I just spent a training day with pastors in Canada, and the issue of “gay marriage” came up and they were speculating on happenings in America these days. One thing you notice in Canada is that they are very much up on the news in the United States–they can’t seem to escape it if they wanted to (it’s all over their televisions, for instance). The opposite is, of course, not true. I am ashamed to say that I just googled “The Prime Minister of Canada” in order to find out the answer.
Among many other matters we discussed about leadership, these Canadian pastors were sharing how they have dealt with the law in their country that gay marriage is protected by the state. They have had to deal with “losing this battle” with a different tack than most American Christians have so far been taking. The Canadian Church has retreated to the backup position of re-stating what the Church does and doesn’t do–and letting the government decide what it does and doesn’t do, even if it is contrary to the Church’s stand. I admire the Canadian Christians in how they are doing this, and I think they have a lot to teach us Americans on this issue if things progress as they seem to be in the states.
Now, I’m not saying anyone has won or lost the battles in the United States. I’m just saying that now even the highest court in the land is considering it. So perhaps it’s time for us to more concretely state what a sacred marriage is, and what it’s not, in terms of the Church. By “sacred marriage” I mean a holy union between a man and a woman, blessed by the Church that is the body of Jesus Christ on earth. This is what marriage has meant for the Church through the centuries. And while a country may change what they mean by a legal union or certified state marriage, the Church gets to decide what a sacred marriage is. I borrow this term from Gary Thomas, who wrote the best book I’ve read on marriage by the same name. I suggest that it is the best term to use from here on out. When people ask “what do you mean by ‘marriage?'” I will say: “I mean a sacred marriage, one blessed by the Church.”
So, what is the purpose of a sacred marriage?
[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]1) To make us holy[/highlight]
In his book Gary Thomas wonders “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” This might be some consolation for the great many of us who are in a marriage that is not as happy as we would like. But that is not the primary point (although it certainly applies). More importantly, the purpose of marriage is to make us more holy. This is difficult for many people to understand, of course. They don’t really believe in sin in the first place, much less a God-empowered holy life. While many vocal people oppose gay and lesbian marriages for political, cultural, and at times even homophobic reasons we oppose it because of our holiness theology, theology of sin, and my theology of marriage. We believe that “God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only in a monogamous lifelong relationship between one man and one woman within the framework of marriage.”*
When we see a man leave his family and join with his wife we see a man and woman choosing to expose themselves, literally and figuratively, to one another; warts and all, again literally and figuratively. A sacred marriage is a loving institution that grinds the sin from you. Thomas wonders if “Couples don’t fall out of love so much as they fall out of repentance.” Marriage is the ultimate relationship of repentance. We sin most against those that are closest to us. And this is the most counter-cultural thing of all about a sacred marriage. The world does not even believe in sin in the first place. So for us to identify that we in fact have sinned, that we sin against each other–that is something that we willingly must do in a marriage, or we not only destroy our sacred marriages, we also harm our relationship with God. As Thomas says, “Once we enter the marriage relationship we cannot love God without loving our spouses as well.” In the end, a sacred marriage should make the husband and wife both more like God, meaning more loving. This also means we cannot be unloving to those that live a lifestyle outside of the will of God, including homosexuals. I suppose I mean that those with a sacred marriage that has made them more like God are going to be even more loving and respectful of homosexuals, even if they don’t believe they should be allowed to have a sacred marriage–one blessed by the Church. The sacred union is one which imitates God’s interrelatedness… the two become one, just as God is one (Genesis 2:23; Mark 10:7). The sacred marriage becomes a holy dance of partners, both of which sin less, and are like Christ more, because of each other. The Church, in this brave new world, may need to emphasize the growth into holy living that comes from a loving sacred marriage between a husband and wife.
[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]2) To make us authentic[/highlight]
A sacred marriage also exists to give us what we do not necessarily what but emminently need: authenticity. I have noticed many a flashy leader who sang a different tune when their spouse was around. A husband or wife knows the real you–or should. Thomas confesses: “What marriage has done for me is hold up a mirror to my sin. It forces me to face myself honestly and consider my character flaws, selfishness, and anti-Christian attitudes, encouraging me to be sanctified and cleansed and to grow in godliness.” We learn, in a sacred marriage, about our true selves. In marriage I have to come to grips with the fact that I may in fact squeeze the toothpaste wrong, or leave the toilet seat up too often. Those of us who have not changed our mind on any of these trivial matters often have not become authentic enough to expose our true selves to our spouses. It is terrifying to be this authentic–and many a sacred marriage ends because of it and the divorced ones profane what God has made sacred. “I wouldn’t be surprised if many marriages end in divorce largely because one or both partners are running,” Thomas says, “from their own revealed weaknesses as much as they are running from something they can’t tolerate in their spouse.” This makes sacred marriage counter-cultural as well. Our plastic culture thrives on inauthenticity. Fake is in. Truth is out. Augmentation is preferred over authenticity with everything from our body parts to our Resumes. Of course, now that we have social media, everyone has become both an actor and their own marketing assistant as well–spending 45 minutes deciding on just the right avatar picture is just one example. A sacred marriage cuts through the pseudo-persona and provides you with a crystal clear mirror of the self, held up by a person that loves you without conditions attached. The Church, in this brave new world, may need to emphasize the increased authenticity that comes from a loving sacred marriage between a husband and wife.
