Originally at: http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/joeljmiller/sacrament-of-marriage/
by Joel J Miller
ristians have traditionally understood marriage as more than contract, partnership, or mutual agreement. Though it’s been buried under a million words about rights and equality, the church understands marriage to be a sacrament, a gift of God’s grace for the transformation of the recipients.
Look for a moment at two examples: baptism and eucharist. The first moves us into relationship with Christ and his church, while the second gives us the life of Christ so we can become more like him. Marriage is the same way. The endgame is union with God as we grow in Christ.
The apostle Paul actually speaks of marriage as a “mystery,” using the Greek term for sacraments. Our marriages have the power to transform us into the likeness of Christ. But “sacrament” is not a category many of us think about anymore, and the deleterious effect on our understanding of marriage is profound.
The rise of therapeutic marriage
Over the last several decades we’ve come to a different take on marriage, as part of a much larger cultural shift I discussed before. Marriage is now primarily a relationship for the betterment and self-fulfillment of two individuals. Two are stronger than one, after all. Together two individuals can better gratify each other’s desires and fulfill each others needs—right up until the moment they no longer seem able or willing, of course.
None of that is false, so far as it goes. But when you take this understanding of marriage and place it within the context of a self-indulgent culture like ours, you create marriages between two people looking to get the most out of the relationship for themselves. University of Virginia sociologist Sarah Corse and Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva, for instance, describe the rise of “therapeutic” marriage, which centers on the “happiness, equality, mutuality, and self-actualization of individuals.”
When the individuals involved think they can get more for themselves outside the marriage, they cheat or just “consciously uncouple,” to use Gwyneth Paltrow’s morally beatific euphemism for divorce. “[W]e don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier,” explains therapist Esther Perel.
The union exists, in other words, for the individual to maximize his or her bliss—and to hell with the rest. That’s not true in every marriage, but it sure seemed true in my first marriage, and let me underscore the word first. How could it last with all my self-seeking?
This is the exactly the cultural context in which the Supreme Court wrestled with the question of same-sex marriage. Hence Justice Kennedy’s ruling:
The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation. There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.
That opinion makes sense in the context of therapeutic marriage. Who doesn’t like room for expression, intimacy, and spirituality? But the judgment doesn’t apply to sacramental marriage because those things—wonderful as they are—are not the governing purpose of marriage as traditionally understood by the church. We’re working toward something bigger.
The significance and safeguard of sacrament
Christians are affected by the “therapeutic” culture as much as anyone. Not only do many of us no longer regard marriage as a sacramental union, in which individual gratification and self-fulfillment are not the ultimate goal. But in the vacuum we have perpetuated the values of the wider culture (as in most everything else we do).
Compounding the problem, Christians approach marriage with expectations that seem appropriate on the surface but which are really just self-indulgence baptized and proof-texted. True love should wait, yes, but the point of marriage isn’t to have—as we often sell it to young people—the most amazing sex ever.
Others have written about the problems with this approach, but the obvious one is that it distorts the purpose of marriage before the pair even steps up to the altar. Everybody loves a good orgasm, but marriage is more about enabling another to grow in union with God. Not only does marriage help display the relationship between God and his church, it helps us actualize that relationship by the Holy Spirit.
Beyond these considerations, the category of sacrament could prove an important safeguard. When a couple comes to marry, the pastor must guard the sacrament as he would with baptism and the eucharist. Sacraments are exclusive by nature. The earliest Christians didn’t even let outsiders see the eucharist.
A minister would refuse baptism to someone not eligible, just as he would refuse the cup. The same is true for marriage. If it’s only a contract, that’s one thing. But if it is a sacrament, then what place do courts and legislatures have dictating practice? Will the government also determine who should get dunked, fed, absolved, and so on? It’s a small but perhaps significant distinction as we look to define the bounds of religious liberty.
Bottom line: If marriage is to survive as any meaningful sort of institution, I am convinced it will only survive to the extent that we recapture the vision for what a sacramental marriage can be. And that of course means those of us who are married must live up to that calling.
Lord, have mercy.