The Importance of Christian Weddings in Secular Times

I recently heard a news report that, in America, fewer couples are turning to the church for their wedding services; more are planning to write their own script for the whole event; and a still-growing number are moving in together without a wedding service of any kind.

These are not surprising trends as secularism continues to oppose the Judeo-Christian mores and values that have shaped our culture. Moderns may say that no religious institution should prepare rituals for others to follow; after all, every couple will have its own ideas.

But the thought lingers that traditional marriage has had a constancy through the centuries. And that it is a venture so sweeping in its possibilities that it requires some elevated acknowledgment in the form of vows or declarations — if not holy, at least metaphysical. A wedding is one of life’s few rites of passage.

Although the percentage of weddings held in churches may decrease there will always be brides and grooms who want to be married in a Christian context.

I celebrated many weddings across a lifetime of pastoral ministry. I remember with particular warmth couples such as Ken and Judy, Larry and Cheryl, Jim and Fern, David and Faith, John and Sharon.

And I have had the blessed privilege of uniting in marriage eleven couples from my own family circle including children and grandchildren. Those moments were special for me and for them. In each case, every effort was made to reflect the Christian faith in word, symbol and song.

The Christian church broadly has always treated marriage as a rite to be celebrated, one of life’s most important events. It is an adventure in hope, intended as a once-in-a-lifetime pledging.

Across the years I have held that the core of a Christian wedding is not the attire the couple wear, the music they choose or the sanctuary’s decor. All are helpful in creating a beautiful setting and all must be chosen carefully. Nevertheless, the dominant feature of a wedding is the ritual — the words that are spoken, what they affirm and require and how they are delivered.

Thus, here are questions to ask of the words spoken: (1) Are they consistent with biblical truth about marriage? (2) Do they reflect with accuracy and beauty the commitments being made? (3) Do the words  bear the influence of established and time-tested rituals of the past? (4) Are they Christ-honoring? (5) Are they linked to the ages as marriage is?

If a congregation is to be present for the service it is good to remember that there will likely be young, in the gathering, people with eager ears; perhaps an elderly man who with his now-deceased wife repeated similar vows years earlier and now sits alone; a couple in marital conflict who may be privately discussing divorce; and a young man and woman gathering ideas for their own upcoming nuptials.

For a congregation a wedding may be both a resonating chamber for Christian truth and a microcosm of human experiences.

The key to a lovely, moving wedding service is a good rehearsal. Wedding parties for this event usually arrive with a high level of excitement. It is the pastor’s task to take charge and manage the event, making sure that every participant understands his or her part. Rehearsals can be chaotic and overly long if not properly managed.

The reason for such care at the rehearsal is that there are no do-overs for weddings. If a Saturday-night youth gathering goes poorly there will always be another Saturday night. Even if a pastor’s sermon should fail, the next Sunday is only a week away. But the wedding is a singular event with no opportunities to run it through again a day or two later.

Yet, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (go often askew). So wrote Robert Burns, in Scottish dialect. Indeed they do. Things may happen at the best-planned weddings that excite laughter or sometimes the opposite.

On one occasion after all preparations were carefully made and the congregation was gathered I learned that the bride had forgotten her special gloves in a neighboring community and had gone after them. The congregation sweltered for an hour in a sanctuary without air conditioning. The organ played and re-played the music that had been chosen. When the bride returned the wedding proceeded. On a wedding day, guests usually take such a glitch in stride.

The hope is to plan and practice so as to keep anything from happening that distracts from the solemnity and beauty of the event. And beyond that, to provide the couple with a memory that will still be held as sacred decades later.

What serves better as a standard than the advice of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

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Why Christians Should Stand for Traditional Marriage

Why do conservative Christians stand firm for traditional marriage — one man and one woman for life? Is it because they fear change, or are bigots, or simply lack imagination?

Or is it that they believe the Bible is the Christian’s authority on the subject and it speaks to the question very clearly?

