One will hardly hear a sermon on marriage without the pastor pointing out the divorce rate inside of the church and how it differs little for those outside the church. Of course there is desperate need to help heal broken marriages. I am convinced, however, that our greatest defense against unhealthy marriages and divorce is strong offense. The absolute best way for a marriage to thrive is for it to begin well, and I am not referring to the beauty of ceremony or the number of Facebook posts the reception receives. I am speaking of the intentional effort on the part of the couple and their pastor to prepare their hearts for a love for a lifetime. Over the years I have come to value four aspects of this process and perhaps they will be helpful to you.
First, a pastor needs to preach clearly and specifically on marriage on a consistent basis. As an expositor I typically preach systematically through books of the Bible. Throughout the year, however, I almost always take time to address the family from God’s Word. The foundation of the family, as God intended, is marriage. Therefore, our most preemptive effort to protect and promote healthy marriages is to develop within our all of our people, especially our young people, a convictional commitment to God’s will for matrimony.
Second, a pastor needs a policy he intends to follow that determines his participation in both weddings and marriage preparation. Not everyone who approaches a pastor to be married is ready to go the altar. A clear and biblical policy protects the pastor and holds high the standards set aside for Christian marriage in God’s Word. Very early in my ministry I wrote the following policy. Over the years I have made a few small edits but by and large it has served me well. Most of my staff have also adopted it into their ministries and their feedback has been positive as well. There are, of course, many ways to communicate one’s convictions. I share it here merely as one real life example.
In order for me to perform or participate in a wedding ceremony the following stipulations must be met by the couple:
- The couple must approach me before a date for the wedding is set or at least six months in advance of the wedding. There are times during the counseling process that issues are discovered which might need a considerable amount of time to work through. If a couple discovers some obstacles in their relationship that need to be addressed before marriage they are much more likely to extend the engagement if a wedding date has not been set or a wedding is yet to be planned.
- Both must be born-again believers in Jesus Christ and exhibit an ongoing commitment to walking with Him.
- Both must be an active member of a church that preaches and teaches sound evangelical doctrine.
- Both individuals must be willing to attend and actively participate in a marriage preparation counseling program. During this time both must acknowledge the pastor’s right not to perform the ceremony if he becomes aware of issues that he feels need to be addressed before the couple pursues a marriage relationship.
- Both must be striving to live lives of sexual purity in order to obey the guidelines outlined in Scripture for our benefit. If at some point the couple has engaged in pre-marital sex they must have repented from this behavior and exhibited lives of purity in honor and obedience to God for a reasonable amount of time.
- The couple must not be living together before marriage. If this has occurred the couple must separate for a time of re-commitment to the Lord that is observable to their local faith family.
- The couple must not be choosing to wed because of an unplanned pregnancy. If an unplanned pregnancy has occurred then the couple must take the proper amount of time to approach marriage the right way. An unplanned pregnancy cannot be the foundation for a lasting relationship. It may very well be that the couple chooses to marry but this decision should not be rushed and/or taken lightly because an unplanned pregnancy has occurred.
- If one or both persons have been previously married then the couple must only be approaching marriage if they are free to remarry according to the teachings of Scripture. Often there is much debate about this issue so I am happy to sit down with any couple who may have questions about the Bible’s teaching on remarriage. As I understand Scripture there are four allowances for someone to enter a marriage after previously being married.
- If a person loses their spouse to death they are free to remarry.
- If a person’s spouse is unfaithful to the marriage covenant and reconciliation is sought but cannot be attained then they are free to remarry.
- If a person’s spouse is not a follower of Christ and abandons the marriage then the one abandoned is free to remarry.
- If a person is divorced before being born again (converted) then anything in their old life, including divorce, is not binding upon their new life.
Third, a pastor needs a plan to follow for his premarital counseling. The plan should include a marriage preparation book, clear assignments, and a schedule of meeting times and topics. Just handing a couple a book and saying, “Go read this,” and “Let’s get together and talk about it,” communicates a lack of urgency. This is the second most important decision of their life. The pastor ought to treat it as such. One will note that I have not recommended a specific book. I have found there are several that do a good job of covering the basics. This is why I think each pastor should choose the one he feels most confident using. I often tell couples that the book I have them read is not the counseling. Rather, it is the diving board we will use to jump deeper into the issues that need to be discussed and addressed.
To begin the book, I hand the couple a detailed plan with the exact page numbers and assignments to be completed before each session. Currently I meet with couples at least six times for about 90 minutes. The first meeting is to merely get to know the couple, hear their testimony, and gain insight needed to determine whether or not I am comfortable performing their ceremony. The next five sessions are as follows: Your Spiritual Life, God’s Plan for Marriage, Communication and Roles and Responsibilities, Money, and Sexual Intimacy.
Finally, a pastor needs to be personal throughout the entire process. I conclude with this point because I am aware my previous comments and directions can appear so planned and precise that the personal aspect is lost. I have failed if one sees all of this as a way to merely cycle couples through a process. My personal experience is quite different. My preaching, policy, and plan actually help dig deep into the lives of the man and woman I am preparing for marriage. I frequently laugh, cry, share personal examples, and of course pray with these precious people. When I stand at that altar on their special day and watch the groom grin with nervous excitement as the bride makes her way down the aisle, I want to know that I have done the best that I can to help these Christ followers enter a sacred covenant the world knows nothing about. Without this personal investment, I become nothing more than a notary public or resort chaplain. Marriage is too important for drive thru service. We need to pastor our people to the altar.