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On Christian Marriage 

David G. Phillips

Marriage Preparation Course Presentation

St. John's Anglican Church, Lunenburg

February 9, AD 2007

 

Introduction

1. The Purposes of Christian Marriage

    i.   Procreation

    ii.  Mutual society, help and comfort

    iii. Hallowing of the union of between

        man and woman

        Questions on Part 1.

2. Christian Marriage is a Sacrament

        Questions on Part 2.

 

 

 

Introduction:

 

The Anglican Church has responded to the great increase in divorce over the past forty years both within and outside of the Church by recommending that couples intending to marry in the Church take a course of preparation.  Our National Church marriage canon recommends that couples be instructed in six areas: an understanding of Christian marriage; family of origin; expectations; communication and conflict; finances; and sexuality.  All of these areas will be covered in one way or another in this course tonight and tomorrow.  The aim in having this course is to help couples to be more self reflective before entering into marriage and to help them to both know better God's purposes in instituting marriage so that they might desire Christian marriage.  I hope that you have high expectations for your marriage – that you desire it to be a Christian sacrament.  I hope that you see that the marriage you hope for is impossible without God’s help and that with God’s help all things are possible.

 

 

1.  The Purposes of Christian Marriage

 

In the writings and marriage services of the Church over the ages we see a common understanding of what are the primary purposes of marriage.  Three purposes are revealed to us in the Bible:  (i) procreation; (ii) mutual society, help and comfort; and (iii) the hallowing or making holy the union between a man and a woman. 

 

Let’s consider these three purposes of marriage in the order we find them in Scripture:

 

i.                    Procreation.

 

In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis (1:28), right after the creation of humanity – male and female, made in the image of God, there is this blessing and command of God.  It says, And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”

 

As Christians, because we believe in eternal life, we see this gift of children, as not just populating the earth with people but also heaven.  Jeremy Taylor, a 17th century Anglican theologian puts it like this:  [Marriage] is the seminary of the church, and daily brings forth sons and daughters unto God…Marriage is the mother of the world, and preserves kingdoms, and fills cities, and churches, and heaven itself.  

 

Procreation is obviously not the only purpose of marriage.  There are those who are married beyond the age when they can (normally) have children, and there are those who for one medical reason or another don’t expect to have children, but still chose to enter into marriage.  But these exceptions are not to suggest that procreation is not a primary purpose of marriage.  Children, if it may be, are the greatest gift of this union of a man and a woman.

 

The marriage bond – the vows to remain together until death – provide the relationship within which children can best be nurtured.  We all know that many children are being brought up in single homes by loving parents and that in some cases it can be argued the children are better off than in homes where parents have stayed together.  And yet I think we all agree on the need to continue to hold before our minds what is the ideal.  A father and mother who love each other and their children can provide a safe environment for the raising up of their children without the anxieties of a family breakup, the associated spiritual, psychological and economic hardships.  A healthy marriage enables children to be more free to simply grow up and flourish within a stable and loving environment that is closer to the environment of heaven.

 

Children are a good in themselves.  Children also make us better people – they make us less selfish, they draw out of us what is best in human nature.  Jesus holds them up to us as an example of innocence of life and simple trust – to such, he says, is the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:13-16).  Their presence demands and inspires virtue and maturity.  In nurturing children in the faith our own faith is strengthened and challenged and nurtured.  A couple, whose second child I recently baptized, told me that when they married they had no intention of having children.  But after they had built their home and were settled into married life they felt moved to have children – their home seemed empty, they wanted to share what they had, it seemed a natural outcome of their love and marriage to desire children.  It is part of what it is to be like God.

 

The command of God to be fruitful and multiply is not meant to be an oppressive command from an oppressive God to take away our freedom, but rather a great gift from the Creator of our human nature.  God, who made us in His image and likeness, knows how we might best experience fulfillment in this earthly life in the married state.  To follow this call to be fruitful and multiply is to enter into God’s greater purposes in creation itself, which is, that there might be more joy in the universe – both on earth and in heaven – and that that joy may be shared with many, everlastingly (Taylor).

 

 

ii.    Mutual society, help and comfort.

 

In the very next Chapter of Genesis, we have a second account of the Creation, this time another purpose of marriage is drawn out.  The Lord God took the man (Adam – who was made out of the earth) and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it…Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”  So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird…the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.  [I hope you can see that there is a certain humour here!]  So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs, and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh...”  Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

 

For modern minds we can get caught up by trying to read this account only literally and many want to immediately reject it.  But the philosophers and theologians of the Church from the very beginning have always looked upon this passage to understand the deeper truths that are being intimated by it (considering the moral, typological and allegorical or spiritual ways of reading Scripture). 