The book of Genesis alone reveals the mind of God on the matter of marriage. He is Creator over all and, as Creator, he declares marriage, as you will see, to be the union of one man and one woman for life.

Genesis begins with the account of creation, concluding with these words: So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). This declaration, repeated three times, presents who may be participants in a marriage — one man and one woman.

Chapter two of Genesis then introduces us to the timeless story of Adam and Eve, teaching that God instituted marriage as a unique human union. It leaves open no other options, ending with this summary word: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). 

In chapter 3 the picture of humanity darkens. Adam and Eve are disobedient to God and the consequences are dire. They feel estranged from their Maker and at odds with one another. Their descendants must live under the shadow of their disobedience. Marriage as God intended is scarred by sin but not dissolved.

Conditions deteriorate further in chapter 4. Lamech, the descendant of Adam and Eve, married two women. This veers from God’s revealed plan, and bigamy represents a further distortion of marriage in ancient culture.

Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, had children by two women — his wife Sarah and her servant, Hagar (Genesis 16). Abraham’s union with Hagar was arranged by Sarah, according to the cultural practices of the times. But, as we see, an arrangement such as this, so contrary to God’s declaration, created great domestic stress among Sarah, Abraham and Hagar from the very start of Hagar’s pregnancy.

And in another accommodation to the culture of the times, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, was tricked into marrying two sisters and eventually had children by them and their two maidservants (Genesis 29:31-30:23). This too was not in accordance with God’s creative declaration, and the story that follows shows the distressing consequences — family strife, jealousy and bargaining for sleeping rights.

All the while, here and there in Genesis a flag is raised in favor of “one man and one woman for life.” For example, consider Pharaoh, the pagan king of Egypt. He did not belong to the chosen people and had not been exposed to divinely revealed laws, but the account shows that he was aware how wrong it would be to invade the sanctity of Abraham’s marriage (Genesis 12:10-20).

It was so also with Abimelech, a heathen ruler in the southern regions of Philistia where Abraham and his retinue settled for a period of time (Genesis 20). Abimelech too reflects the fear of violating the union between Abraham and Sarah.

Later, in the story of Sodom, the book of Genesis speaks against homosexual practice. In Genesis 19, men in large numbers sought sexual satisfaction with men — and were violent in their pursuit. This deviation from the created order eventually brought about the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-28).

Genesis closes with the story of Joseph, a Hebrew alien in Egypt. He had no family there to support him and no faith community to guide him. His Egyptian master’s wife tried repeatedly to draw him into sexual sin. He steadfastly refused, asking his temptress, How then could I do such a thing and sin against God? (Genesis 39:6-20)

Thus, this opening book of the Bible consistently sets forth as God’s intention the vision of marital intimacy between one man and one woman. This remains clear in spite of the distorting influence of sin which brought into the general picture polygamy, adultery, incest, promiscuity and homosexuality to corrode his design.

Did the coming of Jesus many centuries later amend God’s initial design in any way? How did he speak to the issue?

We know that among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought about marriage and divorce. The liberal view said divorce was permissible for almost any cause. The other view said only adultery was grounds for divorce. These differences circulated around the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-5.

On one occasion the disputants sought to entangle Jesus in this debate. They asked him which interpretation was correct. Refusing to be trapped, he went deeper than the law of Moses, calling the disputants back to the initial teaching of the early portions of Genesis.

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The possibility and fruitfulness of a marriage between one man and one woman are gifts flowing from creation. That should settle the question. If Jesus, the most compassionate man who ever walked on earth, would not amend the law of marriage as presented in Genesis, we must not either.

Admittedly, this understanding of God’s design for marriage is received in pain by many who have experienced the marital brokenness of our times. What can the church do? It must first sound forth the message as God has given it — to the young, to any contemplating marriage, to the newly married and the traumatized or forsaken. At the same time, God gives his people resources for bringing support and healing to the wounded.

With regard to marriage and human sexuality, in taking both responsibilities seriously — to uphold the created order, and to aid the suffering and desolate — we fulfill Jesus’ declaration: You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14).

