Monday, May 23, 2011

Caution for pastors in solemnizing an “ecclesiastical marriage” or “marriage in the eyes of God and the church”

I will discuss in this post the following topics:

Over the years, pastors have asked me about the situation of couples who are new believers, enthusiastic about becoming church members and being involved in ministry, but are in a legal mess. Based on the admission of the couples themselves or an investigation by the pastor, these couples are just living in because the man or the woman, or both are legally married to other parties.

(Pastors are divided on the issue of divorce and remarriage. Please read my post “Biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage” where I discussed the views of Chuck Swindoll, Radio Bible Class, and Probe Ministries on this issue.)

I have always counseled pastors to tell the couples in this kind of situation to:
1. file a petition in court to have the subsisting marriage declared void; and

2. refrain from sexual relations while the case is ongoing.
The problem arises however when these couples tell their pastor that they cannot afford the costs of filing a petition for declaration of nullity. In Metro Manila, the costs range from 150 to 200 thousand pesos. The costs are lower in the provinces.

(Please read the Frequently Asked Questions section of my Family Matters website for discussions on declaration of nullity, annulment of voidable marriage, psychological incapacity, etc.)

What an “ecclesiastical marriage” is as practiced by some Baptist pastors

To deal with this problem, some pastors have reportedly resorted to solemnizing what they call “ecclesiastical marriage” or “marriage in the eyes of God and the church.” These pastors conduct a ceremony where they pronounce the man and woman as “husband and wife in the eyes of God and the church.” (Since there is no marriage license or marriage certificate, these pastors do not report the “ecclesiastical marriage” to the Local Civil Registrar or the National Statistics Office.) Despite the man and woman being legally married to other parties, these pastors then allow them to have sexual relations, become members of the church, and be involved in ministry.

Relevant discussions:

“Americans share views on marriage, church and state roles” (Baptist Press)

“The Church and Civil Marriage” and “A Legal Perspective on the Marriage Pledge” (First Things)

“Time To Rend Marriage? 1 in 4 Pastors Agree with First Things Petition” (Christianity Today)
For a marriage to be Biblical, it must comply with the legal requirements (unless the requirements are clearly un-Biblical)

Some Baptist pastors and missionaries are against State-sanctioned marriages. Citing how Rebekah just went with Abraham’s servant and became Isaac’s wife, they say that the Biblical example of marriage shows that the only ones involved in the contract were the couple themselves or their immediate family members. But, for several reasons, I believe that Baptist pastors and missionaries in the Philippines should not teach their members that if they want to get married, they can just follow this so-called “Biblical example of marriage” of proclaiming by themselves (or by appearing before their families) that they are now married.

First, we must distinguish between what is cultural and what is Biblical, between what was applicable to Jewish culture in Biblical times and what is applicable to our culture now. This so-called “Biblical example on marriage” in Isaac and Rebekah’s story only shows what Jewish culture was like in Biblical times and thus cannot be used to argue that it is the way people should get married today. (The New Testament narrative of Joseph and Mary shows that there was a “betrothal” period between a prospective husband and wife; should we also have this today? For that matter, should our country be a monarchy instead of a democracy since Israel was a monarchy from Saul onwards?)

Second, you can just imagine the social chaos that will follow if a man and woman can get “Biblically married” without complying with the legal requirements. A man and woman (for example, two infatuated teenagers in your church youth group, or a 50-year old guy and a 16-year old girl) can by themselves proclaim that they are now married. What if the man or woman falls in love with another person and abandons the other? What will be the status of their children? What about inheritance rights? The institutions of marriage and the family will break down.

