Mutual Physical Devotion

The fourth core vow is a promise to live in a mutual sexual relationship to the exclusion of all other sexual partners. This vow has two aspects – (1) to engage in physical intimacy with each other and (2) to refrain from (refuse to engage in) physical intimacy with anyone else. Keeping this facet of the marital covenant is a mutual charge. Neither party carries the full weight of it.

While we are young and healthy, the first aspect of this vow tends to express itself with no difficulty. Periodically in our relationships, health issues may make it necessary to suspend full sexual expression for a season. We weather these storms together.

Paul also suggests in 1 Corinthians 7:4-5 that a sort of sexual fasting might sharpen the spiritual focus. (The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise, also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.) Under no circumstances should physical intimacy be relegated to a reward system to control a partner’s behavior.  

In time, as bodies age, sexual expression may take on more creative, mutually comfortable forms, but it does not need to cease. Recognizing that physical intimacy is recreational as well as procreational keeps us healthier and happier together. Couples that are willing to age creatively tend to age more gracefully and with greater unity.

The latter aspect is a matter of personal discipline. We need to understand that, and never lapse into the mindset that our spouse can do or say (or fail to do or say) anything that will drive us into the arms of another lover. Humans never outgrow the tendency to blame others for their own failures. Words like seduced, lured, and enticed are enhanced forms of asked. At the marital altar, every future conversation of this genre is asked and answered. If a conversation turns in that direction, do not play with it. Shut it down and walk away from it. Better yet, run. You are not as strong as you think you are. This is one situation where the abortionist mantra “MY BODY, MY CHOICE” genuinely applies. That choice was made at the marital altar.

No one can ever, under any circumstances, force anyone else to engage in physical intimacy.

I hear you. The question “What about rape?” rings loud and clear. The answer is simple. Rape is an act of aggression perpetrated against its victim. It is the ultimate expression of breaking and entering and the most heinous form of theft known to humankind. Any physical response notwithstanding, the victim of rape did not choose to engage in physical intimacy. God forbid that any of us should ever face this terrible situation, and God heal and comfort those of us who have, but such an encounter is neither volitional nor consensual, so it does not break the marital vow. Hear that clearly.   

If we find ourselves engaged in any level of physical intimacy with anyone other than our marital partner, we have broken this vow. Stop right there and think that all the way through. The marriage is wounded, but this wound does not have to be fatal. If there can be honest confession and genuine contrition that is met with compassion and mercy, this wound can be healed. But make no mistake about it, there will be a protracted healing process, and this level of damage will leave a permanent scar. That said, if that is where you find yourself, back up and fix it if you can, and God be with you.  

Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

1 Corinthians 6:18-25

Tomorrow, to keep this covenant inviolate until the death of one of the parties to it

As God Ordains

There is a troublesome little promise nestled in the middle of the Christian vows that goes almost unnoticed. Its phrasing varies from tradition to tradition (…according to God’s holy ordinance, …after God’s holy ordinance, …living as God has ordained…) If the wedding liturgy is being edited, chances are this is one of the lines that will be edited out. Why? Because it subjects the ordering of the marital relationship to the scrutiny of scripture.

When someone sits across from me in premarital counseling and demands that this line be removed from the vows, my mind superimposes the picture of a four-year-old, back bowed and face turned crimson, shouting into the face of a battle-weary parent “You’re not the boss of me!” But I am not the parent. I am just the Parent’s messenger.

Christian marriage is a system ordered by God, in the name of God and for the expressed purpose of working the will of God in the lives of those who seek God’s favor and blessing. That God is loving, kind, longsuffering and patient makes this little vow less dangerous. That God is all wise, all knowing and present with us through every trial, makes it highly advantageous. Doing things God’s way makes perfect sense if we believe in God at all.

But humankind does not have much of a track record for doing things that make sense.

It takes work to follow the ordinances of God. First, it takes more than a surface reading of scripture. One cannot live according to ordinances of which one is unaware.

Reading a book about Christian marriage might be helpful if the author of the book is both familiar with and inclined to believe in The Holy Bible, but it is still second-hand wisdom. Remember that history is full of stories about people who stitched scripture snippets together in a patchwork design to lead careless followers into blatantly wrong belief-sets. (We call those belief-sets heresies.)

If you want to know what the Bible says about marriage, read the Bible. It really is that simple. Sit down together as an engaged or dating couple, pray for wisdom, and just read the Book.

Remember that living together as God has ordained is not just obeying the specific rules God has made regarding the marital relationship. It is about calling ourselves and each other to the highest expression of faith and practice. What we are building here at the altar is our first circle of spiritual support and accountability. Unity in the understanding and practice of faith is crucial. We need not be duplicates of each other, but we ought to be able to live in harmony, not under constant pressure to offend our own consciences. If our home is to be a sanctuary where we can pursue the purest expression of our calling, we cannot fill it with an acid-bath of criticism, ridicule and shaming for living into what we believe. Marrying someone whose beliefs run contrary to our own will do just that.