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The Picture on Our Dresser and the Memories It Awakens

On the dresser in our bedroom stands the only professional picture Kathleen and I have from our wedding 71 years ago this coming December 20. In this black and white photo, we stand before the photographer’s backdrop, Kathleen’s gloved hand firmly clasping my arm. Often, when I’m in the bedroom I pick the picture up and ponder it with gratitude and amazement.

Imagine: two 21-year-olds launching a lifetime enterprise on shoestring resources but strong in their love for each other and confident God would lead them. At that time, easy divorce, living together unmarried and same-sex marriage, had not yet complicated the matrimonial landscape.

Our special day was in no way lavish. If in color the picture would show Kathleen in a brown satin dress, half-calf in length, with a corsage of eight talisman roses. I wear a dark blue suit with a white boutonniere at the lapel.

The wedding was in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in the home of Muriel, Kathleen’s sister. For the simple ceremony we stood under an arch that Mel, my best man, had tacked together from lathe I purchased at the lumberyard. The arch was brightened by colored streamers.

The simple ceremony was followed by a chicken dinner for the twelve who were present. Afterwards there was some merriment and teasing over the whereabouts of our suitcases. We had hidden them the day before in a locker at the railroad station. (Kathleen’s younger sister coaxed my best man to deliver up our secret and the key.) After we retrieved our sabotaged luggage from the locker we started for Toronto.

The 70 miles to Toronto was to be followed by a two-day train ride to Saskatchewan where I would introduce my bride to my parents, my younger sister and my older brother and his wife.

Unknown to us, however, additional family — two older sisters, their husbands and children — had decided to make the trip from British Columbia by car to meet the bride. This created a housefull. The number almost overwhelmed Kathleen but after a few minutes of family decorum mingled with ill-concealed curiosity, warm welcomes and affirmations were extended.

Imagine: a “honeymoon” composed of a two-day train ride there and back, plus a bride’s first introduction to a family, and this all set in a week of bone-chilling winter weather. But Kathleen and I had each other; we were together in a thrilling new bond. The Bible says, we were “one flesh,” a new unit in society. As I gaze at the photograph the whole event comes flooding back.

It was universally thought back then that marriage would mean children and of that we were aware. But in those winter days that thought was remote because we were enthralled with our union pledged to be ours for keeps. That was as it should be.

Ten days before our first anniversary we welcomed our first child, Carolyn. Then in time came Donald and Robert and John David. During John David’s first year we learned bit by bit from a gentle pediatrician that our baby had serious brain damage, likely from oxygen deficiency during a long delivery. He would need institutional care.

There followed three stressful years for the family and especially for Kathleen whose motherly commitment to be sure John David got loving care was boundless to the point of exhaustion. Even feeding him three times a day was an ordeal. By his third birthday we surrendered him to the care of an institution suited to his needs, and we grieved.

Our other three children grew up and married. Then, in time, seven of their children grew up and six of them married. And by this coming spring, the grandchildren in turn will be at different stages of raising 12 great grandchildren.

Including children gained by marriage as well as by birth the two 21-year-olds pictured alone on our dresser will have become a small branch of humanity numbering 32 — three teachers, two editors, two engineers, two doctors, a pastor, a nurse practitioner, financial researcher, advertising clerk, financial consultant, nurse, artist, computer specialist, and social worker — each adding their own tone to the mix making family events colorful and pleasant.

I put this snapshot together hoping that it will come to the attention of some young man today who feels badgered by the pervasive anti-male and anti-marriage sentiments afloat in our culture. He may feel badgered even to the point of avoiding serious female companionship with a possible future in mind and in doing so he may be limiting the enrichment of his own destiny.

Consider a Christian perspective. Masculinity is much more than a social construct. It and fatherhood are gifts from God. As the Bible says, God created them “male and female.” We believe the gift is given to be directed, nourished and mastered and — if God wills — to be invested in a marriage and family filled with imagination and hope.

