How A Most Damnable Statement in Tennessee Law Repudiates the Christmas Story

Dec 10, 2021 by David Fowler

How A Most Damnable Statement in Tennessee Law Repudiates the Christmas Story
On October 13th, the full import of a provision in the Tennessee Code that I have been reading for the last six years hit home. The realization proved just how uncritical my thinking has been. What the statute says is truly damnable, and believe it or not, is a practical repudiation of the Christmas story I talked about last week. 
The provision I am referring to is Tenn. Code Ann. 36-3-103(a). It reads as follows:
Before being joined in marriage, the parties shall present to the minister or officer a license under the hand of a county clerk in this state, directed to such minister or officer, authorizing the solemnization of a marriage between the parties. Such license shall be valid for thirty (30) days from its issuance by the clerk.
Notice two things about what this statute says:
First, notice the word “before.” It means that an adult man and woman can exchange marital vows, even in the presence of their minister, and the state of Tennessee will not acknowledge the existence of that relationship, nor honor it by protecting the rights and duties that arise upon making their marital commitment, if they do not first get permission from the state.
Second, notice the word “authorizing.” It means that a man and woman, even in conjunction with their minister, have no right to enter into a marital relationship that will have any public or legal  meaning or significance unless the state government has authorized them to do. 

A Damnable Usurpation of Jurisdictional Authority 

The words “before” and “authorizing” are words of authority, jurisdiction, and control by civil government, but note that it is over what Christians would say God created and, as Creator, defined. 
As a Christian, I had not fully appreciated until last month that even though the civil law had always corresponded to God’s “definition” of marriage, which is good, civil government has also all along been effectively saying, “Marriage is now our thing.” But, to the Christian, the marital relationship is wholly of God’s doing. 

In fact, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the language of our statute dates to the original statute inherited from North Carolina which only recognized marriages solemnized by “clergy of the church of England and for want of such, any lawful magistrate.” Bashaw v. State, 9 Tenn. 177, 181 (1829).[ii]  Take that, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Catholics!
I do not deny that civil government has an interest in protecting the marital relationship God established, but I do deny that its authority, jurisdiction, and control over the relationship is primary or can exclude that of God. Civil government has only a delegated authority from God who is the ultimate and final source of all authority (Romans 13:1), one mediated to civil officials through the votes of the people.
As Creator, God’s authority and jurisdiction is absolute and universal in all respects. Thus, a Christian would say neither people nor civil government can have any authority to forbid a competent man and woman from knowingly and freely entering into a marital relationship, let alone condone any relationship as a marital relationship that is contrary to God’s given, creational design of and purpose for that relationship. 
What God has joined together no person can divide asunder (Mark 10:9). But when civil government asserts sole and absolute authority over what God has created, thinks it can redefine the marital relationship, and, by that redefinition and its license requirement exclude[ii] any recognition of marriage defined as God designed it, civil government has done just that.

What Makes This a Repudiation of the Christmas Story

The Christmas story—the incarnation of God—is about the second Person of the Triune God taking on a human nature unaffected by sin. But the key to the story was put this way by the Creed of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., that Jesus has “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”
In other words, the nature of human beings is such that we cannot confuse ourselves with God, become God, or claim prerogatives that can belong only to God. But that is exactly what Tennessee’s current marriage licensing law has presumed to do—to say we, the state, control and thus can say what marriage is.
Uncritical acceptance of such a claim by Christians is to deny a practical outworking of the doctrine of the Trinity we profess. 
So, what would a knowing and on-going acceptance of this law by Christians in Tennessee say about the state of sound Christian doctrine in our state and its application to the way we live in the world?
Am I the pot calling the kettle black by asking the question? No, because uncritical acceptance of that law is what I am confessing.  
Even after studying Obergefell and our state statutes since 2015, I did not realize how truly damnable the state of the enacted law in Tennessee really was until October 13th.  Like Isaiah when He saw the Lord in His Holy Temple (Isaiah 6), I realized my sight of God’s glory had fallen short of that which was really due Him.
In January, the governor, legislators, and perhaps most importantly, Christian ministers will be offered legislation –the Marital Contract Recording Act—that will give back to God at least some recognition of the jurisdiction He holds over the marital relationship He created.
I pray their response, for their own sakes and ours, will be laudable in God’s sight, not damnable.
(Here is information you can give to your ministers about the Act’s theological implications)

[i] Eventually, North Carolina amended the law to address “Presbyterian or dissenting clergy [who] have joined persons together in holy matrimony without either publication or license,” Bashaw, 9 Tenn. at 182.

[ii] God defined marriage exclusively and exhaustively in terms of man and woman for a purpose, namely, to manifest the glory of the Triune God. Therefore, the nature of the marital relationship cannot be “expanded” without destroying its intended revelatory purpose and without effectively exchanging the glory of God revealed in marriage for something else (Romans 1:18-25).

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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