Marriage Redefined

I already wrote about the biggest news to come from General Conference (GC) session, now almost two months ago. Even at this late date, the impact of the vote against union independence on the issue of women’s ordination continues to reverberate and influence people’s perspective on the church as a whole. However, on the final day of business at GC the church addressed several elements of the church manual where they wanted to update the language and the definitions. The one definition that caught my attention was the redefinition of marriage. Prior to the session, the church’s definition stated in part, “Marriage is a lifelong commitment of husband and wife to each other and between the couple and God.” The church changed the first part of the definition to “As such, marriage is a public, lawfully binding lifelong commitment of a man and a woman…” While this is a seemingly minor and innocuous change, I think it is emblematic not only of a religious liberty concern, but also a problem with the way we view marriage as a religious and social construct.

Here’s the question that I think demands a response – Why does the church now care that its definition of marriage be one that is “lawfully binding?” I could only come up with three possible reasons, none of which satisfy.[1] First, it is possible that the church believes that not mentioning the secular element of marriage might encourage people to not solemnize their marriages properly. For example, a couple could say that they have made a lifelong commitment between themselves and God and the church could end up playing no role at all in the declaration of that commitment. While that is a (somewhat) understandable concern, if this is the church’s concern than inserting “lawfully binding” into the definition of marriage is a poorly constructed solution. Instead of asserting the role of the spiritual community in solemnizing the union that God has brought together, the church has said that the imprimatur of the state is crucial to our understanding of this spiritual covenant.

Second, it could be that the church is simply making a statement about what is the case – that the marriages that are solemnized by the church are also “lawfully binding.” I don’t know why the church would seek to do that, and I guess there isn’t too much wrong with making this general statement. But this rationale does not address in any way why the church would want to make such a statement. Why does the church care whether its marriages are “lawfully binding?” Even if the church blessed unions that were not lawfully binding, I would assume that the church would not necessarily care about that. After all, the church does not bow to the state on matters of doctrine, or on what spiritual actions the church might take. As such it is of no effect, at least from a spiritual perspective, whether any marriage is “lawfully binding” in the eyes of the state.

The third option seems to be the most likely option to me. In light of not only the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage but also the push for more rights for the LGBT community around the world, it seems to me that the church added this language in order to reinforce its idea to its members and those outside the church of what it deems “lawfully binding.” In essence, this redefinition of marriage is the Adventist Church’s reaction to the advent of same-sex unions. It is unfortunate that people continue to treat marriage as if it is one thing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The church’s statement here reinforces that logical fallacy by implying that it can (or should) have a say in what is lawfully binding. It is a dangerous line of thought to begin to believe that the church’s definition of marriage has any bearing on what is (or can be) lawfully binding. If that were true, it would open a Pandora’s Box of religious liberty concerns, none of which would work in the favor of a church that is unique in its theological perspective. I think it almost goes without saying that if religions can have an influence on what should be lawfully binding, then that influence is warranted, even when it comes back to work against you. For a faith that believes in the freedom of conscience and the ability of each human being to make decisions about their morality without the influence and imprimatur of any entity, I am always shocked when we are so willing to use the arm of the state to have society live by our precepts. There is no good or sufficient reason for the Adventist Church to be bothered by what the state considers lawfully binding.

The story is told in Acts chapter 5 of the apostles preaching about Jesus after His resurrection. When they were brought before the Jewish Council to answer for preaching in Jesus’ name they responded, “We must obey God rather than men.” The beauty of this simple phrase is that succinctly states the loyalty of every Christian. We have never been called to reorder anyone else’s priorities. It is our job to show and tell others about this loving God who we obey even above what society deems acceptable. I wonder what it says about the God we serve when what we show others is our demand for societal validation of what God already established.

[1] There is a fourth reason, which is that the law being referred to here is God’s law. However that seems redundant as one can assume that everything that the church is defining is based on God’s law. Right?

