Barth on marriage (some notes from CD III/4)

Over the past few weeks, I have been teaching on a diverse range of subjects – childhood, worship, disability, religious pluralism, and marriage. On each occasion, Uncle Karl has never been too far away. I found his section on marriage in CD III/4 (pp. 225–29) to be a particularly fruitful launching pad. For those who may be interested, here’s a wee summary of that section:

  1. Marriage is treated by Barth under the rubric of the divine command. This implies that marriage’s eventuality ‘must have the character of a responsible act outwards in relation to those around’.
  2. The material significance of the institutional and formal side of marriage ‘is an event and its substance a reality in virtue of which the two partners thus joined together enter and come to stand in a new and different relationship to those around them, and the latter in turn must adopt a new relationship to them. In relationship to others they are no longer these two individuals. They are now a married couple’.
  3. This transition of the couple ‘from affection to love and marriage’ means a change in their place in the ‘framework of the civil and ecclesiastical society to which they belong’. Married, they are now ‘a new life-cell’ in a wider societal structure, a ‘distinct and special circle, a family, a new sociological unity which can be broadened by the addition of children’.
  4. Those who enter and live in marriage make a ‘decision’ which has necessary social consequences, effects and implications: ‘Marriage cannot and will not be carried through as a purely private undertaking. Even the smallest cottage of the happiest of lovers cannot be habitable inside unless it has at least a door and a few windows opening outwards. At some point it finds itself implicated in affinities and friendships as part of the Christian and civil community … Marriage would not be marriage were it not for the willingness and readiness to undertake such active participation in the nearer, the more distant and the most distant events of the surrounding contemporary world’.
  5. Marriage is not a license or ‘permission to establish an egoistic partnership of two persons, but a new and special commitment to such active participation, in which it may and must be significant and fruitful, an outward witness and help, as the inner fellowship of these two persons, and in which it may in its own place and manner be a factor in human history’.
  6. Those who decide to be married may ‘not shrink from this responsibility. And those who wish to live and not languish in marriage will have to take this responsibility in all seriousness’.
  7. ‘This outward responsibility of marriage is symbolised in its external form, and from this standpoint it includes the institutional act and status of marriage’.
  8. But a wedding does not make or constitute a marriage: ‘the equation of marriage with the wedding ceremony is a dreadful and deep-rooted error. Two people may be formally married and fail to live a life which can seriously be regarded as married life. And it may happen that two people are not married and yet in their precarious way live under the law of marriage. A wedding is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute marriage’. Barth considers such confusion as ‘the fundamental mistake in the traditional doctrine of marriage’: ‘It despises love, with all the inevitable consequences, because in relation to the genesis of marriage it looks only outwards to the institutional character of marriage, to the actual ceremony, to the formal decision bound up with marriage. From this standpoint it necessarily regards, love as an alien, easily painful, imponderable and probably rather dangerous element. But from this standpoint it cannot without legalism and artificiality vindicate its true and justifiable concern with regard to marriage. From institutional marriage as such there is naturally no way to love, nor to full, exclusive, lasting fellowship in marriage. Above all, the institution in itself offers not the smallest guarantee that a marriage is concluded in responsibility before God. But now that we have dissociated ourselves from this doctrine of marriage which is essentially a doctrine of the wedding ceremony, it is time to give it its due’.
  9. This does not mean, however, the privitisation of marriage. Indeed, founding of a new sociological unit in the human demands ‘public advertisement and recognition, and a definite form’: ‘How can two persons try to achieve this transition without confessing themselves to the world around as two who have become one, acknowledging their obligation towards it? And how can they try to be a couple without coming forward and acting in society as such, and without being addressed and treated as such from without?’
  10.  It is proper therefore that the wider society recognises the creation of a ‘new sociological unit’ and ‘makes possible their special life’. Those who would be married ought to be prepared to make a ‘public confession of their marriage and desire public confirmation of it’.
  11. Such public confession takes three forms – domestic, legal and ecclesiastical – none of which is able to underlie or guarantee the inner reality of marriage as a mutual understanding of the two partners, nor can they secure the essential reality of the couple’s outward relationship, their responsibility before society and active share in its life. ‘The institution in all its forms is only the means of this understanding – an instrument subject to historical variation in its forms, limited in its externality, and unable to bring about the actual approval of a marriage by all the members of the surrounding society. Nevertheless, in spite of its limitations, it is an unambiguous and indeed the only unambiguous means of achieving this understanding. That is the reason why those who desire marriage must be prepared to respect this institution and to desire its order and protection, i.e., not the constitution but the declaration of marriage by the wedding ceremony’.
