FamilyLife Today®

Pre-Marriage Pre-Requisites, Part 1

with Tom Elliff | May 21, 2007
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How can a person prepare to have an optimum marriage? Today on the broadcast, pastor Tom Elliff tells how to get the most out of a marriage by identifying five prerequisites that must be in line before a wedding takes place.

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  • How can a person prepare to have an optimum marriage? Today on the broadcast, pastor Tom Elliff tells how to get the most out of a marriage by identifying five prerequisites that must be in line before a wedding takes place.

How can a person prepare to have an optimum marriage?

Pre-Marriage Pre-Requisites, Part 1

With Tom Elliff
May 21, 2007
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Tom: There is this aspect of the importance of knowing that this man knows Jesus, and he just didn't start coming to church when he started courting me.  This guy loves Christ, his heart's for Christ, he's considered the place of Christ in our life.  Our whole relationship has been a Christ-centered relationship from day one.

 And I think that's so very, very important, because the husband is to be the pastor, the protector, and the provider in the home.  Those are three biblical roles assigned to him, but he is to be the pastor of that home, and if he's not spiritual adroit and adept, he can't.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, May 21st.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  If your fiancé is more in love with you than he with Jesus, you're headed for trouble.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the broadcast.  We have some old friends in the studio with us today, Dennis, and we need to talk specifically to those folks who are thinking about tying the knot, walking the aisle, getting married.

Dennis: That's right.  In fact, we need to talk to any single person who ever hopes to be married, because this contains some great advice regardless.  And we have a pair of veterans who have been married since 1966.  In fact, that was the year I graduated from high school.

Bob: It's the year before the summer of love in San Francisco.

Tom: No wonder you call us "old" friends.

Dennis: Tom and Jeannie Elliff join us on the broadcast.  Tom, Jeannie, welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Tom: Thanks, Dennis.

Jeannie: Thank you.

Tom: Thanks, Bob.

Dennis: We're glad to have you.  You have four children, 12 grandchildren – that's right, 12 of them, a wonderful picture, by the way.  Tom is the past president of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He's written a book called "A Passion for Prayer," a couple of other books as well.  Jeannie enjoys being a mom and a grandmom.

 I was talking with Tom the other day, Bob, and he mentioned to me, just over the phone, that he had five questions that he believes if every couple who think about getting married, if they would just answer these five questions honestly and deal with the issues they represent, he believes it doesn't guarantee that your marriage will go the distance, he just believes it practically ensures that, okay?

 And I said, "Why don't you drive over or fly over from Oklahoma City and share those with our listeners?"  I've got to go back, Tom, to how you got this list in the first place.  You actually were pastoring in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and you noticed that in the country in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there were more divorces than marriages.

Tom: Yes, I don't know why I was so surprised about that, because that is still true, both in that county and several other counties in Oklahoma, including the very one in which I pastor.  Since 1968, every year, more divorces filed for than marriage license granted.

 I went there in 1972, and that was such a shocking fact to me that I gathered together a group of six other men who had marriage counseling experience, and I said, "Guys, look, let's do something about this.  Let's look back through our files, let's look for indicators, let's try to find the things that seem to make a marriage stick and the things that indicate that it's going to fail," and out of that, independently, we each arrived at the same five issues.  It was incredible.

 But not really, because they're all scriptural issues.

Dennis: Really?  The same five questions?

Tom: The same five questions.

Dennis: And what's been your success in using these five questions?

Tom: Well, in 1974, by the time we had completed this study, I realized I had reached a crisis point as a pastor.  I was either going to be old Marrying Sam, or I was going to stand up before the church and say, "Look, these are all scriptural issues, and from now on if you come to us for marriage, we are going to require that these issues be settled before we proceed.  If you don't want to settle them, don't come to us, or come to us and let us convince you, but they have to be settled."

 And I am happy to say that, to my knowledge – now, this is not a scientific survey, but to my knowledge of the many, many, many marriages …

Dennis: Like how many?