Jason Hines is an attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I think the Supreme Court erred. it should have defined civil union. Marriage should be reserved to the Church and legally recognized as a civil union to protect property rights. The problem the church has is the number of wives of King David and King Solomon and the Lord’s blessing of their reign. The church may not recognize a civil union but it must recognize each person in the light of the Gospel of Grace. A difficult task given our innate orientation. How does one call sin by its right name yet call sinners by their first name? We all stand in the need of prayer. We areall crippled in both feet yet invited to sit at the Kings table. Tom Z


The problem is in our English – Western Culture.
Semantics — the word “Marriage”.
Whether the Certificate of Marriage is witnessed by the County Court Clerk, by the Justice of the Peace, or by some Rabbi, Pastor, or Priest of some religious organization [ including Islam, Buddhist, Hindu], it is ALL the Same to most Americans. MARRIAGE [and not just civil union].

So what happens if a couple walk into a SDA church and say we have a civil union? Do they have to have a Religious Marriage?
What happens if a couple walk into a SDA church and say we are “Working on a Common Law – 7 Year Live-In Marriage”?
These are circumstances that I do not think were Mentally Processed at SanAntonio 2015.
Did YOU mentally process these issues? Took me a while to do so.

Another Question to ask the Lawyers in our group.
What if 2 same sex persons have been living together for 7 years. Are THEY able to come under the “Common Law Marriage” process?
To become members of the SDA church, do they HAVE to spend money on Lawyers and become DIVORCED?
Can they Still live together as house-mates, if they have bought a house and car in both of their names?
Tough Problems, they require Tough Questions!!!

NOTE: THIS is my ONE and ONLY comment to this discussion. Thank You!

Is the author certain that the FB phrase “legally binding” references state law rather than God’s law? When Jesus speaks of marriage in Matthew 19, he answers the question posed by a disciple, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?”. Jesus answers that marriage is indeed “legally binding” when he says, “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder”. Jesus goes on to say that it was only the hardness of men’s hearts that made allowance for anything other than that.

It seems to me that the church here is attempting to describe the teachings of it’s own faith community as based on the teachings of Jesus in a divine-law context.

A similar observation could be made for the specification of gender in the context of marriage. During that same teaching session of Jesus in Matthew 19, Jesus referenced the creation of mankind as “male and female” to be the reason for a man to leave his parents and “be joined to his wife”. This statement is made in the context of a general discussion about divorce/marriage.

The state may have every right to define marriage in any way that it chooses. The church that professes to follow the teachings of Jesus, feels constrained to make a case for the bases of its own teachings. In this case, it makes its appeal to the account of Jesus’ teaching found in scripture.

This being said, Jesus also spoke of teachings (in this context, celibacy) that are only given to certain people and that not everyone can accept them. But here He advises that those who can accept these teachings, should accept them.

It is my belief that all of these teachings of Jesus should not be used as a tool against anyone who does not accept them (as we see in the public debate). Rather, the teachings of Jesus are for the benefit of those who accept them.


Attorney Jason Hines, you are spot on, when you express concerns that the church’s response to same sex marriage has a potentially deleterious religious liberty fallout.

Years ago, when California was debating proposition eight, to allow same sex marriage, the Adventist church was “in bed” with the Mormons and the Catholics, in trying to impose their religious views of marriage, on the largely secular majority, by legal mandate. No less than the Religious Liberty secretary of the Pacific Union Conference, himself a thrice married serial monogamist, was promulgating the “one man, one woman” mantra trying to deny the multiple legal perks that a civil marriage contract provides for same sex couples.

At the time, I predicted that the Adventists would not have a leg to stand on, when other Christians in future times, try to impose their views of Sunday observance, by legal fiat, on our members.

I agree with Steve Mga, that the problem is with our Western Culture, more particularly, our Adventist culture.
As insular as we are, most of us have never attended a wedding other than in an Adventist church. The word “marriage” is invested with all the trappings of a “holy sacrament”— organ music, flowers, a homily by an Adventist pastor, all in the setting of stained glass and oak pews.

