Whose Wedding Is It?

Family, church, and state all play a role

The bride was obviously nervous. It was only the rehearsal, but she showed signs of panic that didn't bode well for the next day's big event. With a gentle touch, the pastor led her aside.

"Look," he said. "I know you're a bit unsettled about the wedding. But maybe thaf s because you're overwhelmed by all that's going on. Let me suggest something. Tomorrow, when you stand at the door with your father, just look ahead down the aisle. It's familiar to you. You've walked it every Sunday since you were a little girl. Don't think of anything else till you get to the front."

"And when you're there, you'll see the altar, or table. Remember the first time you took communion from that altar. It reminds you of your Savior, and that should be a comforting thought."

"And then, all you have to do is glance over to the right. There you'll see John. He'll be standing there, waiting for you. He's your best friend. He loves you more than anyone else in the whole world. Think of him, and only of him.

"If you're a little nervous tomorrow, just take it one step at a time, and you'll be all right!"

Sure enough, the next day the bride was the picture of composure, a model of cool steadiness in a maze of chaotic floundering. But some of the guests were puzzled by what she muttered as she passed by their pews in a blaze of white: "Aisle altar him! Aisle altar him! Aisle altar him!"

Altered States

From earliest times, marriage has been an "altering" affair for those involved. The second chapter of Genesis makes it clear that the very distinction between females and males in the human race is intended for the altered state of marriage. Later, Jesus asserts that only special grace or unusual circumstances permit individuals to remain unmarried (Matt. 19). Normally one moves into marriage as a natural part of seeking fulfillment in life.

Human history tends to confirm this, although experiments in other forms of social development have been tried along the way. Only a couple of years ago, after much publicity about the fact that marriage was soon to be an antiquated museum piece, Time magazine ran a cover story on the revival of this ancient rite. And in late 1989, Swedish churches and court officials were swamped with marriage requests, all the result of a changing legal situation that sanctioned financial support of "spouses," but not "partners."

Marriage is alive and well on planet earth. Well, maybe just still alive…

Public Acts

But that brings to mind a question: "Whose marriage is it anyway?" If I love someone, who can tell me what I have to do in order to express my love?

A high school friend of mine met a young woman at a Christian "coffee house" one day. Within a week they were living together. "Why not?" they said. "We love each other. In God's eyes we're married. We don't need anyone else to tell us what we already know is right!"

And though we have traditions that say there's got to be something more to marriage than just an informal agreement between two people, there's less doctrinal certainty to our practices than we'd care to admit. What makes a legitimate marriage? And whose authority declares it? Two things come to mind.

Marriage, first of all, is a social act. It affects people. It alters the way others may interact with them. Children born of the marriage are also affected significantly by the relationship of their parents.

Second, marriage is a public act. Romeo and Juliet may have professed their vows in the secrecy of darkened closets, but such acts do not a marriage make. Lovers may make passionate pledges in the heat of a sensual midnight encounter, but such words sound rather hollow over coffee the next morning.

Marriage must be made public, because only a public act can confirm the uniqueness of what takes place in the relationship. I wear a wedding ring as a public declaration of the altered state of my life. The ring sets a norm for the way in which I may and may not interact with other people in society. If I kept my relationship with my wife secret, it would be open to daily denial. Although we have great goals and determination in our premarriage encounters, we are too sinful to sustain the zeal of our loving testimonies without social structures to encourage and demand truthful troth from us.

By Whose Authority?

But who has the authority to make a marriage "public" and thus "official"? Until the advent of the modern national state, marriage was sanctioned by whatever local authority held sway in a community and reserved the right of enforcing the mores of a culture. The Holy Roman Empire wedded the moral authority of the church with the socio-political structure of the state's power, and handed to its ecclesiastical arm the function of shaping the wedding event. This, of course, led to the development of marriage as a "sacrament" of the church.

Reformational zeal attacked existing structures of authority. Luther was certain that marriage was the business of the nation-state, not of the hierarchy of Rome. Later, the French Revolution confirmed this idea, and since the mid-eighteenth century, virtually all arising national governments have entered the making of marriages into their list of reserved powers.

But the demand of modern governments to act as final authority in legitimizing marriages has not made the act of marriage any clearer. Christians (and those of many other religious groups) have always felt that governing authorities act on behalf of God. Thus, though governments can sanction marriages, it is the church that consecrates them.

