WHEN a betrothed couple invite me to perform their wedding ceremony I always respond with what I consider to be a natural degree of satisfaction. In spite of this warm feeling, the pastor who receives such a satisfying intention must face with some fear and trepidation the tremendous responsibility that is involved—one that is too often overlooked or, at the best, superficially undertaken.
Marriage was the first institution ordained of God in the Garden of Eden and, next to the decision that is made for Christ, the decision of a life partner is the most important. So sacred is this relationship that God Himself uses it as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:22-33).
Perhaps at no other time in the history of the world has a thorough preparation for marriage been more essential. It is no longer, if it ever was, safe to assume that because two young people happen to be members of the same church it is safe for them to pursue their marriage plans. The increasing divorce rate among married Christians must be of deep concern to every minister.
It is essential, then, that the minister requested to perform the marriage ceremony, spend considerable time in guidance and in counseling the couple to be married. He is responsible for satisfying himself that he has done everything possible to lay before the couple the principal and basic preparations needed for a successful Christian marriage.
Too often the minister is led into trifling considerations, perhaps commenting upon the good looks of the young lady and the fortune of the young man to be able to attract one so beautiful, thus implying that physical beauty is one of the great criteria for the choice of a wife. On the other hand, emphasis can be laid upon the success of the young man and his future prospects in worldly achievement, and again the young lady can be inadvertently turned to the less important aspects of marriage preparation.
In contemporary society, where the goddess of sex has been established just as effectively as it was established among the heathen nations in Bible times, it has become increasingly popular for the Christian pastor to allow his premarital counseling to be dominated by discussion of sex as if this is the most essential aspect of a successful marriage.
Thus young people have reinforced the view that sex is the prime purpose of marriage. They come to believe that any problems that might be experienced in their sexual relationship become a dramatic barrier to their marriage, and so the seeds of discontent and dissatisfaction are quickly sown—seeds that often bear fruit in infidelity and marriage breakup.
So often the greatest pressure on young people today comes from the early intimate associations between boys and girls. Often even before adolescence has been achieved, these kinds of relation ships have been reinforced by such activities as Valentine parties in the elementary school. The pressure of society, especially in the United States, is such that every teen-age youngster feels somewhat left out unless he or she has some kind of romantic attachment. This has led to the tragedy of numerous early marriages before young people are mature enough or stabilized enough to effectively understand the great responsibilities that marriage demands. The situation is accentuated frequently in the college environment. Whereas in previous college generations the protective environment supplied by the administration and board slowed down the rapid and intense development of courtship relationships, the much freer atmosphere of even the Christian college today has few such protective barriers.
This means that in the close confines of the boarding college such romantic attachments can intensify in a frighteningly short period of time. Thus a very large number of young people are married well within the first year of the beginning of their association, often without really knowing the person to whom they are making such solemn vows and frequently assuming a responsibility for which they are totally unprepared. For the majority of young people it is not only wisdom to wait until the completion of a college program but also to wait for at least one year to establish in a secure pathway the career for which they are called.
Too many of those who marry during their college education are forced into undue strain because of financial responsibilities. Frequently young people are forced away from Christian education into public schools and colleges that do not keep before them those Christ-centered principles that help make their marriage a successful one, and also do not train them specifically for Christian service. There is heavy responsibility upon ministers to bring these critical issues before today's youth.
I have heard of a pastor being asked to marry a couple secretly. It is wise for the pastor to contemplate the implications of doing this. Is it possible that God can honor a deceptive act? Especially is this serious if the parents of the young people concerned are meant to be kept in ignorance as to the married state of the young people. Even before a steady courtship has been undertaken, it is important for the young man and the young woman to be open, to seek counsel from their parents, for any deception will certainly lead to unfortunate con sequences.
One Christian writer addresses this problem as follows: "A young man who enjoys the society and wins the friend ship of a young lady unknown to her parents, does not act a noble Christian part toward her or toward her parents. Through secret communications and meetings he may gain an influence over her mind; but in so doing he fails to manifest that nobility and integrity of soul which every child of God will possess. In order to accomplish their ends, they act a part that is not frank and open and according to the Bible standard, and prove themselves untrue to those who love them and try to be faithful guardians over them. Marriages contracted under such influences are not according to the word of God." —Messages to Young People, p. 445.
Guidelines for Counseling
It is vital that the couple desiring to be married be brought a clear realization of what is involved in preparation for marriage. Some of the questions that every young man and woman should be asked to face are:
1. Will this union honor God?
2. Will it allow both the young man and the young woman to better fulfill God's purpose in each of their lives?
3. Are they willing to allow Christ to become the basis of their relationship?
4. Do they understand the many responsibilities that marriage brings and the selfless foundation upon which true married happiness is obtained?
5. Are their interests and goals in life compatible?
6. Have they an understanding of the proper approach to Christian stewardship as a part of true Christian development and home establishment?
7. Have they known each other long enough and in sufficiently varied experiences to be sure that God is leading them together?
8. Have they learned to pray together and to study God's Word together?
9. Have they sought wide counsel from spiritual people, especially their parents if they are deeply committed Christians?
10. Have they learned to work for the Lord together? And are they both willing to serve wherever He leads?
Too often young people feel that many of the spiritual needs that they consider relevant to married life will somehow naturally evolve after marriage. But if these foundations are not laid effectively and consistently prior to the con traction of the marriage it will be much less likely that such will develop in their later marital experience.
Pastor's Broad Responsibility
The pastor has a broad responsibility for the total youth community of his church. While it is true that the primary responsibility for training young people in preparation for Christian marriage rests upon the home, and while it is further true that in our school curriculums there is opportunity for the development of such insights, nevertheless, the pastor must be conscious of the fact that many of those he serves do not come from homes where parents have effectively established that kind of rap port and relationship with their children that allows them to bring a strong and clear understanding of future marital responsibilities. Too often these homes have also failed to demonstrate true Christian principles before the youth, and therefore the inadequacies of these examples are often taken into their marriage situations.
It is clear, too, that many of the young people in the church community will not have had the benefit of a Christian education and will especially need the careful guidance of the pastor.
It would therefore be wise for the pastor to establish training classes and discussion groups whereby the true principles and foundations of Christian marriage can be explained to the youth even before they have committed them selves to a particular individual. Such will often benefit the young people in avoiding making commitments which later have to be reversed.
When the pastor has taken every possible step that seems reasonable in the preparation of young people and specific couples for marriage, he can confidently look to God to add His blessing to the marriage service that he conducts on their behalf.
But if he has been careless or negligent in this matter, he stands partially responsible at least for any of the domestic problems that subsequently arise in that marriage.