Tom: Well, I don't know, hundreds – it's been 25 years as a pastor – only two of those couples that I know of have had a marriage that has ended in divorce, and in both of those instances one of the party came back and told me that they had lied to me.  They said we knew the questions you were going to ask, our friends told us about it, our folks wanted us to get married there, so we just lied to you.

 So as far as I know, everybody who has had integrity and everybody who has answered them seriously is still married after 25 years of performing weddings.

Dennis: I need to say at the outset, these questions have a bit of an edge to them.  They're not quite the simple question that you might think would come your way, and so don't just take them at face value.  You need to do some digging around these questions, because they could save you or another person a lot of pain over your lifetime.

Bob: Enough of this teasing me with these questions.  Let's get into the substance.  I want to know what the five questions are.  What's the first one?

Tom: Well, wait a minute, I've got some more teasing to do.  I noticed that you announced that this program was going to be of special interest to those who are getting married, or to those who are single, and let me just say that I think the biggest audience for these questions ought to be the moms and dads of these kids who are going to grow up and get married one day.  They need to be training their children now, "Hey, listen, when this bozo comes by, stands at the door, asks me for your hand, I just want to tell you what kind of guys he's got to be.  I'm going to ask him these five questions.  So you better learn what they are, and you ask them yourself."

Bob: Did you do this?

Tom: Absolutely.

Dennis: You took the bozos out?

Tom: Hey, listen, these guys are incredible.  They had heard about this, as a matter of fact, and one at a time, of course, came prior to asking my daughter's hand for marriage, and we went over every question.  It was a very grave moment, and I can tell you, that I was satisfied that each one of them had them well in hand before they were able to propose to my daughters.

Dennis: Well, I didn't have the same five questions, but I had six for the young man, the bozo, very dignified bozo, I might add …

Tom: Be careful about this.

Dennis: That's right.  But I had six hours I spent with the young man who asked for Ashley's hand in marriage, and I think the bottom line we're talking about here is that moms and dads need to be protective of the next generation and before you just give them away and say "Her mother and I do," I mean, I kind of felt like, Tom, if I was going to spend the kind of cash it costs to do a wedding, I'm going to say a few more things.

Tom: Yes, why do preachers say "Who gives this man?"  Give, nothing – if you knew what these weddings cost, you would never use a word like "give."

Dennis: That's exactly right.  So I got my money's worth by meeting with Michael before I handed over Ashley.  And that's what you're suggesting here.  Well, let's get to the first question.

Tom: Well, the first question is this – it has to do with knowing Christ.  We insist that both of these folks who are getting married not only know the Lord Jesus personally as their Savior, but have an active and dynamic walk with Him, and that they're going to be part of the same church upon getting married.  They may already be, but especially when they get married.

 Three reasons that we explain that this is so very important – in the first place, marriage is a picture of what it means to know Christ as our Savior.  Jesus is called the groom, the church is called the bride.  It would be foolish for non-believers to picture what it means to be a believer, all right?

 Because, after all, marriage is God's idea not ours.  The more man has to do with it, the more people just cohabit.  This idea of one man for one woman for life is God's idea, so you've got to be right with God if you're going to do it correctly.

 Secondly, and you know this from the emphasis of this wonderful ministry, marriage is a covenant relationship not a contractual agreement.  It is based on mutual trust not on mutual distrust.  And while we don't exchange tokens like they did in days gone by with a blood covenant, you know, the coat, the belt, the sword, and so forth, that ring is a symbol that this is a covenant relationship that we're entering.  That ring is a token, and it's not a covenant, by the way, between the bride and the groom, it's between the two of them and God.  And that's important to realize that if they are making a solemn covenant with God until death parts us, we are going to stay married.

 And then a third reason, which a lot of people don't think about is this – that all of us are born in sin, and the wages of sin is death.  Now, we're not dead physically, we're not even dead soulishly.  We think and have emotions and make decisions, but we're dead spiritually, we're cut off from God.  You know, death happens when you're cut off from your environment, and we're cut off from God.

 When Adam and Eve died in the Garden of Eden as a result of their sin, it wasn't physical and it wasn't soulish, but they were cut off from God.  He was looking for them, they were hiding from Him.