  12. The domestic aspect of marriage normally signifies (for young couples, in particular) a broadening of the relationship in which they stand to their parents as children. ‘It is this which justifies parents in having a part in this act, or the way to it, and obliges children to consult their parents in the matter … Marriage without an understanding with the parents is always an audacious undertaking, and without their consent, or at least an attempt to secure it, will usually be unsuccessful. But in this matter the understanding can only have the character of an intensive – and, if the parents are shrewd, not too intensive– counselling, not of command, prohibition or obligatory obedience. The “Honour thy father and mother” is defined and limited by the fact that the parents are now confronted by respectful and teachable but adult and free [persons], and that even the most well meaning of parents can neither give nor take away from their children what constitutes marriage as marriage – the gift and task of married life-fellowship and the love which lies at the basis of marriage together with its responsibility before God’.
  13. The legal side of marriage. True to the Reformed tradition, Barth believes that the state’s demands of notification, ratification and official proclamation of ‘a real marriage’ are legitimate and that the state’s authority ought to be respected by the contracting parties in this matter marriage. But ‘even the declaration of the state cannot constitute marriage. According to the valid and effective formula, it can only declare it to be concluded. It is concluded in heaven by God and on earth by the married couple’. Those, therefore, who seek to be married ‘must’, in Barth’s words, ‘also desire its legal conditions and consequences and therefore its official enactment’. Then in the fine print, which is often the locus of Barth’s hidden gems, Barth states: ‘It should be urged on state officials that they ought to confine themselves to the legal aspect and not invest it with a pseudo-religious character’.
  14. The ecclesiastical side. Here Barth insists not only that ‘the conclusion of a Christian marriage has the character of an event in the Christian community’, even though church weddings are  not ‘unconditionally demanded either by a biblical direction or by the nature of the case’, but also that ‘the so-called marriage altar is a free invention of the flowery speech of modern religion. In its present-day form this ecclesiastical action is a survival from the time when the Church and its law took the place of the law of the state and therefore – to the great detriment of its own task – equated its law, i.e., its understanding of what is right before God, with the law of the state, the independence of which was at that time not realised. In obscure vacillation between an act of law and one of pastoral care it is thus widely enacted on and even beyond the border line of what is justifiable in the Christian community. In its presentday form and constitution, it is no less questionable, both from the Christian and the general standpoint, than other occasional offices such as confirmation and burial’. Barth’s logic here is precisely why I – as a minister – no longer agree to be party to the so-called ‘signing of the register’ in weddings. Not only do I reject the notion of the church functioning in a reduced ministry as the state’s (unpaid) chaplain, but also, and more importantly, as Barth rightly points out, the distinction between law and pastoral care, and, we might add, between law and prophecy, is blurred ‘beyond the border line of what is justifiable in the Christian community’.
  15. The Church can only say that ‘it is of importance to make clear in some special formal way the responsibility of a marriage concluded in the sight of God as a responsibility before the Christian community’. While Barth concedes that ‘the right form in which to do this has still to be found’, he is unyielding that regardless of form, ‘it must be completely divested of the character of a religious doublet to the civil ceremony. It should honestly assume the character of a pastoral exhortation – not the first, but the final and public one – concerning the conclusion of marriage, of a declaration of the union of these two members, to which the community must respond with a reminder of God’s promise and command and a proclamation of the divine blessing. Such an exhortation needs to be freed from all ambiguous connexion with the social festivity of the marriage celebrations and integrated with or plainly annexed to the regular worship of the community’.
  16. There remains ‘the decisive fact, with or without the emphasis of a special sacramental action, that the contracting of a marriage has a spiritual implication and obligation’, and this not only in relation to God, but also in relation of people, and therefore to the Christian community.
  17. ‘The conclusion and existence of a marriage honours or dishonours, promotes or disturbs, edifies or scandalises the whole community. It requires the faith, the preaching, the intercession, the understanding and loving interest of the latter. It is an affair of the community and not merely of the married couple. If the declaration of this commitment and obligation cannot be a legal action like the corresponding declaration in the case of the state, it must yet be considered that if the latter is to be seriously effective and powerful it presupposes the existence of this spiritual and ecclesiastical tie and obligation. And although this spiritual tie and obligation cannot be created or guaranteed by any declaration – and the marriage itself certainly cannot be constituted by what takes place between the married couple and the community – the credal declaration of a marriage to the community and the responsive declaration of the latter cannot be evaded in some form, perhaps extremely unpretentious. The event of a marriage in its full bearing on the mutual relationship between the community and the couple must be presented in some way no less to the former than to the latter’.


