What happens in a marriage ceremony?

Recently, I had a long drive to the East coast. As normally happens when I have a lot of windshield time, my mind wanders to strange and sometimes scary places.
On this particular trip, I started thinking about the rite of marriage, as celebrated by the UMC. In the UMC, we do not hold marriage to be a sacrament; meaning (I am told) that we do not expect God to take some direct action to consecrate the marriage. I probably have that somewhat wrong, but this is an appeal for information so I’m sure somebody will straighten me out.

Anyway – I got to pondering the question of a young couple. They graduated from college, started their professional life, and decided they are in love. So they moved in together. At the same time, they are both committed and active Christians, and intend to get married “at the right time”. Obviously, we in the church regard them as “living in sin”, but these days we often don’t do much about it.

Young couple moves forward with their lives, and indeed gets married at their local UMC, where they were members both as children and as young adults. Nothing about their private life has changed. They go back to the same apartment, share the same bed, and do all the same things they did before, when they were living in sin. But somehow, through this non-sacramental rite of the church, we have converted their state of sin to a state of holiness.

My question is, what exactly happened there? What, from a theological standpoint, caused the absolution of their sin, and a conversion to a state of holiness? Can someone explain to me what the theological underpinnings of this are? And are there other ‘sinful states’ to which it could apply?

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18 Replies to “What happens in a marriage ceremony?”

  1. What God has joined together…..
    So God is acting on the occasion of human ceremony.
    Baptism is similar, as we see from the strong language in scripture, such as baptism is the circumcision of Christ, arise and be baptized washing away your sins, or baptism now saves you….through the resurrection of Christ.

    1. But Baptism is a sacrament, correct?

      When did God “join” this couple? When they met and fell in love, or when a Pastor said so? And in that case, what if it was a judge, and not the Pastor?

      Interesting questions.

    2. Yes, there is that language. Unfortunately, Jesus was talking about divorce there. But I agree that it’s relevant.

  2. “Marriage
    We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
    The key word here is sanctity I would imagine. Sanctity meaning the state or quality of being holy or sacred. What happens is that this union becomes holy and sacred.
    “Christian marriage is not a sacrament in The United Methodist Church, but those who choose to marry enter into “a sacred covenant reflecting the Baptismal Covenant” (The United Methodist Book of Worship 115), and more specifically “a sacred covenant reflecting Christ’s covenant with the church” (The United Methodist Hymnal 864).” (Joe Iovino in a feature for UMC.org)
    “The marriage vows specify how the couple will live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the context of their relationship with each other,” (Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.)
    “In Christian marriage, the bride and groom “enter into union with each other through the grace of Jesus Christ, who calls [them] into union with himself as acknowledged in [their] baptism” (from the “Declaration of Intention” of A Service of Christian Marriage).”
    “It is not just a ceremony for the couple, It is the ceremony in which the whole community is part of the witnessing and blessing of the vows the couple make to one another.” (Taylor Burton-Edwards)
    So a few other things that happen is that those gathered bless the union and pledge to support it and uphold it. The two getting married therefor enter into a community that has pledged, formally before God, to support them in this. They have also defined, through their vows, how there relationship will aid them in living as disciples of Christ.

    1. That’s good info. It sounds as thought the Methodist Church has constructed marriage in the image of baptism, but without God actually acting within the ceremony. Somehow.

      The Catholic position, which of course regards marriage as a sacrament, says that “marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament, it is saying that the couple’s relationship expresses in a unique way the unbreakable bond of love between Christ and his people. Like the other six sacraments of the Church, marriage is a sign or symbol which reveals the Lord Jesus and through which his divine life and love are communicated. ” That appears to be very similar to the UMC take on things, except that the Catholics consider their marriage to be a sacraments. I wonder what the tangible difference is between the two beliefs?

  3. We do not describe Christian Marriage as a sacrament, but we do keep sacramental language. When blessing the ring (the element) we declare it “an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The authors of our denominational resources are certainly more scholarly than I, however they are describing what is practice not what should be. This leaves them in a quandary (as when This Holy Mystery insists that the bread absolutely must be real bread but the wine absolutely must not be real wine…go fugure.)
    Our position on sacraments appears more ecclesiastical than theolgical. Which is why someone has described confirmation in the UM as “a practice in search of a theology”. This is even more true of Christian marriage.
    Given that the Rite of Christian Marriage uses sacramental language and involves vows not promises (See St. Symeon post this site) and invokes the Trinity (not the local community) for the efficacy of the work and presumes the continual work of the Holy Spirit through the marriage– then if it is not a sacramennt there must be a status of Christian rites that indicate more than the rites for blessing animals.

