#49 may03 next-wave.org

The Emerging Church by Dan Kimball
Stumbling Toward a Theology of Getting Married
by Mike McNichols
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A Phone Call With a Friend

Ring…… Ring….… Ring.


“Hello – Steve?”


“It’s Mike.” I just called to say that I don’t want to do weddings anymore.”

            “Oh. Why not?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that the whole process is becoming distorted. I keep meeting with couples who already have this life together and my job is to put respectable religious wrapping around it.”

            “What do you mean when you say they have a life together?”

“Most of the couples I talk to—even if they say they are ‘Christians’—are either living together or at least have an extended sexual history. It’s like I’m going through this traditional ritual that has no reflection of the reality of the couple’s life. So maybe we should all just quit performing weddings.”

“That might be kind of a challenge, since both of us are pastors. Doing weddings is part of what we do. Are you having a crisis?”

“Yes I’m having a crisis! I want to be a spiritual director for people, not some kind of official suit that just plays well for the camera! I could do that in Las Vegas in an Elvis outfit and actually earn a living at it!

“Settle down. You’re going to blow a circuit. Let’s meet next week for coffee. I’ll e-mail you. I gotta go. I have an appointment to counsel a living-together couple about their wedding.”

“Really funny. Some pastor you are.”


The Private Struggle

I really have to think this through. What is my problem?

I don’t want to do weddings anymore.

The truth is, I love weddings. I love my role as a kind of spiritual director that confronts the couple and their community with the deep, profound reality of the marital union.

But I’m just not sure that I can do them anymore.

Presiding over the weddings of people that claim no particular religious orientation or even any sense of spirituality is fine. I get a great opportunity to point people toward the God who deeply loves them and to point out how Jesus’ love gives us hope for our own lives. It’s a wonderful privilege to serve those people and give them a kind of spiritual milestone in their lives.

I think I just don’t want to do weddings for people who call themselves “Christians”.

That may seem strange, since I am a follower of Jesus who happens to be a pastor. However, I have good reason to consider refusing to do weddings for these people.

My reason is this: Too many of them are already married before they come to me.

I still do pre-marital counseling. I have to wonder about the effectiveness of that counseling, because by the time the couple gets to that stage they are already engaged and have ordered most of the wedding stuff. There’s probably little possibility of turning back from that point. The counseling is very likely to be more effective at their one-year anniversary.

I use a counseling inventory that is used by many pastors. It is designed for specific groups: Pre-married, married, and even retired couples. Each inventory is tailored to those groups.

Recently I received notice from the company that produces this inventory that a new edition is now available that is for use with couples that are already living together—“cohabiting.” The letter informing me of this change indicated that I can expect that anywhere from 60-80% of the couples getting married today are already living together.

What I also know is that these kinds of percentages, while applied to the culture at large, are usually applicable to the Christian community—maybe not at the same exact level, but with increasing similarity. And if the “Christian” couple is not living together, it is not unusual to find that they are sleeping together. So they don’t pay rent on the same apartment—what’s the real difference?

There may not be a significant difference. So a “Christian” couple comes to me and wants me to marry them. They are already living together or at least they are having sex together on a regular basis. They are probably having sex more often than an already married couple, and in more creative spaces. They also claim a deep commitment to one another. So what is lacking?

I’ll tell you what: A county-authorized marriage license and a big party. But they don’t need me for that.

I am not a justice of the peace. I am not required by the state to officiate at weddings. The state entrusts me with that role, but I am not required to do it. The couple can make an appointment with City Hall and get married in about five minutes. No tuxedos required.

I still believe that a true marriage is a covenant relationship between the couple and God. The couple begins by covenanting with each other. We have traditionally called that an engagement. Then the couple stands before their community and makes their covenant public, and speaks out their intention to live that covenant out in relationship with God. Once that amazing declaration is made and witnessed by their community, they enter into a truly shared life, sealing that covenant with the uniting of their bodies. That’s the way I see it.

So the “Christian” couple comes to me after months or years of surreptitious sex, claiming a deep and intense commitment to each other. It’s starting to sound to me like they have already eloped, just without getting a marriage license. So it’s a commitment of life, union with the bodies and the sharing of a home. Yup. Sounds like marriage to me. And now it becomes my job to package it up and make it look pretty for the wedding day.

I really don’t want to do weddings anymore.


A Call for Help

Ring…… Ring….… Ring.

“Good morning, Community Church.”

“Yes…I recently got engaged, and my fiancé and I would like to meet with a pastor and maybe get some counseling before our wedding.”

