People marry for a variety of reasons. Love, validation, security, financial stability, raising a family, tradition, and societal pressure top the list. God's rational for marriage is more pure: "to encourage holiness, not happiness" (Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage). The Apostle Paul made a similar claim in Ephesians. He calls women to submit to/respect their husbands, and husband to love/sacrifice for their wives. The aim of a biblically-conditioned marriage is to move flawed individuals into flourishing a pair of Christ-followers.
The initial meeting with an engaged couple allows me to relay God's story of marriage. Before launching into the narrative, I try and gauge the couple's spiritual sensitivity with questions.
- If they've been co-habiting, why marriage?
- If they've been married before, why do it again?
- If there are kids in the equation, how does this change things?
- If they don't attend church, why get married in a church by a pastor?
At this point, I let them know I'm going to take them to two different places in the Bible. If I have matching copies of the Bible available, I give them each one to read. We turn to Genesis Chapter Two, which I identify by a page number (since we're reading the same copy). I explain Genesis as a anthology of beginnings. Just as the world has a story of beginnings (slow and gradual, random and violent selection), God's story has a beginning. I happen to find the story of an all-knowing, loving Creator who made us to reflect Him in ruling and relating (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:14) far more compelling than Naturalism.
We read the Genesis 2:18-24 account of Lonesome Adam and Lovely Eve. I describe marriage as a gift from God. I stress Adam's awe over Eve. I stress Eve's role as a helpful partner. I tell of their need for independence. I explain their opportunity to birth, raise, and prepare their children as image bearers. I usually throw in a comment about how they stood naked together without shame, and how we've come a long way from that first scene.
Next I introduce Ephesians. I tell them the Bible came in two parts: Old Testament and New Testament. The NT recounts the life of Jesus and the begins of the church. Much of the teaching came in the form of letters, helping churches think through how to follow Jesus in their day. Ephesians was one of these letters. Then I lead the couple through Ephesians 5:21-33.
I watch the woman's face cringe when we read the wife is to "submit to" her husband. I watch the man gloat when I read the husband must "love his wife." When we move to the subordinating clauses about sacrificing himself and presenting his wife spotless before God (who? her?), a look of worry crosses his face. So I give them an opportunity to interact with these words "submit to/respect" and "love/sacrifice." They tell me the idea seems antiquated.
"The Leave It to Beaver days have passed. Women burn bras and work outside the home now. Men watch Downton Abbey and wash their own pants in our age."
But I assure them some things have not changed. A man's need for respect is no less important today as the Bible days. Every husband wants a pat on the back, a warm fuzzy, merit badge, and sign that his lady honors him. Every wife craves love, sacrifice, affection, and pursuit, if her man gives without agenda. (Wives can tell when their husbands are trying to warm up the marriage bed.)
The man's call to "love/sacrifice" moves him from passivity to passionate pursuit. The woman's call to "submit/respect" moves her from fearful control to faithful compassion. When these qualities permeate marriage, we truly become the gift God intended us to be for one another.
If the couple has engaged with me to this point, I can typically see some change of expression. They recognize holiness is better than happiness. And passionate pursuit and faithful compassion trump personal comfort any day of the week.
The session may not lead to conversion or subsequent premarital sessions, but at least they've heard God's heart. If the would-be husband and wife entertain my marriage-as-gospel-witness speech, I am happy to officiate their ceremony. But I won't marry just anyone.