How Our Church Has Found a Marriage Policy to be Useful
The idea of adding another policy to our file folders, handbooks, or websites doesn’t seem to be an attractive undertaking, especially when it’s not one of the defining documents such as a constitution or doctrinal statement. However, beyond “the big two,” one of the most useful church documents I’ve employed to date has been a marriage policy.
A marriage policy is a guiding document for the elders of the church that sets the goals and parameters for the practice of marriage in the life that church. Having a policy for such a relational endeavor like marriage might feel overly structured. But here are three reasons why I’ve found this type of policy to be helpful.
WHAT A MARRIAGE POLICY DOES
1. A marriage policy sets expectations.
Many people getting married don’t know what to expect and they need someone to help them set their expectations appropriately. Others have unrealistic expectations and need to understand that they cannot simply customize the marriage preparation and the ceremony to their preferences. A policy helps set expectations from the beginning. This is especially important in our consumer-driven society that leads us to believe that we can set the terms or parameters for any type of activity or event in which we take part.
A helpful marriage policy will set the expectations for marriage preparation or pre-marital counseling. At our church, we usually meet with a couple 4-6 times before they get married and speak together about both the biblical descriptions of marriage and the practical realities of what a Christian marriage strives to be. This takes some good, hard work, and setting the expectation for that work from the beginning is important.
Expectations for the wedding ceremony itself are important to clarify as well. Will the church allow a minister from another congregation to officiate? Will outside musicians be allowed to play? Can I write my own vows? More importantly, where do all of these details fit into the essence of the commitment being made? Succinct guidelines that set the framework for the ceremony will give clarity for what to expect.
2. A marriage policy heads off potential problems.
An important decision every church eldership will have to make is whether or not they will allow non-church attenders in their community to avail themselves of church resources and staff or if they will devote these resources solely to their membership.
This decision includes both theological and practical considerations. Theologically, some churches view the institution of marriage as a form of God’s common grace to the world and are happy to participate in that institution of common grace. The Bible prohibits marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian, but they feel its silence on marriage between two non-Christians gives them freedom and even opportunity in counseling, investing in, and ultimately officiating a civil ceremony for these non-Christians. This is undertaken with the two goals of giving clear gospel witness and helping people in the community, even if they do not ultimately become Christians.
Conversely, some have argued that local churches do not “do weddings” but rather, they “institute Christian marriages.” Consequently, they are only willing to officiate these ceremonies for their members because they have seen evidence of their Christian faith and, hence, are sure they are entering into a Christian marriage. Others broaden that circle slightly, performing weddings for regular attenders or children of members if they have expressed their faith in the Lord Jesus and their desire for their marriage to conform to the biblical pattern of Ephesians 5:22-33.
The practical considerations are related to the staff and resources of the church. Churches in small communities might have few requests to officiate weddings outside of their congregations per year, while churches in larger communities or vacation destinations, on the other hand, could have dozens. The church elders will need to decide if this is a wise allocation of their resources. The practical considerations should not trump those of a theological nature, but they need to be considered and outlined in the policy.
Having a marriage policy will head off a number of potential problems. One of the most significant of which is the relational tension and pressure from church members who want their family members or friends to get married in the church. Another is the ongoing pressure for the church to participate in homosexual weddings. Consistency in policy and practice will continue to uphold the importance of marriage and point to the nature of the wedding ceremony as a service of worship in which the local church gathers around two of their own, bearing witness to their vows and praising God for his work in bringing them together.
3. A marriage policy serves as a teaching tool.
The profound biblical and practical aspects of marriage are realities we think about and grow into throughout our lives. A marriage policy can serve to “set the table” for those conversations that will take place in marriage counseling and continue well into our years of marriage.
Having a policy and taking marriage preparation seriously communicates the high value that the church ascribes to marriage. In an age where many approach marriage with a cavalier attitude or as a temporary contract, we confess that marriage is something that should not be taken lightly. Consequently, the marriage policy at my church makes clear that couples are to remain sexually abstinent and living separately until marriage, in accordance with 1 Cor. 6:14-7:1. The policy also stipulates that any marriage must conform to the biblical guidelines on divorce and remarriage as found in Matt. 19 and 1 Cor. 7. The inclusion of these items will ideally encourage people to consider their desires in light of Scripture, while also preparing them for some of the conversation that will come.
SOME PRACTICAL THINGS TO CONSIDER
Keep it short (1-2 pages).
Like most policies, the longer it gets, the more likely the reader is to tune out. Succinct, easy to understand statements will help accomplish the purpose of the document.
Include biblical references.
In a time when many churches take different stances on marriage, it drives home the idea that marriages in your church are rooted in Scripture. Further, it points people to the Bible and gives them opportunity to learn as they review the policy more than once.
View the policy as an avenue for further conversation.
People will undoubtedly have questions; many will ask for clarification as to what the policy states. It’s in these conversations that we can so often encourage our fellow Christians and correct any errant understandings. Discipling opportunities will happen in these venues. A two-page document could never plumb the depths of each individual’s situation. Instead, let the document be a useful guideline for the real person-to-person ministry that we do in our churches.
It’s a great privilege to pastor the people of God through all seasons of life. This is especially true in the exciting season of marriage. In the life of a church, we create policies to help guide us to practices that help our people. May our marriage policies do just that.
Editor’s note: To see a sample Marriage Policy, click here.