“Are you a member of Community Church?”

“No, we’re not. Is that a problem?”

“Not necessarily. It’s just helpful to know. Would you consider yourselves to be Christians?”

            “Well, I guess I’m not exactly sure. I used to go to church, but my fiancé is really not a religious person. Since we decided to get married it’s really started me thinking about how God fits into our life.”

“Are you and your fiancé currently living together?”


“I think it would be wonderful if one of our pastors could meet with you. It is our policy, however, that unmarried couples living together must move into separate residences before our staff meets with them.”

            “Why is that required?”

“Well, to counsel you toward marriage while you are living together would be to endorse your sin. It’s really a Biblical view, and it is our policy.”

            “I see. Thank you for your time.” Click.


The Interview

Me:                  So the church you called wouldn’t meet with you because you are living together?

She:                That’s right. They said they would be “endorsing my sin.” It just seems so self-righteous. What gives them the right to make that kind of judgment against us?

He:                  That’s why I don’t go to church.

She:                I called some other churches and they kept implying that they have different rules for Christians than for people who aren’t Christians. It’s like we’re the step-children of the human race to them because we don’t fit their mold. In some ways they might be more open to working with us since they don’t consider us Christians because we don’t really know better. 

He:                  We’re not the spiritually enlightened. 

She:                I’m so glad we found you. The fact that you’ll meet with us seems to mean that you’re more liberal.

Me:                  Um, I really wouldn’t put it that way…

She:                Is there some kind of Bible verse that says, “Thou shalt not live together or have sex before you get married?”

Me:                  Well, it’s a bigger picture than that…

He:                  This is beginning to get really difficult. Is it so bad that we want someone to bring a sense of God into our lives? Isn’t Christianity about love? None of this seems very loving to me.

She:                Are you willing to accept us as we are and do our wedding for us?


Coffee Over the Crisis 

“Why do you always want to come to this coffee shop? Their coffee is terrible.”

“I know, but it’s a cool place. Don’t you want to be cool?”

“Yes, but only as an alternative to having these hot flashes.”

“Men aren’t supposed to have hot flashes. Maybe you are exploring your feminine side.”

“You know, Steve, if you ever decide to quit being a pastor, you could really make it doing stand-up comedy.”

“Sorry. So where did you leave it with that young couple?”

“I don’t know. I guess I kind of wimped out. I talked to them about the idea of covenant relationship, but they just didn’t get it. It was like I was speaking Latin.”

“I guess the language of covenant is not familiar to people in general.”

“I’m not even sure it’s familiar to me. This getting married thing is starting to make me crazy. We are increasingly operating around a traditional paradigm of marriage that presupposes pre-marriage celibacy accompanied by deep lifetime commitments. The statistics just don’t bear that out anymore.”

“I know what you mean, Mike. I recently attended a wedding where the bride was marrying a guy she had lived with for over a year. She had two other live-in boyfriends before that. Nobody seemed to see the irony in her wearing of a beautiful white dress that has traditionally symbolized virginity. It does become a little surreal when you really think about it.”

“I think I’m beyond just despairing over the state of the culture. That really isn’t my primary issue. My concern is how to authentically address the reality of the life situations without seeing my job as reorganizing their lives to give the appearance of respectability.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it: A typical conservative pastor meets with a couple for the first time. He finds out they are living together or at least sleeping together regularly. What does he advise them to do?”

“Move out. Quit having sex.”

“Right. I understand a couple making a new commitment about their lives before God and then separating temporarily as an act of faith. I think that can be a profound symbol of trust and faithfulness before God. But what does it really, truly change? What if the couple has been together for a number of years—maybe they even have had a child together—are we OK with dismantling them for the sake of appearances—for the sake of performing a ‘sin free’ wedding?”

“But Mike—Isn’t it for more than just the sake of appearances? Isn’t it a statement of their lives? On the other hand, I see what you mean about the incredible disruption in someone’s life. That’s a tough one.”

“Here’s what I’m thinking about: What if we began to see our roles more in terms of being spiritual directors for people? What if we let people tell us about their lives, and then, in the context of our understanding of covenant relationship, identified the truth of their lives and led them from that point? Is it possible that we have allowed the validation of a marriage by the civil authorities to become the benchmark of legitimacy? Have we somehow submitted ourselves to the wrong standard?”

“Wow. You’re suggesting something that could be really disturbing. Look, I’ve got to go soon, but I really want to talk more about this. Have you thought about doing a preliminary paper about this so we can have a kind of working document?”

