By the editorial staff of Riforma
Every week Reform invites two speakers to answer a theological question. This week: is marriage a sacrament?
The answer ofIsabella GerberEcclesiastical Inspector at the Union of Protestant Churches of Alsace and Lorraine (Uépal)
Of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church (baptism, communion, confirmation, forgiveness, anointing of the sick, marriage and ordination), Uépal keeps only two: baptism and communion (which Protestants call holy supper), which are instituted by Jesus with the clear request to repeat them. Marriage, in the form we know, is not instituted by Christ. The theological theme of marriage is that of the covenant and fidelity. Marriage is based on a promise. I exchange a word that commits me. In this sense, marriage is an act of faith; it places, in the present, a word for the future of the relationship, because it places not only sentiment but trust as the foundation of the union. Human fidelity is a response to God’s fidelity. The couple has an ambitious plan to create a space where everyone can thrive.
The exchange of consents is an act of faith. Faith in love, faith in others, faith in God, which I come to draw upon when my own resources run out. Loyalty is neither mere loyalty nor a moral imperative, but a hope. The ability to untie is in itself a boon to a relationship that is meant to be long-term. We know the door is open and the relationship doesn’t feel like a prison. At a time when the female condition was hardly enviable, Jesus never stopped giving them a place and inviting each to treat the other as he would like to be treated. Divorce today has brought new freedom; the possibility of leaving a couple that would have become hell. Alas, there are many who do not know how to claim the right not to be abandoned, after years of love, investment and self-denial.
Uépal welcomes those disappointed by a first union. There the blessing of a remarried couple is possible. A sign that God accompanies every rebirth. A couple’s blessing is always based on forgiveness and hope. No bond can last without drawing on it. Marriage is a public act. God and others are witnesses of this. God alone can tell if my marriage is a sacrament or not. If his definition is that of theologians; signs and words make God’s love visible to you.
The answer of Florence Vancoilliepastor of the Union of Free Evangelical Churches
Starting with Saint Augustine (4th-5th century), the sacrament has been defined as “the visible sign of an invisible grace”. It is a concrete gesture that shows and embodies God’s grace towards us. In Protestant theology it is fundamental that Jesus asked his disciples to reproduce the gesture. Thus, baptism is a sign of a new birth through faith (Mt 28, 18-20), while the sharing of the Supper roots the community in the work of Christ crucified (Lk 22, 20). So it’s easy to answer the question. No, marriage is not a sacrament! And yet… “Christian” marriage is sometimes considered a sacred, even indissoluble reality. Furthermore, the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, follows the biblical tradition by comparing the couple and the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5: 22-33). Having a separate spiritual ceremony to bless this marriage covenant reinforces this impression.
However, marriage differs from sacraments. On the one hand, it is proposed to all human beings, and not only to Christians (Gn 2, 16-25); on the other hand, still according to Paul, celibacy is a legitimate option, and the celibate Christian loses nothing of his relationship with God by abstaining from marriage (1 Cor 7: 6-9). Finally, the sacrament is a specific gesture that illustrates the grace received from God; but marriage has other goals, and focuses primarily on the relationship with the spouse.
In our society where married life can be chaotic, the defense of marriage leads to underlining the strength of the biblical project for the couple, as a lasting alliance characterized by complementarity. Making it a sacrament, however, seems excessive, as the reality of married life can encounter many obstacles. That the marriage breaks up does not necessarily correspond to a sin or a failure in the relationship with God. The biblical injunction invites us to preserve the union, but it also accepts, while regretting it, the reality of the ruptures, without supposing a lack of faith. Thus, the reality of marriage is rather a parable of the covenant that God seals with us in Christ, which can nourish the life of faith and be nourished by it too, but which does not focus primarily on our relationship with God.
Find the theological question from the previous week
Theological Question of the Week: Does God Always Speak?