Hamo’s got a good question out there… when is a couple married? As he puts it, it’s a good one for armchair theologians, but it’s also a clear question for missional people, be they the backyard or cross-cultural type of missionary.
Essentially, we have various possibilities for when a legal marriage takes place, and we have the notion of when the Bible or religious tradition deems marriage to have taken place. Is it when the legal documents are signed? Is common-law sufficient? Is a religious ceremony required? What if the paperwork is separated from the ceremony by a couple of weeks?
The question caught my notice, since it’s one I had put some thought into a few years ago. I had actually started a research and writing project for my own purposes to explore several themes — gender roles, divorce and remarriage, women in leadership, and church discipline. The writing part of the project stagnated a little and was never completed, but the bulk of the research and thinking through the issues had been done by then. The project related to a few real-life situations and some theoretical ones.
Unfortunately, the point I stopped was the one where I needed to go back and do a little research on the concept of covenant in the Old Testament, with a specific question in mind. I found some support for a particular interpretation, and needed to go back and prove it a little more fully. I say “unfortunate” because in this one concept lies what I think is the answer to Hamo’s question, and it’s been my working hypothesis for the past few years. Should I need a stronger answer (i.e., a real-world situation presents itself), I’ll be obliged to go back and complete the research…. unless someone wantst to offer it in the comments here or on Hamo’s post.
Basically I took the hypothetical situation of a marriage which had been disolved, but not for reasons the church would recognize as legitmately adequate grounds to permit divorce and remarriage. (For the purposes of the example, it doesn’t matter exactly what those “legitimate” grounds are considered to be.) In the hypothetical example, let’s say that the separated (or divorced) couple had come to faith and wished to act as the Bible would recommend they do. So far so good, but this wouldn’t be worth hashing about if there weren’t a complication…. let’s say that one of them is in a common-law relationship and has been cohabitating in this fashion for more than a year.
Ahh. It’s never simple, is it? So would the the best instruction be to dismantle the common-law relationship as not being covenantal (sans a ceremony) and attempt reconciliation between the original couple? In many church situations, I think that the answer would be an unthinking “yes” but frankly, I wasn’t happy with this approach. I felt that this course of action was unjust toward the common-law spouse (compounded if there was a child between them).
My research left off in this fashion… I considered that there was an implied covenant between the common-law couple, who publicly represented themselves as a couple and had made committments to one another, whether verbal or through the interpretation of their actions. The question which I wished to put to the Old Testament concept of covenant is whether there was the notion of an implied covenant which was later ratified as a full and proper covenant? If so, and the indication was that there was support for the idea, then one might recommend that the existing implied covenant should be ratified through a ceremony and completion of the attending legal paperwork. The covenant that was broken may then be legally disolved if it had not already been, with the moral proviso extended for the payment of support if the situation so warranted.
This scenario of course remained (and remains) an untested assumption which wasn’t really top-of-mind for me until Hamo’s question, as I think the answers may be somewhat related. It isn’t exactly the scenario he presents, but it’s additional fuel for the discussion.
Sad to say that I observed evangelicals evaluating certain marriage-crisis situations and remarking, “If only (s)he’d committed adultery, then it’d be easy.” I can’t believe that something so vitally important to so many would be left by God to the current interpretation of a single occurrence of a certain Greek word. It had always seemed to me that if we would understand the character of God more, the meaning of a single word wouldn’t sway us, we’d already know what Jesus would say.
Sigh. I wonder, when we’re down to listening to the entire story of someone’s painful marriage and breakup only to respond with “Okay, but did they do [this one thing]?” Yes, this could actually leave a transgressed party praying that their spouse would commit adultery so that they could escape without guilt and damnation… but this didn’t seem to phase the “professionals” whom I observed asking the question. I wonder, if it’s all about the paper and the interpretation of a single word, have we become such legalists that we can no longer hear the heart of the hurting, or the heart of Jesus? Thankfully, the conversation I see happening tends to lead away from that kind of thinking… and I do believe that this can happen without leading away from the Bible.