By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
Not long ago I had the privilege of officiating at a wedding. It had been a while since this ministerial task had fallen to me.
This particular assignment reflected many of the trends affecting American religion in post-Christian America, and thus many of the challenges facing Christian ministers — as well as the timeless responsibilities of any Christian minister in any age.
Ideally, a Christian couple marries in the local church that they attend and where their young marriage will be nurtured. In my view, the ideal officiant is a minister in that congregation who has a relationship with the couple and will help in their Christian nurture in years to come.
But this couple, like many millennials, had inconsistent church experience and had been turned off by much that passes for Christianity in the South. That turned out to be true for many in the audience as well, even in a wedding conducted in the deep South. I became the official representative of Christianity, for better or for worse (pun intended).
The premarital counseling became a first opportunity to offer some strategic nudges. I felt the responsibility to ask the couple where they were spiritually and what role they envisioned faith playing in their marriage. Out of these conversations the couple determined to find a church that they could join together. This did happen, thankfully, but no one from that church was yet a part of this couple’s life. The wedding became an opportunity for the couple to make a turn toward Christian commitment, with the long-term outcome up to them.
In designing the wedding service, I am always acutely vigilant about the ceremony simply becoming religious babble. I always ask the couple how they want their wedding to be conducted. What kind of promises do they want to make to each other? What biblical texts do they want read and preached? What music performed? What type of language employed? The overall issue is what type of wedding service reflects their own commitments and communicates what they want to say to God, each other, and the gathered community.
I am always aware of red lines which I am unwilling ever to cross. For example, I believe that Christian marriage is by God’s design a lifetime covenant. So I will never perform a wedding in which a couple wants to articulate a less binding commitment such as “as long as we both shall love.” Nor would I be willing to articulate the more binding language for a couple if I have reason to believe they are only going through the motions. This means I don’t do weddings for couples who aren’t interested in covenantal Christian marriage.
This still leaves plenty of room for personalizing the language of a wedding ceremony. Talking through the ingredients of the ceremony becomes an occasion to do some meaningful theological and ethical teaching. Sometimes, with the consent of the couple, I make the actual wedding ceremony an occasion for instruction to the gathered community as well.
For example, I like using a “declaration of consent” just before the exchange of vows, and to make both an opportunity for teaching. I might say something like this: “Marriage is a sacred covenant that must be undertaken freely and not under coercion. In just a few moments this couple will make a series of promises to each other. These covenant vows will restrict their freedom of action considerably in years to come. They will promise a lifetime of love, honor and fidelity to each other. I am about to ask them whether today they freely make the binding promises they are about to make.”
Then when it is time for the exchange of vows I sometimes say this: “This couple is about to change their lives forever by making a series of sacred vows to God and each other. X and Y, listen very closely to the vows you are making and feel their gravity. These are covenant promises made publicly and therefore accountably before this gathered community. Congregation, listen just as closely, pondering the implications of these promises for this couple and for yourself.”
In every wedding I try to “tie the knot good and hard,” as an old mentor once told me. I try to communicate to the couple and the congregation that marriage is not just an expensive wedding leading to a somewhat more permanent kind of dating relationship. Marriage carries covenantal, ecclesial, intergenerational and social responsibilities. The married couple has obligations to God, each other, the church, previous and future generations of their families, and society as a whole. It’s grown-up stuff, and only grown-ups should undertake it.
I honor those who feel ready to make that leap. I try to help them connect to Scripture and to the history of the church. I want them to know that they are making an existential change in their lives as they make a binding-even-when-it’s-hard lifetime covenant. And I hope that everyone present catches a glimpse of the loving-yet-demanding God who is the giver of every good gift, including marriage.