At the same time, Christianity has affirmed that the family is the basic unit of social development designed by God. The church fosters family life and guards the authority of the family's "sphere" of responsible activity—a sphere that includes marriage.

A Three-Fold Muddle

For these reasons, modern marriage is achieved through several socially acceptable endorsements. "Civil" and "ecclesiastical" marriages are both legitimate in England, Canada, and the U.S. Both the "justice of the peace" and the "minister of religion" are seen as officers of the state for granting public recognition to marriage ceremonies. In fact, Ontario even gives the option for most couples to be married by "banns" or by "license." Both marriage registration forms are virtually the same, but the former is intended as an ecclesiastical document (and requires only a public announcement of the intended wedding during worship services), while the latter is obtainable only at the courthouse. Interestingly, the license costs $35.00, while the banns document is free!

In other countries, such as the Netherlands, another twist is given to all of this. The civil ceremony is required for all marriages, while the ecclesiastical ceremony is an optional blessing.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the church's relationship with the families involved in a marriage is open to several interpretations. Reformed churches traditionally allow for two types of weddings: the "family" wedding and the "church" wedding. The former acknowledges that marriage is not a sacrament of the church but that the church is the primary community of authority in which a Christian moves. Thus the officer of the church, its pastor, sanctions marriages for the family. And, of course, a family wedding may take place in the church building.

But at the same time, in order to assert the greater authority of the church as community, a "church" wedding may also take place. Here the couple asks the church council to officially call the congregation together for a worship service during which the marriage will be confirmed. Most often, as in the case of several weddings to which I've been party (including our own wedding in 1982), this happens on Sunday during a regularly scheduled worship service. But it may happen at other times as well. For obvious reasons these "church" weddings have happened most often in communities where social relationships and church family are nearly identical, as in recently immigrated communities or somewhat remote rural congregations.

The Role of the Church

Where does that leave us today? In practical terms, what we live with is a public government that determines the means by which a marriage can be declared legitimate. For the most part, the government has allowed great liberty in the church's involvement with the wedding ceremony. Nevertheless, the church has a role in only a portion of the marriages in our society.

That being the case, it is fair to say that people have the option to choose the church's services for weddings, and that the church, by the same token, has a right to give or withhold its services. This is an important assertion to make, especially in our changing urban communities. The church may wish to inform people who ask a pastor to marry them that there are several legitimate means by which to be married. If they choose the route of the church—for either a family wedding or a worship service wedding—it's important that they understand some of the following things about marriage:

First, the church expects that a couple married within its walls believes in God and desires that God be the authority guiding their individual and corporate lives.

Second, given the Christian understanding of the permanence of marriage, the church expects the couple to recognize the importance of lifelong commitment to their marriage vows.

Third, the church expects to have some normative influence on the shape of a wedding ceremony and all associated events.

Fourth, the church can reasonably expect to have continuing involvement in the spiritual life of the marriage partners and the family that may develop.

How do these expectations become reality? The church can do a number of things to ensure them. First, pastors should agree to officiate at a wedding only if the intended marriage relationship has been endorsed by the governing council of the congregation. This removes pastors from the pressure to act as marriage agents simply because they have that right. And knowing that the church must confirm their right to marry gives the prospective bride and groom a greater sense of community involvement.

Second, the church should establish a period of premarital instruction or counseling as a means by which to guard the permanency of wedding vows. Sometimes counseling sessions will happen informally between pastor and couple. At other times they may involve a group of couples and a number of leaders who have gifts in helping people grow in interpersonal skills.

Third, the shape of the wedding itself should take its cue from the church's understanding of the meaning of marriage. Should the bride be taken in by her father and handed over to the groom? What is the function of all those attendants? Does music only provide an entertaining "bridge" between different elements of the ceremony? What kinds of songs should be sung and why? What meaning do various symbolic acts have (rings, candles, signing the register during the service, etc.)? What should be the content of the vows themselves? And how does the "reception" relate to the wedding ceremony itself?

The church community should give some serious thought to establishing guidelines that teach without sounding "restrictive," enabling each bride and groom to celebrate their wedding within the fullest experience of the church's blessing.

Wayne Brouwer is a professor at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, and the atuhor of several books and articles on worship, preaching, and congregational development.