For a moment, close your eyes. Imagine yourself living in a home where your precious faith is under constant attack. Imagine that your life-partner is aggressively tearing away at the concepts that give you comfort. Let yourself feel the grief and pain of that arrangement. Now ask yourself, can I live in accordance with the ordinances of God with any sense of joy under these circumstances?

That is why this vow is in the liturgy. It is there to spare you pain. It is there to soften the road before you. It is neither harsh nor punitive, it is there to protect you.

Let it stand. Stand by it. If it costs you pleasure now, remember that it will spare you despair and heartbreak in the long run.

He (the jailer) said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Acts 16:30b-31

Tomorrow, to live in a mutual sexual relationship to the exclusion of all other partners…

Love, Honor, and Cherish

Before we begin the topic today, let me say that I was a shade disappointed with the (lack of) response to yesterday’s entry. I was hoping to arouse some lively conversation about our current over-focus on finances but, for some reason, there was no outcry! Could it be that my overboard approach was considered appropriate, or was everyone just too kind to mention it?

Yes, marriage is a merger, but it is so much more than that. So, what is my real approach to the first vow in premarital counseling? Let’s just say that I do advise couples that they need to be honest about their finances, devise and live by a budget, and that getting comfortable with each other’s families is important, but if the central focus of the marriage is monetary, it is in serious trouble from the start.

Finances have their place, but the real wealth of a marriage is found in the second vow. It is here that the foundation is laid for the formation of family and the atmosphere is created where children can be safely nurtured. In the Christian marriage, actualized love is more important that wealth because it is the air we breathe.

What does it mean to love, honor, and cherish?

These words do not indicate three separate vows, but a three-pronged definition of a singular mindset. When I use the term “marital love,” people tend to hear “physical intimacy,” but let’s bypass that euphemism and talk about a love that is deep enough, rich enough, and strong enough to qualify a couple for marriage.

Love that rises to the level of marital has three distinct qualifiers. Let’s look at each of them:

LOVE is both an abstract noun and an action verb. As a noun, it can seem wispy and intangible, but actualize the abstract noun and its outline forms. Love is visible and tangible when it is seen in action. To love – love in action – is to constantly and unwaveringly act in the best interest of the beloved, putting those interests ahead of your own. Said simply, whom we love we serve, even when the beloved does not deserve it.

The day we find ourselves acting in our own best interests at the expense of our beloved, we have broken our vow to love. (Let’s back up and fix that!)

HONOR is a form of respect. It is a recognition of the beloved’s innate humanity and individuality. Love that rises to the level necessary for marital success sees the beloved as a whole person with goals, standards, and opinions. The beloved is not expected to melt into the lover’s control or to parrot the lover’s beliefs.

It is impossible to habitually berate or abuse those we honor. The heart just will not go there. We may disagree with their opinions, but we will not try to control their thinking or actions. We may argue, but we will not scold, because scolding assumes superiority.

The day we find ourselves forcing our opinions on our beloved, we have broken our vow to honor. (Let’s back up and fix that!)

CHERISH has to do with value. That which we cherish has greater worth in our eyes than in the eyes of the world. We look at the beloved and see more than the world sees. This is not just sentimental value attached to the person, it is a drawing to intimacy born out of genuine discovery. The worthy qualities in the beloved that are hidden to the world shine out to us because we have looked deeper into the soul of the beloved than the world will ever bother to look.

The day we let the haze of the world obscure the deeper worth of our beloved, we have broken our vow to cherish. (Let’s back up and fix that!)

To act in the beloved’s best interests, recognize the beloved as a whole and distinct person, and to find in the beloved our greatest treasures – that is marital love. Physical intimacy is wonderful, but it pales in comparison to that. It also thrives in the presence of that.

This is a treasure the world cannot give, and the world cannot take it away.

 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.

Ephesians 5:1-2

Tomorrow, to live together as God has ordained…

Marriage is a Merger

Right now, the average formal wedding costs upwards of $6,000.00. Does that sound expensive? Consider this: that figure pales in comparison to the cost of the marriage itself.

The first of the five vows of a Christian marriage merges all assets, liabilities, strengths, and weaknesses to face the challenges ahead. This vow is a sweeping move that often presents minimal gain and assumes massive obligations. This is especially true in situations where parties enter the union with prenuptial agreements in hand. Such agreements presuppose the failure of the marriage, and their widespread use speaks volumes about our culture’s spiritual state.

In the exchange of vows between most young people entering a first marriage, the assets are modest, and the obligations are massive. Among the more mature, the disparity of assets and obligations may shift into a more equal balance, but that is not always the case. From a strictly material perspective, marriage may be the largest fiscal risk a person will ever take. Some habitual risk-takers will undertake that risk multiple times, leaving behind them a string of failed marriages that benefits no one financially except their lawyers.

