When we talk about marriage, whether it be “marriage equality” or “traditional marriage,” it’s easy to overlook a key component in the argument: the wedding. In fact, I am convinced that the current state of weddings in the Western world has been instrumental in leading us to where we find ourselves in the marriage discussion—with a high divorce rate and an unending argument about the meaning of marriage. Weddings are far from the only factor, but they contribute nonetheless, and I think we should take a closer look.
For centuries in Western countries, weddings, and therefore marriages, were the domain of the church—be it Catholic or Protestant. In the Protestant church, wedding vows were universal, taken from the Book of Common Prayer and determined by the diligent study and arguments of many over several years. There was a commonality to marriage. If everyone said the same vows, then marriage meant the same thing universally.
Fast-forward to the present day. Just about anyone can become licensed to perform a wedding, no vows even have to be made, and the meaning of marriage is up to each individual couple (or person) to determine. In a society that places a premium on individuality, marriage can mean one of a thousand different things. And why not? Somehow we have to justify our decision to get married. So we determine why marriage is important to us and go for it.
It is worthwhile to ask why getting married is important to people who don’t see any inherent universal value or meaning within the institution. Maybe we see the wedding industry and want the whole big thrill of a wedding. Maybe it’s the rights and value assigned to being married, rather than living together. Perhaps we want what our grandparents or parents had or like the legitimacy of being married.
So we work through these questions, create a wedding around our answers, and present to our guests our own unique version of “marriage.” And really, it makes sense. If marriage is merely a construct of society, then each society, and each member therein, can determine why it is important and what it will look like in his or her own context.
Where it doesn’t make sense is in the church. When we talk about the future of marriage in the church, we cannot make the mistake of overlooking our weddings. The Bible begins and ends with a wedding. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments we see that God’s creation and institution of marriage was for a greater purpose. The one-flesh union of Adam and Eve in Genesis points all the way to the culmination of the Church’s union with Christ in Revelation 19. Marriage was created so we might understand how dearly God loves us.
Marriage matters. And if the wedding is day one of the marriage, then it matters too. When we—a man and a woman—choose to vow our love and devotion to one another with words that reflect God’s design for marriage, we are starting our lives together on a firm foundation. When we proclaim that our ability to keep our vows is dependent on the grace of God—that we will fail, but he is faithful—we are setting up a cornerstone that we can look back on when difficult days and years come. When we gather with friends and family in corporate worship in our wedding ceremony, we are demonstrating the reality that our particular marriage is not just about us. We are saying it is about the glory of God, and it is dependent upon the encouragement and support of the church.
My prayer is that the church might come alongside engaged couples and encourage them in the freedom of how truly meaningful a wedding can be. I believe Christian weddings can be the most joyful, reverent, and celebratory events we have the privilege of witnessing. And perhaps as we embrace and proclaim the meaning of marriage in our weddings, we will build a firm foundation for marriages that, by his grace, point to Christ, build strong families, and transform the world.