[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]3) To make us joyful[/highlight]
A sacred marriage exists to provide joy in our hearts. Nothing on earth brings more joy than a loving sacred marriage. Part of this is happiness–but not the trivial kind, that fleeting rush of adrenaline. The happiness that comes from a sacred marriage is better termed “contentment.” This is even true when it comes to our sexual selves. There is a joy that comes in being truly sexually content in a marriage. Our sex-crazed culture knows very little about this, and secular scholars are always shocked to discover that there is much more contentment about sexual lives among the traditionally married set than the jet-setting partner-swapping or casual hook-up crowds. I’m not shocked. All the way back in the Song of Solomon we were already passing on to our youth the beautiful hope to see them content in loving their spouses, where a man finds in his wife a satisfaction he cannot find anywhere else. In a bi-polar culture that swings from rabid pleasure seeking to depressed cynicism a sacred marriage finds the third way of joy. A sacred marriage thus points to the Way of Christ which provides it. The Church, in this brave new world, may need to emphasize the great joy that comes from a loving sacred marriage between a husband and wife.
[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]4) To make us fruitful[/highlight]
We would be remiss to forget that part of the purpose of a sacred marriage is to be fruitful and multiply. Our purpose on earth is not procreation, any more than it is sexuality in general. That is only one part of who we are, or only a portion of our potential. But it is key. We are biologically created in this way… and we might call other forms of sexual engagement what they are: mere mutual stimulation. This is counter-cultural as well– since we as a nation tend to define things by their extremes. Yes, I have very close friends who cannot have children. I grieve for them, but I believe that they haven’t yet experienced part of why God gave us sacred marriage. This is why I grieve for them. It’s why they grieve for themselves. Their beautiful love longs for that expression through that amazing act of sub-creation, fruitfulness: a.k.a.: children. Many have adopted, which is it’s own special grace in the world today that in some ways exceeds biological reproduction, with all it’s rich parallels to our adoption in God. However, the fact remains that part of sacred marriage is intended for fruitfulness. This romantic, sexual, and procreative love is a beautiful thing, a mature love. Thomas reminds us that “Any mature, spiritually sensitive view of marriage must be built on the foundation of mature love rather than romanticism. But this immediately casts us into a countercultural pursuit.” The Church, in this brave new world, may need to emphasize the multiplied fruitfulness of children that comes from a loving sacred marriage between a husband and wife.
In considering these four purposes I wonder if preaching, valuing and celebrating a sacred marriage between a husband and wife might be one of the most countercultural pursuits to engage in today. Of course, the Church has not modeled many marriages worthy of emulating. Christians have not been good husbands, good wives. Generations now have prioritized their irreconcilable differences over their irrevocable vows. So we may need to return to these pruposes of a sacred marriage to shore up the weaknesses in our own Church culture–so that the marriages we believe in, the sacred marriage between a husband and wife–actually looks like a better way of life, a lifestyle to admire. I worry that we have lost this, and that a sacred marriage is not only counter-cultural to our national culture–but even counter-cultural to our Church culture.
How about you… how would you “define marriage” in a sacred sense? What is the view of the Church as to what a marriage is?
Disclaimer: In case you were speculating, the first draft thoughts found on DavidDrury.com are always my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my family, my neighbors, my church, my denomination, or my third cousin from Toledo. At times the thoughts here don’t even represent my own thoughts later on, when scripture, tradition, reason, and experience have conspired to change my mind.
*For your reference here below is a copy of what those in my tribe (the Wesleyan Church) have stated officially about marriage.
[row_box class=””]”We believe that every person is created in the image of God, that human sexuality reflects that image in terms of intimate love, communication, fellowship, subordination of the self to the larger whole, and fulfillment. God’s Word makes use of the marriage relationship as the supreme metaphor for His relationship with His covenant people and for revealing the truth that that relationship is of one God with one people. Therefore God’s plan for human sexuality is that it is to be expressed only in a monogamous lifelong relationship between one man and one woman within the framework of marriage. This is the only relationship which is divinely designed for the birth and rearing of children and is a covenant union made in the sight of God, taking priority over every other human relationship.” The Wesleyan Church Discipline 2012, 222[/row_box]