“Actually, I’ve already started something. I’ll finish it and e-mail it to you.”

“I think I’m going to need more coffee for this.”


The Position Paper

From: Mike McNichols

Sent: Friday, January 24, 2003 7:13 AM

To: Superstar Steve

Subject: RE: Paper on Getting Married


Here it is. Read it and talk to me.


Toward a Practical Theology of Getting Married

I need a new theology of getting married. A theology of marriage is one thing; a theology of the process of getting married is another.

The reason I believe there is a need for a new theology is that, as followers of Jesus who are trying to bring leadership to others, we may be inadvertently guilty of endorsing illusions about what it means to become married. Two issues cause me to be concerned:

1.                  An increasing number of couples are either living together or at least having sex on a regular basis by the time the engagement is announced. This appears to be a reality regardless of a couple’s claim to faith.

2.                  The authorizing of a civil marriage license has become the ultimate safety zone not only in the minds of couples but also in the ethic of the church.

I am a pastor and often have people—both inside and outside of my church—ask me to officiate at their weddings. In the last five years, the majority of couples I have married were living together and/or had a significant sexual history with each other. Some of these people identify themselves as Christians and some of them do not.

In discussion with other pastors I often ask how they deal with these kinds of issues. Most say that there are different rules for those who are Christians versus those who are not. The rules for those who are Christians are often straightforward: Move apart, commit to pre-marriage celibacy until the completion of the ceremony and, most importantly, obtain the civil marriage license.

While I trust that the intent in this practice is honorable it can also be the endorsement of an illusion and might be inadvertently dishonest. In order to explain this, I need to begin with the words of Jesus:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…But I say to you…” (Matthew 5:20ff)

These are familiar words found in the Sermon on the Mount. The superficial righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees contrasted with the righteousness that brought people into the kingdom of heaven was illustrated by the programmatic statements, “You have heard that it was said” and “But I say to you.” In his exposing of the duplicity of the religious elite in adhering to apparent outward legal conformities at the expense of inner righteousness, Jesus revealed an all-too-common human tendency: To find security in legal measurement while ignoring the truth. The fortunes of some law firms have been built by this kind of thinking.

I suspect that Jesus might say something like this to us: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You are married on the day of your wedding.’ But I say to you, everyone who enters into a relationship of committed oneness with another person,[1] in mind, heart and body is already married in the economy of God.”

While I am in no way devaluing the wedding day and the civil marriage license, I believe we may have drifted into an illusion of the nature of becoming married. I offer two observations that suggest this drift:

1.                  Couples typically maintain that their relationship, even when sexual, remains conditional until a civil marriage license is signed. In the extreme, sexual unfaithfulness is condoned as long as the sexual acts predate the actual wedding event.

2.                  Pastors too often feel that their job is to urge the couple to structure or restructure their relationship with the goal of meeting the wedding date with their sexual habits in tact.

The problem with number one above is, of course, that the mentality of conditionality does not magically go away at the utterance of the words “I do” at the wedding ceremony. Marriage is a covenant[2] relationship; living in a relationship of oneness in a mentality of conditionality may be the reason many cohabiting relationships do not succeed in marriage[3]. In a sense this is a legalistic view (“You have heard that it was said”) of becoming married: Marriage becomes a legal, contractual act that exists only as the ink dries on the civil certificate. That is dishonest because it denies the reality of the life of the couple in relationship.

The problem with number two above is that the wedding ceremony and the accompanying civil legitimization become also, for the pastor, the ultimate measure of a marriage’s existence. We can easily see this by testing our responses to the entrance of two hypothetical couples into our churches: The first couple was living together and would like to enter into the life of the church and even, at some point, get married. That may create a real ethical problem for some churches. The second couple was also living together, but got married in Las Vegas (at the Chapel o’ Love) the week before visiting the church. Regardless of their sexual past, the legal recognition of the marriage makes them much less of a problem. I believe that, in intending to guide couples toward wholeness we may have inadvertently become endorsers of dishonesty.

Why dishonesty? Why is it dishonest to urge people toward a restructuring of their lives in order to enter marriage in a new state of mind? It’s not. It may be, however, dishonest to deconstruct the reality of the couple’s real life together in order to make it palatable for the wedding ceremony, where civil law makes the ultimate determination of a real marriage.

During the time of the early Church, marriages remained under the jurisdiction of the family. It was not until the 11th century that the institutional Church began to control the validation of marriage. Following the French Revolution in the 18th century, civil validation of marriage began to emerge as the final authority in Europe and the United States[4]. In the US, the state recognizes the validity of both religious and civil wedding ceremonies, but there is no legal recognition of a marriage outside of civil recognition.

