Marriage is a sacred institution.
In the land of our forefathers, Reformed people consummated marriage in three stages. First there was the engagement. This was followed by the solemnization of the marriage by the civil authorities. And, finally, the confirmation of the marriage by the church took place. Each stage has its own significance. To each we will give separate attention briefly.
The engagement consists of a reciprocal promise or pledge on the part of a man and woman that they will take each other to be their lawful spouse in marriage. This promise is sealed with the giving of an engagement ring by the man and the receiving of the same by the woman as a token that both will remain faithful to the promise made. Today this practice has, generally speaking, lost its significance and been reduced to a mere formality. Often engagement promises are made secretly and kept secret until just before or even after the marriage itself. Frequently engagements are broken by one or both of, the parties to the promise.
This is not only improper but it is a very sad reflection upon our careless age that deals so flippantly with most serious things. The consequences of such trifling are reflected in the disrepute of the marriage relation in our day. This has not always been the case. For generations back the matter of the engagement in marriage has been held in honor among Reformed people. The Synod in Dordrecht in 1574 ruled that the engagement, once made, cannot be undone. The engagement was regarded as the foundation of the marriage. And this, the late Rev. Ophoff wrote, is correct because “there is no essential difference between this engagement promise and the vows that are spoken at the altar in the presence of witnesses.” A promise made is a promise to be kept. Before God such promises made are to be honored and the mere fact that the State solemnizes and Church confirms the promise made does not make it any more or any less binding. To break the engagement promise is to give utterance to the lie and often that is done by one of the parties to the serious hurt of the other. In the world one is hardly surprised to see these things happen but in the church such things ought not to be because of the sin that is involved.
Engagements then ought never to be made hastily. The parties involved must not only first know each other well but they should be intimately acquainted with each other’s parents and families. Any two people who are physically attracted to each other cannot enter marriage. There is much more involved. They must live together and share one another’s joys and sorrows, have common interests, and face together the trials and afflictions of life. There must be a basis of mutual interests and likeness and the most important of all this is that there must be a unity of spiritual interests in agreement of faith. Without this there is no right to engagement and marriage for such unequal yoking is contrary to the Word of God. Marriage in the Lordcan occur only in obedience to His Word so that these things must be resolved before there is even the consideration of an engagement.
Even the moralists of the world recognize that unity and co-operation and common interests are essential to a permanent marriage. We quote one of their number: “The best advice that I can give any man or woman who wants to be happy though married is to marry in their own class. By this I mean to marry someone as nearly like themselves as possible. Some one who has the same taste, habits, who likes the same kind of cooking they do and who looks at life from the same point of view. Marry your double, not your opposite. So shall you save yourself a life time of quarreling and arguing over trifles, and make of matrimony a harmonious duet. The people whose society we really enjoy most are those who like to do the things we like to do, who are interested in the same subjects that we are interested in, and who ride the same hobbies that we ride. Love is a tough proposition. It will stand a lot of punishment, but it will not survive the perpetual clash of different personalities and temperaments, and when husbands and wives get so that they have to gumshoe around practically every subject for fear of starting something, it is all over but the divorce.”
The counsel of this moralist is worldly and touches only upon the natural relationship of husband and wife. It ignores the truth of human depravity and the fact that even from a purely natural point of view there are no two people alike. It offers a solution to the marriage problem which is only relatively true and, therefore, no solution at all. It ignores the truth that marriage can only succeed where husband and wife together are submissive to the will of God and seek in ail of their union to serve and glorify Him. In that relation their prayers will not be hindered and the problems that confront them will be resolved in mutual harmony. Before the engagement promises are exchanged this basis of harmony must be established for then the promises made will not be frustrated.
Engagements should then also be made with the consent of the parents involved. Concerning this Monsma and Van Dellen write in the Church Order Commentary as follows: “Marriage is a very important institution, and many young people are apt to act rashly and inconsiderately, not realizing their own best interests and the great significance, for good or evil, involved in marriage. Moreover, marriage is not merely the concern of the couple promising marriage: It is to a certain limited extent also the affair of the families involved. Marriage brings families together and consequently the relatives of both sides have an interest. Parents moreover have responsibilities toward their children and their spiritual welfare, also for their future regarding things temporal. Because of these parental responsibilities before God and parental rights towards their children no engagements should take place without the knowledge and approval of the parents or guardians involved. And this is likewise to the best interest of our young people, generally speaking. The old custom which prescribed that the young man asked for the hand of the girl of his choice from the father is wholly commendatory. And engagements should take place with the consent of the parents of both the young man and the young woman. It would be well if more were made in our circles of engagements or betrothals, especially since there is so much looseness and godlessness in regard to marriage.”
Solemnization of Marriage
Our forefathers took the position that the actual solemnization of marriage took place by the civil authorities. If by this is meant the mere issuance of the marriage license this might be construed to be the case for this is what the civil authorities do. This is undoubtedly also proper because marriage is not exclusively an ecclesiastical matter even though it is indeed a type or symbol of the relation between Christ and His church. Marriage does not have its origin in the church but in creation. God created man and when He saw that it was not good that man was alone, He also made the woman, an help meet for man. And so He brought the woman to the man and they became one flesh. Out of this relationship society devolves and inherent in it is the broader authority of government. Certainly then the civil state has some concern with and interest in the matter of marriage. We recognize its right to issue the license to marry and with respect to some persons to also withhold that right for cause.
This granting of the right to marry, however, can hardly be called the “solemnization” of marriage. Webster defines “solemnize” as follows: “1. To commemorate or observe with solemnity or in due fashion. 2. To perform with pomp or ceremony; specifically, to unite a couple with religious ceremony. 3. To make solemn, serious, or exalted.” We do not say that the issuance of the marriage right by the State is not serious or that the oath which the civil authorities require is to be taken lightly. We are speaking of marriage within the church and then believers, though recognizing this right and authority of the civil magistrate, do not regard this as the act of solemnizing the marriage. This may have been different in former times when the relation between church and state was not as it is now. Then, in our fatherland, our forebears spoke of “solemnizing” marriage by the state and “confirming” it by the church.
Recognizing this the Christian Reformed Churches in the adoption of the new marriage form have changed the heading of that form to: “The Form For the Solemnization of Marriage.” In our marriage form in the Psalter it is still, ‘Form For The Confirmation Of Marriage.'” The latter implies recognition of the State as the agent that performs the marriage while the church then simply confirms this. The former position actually expresses that the church performs the marriage. It seems to me that the act of solemnizing (performing) and confirming the marriage can be and are combined into one if we keep in mind that the State has and does authorize the clergy to perform this function. The minister really serves in a two-fold capacity at the wedding. As an agent of the state he performs or legalizes the marriage while at the same time he serves as a servant of the church in confirming the marriage. We would see merit in retaining both terms in our marriage form and speak of it as “The Form For The Solemnization And Confirmation Of Marriage.” This would fit the prevailing circumstances in our country.
What is important here is that we, members of Christ’s Church, must not think of having our marriages solemnized by the state without the confirmation of the church. Legally this can of course be done. But it is true as The Church Order Commentary expresses it “that this would be a disgrace, and would stigmatize the couple instantly.” We recognize the right of the civil powers to issue legal permission to marry and as citizens who are subject to the powers that be we procure that right from the state, but in following through the processes into marriage we seek to speak our vows in the presence of Christ’s church that these may be confirmed with His indispensable blessing. Of this confirmation by the church we purpose to write, D.V., the next time.