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.

Photo credit: Stephen Durham (via flickr.com)

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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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Re-post: About Weddings and Such

Photo credit: Oh mon héros ! [Kenya express) via flicker.comI got a note yesterday from a longstanding friend in a midwestern city to remind me that 40 years ago this month she, her groom, and I stood at the altar in the Greenville church where I administered their wedding vows. The bride’s father, an ordained minister, assisted. Her note was warm to both Kathleen and me, with other comments about that special day and our visits together that led up to it, and how much it had meant to them across four decades. Ministerial moments like that create a bond for a lifetime.

It so happened that about one month earlier Kathleen and I had shared a celebratory mail with a couple here in Ontario, for the same purpose. In a restaurant overlooking beautiful West Lake, we remembered that I had led them in exchanging their vows in New Westminster, B. C. 50 years earlier that very month. In the glow of the late afternoon sun we had reviewed our memories of the wedding and certain features attending the event. Those memories too are precious.

In a sense, each wedding was a one-of-a-kind event, never to be duplicated. Each was planned by the bride and her mother. (Grooms often show little interest in the details of the wedding itself; they just want to get through it.) In another sense, both weddings were the same in that, from a Christian perspective, all weddings are the same. That is, they all celebrate the wedding couple’s entrance into the “institution of marriage.” We Christians believe that God himself set the standards for marriage when he brought Eve to Adam with the intent that “they too shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24b). That truth is declared at every Christian wedding.

Across our 67 years of ministry there have been many weddings, some private, some public, some joyful, some vaguely sad, some lavish some simple but beautiful. There was the wedding of the bride who had been abandoned by her father in her early childhood, and whom she had never seen again — until he turned up unexpectedly on the morning of her wedding. This brought on a paroxysm of tears, a panic, and, for her, it took the bloom from the day. Once, a couple came to my study to tell me that they had divorced four years earlier prompted by a foolish fight that got out of hand. Over time and with the cooling of their pride they had realized what a mistake they had made. A week later I took them into the Luzader Chapel along with their children to be the first couple married in that facility. It was a tender moment of reconciliation.

Kathleen served as the wedding hostess at our weddings, coaching the bride and bridle party, and thus relieving their stress, and endearing herself again and again to the brides’ mothers. This was one of the most pleasant of pastoral duties for which we teamed together. Her services certainly made my part of the task easier. And by our generous services we signalled to the families that this event was very important to us – not just something ministers do on Saturdays.

I could not have foreseen all this as a challenging and enjoyable part of the work when as a 16-year-old boy I made my first affirmative responses to a call to the ministry. Nor could I have grasped the broad assignment of Christian ministry and the breadth of its challenges. Kathleen couldn’t have either when she consented to marry me. But recalling it now reminds us of what some young people will miss if they disregard or resist the call God places on their hearts to enter pastoral life in the service of the Master. It’s not just wedding and such, it’s entering deeply into people’s lives at their big transitional moments in life. What a rich blessing. Recalling it fills us with thankfulness to the Lord for the trust.

See my piece on how to conduct a wedding here: http://pclm.freemethodistchurch.org/

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Marriage and God’s Judgment

172651522_7c748a64e1_mIf, as some expect will happen, the Supreme Court of the United States rules that same-sex marriage is a civil right guaranteed by the American Constitution, this will create distress within the Christian community and beyond.

In Canada the decision has already been made in favor of revision. On July 20, 2005, the Federal Government passed Bill C-38 making same-sex marriage a legal right in all provinces.

Believers who feel uninformed or uncertain on the issue, might begin by reflecting on the question in the first two chapters of the Bible, where marriage is presented as “an order of creation.”

The first chapter of the Bible begins with the timeless affirmation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Then this creation account unfolds to a climax with the creation of man as “male and female” (Genesis 1:27). And to male and female together God gives the mission to “be fruitful and increase.” (Genesis 1: 28).

Then, in the second chapter of the Bible the author in a sense reaches back to chapter one to further develop what is implied there. In doing so marriage is spoken of in a visible, concrete way and we meet Adam and Eve — one man and one woman.

You can see from this that marriage is presented even before the fall of man. That is why we say marriage is an order of creation and see it as a design of the Creator God.

So, we cannot see procreative marriage merely as a relationship prehistoric man gradually stumbled onto over a period of many centuries, and developed little by little. If that were so, a lack of procreational capabilities at the outset would have registered mankind as extinct.

As the Scriptures develop they report many deviations from the model set forth in Genesis 2 — one man and one woman exclusively. In Genesis 4 Lamech is the first bigamist, taking two wives (Genesis 4:19). Later it is implied that Pharaoh, an Egyptian pagan ruler, keeps a harem. But when he intrudes into the one-man-one-woman marriage of Abraham the Lord shows him his offense by sending serious disease on him and his household (Genesis 12:10–20).

When it comes to “male and female” relationships both Old and New Testaments report negatively on all sorts of deviations from the exclusive union of one man and one woman — fornication, adultery, polygamy, rape, even a deviation to sodomy (Genesis 19).

These deviations are sometimes cited to support the new and experimental situations being tried in our times and to diminish the sanctity of “one man and one woman” in the present.

It is important to note, in reply, that the Scriptures acknowledge all of the above and more in order to report them because the Bible is a very honest book. But they do not affirm any of them except “one man and one woman exclusively.”