Therefore, we have come to believe that if a couple is living under the same roof, expressing a commitment to one another and engaging in sex together, no one has the legal right to identify that relationship as a marriage except the state. In other words, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it isn’t a duck until the state says it’s a duck.

Again, I am not bashing the state. Civil recognition of a marriage is an important social benefit and gives full acknowledgement of the sanctity of marriage within a religious/spiritual framework. I am objecting to the faith community’s—the church’s—delegation of that recognition to a purely legal standard even in the face of overwhelming evidence[5].

Typically, when a couple arrives on the doorstep of the church to ask for help in becoming married, and it is discovered that they already have a committed relationship that is bonded by their sexual history, the first task seems to be to change the situation (i.e. get them to stop having sex) in order to prepare them for a date forthcoming when their relationship will enjoy the status of legality. In that, we are in danger of dishonesty and acquiescing our responsibility to speak truth.

I once counseled a young couple that was suffering a crisis in the relationship. The woman had recently experienced a renewal of her faith in Christ, much to the shock of her live-in boyfriend of several years. They had developed a shared life sexually, relationally and financially. She was considering separating from him in order to “do things God’s way.” When I asked them about their relationship, they explained that since moving in together they had been faithful to one another and had lived compatibly since that time. I asked how their relationship would be different tomorrow if we all signed a marriage license today. We were all struck with the reality that there would truly be no functional difference except in legal recognition and rights (and the apparent relief from feelings of guilt).

The life this couple had created looked like a marriage, walked like a marriage and quacked like a marriage. What profound difference would a $70.00 fee and a marriage license make? The point was not to deny the importance of a civil license but rather to affirm the truth about their life: They had entered into the estate of marriage—perhaps in a broken, non-covenantal way, but a marriage nevertheless.

Long ago, when marriage was validated in the realm of the family, a couple engaging in sex could become married without delay, as the families recognized the need for that couple to move that relationship into the place of covenant, where (especially in the absence of birth control) families and heritages were created. In our culture, the common use of birth control and the perceived power of marriage recognition in the hands of the state lead us into an artificial environment, where we allow ourselves to fail to identify the truth before us.

According to the Bible, marital union takes place within the intention and realm of God (Genesis 2:23-24). Our appreciation of civil validation and all its benefits should be secondary to our understanding of God’s recognition of the marital union.

We need a new theology of becoming married. In light of rapidly changing cultural norms regarding sex, cohabiting and marriage, we need a fresh connection with God’s preference for a ministry that reflects his character.

When Jesus offered a new paradigm for ethics in Matthew 5 (“You have heard it was said…But I say to you”) he was refusing to allow the safety zone of legal compliance to be the ultimate determiner of ethical behavior. The only difference between an adulterer and a person with the heart of an adulterer was that the first person actually acted out his heart’s desires while the other did not.

We might begin rethinking the theology of becoming married by helping people to see the truth about their lives. Are we really on solid ground when we attempt to unmake the union of a cohabiting couple in order to remake it within the safety zone of legal compliance? Is that honest? It might be more important to begin identifying what is present and real, then serving as spiritual directors to those people.

How might a new theology of becoming married be formed and applied in the context of the local church? That’s going to take some work.

While I am claiming that a one-size-fits-all approach to weddings is inappropriate, I am not suggesting that we simply morph a wedding ceremony around whatever circumstances people bring to us. I am, however, recommending that our public wedding celebrations become reflections of truth rather than simply events that play well for the photographer.

Some might claim that such an approach makes a mockery of the sacredness of the wedding ceremony; I have wondered the same thing. I have come to the conclusion that seeking to lead people into places of transformation in the presence of God is not a mockery. It may be, however, that officiating at a traditional wedding of a couple with an established sexual history—whether or not the couple has temporarily abstained from sex—may be simply dishonest.


The Interview Continued

He:      Why do religious people get so fixated on sex?

She:    Isn’t sex supposed to be considered something normal and natural—even beautiful?

Me:      Well, of course, but…

He:            Whether a couple is having sex or not (I can’t imagine anyone not trying their sexual life out ahead of time) shouldn’t have anything to do with actually getting married. They’re really two different things.

Me:      Are you sure?

He:      Sex is great, but it doesn’t really mean that much!

She:    Uh, I don’t think I would go that far. Of course it means something. But it doesn’t mean you have to get married or that there is some implied guarantee of a future together just because you have sex.