Photo credit: Ted Rabbitts (via flickr.com)

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In Secular Times Can Weddings Be Clearly Christian?

In one sense we can call any wedding “Christian” if it is conducted in a Christian church or guided by Christian ritual: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

On the other hand, it could be argued that a fully Christian wedding requires that the bride and groom be confessing Christians and the event be witnessed by at least a few believers.

Since the Enlightenment, which began in late 17th or early 18th century, the secular has been invading the precincts of the sacred, creating conflict.

I have seen this trend even in the short span, relatively speaking, of my 91 years. Early in my pastoral work, young people raised in evangelical churches tended to be sympathetic to the idea that their weddings be “Christ-honoring,” and were usually open to help in having their understanding deepened as to what this meant.

However, as the years passed, the desire to honor Christ as a primary focus seemed to fade somewhat for some young people who had grown up in a Christian congregation and sung its choruses and hymns and heard Scripture read. Standards were loosening and thoroughly Christian rituals were not always wanted.

I was on occasion asked to incorporate a song into a wedding that was itself sentimental but had no trace of Christian thought — a song perhaps more suited to the reception to follow. I was on occasion presented with a proposed wedding ritual written by bride or groom, and lacking the theological grasp required for a Christian wedding.

For purposes of guidance, the central feature of a Christian wedding should be its ritual, not its decor or its symbols, though the latter can assist in creating atmosphere. As I see it now, a couple contemplating marriage might benefit by being asked to read the proposed ritual for the service several times before becoming immersed in the complex planning of the event.

Why not sharpen the meaning of the upcoming wedding with such questions as: What does the ritual say about the origin of marriage? What is the extent of the vows it sets forth? What does it say about the irreversibility of our vows? A Christian wedding is not only a “rite of passage;” it is also a distinctly Christian event.

The purpose and content of the reception that follows the wedding are different. But a reception should also be Christ honoring — a time for rejoicing, for sharing good stories about the wedding couple, for speeches that elevate, for words of welcome or words of thanks from family to family, or music to add to the festive spirit. It is an event at which Christ is to be equally present and in that atmosphere family bondings can be strengthened. If the tone is not set in advance, a Christian reception can sometimes be diminished by off-color humor, or even drunkenness.

During increasingly secular times such as ours it is good to be a part of a congregation, whether large or small, that not only sounds the gospel clearly from its pulpit but also whose church board takes the trouble to spell out the implications of that gospel for the weddings it hosts.

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Convictions About Marriage Spring up Where You Don’t Expect Them

253317539_aac78de442_mFor those who accept the Bible as God’s timeless Word, and who receive its message with openness and honesty, God’s design for marriage is clearly presented in many places.

There’s an example in Abraham’s and Sarah’s experience when they moved into the alien territory of the Philistine King Abimelech (Genesis 20). This land was the extreme southwest section of the Negev Desert, between Egypt and Israel.

In that era, a king usually gathered a harem of beautiful women — sometimes as trophies, sometimes for political reasons. This would be just one example of culture’s veering from the message of the Biblical account of creation — that marriage is a bonding between one man and one woman (Genesis 1,2).

After establishing God’s intention for marriage, in Genesis 1 and 2 this book of beginnings reports faithfully the state of affairs for domestic life the world drifted into — bigamy, polygamy, concubinage, incest, fornication, and adultery. Genesis reports these aberrations because they describe the broken world into which God would send our Lord Jesus for our redemption.

At the outset of their travels from Mesopotamia into Canaan and Egypt, Abraham and Sarah knew about harems. They therefore agreed between themselves that if Sarah were seized and taken into a king’s harem because of her beauty, they would present themselves as brother and sister — not a completely false claim because they shared a common father, Terah. The marriage of half-siblings is not affirmed in the Bible but simply reported here as a feature of the honesty of the Book.

Word of her beauty reached the king. She was sent for and preliminarily taken into the harem, as they had feared would happen. Abraham might now be killed to get him out of the way if it were discovered that she was his wife, not his “sister”.

