In our last article we raised several questions regarding marriage. It is not our purpose to attempt to answer these questions now but we shall do that later as we discuss the idea and implications of the marriage state. We will first write a few things about “church weddings” which is the subject of Article 70 of our Church Order.
Our present reading of the Church Order makes church weddings mandatory for the members of the church. Although the article we are now considering does not say this in so many words, it is nevertheless clearly implied. It states that “it is proper that the matrimonial state be confirmed in the presence of Christ’s church” and from this we draw the conclusion that what is proper is always mandatory for the Christian even as those things that are improper are forbidden. The word “proper,” Webster tells us, has many different meanings. It can, for example, mean “becoming in appearance, handsome, fine, excellent.” If this is the way the word is to be taken in this connection, our conclusions above are not at all valid. Then the article of the Church Order simply means that a church wedding is a beautiful wedding, a wedding becoming in appearance, a fine and excellent thing. Other kinds of weddings may be more or less becoming in appearance but then it is just a difference of degree. The choice of wedding is then determined by individual taste and is judged by the standard of “good, better or best.”
The word “proper” also has the meaning or connotation of “that which is right, correct” and then the word stands in contrast to what is wrong or improper. A proper prayer is acceptable to God but an improper prayer is to Him an abomination. The Dutch in this connection uses the word “behoorlijk” and if this idea of the word applies here, our Church Order does advocate the church wedding as the right way of marriage. And we are of the opinion that this is the meaning of the article.
The fact that the provisions of this article of the Church Order are scarcely observed today does not alter the basic truth expressed here. It is proper that the matrimonial state be confirmed in the presence of Christ’s Church and this truth is not changed by either our acknowledgment or denial of it; our practicing it or disregarding it. Frequently it is advocated that this article be changed because we don’t observe it any more anyway. But there is danger in this clamor for change. We often want to make rules to fit our customs and desires when it would be far better that we change our desires and customs to conform to tried and established rules. Instead of doing this, however, we find it easier to ignore the rules and follow generally accepted fashions. The case of marriage is a good example of this. It cannot be said, on the basis of Christian principle, that our present day customs are superior to the beautiful and simple church weddings of the past. We have lost something of the sacredness of this, holy institution by our laying aside the proper solemnization of matrimony. Here too we must not “conform to the present world but be transformed in the renewing of our minds that we may prove what is that good and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).
Too often young people express the desire to be married in the church building and thereby mistakenly think that they have a church wedding. Not so! The place where the marriage ceremony takes place is relatively unimportant. This may be in the home, a church, a school or a community hall but the wedding in all these places is only a private affair. Just as much as it is possible to have a private wedding in a church building, so it is also possible to have a church wedding in the true sense of the word in a home, a school or other building. The place does not make the wedding. It is really unimportant. Monsma and Van Dellen advise in their Church Order Commentary that “our ministers and consistories should discourage the use of our church auditoriums for private weddings” because they feel that “private marriages performed in the church building will only retard the general introduction of church weddings.” Undoubtedly there is truth in this but if church weddings are ever to regain the proper place among Reformed people, much more than this will have to be done. Parents, as well as young people, will have to realize that marriage is as much or more a matter of concern and interest to the church than it is to the state or to the relatives and friends of those being married. If we are conscious of the inseparable relation between the church and marriage in the Lord, we will want to enter that holy state in an ecclesiastical way and not do so privately while setting the church aside.
Concerning this we quote from the Church Order Commentary on page 287:
“Why is it proper that the matrimonial state be confirmed in the’ presence of Christ’s Church? Because the church has a very vital interest in marriage. Confirmation of the matrimonial state by the church implies, first of all that the church and the domain of the covenant of grace which it occupies officially sanction the marriage in question; and secondly, that the church in its special prayers specifically pleads for God’s blessing upon the marriage. The interest of the church in the marriages its members contract is just as real and vital as the interest of the relatives and of the state in these marriages. The church should therefore be recognized. The marriages of its members means much to the church because God builds His church covenantally through the seed of the church. From children to be born God continues and expands His church, and without thorough Christian homes the church is bound to wane and fail.”