Me:      You don’t think that joining together sexually suggests any sense of commitment?

He:      Nope. Not at all.

She:    Well, it could. But it doesn’t have to. I think the idea of sex and commitment is something that strict religious people have come up with. The rest of the world just doesn’t see it that way.


Images From the Movies

To:   Mike McNichols

Sent:      January 25, 2003

From:      Movienut@virtualdream.org

Subject:      What movies say about sexual relationships


I received your inquiry about movies. Tell your daughter “thanks” for recommending me as an expert. I enjoyed her in my classes at the university. She’s also right: If you are a student of culture, the movies are a great place to analyze what’s going on in the culture at large.

Your question was challenging, but I think I found something that might help. I have to admit that I didn’t understand at first what you were talking about when you asked for illustrations of the emotional pain people go through in the breaking of relationships that were sexual. I thought all relationships between males and females today were sexual! Anyway, I think I got the idea.

The first one I’ll just summarize quickly—you can check out the DVD on your own if you want. It comes from the movie Flatliners from the early 90’s. It’s the story of a handful of really bright medical students who secretly are bringing each other medically to the point of death, then being revived after anywhere from one to five minutes. They’re going for the near-death experience, but end up being visited by images of their former “sins.” This one guy is sleeping with every girl in town and making videotapes of their liaisons. After his near-death experience, images of these women keep visiting him, accusing him of dehumanizing them.

The other is a piece of dialogue from the recent movie Vanilla Sky. Rather than tell you about it, I had one of my TA’s isolate the dialogue, editing out the spicy stuff (since you’re a pastor, I don’t want to take any chances). By the way – be careful about recommending this movie to people in your church. I think it’s brilliant, but the language and sexuality might be over the top for some people.

Here you go. Let me know if you need anything else.


Dialogue from Vanilla Sky:

Scene: Cameron Diaz is driving while Tom Cruise (as the character David) is in the passenger seat. She is beginning to speak desperately to him about their relationship. She is in despair over the reality that she has become to him a convenient and entertaining sexual toy and that they have no real future together (I have deleted the more graphic statements):

CD:      “What’s happiness to you, David?”

TC:      [Casual, amused response]“What’s happiness to me…what is happiness…”

CD:      “’Cause, for me, this is happiness: Being with you.”

[more graphic dialogue]

CD:   “When did you stop caring, David?”

TC:      “Caring about what?”

CD:      “Caring about the promises that you made.”

TC:      “Promises?”

CD:   “Yeah, the promises!”

TC:   “What are you talking about?”

CD:   “Do you understand how hard it is to be your ‘buddy’? David—I love you!”

[graphic dialogue]

CD:   “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone your body makes a promise, whether you do or not?” 

      “Tell me something, David: Do you believe in God?”


Finding Pastoral Priority 

“So have you shared this e-mail from the university guy with the couple you’ve been talking to?”

“Not yet. I know that the movie references don’t prove anything, but they’re a very insightful picture of the potentially painful consequences of taking one’s sexual relationships lightly.”

“It’s tough for people in our culture to be really honest about this. I remember how I saw life before I became a Christian. I thought everything sensual in life was there for my amusement. You know, Mike, it was actually the pain of that life that drew me to Jesus.”

“And we are not isolated from that culture. In a real way, we are that culture. My concern is to figure out how to speak into the reality of that culture (which is increasingly the same cultural outlook that is seen within the lives of people calling themselves ‘Christians’). For me this is really becoming an issue of honesty and truth.”

“Have you gotten any creative criticism from anyone else on your thought processes?”

“Some. A couple of people expressed concern that I was simply dismissing the importance of the legality of marriage and just pandering to the sexual permissiveness of the ‘world.’ I guess I can see how they fear that, but I don’t think that’s what I’m trying to do here.”

“Let’s talk about the paper you e-mailed to me. I liked the issues you brought up, but I have some questions. I also noticed that you left it open-ended; there really weren’t any ultimate conclusions or recommendations.”

“I know. That’s why you’re here—to help me with that. No pressure.”

“Now we’re doomed and likely to be burned as heretics. Anyway—I want to go deeper into the way you are trying to differentiate between the spiritual recognition of a marriage (or, perhaps the ‘ecclesiastical’ recognition) and the civil recognition. Talk about that.”

“Well, once again I want to be clear that I’m not disregarding the importance of the civil license. But I am saying that we may have allowed that civil recognition to be what ultimately defines a marriage.”

“Yeah, but without that license there are no legal protections or property rights.”

