Imagine you’re watching the next presidential inauguration and it’s time for the elected person to take the vows of office. But instead of hearing what Americans have for centuries, the person in charge of the event explains that because the president loves America so much and wants a special, personal relationship with the country, he has written his own vows, and that’s what they will use to swear him in.
Comfortable? I hope not. Those vows exist for a reason – to protect both country and president. They were designed as a solemn pledge that is binding. They contain the words that were carefully thought out and specifically chosen by wise men and confirmed as good and right by decade after decade of usefulness. A president who is “sworn in” by saying, “I love this country from the bottom of my heart; it makes me want to be a better person, and I’m just going to do the best job I can in the Oval Office,” ought to be immediately suspect because he’s not really vowing anything, let alone anything useful.
But Christians increasingly write their own vows for marriage, which binds them together for life in a picture of Christ and the church. This goes far beyond a four year political arrangement. In writing their own vows, couples throw away centuries of biblical wisdom. They think they are being more personal, genuine, or original by writing their own vows when they are actually being anything from naieve to rebellious. Christian couples are redefining marriage by what they vow and how they live it out instead of proclaiming the biblical truth about marriage. This proclamation is done partly as the couple takes the traditional marriage vows, and partly as God enables them to hold to them for life. Having warm feelings and not committing adultery is not enough.
Below are portions of the wedding service first from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and second from the 1556 Genevan Book of Order. The original copies contain references to passages in Scripture which explain the existence of each aspect. Notice that in each set of vows, the emphasis has remarkably little to do with the couple’s love. Both begin with a personal examination of conscience. The Genevan moves on to a corporate approval of the marriage’s morality which the BCP did not need, as having the banns read accomplishes the same purpose prior to the wedding ceremony. Both services differentiate between the husband’s and the wife’s role and responsibilities – headship and submission are part of the promise. Both sets of vows also point to eternity. Marriage is lifelong, but there is something beyond this life, an how you live as husband and wife impacts the judgement which you will receive.
If you are getting married this summer or know someone who is, encourage them to use vows which are biblical, deep, and careful. These are vows which protect husbands and wives from their own and each other’s sin. They protect the community by affirming the serious state that marriage is in – something not to be taken lightly. They build up the church by creating accountability for the couple to the witnesses of these comprehensive covenants, made with “my whole heart and mind”. And they honour the Lord by stressing that He created marriage as a gift to man which we must carefully guard and treasure. They go far beyond the couple to the God who created them and who will sit in judgement on them as their Maker, Lawgiver, and Saviour.
While we cannot keep these vows on our own, God graciously enables us to do so, bringing us tremendous blessing and happiness. To the believer, these vows are no burden, but a joy and a source of great strength. Because these vows are richly biblical, a marriage which reflects them is one that actually mirrors Christ’s relationship with His church:
“I require and charge you (as you will answer at the dreadful day of judgement, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed) that if either of you do know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, that ye confess it. For be ye well assured, that so many as be coupled together otherwise then God’s word doth allow: are not joined of God, neither is their matrimony lawful.
Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other keep thee only to her, so long as you both shall live?”
“I N. take thee N. to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love and to cherish, til death us depart: according to God’s holy ordinance: And therto I plight thee my troth.
With this ring I thee wed: This gold and silver I thee give: with my body I thee worship (honour): and with all my worldly goods I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” [Book of Common Prayer]
“I require and charge you, as you will answer at the day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you do know any impediment why you may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, that you confess it; for be you well assured, that so many as are coupled otherwise than God’s word does allow, are not joined together by God; neither is their matrimony lawful.
I take you to witness that are here present, beseeching you all to have good remembrance hereof; and moreover, if there be any of you which knows that either of these parties is contracted to any other, or knows any other lawful impedement, let them now make declaration thereof.
Forasmuch as no man speaks against this thing, you, N., shall protest here before God and his holy congregation, that you have taken, and are now contended to have N., here present, for your lawful wife and spouse; promising to keep her, to love and treat her in all things according to the duty of a faithful husband, forsaking all others during her life; and briefly, to live in a holy conversation with her, keeping faith and truth in all points, according as the word of God and his holy gospel do command.”
“Even so I take her before God, and in presence of this his congregation.”
“You, N., shall protest here before the face of God, in the presence of this holy congregation, that you have taken, and are now contented to have, N., here present, for your lawful husband; promising to him subjection and obedience, forsaking all others during his life; and finally, to live in a holy conversation with him, keeping faith and truth in all points, as God’s word does prescribe.”
“Even so I take him before God, and in the presence of this his congregation.”
The minister then says: “Give diligent care to the [words of the] gospel, that you may understand how our Lord would have this holy contract kept and observed; and how sure and fast a knot it is, which may in no wise be loosed, according as we are taught in the 19th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel: ‘The Pharisees came unto Christ to tempt him and to grope his mind, saying, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every light cause? He answered, saying, Have ye not read, that He which created man at the beginning, made them male and female? saying, For this thing shall man leave father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh; so that they are no more two, but are one flesh. Let no man therefore put asunder that which God hath coupled together.’
If you believe assuredly these words which our Lord and Saviour did speak (according as you have heard them now rehearsed out of the holy gospel), then may you be certain, that God has even so knit you together in this holy state of wedlock. Wherefore apply yourselves to live a chaste and holy life together, in godly love, in Christian peace, and good example; ever holding fast the band of charity without any breach, keeping faith and truth the one to the other, even as God’s word does appoint.” [Genevan Book of Order]