Sharon and I were married in August of 1974. In case you struggle with math that makes 39 years. Believe it or not, I can remember that far back. It was a great day but what makes it even more memorable is the journey that brought us to the altar at First Southern Baptist Church in Northglenn, Colorado.
We met several years earlier and were friends but nothing romantic, not even especially close friends. Sharon went off to college on the western slope (what us Coloradans called the other side of the Rocky Mountains). Both of us completed Junior College and unbeknownst to each other, transferred to the same college in West Texas. During the first few weeks we spoke occasionally but never dated or even talked about the possibility.
Early one evening, Sharon called and told me she had something we needed to talk about. I suggested she come over to my dorm and we could find a place to talk in the lobby. It was a Baptist college and in those days girls were not allowed in our rooms. As we sat and chatted, Sharon indicated God was telling her something. However, she was having a very difficult time telling me the specifics.
Patience has never been one of my strengths so I tried everything I knew to urge her to speak. Finally, I decided to take the initiative and said, “Perhaps He is telling you the same thing He is telling me.”
Sharon perked up at those words and asked what that might be. I told her that I felt like we would spend the remainder of our lives together. She confirmed that we were thinking the same thing. Don’t ask me to explain this because I can’t. What I do know is that we both decided that night we would begin our lives together by learning to love one another. That was more than 40 years ago and we have both been extremely successful at loving one another.
Let me tell you another story about marriage. When I was a pastor, a young lady who lived across the street from us asked if I would perform their wedding ceremony. I agreed but indicated I would like to counsel with them first. No problem. They came to my office and we talked.
After the second session it seemed obvious to me this marriage was not going to work. They had too many issues, primarily their lack of commitment to one another. Believing that marriage is an important thing, I felt it was necessary to explain to this couple that I could not perform the ceremony. I tried to clarify the issues but finally just told them I didn’t think the marriage would last six months.
I knew they would simply find another minister and they would probably want to use our church building. That wasn’t the point. I just could not provide a blessing on a marriage I didn’t think was right. Sure enough, they found another preacher and set out to prove me wrong. The marriage exceeded the six months I predicted and lasted a total of seven months.
There is an obvious difference between a marriage that has spanned nearly four decades and one that barely made seven months. I suspect the wedding ceremonies were remarkably similar and there was no legal difference. I have performed many ceremonies by uttering the words that go something like this: “By the power vested in me by the state of Texas, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
The difference between these two marriages is that one was between two people who were committed to one another and the other without the commitment. The church ceremony and the legal endorsement were the same for both.
Christians are expending a great deal of energy and blog space trying to determine the definition of “biblical marriage.” I have no intention in this article to discuss the issue of gay marriage (that is a subject for another day). However, one of the reasons we are having such a difficult time defining what many want to call “biblical marriage” is because we have not done a very good job of understanding marriage to begin with.
Most Christians would define the two marriages I described above as “biblical marriages” because they involved a man and a woman, a marriage license, and a religious ceremony. Such a lax attitude about marriage is the reason more than half of the marriages among Christians end in divorce.
By the way, I’m not a big fan of the term “biblical marriage” because there are several types of marriage encouraged in the Bible that few of us want to support – polygamy (unless you are a Mormon), Levirate marriage (if your brother dies you take his wife), and concubines (if you are a masochist). I prefer to use the term “Christian marriage” and define that as marriage that is recognized in the eyes of God.
If that is to be our understanding of marriage then it is necessary to determine when a man and woman (remember, I am not addressing the issue of gay marriage) are considered married from God’s perspective. I decided to ask around and get various opinions. I brought it up in a meeting designed for a totally different purpose than a theological discussion. I asked people I encountered, and even posted it on my Facebook status.
The most common answer I received was that a couple is married when they have sex. It was the most common answer but folks changed their mind immediately after they said it out loud. Obviously that can’t be the answer or else there are some folks with more marriage partners than Solomon.
The second most frequent answer was that a couple is married once they say their vows in a wedding ceremony – “I do, you do, consider it done.” However, the problem here is that wedding ceremonies are primarily a cultural expression. Try to find anything in God’s Word about walking down an aisle, lighting a unity candle, exchanging rings, or providing a chicken dinner for everyone who attends. There is certainly nothing wrong with any of these things but an American wedding tradition is probably not the moment God considers a couple married.
Some suggested putting both ideas together, declaring that a couple is married in God’s eyes after the public ceremony and a visit to the marriage bed. But then someone asked about the elderly couple who want to share their final years together but have no interest in a physical romp.
In my opinion, I don’t think the couple I described earlier who had the seven month marriage was every married in God’s eyes. I don’t mean to imply that their marriage was dependent upon my judgment, but it was obvious they were never committed to one another. Commitment to one another seems to be the key component of a marriage. Commitment transcends cultural wedding traditions. It is available to the couple of an arranged marriage as well as the Romeo and Juliet approach to falling in love.
Sometime between February of 1973 when Sharon and I talked in the dorm and August of 1974 when we stood before family and friends and publically shared vows, we were married in God’s eyes. We chose not to live together as husband and wife until after the public ceremony but there was nothing that happened that day to make our commitment to one another any different.
If you are wondering why I am chasing down this rabbit trail, this is an important issue. What is required for God to consider a man and woman as husband and wife? In other words, what makes a marriage? My answer is commitment to one another. It might be commitment that begins with an arranged marriage (kind of like mine and Sharon) or one that begins with a burst of emotion. Without commitment to one another there is not a marriage. Commitment is what turns a legal or cultural ceremony into a Christian marriage.
The reason marriages between Christians are no more likely to endure than marriages between non-Christians is because we have allowed the world to define marriage for us. Marriage is typically understood as beginning with a ceremony involving a legal document. Both of these are important and they have their place. The value of the ceremony is that it provides an opportunity for family and friends to celebrate with the couple and offer their support. The value of the legal document is that it makes it possible to enjoy all the legal benefits of being married. But, neither of these is essential to making a Christian marriage. A Christian marriage is two Christians who have committed themselves to one another.
With this definition of marriage, it is probably safe to say that Christians are doing better at marriage than we thought. When we allow the world to define things we should not be surprised that the results look very much like the world. It is time for Christians to take a stand on “biblical marriage” (once again there’s that phrase I don’t really like). That means we should insist that those who want to marry should be committed to one another. Maybe then we would have a lot more 40 year anniversary celebrations and a lot fewer seven-month-failures.