“True, but think for a second how strictly defining a marriage as that which is created at the signing of a license creates an illusion. For example: Years ago when I was in business I knew this guy who was engaged. We were at a sales meeting and everybody was far from home. Even though he was to be married on the following weekend, he picked up a girl at a bar and had sex with her. It was a big joke among his buddies because they said he would have a difficult time explaining the scratch marks on his back.”


“For this guy (and his friends), his little tryst with this stranger had no real meaning because it happened before the wedding ceremony. In the same way, as pastors and leaders, we can find ourselves not recognizing the reality before us as being something already true and real because it precedes the legal recognition of the marriage.”

“What do you mean?”

“Take this couple I’ve been meeting with. They’ve talked to other churches that want them to change their life circumstances because their living together is prior to the civil recognition of their marriage. That civil recognition has become the benchmark for legitimization!”

“I still don’t get that. The civil recognition does legitimize the marriage.”

“I know. But let me walk through something I’ve been thinking about: By the time you stand before a couple on their wedding day, how long have they had possession of their license?”

“I don’t know…maybe a month or so.”

“Right. When is that license considered valid?”

“When all the signatures are on it.”

“Steve—it’s finally valid when your signature is on it. By the time they get to the wedding day, they couple has signed the license and the county recorder has signed the license. Ultimately a witness or two will sign the license. But until you sign the license, it’s no good.”

“OK, but what’s the point?”

“The point is that your proclamation of the existence of their marriage has priority and even precedes the recognition of the state.”

“But the state is the ultimate authority in this.”

“Wrong. The state authorities are recognizing what already exists, and they trust us to identify that reality for them. I can prove it: When you say the words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” are they married or not?”

“They’re married.”

“Where’s the license?”

“The best man probably has it.”

“When do you sign it?”

“Usually before we go to the reception.”

“So there’s a gap of anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or so.”


“And legally we have a few days before we even have to mail the signed license off to the county recorder. So by the time anything technically legal happens, we have already publicly identified the couple as being married.”

“Right. So you’re saying that what we do is prior to what the state acknowledges and validates. It’s like we’ve had the authority of the state extended to us, and they believe what we tell them about the couple.”

“You got it. It’s like the state is saying, ‘What do you think, Steve? Is this a marriage?’ By making the proclamation and signing the license, we say, ‘Yes, it is.’ Our role as pastors—as the church—is to speak out the reality that we see, and to do so before God and witnesses. We see a man and a woman who have expressed love and commitment toward one another. They make promises in our presence. We say they are husband and wife and the state takes our word for it. And our word—our word of reality, of truth—is spoken prior to the validation of the state.”

“So how does that apply to cohabiting couples?”

“Well, I think that we have the same obligation and authority to speak the truth to them. We have traditionally seen that obligation to be to point out the sin in their lives—which may be a point of truth (as it would be a point of truth for any of us), but misses the larger reality of their life together. I think we have stopped short of the obligation to speak truthfully and authoritatively about what we see before us: Shared life, shared bodies, shared commitment. Looks like a marriage! And that word of identification always precedes the acknowledgement of the state.”

“Even if it precedes that acknowledgement by months instead of hours.”


“OK, Mike—where do we start drawing the line on this? Is every couple that has sex now married? What if you have a couple of teenagers in your church who get too cozy in the back seat of a car? Do we now call them out as a married couple?”

“I have to admit that I’m very fuzzy on this. I’m pretty sure it would be a big mistake to create a new legalism that goes to that place. Yet, we need to think it through. I think it has to do with intention and commitment, no matter how distorted the sense of commitment might be. Sexual activity outside of any form of commitment is probably in the category of promiscuity, or even serial monogamy. So, no—I wouldn’t say that every sexual act creates a marriage.”

“Of course, the wide use of birth control and the availability of abortion has really changed this over the recent years, hasn’t it? Not too long ago, that hypothetical teenage couple would run a high risk of pregnancy. If the girl got pregnant, the old ‘shotgun wedding’ would happen pretty quickly.”

“For me, this is becoming an issue of learning to lead people to places of wholeness and truth before God. I know that what I’m talking about requires a change in traditional thinking, but I think we face a change in culture that demands we make a truthful, theological response.”

“But is it a Biblical response?”

“That’s an important question for us, isn’t it? I am convinced that our response must be theological in the sense that we are seeking to speak out a word that reflects God’s preferences and intentions. We must be Biblical in that the scriptures give us the precedent for our response.”

“So what’s the Biblical precedent?”