    1. I agree. There must in fact be something bigger than a blessing but less than a sacrament. Our description of marriage (See Scott F’s comments) seems to be very close to the Catholic position on things. But theirs is a sacrament, and ours isn’t.

      Maybe it’s easier to ask why ours isn’t a sacrament? Did we just inherit a practice from the Romans through the Reformation to the Anglicans to the Methodists?

      1. Pretty much. Most protestant churches do not recognize marriage as a sacrament. The rational is something like Christ did not directly participate in this so it is not. That as why we should probably include foot washing as a sacrament as some do. Basically, we can not use those human social constructs as indicators of the presence of Christ. Marriage here being a social construct legally. Remember in the reformer’s time, it was a very different thing than it is now. So the other sacraments were not specifically ordained by Christ and because of this, we can not be assured of His presence in them, thus should not call them sacraments….all this of course is really a fancy way of saying that the reformers were pretty pissed at Rome.
        We already have rites that have importance greater than the blessing of pets though. They may not be specifically stated as such, but their function reveals them to be, as does the amount of effort put into them. Confirmation is a rite of the church that when done properly shows it has greater significance simply due to the effort which goes into it and the language of the rite. Same as marriage. There were many rites in the early church, especially in monastic communities, that held great importance and recognized the work of God in them, but fell short of sacramental status. It really is not a new idea from the respect.
        It probably helps here if we understand what a rite was at the time of the reformers. A rite, as in the traditions handed down from the Catholic church, was the form and manner of any religious observance. Thus the Eucharist, while a sacrament, was also a rite. The two terms in this case mean the same thing. A church service (liturgy, psalms, prayer, singing what have you) was also a rite, but certainly not a sacrament. We believe the presence of God through Christ exists in our church services, but would not say they rise to the status of a sacrament. The Christian wedding celebration (to the protestants) is then essentially the same sort of thing. We believe that God is present. We believe that the Spirit will work in and through the couple, much as we believe the same things of ourselves, but call it a rite as it is a Christian religious observance, but not a sacrament, because it is a thing initiated by humans.

        1. Is it of human initiation?
          As the original question was, “What happens in a marriage ceremony?’, I would like to speak of my personal experience of marriage as sacramental grace. However, since experience is the lowest form of argument I am staying with the sacramental nature of marriage.
          It is consistent with United Methodist understanding that there are three necessary parts of a sacrament: outward sing, inward grace, and dominical institution. The reference in the marriage covenant to outward sign of inward and spiritual grace has already been noted. Have you noticed that the order also has an institution narrative? The current form is weaker than previous ones but it is still an unmistakable institution narrative: “The covenant of marriage was established by God….. ” After six hundred years of separation from Rome we still have not found a way of addressing what happens in marriage without speaking clearly and wholly sacramentally. We ought to take note of that.
          I understand and will not argue hard with aspects of marriage being of human initiation, but it has always been the case that there is a profound difference between civil marriage and holy matrimony. Never have the two been so conflated as in the birth of Anglicanism or in 20th century North America. We would never ask a person to produce a licensee from the state before offering them Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, or even the least rite of the Church. The fact that we require a state license for what we declare is an outward sign of a spiritual grace instituted of God is evidence that we have developed a convoluted practice nearly void of theology.
          (BTW loved this:”all this of course is really a fancy way of saying that the reformers were pretty pissed at Rome.” Wished I had been as clear when I said, “Our position on sacraments appears more ecclesial than theological.”

          1. Scott and Keith – Great observations. I think I’m getting closer to a real understanding.
            BTW Keith – producing a marriage license is not, as I understand it, a requirement to perform Holy Matrimony in the UMC. There are people, mostly of advanced years, who get married for the sanctity of the marital state, but don’t want to endure things like estate planning and taxes associated with civil marriage.

