Friday, June 9, 2006

Marriage Debate happening in Canada

One blogger from the country had this to say about the impending problems around changing the legal definition of marriage between a man and a woman.

I have had numerous discussions of late with various people regarding the definition of marriage. This has led me to do some serious thinking about what marriage is and is not, why we marry, what relation the state has to it, what God says about it, and what we should do in light of all this information. I wanted to figure out exactly what I should be thinking about all this in light of my faith in the God of the Bible. If you do not believe in the same God as I, I would ask that you would look upon this as an opportunity to understand a little more about those whose decisions on these issues are formed by the Bible. However, be warned. I do battle with a number of sacred cows here, and I would not hesitate to say that my views are by no means representative of the typical Christian of any stripe.

My first question is, where do we get this idea that the government has any authority over marriage in the first place? Do they have the right and mandate to define marriage, let alone issue licenses for it? In an essay, Pastor Matt Trewhalla looks at 5 reasons why Christians should not even get a marriage license. He gives a brief history of marriage licenses towards the end of the document, to quote:

Historically, all the states in America had laws outlawing the marriage of blacks and whites. In the mid-1800’s, certain states began allowing interracial marriages or miscegenation as long as those marrying received a license from the state. In other words they had to receive permission to do an act which without such permission would have been illegal.
The basic reason why the government got into the marriage business was because they had passed laws previous to that banning the marriages of blacks and whites. Then they passed laws indicating that a license was required to intermarry. Then this was extended to any marriage at all. It gave the government authority over who was being married, presumably to control the acceptability of the union. I think everyone agrees that it is not the government's business what the colour of your skin is or your spouse's. Hence, there should be clear agreement that marriage licenses should not be issued by the state. For this and other reasons he outlines, the government should have no jurisdiction over marriage - a marriage to a Christian is between the couple and God.

Ok, so now no licenses are needed. Fine. What about weddings? Why do we have weddings? In society of late, the "big wedding" has been fading in popularity, but the main reason for this is because of the decreasing importance of weddings in society as a whole. As all the of the activities which were once tied to marriage become "public domain" in the relaxing of morality (sex, reproduction, cohabitation), people don't see the need to be married, and hence don't see the reason to make a "big occasion" for it. In addition, because of the rising frequency of divorce and remarriage, people don't see why they should make a big deal out of something that may or may not be permanent. When marriage was a once-in-a-lifetime occurence, people made a bigger deal about it. Now, not so much. This has carried over to Christian circles - the divorce rate (sadly) is not much lower than that of non-Christians.

Despite this, I believe there are still a number of fallacies surrounding the idea of marriage for Christians. Take engagement for example. Engagement, or betrothal, is commonly accepted as a period of time before marriage where the couple is "committed" to marry, meaning that they will not entertain any other offers of marriage. Some like to attach greater meaning to it, but there really isn't any. The reasons for attaching greater meaning to it is usually to rationalize the accessing of some of the benefits of marriage before the marriage is "finalized" in a wedding - like cohabitation and/or sex. God is clear on this though - sex before marriage is a sin, engaged or not. I don't see any place in the Bible where God permits sex before marriage without condemning it as sin. Engagement and betrothal are not required by God to precede a marriage.

Then there is the marriage or wedding itself. A legal marriage as defined in the marriage license requires a governing body (a representative of the state, licensed to solemnize marriages), the participants, and two witnesses. These are there for the purposes of ratifying a legal contract - for that is what a marriage license is. However, to God this is not a contract. This is a covenant. To God, it is unbreakable, except under very extreme circumstances, which God clearly outlines. Covenants to not require witnesses. The authority party in marriage remains, but the only authority that is necessary is God. In some denominations, the priest is considered the "representative" of Christ and is required to be there, but as an evangelical protestant of the reformed tradition, I do not consider any man to be a necessary representative of God - God in Jesus is the high priest and the only mediator necessary between myself and the Father.

Without witnesses necessary, and without an officiator, then the only necessary parties for a pair of Christians to wed are themselves and God. Hence I believe that weddings in Christian circles can be done away with. But there is one more feature that God requires for marriage - it is public. This is a critical feature - it is meant to be an announcement to the community in which the couple lives that they are now married before God. I believe there is freedom in how this is conducted. In the Bible there are a variety of forms this takes from the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony and accompanying feast (for marriage is a joyous occasion) to the post-consummation announcement without fanfare. The important thing is that the community knows that the man and woman are now married, and are "one flesh", united by God for life. The reason for this announcement is because ultimately, the community will be the ones to make sure they remain so for life. The community is called to support them, to help them, to resolve conflict between them, and so on. They cannot do this if the marriage is not known. This is hard for some to deal with because this is the era of individualism, but this is the way God made marriage. The couple needs to be in community and needs to be in relationship with them.