 

It is not good that the man should be alone…  

What is being stated is that there is something in human nature deep down that desires fellowship, and one of the highest of goods – friendship.  And fellowship between a man and a woman can be held together because of what we share at the core of our being: from Genesis 1 – that we are both made in the image and likeness of God; and from Genesis 2 – that we are in fact all made from a common ancestry, we are kin (St. Augustine).  [Such an understanding undermines all thoughts of division based on race or nationality or creed.]

 

St. Augustine comments on the creation of the woman out of the side of the man.

Nor did God create these each by himself, and join them together as alien by birth[as if they were from different planets!]:  but He created the one out of the other, setting a sign also of the power of the union in the side, whence she was drawn, was formed.  For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk.

That woman is from man in this passage recalls the depth of intimacy – our common humanity.  Augustine notes the implication of being drawn from the side – it means walking together, of looking together where they walk – marriage is to be a uniting of wills and purpose – husband and wife are side-by-side.  Thomas Aquinas, in commenting on this passage, says woman was created, not from the foot of man, that she might be under his subjection, nor from his head, that she might rule over him, but from his side as a sign of their companionship.

 

Scripture says the woman is a helper fit for him.  There is something in this of the mutuality and perhaps the complementary nature of the love.  The word helper is in no way meant to imply a slave or a mere servant, God is spoken in the Scriptures elsewhere as “a helper”.  But I think we will see later more fully that there is a mutuality in the relationship of help and that in fact both express their love in a kind of servanthood of one another – Christ-like servanthood [see for example Matt 20:25-28, John 13]. 

 

The help and comfort that each give the other is not just physical, Christian marriage has the expectation that husband and wife will help each other grow in spiritual maturity.  There is a proverb that says, Iron sharpens iron; as one person sharpens another [Prov. 27:17] – as husband and wife live with one another in love they call each other to account, they sharpen one another, make one another wise, more truthful, more righteous.  St. Paul describes the call to help one another to grow in Christ – “use all your wisdom to teach and instruct one another.” [e.g. Col 3:12-21 and Heb 3:13].  St. Peter refers to the importance of being a good example (even more powerful than words) as a way of leading your spouse in the way of life [1 Pet 3:1-7].

 

These first two purposes of marriage – procreation and “friendly fellowship” – are found in the Bible before the fall of humanity.  They are purposes instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency – in other words, they are what was intended by God in paradise – both are intended by God to increase joy!

 

 

iii.                Hallowing of the union between a man and a woman.

 

This third purpose of marriage can be seen as related to humanity after the fall (chapter 3 of Genesis), outside of the garden of Eden.  The hallowing of the union is another way of saying, the making holy of the union between a man and a woman.  It is described in a slightly less positive way in the tradition – the fifteenth century Prayer Book says this, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

 

The switch in emphasis is a little like describing the positive call implied in the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments – "you shall be faithful", rather than saying, "you shall not commit adultery".  But knowing the negative side also, helps us to draw out what is meant by the positive.

 

Human beings are full of desire and that desire is a gift.  Love is desire, it moves us towards the object of our desire.  But as Christians we are realists – we want to be as honest as we can about ourselves – and we recognize that in our souls are competing desires and motivations for everything we do.  If we simply follow every impulse of our bodies, or every desire of our minds, we get ourselves in trouble.  We need a degree of restraint – there is an unruliness, a disorder in the loves of our souls even though Christ has received us and washed us and forgiven us.  Marriage helps in the right ordering of our loves.  As Christians, we easily admit that we are not perfect.  We pray that God would make us more holy – that we would be less selfish, and instead more and more loving of God and of our neighbour.

 

All of Scripture, all of God’s revelation, is about the right directing of our desire – to the love of God and our neighbour [the two Great Commandments].  One of the strongest desires, if not the strongest (at least in our younger years), is sexual desire – and, as St. Paul says, it must be so - God has made us that way to draw men and women together and to keep them together.  God helps us to see in Scripture that ultimately there are only two peaceful and healthy resolutions of sexual desire.  One way is to give it up – to chose the celibate life (which is a gift God gives to some, not a death of desire but a redirecting of that love).  The other way is to direct that desire within a life-long committed monogamous, heterosexual union – i.e. marriage, as it has always been understood by the Church. 