But before Abimelech went near Sarah, God came to the king in a dream, revealing the fact that Sarah was more than a sister to Abraham; God said in the dream, “she is a married woman.”

Abimelech, the pagan ruler, was instantly stricken with fear at what he had done — he had invaded a marriage to take a woman who was already the wife of another man. Within the dream, Abimelech protested his innocence to God, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” In spite of his harem, here is a pagan king acknowledging that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman regardless of how far culture might have traveled or moved away from that standard.

Early the next morning, Abimelech called his officers together to report the perilous situation they were in. They, too, were stricken with the fear of divine judgment. Abraham was immediately called before the king to explain his deception and in the presence of the king’s officers he was rebuked and asked why he had done this evil deed.

Abraham defensively told the king of the fear that drove him: “There is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me because of my wife.”

To stave off divine judgment, Abimelech gave Abraham abundant gifts of sheep, cattle, and slaves while restoring Sarah to him and graciously inviting them to live anywhere in his land they might choose.

He also notified Sarah that he was giving “her brother” one thousand shekels of silver to make amends for the offense committed against her. The story ends as Abraham prays God’s blessing on Abimelech and his house.

It’s an ancient story, lodged in an ancient culture. Its setting is devoid of the full revelation eventually reported in God’s divine Word. Yet the story shows that the Eternal God has his ways of affirming his rules even among those who do not know him.

There, in the Bible itself, is a case for natural law, known by Abimelech and affirmed in a dream even long before the divine law establishing the sanctity of marriage was given on Sinai.

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Is This the Right Person for Me to Marry?

DiceWhen I was twenty years old I was an aspiring gospel singer, and I traveled with a preacher five years my senior. At the time, we were both single.

In spare moments the subject of qualities to look for in a lifetime partner came up. This was back when marriage meant one man and one woman in covenant for life, and when young men and women were typically more ready to marry by their early twenties.

By his repetitions the list was fixed in my mind so I believe I can reproduce it accurately, before adding my brief comments.

First, he would ask, is this person a committed Christian? According to the Scriptures, Christians are to marry only Christians (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). So one should ask: is there evidence that he/she loves the Lord and manifests that love in lifestyle, attitudes, and habits?

Christians who ignore this requirement relative to marriage go contrary to clear Scriptural teachings. In doing so they disobey the Lord and deprive themselves of a spiritual dimension to their marriage that God intends to be unifying and enriching.

Second, is this a person of good character? In the early stages of a relationship, one looks for such traits as honesty and trustworthiness; a vision for life that includes serving others; respect for parents and little children; a strong work ethic; and empathy for others. Also, do friends and family give off cues and comments of affirmation or reservation — even alarm?

Third, what about disposition? It’s true that parties in a marriage have down days for which their mates make allowance. But prominent and frequent pouting, grumpiness, anger, or me-first behaviors even in a person of great charm should be noted because such traits will dissipate a lot of the life force that could otherwise be turned to positive, outward and even Christian ministry purposes.

The Proverbs warn against a “quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife” (Proverbs 21:19). If the Proverbs were being written today for our culture they would have cautionary words against choosing a “quarrelsome and ill-tempered” husband also.

Fourth, what about family background? Marriages tend to be stronger and more fulfilling when a bond between the two families also forms. Cultural and family similarities are certainly not absolute prerequisites in our multicultural society, but they can be helpful if present. If very different, they will require extra effort to bridge.

It is family values, character traits, disposition that of course trump all else. However, and one question to shed light on this issue is: Do I want this prospective mate’s brothers and sisters to be aunts and uncles to my children?

Fifth, (a modern adaptation to my preacher friend’s fifth question): if two vocations are represented in the potential union, is the success of the marriage more important than the full achievement of either partner’s vocation? For example, one partner wants to teach in Minnesota and the other in Florida. It is possible that a relationship could even be dissolved by unyielding differences.