“I’m not into proof-texting, but I think I’ve got a working text that gives the precedent: Matthew 19:4-6, which actually refers back to Genesis 2. Here—I’ve got it loaded in my PDA.”

“Don’t you have it memorized?”

“Steve, as a good heretic, I’m very weak on memorization. OK—here it is:

“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6, NRSV)

“In these words of Jesus, it’s all there: People are created as male and female—our gender, our sexuality is not incidental to who we are as humans, but is essential to our humanness[6]. The ancient context for coming together as ‘one flesh’ was an intentional act that was lived out, acknowledged and validated not by state authorities, but rather by family, tribe and community. That oneness was sacred and God-designed and not to be broken or taken lightly. I think this gives us a Biblical basis for developing a theology of getting married that allows us to speak with authority about the truth we see in the life of a couple—even to the point of calling a marriage a marriage when it precedes the acknowledgment of the state.”

“You’re gonna get burned at the stake, Mike.”

“Then you won’t have to buy me coffee anymore.”


Looking for Conclusions

From: Superstar Steve

Sent: Thursday, January 30, 2003 4:37 PM

To:   Mike McNichols

Subj: Community and Cohabitation


I’ve been giving more thought to the conclusions that might be drawn from all of this discussion. I want to offer up two ideas:

First, I think your primary conclusion is that our job, as pastors, is to help people engage in the honesty of their life together rather than to let them continue in the illusion of a life that “doesn’t really count” because it is being lived outside of a legal marriage. It’s like in the movie The Matrix, when Morpheus explains to Neo that everything he is currently experiencing is a computer-generated illusion. His true existence was in that life-sucking pod in the giant battery system. Morpheus didn’t invite him into reality, he proclaimed the truth of Neo’s reality. I think we’ve been saying that we need to have the courage to tell the truth about life in the Matrix and call people to embrace reality.

Second, I suggest that we broaden this role of truth-telling to something that is not just limited to the pastor, but is something that the larger community of faith is invited into. I want to be clear that I’m not in any way describing some authoritarian, “shepherding” kind of nightmare, but rather the training of some caring, loving people who will learn to speak truth in love to people. Yes, it would require some theological paradigm shifts for people within our churches, but I really think they’re up for the task.

Think about that and let’s talk some more.


* * *

From: Mike McNichols

Sent: Friday, January 31, 2003 6:10 PM

To:       Superstar Steve

Subj: Re: Community and Cohabitation


I think what you’re saying is that we draw our community of faith into a process of theological, reality-based assessment as we lead people into the covenant of marriage. I wonder what that would look like on a practical level? I’m sure that, at the least, we would need to spend a great deal more time with people who bring various forms of leadership (like small group leaders, leadership teams, elders, whatever) in order to walk them through these processes and help them become spiritual directors for people.

[A side-note on the idea of spiritual directors: I think what we’ve been talking about when we use that term are people who are willing to spend time with others in order to listen, give feedback, pray, and even counsel, also the last point has to be viewed with great caution. It’s the idea of helping another person to see where God is in their life situation, to hear God’s voice, and to respond to God well. At least, that’s my picture of spiritual direction.]

You’re right—the authoritarian/shepherding experiment has been tried and found wanting. Yet it seems to me that being authoritative in identifying that which is true is only to act on the authority of Jesus. It doesn’t give us the right to tell people who they can marry or what jobs to take, but I think it does give us the responsibility to help people escape the matrix of illusion they might be in. So, calling a marriage a marriage when we see all the components before us is to speak authoritatively on the basis of what we understand a marriage to be from a theological, biblical standpoint.

By the way: Remember Bill and Serena--the couple I was meeting with? Something really interesting has happened. I shared the movie images from Flatliners and Vanilla Sky with them to illustrate what I was trying to say about how our sexuality is essential rather than incidental to our humanness. They were actually impacted by the references because they had seen both movies (she was much more affected by the depth of Cameron Diaz’ character’s pain than he was, but I think that’s typical of the way men and women process things differently).

Anyway, it turns out that, in spite of all their objections, they really were struggling with the legitimacy of their relationship. In a way, getting formally married was an attempt at medicating their pain. I told them how I saw God’s intentions for our wholeness in relationships of deep commitment—-in covenant relationships--and how founding a relationship on condition can ultimately lead to deep pain and even dehumanization. I also explained how my role, as a pastor, is to proclaim the truth of their marriage prior to the validation of the state. They seemed to be catching on.

