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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Love and Marriage: What Kind of Wedding Can the Church Bless?

By James E. Cossey
Feb. 12, 2012

The charming young couple sat nervously across from me in my office. I was pastor of the largest church in our small community, and they had family connections to our church. They had come to see me to discuss a wedding.

After several questions had been raised and honestly answered, it was obvious to me that these two were living together outside of marriage. I sensed that what I saw before me was more than passion; it was real love. Yet their plans were not for an immediate wedding, but for one several months into the future, during which time the couple would continue to live together.

After discussing the biblical principles of marriage, I informed the couple that I would be unable to perform a church wedding for them unless they entered into premarital counseling, one of them moved out of the home, and there was a commitment to having no further sexual relations until their wedding day. Kindly and respectfully, they explained that they didn’t think they could agree to that, and left.

Moments later, there was a knock on my door. Standing there with tears streaming down her beautiful face, this young lady said, “Pastor, I didn’t want to hear you tell us ‘no,’ but I respect you for saying it because I know you are right.”

Then she added, “My mother will not visit my home until, in her words, ‘you two make it legal.’”

The young woman thanked me for my time, and they drove away.

I did not perform the ceremony. They used another church and engaged another minister. However, that couple later visited where I was pastor, came to the altar and accepted Christ, were baptized in the Holy Spirit, and became members of the church.

Today they are in active ministry, are personal friends to my wife and me, and they have assured me that I am one of their all-time favorite pastors. The last time I spoke personally with them, the young wife and mother hugged me and said, “Bill [not his real name] and I consider ourselves to be a product of your ministry.”

Some time ago, I drove past a quaint little church in a resort city. Out front was a sign that read, “Wedding Chapel. All faiths. All religions.” It immediately reminded me of an Internet site for a certain minister, which said that he would gladly conduct “no questions asked” weddings … for a fee, of course!

Some would argue that people are going to get married anyway, so rather than having them go to a justice of the peace or to the county judge, why not go ahead and marry them in the church.

One minister said, “I may as well get $50 as to have them pay it to the justice of the peace.”

That logic may suffice if one views marriage only as a civil contract. But scripturally, marriage is a divine institution, initiated by God himself (Genesis 2:21-25), and the church bears a responsibility for the preservation and sanctity of this union. When one considers that, statistically, 85 percent of those who live together before marriage end up in divorce, the church and the minister shoulder a tremendous burden for the counsel and direction of misguided young — and sometimes not-so-young — couples.

The young woman I referenced earlier came back and conveyed to me her respect, and later became a church member and friend. Nobody respects a “marrying Sam,” who will perform a ceremony for anybody who is willing to pay the fee. When word gets out in the community that anybody and everybody can be married in a given local church, the respect of that community toward the church is greatly diminished.

There is, of course, the argument that performing questionable marriages can be used as an evangelistic tool. Perhaps, say some, by going ahead and blessing the union with a preplanned church wedding, a relationship can develop that will win the couple or some of the wedding party to Christ and the church.

I remember following a long-term pastor at a church and asking him what his wedding policy had been. He replied that, in an attempt to evangelize them, he had followed a very open policy of performing weddings for couples living together and couples who were not members of the church. Then he said that if he had it to do over, he would be more restrictive because “in 34 years, I never won a single one of them!” In his words, “They used me, they used the church, and then were on their way.”

Which would we rather have: the feeling of having been used (even if it produces a little pocket change for the preacher and a user fee for the church), or community respect because we uphold the sacredness of marriage?

Marriage is ordained of God and is a spiritual union in which a man and a woman are joined by God to live together as one (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:7). Because of the divine character of marriage, it is a lifelong commitment with the only clear biblical allowances for divorce being marital infidelity (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15). Sexual involvement, either before marriage or with someone other than the marriage partner, is strictly forbidden in Scripture (Exodus 20:14; 1 Corinthians 6:15-18).

The blessing of anything short of this standard is to sanction that which is morally inferior to biblical standards. At the same time, when a couple has fallen short, but repents and is willing to submit to appropriate counsel and to make proper lifestyle adjustments while planning their wedding, the church is obliged to demonstrate grace.

Deciding what kind of marriage the church will bless is not a judgmental issue, and it is more than a moral question. It is a spiritual matter. The church must always reserve the right to say “no” when scriptural principles are violated.

The pressure to compromise has never been greater and is destined to escalate. The incidence of cohabitation outside of marriage has increased by more than 1,000 percent since 1970. It is projected that nearly 50 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 40 will cohabit prior to marriage. Add to this the culture’s growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, and you readily see why the church must establish definite directives as to what it can and cannot bless.

God cannot and does not bless any sexual union outside of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman (Hebrews 13:4). A holy God is not uncaring because He insists that His moral standards be honored. The church cannot bless that from which God would withhold His blessings!

JAMES E. COSSEY is a former editor in chief for Church of God (Cleveland) Publications and currently serves as State Administrative Bishop for the Church of God in Michigan.

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