 

Sexual faithfulness has a whole range of implications for our health of soul and body.  Without such a commitment there are impediments to the full flowering of love, selfishness is less easily transformed into self-giving (there is a fear of being hurt).  There are a many reasons we can see (and probably some we can’t yet see) why it is better that sexual relations happen only within marriage but it is first and foremost a matter of the health of our souls – God is saying that our hearts work best that way.  [We can think of how other relationships, which have the possibility of children, can leave them to grow up in a less secure environment; of how many relationships before marriage can harden our hearts and the hearts of others (of course as Christians we can be forgiven and healed of all hurts); many partners before marriage makes faithfulness within marriage a greater struggle (of course Christ’ grace is sufficient if we seek it); in small communities – many partners means future jealousies and distrusts, the breaking down of society; and of course many partners has implications for the health of our body, risks of sexually transmitted diseases.]

 

The commitment to sexual faithfulness in marriage is what Jesus says is the ideal and a necessary part of what it is to be holy – it is also related to the sacramental nature of marriage (which I will speak of later). 

 

Sexual faithfulness is to be expressed not only by forsaking sexual intimacy with all others  but also by the curbing of the thoughts of our hearts.  Jesus says that if a man lusts after a woman he has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5).  In marriage you are freed up from always looking for another.  When you experience temptation from one who is not your spouse, and this will happen, you are not to respond to it, but rather redirect your desire towards your spouse.  Love faithfulness to your spouse, take pleasure in the good health of your spouse's heart and the gift God wants to give you - a pure heart. Love these more than some momentary bodily pleasure with another or even lusting after another and being flirtatious to enjoy the flattering feelings of being desired by another - this too is adultery.  In the Prayer Book marriage service you promise that  forsaking all others, [you will] keep thee only unto her/him, so long as you both shall live.  This is a promise of faithfulness in body and soul. 

 

In the following passage from Proverbs a father gives advice to his son, on faithfulness to his wife.  Often we think of infatuation as a state of being, here it is described as a choice: 

Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well.  Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?  Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you.  Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely hind, a graceful doe.  Let her affection fill you at all times with delight, be infatuated always with her love.  Proverbs 5:15f

 

Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.                                                                                                  Hebrews 13:4

Within marriage sexual relations are not a “free-for-all.”  Towards your spouse there is a call to faithfulness.  Marriage is a place where the mixed motivations of our hearts – lust and love – are transformed, purified.  Lust, using another solely for one’s own pleasure, dies away and is changed into self-giving love, a desire to give pleasure and to please the other whether that means at any particular time having sexual relations or exercising self-control.  St. Paul describes the sort of mutuality in sexual relations and of the giving to the other in a beautiful way:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not rule over her own body but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.                                                                                                        1 Corinthians 7:3-5

Pierre Trudeau said we should keep the government out of the bedrooms of the nation and there will be some who think the Church should be there even less.  Yet regardless of whether one believes it or not, God is in the bedrooms of the nation and in the hearts of His sons and daughters (or rather, the bedrooms and God's children are in the mind of God).  The experience of bodily pleasure in sexual relations is something that God intends (read the Song of Solomon) but not as an end in itself.  Even more, God desires that a married couple experience the pleasure and true joy that happens in their hearts and minds and souls when their faithfulness in thought and deed towards one another grows, or in other words, as their union is hallowed.  The words said in the giving of rings in the Prayer Book service includes this phrase - with my body I thee honour.  Think about this and pray that God will give you insight and a right heart in these most intimate matters.

 

Marriage is for the hallowing of the union between a man and a woman - that there might be more true joy.

 

So to sum up – the Church teaches that the three goods of marriage are: procreation; mutual society help and comfort; and the hallowing of the union.  Here’s what Jeremy Taylor says,

 

[Marriage] is the proper scene of piety and patience, of the duty of parents and the charity of relatives; here kindness is spread abroad, and love is united and made firm as a centre: marriage is the nursery of heaven; the virgin sends prayers to God, but she carries but one soul to Him; but the state of marriage fills up the numbers of the elect, and hath in it the labour of love, and the delicacies of friendship, the blessing of society, and the union of hands and hearts; it hath in it less of beauty, but more of safety, than the single life; it hath more care, but less danger; it is more merry, and more sad; is fuller of sorrows, and fuller of joys; it lies under more burdens, but it is supported by all the strengths of love and charity, and those burdens are delightful.  Marriage... exercises many virtues, and promotes the interest of mankind, and is that state of good things to which God hath designed the present constitution of the world.

 

 

Break for a discussion of questions.

 

QUESTIONS ON PART 1 - THE PURPOSES OF CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE:

 

i.          Procreation. 

 

Have you spoken with one another about your expectations regarding children? 

If not, discuss what each of you expect in terms of when you might have children and how many children you hope to have in your family, if you are so blessed.

 

What do you each expect so far as the religious instruction of your children? 

