Marriage: Made within Community, Made for Mission
- 2011 26 Feb
The bride and groom are not the only people to take vows on a wedding day. After hearing the couple declare their commitment to one another, the celebrant [reading from the Book of Common Prayer] asks, “Will all of you who witness these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” (BCP, 425). I’ve never actually heard anyone respond no, but still have seen entire congregations stand by at a distance as marriages dissolved.
If we took this promise with equal seriousness as the promises made by the couple, husbands and wives would find it less burdensome fulfilling their marriage vows.
This vow sets marriage within the context of Christian community— indeed, the same community that takes a similar vow at each baptism, promising “to do all” in their power “to support these persons in their life in Christ” (BCP, 303). Just as the individual’s growth in discipleship depends on the investment, the support, at times even the correction of other members of the community of faith, so it is with the couple’s growth toward reflecting the love of Christ and the response of the church in their union with each other and in their outreach to the world.
For Linda and Martin, the couple who had recovered from an affair (and the disappointment that had led to it), the failure of their church to live out their promise would have spelled divorce and deep wounding. Rather than pass by on the other side, a sister in Christ took the risk of engaging Linda, gently leading her to examine her choices with greater circumspection and in light of the calling of the baptismal life. It wasn’t enough for this community of faith, however, simply to have Linda conform to her marriage vows as to a straightjacket. Over the year that followed, two different
Christian couples, who had themselves worked through some rocky times, came alongside Martin and Linda. Rather than avoid the issues that were evident to all, they used the awkwardness of the situation to offer support, help, a place for openness and vulnerability.
Having hit bottom in their relationship, Linda and Martin gratefully received the companionship and support as they sought to rebuild their marriage. One of the husbands helped Martin look at his own overinvestment of himself in his work and the issues behind that. As he learned more about how these couples shared their lives, he realized how much he had denied himself and Linda by becoming content to coexist.
They celebrated breakthroughs together, encouraged each other when they seemed to be taking a step backward, prayed for one another and kept inviting the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into the relationship. That sister and those two couples did all in their power to uphold Martin and Linda in their marriage.
In this case, the solution for marital problems was not for the couple to get more involved in church, as I’ve often heard, but for the church to get more involved in the couple. As their relationship took on new life, Linda and Martin were able to provide other couples the same kind of support they had received in their crisis year, from open and honest sharing and exploration to simple but important services like watching another couple’s children to give them time alone together.
For marriages to flourish, couples need the support of Christian friends both in times of crisis and in ordinary time. For such support to exist, Christian friends—and especially couples—need consistently to reach out in love and concern to married persons. The prayers spoken over the bride and groom ask God to make each new marriage a vehicle for outreach, a vessel filled with God’s love and care so that others may drink as well. The celebrant prays over the couple that they will create together a home that “may be a haven of blessing and peace,” not just for each other and their children, but for others as well. The couples that surrounded Linda and Michael offered such a haven, inviting them both figuratively and literally into their homes, into their circles of love and care, empowering unity to “overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”
Another petition prayed over each new couple is the following:
“Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others” (BCP, 429).
Marriage finds its ultimate fulfillment as husband and wife join in shared mission to others, both within the Christian community and beyond. The “fulfillment of their mutual affection” is not an end in itself, but becomes a means and resource for contributing to the completion of Christ’s work in the world. Where the focus of the couple remains on self gratification or even in achieving couple-centered goals (for example, certain professional or financial goals, a new house or the like), the inward focus brings eventual stagnation.
Keith and Valerie were both on the fast track in their professions and still managed to keep the vibrancy of their relationship alive through spending their few off hours well together in activities that each enjoyed or just spending time talking over long walks in the late evening or sitting outside with friends over a bottle of wine and candlelight.
During one of those conversations with another successful couple, they discovered that all four of them had, in some way, been empowered to succeed because someone had invested himself or herself in them in a life-changing way during their youth. Keith had terribly low self-esteem as a teenager after his father left the family, until a certain chemistry teacher made a special point of investing in him and holding up a mirror with a different reflection. Valerie was raised by a very conservative family that took for granted that her destiny was to settle down, raise children and do the housework. Were it not for a woman in her church who took an interest in her and invited her to a summer apprenticeship at her office during high school, she never would have discovered many of her own gifts and graces.
Over the next few days, Keith and Valerie discerned that God was calling them now, from their places of strength, to offer similar gifts. The diocese had a ministry with at-risk youths, and they began to volunteer there together for several hours each week, tutoring high school students and leading outings together. Through their corporate connections, they were both often able to get complimentary tickets to plays and sporting events. They taught teenagers to dream about their future and to find the necessary discipline to get there. They helped them see more in themselves than their circumstances made possible.
Their marriage, too, became a “haven of blessing and peace” for many young people, who would look back on their encounter with Keith and Valerie as the turning point in their lives.
Putting It into Practice
Reflect on one or two specific occasions when a Christian couple reached out to you and provided support, a “safe haven,” timely counsel or whatever was needed at the time. What did their willingness to include you in their home and relationship mean to you and your journey?
In what ways have you opened up your home (whether you are married or single) to provide such help along another person’s journey?
If your marriage is strong and you know of a couple in your parish experiencing difficulties, consider how you might embrace them more fully with your friendship and offer your home as a place to share, explore and seek perspective and support for their marriage. If you are experiencing difficulties, consider asking another couple in your parish for such support. Your pastor might have some ideas about whom to ask.
Consider teaming up with another couple and starting a marriage support group in your church or parish, if one does not already exist. Use the material in this section, if you wish, to present the group’s goals and philosophy to the congregation. Your pastor, Christian education director or local Christian bookstore can help you locate resources to get started leading such a group productively.
Together with your spouse, compile a list of the outreach and support ministries of your congregation and other local churches, as well as outreach ministries sponsored by your diocese or denomination. Add any relief or support needs of which you are aware that perhaps are not adequately addressed by existing ministries. Discuss together which draw out your interest and passion for ministry, try out a few, and discern together which one or two would best fit your strengths as a couple for long-term involvement.
Taken from Sacramental Life by David A. deSilva (c) 2008 by David A. deSilva. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426
David A. deSilva is Trustees' Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He is the author of a number of books, including An Introduction to the New Testament, Introducing the Apocrypha, and New Testament Themes. He is also an ordained pastor through the United Methodist Church.