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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Pre-Marital Texts

[As a postscript to our latest print edition theme of weddings, I offer some thoughts about premarital pastoral advice - +LB]

I might make a few people angry here.  I’m not a fan of “premarital counseling.”  It just strikes me as “busy work” that makes little difference.  People who want to get married are going to get married, and most of them have so much on their plate that it’s not realistic for them to make multiple visits to the pastor to listen to him drone on and on – at least not in a way that’s going to have an impact on their married life.

It’s not really that complicated.  The liturgy is the teacher, which is to say, Scripture is the teacher.

It doesn’t take too long to walk a couple through the rite of Holy Matrimony (for example, pages 62-72 of the LSB Pastoral Care Companion).  And there are quite practical reasons for doing so.  The bride and groom will typically want to know what they will have to say, etc. 

The Biblical readings in the Pastoral Care Companion include Gen. 2:7, 18-24 or Gen. 1:26-28; Eph. 5:1-2, 22-23; and St. Matthew 19:4-6 or St. Mark 10:1-9.  The exchange of vows includes the husband’s promise to “nourish and cherish” his bride, as well as the wife’s pledge to “submit” to her bridegroom – reflecting the language of Ephesians 5.  Of course, this “inequality” of vows stands out like a sore thumb in our present culture of egalitarianism and feminism.  And this is where the Ephesians 5 doctrine of Christian marriage – regarding the duties of each – make their way from a Bible reading to a liturgical vow, and from there, hopefully, to a Christian way of married life.

If the bride has any reservations about submission, they will likely emerge here during the discussion of this vow and its Biblical sedes doctrinae according to St. Paul.  The wife-to-be may ask about changing the rite, or at the very least, may wince at the words.  Likewise, the husband-to-be might display an immature gloating over the perception that this passage entitles him to try to lord over his wife as in old reruns of The Honeymooners.  Either or both of these situations can yield to a fruitful discussion of what Christian marriage is and what it means to love, respect, and submit in this context.

There is a resource that I learned about from the Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann of Concordia Seminary - St. Louis: a book entitled Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs.  The author is an ordained neo-Evangelical pastor with an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Child and Family Ecology.  He consults with couples, speaks, and writes on the topic of Christian marriage.

Love and Respect is a fast read, humorous, practical, and grounded in Ephesians 5:33.  Its advice presumes that the psychology behind the inspired text is sound and pragmatic, because it is rooted in the very real created difference between men and women.  In the last couple years, it has become almost a courageous act of cultural rebellion to make such a statement.  The book is a good read for couples who have been married for many years, as it makes for a good laugh at what we all know, but perhaps didn’t connect to both human psychology and the divine reality of creation. 

The ideal would be for a couple to read the book together.  If they are not inclined to do that, they can read it separately.  But even if only one of them reads the text, it will prove helpful.  And even if they don’t read it, it might sit on the shelf for many years until one of them picks it up, perhaps out of boredom, curiosity, or even desperation.  So I recommend giving the couple a copy of the book.  It really is that good, in my opinion (speaking as one going on 25 years of matrimony as of next February).

Of course, in their own unique masculine and feminine ways, both parties to the marriage are to love as God loves us: selflessly and joyfully.  Another helpful resource for illustrating this to the couple is the famous O. Henry short story published in 1905: “The Gift of the Magi.”  Most people have heard or read this literary classic, though younger people may not have had occasion to do so in our modern indoctrination centers.  It is a sweet tale that Rod Serling could well have read in a Holiday version of Twilight Zone: a story of a young married couple outdoing one another in sacrifice for the other, a narrative that concludes with a beautiful, ironic crescendo that calls to mind the Christ Child.  “Gift” is a Christmas story that is appropriate at any time of the year.

I believe the selfless nature of the actions of the two characters provides a literary example of focus on the beloved what is so often missing in today’s marriages, having been replaced by “man caves” and “girl’s night out,” along with disputes over toilet seats and who should do the laundry, and complaining to one’s friends about the spouse.  Feminism has largely turned Holy Matrimony into a power struggle and a zero-sum game – a concept utterly foreign to both St. Paul and O. Henry.

Rather than implement a series of one hour counselling sessions and personality tests and long exegetical explanations about various passages of Scripture, I think a good look at the rite, the Scripture passages, and the radical and practical nature of what it means for a man to lay down his life for his bride and the wife’s obligation to submit is in order.  Men need to understand that in the real world, loving his wife and giving himself up for her may not be heroically taking a bullet for her or gallantly fighting off an attacker, but rather may involve more pedestrian topics, such as toilet seats and Friday night poker games.  Likewise, women need to go into Christian marriage understanding that it isn’t like a business partnership, that it isn’t what Cosmopolitan and The View say that it is, and that a man is not just one of her girlfriends who happens to have facial hair.  Christian marriage is radical and practical, grounded in biology and psychology – because it is rooted in our created design as reflected and confessed by the Scriptures. 

And once again, there are few better marriage counselors and teachers of Scripture than the liturgy, with a little help from the practical world and a good classic work of literature.