 Well, there's a physical kind of love.  Sometimes we use the word "eros" or "erotic" to describe that.  You know, it's very demanding, it's temporary, that's why styles change, but it also leads to defrauding, which is to build up sexual desires, which you can't scripturally fulfill, and that tells your partner beforehand if you engage in premarital sex, look, I can't be trusted because the bottom line is I get what I want.  There's that kind of love.  That's possible – lots of unsaved people can love that way.

 There is soulish love, that's very emotional, it's also very demanding.  I demand a good reason to be married to you and, by the way, it's also temporary.  These are the folks that stay married until Junior goes to college.  He was their reason for being married, and now he's gone.  And it emphasizes my rights, and if you have a lot of rights, you've got a lot of anger, and you've got a lot of ingratitude.

 But, you see, those two kinds of love unbelievers can share, but love of the spirit, agape love is not demanding – "God so loved the world He gave" – it's not temporary, love never fails, and it doesn't emphasize rights, it emphasizes my responsibilities.  Christ gave up His right to stay in heaven, Philippians 2:5-8, and took upon himself the responsibility of being our Savior.

 People without Christ are dead in the spirit, so they have no permanent giving love, and so we insist they both know Christ.

Dennis: And a part of that mutual sharing around a relationship with Christ is being committed to the same local church, and you mentioned that a little earlier, and we scooted by that.  I just want to underline that, because church is a place to grow, it's a place to be accountable, and it's a place to exercise our own spiritual gifts and your own spiritual mission before God, and that is so important for a young couple who are starting out their marriage today.  They need to grow, they need to be accountable, and they need to be involved in the ministry of the church.

Tom: That's where you're going to find your friends.  Why not find friends who are walking with the Lord, friends who are growing in the Lord.  So that's the first question.

Dennis: Well, and, back to that, friends who will challenge you to stay faithful to your covenant.  Now, I want to stop there, too, because today it is far too easy to get out of marriage, and if you're in the wrong company, and you slip one wheel off into the ditch, you may be surrounded with friends who provide ungodly counsel who won't pull you out of the ditch, they'll help you put a second wheel off.

Tom: Sure, they'll say, "I've been through that, and I tell you what, here's my lawyer, here's his phone number, and you contact him, and he'll get this done in a hurry."

Dennis: Or if you're engaged, you may talk to that couple and say, "Well, you need to make sure you sign a prenuptial agreement."  Now, do you do marriages where couples sign a …

Tom: No.

Bob: He wouldn't even let you get the words out.

Tom: You said, "Pre" – I cut off the "nuptial" word there, no, huh-uh, none of that.

Dennis: Why?

Tom: Because that's based on mutual distrust.  You're saying, "We think it's possibility we may go haywire someplace along the way and, if we do, as far as we're concerned that's justifiable grounds for splitting up."  No, it's not.  It is not.  Nothing – nothing makes splitting up something that God's just going to love you doing.

Dennis: You don't go into marriage with an escape hatch.

Tom: Right, right.

Dennis: That's not the way to start it.

Bob: You have met folks, young ladies, young men, who, as they get older, their standards for what they're looking for come down.  How do you counsel somebody in their 30s or in their 40s who has never been married and has finally met someone, and he's not the spiritual giant, or she's not the wonderful godly woman, but she's close. 

Tom: A couple of things that I would mention right here, and Jeannie and I have – let me preface this by saying Jeannie and I have a very, very, very good friend whom we love very much who is a beautiful and eligible lady, and she is dear to us, she is dear to our family.  The thing we have admired about her is that she has never released her ideal in terms of what her suitors ought to be.

Dennis: So you're saying she has too high a standard?

Tom: No, she has the exact standard that she ought to have.  And there is something else about her, which I really appreciate.  Unlike some – every once in a while I look at somebody, and they say, "Here is the kind of person I want to marry."  Then I look at them and listen to them and watch what they do, and I say, "Look, if you want to marry that kind of person, shouldn't you be the kind of person that a person like that would want to marry?" 

