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Saturday, May 30, 2015

What If Marriage Was A Sacrament?

Oh, wait...  How ironic is that?

Now, let me be clear, so as not to cause any confusion.  In the Church of the Nazarene, as an official position, we recognize two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist.  To be a Nazarene, you do not have to recognize marriage as a sacrament, but I'd like to make a case for why we should.

Let's take a look at Matthew 19:4-6.  These are the words of Jesus when asked specifically about divorce, and I don't want to take them out of context, but I think there are some relatively important points about marriage, in general, that can be discerned from these words:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (NIV).

I think, in our current culture, that a lot of people get really wrapped up in what people are doing in this passage, and, perhaps a lot of people get wrapped up in what people are doing something in this passage.  These are important details to work through, but I'm not sure they are nearly as important as what God is doing here, particularly if we actually believe that God does something when we practice the sacraments.

In marriage, God joins two people and makes them one.  And, come on, this is not even figurative language here, friends.  I'm pretty sure if you're old enough to be reading my blog, you know how this works.  Jesus uses the word  flesh, or the Greek, sarka, in this passage.  It is the same word used for flesh in John 6 when Jesus instructs the disciples that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, which, sounds somewhat like a foreshadowing of the first Eucharist, if you ask me.  It's the same word used for various negative references to living according to the flesh, living according to human nature or living according to what the body wants.  There are a lot of beautiful literary references in Scripture that walk us through metaphors and hyperbole and narrative, but any way I look at this one, it means flesh.  I can't seem to get around it.  With the consummation of marriage, God literally fuses the flesh of two people together.

But here's where it gets a little bit dicey.  This is not temporary!  Scripture doesn't say, "So they are no longer two, but one flesh, and then a little while later they're two again, and it's kind of a cycle that you just have to get used to."  No, Scripture says that once these two people become one flesh, joined by God, no one is supposed to mess with that.  There is no going back.  This is a permanent deal.

But, oh my goodness, have we ever messed it up!

Homosexuality is a hot button issue right now, and in a comment from my May 28th post entitled, "With Much Wisdom," Bryan said, "The Church of Jesus Christ has shunned and condemned the gay community for far too long. All sexual sin needs to be addressed, not just homosexuality. How many divorces are happening in the church because of a variety of sexual sins by those sitting in the pews every week?"  (Bryan also asked some more excellent, specific questions, but in order to give them all ample thought and time I am breaking it down a little bit.) 

Wow.  This is a comment that needs to be addressed.  Let me share something personal, because people like stories, right?

My family is pretty special.  I used to be more legalistically leaning, though, and my definition of special has changed over the years.  Let me explain what I mean.  I used to think that one of the defining things that made us special was our family make-up.  Phil and I were both virgins on our wedding night.  For crying out loud, I was 17!  Is it really that hard to get to 17?  But I digress...  We have been married for almost 18 years, and we have five children.  All of our children are ours, together.  There are no step children.  There are no previous spouses.  There are no children born outside of marriage.  Neither of us has ever had sex with anyone else, ever.  Aren't we awesome?  By pretty much everyone's standards of sexual purity, we're it! 

Let's say I found myself in a room filled with a randomly selected cross section of adults.  As sexual sins were listed, people were asked to sit down if they had ever participated in these sins that are destroying the "institution of marriage" (I'm sorry, but I hate that.  Institution?  Really?).  You could run down a pretty good sized list.  Homosexual acts, premarital sex, extra marital sex.  I just shared my story!  You know I'm going to be the last one standing!          

But then, here comes Jesus, again, turning the whole thing on its head.

Matthew 5:28 "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman (or man) lustfully has already committed adultery with her (or him) in his heart" (NIV, parenthesis mine).

Oh, crap.  I just sat down.

How perfect can we get it, friends?  Who gets to make the judgment call?  For a long time I thought it was me, but as you can see that's not the case, and I think, maybe, we've got the whole issue wrong.

Bryan also asked, "How should the Church respond to the impending ruling from the Supreme Court on gay 'marriage'?"

Marriage is a covenant relationship, but as a church we have given it to the government and connected it with civil rights.  I'm not sure marriage has anything, at all, to do with civil rights, but I am sure that we, as the church, have absolutely no business taking civil rights away from anyone.

I'm all about semantics, and so I'd like to suggest that maybe we need a new word.

If marriage is a legally binding piece of paper that says that two people have decided to love each other for as long as it is convenient, and most ideally forever, and that they can share benefits, raise their kids together, have full privacy and visitation rights in the case of illness, file taxes jointly, and have a wedding, and a reception, with a cake, then I can't really find a reason to stand vehemently in the way of anyone looking for this kind of contract.  People are looking for equal rights (which we have established in this country on a political, not religious, basis, which is not really a good topic of conversation for this particular blog, because I'm not a very good patriot).

If the church would like to reclaim marriage as a sacramental covenant, then I think we have to recognize that we will have to change our language.  Think this through, please.  When does the government ever get involved in the administration of baptism or the Eucharist?  If the church wants to adhere to Scriptural requirements for the sacramental covenant of marriage, we can do that, and no one is going to get upset over it any more than I get upset when I can't partake in the Eucharist at a local Catholic church, because I'm not a member (OK, this kind of makes me upset, but I'm not going to create a scene or anything). 

But let's still be careful...  Returning to my earlier words, who really has it all together?  Can any of us create the perfect scenario in which our own marriages are safeguarded from every potential evil?  I don't know.  Maybe those of you reading this are actually much better people than I am.  That is certainly well within the realm of possibility.  But I can't do it on my own.  I need God to do something in marriage.  I need marriage to be sacramental, and I need it to be ongoing, too.  Let's not confuse marriage with the wedding.



