CHICAGO – “Marriage matters why?”
That’s the question Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, asked when he preached during closing worship of the network’s “Marriage Matters” conference on Nov. 2. Ellison preached from the 7th chapter of 1 Corinthians, in which the apostle Paul does all he can to discourage people from veering towards the trapdoor of marriage, with admonitions such as:
- “Those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that;” and
- “He who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”
Ellison began his sermon with: “Paul, you hopeless romantic!”
Then he told a story from his own experience as a young pastor that helped shape his own thinking on why marriage matters. In his first call, just two weeks into the job, a much-respected man from the congregation came to see him.
This man, whom for the purposes of the sermon Ellison called Pete, was a faithful and hard-working member of the church; had been married to Sarah, “a busy beaver in the kitchen at every potluck” – both were well-loved by the congregation. When Sarah died much too young, people mourned and concerned friends fretted about how Pete would cope.
Pete came to see Ellison because, after a while, he had begun dating a woman who had also lost her spouse. Their relationship had turned serious. Pete told Ellison the couple wanted to marry, but couldn’t do so for financial reasons – they would lose too much in retirement benefits. Pete asked Ellison if he would perform a marriage service but not sign a state marriage license – conducting not a legal marriage but a sacred marriage in the eyes of their congregation, their family and friends.
Ellison – a brand-new pastor – consulted his conscience, his Book of Order and his friends, and then told Pete he wouldn’t do it, that “it would be inappropriate, perhaps illegal” to perform a marriage that wasn’t recorded by the state.
“Pete said he was disappointed, but he understood.” After that, Ellison saw less of Pete around the church.
More than a decade later, Pete flared up at Ellison unexpectedly during a routine handshake after worship. When Ellison called Pete to find out what was wrong, Pete let him know that he was still angry that “the church would not honor his relationship of sacrifice and mutual commitment . . . that his faith community which had sustained him and loved him through great suffering and great joy could not be a place where he could stand honestly before God and make promises. That his pastor – his new young pastor – would instead follow the rules.”
Because of what Ellison had done, Pete felt that his relationship – a marriage of the heart – “carried an asterisk, a taint,” Ellison said.
“Ever since then, the church had meant something different to him.”
In the meanwhile, Ellison had his own evolving thoughts about marriage. When he came to work for the Covenant Network in 2012, Ellison also announced publicly that he is gay and has been in a long-term relationship with his partner, Troy Lillebo. With gay marriage being legalized in an increasing number of states, he and Lillebo have talked about whether they should marry.
In a recent New York Times article, a reporter interviewed gay couples who had decided they would not marry. Some saw marriage as unnecessary to validate a commitment of decades, a reason to pay higher taxes. One described it as an “oppressive Christian model that says `Pick a person that’s going to be everything to you, they have to be perfect, then get a house, and have kids, and then you’ll be happy and whole.’ ”
Another described marriage as “a risky venture, emotionally and physically,” and suggested approaching marriage like a cell phone contract, “renewable every two years with an option to upgrade.”
What’s the decision Ellison and Lillebo have made? “We are waiting for our church – the church I love, the church I serve,” Ellison said. “We are waiting for the church to stand with us, but it doesn’t yet.”
Ellison said the church should “just stop it” – stop restricting or limiting marriage; stop trying to turn sexuality into something either dirty or exceptionally sacred. The message that Paul gives, Ellison said, is that decisions to marry are related to how one can best serve God.
For single people, for married people, for couples who aren’t married, “do what you need to do to best serve God without distraction . . . The reason we marry is to glorify God. And that may also be the reason we don’t. Let’s tear off the bumper stickers and strip away the restrictions.”