 

What are the ways that you would use to teach your children your faith?

 

Could you accept it if it was later discovered that your partner was unable to have children?

  

ii.         Mutual society, help and comfort.  

 

Marriage is a walking together side by side.  It does not mean having the same ideas about everything, but sharing common ground on the most important things both in terms of what is most important in life and the overall direction that you hope your life takes.

Discuss what you see as being the most important things in life.

 

When you and your future spouse disagree on some issues, one partner eventually must give in to the other for the problem to be solved.  This is what it means to submit.  How will you decide in any situation who gives in?

Discuss with one another how you will make decisions if you differ about where to live; whose job has priority if one is called to move; how to raise children; how to spend your money…

 

    iii.    The hallowing of the union between a man and a woman.

 

Are you both committed to purity in your sexual relations?  Discuss what this means for you.

 

How have you handled sexual temptation in your relationship? 

 

Do you agree that sexual faithfulness includes curbing lustful thoughts? 

 

Are you comfortable with your future spouse’s past? 

 

Have you any unfinished business from a previous relationship?  

 

Will you agree to pray for one another that your union might become holy?

  

 

2.  Christian Marriage is a Sacrament

 

What is it you are looking for in your spouse?  (write up on a flip-chart)

 

 

Are you looking for Jesus Christ?

Jesus was asked by the Pharisees what happens in the case of a woman who had 7 husbands who all died and then she died, who would be her husband in heaven?  Jesus’ response was, when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven [Mark 12:25].  Marriage is not eternal but is for this life only – it is a very high good, but it is not a final end. 

 

What is the ultimate aim of every soul – what is it that you truly want?  (write up on flip-chart)

 

 

A deep peace, to be more loving and be loved more, a sense of fulfillment, adventure, freedom, wisdom, no suffering, joy, fellowship with others, to have eternal life… (to be as God?  to participate in the divine life?)

 

Every human soul is made to desire God – and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God (Augustine).  When we are God-like we find true peace.  Salvation, the kingdom of God, perfection, eternal life, the vision of God, the mystical marriage of our soul with God – all of these are ways of speaking in the Bible about the final end of our life in God.

 

Marriage in this world is an image of something greater that God is bringing about in all of Creation.  The very first sign that Jesus did on earth, the first miracle, was at the marriage of Cana – turning water into wine (John 2:1-11).  It has been seen as Christ’s affirmation of the goodness and beauty of Christian marriage – God in the flesh was there celebrating at a marriage – this holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence and first miracle (BCP p. 564).  That first miracle was also done at the marriage feast to reveal to us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that a new age is here.  The Messianic age has always been envisaged as a marriage feast of God and His bride - His chosen people.

 

This imagery of God as husband and we His bride is found throughout the prophets in the Old Testament:

  • In Jeremiah, God describes the two divided kingdoms, Israel and Judah, as unfaithful spouses (3:6-13).  He laments of how "the beloved of my soul" has abandoned him (12:7), and in speaking of the Messianic age, God describes the new Covenant in marriage terms: Behold the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers and which they broke, though I was their husband. But this is the covenant which I will make with them...  I will put my law within them, and will write it upon their hearts… and I will be their God and they shall be my people... and they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest...

  • In Ezekiel, there is a very long passage where God describes Israel as his wife (the whole of ch. 16, which is over 60 verses long) - "When I passed by you, behold you were at the age of love, and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you and you became mine... And God goes on to describe how He beautified her with His love. But then, sadly, "you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown ... the apostasy of the people of Israel - is described, not as idolatry, but as adultery.

  • In Isaiah, God speaks hope to His people of the messianic age, "...your Maker is your Husband; the Lord of hosts is his name,' and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit... with great compassion I will gather you... with everlasting love I will have compassion on you

 This imagery is also found in the wisdom literature in the Bible:

  • The book called the Song of Solomon is erotic poetry.  It has been understood by the Church over the ages as an allegory of the marriage of Christ, the lover, to His beloved, His bride the Church, or of the union of God and the individual soul.  It is not simply a celebration or affirmation of earthly love – though it is that – but of how all that is good in earthly love is a mirror, an image of the divine love for the soul.

  • In the Wisdom of Solomon – if men find it more difficult to imagine marriage to God who is described in male terms, the image is reversed, holy Wisdom, (lady wisdom, a feminine image of Christ) is described as a bride – Solomon says, I loved her and sought her from my youth, and I desired to take her for my bride, and I became enamored of her beauty  - see chapters 7-8

In the New Testament there are many references to this allegory.  In the Gospels, Jesus gives us parables of a King who invites people to the marriage feast of His Son. 