While it might not answer the specifics between Minnesota and Florida, the couple in which each individual values the marriage above where to live will be more likely to survive this kind of modern-day dilemma.

Some may feel the above questions are too plodding for something so enthralling as love that points toward marriage. Why should a couple care about “little issues” in the realm of such areas as faith, character, disposition, and family if they are in love?

Passion is very much a part of the love that God gives to bind a man and woman together for a lifetime. But while passion may be sufficient to get a relationship started, it is not by itself enough as a foundation for a wonderful marriage. And, generally speaking, it is better for the mind to lead with questions like those above and the heart to follow than for the emotions to take over and the rational mind to be switched off until after the wedding.

And so, for the young person wishing to follow the path of wisdom to the altar and to deep satisfaction beyond, both clear judgment and romantic passion should have their appropriate place and contribution.

Christian young people must never forget to bind all this together with a strong cord of prayer. Pay attention to the answer to the above questions (and others); seek godly counsel if perplexities arise; ask for wisdom from God; and you are likely to experience the kind of love that blesses you and your spouse, survives all vicissitudes, and lasts a lifetime.

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Have You Ever Wondered Why a Bride and Groom Stand at the Marriage Altar with Their Backs to the Congregation?

14157224552_d054b78e05_mThere are reasons for this stance and the account of Solomon’s dedication of the just-completed temple gives us helpful hints (1 Kings 8).

To understand fully, we must visualize this magnificent building. Built in a rectangular shape, it was entered from the east into a large courtyard where the huge brazen altar stood for the offering of sacrifices. Then inside the building proper was the nave, called the Holy Place.

The inner sanctuary was deepest into the building and called the Holy of Holies. Here, the ark of the covenant had yet to be placed. God told his people that he would live among them, and this ark symbolized his presence.

Before King Solomon could begin the dedication, the Ark of the Covenant had to be carried by the priests from its prior resting place in the city of David and into the Holy of Holies.

The procession moved slowly and the courtyard was filled with great numbers of elders from throughout the nation. Solomon led the priests carrying the ark of the covenant toward the Holy of Holies. All the while, sacrifices were being offered extravagantly.

When the altar was finally placed in the Holy of Holies, and the priests withdrew, the Scriptures say, “… a cloud filled the temple of the Lord.” (1 Kings 8:10,11 NLT). Priests could not work because of this visible demonstration of God’s presence.

Now, notice how Solomon proceeded with the dedication. He faced the Holy of Holies with his back to the throng of elders. It was as though with mind, heart, and even position, he was focused first not on surroundings or the throngs, but on God as he prayed, “I have built for you a glorious house where you can live forever!”

Only then did he turn around to face the large gathering and bless them, following with explanatory sentences (1 Kings 8:11 -21 NLT).

Next, he turned away from the people and again faced toward the Holy of Holies and “with his hands lifted toward heaven before the altar of the Lord and before the entire community of Israel” he prayed a moving prayer for the nation (1 Kings 8:31 – 53 NLT).

But he also acknowledged with awe that the holiness and majesty of God were infinitely beyond any man-made structure, saying, “… will God really live on earth? Why even the highest heavens can’t contain you. How much less this temple I have built?” (1 Kings 8:27 NLT)

From that ancient time to the present, whether God is worshipped in lofty cathedral or humble frame church building, believers have taken their cue from Solomon’s dedication. At a wedding, for example, the bride and groom marry facing where communion table, open Bible, or mounted cross might stand as major symbols of the faith.

In a real sense, the officiating minister guides them as they exchange vows before God in his majesty and holiness. All of this explains why bride and groom face forward, with backs to the people, as though facing the “holy of holies” for their vows, and in a real sense saying: this is the house of the Lord, and by his living presence he is here with us.

In a Christian service, we who minister always hope the bride and groom will rise above the stresses of wedding detail and be moved to say their vows with an elevated sense of the presence and blessing of God.

And all of this is why the parties to a marriage stand with their backs to the congregation, looking forward, knowing in their hearts they are making vows in the presence of Almighty God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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