A few weeks ago, my pastor and I were sitting around a coffee shop table, engaged in reflections on various theological questions that directly impinged upon the work of the church and discipleship. We discussed the matter of communion, which then dovetailed briefly into the definition of the sacrament. In the middle of this conversation, the question as brought up, “Is marriage a sacrament?”
The classical Protestant answered was trained into me, thinking “No.” However, both Western Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians hold to the opinion that marriage is a sacrament. That is good reason to consider whether there is something that we as Protestants have missed in our understanding of sacraments and also marriage.
Yet, I want to put forward a yes-no answer to the question, depending on how you define sacraments. If you deem a sacrament to be something that conveys divine grace, then I am inclined to say no, but for the reason that I think this definition of sacrament is a bit flawed from a New Testament perspective. Grace is not an object or a force that is conveyed as much as it is the characteristic of a gift-giving God. For this reason, I am somewhat on the fence on whether there are really sacraments if you use that definition.
Yet, I don’t think Eucharist and Baptism are merely ordinances that Jesus told us to do. There is something formative about those two acts and, as I will suggest, other rites and social arrangements, such as marriage, that merits an understanding that goes beyond ordinances. Additionally, I am circumspect about any explanation for the Christian life that is explained simply due to obedience. While we are called to obedience, God is not seeking our obedience as much as our good that being obedient to God’s work brings about. So to that end, even if one were to want to call Eucharist and Baptism ordinances, I would put forward there must be some good that these actions bring about in us.
My emerging understanding is that we can look at the Eucharist and Baptism as sacramental ordinances: specific rituals that Jesus called us to do that brings about a particular good within our life. The idea of grace intersects with this picture of sacrament, except that grace is not “conveyed” to us as much as we come to more deeply behold and comprehend the grace of God through the sacramental ordinances. Grace is ultimately a characteristic of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we might figuratively refer to proffered, gifts and benefits as ‘grace,’ literally grace is not an object or force as much as it is a gift-giving, love-bestowing nature of God that we see exemplified in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ.
When we become baptized, we are doing more than simply marking our transition into the Christian faith or, in the case of infant baptism, marking the life of a child to be raised in faith. We are tying our lives to the life of the baptized, crucified, and resurrected Jesus (Rom. 6.1-4). We aren’t simply baptized, but we are baptized in Jesus, who was baptized. Then, when we are baptized, it isn’t just simply participation in a similar baptism, but the death and resurrection of Jesus define our life.
Similarly, when we take the Eucharist, we are not just simply marking and cognitively remembering that Jesus died. Nor are we simply expressing a shared life. More significantly, we are ourselves taking Jesus’ own sacrificial death into our own lives, that we are symbolically participating in the same way of life that Jesus lived. Thus, just as Jesus died and gave Himself for his disciples, so too we symbolically eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood we are taking this very purpose and direction to life to heart.
I would put forward that what is happening in both cases is through the sacramental ordinances we are becoming attuned to God’s grace so that we can in that posture receive the gifts of grace from God and be transformed through them. The gifts and the transformation from the bestowal of the gifts come from the Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead and will do the same for us. The water isn’t a mediator of the Spirit. The water and wine/grape juice don’t contain power from the Spirit. Rather, through the sacramental ordinances, we open ourselves more deeply to the gift of life from the Spirit in our life. Yet, this happens in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, making the Eucharist and Baptism sacraments of the cross.
With this in tow, I can then approach the question of marriage: is marriage a sacrament? In asking this question, I am not asking if it is a sacramental ordinance, as Jesus does not command us to get married. Marriage is an option for us, but it isn’t something we are called to do. To that end, marriage is distinguished from the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism.
However, we can note that marriage also engages us in a way of life that opens our hearts and minds to the grace of Jesus in other ways, including in his death. When Paul tells husbands to love their wives, he uses Jesus’ death as the lens through which they should understand their marriage (Ephesians 5.25-33). Yet, Paul treats Jesus’ example more as a prescription for what should happen in marriage rather than as a way to describe what does happen in marriage. In other words, on this grounds alone, we shouldn’t treat the arrangement of a particular marriage as a sacrament pointing us towards the grace of Jesus’ sacrificial death.
What I would suggest marriage does is it points forward towards the second coming of Jesus, preparing our hearts for the Spirit to bring about a way of life that becomes perfected in the Eschaton. In a good, life-giving marriage, there is a sharing of oneself with another where the other person becomes known in a fuller, deeper way than one could otherwise do. In general, relationships involved the exchange of energy and information, packets of energy that have meaning beyond the energy itself.1 When the husband and wife are attentive to and mindful of each other during sexual intimacy, all the features of their body and all their physiological functions becomes readily known by each other in a way that we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) explore with other people. The various tactile sensation of the other’s body, the sounds each other makes, the facial expressions that are seen, etc. are streams of energy and information that the partners share with each other, whereas our usual interactions with other people contain fewer streams of energy and information in more distant, low-definition forms. A high amount of bodily energy and information is transferred between the woman and man in sexual relationships.
When a man and woman already deeply know and care for each other’s well-being, the effect of this shared activity is more than just simply an ephemeral pleasure. The sensations of physical are not just energy experienced for their own sake, but they are also “packets” of information that say something about the beloved. One is coming to understand the other in a deeper way. Sexual activity in such a context leads to the formation of a deeper understanding of their partner and a deeper union of hearts so that begin to become one of mind as they are one of body, discovering each other’s love, mindfulness, care, cherishing, etc. This massive flow of energy turned information allows spouses to comprehend each other in a deeper, more intuitive way, that will impact how they treat each other outside of intercourse. In short, in sexual intimacy between attuned lovers, one comes to more comprehensively know the other person as they are, leading to a transformation of each other.
