|The truth is, I love weddings. I love my role as a kind of spiritual director that
confronts the couple and their community with the deep, profound reality of the
Presiding over the weddings of people that claim no particular religious
orientation or even any sense of spirituality is fine. I get a great opportunity to
point people toward the God who deeply loves them and to point out how Jesus’
love gives us hope for our own lives. It’s a wonderful privilege to serve those
people and give them a kind of spiritual milestone in their lives.
I am not a justice of the peace. I am a Minister. I am not required by the state to
officiate at weddings. The state entrusts me with that role, but I am not required to
do it. The couple can make an appointment with City Hall and get married in about
five minutes. No tuxedos required.
I still believe that a true marriage is a covenant relationship between the couple
and God. The couple begins by covenanting with each other. We have
traditionally called that an engagement. Then the couple stands before their
community and makes their covenant public, and speaks out their intention to live
that covenant out in relationship with God. Once that amazing declaration is made
and witnessed by their community, they enter into a truly shared life, sealing that
covenant with the uniting of their bodies. That’s the way I see it.
But the vast majority of couples that come to me are already living together, have
in their hearts already made a commitment to each other and are already having
sex together, and probably more so than most married couples.
So the couple comes to me after months or years of surreptitious sex, claiming a
deep and intense commitment to each other. It’s starting to sound to me like they
have already eloped, just without getting a marriage license. So it’s a commitment
of life, union with the bodies and the sharing of a home. Yup. Sounds like
marriage to me. And now it becomes my job to package it up and make it look
pretty for the wedding day.
My concern is how to authentically address the reality of the life situations.
Here’s what I’m thinking about: What if we as Ministers began to see our roles
more in terms of being spiritual directors for people? What if we let people tell us
about their lives, and then, in the context of our understanding of covenant
relationship, identify the truth of their lives and lead them from that point? Is it
possible that we have allowed the validation of a marriage by the civil authorities
to become the benchmark of legitimacy? Have we somehow submitted ourselves
to the wrong standard?
We have come to believe that if a couple is living under the same roof, expressing
a commitment to one another and engaging in sex together, no one has the legal
right to identify that relationship as a marriage except the state. In other words, if it
looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it isn’t a duck until the
state says it’s a duck.
Again, I am not bashing the state. Civil recognition of a marriage is an important
social benefit and gives full acknowledgement of the sanctity of marriage within a
religious/spiritual framework. I am objecting to the faith community’s—the church’
s—delegation of that recognition to a purely legal standard even in the face of
The life this couple had created looked like a marriage, walked like a marriage and
quacked like a marriage. What profound difference would a Minister's fee and a
marriage license make? The point was not to deny the importance of a civil
license but rather to affirm the truth about their life: They had entered into the
estate of marriage—perhaps in a broken, non-covenantal way, but a marriage
Long ago, when marriage was validated in the realm of the family, a couple
engaging in sex could become married without delay, as the families recognized
the need for that couple to move that relationship into the place of covenant,
where (especially in the absence of birth control) families and heritages were
created. In our culture, the common use of birth control and the perceived power
of marriage recognition in the hands of the state lead us into an artificial
environment, where we allow ourselves to fail to identify the truth before us.
According to the Bible, marital union takes place within the intention and realm of
God (Genesis 2:23-24). Our appreciation of civil validation and all its benefits
should be secondary to our understanding of God’s recognition of the marital
We need a new theology of becoming married. In light of rapidly changing cultural
norms regarding sex, cohabiting and marriage, we need a fresh connection with
God’s preference for a ministry that reflects his character.
When Jesus offered a new paradigm for ethics in Matthew 5 (“You have heard it
was said…But I say to you”) he was refusing to allow the safety zone of legal
compliance to be the ultimate determiner of ethical behavior. The only difference
between an adulterer and a person with the heart of an adulterer was that the first
person actually acted out his heart’s desires while the other did not.
