Monday, August 04, 2014

What Makes a Marriage a Marriage?

The answer may surprise you.

It’s not the ring, the dress or the ceremony. It’s not the preacher, the church or the gathered friends and family. It’s not government sanction or the filling out of the correct legal forms. It’s not the taking of vows or the proclamation of banns.

We do all that stuff, and there are sound reasons not to discard most of these customs. One is foolish to spurn the accrued wisdom of generations simply for the sake of novelty. And there is value in the blessing and support of family and friends. There is strength in community. As Immanuel Can pointed out recently, marriage is hard and we need all the incentives we can gather, especially in this individualistic age, to remind us to take it seriously.

But not one of these trappings is essential.

Adam and Eve

Adam was Eve’s husband. Eve was his wife. They had no ring, and for that matter no clothes. No government existed to validate their union and no church existed to host the ceremony. No friends or family had yet been born, and no preacher was available to tell them what marriage was all about, caution them, encourage them or instruct Adam when to kiss the bride.

We might, I suppose, imagine God officiating a little ceremony to join the only two people on the planet in holy matrimony, but it would be just that: imagination. We read nothing of the sort. As far as we know, no vows were taken. And surely Adam, with not a single other option in the world, had few initial commitment issues either pro or con. And who knows what Eve thought of the arrangement. Adam has a few words to say about her, but from the record, Eve is silent about him.

As far as we can tell, there was neither courtship nor engagement. God “brought her to the man”, and that is all we can categorically affirm.

Our English Bibles don’t even use the word “marriage” of Adam and Eve in the Genesis narrative. The word doesn’t show up in scripture until Genesis 29, a couple thousand years later.

So that first marriage lacked just about everything we think is critical to the process of two people coming together, and yet it remains the model to which the Lord Jesus returns when the issue of marriage arises, and the model to which the apostle Paul returns when exploring the subject of Christian marriage in his epistles.

In the relationship between Adam and Eve there is everything essential to marriage in the eyes of God, which is really the only thing that matters.

Marriage Starts With God

A marriage begins when God sees a man and woman as joined together, and not merely because a preacher or priest proclaims it to be so. Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate”, so it’s very clearly his call, not ours.

The uniting of man and woman, the becoming of “one flesh”, seems to be for the most part what makes the difference. The first time you as a man unite yourself with a woman, or you as a woman unite yourself with a man, God has “joined” you together in a rather mysterious, mystical way, regardless of whether that union was a formalized ceremony with all the trappings and excitement or half forgotten at the tail end of a bad bender.

If that seems a little unlike how we look at it today ... well, it is.

When a man raped an unpledged virgin in Israel, he was obligated to marry her. The sexual act and the marriage were to go together, regardless of whether the marriage or the act took place first.

Still, under the Law of Moses, a virgin pledged to be married was considered to be the wife of the man to whom she was promised even before the actual event took place. The penalty for raping her was the same as that for violating a married woman.

Evidently there’s something to be said for commitment too.

So perhaps it’s not as cut and dried as simply counting the days since a ceremony or even the first night of a honeymoon, but maybe that’s the best we can do since we can’t see into God’s heart.

All we can say for sure is that any particular union starts when God says it starts.

Marriage Ends With God

Likewise, it ends when God says it ends. Death is one possible termination point: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” Another potential finisher is the violation of the marriage by an adulterous act.

But it ends when God says it ends, not because the legal niceties have been observed. A man could give his wife a certificate of divorce under the Law of Moses, but Jesus called any subsequent union “adultery”, even though the certificate was a requirement of law.

And if it was adultery, in God’s eyes some aspect of the original marriage still mattered. There was no clean slate for merely discharging your legal obligations.

What Does That Mean?

If marriage is in the eyes of God and the rest is just detail, why bother? If, for instance, I were to just pick a woman I fully intend to remain with for the rest of my life and move in with her, once we “seal the deal”, so to speak, will we not be just as married as Adam and Eve were?

In essence, we would, I think. And if the two of us lived in the Garden of Eden, or on a desert island, perhaps that would be just fine.

Except we don’t.

Christians have picked up one or two extra obligations in the years since God brought Eve to Adam and they started using the terms “husband” and “wife” about each other:

Obligation to the Government: One of these obligations is that we are to “render unto Caesar” what is Caesar’s, something that remains true even when ‘Caesar’ intrudes on an area of life such as marriage that is really, truly, not his concern. If the government requires a piece of paper filled out in order to acknowledge that two people are married, I’m not sure we have sufficient cause to refuse to comply, any more than Peter would have had to refuse to pay his taxes to the Romans.

It’s not like they’re asking us to stop witnessing or something.

Obligation to the Church: We are also to be respectful of the way the church we attend deals with the marriage issue. We are told to “submit to the authority” of our leaders. So whatever their custom or practice is concerning marriage, I cannot see a compelling reason to pursue a different path. And really, if you dispute the way they handle things like weddings at your local church, it may well be because you’re in the wrong place.

Obligation to fellow Christians: Another obligation we have, as an act of love, is to be concerned about the reactions we provoke in those around us. We should not stumble our “brothers”. Even if one is not “sinning” technically in bypassing the social niceties and legal details, it becomes a sinful act the moment it messes with the faith and practice of those for whom Christ died who may misunderstand our motives or actions. I wouldn’t want to see young couples pairing up with hardly a thought because they assumed “that’s what they did and it was fine for them”, or frankly, even put up with hearing whispers about “living in sin”.

Compared to either of those scenarios, going through the currently acceptable cultural process seems a small price to pay.

Obligation to the Community: Finally, if being married at law is considered “better” in our society than living common law (and it is still thought more respectable, by a hair at least) then we should be respectful of that too. It’s not just believers whose opinions should concern us. We are to “live ... good lives among the pagans”.

But in the end, any opinion the government, society, the church or your friends and family holds about your marriage cannot make it either more or less of a real union.

Only God can do that.

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