Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God and His people to witness God joining together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.
What kinds of images come to mind when you hear these words? Joy, sadness, anguish, expectation, fear, concern, uncertainty, hope? Perhaps not surprisingly all of these emotions and reactions can be present at a wedding.
Scott Bruzek has written a clear analysis of the dilemma surrounding marriage and the misconceptions of marriage—for pastors and the Church, and the need for a more Biblical view of marriage as holy ground.
Most people think of [the pastor] as an ecclesiastical vending machine. If they put in the right amount of money—say, $200 for a Gothic building, $75 for an organist, $50 for a sexton, $100 for a sermon, and $50 deposit in case somebody throws rice instead of bird seed—then push the right buttons, they expect the perfect wedding to pop out. They assume that marriage within the church is offered offered as a public service, as if the church is just Las Vegas without the kitsch and the pastor is no more than a justice of the peace. In allowing people to think this way about the church, we have lost the sense of the holy. We have surrendered the joy of Adam and Eve at peace with the Lord in Eden (Gn. 2:21–25). We have failed to speak of Moses’ awe in slipping off his sandals and hiding his face before the Lord at the Burning Bush (Ex. 3:3–6) or the disciples’ terror on the Mount of Tranfiguration as they fall face down before Jesus with the shining face (Mk 9:6; Mt 17:6).
In other words, we have lost the sense of the church as other–worldly. We have forgotten that things happen in the Church happen nowhere else, that words and deeds are said and done in the church that said and done nowhere else, and that gifts are given and received in the church that are given and received nowhere else. It is within the church that the holy Lord of heaven and earth has chosen to dwell among his people graciously, and by his merciful presence to hallow space and the time. Certainly the church is in the world, but it is not of the world— it is otherworldly, it is holy (Jn 15:19; 17:11–19). This is what we confess each week in the creeds: “I believe in one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.”
If we have lost the sense of the holy—the sense of who the Lord is: the holy One; and what the Lord has done: holy things; and when the Lord does them: sacred time; and why: for the saints, the holy ones—even if only in this corner of the church called matrimony, and the church no longer speaks of holiness, then who will? No one. Others may champion values, character, or virtues…
To be faithful as a Christian and a pastor is to speak of holy things. Among the holy things done in Christ’s church is holy marriage. That is how the liturgy speaks—of holy marriage. This thing done …before God and witnesses is utterly otherworldly and wholly sacred. Marriage is holy ground. Marriage is sacred space. (“Marriage as Holy Ground,” Logia Vol. VI, #2, p. 17)
His insightful comments help pastors and churches regain what is Biblical in marriage.
Usually in my premarital pastoral care, the prospective bride and groom have two preconceived ideas about the wedding ceremony: the songs they want sung, and they want to do away with the vows in which the wife pledges to “obey” her husband. Other than that, they will “let” me do anything else I want! I tell them to wait until session five…
But as Christians, is this a legimate approach to a relationship so important as marriage? I think not. Rather, the God who has saved us also sets before us the implications of our new life “in Christ.” That, after all, is the theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Thus, everything that Paul has written up to this point informs and forms the present text regarding marriage.
1. “Holy Ones”—precondition for a Godly marriage
In the very first verse of Ephesians Paul calls them “saints” or “holy ones.” Building on that, he writes as the precursor of the marriage relationship:
“submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:21 ESV)
Notice that Paul urges this mutual relationship “out of respect for Christ.” Paul addresses the relationship between husband and wife assuming that both are Christians. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). If that is true in connection with business dealings, how much more so in a husband-wife relationship?
How many heartaches could be avoided if this one issue were addressed before any announcement of the engagement or the plans for marriage. Certainly this is not to suggest that Christians who marry will not have problems. But as Christians they have the advantage of starting from the same foundation: saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). Thus, the husband and wife will operate on the basis of their Christian faith and relationship.
Sadly many Christians who marry do not have a Christian marriage; they do not enter it as “holy ones.” They interact according to the prevailing cultural patterns, undermining the relationship, exposing the other to outside attacks. And that can be problematic. Thus, when preparing couples for marriage (and for couples within a troubled marriage), I lead them through a study of Ephesians. We spend considerable time working through what it means to be saved by grace through faith. We discuss the Law Gospel diagram and the relationship based on a proper understanding and application of Law and Gospel. We spend the entire first session on that.
In the second session we examine Ephesians 4:25–32, namely how do Christians interact: dealing with speaking truthfully (4:15; 4:25), anger (4:26–27), words that are spoken and those who overhear (4:29), and avoiding all the negatives of relationships (4:31).
Most importantly we look at the key element of Christian response in each case:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph. 4:32 ESV)
That is, God deals with sin through His Son, Jesus. And He gives the Church and Christians the words to speak forgiveness to one another. Now going back to 5:21–33, everything in marriage is formed and informed in light of God’s love and compassion that forgives, restores, renews. And that changes everything in a marriage.
As Christians who share the same faith in Christ, who have a relationship based on Ephesians 4, the issue of a Christian marriage of Christians is not only a possibility but the only God-pleasing option. God does not want us to settle for less than the best. It is “in Christ” that the husband and wife relationship begins and grows. Thus, both husband and wife live out their life together, submitting to one another in Christ. By doing so, they do not stoop to power plays, domination, or manipulating games. Most important they, and the Church, recognize something more profound about their marriage, it is a holy estate.
2. What is Going on? (Ephesians 5:22–33)
Many women and men balk at 5:22 (“Wives, submit to your own husbands…”). Such a reaction reflects the perversions in our culture, and not an understanding of what Paul writes. Sadly many think that the ceremony in the church is what the two people who are getting married are doing, or will do. As Scott Bruzek writes, “The seeds of this lie in seeing marriage as the public ecclesiastical affirmation of a private vow and the pastor primarily as a witness to this act of two people joining themselves together” (p. 18). Against this view of our work, Jesus, the Holy One, says: “What God has joined together…”—God’s work.
