If the world is busy seeking to press us into their mold, it should not come as a surprise that they are running plays in less obvious ways all around the celebration of marriage. On the flip side, since Christian marriage is one of the significant ways we proclaim the gospel, surely a Christian wedding must give thought to this goal.
What is a Wedding?
A wedding is a covenant ceremony where vows are taken and witnessed with the result that one man and one woman become one flesh and form a new family (Gen. 2:18, 24). Our modern wedding ceremony is actually the combination of both betrothal and the marriage ceremony. In the ancient world, betrothal was a legally binding promise to marry by both parties, in which the breach of the contract was considered adultery (e.g. Dt. 22:23-24, Mt. 1:18-25). The period of time between the betrothal and marriage varied, but was the period of time needed to make the necessary arrangements for the new family to be formed.
In Genesis 24, we see all of the essential elements of a wedding: Abraham’s servant explains his mission to find a wife for his master’s son (Isaac) to Rebekah and her brother and father. “Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, ‘…Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken” (Gen. 24:50-51). “Her brother and her mother said…’Let us call the young woman and ask her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will go.’ So they sent away Rebekah their sister… and they blessed Rebekah… [And returning] Rebekah lifted her eyes, and when she saw Isaac… she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her” (Gen. 24:57-60, 64-67).
A Covenant Community Event
During the early and medieval church, there was rather wide spread confusion concerning marriage, combining a spiritual suspicion of the married state with a sort of individualistic contractual view alongside the growing consensus that marriage (if it had to be entered into) was a sacrament. Thus, by the high middle ages, a man and woman who suddenly promised to get marred and then slept together were considered married in the sight of God, even though there had been no ceremony. Just imagine the chaos.
The Reformers set about reforming this situation, such that betrothal came to serve as a waiting period in which the couple was required to remain chaste and in which the community might weigh in on the proposal. Thus, in the traditional wedding ceremony, after the opening (betrothal) vows (e.g. “Will you… I will), the minister often asks if anyone knows of any reason why this man and woman should not be married. While it may still be permissible to ask that question during the ceremony, our modern day engagements (and prayer lists!) serve the purpose of letting the public know and inviting any questions or objections.
But all of this serves to highlight the important role that the community plays in forming new families. There are multiple interested parties when it comes to a wedding. Of course the bride and groom themselves have the responsibility to voice their own consent and swear their own vows. The families of the bride and groom have interest in the event by their love, care, and responsibility before God for their son and daughter. The covenant community of the Church also has interest by virtue of their love and care this brother and sister in Christ.
In it’s most basic sense, all we mean by “courtship” is that a man and woman thinking about marriage ought to do so with the input of their families and Christian community. And where biological family is lacking, there are many brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in Christ. Likewise, even the civil magistrate cares to know who is married to whom, and matters of inheritance and property are rightly their concern as well. This is why the bride is escorted by her father and accompanied by her attendants, why the groom is likewise attended, and why we specifically ask who gives this woman to be married to this man. This is why there has also often been a question to the entire congregation regarding their commitment and ongoing role in the life of this new family. We are saying that we are all in this together.
Marriage is an institution into which all human beings may enter by virtue of creation, so long as it abides by the most basic creational standards (one man, one woman mutually promising to be married). Yet, for Christians, marriage is not merely a contract because embedded in the creation of marriage is a glorious and mysterious sign of the gospel: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32). While the Roman Catholic tradition has wrongly elevated marriage to a sacrament based on this verse (in part), the Reformed tradition has affirmed that marriage is a covenant blessed by God.
A covenant is a bond formed around promises with attended blessings and curses. The gospel is the New Covenant in which all Christians participate by faith in Christ. While marriage does not participate in the New Covenant as such, it is a reflection of that covenant and a sign that points to it, which God promises to be present for and to work His blessing in. Therefore, it makes sense that in some ways a wedding ceremony would reflect elements of our worship service (e.g. prayers, hymns, and scriptural exhortation). This reflection should also be seen in the joyful solemnity of a wedding ceremony. Wedding vows are sworn before God and before witnesses. And this ceremony proclaims the gospel.
Casual and silly antics, pop music or trendy clothing or hair styles tend to turn the focus of the ceremony on the wedding party rather than on the sign of blessing which points to Christ. At the same, this joyful solemnity should be full of blessing – songs and prayers and toasts and benedictions should fill the ceremony and tumble out into the celebration following. Speaking of which, thought should be given to the reception: it should certainly be full of joyful music, dancing, toasts, and feasting, but it should also seek to include the community as much as possible.
There are many stages of life represented in this room, each bringing with them different temptations with regard to a message on weddings. But the central application I want to make is that weddings are not really in the first instance about us. Even from the very first wedding, it has always been about Christ and His love for His bride, the Church (Eph. 5:32). This is the central thing. When we’ve been raised in glory for a million years, our particular stories will be faint, brief blinks in time, but Christ will be everything. And that is the secret to being faithful now, whether single or married, old or young, happy or disappointed: a wedding proclaims the love of Christ for His bride.