Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament Studies in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. He and Rhonda have been married for 41 years.
It was the most unforgettable day of our lives, up to that point. The reason was not that it was the hottest day of July in decades—although it was sweltering! No air conditioning back in that day either. It was not a very nice day to be sitting in church for a wedding. But that did not matter to us because we were getting married! After more than three years, innumerable dates, hours and hours of planning—mostly by her, of course—in the company of all our friends and family, we were at long last getting married! And ever since that July day, we have annually celebrated its memory. More than once we have listened to the cassette tape recording of the wedding ceremony. That’s right, the cassette tape recording—no video capabilities back then.
It was the ceremony that we remember most vividly. At the heart of that ceremony was the Reformed “Form for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church.” It was a ceremony that included a fitting message based on an appropriate passage of Holy Scripture, in this case. In the midst of the ceremony were the vows that we spoke to each other—and before God, as the minister reminded us. It was a ceremony near the conclusion of which the minister said something like, “According to the laws of the state of Michigan and by the authority invested in me by the church of Jesus Christ, I now pronounce you husband and wife, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Truly, I get goose bumps just remembering that moment. It was a ceremony that ended, after a concluding prayer, with the minister introducing us to the congregants by saying, “It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Cammenga.” Indeed, what a day that was!
That is the kind of memorable day that every Christian wedding should be. That is the kind of joyful celebration that ought to characterize the wedding ceremony of all those who marry in the Lord. And that is the kind of memorable day that the wedding day ought to be for all who save themselves for each other and for that day, in obedience to the command of Christ. And thus our earthly wedding days can prefigure the glorious day of Christ’s second coming, when, according to Scripture, He will come for His bride in order to take her as His wife and consummate their marriage. What a day, glorious day, that will be!
A “Church Wedding”?
In the history of the Reformed church there have been those who advocated official church weddings. Strictly speaking, a church wedding is not merely a wedding that takes place in a church building at which a minister officiates, and attended by the members of the church. Rather, a church wedding is a wedding that takes place during an official church worship service. Strictly speaking, a church wedding takes place on Sunday, during the regular public worship service and under the supervision of the consistory. There may be no candles, no flowers, no special music, no soloists, and none of the trappings that have become so much a part of weddings today. Much of this would be for the good. During the course of the church service, very likely after the sermon, the wedding takes place, with the reading of the form and the speaking of the vows, much like the administration of the sacraments. This is a church wedding, in the true sense of the word.
We confess that we are not strongly in favor of “church weddings.” Allow us to give our reasons.
First, we believe that a wedding is, strictly speaking, a family affair and not an ecclesiastical matter—much like a funeral. But neither a wedding nor a funeral belong to the official work of the church. For this reason, we are in favor of the prevailing practice among the members of our churches today, that weddings are not conducted as official church weddings.
Second, we believe that a wedding is a bit of an intrusion into the order and content of a “normal” Sunday worship service. Especially is that the case with weddings in our day. This, we think, is one of the reasons why those who do have church weddings often have them on a weekday, rather than on Sunday. There is the sense that a church wedding on Sunday is a distraction from the normal routine of public worship as ordained by God.
Our public worship services consist of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. There is no biblical example that we are aware of that incorporates a marriage ceremony into the public, corporate worship of the church. For these reasons we favor the wedding practice that is prevalent in our churches today, rather than an official church wedding.
Use of the Form
If a wedding ceremony is not an official church wedding, the use of the “Form for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church” is not required. Nevertheless, because of the beauty of this form and its solid doctrinal content, the use of the form ought to be encouraged among our young people. The form has so much to commend itself. And it is also the case that the form is an outstanding witness to non-Protestant Reformed folk who attend our weddings.
But then, the ministers ought to let the form speak for itself. We ought not make all kinds of changes, introduce our own wording, our own edited version of the form. Let the form stand and let it shine in all its own natural beauty.
And that includes its beginning. In our humble opinion—I have colleagues who disagree, and that is fine—we very much appreciate the way in which the form begins. It is realistic. It is honest. It is true to life at a time when couples tend to look at marriage through the proverbial rose-tinted glasses: “Whereas married persons are generally, by reason of sin, subject to many troubles and afflictions….” We are convinced that our fathers knew what they were doing when they began the form this way.
And that is another good reason for using the form, and using it as it is written. The form ensures that the wedding ceremony is a solemn ceremony. A wedding is a joyful occasion, to be sure, and God’s people ought to rejoice and celebrate on such an occasion. But for all that, this joyful occasion is also a very solemn occasion. Two people, a man and a woman, are being united in the most intimate earthly relationship—and for the rest of their lives. Use of the form serves to call attention to the solemnity of this ceremony. Because it is a solemn occasion, ministers ought not to introduce undue levity into the wedding ceremony. Read the form, and let it speak to the two who are getting married, as well as to those who are witnessing their union.
