Consider the issue of marriage. Its boundaries are becoming increasing fuzzy in the secular mind. A war rages on to open up the traditional definition — one man and one woman — to other options and perhaps soon to increased numbers in a union. This means pastoral care of the modern wedding must reflect what the Scriptures teach about marriage.
In my recent book, The Pastor’s First Love: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling, I spell out in brief some ideas about marriage as a rite of passage in Christian understanding. Here’s a sampling from the book:
“A wedding is a ‘rite of passage.’ Across two thousand years, the church has considered certain events to be epochal moments in life’s journey: birth, baptism, marriage, conversion, death. These have not always come in the same sequence or been given the same weight. But such events are so momentous that they deserve appropriate celebration.
“When a man and woman come to the altar, what happens there in a few minutes changes them forever. They approach the altar as two single persons, legally unrelated; they leave as a married couple; a new unit in society. Their status will be forever altered, and so will the church community of which they are a part. Should not anything so crucial deserve appropriate celebration in the setting of Christian worship? The event is more than a legal moment; it is a sacred moment of life-changing significance.
“For a Christian couple, a wedding may be a very personal matter, but it cannot be a private one — limited to two people only. It is the couple’s wedding for sure, but it is also the church’s, meaning it also belongs in the context of a particular unit of the body of Christ.
“So, the Christian church has a large stake in the wedding: its sanctuary provides the setting; its congregation provides the witnessing community; its ministers provide the authorized officers; and its rituals provide the theological content concerning what the event means. It can be argued that all of this is brought together best and most coherently when the couple meet at a Christian altar and the people gather with them in a setting conducive to the worship of the God who is the creator of marriage.”
I recognize that across a lifetime of ministry spanning well over 60 years, secularizing trends have had their effect on church activities. On occasion, two people raised in a church setting may still need gentle and loving instruction as they approach their wedding – that is, on what the parts of the ceremony that solemnizes the relationship mean. And of course, pastors need to teach their people some basics even at a time when no wedding is in the offing.
For example, Christians consider marriage an “institution” ordered by God at the time of creation (Genesis 1&2). Therefore, the couple must not appear at the altar as though they were creating something new. They may be demonstrating a fresh version of the event but they are entering into something that has been there from the beginning. This should make the moment for them not only joyful but also humbling and worshipful. That’s why we are not so likely to speak of “performing” a wedding as “solemnizing’ the event.
Also the words spoken in ritual should reflect accurately the meaning of the event from a Christian perspective. Rituals that are designed by the couple to make feelings the dominant element are not nearly as useful as rituals that proclaim the event as ordained by God, call for comprehensive pledging, and ask God in deep earnestness for his blessing on the couple at the altar. To achieve this in the face of today’s secularizing influences may require some counsel of the officiating minister.
It seems to me that, as never before, Christian communions ought to give special attention to the wedding’s content and meaning. Weddings, insofar as possible, should be shining reflections of the grace of God which enables two, a man and a woman, to become one — profoundly united in all aspects of their life together!
Photo credit: Adam Woodrow (via flickr.com)