‘There really is no such thing as “Christian marriage” as the term is commonly used. “Christian marriage” is a vain, romantic, unbiblical conception. “Christian marriage” is a fiction. There is no more an institution of “Christian marriage” than there is a “Christian nation” or a “Christian lawyer” or a “Christian athlete.” Even where such terms are invoked as a matter of careless formulation and imprecise speech, they are symptoms of a desire to separate Christians from the common life of the world, whereas Christians are called into radical involvement in the common life of the world. To be sure, there are Christians who are athletes and those who practice law, and there are Christians who are citizens of this and the other nations. But none of these or similar activities or institutions are in any respect essentially Christian, nor can they be changed or reconstituted in order to become Christian. They are, on the contrary, realities of the fallen life of the world. They are inherently secular and worldly; they are subject to the power of death; they are aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world.
It is the same with marriage. Marriage is a fallen estate. That does not mean that it is not an honorable estate, but only that it is a relationship subject to death. It is a relationship established in and appropriate for the present age, but not known or, more precisely, radically transcended and transfigured in both the Creation and the Eschaton – in both the beginning and the end of human history.
As with any other reality of secular life, the Christian takes marriage seriously for what it is, but for no more or less than that. The Christian does not suffer illusions about marriage, but recognizes that marriage is a civil contract in which two parties promise to exchange certain services and responsibilities with respect to each other and to assume certain obligations for offspring of the marriage. At the same time, marriage is no merely private contract, for society at large has a particular interest in the honoring and enforcement of this contract. If the marriage contract is observed and performed with reasonable diligence, society, as well as the married couple and their children, benefits since an enduring marriage contributes to the economic, social, and psychological stability of the whole of society.
The fiction that there is some ideal of marriage for Christians which is better than or essentially different from an ordinary secular marriage is not only fostered by most Sunday School curriculum materials on the subject, but also by the practice of authorizing the clergy to act for the state in the execution of the marriage contract. Clergymen [sic] are licensed by the state to perform the functions of a civil magistrate, in spite of the supposed separation of church and state in this country. This both lends weight to the confusion about “Christian marriage,” and greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry. In the office and function of a civil magistrate, no clergyman really has the grounds to refuse to marry any two people who present themselves to him, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are temperamentally or otherwise ready to marry, as long as they meet the civil requirements for marriage; that is, are of a certain age, have had blood tests, meet any residence requirements, have a valid license, and pay the fee.
A more theologically responsible practice, I suggest, would be to divest the clergy of this civil office and require that all who will be married present themselves to the civil magistrate to be married. Then, if those who are so married are Christians, they will go to their congregation to offer, within the company of the Church, their marriage to be blessed, to seek the intercessions of the whole Church for the marriage, and to celebrate their marriage in the Church as a sacrament. A similar practice is followed in many parts of Europe and Latin America.
To restore such a practice would go a long way toward recovering the sacramental integrity of marriage between Christians. For to discard the fiction of “Christian marriage” and to understand that marriage is an ordinary, secular, and fallen estate in no way denigrates marriage for Christians. On the contrary, in marriage and all else the Christian is fully participant in secular life; but at the same time he [or she] is constantly engaged in offering his [or her] involvement in secular life for the glory of God. In such an offering, that which is ordinary is rendered extraordinary, that which is merely worldly is transfigured, that which is most common becomes the means of worship, and each act or event of everyday life becomes sacramental – a sign and celebration of God’s care for every act and event of everyday life in this world. Rather than demean or downgrade marriage, to restore such a practice would again give to the marriages of Christians the dignity of that which is secular made holy, of that which is a sign of death become a witness to redemption to all those, married or not, who are not Christian’.
– William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 40–43.