Still Using the Reformed Marriage Form?

Prof. Gritters is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. He and his wife Lori have been married for 37 years.

The Protestant Reformed Churches’ “Form for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church” was originally drafted and adopted by official decision to be used in all weddings. Today it is not always used in PRC weddings. When Protestant Reformed young men and women marry, some ministers modify and re-word the form; some use other forms. These ministers are not disobeying any church regulations, and this introductory paragraph is not criticism of them. But the story behind the form, and our use or non-use of it, is worth knowing if you wonder about current practices.

At the PRC’s Synod of 2000, when the Church Order was revised, the article regulating weddings (Art. 70) was changed. The old Church Order read, “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.” But consistories did not always “attend to” this. Weddings rarely took place in the presence of Christ’s church, and though the form was usually used, consistories were overseeing neither the weddings nor the use of the form. The new wording of the Church Order is significantly different, and reflects what the churches judged to be a better understanding of weddings and marriages outside the Netherlands:

The consistories shall see to it that those who marry, marry in the Lord, whether it be in a private ceremony or in an official worship service. When the solemnization of marriage takes place in an official worship service, the adopted form for that purpose shall be used.

The churches decided that weddings are not necessarily ecclesiastical, that is, do not need to be performed under the oversight of a consistory and in a service of worship. That is, some weddings may be “private ceremonies.” In those weddings the adopted form is not required. Thus, the form is sometimes modified, paraphrased, or substituted with another.

Although I was a part of that synod and voted in favor of the change, it would have been better if the churches had looked more carefully at 1) the reasoning behind the Church Order’s old requirement, 2) the history of the form, and 3) what place the church should have in the weddings of her sons and daughters.

The history of the Form for the Confirmation of Marriage

The roots of the form go all the way back to the Roman Catholic liturgy that Calvin and others with him used but modified to reflect a Reformed understanding of marriage. According to Rome, marriage was a sacrament. As a sacrament, it conferred grace and thus must be performed by the priest in worship. The Reformers rejected the idea of marriage as a sacrament and re-wrote their “Marriage Services” accordingly. Calvin wrote his form using Farel’s. Farel borrowed from the Germans, and the Dutchmen Marten Micron and Peter Dathenus borrowed heavily from all of them. Especially Dathenus (ca. 1531-1588—Dathenus knew Calvin and other first-generation Reformers) the Lord used to give to the Reformed churches in the Netherlands the liturgical forms, in much the same form that we have them today in our Psalter. Dathenus was a leader in the early Dutch Reformed churches, even presiding at the some of the earliest Dutch synods and at the earlier “convent” of Wesel in 1568. For the churches, Dathenus translated into Dutch the Heidelberg Catechism, the Genevan Psalter, and the all the liturgical forms, including the “Form for the Confirmation of Marriage.”

In 1619, about thirty years after Dathenus died, the great Synod of Dordt officially adopted these liturgical forms. Significantly, Dordt first decreed that the liturgical forms had the same authority in the churches as the Church Order and the creeds. Then Dordt mandated their use in the churches. The marriage form as well.

This is the tradition the PRC inherited when they came out of the Christian Reformed Church.

The tradition included that weddings take place in the church, in an official service overseen by the elders. You see, although the Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, they did not reject the idea that marriage was an ecclesiastical institution.1 So most Reformed churches (even Presbyterians for a time) mandated that marriages take place in the presence of the church.

The fathers believed that a marriage involved both the civil magistrate, which declared the marriage legal, and the church, which confirmed the marriage in the presence of God and His people. The Dutch fathers agreed with the reasons given by their German brothers for the church being involved: First, marriage is not man’s invention, for God gave Eve to Adam in marriage. Second, as Christians, the new couple ought to be exhorted out of God’s Word. Third, the church ought to assemble to pray for God’s blessing on the union. These are reasons worth remembering today. It is difficult to argue, on the basis of Reformed liturgical principles in the second commandment, for official church weddings. In my judgment, the Reformed practice has properly moved away from church weddings. However, it is a mistake to leave the church out of her children’s marriages. How best to do that is a good question.

And so in years gone by, when a young couple of our Dutch ancestors left the magistrate’s office where the state had declared their marriage legal, they made a beeline to the sanctuary to have the newly-made marriage confirmed before God’s church.

Possible improvements in the form

And therein lies one of the weaknesses of the form, used as is, for weddings in the PRC. It was written to confirm marriages that had already taken place legally before the magistrate. The Dutch called it huwelijksbevestiging (“marriage-confirmation”). They still do. So the form’s opening paragraph has: “…to the end that you…who desire to have your marriage bond publicly confirmed here in the name of God before this church….” Then, before the vows are recited, the minister asks, Do you desire “to be confirmed in the same?” Now it becomes clear that this language was not intended for the situation among us today, where no legal declaration has been made prior to the wedding ceremony.

In the United States and Canada, the Reformed minister serves in two capacities. He serves in a civil capacity, authorized by the government to declare a union of two to be legal according to the laws of the land. He follows the law, carefully fills out the proper paper-work, giving one copy of it to the newly-weds and returning the rest to the state in the prescribed time. But the minister also serves in the weighty capacity of servant of God and His Word. In that capacity he brings the gospel, leads the assembly in prayers for the couple, and calls them to live in harmony with God’s Word in marriage to the glory of the God who instituted marriage in the beginning.

Thus, the language of “confirming marriage” is inappropriate.

Because of the form’s origins, it also includes no declaration of marriage. I have witnessed weddings where the minister, probably naïve, never made the declaration. The officiant ought to declare, as many do, “According to the laws of the state of ____________, and the ordinances of the Church of Christ, I now pronounce you, N. and N., husband and wife.”

