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Ceremony or commitment?

By Nathan Brown
Figures from the US show 4 in 10 of babies born last year were born “out of wedlock.” The additional interesting dynamic to this is that teen motherhood is at the lowest levels for years and the big increase is among unmarried women in their 20s. It seems it’s part of a larger trend. An Australian study of young married couples has reported only 9 per cent of these couples had not lived together before marriage. Add to this statistic, the significant number of couples who choose not to get married at all and the sad realities of divorce and we have a picture of a society in which the traditional, legal forms of marriage are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

These trends pose some tough questions in relations to our church’s stand on marriage, particularly in relation to “discipline” procedures and the impact these have on the involvement on young people in our church.
Before we go running for the Church Manual to brush up on our censure procedures—thus excluding another young couple from the contribution they can make to our church—we need to ask ourselves some questions: Have we reached a stage or will we reach a stage at which we have to recognise that a traditional marriage ceremony is simply a fading cultural tradition and that perhaps our focus on such an event has been—or may become—misplaced?

Would we be better to focus on commitment between couples rather than the trappings of a white dress, a large church and a legal document? Are these trappings what we mean when we refer to “God’s plan” or is He more interested in the heart of the matter? Or do these things evidence the heart of the matter? In short, are we more interested in a wedding or a commitment?

It is unlikely Adam and Eve had a wedding ceremony we would recognise as such. Certainly, it would not be legally recognised in our society, due if nothing else to the absence of witnesses and a “qualified” marriage celebrant—the legal requirement for a valid marriage in my part of the world.

Jesus, when questioned on marriage, referred His listeners back to the story of Adam and Eve and the statement made by God at that time, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and the two are united into one” (Mark 19:5). But the Bible does not limit this ‘becoming one flesh’ to a man and wife (see 1 Corinthians 6:16): “Paul did not limit it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes ‘one flesh’… The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured” (C S Lewis, The Screwtape Letters).

Undoubtedly, simply drifting into an uncommitted sexual relationship which then evolves into cohabitation is a poor start to a lifetime commitment to each other: a wedding ceremony can mark a significant moment of commitment. But there are many examples of weddings simply being a part of such a drift and certainly providing no guarantee that the couple will not similarly drift apart. Marriage can be an important life step but as it is practiced in our society it has become equally a social and cultural event.

As such, increasing multicultural influences and the decline of organised religion contribute to the decline of the traditional forms. Our society now affords unmarried couples similar legal relations to those formally married, perhaps recognising something of the commitment involved in such relationships—despite the lack of legal form and traditional ceremony.

It is not marriage as commitment that needs questioning or even as concept but marriage as a traditional, cultural form—of which we can even find variety in the Bible. Jesus urges, “Let no one separate them, for God has joined them together” (Matthew 19:6). Perhaps in a changing culture, we need recognise this choice some couples have made, question our insistence upon the uncomfortable suits, white dress and all the paraphernalia assumed to be the necessary ingredients of a “proper” wedding, and encourage their continuing commitment to God, each other and the church.

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