  1. Be sure to sign in before you type your response.......otherwise you lose it all!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write this response to a very important topic facing the church today. I need time to take it all in and process the information you presented. I like the idea of marriage being sacramental in the COTN. Way to think outside the box!

  3. alright. Let me try again. I won't address much on the issue of homosexuality at this point other than to say I do believe that you are right on in saying we get hung up on semantics. Jesus calls us to stand up against injustice and oppression. As a society, basic civil liberties now come with a marriage certificate.

    I think the church is afraid of sexuality and sexual sin. We don't talk about it, we associate it with sin (even within the confines of a healthy marriage relationship). We also don't allow marriage to be sacred. There is tons of pressure at our christian universities to marry. We make jokes about "ring by spring". i dont know many pastors who refuse to marry previously divorced people either. We just don't talk about sex. We have to though--because culture is. If the only messages our young people get come from culture, we can't be disappointed when they embrace how culture treats marriage. It becomes more consumerism, and something we can easily toss away.

    The church needs to be a safe place to talk about our fears and struggles. Scott and I were separated for over a year about 3 years into our marriage (married at 20, and life wasnt all rainbows and kittens like we expected upon graduation). through some great friends and the relentless love of a God who pursues us, our relationship is healed. I think about those days, and its like a different life. The positive being that I am now more sensitive and am willing to talk to the people who may be facing similar struggles.

    Well, it was better the first time--you'll have to trust me on that, but I think I hit all the major points I had before. I think its an important conversation.

    1. Sara -

      You've made some really important points here. First of all, thank you for sharing your story. I don't think we have enough safe places to do this, and I'm honored that you felt this was a safe place. What a powerful testimony of what God can do through love and friends.

      I agree with you that there is a lot of fear in the church related to sexuality, sexual sin, and sex in general. I know it is also this way in many families within and outside of the church. Some years ago, we did a series, for teenagers, called Sex 501 (the idea being that they had long since passed Sex 101).

      If you have any interest in reading what I was thinking about this six years ago, I posted about it here:

      Some of my thoughts have changed, particularly because I am in a different setting than I was then, but much of this post is still pretty relevant.

      Just an excerpt: In a group of more than 50 teenagers, when asked how they learned about sex, many of the teens responded that a friend had told them... not surprising... but then the answers ranged from, "I learned about it in a magazine (porn)," to, "I learned about it by having it." If my memory serves me correctly, I think exactly two of them (girls) said that their moms were the first to tell them about sex, and one guy said that his dad had provided the magazine. The percentages are astounding. What do we expect kids to do if they can't even ask questions at home?

      I've also started thinking about how we often insist that there be no public displays of affection, at all. I don't know about you, but I think if we limit healthy affection in public, we sort of force it into private settings, which is more "dangerous" for teenagers, in my opinion. And, as married adults, maybe we should be modeling what appropriate physical affection is? This might be the point where I admit that I think it's fantastic when my 14 year old son looks at his 13 year old sister and says, "Oh, crap, Grace. Mom and Dad are making out in the elevator again." As a kid, I never would have seen this from my parents. Why does everything have to be a secret? I think we have made any kind of physical affection such a mystery that kids can't help but want to try it out in private, which leads to a greater potential for inappropriate physical affection at inappropriate times.

      Well, I could probably go on and on, but I guess this will do for now!


  4. So, I was going to get to this earlier, but life. I am going to gonreas the old post --probably tomorrow.

    I remember being a teenager. i remember being in college. I remember being one of the "good kids". If I was good, we have reason to be worried.

    I also remember being concerned about a student from another youth group as an adult leader. I told this leader I was certain this high school couple was having sex. He informed me that it was really not that big of a deal. UM. OK. I think that all goes back to sacred. We dont need a do/dont list for the young folks, we need to teach about why purity and marriage is sacred. So that there is a level of reverence not seen culturally.

  5. I find myself increasingly convinced that our church needs a theology of sexuality that begins with an understanding of what it means to say that God created us, male and female, in his own image. Only when we understand that can we begin to understand how sexual sin is a symptom of the way sin has broken us. We seem to be approaching sexual sin like physicians, who unable to address the cause of an illness seek to manage its symptoms. Yet God declares from the throne that his project in the world is to make all things new.

    That said, I agree with you that words matter. That's why I'm not sure "sacrament" is the best word to use for marriage. It clearly is sacramental. But traditionally we Protestants have understood that sacraments have three qualities: 1) they were institute by Christ himself, 2) Christ commands them off his followers and 3) They become the occasion for an encounter with God, they are a means of immediate grace. Marriage fits the final characteristic and this is what we need to find a way to stress. Marriage isn't something we do, it is something God does. But I struggle with whether or not it fits the first two. Was marriage instituted by Christ? I suppose if we appeal to the economic operations of the Trinity we can make that argument. But typically we speak of sacraments being instituted by Christ during his earthly ministry. And marriage doesn't fit that. And I don't see how any argument can be made that Jesus commands his followers to marry. Some of them he even specifically calls not to marry. Perhaps these qualifiers (instituted during early ministry, commanded of his followers) are accretions to the concept of sacrament and we need to strip them away. But as long as they are associated with the word, we had probably better look for a better word to avoid connotations we don't mean to suggest.

    1. I just spent some time addressing your second paragraph in my latest post. Thanks for these great discussion points! In regard to your first paragraph, I think you're absolutely right. How would you answer the question, "What does it mean that God created us, male and female, in his own image?" L.