We might begin rethinking the theology of becoming married by helping people to
see the truth about their lives. Are we really on solid ground when we attempt to
unmake the union of a cohabiting couple in order to remake it within the safety
zone of legal compliance? Is that honest? It might be more important to begin
identifying what is present and real, then serving as spiritual directors to those
In order to explain this, I need to begin with the words of Jesus:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and
Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was
said to those of ancient times…But I say to you…” (Matthew 5:20ff)
These are familiar words found in the Sermon on the Mount. The superficial
righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees contrasted with the righteousness
that brought people into the kingdom of heaven was illustrated by the
programmatic statements, “You have heard that it was said” and “But I say to
you.” In his exposing of the duplicity of the religious elite in adhering to apparent
outward legal conformities at the expense of inner righteousness, Jesus revealed
an all-too-common human tendency: To find security in legal measurement while
ignoring the truth. The fortunes of some law firms have been built by this kind of
I suspect that Jesus might say something like this to us: “You have heard that it
was said, ‘You are married on the day of your wedding.’ But I say to you, everyone
who enters into a relationship of committed oneness with another person, in
mind, heart and body is already married in the economy of God."
I am trying to differentiate between the spiritual recognition of a marriage (or,
perhaps the ‘ecclesiastical’ recognition) and the civil recognition. I want to be
clear that I’m not disregarding the importance of the civil license. But I am saying
that we may have allowed that civil recognition to be what ultimately defines a
But let me walk through something I’ve been thinking about: By the time a couple
stands before me on their wedding day, how long have they had possession of
Less than a month or so. When is that license considered valid? It’s finally valid
when my signature is on it. By the time they get to the wedding day, the couple
has been approved for a license by the county. But until I sign the license, it’s no
OK, but what’s the point? The point is that my proclamation of the existence of
their marriage has priority and even precedes the recognition of the state. The
state authorities are recognizing what already exists, and they trust us to identify
that reality for them. I can prove it: When I say the words, “I now pronounce you
husband and wife,” are they married or not?
They’re married. Where’s the license? Usually in my pocket. When do I sign it?
Legally we have a few days before we even have to mail the signed license off to
the county recorder. So by the time anything technically legal happens, we have
already publicly identified the couple as being married.
So what we do is prior to what the state acknowledges and validates. It’s like we’
ve had the authority of the state extended to us, and they believe what we tell
them about the couple.
It’s like the state is saying, ‘What do you think, Ric? Is this a marriage? By
making the proclamation and signing the license, we say, ‘Yes, it is.’ Our role as
Ministers—is to speak out the reality that we see, and to do so before God and
witnesses. We see a man and a woman who have expressed love and
commitment toward one another. They make promises in our presence. We say
they are husband and wife and the state takes our word for it. And our word—our
word of reality, of truth—is spoken prior to the validation of the state.
So, a marriage does exist prior to the state's recognition of it.
For me, this is becoming an issue of learning to lead people to places of
wholeness and truth before God. I know that what I’m talking about requires a
change in traditional thinking, but I think we face a change in culture that
demands we make a truthful, theological response.
A couple came to me and they really were struggling with the legitimacy of their
relationship. In a way, getting formally married was an attempt at medicating their
pain. I told them how I saw God’s intentions for our wholeness in relationships of
deep commitment. I also explained how my role, as a Minister, is to proclaim the
truth of their marriage prior to the validation of the state. They seemed to be
So I took a big risk. I asked them if they loved each other. They said they did. I
asked them if they were faithful to one another and if they intended to remain so.
Yes again. I asked them if, right at that moment, they were dedicated to remaining
together for the rest of their lives. Yes. Then I said, “By the power vested in me by
the Church of Jesus Christ and the State of Texas, I now pronounce you husband
and wife.” Their eyes got really big and she started to cry. It was awesome. I told
them that the state would not hold them accountable to their relationship should
they part company before getting their license. But I said that I did intend to hold
them accountable for the promises they had already made with their words, their
lives and their bodies.
We’ll see how it goes now. They were so impacted by our meeting that they asked
me to lead them in a quiet little ceremony at her parents’ home.
The ceremony was a public declaration of what already existed in their hearts.
They publicly declared they wanted their's to be a life of faithfulness and promise.
And the state finally recognized a marriage that had already existed in the eyes of
God for some time.
|A New Theology to Performing Weddings
|"Making the World More Beautiful, Two Special People at a Time."