Ignorance Is Not Bliss
Over the years, it has become my custom early in a marriage counseling case to ask the couple, “Could you please tell me what occurred as you stood before the pastor, the judge, or the Justice of Peace on your wedding day?” The couple thinks if they do not say it, “Why would you ask this question when the obvious answer is, “We got married!” My response is, “yes, I think we all know that, but I want to know, what occurred when that person walked you through the ceremony?” To this clarified question, all too often, the answer is a blank stare or the role of the eyes as they turn to each other. Here is the conclusion. Even Evangelic Christians are ignorant of this vital knowledge. That ignorance leads to undervaluing the marital relationship.
So, what is it that you did and/or will do on the wedding day? Let me walk you through the ceremony as I do my counselees.
Vow, Covenant One
There are three vows exchanged on that day. The first vow has become most often referred to as the vow of intent and looked upon as simply a public declaration of the couple to take each as husband and wife. That is a feeble view of this vow and therefore does not provide much foundation for what is to follow. In yesteryear, the day when a person’s word was their bond, it may have been a bit better, but yet, rather like saying, “I swear with my hand on myself that I will….”
No, this first vow is a vow made directly to God. When I officiate at a wedding, I ask this first question in this manner. “Will you, Howard, covenant with God to take this woman, Pamela, to be your lawfully wedded wife?” Upon the appropriate reply, “Pamela, will you covenant with God to take this man, Howard, to be your lawfully wedded husband?” In this understanding, there was much more going on here than a human pledge or state-sanctioned contract when Pam and I made our vows when her Pastor asked those questions. A covenant is a contract in which God prescribes the parameters. Those parameters here are one man and one woman united into one to live out the parameters of the relationship.
Two more comments here. First, I will have walked this couple carefully through this understanding in premarital counseling. Second, I will inform them that I will use the occasion of their making this covenant with God and occasion to instruct the congregation to capture the opportunity to educate others on what they have done, whether they were aware of it or not. Therefore, at this juncture in the ceremony, I do just that.
Vow, Covenant Two
In the ceremony, we now move to the second covenantal vow. It is customary to have the couple face one another at this point. This is both symbolic and practical. They are speaking to each other and making these vows to each other. Upon the prior, they faced the officiating individual because he represented God. It is symbolic because it means their ongoing practice of intimate communication in which they will share their hearts, their innermost thoughts, with each other. I am often asked (sometimes told), “We desire to write our vows.” My response is, “That would be fine; here are the must-have components, and I must see them in advance. Why the must haves? Because it is in these vows that the couple exchanges the structure of the parameters of God’s prescription of the content of the marriage covenant are expressed. The minimum that must be expressed is faithfulness, love, leadership by the husband, and followership of the wife for as long as we both shall live.
Vow Covenant Three
God does not prescribe the third covenant the couple will make in form. The giving and exchange of rings, however, is our cultural representation of the promise to keep ourselves wholly for one another. We follow God’s modeling in that He gave us the indwelling Holy Spirit as His pledge to us. When I officiate, I will slip off my right and hold it up to introduce the ceremony of exchanging rings and explain that in wearing the ring, each is saying to the watching world, “Don’t mess with me; I am taken!”
All this covenant-making is interspersed with prayer, homily, and humorous laughter, depending upon the personalities. It is appropriate, remember, the first miracle of Jesus took place at a wedding at Cana, where he provided the unnecessary to ensure the celebratory joy with the newlyweds. God intends for us to enjoy life in this fallen world, and a marriage in which the couple understands these vows is a marriage that will enhance joy while pleasing the Father.
Practical Implications of the Vows
I have several handouts in premarital counseling that pack the vow-taking with biblical explanation and content. I desire that each couple will have grasped the solemnness of the content of the ceremony. That they will never be without a pregnant answer when someone asks, “What occurred in your wedding ceremony?” Even more importantly, when life’s inevitable struggles or temptations occur, understanding these vows will provide “a way of escape” (I Cor 10:1-13). A good understanding of these wows can serve as an inward restraint when one or the other finds themselves thrown into a situation where someone of the opposite sex stirs their attraction, cutting it off at the proverbial pass.