The necessity of public confession of a marriage need not precede the marriage. I find no support for this necessarily occuring before a marriage. In fact, I find it doesn't make any sense. You don't celebrate an event before it happens. You celebrate it while or after it happens. The nature of the marriage covenant as a covenant demands the "shedding of blood". This happens in the first act of intercourse between husband and wife. Yes, I know that it is possible for the hymen to be broken by accident before marriage, or for it to be naturally thicker or break-resistant, but these are exceptions to the norm, and should not define the norm. This is why they call it "consummating" the marriage - it is why marriage law even today allows anullment (instead of divorce) if a marriage was not consummated - it never existed - the covenant was not made. This is a relection of the covenantal nature of marriage for Christians (who wrote the law). The party should happen after this in my opinion - in Jewish weddings it did - the wedding party literally waited outside the door of the wedding chamber, and when the sheet with the blood was displayed, THEN the party began - for a week!

What justification do I have for all this? I believe that marriage is actually meant to be an earthly reflection of the relationship between man and God. The Bible backs this up. In the Old Testament, before Christ came to earth in the flesh, God was in a betrothal period with mankind. God made promises to man, to specific men and their families. This makes it an engagement. God said "if you do this then I will be with you", but like during an engagement, Israel didn't have to do anything, and she did as she pleased. She was not in submission to her betrothed. The Holy Spirit came sometimes to individuals, but never stayed. The presence of God - the Shekinah glory filled the temple and the tabernacle - sometimes. But when Israel strayed from God, God strayed from Israel. God was faithful, but Israel was not. Still, God promised that one day they would be united.

Then Jesus came. In Jesus, God made a way for man to be married to God, despite her waywardness. Jesus explained, that all man had to do was ask Him to be united with himself and God would do it. This is marriage. Man asks to be united with God - to be made new and clean and spotless, and to be with God forever. God does so - He sends his Holy Spirit to reside in our hearts forever. Jesus says that nothing will separate us ever again once this happens. The Holy Spirit comes and consummates the marriage by entering into the person who accepts the marriage, like intercourse, creating a one flesh union between God and man. This happens in an instant and requires no witnesses - only the bride (the human) and the groom (Jesus) and the Father (of both incidentally).

Like marriage, your new relationship with Christ is a public one. Jesus tells us that when we accept Him (and become married to Him) it must be made public, via baptism. It is not true unless it is public. This is where we diverge presently and where I believe tradition is wrong. In tradition, the wedding party happens before consummation, the public confession of their marriage happens before the marriage is in fact real. With our relationship to Jesus as the model, this is backwards. Nobody is baptized and confesses Christ before they have accepted Jesus and received the Holy Spirit. It wouldn't make any sense. They do this after they have been married.

Some have suggested that in fact, we (the church) are not yet married to the Lamb. They point to revelation and the fact that Jesus has not yet returned, and the marriage feast is yet to come. I say that the marriage feast, unlike our tradition, should come AFTER the marriage, which is true. The celebration follows the object being celebrated. Jesus does not need to return in the flesh for our marriage to be consummated - the marriage of the church to Jesus is a spiritual one, and the union and consummation of that union happened when Jesus came to dwell in our hearts - when the Holy Spirit took up residence in us. This happened at confession, when we accepted Christ and were redeemed. If this is not true, then every one of us with the Holy Spirit living in us is fornicating with Christ - having "premarital intimacy" with Christ because we are not yet married. Obviously, this is not the case.

So here we end. In a nutshell, I believe that the government has no place in marriages. I believe that marriage itself is a relfection of our relationship with Jesus - as such it is permanent, it is one time, it begins and is consummated in private and it is celebrated and acknowledged in public following its consummation. I don't say that we MUST NOT have traditional weddings, but I think that we should acknowledge that the marriage of a man and a woman happens before the ceremony when they decide between themselves and God that they will be together for life. This does NOT give license for unmarried Christians to rush out and start having sex without marriage - it would be a grievous sin to have sex then not announce marriage publicly. However, I believe that commitment can precede a wedding, and there is no sin if two people consider themselves married before the ceremony and consummate that marriage, IF they act in obedience to God and make the announcement, to be held by God and their community responsible for that decision.