Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

Since it is proper that the matrimonial state be confirmed in the presence of Christ’s church, according to the form for that purpose, the consistories shall attend to it. 

Church Order, Article 70.

Historical Background

Article 70 concerns the “confirmation” of marriage. The language of the article reflects the Dutch scene in the nineteenth century. Early in the century the Dutch government had assumed the responsibility for performing marriage ceremonies, as the church had urged it to do at the synods of Emden (1586) and Dordrecht (1618-’19). Thus the government solemnized marriages and the church confirmed marriages. Those whose marriages were confirmed by the church had already actually been married by the state. This is usually not the case any longer today. Today the minister functions not only in an ecclesiastical capacity, but also in the civil capacity, being authorized by the state to perform marriages. In our situation, the solemnization and confirmation of the marriage take place at the same time, during the wedding ceremony.

Because the article in its present form reflects the situation that once prevailed in the Netherlands, it would be good for our churches to revise Article 70. In fact, this is one of the articles mentioned in the overture to revise the Church Order that was considered by the 1999 synod and placed in the hands of a special study committee. Very likely a revision of the article will be proposed by the study committee to the synod of 2000.

Other Reformed churches have revised Article 70. The Canadian Reformed Churches have changed the article to read:

The consistory shall ensure that the members of the congregation marry only in the Lord, and that the ministers — as authorized by the consistory — solemnize only such marriages as are in accordance with the Word of God. The solemnization of a marriage may take place either in a private ceremony or in a public worship service. The adopted Form for the Solemnization of Marriage shall be used.

The revision of the Free Reformed Church is:

Consistories shall instruct and admonish those under their spiritual care to marry in the Lord.

70A. Christian marriage should be solemnized with appropriate admonitions, promises and prayers. Marriages may be solemnized either in a worship service or in private gatherings of relatives and friends.

70B. Ministers shall not solemnize marriages which would be in conflict with the Word of God.

Church Weddings?

Article 70 speaks of “… the matrimonial state be(ing) confirmed in the presence of Christ’s church….” Strictly speaking, the article is referring to a church wedding, that is, a wedding that is solemnized during an official worship service, not simply a wedding that takes place in a church building or to which the members of the church are invited. The marriage would take place during one of the Sunday worship services. There would be nothing out of the ordinary, except that the Marriage Form would be read and the marriage solemnized. The service would be a special service only in the way in which confession of faith is a special service. There would be no candles, special music, soloists, or other of the trappings that have become so much a part of weddings today. This type of church wedding hardly ever takes place any longer.

Our churches have recognized various types of marriage ceremonies. A uniform practice has not been followed. Included would be the following:

1)Marriages performed in a Sunday worship service under the supervision of the consistory. This is what is referred to in Article 70.

2)Marriages performed in a special weekday worship service under the supervision of a consistory.

3)Marriages performed in private ceremonies, but by a minister. This is the most common type of marriage ceremony among our people today.

4)Marriages performed exclusively by a civil magistrate.

It is plain that the Reformed churches have always recognized the mutual role of the civil government and the church in the solemnization of marriage.

Marriage is the foundation of the social life of the nation. The government has a real and rightful interest in the institution of marriage. The presiding minister, therefore, functions as a representative of the state. In some states, the minister must be registered so that he may lawfully perform marriage ceremonies. There is paper work to fill out, a signature to be given, and marriage licenses to be filed with the county clerk’s office.

But marriage is also the foundation of the church and the covenant of God, which is continued in the line of the generations of believers. The church has a vital interest in the marriages of her members. This is the reason that the church has always frowned upon elopement. A couple who elopes and is married by a civil magistrate only is indeed considered lawfully married. Article 70 says that it is “proper” that marriages be confirmed in the church, not that this is absolutely necessary. But elopement is not the ideal. Couples who marry ought to seek the approval and involvement of the church in their wedding. And pastors and consistories ought to encourage this in the young people who are of marrying age.

This is not to say that the official church wedding that Article 70 has in mind ought to be promoted — marriage during a Sunday worship service. I know that there are those who are of this opinion. I am not. I confess that I am personally not in favor of official church weddings.

Let me give my reasons.

First, I believe that a wedding is, strictly speaking, a family and not an ecclesiastical matter. In this respect (hopefully only in this respect) a wedding is like a funeral. Neither of them belongs to the official work of the church. For this reason I am in favor of the prevailing practice among our people today, that weddings are private affairs, although conducted in our church buildings.

Second, I believe that a wedding is a bit of an intrusion into the order and content of a Sunday worship service. Especially is that the case with weddings in our day. This, I think, is one of the reasons why those who do have “church weddings” often have them on a weekday. They themselves sense that a church wedding on Sunday is a distraction from the normal routine of worship.

To couples who might want a church wedding today according to Article 70, I would say, “That’s fine, but then the wedding ought to be on a Sunday; there ought to be no candles, flowers, or other decorations that otherwise would not adorn the sanctuary; the usual order of worship ought to followed; and the songs should be Psalter numbers.” That is adherence to Article 70.

Who May Be Married?

That a couple is able to produce a bona fide marriage license does not necessarily mean that the Reformed minister may marry them. The fundamental principle that Christian marriage is the marriage of fellow believers is implied in Article 70. When the article states that marriage is to “… be confirmed in the presence of Christ’s church…,” it is implied that the two being married are themselves members of Christ’s church. Ministers and consistories must see to it that they who marry, marry in the Lord, as the apostle requires in I Corinthians 7:39. They must never be party to an unequal yoking together of a believer with an unbeliever or of two unbelievers (II Cor. 6:14-16).

