What is Marriage Apart from God?
Feb. 10, 2018
Are we on a fool’s errand? Scott and I are addressing the question “What is marriage apart from God?”
Broadly understood, marriage is a cultural universal. Yet, a cursory search of the internet reveals the cultural, historical, theological, political, and economic complexity of marriage. Even among Christians there is disagreement over the sacramental nature of marriage and who may embrace the bonds of holy matrimony.
While I respect those engaged in a committed secular marriage, be it common law or state sanctioned, and could speculate on any number of reasons for such arrangements, I’m ill-prepared to speak on their deeper meaning. Neither can I speak for those whose relationships are sometimes rejected by the church. But I do wonder, does any marriage, even those unrecognized by the church, stand outside the providence of God? Is God not present even in broken relationships?
I appreciate the protests of those who say, “Our relationship doesn’t need the state’s sanction or the church’s blessing.” The quality of their relationship is often what I would hope for many of the marriages I perform. Moreover, I embrace the pain of those who have been denied access to the Lord’s table or the marriage altar over issues such as divorce or gender. Here, too, their relationships can be as holy as any I solemnize.
As a pastor, I embrace the traditional view of marriage as a blessing from God given for the well-being of the entire human family. However, I also affirm the theological concept of “grenzfall,” or the exception to the rule. “Grenzfall” allows the Spirit to remain free amidst the constraints of our theological and cultural traditions.
As a person of faith, it’s hard for me to imagine any marriage apart from God. As the scriptures proclaim: “ … love is from God, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7) If a marriage is born in love, how can it be apart from God?
Bill says he is ill-prepared to speak to the deeper meaning in secular marriages. But he is not ill-prepared, and he did speak to them. He understands that as a cultural universal, marriage exists where Christianity does not. He notes secular relationships are sometimes of a quality he hopes for in marriages he performs. He sees that people form committed, loving relationships though they might have been previously divorced or of the same gender. Bill recognizes that people are free to live outside religious traditions. His comments acknowledge that whatever marriage is, it can be those things without religious belief.
But Bill loses me at the supernatural; marriage involves love, therefore God must be part of it, even if unknown to the couple? Must every stirring of our hearts be attributed to this invisible mystical thing?
Marriage is many things. To the state, it is a status affecting inheritance, medical decisions, and how a couple might file their taxes. It’s odd that the state singles out ordained clergy to perform a role in weddings that is essentially that of a notary public.
Odd also, that some people think the whole institution of marriage is harmed because the state now extends to couples of the same sex the opportunity to enter into the arrangement.
Religions often impose additional expectations on marriages. I am not sure they improve the experience — sometimes limiting spousal choice, disallowing birth control, imposing an imbalance of rights and power (with women usually the losers), or restricting ways a couple might be permitted to get to know one another before marrying.
Biologically, marriage (long-term-mate relationship) is a teaming between parents for feeding, protecting, and teaching their offspring, which enhances the likelihood of their genes being carried into the future.
Socially, marriage is a way of categorizing those who hitch their lives and fortunes together, and arrive together at parties.
But, marrying is also a statement of romantic enthusiasm. I find I have a deep romantic streak. Watching the movie Witness, I rooted for Harrison Ford’s and Kelly McGillis’ characters to get together. He was a natural for a simpler life when removed from the world of a big city cop; she needed to escape the confines of a religious order that trapped her and prescribed whom she would marry. “Run away!” I said to the screen. My and my wife’s story covers many years and is one of love eventually overcoming a religious difference.
Of course, a couple must be rational as well as emotional if they are considering marriage, and there are alternative arrangements that people might find completely suitable. But, whatever it might be in the eyes of the state, society, or church, for those inclined to do it, may marrying always remain an act of romantic enthusiasm!
I agree with Scott that marriage can mean different things to different people. Yet, I wouldn’t make sweeping generalizations about the impact of religious expectations, as if all religions shared common beliefs and practices. People of faith find God’s blessing to be a vital part of their marriage. As Scott exemplifies, the vows they make before God add richness to their relationship some simply can’t understand. Not to mention, some of the practices Scott identifies may be cultural rather than religious. Yes, there are traditions and practices that I personally question, but I’m mindful of the cultural bias I bring — and the risk of appearing elitist — by condemning that which I don’t understand. A marriage born in divine love need not be Christian to be of God.
Bill and Scott agree that people inside and outside of religious traditions have opportunity to experience full, rich, loving relationships, and that the conventionality of a union is not an indication of its value.