Third, based on the Apostle Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 for Christians to submit to the State, a marriage must follow the legal requirements for it to be valid before the eyes of God. The exception, of course, is when any requirement is clearly contrary to Biblical principles. I don’t know of any provision on marriage of the Family Code of the Philippines that is contrary to the Bible. In fact, the Family Code’s definition of marriage (Article 1) is completely Biblical:
“Marriage is a special contract of permanent union between a man and a woman entered into in accordance with law for the establishment of conjugal and family life. It is the foundation of the family and an inviolable social institution whose nature, consequences, and incidents are governed by law and not subject to stipulation, except that marriage settlements may fix the property relations during the marriage within the limits provided by this Code.”
Solemnizing an “ecclesiastical marriage” is illegal and punishable under the Revised Penal Code

If a pastor applies for a license to solemnize marriages, he recognizes and voluntarily submits to the authority of the State. He cannot therefore simply set aside the essential and formal requisites on marriage (Articles 2 and 3) of the Family Code of the Philippines. By solemnizing an “ecclesiastical marriage”, the pastor violates Article 352 of the Revised Penal Code, which states:
Art. 352. Performance of an illegal marriage ceremony. – Priests or ministers of any religious denomination or sect, or civil authorities who shall perform or authorize any illegal marriage ceremony shall be punished in accordance with the provisions of the Marriage Law.
Under Section 39 of Act No. 3613, the penalty for violating Art. 352 is imprisonment of two months (minimum) up to two years (maximum).

Supreme Court ruling in “Estrada vs. Escritor” cannot be used as basis for an “ecclesiastical marriage”

Please read my post “The Estrada vs. Escritor case: Did the Supreme Court legitimize live-in relationships in the name of freedom of religion?” The Escritor case is the Philippines’ landmark case on freedom of religion. Briefly, the facts of the case are:

[1] Soledad Escritor is a court stenographer in Las Pinas. She started living in with Luciano Quilapio, Jr. twenty seven years ago when her husband was still alive but living with another woman. Quilapio himself is married to another woman. When Escritor entered the judiciary in 1999, she was already a widow, her husband having died in 1998. They have a son. Both Escritor and Quilapio are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

[2] Escritor was charged administratively in July 2000 before the Supreme Court for immorality.

[3] In her defense, Escritor claimed the 1987 Constitution provision on freedom of religion. She claimed that her relationship with Quilapio had the blessings of her denomination. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a long-standing, worldwide practice based on their doctrines where a man and woman, unable to get legally married, are recognized as husband and wife through the signing of a document called “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness”. The Supreme Court in its ruling describes what this Declaration is all about:
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Declaration allows members of the congregation who have been abandoned by their spouses to enter into marital relations. The Declaration thus makes the resulting union moral and binding within the congregation all over the world except in countries where divorce is allowed. As laid out by the tenets of their faith, the Jehovah’s congregation requires that at the time the declarations are executed, the couple cannot secure the civil authorities’ approval of the marital relationship because of legal impediments. Only couples who have been baptized and in good standing may execute the Declaration, which requires the approval of the elders of the congregation. As a matter of practice, the marital status of the declarants and their respective spouses’ commission of adultery are investigated before the declarations are executed. Escritor and Quilapio’s declarations were executed in the usual and approved form prescribed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, approved by elders of the congregation where the declarations were executed, and recorded in the Watch Tower Central Office.

Moreover, the Jehovah’s congregation believes that once all legal impediments for the couple are lifted, the validity of the declarations ceases, and the couple should legalize their union. In Escritor’s case, although she was widowed in 1998, thereby lifting the legal impediment to marry on her part, her mate was still not capacitated to remarry. Thus, their declarations remained valid. In sum, therefore, insofar as the congregation is concerned, there is nothing immoral about the conjugal arrangement between Escritor and Quilapio and they remain members in good standing in the congregation.
[4] Upon investigation of Escritor’s claims, the Supreme Court found that:
Respondent appears to be sincere in her religious belief and practice and is not merely using the “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness” to avoid punishment for immorality. She did not secure the Declaration only after entering the judiciary where the moral standards are strict and defined, much less only after an administrative case for immorality was filed against her. The Declaration was issued to her by her congregation after ten years of living together with her partner, Quilapio, and ten years before she entered the judiciary. Ministers from her congregation testified on the authenticity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practice of securing a Declaration and their doctrinal or scriptural basis for such a practice.
[5] The Supreme Court dismissed the administrative complaint against Escritor.