 

St. Paul makes clear that the very institution of marriage by God in Genesis is ultimately about the mystical marriage of God and our souls.  Remember in Genesis Chapter 2, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh."  St. Paul, after quoting this passage from Genesis, says in Ephesians - this mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church " (Eph 5 :32) Think about it – the Son of God leaves his Father in heaven to take flesh, He leaves his earthly mother Mary when he gives himself up on the Cross, and His purpose is to make possible the union of God and our souls, through the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit - by which we become one flesh with Him.  Think of the way we pray in holy Communion: the bread and the wine, become for us Christ’s body and blood – we receive Him, through faith, in our hearts – become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones.  We pray that He may evermore dwell in us and we in Him – this is the language of mystical marriage.  We pray that we might do God’s will, that we might have the mind of Christ – this is the language of mystical marriage.

 

So what does this have to do with your coming marriage?  Marriage is described as a sacrament – an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace.  In your marriages – you will vow faithful, Christ-like love to one another.  You will be in the world seeking to be an image of the marriage of Christ and the Church.  The uniting of your bodies and hearts and wills on earth is to be an earthly reflection of, and an evangelical witness to, this great promise of God to us in Christ.  As a couple you are a microcosm of what God is doing in creation through Christ.  This is the mystery of marriage, this is why it is “sacramental” – you become an outward sign through which God gives grace inwardly both to you as a couple and to those to whom you bear witness.

 

And yet, your marriage will only be a reflection of this heavenly plan to the extent that the love between you and your spouse is like God’s love.  The character of a Christian marriage is that its love is patterned on the love shown to us most clearly by Jesus Christ.  It is characterized by:

 

-                     unending faithfulness – not just in the big things but in the daily building up of one another in love;

 

-                     humble serving love – Christ came not to be served but to serve – remember the washing of the feet of his disciples (John 13);

 

-                     the love shown us on the Cross – love is about forgiveness and about self sacrifice – how many times must you forgive your spouse?  what is the degree of that forgiveness – whole and complete (Matthew 18:21-35).  What is the degree of self-sacrifice – even your very life!

 

-                     it is a kind of love that seeks to draw out the image of God in your spouse’s soul; not responding to what is sin except with forgiveness (forbearance); obeying every command that is from the image of God in the other’s soul.

 

Can any of you do this? 

 

It is impossible – that is why I suspect that you are asking for a church wedding, asking for God’s blessing. 

 

In the miracle of Cana (John 2:1-11), Jesus takes earthen jars filled with water (an image of the human body given a living soul) and turns them into earthen jars filled with the best wine (an image of the human soul partaking of the divine nature).  God can do this to each of us – we need only ask.  Ask continually for the divine grace – there is so much work left to do in our souls.  Take advantage of all the gifts that Christ leaves us to participate more and more in that divine life, to become the best wine – read God's Word, follow the teaching, partake of the Sacrament of Holy Communion often, live a life of faith, pray always. 

 

This is ultimately what Christ teaches us is the way to a full and happy marriage – marriage that is a sacrament.  It is simple, but not easy; it is free, though it will cost you your life (but in losing your life you will find it); and even if you don’t know it, it is everything that you really want.  Why would anyone want something less?

 

 

 

            QUESTIONS ON PART 2 - CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE IS A SACRAMENT:

 

Discuss your response to each of these questions with one another:

 

1.      Would you say that you have grown spiritually, become a better Christian, since you met you future spouse? 

 

2.      Are you both committed to following Jesus?

 

3.      Do you both agree that you are fallen – that your motives and desires are not always good – and that you need help from God to grow in holiness so that your marriage may be a witness to your children, if it may be, and to the world?

 

4.      Do you intend to make use of these Christian spiritual disciplines together? 

 

      corporate worship, especially Holy Communion (to give thanks, to be fed and nurtured in your faith, to stay close to Christ, to encourage others in their faith);

 

      private prayer (including time for self reflection and confession, to pray for others, for your spouse and yourself, and to seek God’s will for your lives);

 

      reading of the Bible (for guidance, for edification, to stir up faith, hope and love in your soul, to contemplate God and the kingdom of heaven);

 

      serving Christ in some way in the Church and community (as a way of giving thanks and to love);

 

      saying grace before meals (as a way to give thanks and to help remember God who is the giver of all things and to teach your children to pray);

 

      making a conscious commitment to financially support the work of the Church and the wider community (to help others out of love and to foster a spirit of generosity and thanksgiving).

 

        (these spiritual disciplines, as well as a couple of others, are suggested for the consideration of all Christians in the Rule of Life found in the Book of Common Prayer p. 555)

 

 

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