 It's not just their standards of expectation for the other person, it's their standards of expectation for themselves that begin to slip.  And this young lady has held high standards, and she has held herself to high standards, and I have every reason to believe, in fact, I'm really excited right now, because I'm just watching what I believe is going to be the unfolding of an incredible relationship.

 You know, she's past the age when some ladies think, "Well, it's too late," after that you shouldn't get married, or you'll never get married.  I believe God is going to fulfill the desires of her heart.

Bob: I can imagine, too, that she is going to be the kind of woman that when God brings the right man along, the two of them will know that they're going to need some preparation.  They're either going to plan to go to a Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference to get better equipped for what is ahead for them, or they may, Dennis, get a couples pack of the Preparing for Marriage workbook that we've prepared that really tens of thousands of couples have gone through together as part of their premarital training.

 This is a workbook that is designed to help you surface the issues that need to be addressed as you consider getting married, and I know there are some couples who have been through the Preparing for Marriage material and have decided to call things off and, you know what?  That's okay, because it's better to call things off at that point than it is to head on into marriage and wish that you had been wiser prior to marriage.

 We've got copies of the Preparing for Marriage workbook.  In fact, it's available again as a couples pack so that both the bride-to-be and her fiancé will have their own workbooks, and these can be used with a pastor, with a lay couple or on your own as you begin preparing for marriage.

 Go to our website,, and if you click the red button that says "Go" right in the middle of the screen, that will take you right to the area of the site where you can find out more about the Preparing for Marriage workbooks and about other resources available from us here at FamilyLife Today.

 Again, the website is, and you click the red button you see in the middle of the screen that says "Go."  That will take you to the broadcast page, and there's more information there about the resources that are available from us here at FamilyLife Today.

 You can also call 1-800-FLTODAY, if you'd like.  It's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and someone on our team will make arrangements to have resources sent to you or answer any questions you might have about upcoming Weekend to Remember conferences that are being hosted in a city near where you live.  Dennis?

Dennis: Well, we still haven't gotten to our five prerequisites before you can get married, but let me just review the first one we have kind of driven home here – both individuals must know Christ and be walking in a dynamic relationship with Him.

 The second one you've got here is you believe that both individuals must be scripturally free to marry.

Tom: And a lot of people who come to us for marriage are not scripturally free to marry.

Dennis: Tom, you feel strongly that anyone who has been involved in a divorce, that what that points out is there is a fundamental problem here that needs to be addressed before you can go in any direction, right?

Tom: The fact that a marriage license was torn up by a divorce decree in a court of man does not mean that any records have been changed in heaven.  And a lot of people who come to us for marriage are not scripturally free to marry.

 People show up at church, you know, with the ink barely dry on the divorce decree, and they're saying, "Okay, we're ready to get on with our life."  They need to be alerted to this fact – the highest rate of divorce is among people who have been divorced before.  And they think, "Well, I will never make that same mistake again," but the truth of the matter is, if your heart doesn't change, and if your value system doesn't change, you'll make that mistake over and over and over again.

Dennis: You'll just import that same attitude into a new marriage.

Tom: And the Scripture is pretty explicit about people who are free to be married and people who are not free to be married.  Every once in a while, a couple sitting there in chairs in my office are shocked when I say, for instance, to the young man, "So you tell me you've been married before?"  "Yes."  "Well, has your first wife remarried?"  "Well, no, she's living someplace else."  "Well, do you know where she's living?"  "Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do, or I could find her."  "Well, have you considered the importance of reconciliation?"  "No, that would take a miracle."  "Well, don't you understand that Jesus is good for that?  I mean, He loves miracles, and" –

Dennis: Have you seen some of those in your ministry?

Tom: Absolutely, absolutely.

Dennis: At this point, where someone has come to you to marry another person?

