The option of civil marriage, as I said last week, is changing the way gay people approach relationship. Having a legal framework offers both benefits and commitments that compel us to approach dating more earnestly. However, as weighty as a lawful contract is, it remains just a pact between two people, and the two can at any point release each other of the obligations they have acquired.
Civil marriage is only the first step toward establishing a sacred covenant. As a Christian, I believe marriage is more than a government-enforced agreement between a couple. The bond of kinship created by marriage comes not from the state, but from God. And God creates this bond not as a spiritual witness offering a blessing from above, but as an actual party to the contract.
A Christian marriage covenant involves not two beings, but three. In addition to the promises made by the couple to each other, there are independent promises made by each spouse to God, and a promise made by God Himself. This, I believe, is why the bond created by marriage is implied in the Bible to be harder to dissolve than other bonds. This is why Jesus set such strict standards for divorce: It’s not just the couple’s business, but His business, too.
David and I chose a traditional liturgy for our wedding because it unambiguously establishes the marriage covenant to be among three parties. Before we promise each other anything we will stand individually before God and our church, telling Him that we each “freely and unreservedly offer” ourselves to the other. We will promise Him that we will live “in the covenant of marriage, in faithfulness and holiness of life as long as [we] both shall live.”
Then our church—the body of Christ—will stand in the spirit of Matthew 18:18 and answer for Him, establishing His promise to us. They will vow to uphold and honor our marriage, respecting the covenant we make, praying for us in times of trouble, and celebrating with us in times of joy.
It is only after we have each exchanged these vows with God that we will give ourselves to each other. We will promise to support, care, hold, cherish, honor, and love one another by the grace of God, in the love of Christ, and with the Spirit’s help. Invoking the Trinity with our vows is an admission that we will need the Lord’s help in keeping them, and most importantly, a reminder that our commitment is not only to each other, but to God.
The difference between the covenant we’re entering and the mere signing of a contract at a court is that we can’t just give each other an out. Today we are in love; we make each other happy; we serve each other well. We have come together in mutual agreement. Tomorrow there might be days when we don’t feel much love, when we make each other angry, when being in relationship is nothing but work. We might both want to separate. Legally, we’d be allowed. If our vows were only to each other, no one would be able to stop us. But the individual promises we’ll have made to God will compel us to work through our problems long after we feel like quitting.
There’s a misconception among Christians that welcoming same-sex couples is something “liberal” churches do. There’s a misconception that same-sex couples just want to be “affirmed,” and with this comes the notion that by taking an “affirming” stance on gay marriage, a church is broadening its moral standards and taking an “anything goes” approach. But that need not, and should not, be the case. A church that never questions anyone's choices does its members a disservice. And what most LGBT Christians long for is not unthinking affirmation, but an rather opportunity to grow, serve, and be living parts of the Body of Christ.
David and I have never sought to just be affirmed. We love each other deeply, and having cheerleaders won't make our feelings any stronger. What we and others like us need is a place where we can be challenged, nurtured, and pushed to grow. That’s what true love looks like in a church.
The secular campaign for marriage equality was all based on love, and I’m glad it was, because it worked. We needed that first step; we needed that legal framework. Now it’s time for the Church to teach us that marriage is not just about love, and not just about us. LGBT Christians need the Church now, not because we’re entitled to affirmation, but because, like all children of God, we’re in desperate need of guidance. We need the Church to stand for God at our weddings, and establish with us that higher covenant. We need the Church to remind us that Christian marriage is more than just a line linking two people: it's a triangle pointing them to God.