Mailbag #58: Does the State or Church Have Authority to Marry; Counsel for Re-Writing Our Constitution


Who has the authority to marry: the state or the church? »
Four brief questions from a pastor who’s rewriting his church’s constitution. »

Dear 9Marks,

In a post, in which you provide feedback to a pastor about marrying a couple who describe themselves as egalitarian, and do not conform to the complementarian teaching of the church, you included the below sentence: “If anything, the authority to marry belongs more to the state than to the church.” Please explain your stance with supportive information.

Thank you,


Dear Tibor,

A reasonable question. A few points here:

1. The authority for two people to get married comes from God, not the church or state.

Marriage and the family are the first institution on earth (Gen. 1 and 2). It precedes the state. It precedes the church. Church and state might have fallen into a custody battle over marriage and the family. But neither of them birthed them. They come directly from God. (For the church or the state to redefine marriage, therefore, is to play God.)

2. The state has the authority to render judgment against injustice, establish peace, and promote the general well-being of its citizens, which means it possesses jurisdiction over marriage and families insofar as matters of justice and well-being are in play.

Nowhere does Scripture give government authority over marriage or the family, per se. But stop and consider: a couple has children—who now is responsible to provide for those children, and what if the parents are negligent? Or a couple is living together, and together they have acquired property over the years. Who owns it? Or suppose one member of the couple dies. Who receives what they have acquired together?

In other words, the state has a defensible interest in regulating marriage and family not so much for its own sake, but because, for the state to fulfill its biblical charge, it must take an interest in matters of custody, welfare, and property rights.

A very simple biblical illustration is the scene of two prostitutes before Solomon the king, each claiming that the baby is hers. The power of the state is needed to resolve and enforce this custody dispute.

Some Christians, particularly those of a libertarian bent, believe that government has no business being involved in marriage in the first place. But even if you “strike the word ‘marriage’ from the law,” as several political scientists put it, those laws concerning marriage “will only be replaced by messier, retroactive regulation—of disputes over property, custody, visitation, and child support” (Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George, What Is Marriage? P. 40). In other words, the topics of marriage and family necessarily involve society in matters which the state will need to regulate. These authors especially emphasize government’s concern for the welfare of children as “the hook that pulls the law into regulating marriage in the first place” (11).

3. The church has authority to teach and bear witness to God’s Word concerning marriage and family.

Nowhere does the Bible authorize churches or their ministers to marry people (to establish or consecrate a marriage). Instead, the Bible makes churches and their ministers responsible to teach and model what God’s Word says about marriage and family from the pulpit and in one-on-one discipleship.

Insofar as a government has undertaken to regulate the marriages of its people, Christians should submit themselves to the government in forming marriages, assuming the government does not somehow require disobedience to God’s Word.

Insofar as Christians are called to seek justice and love their neighbors, churches should work to see that the state upholds a biblical understanding of marriage. One way of doing this is to participate in the work of marrying people, assuming the state authorizes a church’s ministers to do so, as in our present system. After all, the state is free to authorize whomever it wants to perform weddings. The fact that our culture has for a long time associated weddings with churches is no bad thing because, for centuries now, the wedding liturgy of churches has infused the very idea of marriage (at least nominally) with a sacred element, as in the phrase “holy matrimony.” To be sure, however, this sacred infusion and its good effects are quickly passing away.

In short, Tibor, the Bible does not directly authorize either governments or churches to establish marriages. But it does require the state to undertake responsibilities (particularly in relation to children and property) that almost necessarily involve it in the regulation of marriages—hence you’ll find this is the case in nearly every society. Insofar as churches should care deeply about supporting the marriages of their members and their non-Christian neighbors, churches should do all they can to preach and disciple specifically and to support the government in its work generally.

Dear 9Marks,

We’re in the process of rewriting our constitution. In our elders meetings a few questions have come up that we would appreciate some input on. These are relatively minor things, but we’d be helped by having some other voices chime in.

1) What’s the minimum number of elders a church constitution should stipulate and why?

2) Should you constrain yourself to a quarterly or bi-monthly schedule of members’ meetings in the constitution or leave this more open? Our elders are leaning towards only requiring an annual meeting though we plan to meet more regularly than that. Is that a bad idea?

3) What should you require for quorum at a members’ meeting? Specifically, what’s the rational for minimal quorum requirements such as, “a quorum shall be understood to be met by those members present”?

4) Does anyone know if the so-called Bob’s Rules of Order that are not written down might actually be written down somewhere?


Dear Kyle,

Okay, so nuts and bolts time. Answering your questions in order:

1) It is fairly common for church constitutions, such as the constitution of my church, to say something like, “The elders shall be comprised of not less than three men.” This language is used to establish a “plurality of elders” model in a church to serve together with any senior pastor. Insofar as the New Testament always refers to elders in the plural, such language helps establish such a model (e.g. Acts 15:4; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; James 5:14). Were I writing constitutional language from scratch, however, I might caveat this language slightly—something along the lines of “The elders shall be comprised of not less than three men, assuming men who meet the qualifications presented by Paul to Timothy and Titus can be found”; or “The church shall seek to establish not less than three men in the office of elder who meet the qualifications…” A good constitution envisions both good times and bad, and you don’t want to require by constitutional provision some future version of your church that’s small and struggling to nominate men who are not biblically qualified. So, in one way or another, I would tie your number to the biblical criteria, so that it’s not absolute for any and all circumstances. For hermeneutical reasons I won’t get into, I actually think this better reflects the biblical plurality norm. Also, three is better than two for the prudential reason of having an odd number and the preventing tie votes. And I certainly would not state a higher number than three, as some churches do. You cannot mandate how many gifts the Lord Jesus will give.

2) Clearly this is a matter of prudence, and it depends on what you try to do in your members’ meetings. We think the most important thing we do in members’ meetings is to receive new members and to dismiss departing ones. And we like to keep our membership list current. Therefore, we meet six times a year. Plus, we don’t want members to treat members’ meetings with a casual “if you feel like coming” attitude. No, this is where our family addresses important family matters. We want you to come! Specifying one practice in our constitution and another practice by our instruction only sends mixed signals. So, if you want to make member meeting attendance part of the culture of your church—and believe it or not this has contributed to the health of our church because it reminds every member they have a job!—then I would place the 4x or 6x/year number in your church constitution.

3) The purpose of quorum is to enable a body to act even if a large number of members decide to neglect their responsibility to show up at members’ meetings. I served in one church, for instance, where only 10 percent bothered to show up for meetings. Stating what constitutes quorum “as those who are present” allows such a church to act and not be hamstrung by the complacent 90 percent. In standard legal practice, quorum defaults to a simple majority if it’s not explicitly established otherwise. Lest any random group of church members gather and declare themselves to be acting on behalf of the church, you also need set criteria for announcing a meeting ahead of time. Hence our quorum statement reads, “Provided all constitutional provisions for notification have been met, a quorum shall be understood to be met by those members present.”

4) 9Marks has never published this. I just Googled “Bob’s Rules of Order,” and saw several things. You might try that. Sorry I cannot be more helpful.

Finally, check out this great piece on how to write or revise a church constitution.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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