  1. So I take it you are no longer on the celebrants list, and if you are, you do not sign the register as a state celebrant at weddings you lead worship for?


  2. In most cases, I’m not a state celebrant, but a minister of the church. We ought not make cordial/squash/soup of what God has separated. I think that Barth’s instinct regarding the blurring of the legal-pastoral distinction is paramount here, and also that what is at stake is the church’s prophetic witness to her Lord. My friend Dean Carter put it well, I think: ‘The State must not be confused with the Church. The State must have some dogma concerning the relationships of its members: they must have obligations as well as privileges. It must prohibit certain relationships which don’t contribute to its welfare. Again, while the State must be popular, the Church must be prophetic. The State may think it has the support of the Church, and legislate on Church principles, without the moral reserves to support such principles. It may even allow and so cause more pain in illicit relations than is present in licit ones. As it does so, it must be aware that the community may not have kept pace with the ‘enlightened legislators’. Whose law is binding? The Church has no right to force the State to submit to its view and regulations. The Church must be known for its service, rather than supremacy, and ‘sometimes the best service you can render men is to combat their errors’ [PT Forsyth]. Hence, although the Church has no right to forbid the State to modify its conditions on divorce, it has the right to make and keep its own marriage laws, and must remember that the best way to deal with pastoral issues is not legal, but moral’.


  3. I thought it was a great read and that we should read it to everyone who is thinking about getting married! :)


  4. Of course, for a percentage of our population (both male and female) a marriage ceremony is not an option even if they have found the person they love and want to spend their lives with. Does any of this apply to them? I hope it does.


  5. Pam – Karl has some things to say about “the malady called homosexuality” in CD III/4, a topic on which he is just as eloquent. He refers to homosexuality as “the physical, psychological and social sickness, the phenomenon of perversion, decadence and decay” (p. 166). Karl claims that a same-sex relationship is not only perverse, but in some way inhuman: “Since humanity as fellow-humanity is to be understood in its root as the togetherness of man and woman, as the root of this inhumanity there follows the ideal of a masculinity free from woman and a femininity free from man.” It seems that not only does Karl deny one’s humanity to those engaged in same-sex sexual intercourse, but he also denies that they are having “genuine” sex, describing the act as “a sexual union which is not and cannot be genuine”. Like St. Paul, Karl believes that the wrongness of same-sex intercourse is something that we just know, without even having to think about it too deeply: “Naturally the command of God is opposed to these courses. This is almost too obvious to need stating.” However, there is light at the end of the tunnel: Karl also believes that this sickness which is homosexuality can be cured! “It is to be hoped that, in awareness of God’s command as also of His forgiving grace, the doctor, the pastor trained in psycho-therapy, and the legislator and judge – for the protection of threatened youth – will put forth their best efforts.” However, in one oddly revealing comment, Karl also indicates that homosexual relationships held a strange attraction for him: “We know that in its early stages it may have an appearance of particular beauty and spirituality, and even be redolent of sanctity. Often it has not been the worst people who have discovered and to some extent practised it as a sort of wonderful esoteric of personal life.”


  6. I don’t regard homosexual people as being “inhuman”. Far from it. Sorry.
    Something “I just know” is that equality, respect, tolerance are all important to Christians. I’m willing to be reprimanded by anybody over this, but I won’t change my mind about it.


  7. Jason, if you have the time, could you describe what a wedding ceremony would look like if Karl Barth was the pastor? As someone looking forward to marriage in the not-too-distant future, parsing this out a bit could be a great help.


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