Today the majority of marriages, certainly those performed in Europe, and many in the USA, are very brief civil ceremonies performed by a bored government clerk, in a dusty, cluttered courthouse basement.

It is these CIVIL marriages which SCOTUS was legalizing. It is a shame that the word "marriage " is applied to both the civil ceremony and the church wedding, thereby conflating and confusing the issue.

The denomination, in its desperate tweeking of the wording in the church manual, and its general response to the SCOTUS ruling, would do well to go back to the basics of our original Religious Liberty position, where we held that NO religious group, including our own, should impose their doctrinal views on others by legal means. Otherwise we make ourselves vulnerable to the imposition on ourselves, of Sharia Law and Sunday observance.


Roma locuta , causa finita - the case is finished, Period. This means the authoritative confirmation of conservative SDA policies here in Europe. - this causing quite some tragedies until now : Our senior residence and nursing home, he widower, a long career as an employee, she the widow after a farmer, a lifelong helping hand , working hard ( you could not employ family mambers, neither as a farmer nor in your little shop - -) He has his rent,fairly coming along with. She has a small part of her late husbands rent - “Versorgungsrente”. You both want to share the last years of your lives ? - Then marry ! - - And "her"rent is gone . And tey just do not get along allne with his rent…

We already had the problem after WW II : The priest of a little village was sentenced to jail (!) because giving out the “sacrament of marriage” to a couple with some children, not able to be married by the States authorities before because some documents were missing. magine : In his and their belief he changed a state of continuous sin into one of grace ! Now a RC clergyman of high rank told me that today the bishop would conduct such a church wedding and no judge will send a bishop to jail - - And a Bavarian RC theologian questioned the States authority to "allow"or “prohibit” the “giving out of a sacrament” - - But WE are good, obedient citizens.

This “civil wedding” , still compulsory , but without any persecution for "concubinage, was induced in the mid - nineteenth century. The time before - and in Sweden even up to ??? - the official State church had the only privilege to perform a wedding. - - What about Baptists, early Adventists, Methodists, DArbyists ? They could not come to the door of the parish and now ask for a wedding !

Bibel times : Who had wed Aquila an Priscilla ? According to the Augustean marriage laws ? And Onesimus, falling in love with another slave, Lamia ? Slaves were not able to enter any contract, so most probably Philemon just gave them their extra chamber in his house. And as we can learn from Pliny the younger and his way to deal with Christians, be they Roman citizens or not : It was a matter of survival not to appear in public , behold to contact the authorities !

Just some views on the matter from the Asian peninsula called Europe.

Besides : Malachi 2 : 14 “- - because the Lord was witness between thee and the wife of thy youth -” Who dares to declare “I thee wed.” ?


Jason would do well to further contemplate the fourth reason, relegated to a footnote and a throwaway argument. The doctrinal statement is not directed toward man’s law but toward God’s law. Per God’s law, marriage is a “lawfully binding lifelong commitment of a man and a woman.” Per man’s law, marriage lasts as long as both parties want it to last, and either party can end it at any time for any reason (or no reason-- see, “no fault divorce” which is the law in all fifty states), without the consent of the other party. Oh, and per man’s law, marriage is not even necessarily between a man and a woman anymore, but can be between two men or two women (or, in Islamic countries [a description that will soon include much of Europe], a man and three women). So I’m puzzled as to why Jason would ever have thought that our doctrinal statement on marriage had anything to do with man’s law.

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Same sex marriage has certainly forced us to reexamine our country’s laws in relation to church authority. Our country has a long history of intimate hand holding between church and state on the issue of marriage. While most laws that were based upon religious scruples have been abandoned through the centuries after becoming a nation, the Constitutional scalpel of separation sliced through that church/state amalgam to further separation of the two. Same sex marriage is one of the most recent events to reveal just how close church and state have been in this nations’ history and the one place church and state are very closely allied. Christian societies long felt that marriage and civil rights were very much interdependent. Societal mores used to maintain that conformity. Not anymore. Society and its mores have changed dramatically.

