Any discussion of Christian marriage is helpfully guided by asking the question, “What makes a marriage Christian?” What is it about this nearly universal human phenomenon, which exists in many forms and in many cultures and contexts, to which the Church feels confident in pointing as a sign of God’s action in the world?
Up until relatively recently in church history, the answer to the question of “What makes a marriage Christian?” was relatively simple. In the apostolic period, attested by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 (the longest and most detailed reflection on marriage in Scripture), marriage was a social institution regarded with toleration rather than encouragement, and for which no liturgical ceremony was prescribed. A marriage was considered Christian if it took place between two baptized persons. A pagan couple, one of whom became baptized, was allowed to end the marriage if the pagan member did not wish to remain (vv. 12-15).
One who was already baptized was not to marry a nonbeliever; Paul alludes to this discipline in verse 39, and it became a matter of church law fairly quickly, and remained so for centuries with varying degrees of enforcement or toleration, from excommunication or capital punishment in the early fourth century, to dispensation under current Roman Catholic regulations (see the current Code of Canon Law at 1086.2).
The understanding became (and remains) that the bond and covenant of marriage is enacted by the couple themselves, and the function of the Church is to solemnize the event with a degree of formality, with the three aspects of testimony, blessing, and recording. The Church took on the civil responsibilities (and is still permitted so to do in many places, though not all) of ensuring that the marriage is attested by witnesses and recorded, and added its own function of imparting a blessing.
Since the ministers of the rite are the couple themselves, the tradition in place since the apostolic era required that they both be baptized. This requirement came to be seen as less than absolute, and dispensations became available in the Roman Catholic tradition as early as 1669.
In 1946 The Episcopal Church went a step further, when the canons were amended to permit marriage when one of the parties was not baptized. There was strong objection to the introduction of this change, given the intensity of early and historic church opposition to such marriages. It brought into question the meaning of another part of the marriage canon that described marriage as being “entered into within the community of faith.”
As many, if not most, marriages are not necessarily parish functions but involve the friends and family of the couple — many of whom may also not necessarily be baptized — this clause appears to be aspirational rather than absolute. In short, the old, easy definition of what made a marriage Christian came to be no longer applicable in all cases.
Marriage, as an icon for and of the Church, reaffirms that we do not live for ourselves alone, or die for ourselves alone (Romans 14:7) — nor do we marry for ourselves alone, but as a sign and emulation of God’s grace and to God’s glory. The love of God for the world in the loving self-offering of Christ Jesus thus becomes a guiding and effective pattern in discerning how a marriage proclaims that it is a Christian marriage, an evangelical sign of that “wonderful and sacred mystery” that is Christ’s body, the Church.
The relationship of marriage to that larger body is emphasized in the liturgy through the requirement that marriage take place within at least a minimal assembly. As the BCP rubric notes, “marriage is a solemn and public covenant” and there must be “at least two witnesses” (422). Couples do not make their vows privately, but before God, friends, family, and (ideally) God’s community, the Church. The marriage is a union celebrated and blessed on behalf of the Church in the midst of this community that is, ideally, itself “one in Christ.”
As marriage is an incarnational sign of Christ’s love for the Church, so it is also an expression and sign of Christian community: our life together in and as the Body of Christ. The old patristic tag (said of the Eucharist) “become what you behold” is a powerful reminder of the way in which a marriage both draws upon the love of God and the community and fosters it. So a marriage not only is blessed by the Church, but is a source of blessing for the Church.
And this blessing does not stop at the end of the rite. The community witnesses to the couple by their presence at the marriage service and throughout their marriage journey in their support of the couple. The couple, in turn, witnesses to the community by how they live their lives together — showing Christ’s love to each other, the community, and the world. If marriage is a sacrament — and that has been a topic of considerable debate — it is certainly sacramental in this: it can both express and evoke in others the graces of loving, self-giving charity inherent in the vows.
Although marriage does not have “a like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” because it lacks “any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God” (BCP, 872), the real grace of marriage lies not in the wedding ceremony, but in the life of the couple: as with the baptismal life, and the life of the Eucharistic community that is the Church, it is in the living of the vows, the putting into practice of the promises and commitments, that grace is revealed and shared.
What does Christian marriage demand? The BCP marriage liturgy links the solemn vows with God. Seeing the image of God in your spouse, asking God’s blessing upon your union: these liturgical acts and exhortations wrap these powerful promises in holy language. This same holy language is even echoed in the liturgy Thanksgiving for Adoption of a Child (BCP, 441) that allows the child, if old enough, to “take” his or her mother and/or father. The taking is mutual, and a family is the result, blessed and marked liturgically.
When exploring how our marriage vows help us understand what makes a marriage holy, a brief glance at some history is helpful. The current vows in the 1979 BCP continue to use phrases such as “to have and to hold.” This was originally intended to protect the rights to property and the “taking care of” the bride. Previous iterations included words about the dowry. Marriage as a contract that had to do with property, rights, and inheritance had little or no theological underpinning.
However, as deeper reflection on the moral and theological virtues was undertaken, the Church took a higher view of the vows, while retaining some of the old language. Eventually, the promise of the bride to “obey” was removed, making the vows identical for both bride and groom. The vows evolved into holy language intent on sacred promises to each other made by the true ministers of the rite, focused on covenant terms that not only bind the couple together, but also remind us of God’s covenant promises to God’s people.
What makes a marriage holy? For Christians, the solemn vows of fidelity and love until death are promised and made, and the gathered Church witnesses and blesses this new commitment. “From this day forward” the couple “takes” each other, creating a new reality in their union as one in heart, body, and mind. It is this relationship that has been imbued with the Holy Spirit through prayer and blessing in the Name of God, which points to what makes a marriage holy. ◊
This is only an excerpt from The Task Force’s full, 122-page report. You can access the full report online at generalconvention.org.
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 edition of Trinity Topics. Access more articles like this one here.