When my wife and I got married we had to sign a four page contract with, what felt like, a zillion points as to what would be allowed or not allowed in our wedding ceremony and also the details of our past relationships. We grew up in an Acappella Church of Christ so the church we were getting married in didn’t allow any music to be played that contained instruments (yes…I actually just said that…try walking down the aisle to a vocal rendition of the Wedding March). The contract also wanted to make sure that we had no prior marriages that ended in a “unbiblical divorce” or that we weren’t living together prior to getting married, etc. We had to initial each point of the contract to affirm we understood the expectations and that we were not in violation of any of the conditions. Even now, as I look back on it, it was very legalistic in tone and feel (even as it was very thorough and clear).
In my ministry over the past 15 years I’ve had a number of angry couples who came to me wanting me to marry them because “their Pastor” (or church) wouldn’t allow them to get married because of [fill in the blank]. As they shared their stories, it wasn’t hard to feel a little sympathetic to the sting they felt of legalistic rules and expectations.
Legalism sucks no matter what the topic or situation. And the tone of legalism I find repugnant.
And that is why this conversation of weddings and marriage feels in some way awkward to me. I’ve come to appreciate that there really does need to be understanding, expectations, and clarity as to what Christian marriage is, and what it isn’t. And I personally have fallen into some convictions in this area that before I have glossed over hoping that my inclusive spirit and “generosity” of low-expectations and hoops to jump through would ultimately win the day (or at least the hearts of those getting married).
And now…15 years later…that didn’t work. In the devastation of divorce and failed marriages I feel I have done a disservice to couples to not give greater instructions, expectation, and clarity as to God’s heart and desire for marriage.
And yet…I don’t want to be legalistic. I don’t want to have that tone.
So I struggle. And in the end, I have concluded that this really is a case-by-case deal. You just can’t have hard and fast rules as to what you declare you will or will not do. And in the end, you have to discern directional movement. What I mean by that is – are they moving towards Jesus, or away from Him?
I had a couple that I married several years ago (really…one of my favorite people) who came to me precisely because another church had rejected them. They had been together for years (even living together) and had two beautiful little girls. They got involved in our church and gave their lives to Jesus and eventually got married. And it was very obvious that they were directionally heading TOWARDS Jesus, even if the beginning of their relationship didn’t line up with what Jesus would have desired. Of course! They hadn’t given their lives to Jesus yet. I know many Pastors wouldn’t have married them because they were living together. Or they would have married them only if one of the individuals moved out. But for me…they had two daughters. What could be more devastating for those little girls than for “daddy” to move out a few months prior to the wedding ceremony? So, in the end, with great joy, I married them. And the reason…their entire life was directionally heading towards Jesus.
On the other hand, I’ve had other couples who were already in Jesus. They had confessed Jesus as Lord, they had been baptized in his name. They had pledged to follow after the ways of Jesus. And then…it seemed every decision they made relationally was away from Jesus. Sex before marriage (which by the way the statistics tell us is at 80% for Christians who are engaged). Living together. On different pages when it came to spiritual values and commitments. And making decisions that are NOT headed towards Jesus.
I live and exist because of God’s grace. And I want to extend that to everyone. Everyone stumbles. Everyone sins. Everyone screws up. Everyone has that moment when their life, after taking two steps forward, takes a step back. But the stakes involved in marriage are too high and too great (especially when kids are involved) for a flippant – “everyone makes mistakes so…whatever” in regards to the foundational decisions people make in regards to getting married.
And the only way I know to hold convictions and not be legalistic is to move case-by-case prayerfully discerning the overall direction a couple is heading. If it is towards Jesus, I want to help, as much a I can, along the way. If it is away from Jesus, my help has to take the form of instruction, warning, and the call to repentance. To plead, with as much grace as I am capable of manifesting – to head back TOWARDS Jesus. For it is the only sound directional move available for Christians who want to get married.