The reason for the changes? I don’t see the change on marriage in the manual as a means for the church to tell the state that government needs to enforce its views. Marriage IS a lawfully binding union. Not only is the couple being committed to each other before God, they have also entered into a relationship with society as a legal couple to enjoy those aspects of society that marriage affords, and as citizens of this country they, for Christian reasons, should abide by those laws. Marriage, as it is normally entered into, is both a religious ceremony and a civil contract. We can, if we choose, separate them into two different entities with the same moniker, but that only shows that there is a religious side and a civil side to two people joining their lives.

One of the latest crazes out of this new Constitutional right of marriage is Christian couples getting married in church, but not going through with a marriage license. Something they are entitled to do, but the couple has to be willing to accept the legal parameters governing their “religious marriage” and forgo marriage’s legal privileges.


perhaps the purpose of this change was to harmonize the language of the church manual with the language of fundamental belief #23, which even before san antonio had “man and woman”, as opposed to “husband and wife”, at least in its opening sentence…i would tend to agree that insertion of the word “lawful” is probably aimed at clarifying that we aren’t into common-law relationships (options 2 and 3 seem a bit of a stretch)…i’m not sure this particular clarification can avoid the impression that we are enlisting the imprimatur of the state in our understanding of the spiritual covenant of marriage, however it is true that perplexity results because our understanding of it is not now aligned with the state’s understanding, given obergefell v. hodges…presumably the phrase “man and woman” dispels this particular perplexity…

on changes to fundamental belief #23, itself, i think it’s a positive development that single people are now explicitly recognized to be part of the family of god, although one wonders if any thinking single person needed a fundamental belief from a church centered around the single Jesus to understand that…

Jason Hines, perhaps you meant to say the vote in San Antonio was not to permit Division–rather than Union–independence on the issue of women’s ordination?

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“Lawfully binding”

The concept is dangerous in a world church, where

  • we have tribal marriages in some parts of the world (ever heard of
    the issues of African couples who, upon entering Europe found
    themselves not “legally married”)
  • we have countries, where the State no longer is much interested in an
    institution of marriage at all, but more and more deregulates marriage, creating alternatives to marriage (e.g. in France you can either marry or have a partnership recorded - both lawfully binding, but with some different implications).

Most disappointing for me is that there wasn’t even an attempt made to find biblical principles of what actually constitutes marriage. Gen 2:24 might be a good start - after all, this verse has been quoted three times in the NT (show me another text that has been quoted that often!)


And the history ? Ask Daniel Heinz about Linedermanns “Getaufte Christengemeinde” - They had left their church which had the privilege to conduct weddings until about 1885, when “civil wedding” , socially ond according o the laws sufficient, preceeding the religiuous cermony , was induced. What about the earlly Adventsts , the congregation of Lindermann ? What about the Baptists before, the Methodists - - -

About twenty yeas ago the matter was discussed in Bavaria :IIt just is t to witholdl a sacrament, a smply only internal matter of a group of believers, because the state did not give his approval with all the consequences of civil right before . In Austia : at first to the State authorities then to the priest (or pastor or minisster) Then all is OK , mo more sins of unchastity… When asked a high rank clergyman of a dioceseanswered : "well, I tell you, that is a matter of our bishop. He bears the responsibility, and - iillegal and under jsutuce punishment - show me that bishiop sent to jail here, (One priest about 1954 was sentenced to jauil for wedding without the foregoing State act to brng the continuous sin -Catholic theology, not so far away from, ours ! - to an end.!)

I strongly believe and emphasize Matth 19 : 4 - 8; I also belief in the message given in Malachi 3 : 14 with God as the witness. A man, a woman - and God. That fits worldwide.