So I took a big risk. I asked them if they loved each other. They said they did. I asked them if they were faithful to one another and if they intended to remain so. Yes again. I asked them if, right at that moment, they were dedicated to remaining together for the rest of their lives. Yes. Then I said, “By the power vested in me by the Church of Jesus Christ and the State of California, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Their eyes got really big and she started to cry. It was awesome. I told them that the state would not hold them accountable to their relationship should they part company before getting their license. But I said that I did intend to hold them accountable for the promises they had already made with their words, their lives and their bodies.

We’ll see how it goes now. They were so impacted by our meeting that they asked me to lead them in a quiet little ceremony at her parents’ home. They want me to explain all of this to their family (gulp). They’re planning to use the money they will save on a big wedding to put down on a house.

So far, my theological processing may still be experimental, but it is at least proving to be financially prudent.

I’ve attached my notes for the talk that I’m planning to give at their ceremony that, hopefully, expresses the reality of their life together rather than a life that “should have been.”

Looking forward to more discussion.

Your fellow traveler,


* * *

Wedding Ceremony Notes for Bill and Serena

Something very important is happening here today. In fact, something unbelievable is happening here today. Bill and Serena are about to make a claim about their life together that will change them forever—it may even change some of you.

There is about to be a profound experience in their relationship. There is going to be a transition.

Prior to any wedding, the relationship between the future bride and groom remains, at least in most people’s minds, conditional. No matter the depth of connection between the couple, no matter how much their lives are intertwined, there is an implied understanding that either person can get out of the deal—no harm, no foul. Most of us recognize that the no harm, no foul theory is wrong, because there is plenty of hurt to go around when that happens.

But today, Bill and Serena are making a new claim: Their relationship will not be characterized by condition, but instead by something that is called covenant.

Please notice that I didn’t say contract. A contract is an agreement between parties under certain conditions and is enforceable by law. Certainly the marriage license that will be signed later has a sense of contract to it, but that license isn’t what makes the marriage.

The kind of covenant that I’m talking about has a lot to do with the God of the Bible. According to the Bible, God established covenant relationships with people. He didn’t negotiate or bargain with them, but in essence said to them, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” God took the initiative in these relationships and promised to be faithful to the people. In turn, he called them to be faithful in their love and worship of him.

The people didn’t always live faithfully toward God. Yet, God remained faithful to them. Covenant is all about faithfulness and promise.

So what does this have to do with Bill and Serena? They have already spoken to me of their shared commitment toward one another. They have made promises to one another to live faithfully together. In a few minutes they are going to speak those commitments and promises before you and before God. They are making public something that already exists in their hearts: The transition from the world of condition to the world of covenant. There will be no looking over the shoulder, no question about permanence. It is their intention that theirs be a life of faithfulness and promise.

© 2003 Michael McNichols


Anderson, Ray S. On Being Human. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Seminary Press,             1982.

Atkinson, David J., et al. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology.             Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Flatliners, ©1990 Columbia/Tristar Studios

Prepare/Enrich Counselors’ Manual. Minneapolis: Life Innovations, 2002.

Vanilla Sky, © 2001 Paramount Studios

[1] Yes, I am speaking here of male/female, heterosexual relationships. Same-sex relationships will have to be the topic of another paper.

[2] Covenant in human relationships speaks of mutual obligation and a commitment to responsibility. In the Bible, covenant relationships are characterized by faithfulness—faithfulness between human parties, faithfulness of God as the transcendent initiator of covenant and the call for God’s people to be faithful to him.

[3] Couples living together have the lowest level of premarital satisfaction compared to other living arrangements (Stewart & Olson, 1990; Olson, 2001, cited in Life Innovations, 2002); Marriage preceded by cohabitation are more likely to end in divorce (Popenoe & Whitehead, 1999, cited in Life Innovations, 2002).

[4] IVP Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, p. 567

[5] While most Christians value the legal standard of marriage, there has to be an open question as to whether or not that standard is a reflection of reality in the economy of God. For example, the legal standard of marriage in Vermont includes same sex relationships as a valid marriage relationship. The presence and priority of the legal standard does not necessarily guarantee it to be a reflection of the truth.

[6] Dr. Ray Anderson points out that “…human sexuality…is intrinsic to the imago Dei [image of God] expressed as polarity of the human at the creaturely level.” Sexuality is essential to humanness because it intrinsically reflects the image of God (On Being Human, p. 105).

Mike McNichols is pastor of Soulfarers Community (a Vineyard Christian Fellowship). He graduated with a BA from Point Loma Nazarene University, an MS Education from California State University, Fullerton, and a MA in Theology/Biblical Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. Mike is married to Emily McNichols and has two married daughters and two grandsons.
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