Various Details of the Ceremony
As far as the ceremony itself is concerned, we counsel the young people and their parents not to make the wedding ceremony unnecessarily extravagant. We must not be motivated by the desire to impress others. Good stewardship enters in. Also in our wedding ceremonies we ought to be concerned for a wise use of the resources that God has entrusted to us. For parents or young couples to go into debt because of a costly wedding ceremony is not pleasing to the Lord. Besides, there is beauty in simplicity. Some of the most beautiful ceremonies in which we have participated were very simply done.
Weddings vary in the number of attendants standing up for bride and groom. That often depends on the number of family members in their respective families. Often the desire is to get as many of the immediate family involved as possible. One thing that we discourage is small children standing up for the duration of the ceremony. Have them walk down the aisle; have them part of the wedding party until the wedding party mounts the platform. But then consider having them sit down. It too often happens that they become fidgety and thus detract from the ceremony. That should not happen and should be discouraged.
A word about dress is in order, especially the dresses of the bridesmaids. We express a concern over less-than-modest dresses worn by the bridesmaids at some of the weddings we have attended in recent years. To be blunt, there has been way too much skin showing on the bride’s attendants. Couples ought to be concerned about this and the witness that it leaves with those who attend. A reminder of this from the minister when he meets with the couple for pre-marital counseling is in order. In a good sense, the beauty of the bride and her attendants may properly be on display at the wedding. Christ’s bride is a beautiful bride and will appear in all her beauty when He comes for her at the end of the ages. But beauty is never at the expense of modesty.
The minister should see to it that the couple submits their wedding ceremony to him so that he can be sure that there is nothing objectionable in the ceremony. He should pay special attention to the music, both what is played for the various processionals, and what is sung by any vocalists or audiences.
At the very beginning of the ceremony, it is customary for the minister to put the question to the parents of the bride, “Who gives this woman to this man in marriage?” Her father then responds on their behalf, “Her mother and I.” That is altogether fitting, in our judgment. Parental approval and blessing on the marriage is an important part of a Reformed wedding. The Reformed wedding is covenantal. For that reason we would recommend that couples consider having the minister put the similar question to the parents of the groom, “Who permits this young man to take this woman in marriage?” anticipating the same response, “His mother and I.” Parental approval and blessing in the case of the groom is just as important as in the case of the bride.
Of great importance are the vows that are spoken—occasionally memorized—by bride and groom. Most ministers will have a number of sets of vows from which the couple can choose. Sometimes they combine parts of different vows, and sometimes they write out their own vows. What is essential in the vows is the promise before God and to each other to remain faithful until death, or as long as they both shall live. The Reformed minister ought to insist that this is included in the vows, or refuse to allow the use of the desired vows. We have heard vows that included the promise to remain faithful to each other “so long as our love shall last.” So long as their love lasts—that is a recipe for certain disaster! It often happens on account of the fact that “married persons are generally, by reason of sin, subject to many troubles and afflictions,” that love cools. Sadly, it may even come to it that husband and wife “fall out of love.” No matter; by virtue of their marriage and God’s will that marriage is for life, they are called to remain faithful to each other. They may not divorce! The vows spoken at the time of the wedding must commit husband and wife to each other “so long as they both shall live.”
Usually the couple chooses the text on which the officiating minister gives a brief meditation—twenty minutes or so. Most ministers have a list of texts from which couples can choose. If nothing else, the list can give them some ideas. Frankly, we enjoy hearing a message on a new and different text, out of the ordinary and the expected. It is almost always possible to make an application of a text to the specific situation of marriage. Couples should be encouraged to come up with something unique for their wedding text.
There is always room for a personal touch in a wedding ceremony—something that sets your wedding apart and makes it memorable for those who attend. In our wedding, my wife recitedto me immediately after we lit the unity candle. When it came to the end of the concluding prayer in the form, we took over from the minister and recited the Lord’s Prayer together. And there are all kinds of other possibilities. I collected wedding programs and always gave the engaged couple a packet that included a handful of these programs. Comparing them often gave the couple ideas for their own wedding ceremony. There are also a number of worthwhile books designed to assist in wedding planning. One that I regularly lend to couples is The Christian Wedding Planner, by Ruth Muzzy and R. Kent Hughes. But in the essentials, our wedding ceremonies must be fundamentally the same. We must strive to be distinctively Reformed. We must be Reformed not only in our doctrine of marriage, but also in our marriage ceremonies.