When the Obergefell decision came down from the Supreme Court in 2015, I rejoiced.
Of course, I was saddened over this assault on the biblical and nation-shaping definition of marriage as a sacred covenant between a man and woman — the one leaving behind father and mother and cleaving to the other. I was just as saddened at the assault on freedom of faith to swiftly follow.
Yet I rejoiced at the opportunity to reclaim marriage as just such a covenant from the cage of legal contract into which it has fallen over centuries of abusive history.
Many prominent defenders of traditional marriage as normative — mostly leaders in the Body of Christ — made loud declarations that it was high time for pastors and churches to get out of the marriage business.
“Let us,” they said, “send couples to a justice of the peace for a state sanctioned marriage. Later they can come to us for a blessing on their union if we can offer that blessing in good conscience.” (I have heard not a peep on this topic since it was broached in 2015.)
Actually, that’s OK with me. What we do not need in our culture is one more reactive measure to express our rage at injustice. To simply stop doing weddings because we might be subject to pressure to conform or persecution if we do not — and these things are already happening — is to achieve nothing of positive benefit.
On the other hand, to employ the present crisis as a springboard to genuine recovery of understanding marriage as the covenant — not a state-sanctioned contract — it was always meant to be would achieve a great deal of positive benefit for all.
The reality is that our capacity for covenant is what differentiates human beings from animals. In its three primary, features a covenant is voluntary, reciprocal and developmental.
Animals are either social or solitary by nature; human beings choose to be one or the other on a case-by-case and even moment to moment basis.
Animals tend to do what has been done to them; failing that they can bite or run. Human beings respond to situations in a reciprocal manner; if bitten they may bite back but would more likely consult a lawyer. If blessed they would seek a way to bless in return that was suited to the one initiating the blessing.
Finally, animal relationships are governed — and limited — by instinct. Human relationships are developmental in nature. They have a shape — are we friends, colleagues, or family — but where they go within that shape is like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, with more space inside than outside. Covenants share these features with humanity; contracts share the limitations of animals bound by instincts.
There is no enforcement mechanism in a covenant, unlike a contract. It depends entirely on the goodwill of the parties. Yet it has served humanity well since we stepped out of the Garden (or the caves — take your pick.)
Do not misunderstand. I am not calling for the abolition of state sanctioned marriage; the institution does provide social stability as well as any other secular institution can do. Yet I can ask, “Do we live in the stable and cohesive society legal marriage claims to provide?”
One can answer this is precisely because decisions like Obergefell and the high rates of divorce and living together out of wedlock are the culprits, but this begs the question. What we have is a culture staking its life on fallible law while we live in a world making its life in terms of committed fidelity to a graciously covenantal life.
Neither am I advocating couples living together outside of marriage; typically such liasons lack commitment. But I am saying marriages that include abuse, infidelity and lopsided priorities in the interest of one partner pervert the concept of covenant I believe was provided by God Himself in the beginning as a central feature of the creation. I am saying in the present crisis church leaders can lead the way to the resurrection of marriage as it is — instead of the way the uninformed indulge their fantasies of what might be nice to have.
In the scores of marriages I have officiated, those in which the couples took their preparations for marriage — as opposed to a mere wedding — seriously were those with the best chance of enduring blessing.
Let the Church leave the wedding business to the county clerk — to satisfy all righteousness — and let us prepare and bless a relationship of covenant where we can, in good conscience, that carries not the sanction of law but of authentic grace.
James A. Wilson is the author of “Living As Ambassadors of Relationships,” “The Holy Spirit and the End Times” and “Kingdom in Pursuit.” He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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