Though church weddings have become an “outdated” thing and do not meet with general “popularity” in our clay, we contend that this is nevertheless the proper way for Christian young people to enter the marriage state.
What then is meant by a “church wedding”?
A church wedding is one in which the marriage is solemnized under jurisdiction and supervision of the church. The parties desiring marriage request that their marriage be solemnized in the presence of the congregation. The consistory, if it accedes to this request, arranges for an official service in which it calls the congregation together for worship and to witness the marriage. If the marriage is to take place on the Lord’s Day, this can be done during one of the regular worship services. If it is to be during the week, a special service is called. The marriage is announced in the congregation so that if there are lawful objections they may be presented to the consistory. If not the marriage takes place with the sanction or approval of the congregation. At the marriage the minister is called upon to preach the Word. Could it be that this is the element of the church wedding that is no longer desired in our day? Is it so that marriage has degenerated into carnival attractions saturated with frats and frills so that the sobriety of the Word does not mix? Have we lost the solemnity of the wedding in our foolish pursuit after fun and pleasure on the occasion? Is the real significance of marriage buried under a haze of superficial foolishness? Are we so pressed for time because we must “eat, drink and make merry” that the ceremony must not extend beyond fifteen minutes and therefore are adverse to spending an hour on this solemn occasion to consider the beauty of marriage as revealed in the Word of God? In a church wedding the center of attraction must be the Word of God. The bride and bridegroom, the attendants, the ceremony, the home that is begun and the children that we will be born through this marriage are all subservient to that Word. Marriage is in a sense a beginning and that beginning must always be in the Word of God. And no better start can we have in our marriage than that we begin by heeding the Word of God as brought to us through the office of the church.
The preaching of the Word is followed by the reading of the official form for the solemnization of marriage. The parties to the marriage speak their vows in the presence of the body of Christ and the service is concluded with the benediction of God upon His church.
Such a wedding is, as was said, under the supervision of the consistory. The consistory, whether in this special service or in a regular worship service, must maintain the order of the church in all its services for this order is based upon God’s Word. This means that many of the present day practices that are condoned in private weddings cannot be permitted in the church wedding. Perhaps this is an added reason why the church wedding has fallen more and more into disuse. But it is a sad reflection upon our generation. Yet, the fault cannot be entirely with the present generation. Over the years we have let the good traditions of the fathers slip and although the order of the church requires that “consistories shall see to it,” we have failed to maintain this order. Instead we find in the church today, where the serious and beautiful church wedding is all but gone, a deplorable situation of divorce, elopement, carnal-mindedness, and the like. The irrevocable Word of God always proves to be true: “As a man soweth, so doth he reap.”
The church wedding, a relic of antiquity, may have lost its attractiveness in this spiritually superficial and carnally minded twentieth century but none can hide from the face of God the beauty of the young man and woman who stand to speak their vows in the midst of the congregation while the Word is preached and the body of Christ breaks forth in song:
“Blest the man that fears Jehovah
Walking ever in His ways
By thy toil thou shalt be prospered
And be happy all thy days.
“In thy wife thou shalt have gladness
She shall fill thy home with good,
Happy in her loving service
And the joys of motherhood.
“Joyful children, sons and daughters,
Shall about thy table meet,
Olive plants, in strength and beauty,
Full of hope and promise sweet.
“Lo, on him that fears Jehovah
Shall this blessedness attend,
For Jehovah out of Zion
Shall to thee His blessing send.
“Thou shalt see God’s kingdom prosper
All thy days, till life shall cease,
Thou shalt see thy children’s children;
On they people, Lord, be peace.”
“O royal bride, give heed,
And to my words attend;
For Christ, the King, forsake the world
And every forever friend.”