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The following letter was shared with churches in March 2024 in response to direction from Synod 2023. Spanish and Korean text is also available below.

Much has changed with regard to the practices of marriage in our countries in the last several decades. Recently, it has become more common  in the United States and Canada for couples to request marriage ceremonies that are exclusively religious in character and entirely lack civil and legal standing. In 2019, synod established a task force to study this trend in “ecclesiastical marriages” and report back to a subsequent synod with recommendations. After processing and deliberating on that report, Synod 2023 tasked the General Secretary to “disseminate a letter of warning to the pastors and councils” about ecclesiastical marriage (Acts of Synod 2023p. 962).

Ecclesiastical marriage is defined as “a marriage sanctioned and solemnized solely by the church to the exclusion of the state (civil government) whereby a couple is considered ‘married in the eyes of the church but not in the eyes of the state'” (Agenda for Synod 2023, p. 256).  While the CRCNA has historically affirmed the religious and covenant nature of a marriage between a man and a woman, an ecclesiastical marriage “intentionally excludes the state as a sanctioning authority” (Agenda for Synod 2023, p. 256).

Why is this distinction important? In agreement with the report of the Ecclesiastical Marriage Task Force (Agenda for Synod 2023, p. 251-276), Synod 2023 stated that Reformed churches “have acknowledged the role and right of civil authorities to regulate marriage in their jurisdictions” (Acts of Synod 2023, p. 961)Furthermore, Synod 2023 recognized the biblical injunction to submit to the governing authorities in all things that do not conflict with the Word of God (Acts of Synod 2023, p. 961). Finally, Synod 2023 warned that “in both the United States and Canada there could be negative legal consequences for the participants and/or for pastors who solemnize a non-civil or ecclesiastical marriage” (Acts of Synod 2023, p. 961see also Agenda for Synod 2023p. 267-272; 283-284). In addition to possible legal penalties imposed on pastors performing ecclesiastical marriages, couples who are not married legally could be disadvantaged before the law. 

For these reasons, CRCNA pastors are strongly discouraged from performing marriages that are exclusively religious (i.e., ecclesiastical). Furthermore, they are cautioned against “acting as legal experts or offering legal advice, especially with regard to the issue of ecclesiastical marriage.” Instead, pastors are encouraged to “advise couples to seek independent legal counsel as necessary” (Acts of Synod 2023p. 962).

Synod 2023 also provided some qualifications to this judgment. Synod 2023 recognized that many immigrant married couples in the Christian Reformed Churches come from countries that do not regulate civil marriage, and therefore, may not be legally married. It asked churches to “respect and honor the marriages of immigrants who did not obtain a civil marriage prior to arriving in Canada or the United States and counsel them in the understanding of Christian marriage and its relationship to civil authority in our countries.” (Acts of Synod 2023p. 961)

Furthermore, synod noted that Indigenous peoples in North America often have legal practices surrounding marriage that are adjudicated by their own tribal government and not other local, state/provincial or federal jurisdictions. For these reasons, Synod 2023 acknowledged that “in the interest of grace and acceptance, we want to acknowledge the beautiful Christian marriage traditions that have developed in various cultures” (Acts of Synod 2023p. 961). 

The report of the task force also mentioned a few other “temporary situations” in which separate religious or civil ceremonies might be deferred (Agenda for Synod 2023p. 272-275). However, in all such cases, caution and legal counsel are strongly advised.

Please take some time to read the report of the Ecclesiastical Marriage Task Force (Agenda for Synod 2023p. 251-276) and the decisions of Synod 2023 (Acts of Synod 2023p. 961-962) in response to this report. As faithful undershepherds of God’s flock, our Good Shepherd calls us to exercise sound judgment for the benefit of all those who are under our spiritual care. Nurturing and supporting healthy and God-honoring family life is an important part of our service as pastors and councils.

If you have any questions, please reach out to legal professionals for specific advice on state, provincial, or federal requirements. More general queries can be sent to [email protected].

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13),

Zachary King

General Secretary




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