We can see this transfer of bodily energy that is transformed into information about the person alluded to in the Bible. Genesis refers to the sexual activity as “knowing” another person (Gen. 4.1). However, “knowing” is not a euphemism for the genital stimulation of sex. Nor, is it directly referring to intimacy; intimacy is a form of sharing with another person that we don’t generally share with others. The experience of intimacy is determined by what we don’t customarily and voluntarily share with and see from others. While the sexual “knowing” is certainly intimate, it isn’t directly referring to the experience of being intimate. Rather, it is a more concrete expression of the act of coming to a bodily knowledge of the partner, which had become other covered up due to shame (cf. Gen. 3.7). Given the wall of clothed shame that formed between Adam and Eve, for Adam to know his wife is to return the original relationship design for a woman and a man together. So, when the Bible talks about knowing, it is a concrete description of what happens between partners, as the body of each other becomes know in ways it previously was not. In that way, the Scriptures put forward a description of sex that is consistent with the transfer of bodily energy turned into the knowledge of the person.
Yet, this description of sex is not a universal experience. In fact, it may seem more like the exception than the norm. When people are more focused on the pleasure of sexual stimulation, people’s hearts and minds focus more on that specific zone of the body, particularly on their own body, and become less concerned about the whole body of their sexual partner. The passionate pursuit of pleasure directs the attention and focus to what brings genital stimulation and pleasure while become less mindful and attentive to the partner, except as a means to a pleasurable end. Thus, when sex is simply sought for the pleasure it brings, then it becomes something different, something less than Biblical knowing. In that case, one does not understand the other in the other body, but one simply seeks to gratify the biological imperatives of one’s own flesh. This stands at the heart of the various sexual harms traumas that become inflicted on others, because of self-gratifying passions that seeks to acquire and use other persons for one’s own benefit. However, when a deep love that already knows and comprehends the other person is present, then one becomes more attuned to the other person and has the cognitive ‘framework’ to unconsciously comprehend the energy and information that comes from their body so as to understand them more deeply. In other words, sex from lust and sex from deep love would dramatically alter the partner’s attention to each other, so that the former doesn’t lead a person to understand the other whereas the latter becomes an epistemic act that leads to a shared heart and mind. To use an analogy, it is like a student who attends a class because they think the teacher is “HOT” and a student who attends a class because they like the teacher and wants to learn from them: the former likely isn’t going to learn about anything, except maybe their own desires and what makes them happy, whereas the latter will grow in knowledge and wisdom.
So, how is this description of sex and knowing to be understood sacramentally? What does 1 John 3.2-3 say? “Dear friends, we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” There is a form of knowing of Jesus that we will be engaged in at the Eschaton. The sexual act between genuinely loving partners forms their hearts to hope to know Jesus as He is in His final coming in a similarly transformative way. Not because loving Jesus is to be understood erotically, but rather that sexual intimacy is one expression of love where people take immense joy in the presence of someone who they discover and know to be loving, caring, powerful, mindful, and protective. A good marriage is sacramental in that our own hearts and lives are made receptive to the deepest character of another’s goodness, kindness, and love that we more deeply look forward to and hope for in the coming of Jesus.
This connection between sex and the Eschaton is not simply based upon mere similarity between these two forms of personal knowing of people, sexually and non-sexually. They are tied together in God’s redemptive purposes to restore humanity from the fall. Not only did the Fall lead to a rupturing of the intended relationship between a husband and wife that sexual intimacy can be a restoration of, but the relationship between God and humanity became ruptured also. So, as we as Christians anticipate the restoration of a deeper knowledge of God, where the layer that creates a separation between us becomes removed and we come to know God as He is, the sexual knowing between a wife and husband as a restoration of the ‘horizontal’ relationship is a preparation of the heart for the restoration of the ‘vertical’ relationship between God and humanity.
In attachment theory, people have different models that determine how they are seen by and are to relate to others. While these models are initially derived from specific, significant relationships in our lives, such as our parents, these models generalize beyond those relationships and influence how we relate to other people. For instance, our relationship with our parents influences our relationship with others. Similarly, our relationships to close friends can do the same. With this in mind, we can look at the sexual knowing of a husband and wife as expanding the models for relationships with others that become much more comfortable and receptive to a deeper understanding of others and to be more deeply understood by others. If love for another’s well being and joy in their happiness and well-being, not simply sexual pleasure, is at the heart of the physical intimacy, then what will generalize to other relationships will be a love that more deeply knows people for who they are. To that end, the sexual love between two partners is sacramental in that it opens up the heart for the eschatological restoration of the full demonstration of God’s love for us and us for God.
With this in view, I would suggest we can think of marriage as a sacrament, but as a sacrament of the eschaton that is distinguished from Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments of the cross. This distinction is important, as it is through the cross of Jesus that we come to begin to know how to apprehend God and the shape of His love, which necessarily precedes more deeply know God’s love in the eschaton. Consequently, marriage would not function as a sacrament prior our conformity to the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Without the cross, marriage may lead to knowledge of the other person, but it doesn’t open the heart to knowing God when someone doesn’t have the beginning understanding of God in Jesus Christ. The sacraments of the cross are the prerequisites for the sacramentalization of marriage.
So, I would ultimately put forward, yes, marriage can be a sacrament. It doesn’t belong in the same category as the Eucharist and Baptism, but it can prepare the heart of the believer for the eschatological restoration when the cross of Jesus has come to define their life and their relationship to their spouse. In this place, then, we can become more attuned to the work and leading of the Holy Spirit.