The form could also be reconsidered in its opening statement, so somber and dark. “Whereas married persons are generally, by reason of sin, subject to many troubles and afflictions….”2 Certainly that is true. But it was uniquely so when Marten Micron wrote this introduction with a view particularly to the persecution of Reformed Christians that was raging. So Micron was referring not only to troubles caused “generally, by reason of sin,” as the form is presently worded, but to the kruis (the “cross”) Reformed couples would bear in that day, as he originally put it. Circumstances differ today. I trust, too, that faithful pastors, in their preparation of couples for marriage, will remind them of troubles they will face for many reasons. The form could better begin, as most other Reformed forms did, with the simple and solemn preamble: “Beloved in the Lord, we are assembled here in the presence of God for the purpose of joining in marriage N. and N.”

The form’s great strengths

But those few suggested changes should not make any conclude that the form is a bad form. The form is good. It is rich. It is biblical.

In the first section, the form instructs us that because God instituted marriage, He is pleased with the married state. For that reason God’s Son honors marriage. Then the form teaches three reasons that God instituted marriage. It should not be overlooked that the first is: mutual service. The form is wise.

The second section instructs both groom and bride of their duties in marriage.

Then come the vows, preceded by a question whether the couple understands the biblical instruction just given, and a declaration that there has been no “lawful impediment.” This latter should resurrect the question and practice of announcing the banns for three weeks preceding the wedding, to give opportunity to any to show why the marriage ought not to take place. In connection with the vows, I would also suggest that no vow should be spoken without some expression of lifelong commitment of each to the other: “till death do us part,” or “as long as we both shall live.” The form’s vows do not include these important promises.

In the “closing,” the form pronounces a blessing from the “Father of all mercies,” reminds the couple “how firm the bond of marriage is” from Matthew 19, and ends with prayer and a blessing from Psalm 128.

One of the form’s great strengths is its plain-spokenness about the place of the woman in marriage. Recently I spoke to a pastor of another Reformed denomination that uses the form we have. He spoke about visitors to marriage ceremonies who sometimes rudely laugh when the form reminds the bride “how you are to carry yourself towards your husband according to the word of God.” I also have noticed more than a few times in weddings where I officiated that people, whom I thought were not listening, suddenly poked each other and either rolled their eyes or grimaced at the exhortation, “Your will shall be subject to your husband.” The form is good.

The form’s catechetical value

When the early Reformed synods adopted liturgical forms, some of these synods reminded the churches that the forms were not only to be read in public worship, but also to be memorized by the members as tools of instruction. Dordt’s Synod, remember, said that the liturgical forms had the same authority as the creeds and the Church Order. This is why we sometimes call these forms “minor confessions.” They are “minor” not because they are less weighty, but because they treat a narrow portion of biblical teaching. The forms are instructive. This form teaches the Reformed doctrine of marriage. The form can serve well, then, to catechize those who desire to be married.

Most pastors probably have a set of outlines they use to lead engaged couples in the essential doctrines of marriage and family life. Those who do not would do well to look hard at the Form for Marriage before they start. Those who already have materials would do well to supplement their outlines and assignments to include the reading and study of the whole Reformed form.

What better way to start than to remind couples of the certain assistance of God in whatever troubles they face; that the Word of God is the standard for conduct in marriage; that God instituted marriage and His Son honored it; that He will aid and protect married persons even when they are undeserving? The form includes instruction about being servants of the other, bringing up children in the fear of God, and living with a good conscience by avoiding uncleanness—how timely!

Men are taught from the form about their calling to be head of the home, to lead their wife with discretion, protect her, pray with her, even teach her. What other reminder would ministers have to exhort the aspiring husband to read, study, grow in knowledge? The men also learn from the form to work hard in their occupation and support the poor. Here is occasion for the minister (or deacons) to instruct about stewardship, budgets, and systematic giving to the church. And the young brides-to-be are taught not only to obey their husbands in all lawful things, but (if it is the Lord’s will to give them children) to “look to their family” rather than an occupation outside the home.

Not to be forgotten is the form’s reminder of how firm is the bond. “Hear now from the gospel how firm the bond of marriage is!” ought to reverberate within the walls of every Reformed wedding ceremony, especially in these evil days when marriages are so easily broken and new marriages are made while one’s spouse yet lives. Then, without embarrassment, “Whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery!” God’s own powerful warnings can be brought to the young couple as they prepare for marriage—they must express full agreement with them or the minister may not perform the ceremony. And the assembly of friends and family hear it. Where else will many of them hear it?

The old Reformed Form for Marriage. Let us not lose it.


1 The Reformers called marriage an ordinance, although they did not define ordinance as carefully as they defined sacrament.

2 In 1903, P. Beisterveld, an old Dutch Church Order authority, said, De aanhef is somber, that is, “The introduction is bleak.”

 

For further study of the Form for Confirmation of Marriage:

1. Biesterveld, P. Het Gereformeerde Kerkboek, 1903.

2. Biesterveld, P. and H.H. Kuyper, Ecclesiastical Manual, Including the Decisions of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Churches. Translated by R. DeRidder. Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982.

3. Maxwell, William. John Knox’s Genevan Service Book 1556: The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book used by John Knox While a Minister of the English Congregation of Marian Exiles at Geneva, 1556-1559. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1931.

4. Meeter, Daniel. The North American Liturgy: A Critical Edition of the Liturgy of the Reformed Dutch Church in North America, 1793. Madison, NJ: Drew University Dissertation, 1989.