'Til Death Us Do PartArmin J. Panning
Forward/Northwestern Lutheran, June 2000, Reprinted with permission
Marriage has been instituted by God, and he continues to regulate it.
The dream of many a young girl is to be a June bride. For reasons not entirely clear, June remains a popular wedding month. A couple's wedding is -- and rightly should be -- a big day in their lives. It's a day eagerly sought, but often there are also some apprehensions. There's always the dread of a hitch or two in the ceremony.
We may tend to smile a bit if the nervous bride or groom gets tangled up in the somewhat quaint phraseology: "'til death us do part." A glitch in speaking the vows is harmless enough. What is more serious is misunderstanding or not taking seriously the weighty promise that is made with those words. With the wedding season approaching, we do well to remind ourselves of what those words mean, both in the lives of the wedding couple making the vows, and in the case of our own vows, if we're married.
"'Til death us do part" reminds us first that marriage is an arrangement only for our life on earth. But even though it's limited in time, marriage brings tremendous blessings. God's observation that it wasn't good for Adam to be alone is still true. In his goodness God has provided a remedy. Woman is the complement of man. The one fulfills and brings what the other is lacking. In marriage the two become one flesh.
Into this close bond between one man and one woman God is pleased to give the gift of children. Although the unbelieving world doubts it, as is evident from the scandal of wholesale abortions, the Scriptures are right when they say that children are a blessing from the Lord. Marriage is a precious gift from God, but in itself it is not a religious act. Unbelievers too may marry and enjoy God's gifts of family and companionship. But although marriage is not a means of grace, it is much more than just a social custom. Marriage has been instituted by God, and he continues to regulate it.
Because the giver of marriage set it up as a lifelong union of one man and one woman, married people may not lightly set aside the vow that binds them "as long as both shall live." To be sure, divorce was a factor already in biblical times, but it never was God's intent. Jesus gives his evaluation of divorce when he says that Moses allowed it because the Israelites' "hearts were hard" (Mark 10:5).
Equally out of step with God's intent is using the privileges of marriage without entering into the married estate. Publicly and honorably entering into marriage is not just a formality. Getting a marriage license is more than just getting a piece of paper. It's complying with the spirit of him who gave us marriage. Casually entering into a live-in arrangement and then drifting apart when the arrangement no longer pleases one or the other of the partners is not God's intent. Such irresponsibility needs to be warned against before it happens and dealt with when it has occurred.
In our sinful world marriage is a beleaguered institution. But that does not make it any less a precious gift from God. As we attend another round of June weddings, let us encourage and support the young couples promising to be true to each other until death parts them. And as we do so, let us thank God for the gift of our own spouse, if we have been so blessed.
Rev. Armin Panning is the former president of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin.
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