          2. BY human initiation, I mean that we choose to be married. I do not think that God is drawing us to marriage, or singleness really. He has laid down the boundaries that we can function in and still be living a life pleasing to Him and while marriage can be a part of that, it does not need to be.
            Hmm…let me try this. With Baptism, this is initiated by God through the previenient grace that we recognize. With communion,. Christ has invited us to the table. With marriage we choose to do this and then God acts to bless that choice. So, yes the covenant of marriage was indeed established by God, but He leaves the decision to be a part of that covenant to us. I hope that makes what I was trying to say a bit more clear. 🙂

  4. (2012 BoD 340.2a) Clergy are to conduct marriage ceremonies “in accordance with the laws of the state…” Given the current state of the Discipline that may be interpreted differently in different places. In our AC we are instructed to have the license in hand before the service begins. Acting otherwise will result in a candidate or local pastor being terminated or an elder facing charges. Your observation of those in advanced years is one of several good reasons for doing away with that provision. I have encountered it myself and choose not to state in a public forum how I handled it. But, all that is another matter. This made me think and I appreciate being allowed a part of the discussion.

    1. Which AC? I hope not Western NC. We do, and I certainly did in the past, conflate civil “marriage” with a marriage blessed and declared by the Church. I’m a Magistrate, and perform civil marriages from time to time. The “official” ceremony that I used to use is a state-sanctioned parody of a religious ceremony, following in general the form of the marriage ceremony one finds in most churches. I have discarded it, and instead try to make the process more like signing a deed before a Notary Public.

      I believe it would be a good idea and practice for a Pastor to refuse to complete the State-required certificate. We ought not to deceive persons married in a civil marriage that God had anything to do with that process.

      Regarding the status of marriage as a Sacrament, it looks like one to me. As a Lutheran confirmand in the ’50’s, I think the Small Catechism states, among others, that it must have been “instituted” by Christ. Probably, if we really thought about it and were not encumbered with the anti-papishism of the Reformation, we would treat it as one. We were also taught about the “Office of Keys and Confession” but sternly instructed that it was not a sacrament.

      1. The disciplinary par. applies across North America. Given current state of UMC very little in our Discipline is applied consistently anywhere. WNC clergy would have to know the prevailing mood in their conference this week.
        Agreed, we ought to let the state look after its concerns in marriage contracts and the church address the solemnity of marriage.

  5. “My question is, what exactly happened there? What, from a theological standpoint, caused the absolution of their sin, and a conversion to a state of holiness?”

    As far as I know, Jesus did not redefine marriage. So any deep theological question regarding it should involve study of what Jewish marriage meant in Jesus’ time. All the rites developed by various churches are obvious add-ins by the church. Not specifically Jesus’s thoughts on marriage.

    It seems to me Jesus used marriage in the OT sense, reflecting the Jewish culture at the time. Eden, populate the earth. Make sure a child of a marriage is from the husband, for inheritance purposes. And heavy into the OT comparison of marriage with being faithful to husband/God. So more cultural. Jesus didn’t preside at weddings. He made wine. Jesus didn’t tell stories about the virtues of ten virgins being virgins. He said there was no marriage in heaven. So I suspect he viewed marriage as an earthly endeavor to populate the earth. Not a sacrament. That was added later by the church. More a concession, like divorce.

    Jeremiah 2 has some juicy comparisons to marriage, and whores. But they were all used to illustrate faithfulness/unfaithfulness to God. Not to reflect on marriage and the value of being a virgin. So, I personally think Jesus would say to the couple living in sin before marriage, “Insignificant compared to your faith in God. Hey, these marriage parables I used were cultural for the Jewish times I lived in, to make my point about faith. Otherwise, I would have used the parable of the 5 virgins, and the 5 whores”!

    You just need to read Jeremiah 2 to get my point.

    1. ” As far as I know, Jesus did not redefine marriage. ” ???????????

      When asked about divorce, Jesus referred to Genesis as scripture of first reference. Marriage is ordained by God “from the beginning” in the Garden. Before there were Jews. Marriage IS.

  6. I am a life-long Methodist/United Methodist. When my uncle–an ordained UMC elder–married us, I think I remember him using a phrase along the lines of that we were making this commitment in front of God and the company of those that were in attendance. Which makes me think it is similar to swearing in court that I am telling the truth, “So help me God”. Except in marriage, I am standing before God and the company in attendance pledging to love, honor cherish, in sickness and in health, etc.

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