Marriage is Not a Sacrament for Protestants and Why that Matters to LGBT Christians

Recently, well meaning Episcopal clergy and lay leaders have been urging the church to “extend the sacrament of marriage” to lesbian and gay Episcopalians, moving beyond the blessing of same-sex unions that was approved at the last General Assembly of the church in 2012.

Leaders from Baptist, United Church of Christ, and other denominations have likewise pressed for marriage equality in Christian churches, claiming the sacramental blessings of marriage as something that should be available to all Christians, whether gay or straight.

But insisting that LGBT Protestants be granted access to the sacrament of marriage is theologically errant and, more importantly, strategically misguided in the effort to move more moderate Protestants toward marriage equality within and well beyond Protestant churches.

As the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer makes clear, “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in scripture, that is to say, 
Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.” The historical documents of the prayerbook go on to explain, in strident Reformation tones:

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, 
Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, 
being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of 
life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and 
the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God (872, XXV).

This is no mere theological quibbling. The cornerstone of Reformation theology developed by Martin Luther, then adapted by John Calvin on its way to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, was the idea that human beings could not ourselves determine what God had marked as sure indicators of God’s grace in us. Rather, Luther argued that scripture alone (sola scriptura) pointed to what God has ordained as the holy rites essential to the salvation of every Christian—these being Baptism and Eucharist only.

Here, he was arguing against the “corrupt following of the Apostles” through Roman Catholic “sacraments”—confirmation, holy orders, penance (following confession), extreme unction (last rites), and, yes, matrimony—that were human social inventions that could be, and had been, tainted by human depravity and exploited for human profit (as, to be sure, other ecclesial practices would be corrupted by Reformation churches in due time).

Specifically, Luther attacked penance, and extreme unction, which had come to be monetized most (in)famously though the selling of indulgences. But Luther further insisted that no human status—being a priest, a vowed religious, or a married person—was greater in the eyes of God than any other. And, no human activity was more important to the integrated Christian community understood metaphorically as “the Body of Christ” than another.

John Calvin, thus, insists in his Institutes:

The last of all this [discussion of sacraments] is marriage, which, while all admit it to be an institution of God, no man ever saw to be a sacrament, until the time of [Pope] Gregory. And would it ever have occurred to the mind of any sober man? It is a good and holy ordinance of God. And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving, are lawful ordinances of God; but they are not sacraments. For in a sacrament, the thing required is not only that it be a work of God, but that it be an external ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise. That there is nothing of the kind in marriage, even children can judge.

For Protestant reformers, then, Christians were all one, holy priesthood, albeit with different individual vocations, many of these—tilling the earth, bearing children, and so on—instituted by God in scripture but not marked as special rites unambiguously conferring grace. Rites associated with these vocations, however much they carried the potential to invite God’s grace, were humanly ordered actions that did not change the spiritual status of the persons involved nor specifically signify the presence of grace. That is, no human action could elevate or lower our status in the eyes of God. And neither the rite of holy orders nor of matrimony ensured that the persons participating in the rite had, in fact, received God’s grace. Only Baptism and Eucharist offered this certainty, and, again, only these were viewed as true sacraments.

In the early Church of England, it was the idea that marriage was not a sacrament—that it was not God who had joined two people together in holy matrimony, but rather a human person vested with the authority of church and state—that allowed Henry VIII sufficient theological wiggle room to divorce his first wife, the ardent Catholic Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry the reform-minded Anne Boleyn. If humans had joined two people in matrimony, the argument went (and goes), humans could tear the union asunder.

Five centuries later, this thinking about the human shaping of and authority over custom, rather than sacrament, of marriage turned out to have great value in moving marriage equality forward in moderate and progressive Protestant churches.

In fact, one of the important arguments for marriage equality is founded exactly on the Protestant insistence that, unlike Baptism and Eucharist, marriage is a human custom, the participants in which are specially blessed in the church. As such, its customary rules and structure can change as human societies evolve. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, put it this way:

The theology of marriage has evolved over time, with biblical examples including polygamy, concubinage, and other forms of relationship no longer sanctioned in The Episcopal Church. We no longer expect that one partner promise to obey the other, that parents give away their children to be married, or that childbearing is the chief purpose of marriage.

Marriage, like other humanly constructed social arrangements, changes as human experience changes. Theoretically at least, the scripturally ordained sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist do not. (Here, it’s probably worth noting that the same limited sacramental theology in the Protestant tradition was likewise marshaled to support the ordination of the many women and LGBT clergy now compassionately, but errantly, advocating for the full inclusion of LGBT Christians in the “sacrament” of marriage.)

The irony is that a more conservative Reformation understanding of sacraments allows more progressive theological adaptation of the marriage rite.

Invoking the language of sacraments in relation to marriage in general and marriage equality in particular is surely meant to highlight the specialness of the rite in the lives of the people who enter into it. Indeed, the Episcopal prayerbook can be seen as encouraging this confusion when it distinguishes sacraments proper (Baptism and Eucharist) from sacramental rites, which “although they are means of grace…are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and Eucharist are” (BCP 860).

How are Baptism and Eucharist so especially sacramental? They are, the Book of Common Prayer explains, “sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” given by Christ. Unromantic though this may sound, marriage, at least fifty percent of married people will likely ultimately attest, is more of a crap shoot where grace is concerned. Rituals related to committing yourself to another in marriage, like rituals related to becoming a minister of the church, can be “a means of grace,” but there are no scriptural guarantees.

The bottom line here is that calling marriage a sacrament, even for the most good-hearted of reasons, undermines one of the important theological claims for marriage equality among Protestant Christians—including moderate Evangelical Christians who are increasingly coming around to marriage equality in no small measure because they understand the less-than-sacramental nature of heterosexual marriages.

Marriages falter, people across the Protestant denominational spectrum understand. Marriages fail. Neither the gender of the participants nor a claim on divine sanction of the union seems to have much of an effect on this sad reality.

But, more hopefully, because marriage, for Protestants—one more time with Reformation feeling—is not a sacrament, it can be changed. And may Lutherans, Calvinists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and sundry other Protestants be graced in doing so.