There are unscrupulous people out there who see marriage as a means of glomming onto the lifestyle, power, or influence of others through a marital connection. This vow is their inroad. It is difficult to adequately protect ourselves and each other from such people because they are often quite adept con artists. Infatuation makes us easy targets and pride keeps us in the cross-hairs until the transfer of wealth is complete. The best protection against this trap is the long engagement where both parties meet and mingle with each other’s families and social circles. Most con artists operate on the hit-and-run system, and do not fare well with the long game.

I have seldom seen a couple ask for mutual background checks, and I wonder why that is. Who among us would enter into a financial agreement with a partner without knowing that person’s level of solvency? Willing disclosure strengthens trust, and a sullen secrecy should arouse suspicion, but in matters of the heart, we often lose perspective. Marriage is often a blind leap into a financial minefield.

One of the questions I ask in premarital counseling often raises eyebrows.  I ask it at the beginning of the process, and it is almost always met with a blank stare. It is simply “Do you know your fiancé’s/fiancée’s credit score?” No, I do not want to know the scores. I want them to know each other’s scores. I want them aware of each other’s indebtedness and assets. When they stand before God and say something like “With all my worldly goods, I thee endow,” I want them to know both what they are offering and what they are receiving. Why? This moment represents a fundamental shift in the landscape of both their lives. They should not plunge into it blindly.

This unqualified merger is a powerful statement of faith and a bottomless investment in the life of another. It is always hazardous. But life alone has its hazards as well, and a life together in the absence of this level of trust will never reach the full measure of what it means for two to become one. As hard as it is to risk destroying the union before it is formed through radical honesty, preparation for marriage begs for a full fiscal disclosure.

Offer it. Ask for it. Wait for it. Do not make a move until you get it. When you get it, read it. If necessary, have your rose-colored glasses surgically removed. Know where you stand before and after the marriage. Acceptance of a significant initial disparity is a part of the discussion. Have that discussion before the vow is taken. Entering into a covenant as equal partners with defined roles is far easier when there are no hidden debts or assets.

good name is to be more desired than great wealth,
Favor is better than silver and gold.
The rich and the poor have a common bond,
The Lord is the maker of them all.
The prudent sees the evil and hides himself,
But the naive go on, and are punished for it.

Proverbs 22:1-3 (NASB)

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:18 (NASB)
Paper money one hundred dollar banknotes with red ribbon

Marriage

Marriage is a covenant.

While Christian covenants resemble contracts, they carry more weight and often involve greater risk, therefore requiring a higher degree of trust. Contracts can be drafted to cover specific periods of time, but covenants are lifelong, and can bind future generations. Contracts can be renegotiated and tweaked as partnerships evolve but once entered, a covenant is fixed.

It is for this reason that I have marveled when engaged couples have come to me to be joined in marriage carrying elaborate vows that make promises that are clearly unsustainable. Worse, some couples look at me blankly and say something like, “It doesn’t matter. You pick the vows. We just want it to be legal.” Whether they are looking at me through a haze of infatuation, desperate to consummate their relationship, or dealing with pressure to validate an ongoing sexual arrangement, they are clueless about the enormity of the step they are about to take. These folks are clearly not ready to be married.

Over the last several decades, denominations have split (and sometimes shattered) over the desire to distance the definition of marriage from its biblical foundation. The biblical definition is clearly an arrangement between a man and a woman. Taking a whole-Bible approach, it is far easier to justify plural marriage than covenanted same-sex unions, but neither can be justified from a purely New Testament perspective. That such unions exist, that they are legal, and enjoy cultural acceptance is beside the point. That to shame the parties to these unions or to do them harm is inconsistent with the Christian concept of seeking and saving love, is obvious. That persons entering such relationships are beloved by God and are of sacred worth is indisputable. But none of that changes the parameters of the marital covenant. As Christian disciples, our mandate is to preach the Gospel, not to edit it.

People need to know what they are getting into when they speak their vows before a Christian officiant. The question is not whether this union can survive, but whether the individuals can survive the weight of the union. Can a covenant formed in the presence of God be dissolved in a court of law? It can if it has already been dissolved through egregious transgression of the covenant, but “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” And, no, having a female judge is not the answer.

Looking at the traditional vows from multiple Christian denominations and allowing for variations in phrasing, we see five specific promises woven into the covenant:

  1. To merge all assets, strengths, and weaknesses to face the challenges ahead
  2. To love, honor, and cherish each other
  3. To live together as God has ordained
  4. To live in a mutual sexual relationship to the exclusion of all other partners
  5. To keep this covenant inviolate until the death of one of the parties to it

It is my goal to take these individual threads of the covenant one by one over the next five days. That is a goal – not a covenant – so if I miss the goal, don’t judge me.

Tomorrow – To merge all assets, strengths, and weaknesses to face the challenges ahead…

And He (Jesus) answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

Matthew 19:4-6 (NASB)