Just as no minister may confirm the marriage of unbelievers, neither may he officiate at the wedding of one who has been excommunicated from the church or is under church discipline. The excommunicated member has been put out of the church. He or she is an unbeliever — not necessarily a reprobate, but an unbeliever. One who is under one of the steps of Christian censure is in the process of being excommunicated. That must be rectified before the marriage may take place.

Neither may our ministers ever officiate at a wedding in which one or both of the parties are previously divorced. Scripture forbids all remarriage of divorced persons. Such a union is an unbiblical union. Neither ought our people to attend weddings, even of close relatives, in which one or both of the parties are previously divorced. To attend a wedding is to give one’s approval to the union. It is to witness to and to extend your blessing on the marriage. That may never be done in the case of the remarriage of those who are divorced.

Does this mean that our ministers may officiate only at weddings of Protestant Reformed couples, or of those who have expressed their intention to join our churches. Not necessarily. The biblical rule is that they must be believers.

A minister may officiate at the wedding of a couple who are not members of our churches or of our sister churches. In that case, he will have met with them and urged upon them the serious consideration of their calling to be members of a true church of Christ in the world.

A minister may officiate at the wedding of a couple, one or both of whom are members of our churches, but who intend to leave for another church, perhaps another Reformed church. In that case, he will have met with them and admonished them for the sin of leaving a true church of Jesus Christ. It is not necessarily forbidden our ministers to officiate at these weddings.

But in these cases, as well as in others that may arise, it is advisable that a minister seek the counsel, and even the formal approval, of his consistory before he agrees to perform the wedding ceremony. This aspect of the minister’s labor too is under the supervision of the elders. And the ministers ought to see the wisdom of the supervision of the elders in this most important matter of Christian marriage.

As far as the degrees of consanguinity which prohibit marriage are concerned, the church follows the standards that are set by the civil authorities. The law of the land forbids the marriage of close relatives. Such laws date back fundamentally to the Lord’s commands to Israel in Leviticus 18 and 20. In our country these laws vary from state to state. For example, some states allow, while others prohibit, the marriage of first cousins. The ministers must have some familiarity with these laws so as to avoid unintentionally breaking them.

The synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, ruled that the marriage of an unbaptized person was not to be confirmed. The synod responded to a specific question that had been put to it:

Question: Whether a baptized person may marry one who is unbaptized. Answer: This is not advisable, since the unbaptized person by rejection of baptism cannot be reckoned in God’s covenant, and also such a marriage subjects the congregation to great slander.

In addition, in the Post-Acta of the synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, the following decision was taken.

Marriages of those who are not yet incorporated into the Christian church by baptism may not be solemnized in the churches with the customary public and solemn blessing before they have been baptized.

The church approves only of the marriages of believers. A true believer is a member of the church. But membership in the church is by way of baptism. Only such as are baptized, therefore, may also be married.

Should those who marry be confessing members of the church, or may those who are members only by baptism also be married? Those who are members only by baptism may be married. Nevertheless, the ideal is that they who marry have made public confession of their faith. The reason is plain. If one can assume the vows of husband or wife, one can assume the vows of public confession of faith. One who is unable to assume the vows of public confession of faith is in no position to assume the vows of Christian marriage.

Consent of Parents

Before a minister agrees to perform a marriage ceremony, he must be sure that the parents of the couple approve of their union, or at least that they have no legitimate objections to the marriage. Consent of the parents is to be obtained. The early Reformed synods stressed the importance of this. The synod of Emden, 1571, ruled:

No one who is still under the authority of his parents, or of those who are in the place of the parents, shall marry without their approval.

The synod of Dordrecht, 1574, expressed the same sentiment:

No one shall be declared eligible for marriage until he first present proof of parental consent, and (in case of previous marriage) proof of the death of the first party.

Our Form for the Confirmation of Marriage refers to parental consent when it says,

For, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and every woman her own husband; insomuch that all, who are come to their years, and have not the gift of continence, are bound by the command of God, to enter into the marriage state, with knowledge and consent of parents, or guardians and friends….

Young couples who marry must secure the consent of their parents. It is altogether proper that a young man ask the approval of the father of the young lady he wishes to marry before they become engaged. At our weddings, it is traditional that the father of the bride walk her down the isle and give her away. At that time the minister asks, “Who gives this young woman to this man in marriage?” The usual answer is, “Her mother and I.” It is entirely appropriate that at this time the question also be asked, “Who permits this young man to take this woman in marriage?” — to which the bridegroom’s father would respond, “His mother and I.” In this way the approval of both sets of parents can be publicly attested.

One last item — use of the Form. Article 70 requires the use of the Form for the Confirmation of Marriage. Strictly speaking, the article requires the use of the Form only in the case of official church weddings. Nevertheless, use of the Form is to be encouraged in all our weddings. It is, after all, the time-honored Reformed form for marriage. Our ministers ought routinely to use it, and not substitute other forms. Often the reason given for the substitution of another form is dissatisfaction with the “gloomy” beginning of the Form. But that beginning is a good beginning for so solemn an occasion as a marriage ceremony. And the Form is very explicitly biblical in its setting forth of the institution of marriage by God, the reasons for marriage, the duties of married persons, and the forbidding of divorce. In a day in which many, even in the Reformed church world, hold God’s institution of marriage in contempt, the Reformed form for marriage is a good antidote. Let it be the form of choice at Protestant Reformed weddings.