RC Sproul wrote a post asking whether marriage was ‘just a piece of paper.”  Let’s look at it.  He begins:

In the past few decades, the option of living together, rather than moving into a formal marriage contract, has proliferated in our culture. Christians must be careful not to establish their precepts of marriage (or any other ethical dimension of life) on the basis of contemporary community standards. The Christian’s conscience is to be governed not merely by what is socially acceptable or even by what is legal according to the law of the land, but rather by what God sanctions.

Agreed and amen.  This is a healthy call in today’s culture, even in today’s evangelical culture in which, quite sadly, social tendencies and trends set the practical standards of the Christian community.  It should not be so.

He then writes:

Unfortunately, some Christians have rejected the legal and formal aspects of marriage, arguing that marriage is a matter of private and individual commitment between two people and has no legal or formal requirements.

It starts to get tricky here.  When one thinks of “legal” they should think “backed up by the legitimacy of coercive action by those who have such authority in a given society.”  Thus, for example, besides its clear moral aspect, there is also a legal aspect to theft; which is to say, the illegality of stealing from someone else is backed up by the legitimacy of coercive action by a government.  So Sproul finds it unfortunate that some Christians are rejecting that marriage has a legal aspect. There is some part of marriage, in his view, that should be backed up by the legitimate coercion of government.  Hold on to that thought.

Regarding “formal,” I’m not sure what is meant by that. It is a very vague word here.  Does he mean that simple commitment between two or more people is informal?  A recent Facebook post by RC Sproul Jr. noted that “Marriage is not dependent upon the commitment. Marriage is the commitment.”  What is the requirement that can transform marriage from a commitment to a formal commitment?  Hopefully we are told farther along in the article.

Sproul continues:

The question most frequently asked of clergymen on this matter reflects the so-called freedom in Christ: “Why do we have to sign a piece of paper to make it legal?”

The signing of a piece of paper is not a matter of affixing one’s signature in ink to a meaningless document. The signing of a marriage certificate is an integral part of what the Bible calls a covenant.

I think that there are several confusions here. In the first place, the Bible does not actually make a correlation between signing a marriage certificate and the definition of [presumably a marital] covenant.  But perhaps Sproul simply meant that covenants in the Bible were written down, primarily for perpetuity’s sake.  If so, this in undoubtedly true. But it should be emphasized that there is a difference between 1) writing something down so that the community that surrounds the married couple can all bear witness and so that the terms of the covenant are not in question at a future time and 2) making the State the approving third party in such a signed document.  If marriage “certificate” involves the official recognition of the State, the Sproul is wrong to say this is Biblically integral. If the certificate is simply a document of public declaration for the community of saints which are witness to the married couple’s commitment, it is hard to identify Sproul’s point.  For even an anarchist wouldn’t object on the basis of his political views.

However, it is clear that the case he is attempting to make is on behalf of option two because he goes on to say that there is “legal recourse should one of the partners act in a way that is destructive to the other.”  He writes:

Contracts are signed out of the necessity spawned by the presence of sin in our fallen nature. Because we have an enormous capacity to wound each other, sanctions have to be imposed by legal contracts.

Clearly then for Sproul, the marriage covenant has a contractual aspect to it that is “backed up by legitimate coercive action.”  The question then becomes obvious (and it is this question that I have been trying to figure out since I wrote the two marriage pieces linked at the top): what are the grounds for coercive action?  If the argument is that coercive action is necessary upon breach of marriage contract, it is vital that we get an example, something specific. What does Sproul have in mind?  As I wrote previously:

The problem comes when we question what, exactly, is supposed to be done with marriage. Those who want the government to regulate it, who agree that this is not a proper function of the Church, must have something in mind.

Let’s continue with Sproul to find an answer.

God ordained certain rules regulating marriage in order to protect people. […] The sanctions God imposed on sexual activity outside marriage do not mean that God is a spoilsport or a prude.

Agreed and amen. Sexual immorality is one of the most oft-mentioned sins in the New Testament. Unfortunately, Sproul did not mention what rules he had in mind that could be categorized as a rule that is “back up by the legitimate coercive action” of the government.  A moral rule is not the same as a civil law. Sproul does know this.

And unfortunately again, that is the end of the article. Zero examples to solve my problem of what those who want State regulation have in mind.  I have been wrestling with this issue off and on this year.  I do have a desire to know what is being suggested by those who want the State involved actively.  But I honestly can’t find many concrete answers to this.  Anyone who has read the articles on marriage I cited up top will understand that I deny that the Church has jurisdiction over this institution of marriage.  And so I am still left in agreement with Gordon Clark, whose opinion on the matter was described as follows:

He opposed government involvement in marriage. According to his son-in-law… Clark was opposed to the government being involved in marriage. And even, holding a unique position as far as I’m aware of, that the CHURCH shouldn’t be involved in marriage. I can only speculate that as an aggressive exegete of the scriptures he saw no particular evidence for the church sanctioning marriage, but it being a personal or family affair.

I cite him in need for someone more authoritative on such a controversial issue.  Who am I?

Sproul’s final sentences were these:

There is a vast difference between a commitment sealed with a formal document and declared in the presence of witnesses, including family, friends, and authorities of church and state, and a whispered, hollow promise breathed in the back seat of a car.

If I were to rewrite this, I would say:

There is a vast difference between a commitment verified and confirmed with a written document and declared in the presence of witnesses, including family, friends, and authorities of the local church, and a whispered, hollow promise breathed in the back seat of a car.

“Marriage is not dependent upon the commitment. Marriage is the commitment.” —RC Sproul Jr.

______________________

I should not have to say this, but I will: this blogpost should not be seen as reflective of my opinion of RC Sproul more generally. I admire the man, agree with much of what he says (but certainly not everything), have learned a great deal from him, wish he was a pressupositionalist (Clarkian), and utilize his writings on a great deal of occasions. He is a top notch thinker and has been a blessing in the presentation of classical Reformed Theology and the advancement of the Kingdom.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • kim Ringsmose

    Good article.
    Can you provide the source on Clark’s view of mariage, it looks to be very interesting.

  • MikeD

    Could you clarify what you mean by “legal” in the following, as opposed to what RC means? Thanks.

    You said, “…marriage is a legal and spiritual union whereby one man and one woman become one flesh through means of a covenant.”

    • C.Jay Engel

      Mike, I did not write that other piece where you found this definition. But more to the point, the intent was to point out that marriage is an extra-ecclesiastical union. That was what was meant by legal in that context. But perhaps that word was confusing for people looking at these posts in detail. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

      • MikeD

        Just in case, I was not trying to catch anybody in a contradiction, but genuinely seeking a clarification. Thank you for that.

        I take it that legal as “extra-ecclesiastical” (but still not a state matter) means that the union is according to God’s law (thus legality), but born out of the doctrines of creation, not redemption. Am I right? I would give that a resounding amen.

        So systematizing some ideas it seems I could say that the NAP would rule out forceful prohibition of a voluntary agreement between consenting adult persons, but God’s law written on the heart would disallow approbation of such an agreement. SSM would be sin for anybody to endorse, but also sin for a civil magistrate to punish.. right?