It’s no wonder that we have trouble with this section of Scripture. We look at it as a burden that doesn’t fit our lifestyle. The context of this holy activity is something that God is doing, and will do. Notice how free that makes both wife and husband. Marriage is not ours to do with as we please. With the Holy One, Jesus, the heart of the relationship lies in His forgiving presence. Today is a good day to remember that marriage is the Lord’s work in and through wife and husband. After all, remembering can be understood as a Biblical synonym for faithfulness.
What does marriage involve then? God is joining together, or a more literal rendering “yoking together” two Christians, two “holy ones” in Christ. Think of two animals yoked together, so they can work together, walk together, pull together for a common goal. How similar it is for wives and husbands in Ephesians 5. “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” It implies the equal yoke of one to the other, and God is doing His work in the yoking and the continuing to build that relationship, causing both to grow together.
3. How is this done?
Notice in this long passage, that Paul addresses two groups of people: wives and husbands.
Wives (5:22–24 ESV)
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Kph. 5:22–25 ESV)
Verse 22 evokes many emotions, unfortunately often negative. “Submit” seems demeaning to the wife, and sadly it is a reality in too many relationships. Abusive husbands try to use this as a “biblical basis” for what they are sinfully doing. Neither this passage, nor any other in the Bible, can be used to justify abuse—NEVER. Abuse is not part of husband-wife relationships, nor of parent-child relationships (Ephesians 6:1–4) or any Christian relationship.
Thus, we have to remember that 5:21 is the over arching guide of the entire section, that is, “mutually submitting to one another in Christ” applies to wives and husbands equally and especially within the marriage relationship.
Note, too, that the text does not say, “Husbands, make sure your wives submit…” That is, wives are the addressed “saints” (“holy ones”) in this passage. Submission is not forced, but freely given, as Paul notes that the Church submits in the same way to Christ. There is nothing negative in this exhortation. Yes, sinful women and sinful men may make this section negative, but that is due to sin, not reflective God’s work and plan for marriage.
Interestingly, when preparing couples for marriage, by the time we get to this section, the wife-to-be tend to have open-eyed amazement realizing that this is a positive statement of relationships. In fact, the most common statement that the wife-to-be makes is: “Wow, I only have three verses, my husband to be has nine verses. I am so thankful that I don’t have his role!”
Husbands (5:25–33 ESV)
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:25–33 ESV)
When we turn to the husbands, notice that the exhortation is to love your wife as Christ and to give yourself up for her. The role model for the husband is Christ. And now we go back to 5:21:
“submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:21 ESV)
True submitting to someone is evidenced by the giving up of self for the good of another. For the husband, his challenge is to realize that submission is not making decisions, bossing his wife (and kids) around, as if that is the essence of Christian leadership. Rather he listens, cares for his wife. He sacrifices himself for the sake of his wife. He gives, even his life, for her sake.
Note that when both live within the mutual submission, the relationship can grow, each person being valued, loved, and protected.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25–27)
Paul’s words in 5:25-27 remind us of Baptism—God’s cleansing work of the Church. Water with the Word— these are God’s tools as He works in the Church and in marriage. God unites husband and wife as holy ones, because of their baptisms. Extending that saving work, God’s work of absolution (forgiveness) brings the marriage relationship back to Ephesians 4:32. Luther wrote appropriately: “Sinners are attractive because they are loved, they are not loved because they are attractive.”
Word and Sacrament are at the heart of the Church feeding and growing the Church to draw it closer to Jesus. They are also at the heart of the marriage of two Christians. When issues begin to divide a marriage, look at the Word and Sacrament focus of their lives, personally and together.
So where do we go from here? I would urge to you to look at your present status. The consider:
1. Read and study God’s Word relative to marriage and Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and absolution: Genesis 2; Matthew 19; Ephesians 5:21–33; 1 Corinthians 7; 1 Peter 3:1–9. In conjunction with this, read Matthew 18:15–20; Ephesians 4:32; Romans 6:1–11; 2 Corinthians 1:3–7; 1 Corinthians 11:23–29.
2. Honor marriage as a holy estate instituted by God, regardless of your current life situation.
Married: commit yourself to God in your marriage. Remain pure in your relationship in thought, word, and deed. Hold up your spouse in prayer regularly, faithfully. The roles are based upon grace in relationship to Christ, thus are Gospel focused, not Law fcoused. Husband and wives have different roles, but not competing roles. What an amazingly profound way that God provides for each to nurture and care for the other.
Those not married: commit yourself to Christ and remain chaste (sexually pure) for marriage. Young people in particular, do not believe the lies of culture/music or be misled by the passion of the moment. And bottom line, if you have sinned, that is not the end for you. Confessing the sin means receiving the forgiveness of sins (1 John 1:8–9).
Divorced: Sadly divorce is a reality in our world. But commit yourself to the God who forgives, restores, renews, and upholds you. Let Psalm 34:18 be a theme for your new life in Christ:
“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18 NAS).
God is certainly not finished with anyone. God is about life, re-creation, restoration.
3. Attending weddings: Emotions are a part of life and especially evident in weddings. But do not be overcome with the emotion, but rather rejoice in God’s work of joining together two people in Christ. Often at the conclusion of wedding ceremonies people want to clap, almost as a sign that what the two had done was pleasing to them. Perhaps an alternative (better?) response at the end is to say, “Amen” (“it is firm,” “it is true”) to what God has done.
For indeed, marriage is holy ground, the ceremony is sacred time, because of the Holy One who is present, to join husband and wife to become one flesh, to bless them as they begin their holy life together.