The Supreme Court ruling in Estrada vs. Escritor cannot be used as a legal basis by Baptist pastors in solemnizing an “ecclesiastical marriage” for several reasons:

[1] The Supreme Court clearly stated that its ruling is pro hac vice (“for this one particular occasion”). The Escritor ruling did not establish a general rule but an exception to the general rule on the basis of a valid exercise of the Constitutional freedom of religion. As the Supreme Court clarified, “It does not mean that the Court would grant exemptions every time a free exercise of religion comes before it. Thus, we find that in this particular case and under these distinct circumstances, respondent Escritor’s conjugal arrangement cannot be penalized as she has made out a case for exemption from the law based on her fundamental right to freedom of religion.”

[2] While the Jehovah’s Witnesses base their long-standing, worldwide practice of “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness” on their doctrines, Baptist pastors and churches do not have any Biblical basis (whether in the Old Testament, the Gospels, Acts or the Epistles) for an “ecclesiastical marriage”. There is “no record in the Bible that any prophet, priest, rabbi, apostle or deacon ever presided over a marriage ceremony or had the authority to do so.” From where then does a pastor get his authority to solemnize an “ecclesiastical marriage”?

As I stated above, the only reason why some Baptist pastors have resorted to solemnizing an “ecclesiastical marriage” is because the man or the woman cannot afford the costs of having the subsisting marriage declared void. Human reasoning and pragmatism, not any Biblical principle, are their only bases. Please take note that the “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness” of the Jehovah's Witnesses applies only when the couple cannot secure the civil authorities’ approval of the marital relationship because of legal impediments, not the lack of financial means. Once all legal impediments for the couple are lifted, the validity of the declarations ceases, and the couple should legalize their union.

Resorting to “ecclesiastical marriage” manifests a lack of faith in an omnipotent and sovereign God

Moreover, these pastors and couples manifest their lack of faith in an omnipotent, sovereign God who can:
[1] provide the finances needed to obtain a court decree on the nullity of the subsisting marriage; or

[2] change the man and woman’s personal circumstances; or

[3] provide the grace that will enable the man and woman to live separately if He chooses sovereignly not to change their circumstances or to provide the finances in obtaining a court decree.
A man and woman having sexual relations outside of marriage are committing sin. The greater sin however lies with the pastor who misleads the man and woman into thinking that an “ecclesiastical marriage” bestows God’s approval and blessings on their relationship.

“Ecclesiastical marriage” further complicates matters legally

Property relations between the man and woman in an “ecclesiastical marriage” will fall under Article 148 of the Family Code. Because the subsisting marriage has not been declared void by the courts, the legal spouse remains the man or woman’s heir.

What do you do with the children born to the man and woman? Will they be reported as legitimate or illegitimate? What surname will they use? What will be the rights of these children in terms of inheritance?

Benefits such as paternity leave are available only to legally married persons.

Please read these relevant links:


Lily Tiopez said...

Your blog has been really useful to me and to my church. I hope you keep posting! God bless!

Mark DeBarbieri, said...

An ecclesiastical marriage is the only one recognized by YHWH. Why? Because by obtaining a license for what is already a right, places the "State" above YHWH and makes the "State" the third party in a marriage and is subject to man's law for marriage as opposed to YHWH's law for marriage. Licensing for marriages did not exist in the United States until after the Civil War, for which the United States changed from being a republic to a corporation, or what we commonly know as a democracy which is repugnant to the Constitution. There are legal issues in this, but I leave that to those that want to research it and I have already done my homework on this subject and I do not care if the Supreme Court says "no", YHWH's law stands above man's law, which is in the scriptures and worded as such. There will come a time very shortly, when a clear choice has to be made to obey YHWH or men. Choosing the later will mean eternal death.