Tom: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.  And then there's this big question – I have turned to his intended, who is sitting there beside him with trembling lip, and then the mascara really begins to flow when I say, "You know, if you really loved him, you would want what's best for him, wouldn't you?"  "Yes."  "Well, did you know that's what's best is for there not to be another marriage created; what's best is for there to be reconciliation.  And before you all go any further, do you think that you owe a trip and a word of apology?  Shouldn't you ask that person to forgive you for leading her husband astray in this relationship and tell her that you have her word that you're backing out of this relationship so they can repair this marriage."

Bob: I bet you don't win many popularity contests at that moment in your office.

Tom: I don't think that's my goal.  I think my goal is to be faithful to the Scripture, and if I do not exercise faithfulness in the Scripture, I'm not much of a pastor for them, anyway.  I didn't set up shop just to perform marriages.  The issue is what's going to happen to their family.  And they're going to bring whatever clouds they have in their relationship right straight into their family if they're not resolved.

 So we have a little exercise that we encourage these couples in if we discover there's been a divorce, to go through, and I don't even participate in the exercise with them.  I give them a sheet of paper called "Divine Viewpoint," regarding divorce and remarriage.  I ask them to go out and work through the Bible study.  About 90% of the time I never heard from that couple again.

 Now, sometimes they decide not to get married, sometimes they just go get married, but at least I have not said to them, "I believe God is smiling on this decision," on your part.  Sometimes they'll come back and say, "You know, we've done all of this, and we believe we're scripturally free to be married," at which time we have a long discussion on that.

 But having freedom from God to remarry, that's a tough one.  Many people, many people are not scripturally free to be married.

Dennis: You know, it's interesting at this point in a couple's life, many times they're not interested in the truth, and I wonder sometimes how soft our picture of love has become even in our counseling, local church situation, when we go ahead and just kind of wink the other way at a circumstance that we know God doesn't approve of.

Tom: How many pastors who do this – "Well, I'll lose my privilege of ministering to them."  No, you forfeited your right to minister to them when you told them something that wasn't true.

Dennis: Yes, and, you know, it's giving up on truth.  I mean, it's giving in to emotion and the warmth of being liked and loved.  God didn't call us, as Christians, to run a popularity contest.  He called us to be people of truth and love, and love was always held in tension with the truth.  I don't like the word "balance."  Balance denotes something – I don't like it – I like the word "tension" because I think love and truth put tension against one another that call us to be Christlike.

Tom: And, you know, it raises a lot of other questions.  I'm sure you have people listening to your broadcast right now who were divorced and remarried, and they say, "Man, I could have been reconciled, and we didn't, so what do we do now?"

 Well, let me just tell you, it is not God's will to commit another divorce.  I mean, that's not the plan here.  But it might be a healthy exercise for you to seek forgiveness from offended parties and admit to God that you made a mistake. 

 As a matter of fact, the very marriage you're in may have, as a barometer of its health, your willingness to admit before God that you were wrong to enter into it, and now you're going to take the time that you have left between now and when you meet Jesus and do everything God wants you to do with that marriage between now and when you meet the Lord.

 That's so important, and I can't emphasize enough – and the love aspect.  You know, if you speak the truth in love, I tell these people, "Look, I'm willing to go with you.  I'm willing to walk this journey with you."  Well, now, some are just going to get mad, I mean, they're just going to get slap-dab mad about that, you know?  I'm sorry, but that's just the way it and, by the way, that's the reason they probably got divorced the first time and will probably do it again because they will not hear the counsel that's given to them in that regard.

Dennis: And, you know, we're not just speaking to pastors at this point.  I believe we're talking to the priests of families.  That's the fathers who must, in essence, give away their daughters again in marriage, and the father of a son who must approve of this union.  And I think we, as parents, as husbands, mothers, I believe we enter into this process and we, too, this is not just the pastor's responsibility back at the local church, this is the kind of Christian living that God has called us to stand up and represent the truth of God's word.

Bob: We're going to talk tomorrow on the broadcast the other prerequisite that couples ought to meet before they move ahead with marriage.  I hope our listeners can join us for that.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.


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Episodes in this Series

Pre-Marriage Pre-Requisites, Part 2
with Tom Elliff May 22, 2007
What makes a marriage stick?
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