The Church’s Right to Perform Marriages in Light of the Norwegian Marriage Act of 2008

Editor's noteI opened an address to the 2003 meeting of the North European Luther Academy, held in Hango, Finland (subsequently published as “The Church and the End” in Logia XVI: 35-39), with the remark that,“Canada and Scandinavia have more in common than northerly latitudes and cold weather.” The cultural developments I had in mind include an avalanche of anti-family and anti-life legislation made possible by the gradual marginalization and suppression of Holy Christendom in the public life of these nations. An ecumenical working party in Norway (consisting with one exception of figures outside the established Church of Norway) has lately explored the implications for the Churches of that country’s decision, in legislation enacted in 2008, to follow Canada in the promulgation of same sex marriage. One of the authors of the report printed below, which was sent to me already translated, tells me that conservatives in the Church of Norway have expressed strong dissent from their conclusion that clergy should surrender their longstanding right to perform weddings on behalf of the State. The question here addressed is acutely relevant to contemporary Canada, and is becoming increasingly topical in the United States also as we head into the second decade of the twenty-first century. My hunch is that the report’s analysis and conclusions are equally valid on this side of the Atlantic. John Stephenson


The changes in the institution of marriage that result from the new Norwegian Marriage Act of 2008 break with the Christian understanding of marriage and family life. Christians have therefore asked what implications this legislation will have for registered religious denominations to which the Norwegian government grants by delegation the right to solemnize marriages [den vigelsrett som ved delegasjon er gitt kirkesamfunnene], thus providing an alternative to a purely secular ceremony. 

About twenty private persons from different denominations met in Oslo in May 2009 to discuss this situation. Representatives of various Christian communities met in Bergen in August to discuss strategy. During a meeting in Oslo in October, a committee was appointed to report on the consequences of a renouncement of the ecclesial right to perform marriages.

 The committee, consisting of Pastor Jan Bygstad, Vicar-General Roald N. Flemestad, Professor Bernt T. Oftestad, Pastor Reidar Paulsen, and Professor Helge J. Thue, herewith presents its report, stating the reasons for its recommendations.

 The report begins with an ideological criticism of the new marriage law. Then it sketches the Christian understanding of marriage. As a consequence of the real opposition between the governmental marriage ideology and the traditional view of marriage, we then clarify juridical alternatives for a church wedding ceremony independent of the state. Finally, we encourage Christian denominations and congregations to surrender the right to perform marriages recognized by the state. 

Gender-neutral marriage is incompatible with the Christian faith

With the new marriage law that took effect on 1 January 2009, persons of the same gender have the opportunity to enter into marriage. This has caused changes in the Law on Biotechnology and the Child Law to the effect that women living in lesbian relationships now have the right to conceive children by artificial insemination. Furthermore, the father’s rights in relation to children conceived by artificial insemination have been revoked, as these are given a “co-mother” instead of their biological father. Thus the institution of marriage is altered to be a state recognition of “love” (cf. Odelsting Proposition. no. 33, 2007-2008) between two people, regardless of their gender, sexual attraction, or biological capability of procreating their own children.

Rejecting marriage as a social arrangement based on biological realities tied to the family as the fundamental social cell, the new marriage law breaks with the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights of 1996. The convention, which was adopted as internal Norwegian law in 1999  (The Human Rights Act of 21 May 1999 no. 30), is based on the assumption that marriage involves both man and woman, and that the family as the basic unit in society is entitled to the protection of the state. Other human rights conventions as well as innumerable special conventions on marriage involve only heterosexual relations.

The biblical belief in Creation understands marriage in a similar way. God established the fellowship of one man and one woman before the Fall as a means of procreation. In this way the polarity of the sexes is one of the most fundamental characteristics of human life. The physical embrace of man and woman serves God’s purpose. Corporeality is God’s good gift to man; there is therefore no ontological dualism between the spiritual and the material.

The idea of a same-gender marriage separates sexual intercourse from the natural order. Unrelated to procreation, the sexual act is understood as a kind of “pure love” without any other basis than the erotic. The individual thus seeks intimacy outside the framework of the family. If in such a relationship the desire to have a child should arise, it cannot be realized in a natural way. Detached from the polarity of gender, the child must be constructed by means of medical technology.

When human biological identity is denied, artificial insemination appears as “Mankind coming of Age”—man’s dominion over nature—a kind of victory for spirit over matter. The corporeal is understood as a barrier that humans as spiritual beings try to overcome, wishing to achieve their full potential. The ideology in the new family legislation therefore decisively breaks with the fundamental idea of the Bible that God has created humans as man and woman, so that they together “become one flesh” (Gn 2:24, Mt 19:6).