So, what would Jesus say about this issue? First, consider his honest but compassionate treatment of the woman he met at Jacob’s well. She had already experienced five failed marriages and was at the time in a live-in relationship (John 4). He did not affirm her wretched career but he was kind without being sentimental. He spoke to the spiritual thirst beneath her marital confusion.

And what did he say to the woman who had been seized in an adulterous act? Again, without affirming her action he offered forgiveness, restoring to her her dignity. (John 8:3–11). No one could thus ever call him a hateful person.

Yet, in another situation some pharisees tried to draw him into conflict over the knotty problem of divorce. They asked him to declare on what grounds divorce would be considered allowable?

He went behind their debate to speak of the nature of marriage as set forth in Genesis: “God made them male and female” and said, “be fruitful and increase.” (Genesis 1:27). He added, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In his response he linked together the first and second chapters of Genesis as though they were one (Matthew 19:4-6).

Marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman.

If for Christians marriage is an order of creation, not negotiable and not amendable, then any move to revise it radically should be seen as reckless and hurtful to participants and to society. A nation that scorns the loving provision of God for heterosexual union and potential procreation will invite his judgment.

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Can Marriage Be Redefined? Part 3

5118561480_3296f53489_m_PeteEvangelicals almost universally believe that marriage is an institution ordained of God, a covenanted relationship bonding one man and one woman for life. They ground this belief in the Scriptures, and in doing so they are joined by many nominal Christians and also non-believers who nevertheless have a view of life deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian thought.

On this matter, I write with good will toward all, none excepted. My purpose is positive, not negative. I address only the one question: what does the Bible say on this issue?

There are reports that evangelicals in some quarters are deviating from this understanding of marriage in the name of compassion. Does the Bible leave room for such a variance?

The answer begins with the story of creation. The opening chapter of the Bible declares that everything that exists was spoken into being by the word of God. Then it tells the story step by step, moving relentlessly forward to the pinnacle of God’s creative work — the creation of man.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in our likeness …’” (Genesis 1:26). Man, this planned, God-formed creature, the peak or exclamation point of creation as the story tells it, is going to be assigned to rule over all.

The fulfillment of this divine intention to bring humankind into being is then announced and nailed down by the threefold repetition of the word “to create.” “So God created man in his own image, / In the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

Then came their united domestic assignment: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Together they are “man” (Genesis 1:26) — that is, humankind — but as “man” they are “male and female” (Genesis 1:27). The implication is that together, through copulation, they will procreate, that is, act in behalf of God to bring human life into being.

Then comes Genesis 2 with its matchless story of Adam and Eve. Here is the ground for marriage as it has been understood for centuries. One man and one woman in a “one flesh” union.

I see Genesis 1 as the big picture of creation, taken with a wide-angle lens. Then the angle narrows and we look in upon the creation of man in greater depth. He is alone at first, and his name is Adam (man). God sees that he is lonely. He solves the problem with a divine surgery. Now there are two. They share a common human identity but there is a bifurcation so that they are attracted to each other by certain differences. They are male and female.

This is how the Bible gives us the first intimation of marriage. Adam and Eve are capable of producing children, which in time they do.

From that point in prehistory there is a string that runs through the Bible featuring marriage as a relationship of one man with one woman. Abraham had one wife, Sarah, though after her death he married Keturah. Earlier when he succumbed to Canaanite practices and took Hagar as a concubine to bear him an heir the Bible makes clear things did not go well. Concubines as second wives, were not in God’s plan.

Jacob wanted to have only one wife but his father-in-law tricked him into having two, and eventually there were four. In that story Bible readers are shown the negative consequences of polygamy: domestic disorder.

Ruth, the Moabitess married an Israelite man while he was living in Moab. He died there. She came to her mother-in-law’s home in Bethlehem and married the Israelite, Boaz. In each case, even for someone from another culture, one man and one woman was the standard.

The Bible favors this Adam and Eve plan. It also contains many examples of deviations from the plan. It appears to prescribe the former, and only to describe the latter.

The Proverbs also have a string of wisdom sayings to favor traditional marriage: “A wife of noble character who can find? / She is worth far more than rubies” (Proverbs 31:10). Notice: “a wife,” not “wives.” “May your fountain be blessed / and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). Again the model is one throughout life.

The New Testament is no less clear that a marriage is a union of one man and one woman. To the Corinthian church planted in a degenerate seaport city the Apostle Paul wrote, “But since there is so much immorality each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). To the Ephesian church likewise he wrote, “However each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:33).

The Bible has much to teach about the evil of deviations from this pattern of one man and one woman. Even the scandalous situation of Solomon with 700 wives and 300 concubines is only reported, not commended. Other reports of deviation are many. Lamech is the first to take a second wife (Genesis 4:19). The Sodomites veer to the course of same-sex intimacy and violence (Genesis 19:1–5). In all such deviations the reports do not condone any immoral practice or plead for the approval of what the Lord does not approve.

Most significant, our Lord spoke clearly to the issue of marriage when he was confronted by the Pharisees on what to them had become a sticky question — the issue of divorce (Matthew 19:3–9). Rather than entering their ongoing debate at that level he reminded them of the timeless account of Adam and Eve (Matthew 19: 4–6). And in doing so, he merged as God’s inspired word the accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, quoting from each together on the subject.

All Christians are called to treat with compassion the troubling issues others wrestle with in the realm of sexuality. But to do so by veering from the clear teachings of the Christian Scriptures will always be a response of unfaithfulness. Our sacred book makes clear that marriage cannot be other than the covenanted relationship of one man with one woman.

 

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