A biblical perspective on marriage

That humans are created as man and woman is an important aspect of the creation of humans in the image of God (Gn 1:27). This gender difference is fundamental both for the creation of humans and for their self-understanding, and is therefore not accidental, but an expression of God’s creative will.

Marriage is founded by God (Gn 2:24), and is understood in accordance with the Holy Scripture as a public covenant of fidelity agreed to by one man and one woman. In this union God realizes His will, creating new life through the conception of children. Children are God’s most precious gift. The family, understood as the fellowship of mother and father and children, shall take care of the child’s right and need to know its biological parents and receive care from them as far as this is possible. Similarly, the family constitutes, as a God-given institution, the foundation of the rights and responsibilities of the parents. If the state intervenes in the authority of the family, it goes beyond its right.

Christian marriage is established  “in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). The life together of the two spouses has its model in the mutual love of Christ and the Church (Eph 5:32). Thus the spouses are living out their calling in their daily life and under God’s promise (Col 3:23). Husband and wife shall honour and love each other and help each other “as being heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). The Christian family is therefore called “the little church.” 

The right to perform marriages as a problem 

The marriage institution has both a private and a public side. In our modern society, people marry in accordance with regulations in public legislation. Moreover, in Norway we have the arrangement that a person conducting a wedding ceremony within a registered religious body can be given the right to perform marriages on behalf of the State.

The laws passed in 2008 radically changed the institution of marriage and the position of the family in society. They made it possible for persons of the same sex to marry and also enabled women in lesbian relationships to have children through artificial insemination while abolishing the father’s rights and duties in relation to children thus conceived.

Consequently, Norwegian legislation is no longer in agreement with the order of nature. Furthermore, the effects of the law not only break with the Christian faith and perception of reality, but also with our history and tradition.

It has thus become an unacceptable arrangement for churches to perform marriages on behalf of the state. Christian Churches cannot administer legislation that fundamentally breaks with Christian faith and teaching. This necessitates a reevaluation of the marriage practice of the churches, and raises the question whether religious communities may still collaborate with and assist the state in establishing marriage. In this situation the challenge for the Churches will be to find an ecclesiastical marriage practice that is theologically and juridically valid. 

Entering into marriage

Churches and congregations that give up the right to solemnize marriages must still ensure that spouses achieve a legal and economic structure for their married lives. In a number of countries the religious ceremony functions as an addition to civil marriage.

In the light of such a division, two models seem to be of particular interest.

One solution would be for the bride and groom first to be married by a judge. After this civil marriage, a full Church wedding would follow. This solution implies that the Church ceremony would “validate” the civil marriage as a legitimate Christian union. The newlyweds would thus get two marriage certificates, but the Church certificate would only have a religious and ecclesiastical validity.

A second possibility would be for the bride and groom to go through a full Church wedding without any registration with the civil authorities. The marriage would thus be founded on the Church community’s understanding of the meaning and obligations of the marriage vows. On this basis the Church community would issue a marriage certificate. Before the wedding, the bride and groom must have entered into a legally binding agreement on the main economic aspects of their marriage.

In the choice between the two models we would recommend the first-mentioned solution, since a heterosexual marriage recognized by the State is recognized abroad to a much greater extent than is cohabitation. 

Concluding recommendations

We encourage the Christian Churches and congregations that share our understanding of the new marriage and family legislation to give up the right to perform marriages on behalf of the State. There is a limit to how far Christian Churches and congregations can collaborate with a state that in a fundamental way breaks with both generally accepted and Christian norms for marriage.

Instead of a churchly right to conduct weddings by delegation from the State, we have in the foregoing sketched two alternative models for Christian marriage. The recommended solution is that the bride and groom first register a civil marriage with a judge followed by a fully valid Church wedding.

Another possibility is to have a Church wedding without civil registration, which means that the marriage would take place in a church, the legal and economic aspects of the life together first having been secured through relevant legislation and civil law agreements.

Both models presuppose that Christian religious communities prepare their own registers of weddings and marriage certificates. In the longer term one should attempt to make the authorities recognize the legal effect of a Church wedding without authorization in the present Norwegian family legislation.

Bergen and Oslo, 21 December 2009. Jan Bygstad (sign), Roald N. Flemestad (sign), Bernt Oftestad (sign), Reidar Paulsen (sign), Helge J. Thue (sign)