My recent post on old school marriage has generated some questions about the biblical necessity of marriage vows. I had argued that a marriage is constituted when two elements are both present — a sexual union and a socially recognized commitment and bond (vows), which result in a particular legal status for that couple.
In order for that status to come into being, there must be a vow, or an action/set of actions that the society in question has agreed to treat as a vow. In other words, these conditions for marriage could be met without a distinct vow-making ceremony. For example, in a society that has laws that are strict with regard to common law marriage, a man could find himself married without ever saying, “I take thee . . .” Say a society says that “if you cohabit, you’re married,” then it follows that if you cohabit, you’re married. That is what that action would mean in that society. But it really has to mean that — this is a legal status, not a heart condition. Cohabitation in such a society amounts to a willingness to make those vows informally — but the couple involved is still making them.
But in well-ordered societies, in more biblical societies, we know that when it comes to sexual matters like marriage, the heart of man is “apt to study arguments” in order to make room for lust. This is why we should have, following the examples found in the Bible, various kinds of legal status with regard to marriage. The standards defining them are explicit.
For example, we have betrothal. If a seducer entices a woman who is not betrothed, his penalty is different than it would be if she were betrothed. This has to be a legal status, something that the law (and the judges applying the law) could see. When they asked the question, “was the woman betrothed?” they would have to be able to answer the question.
“And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins” (Ex. 22:16-17).
She and her father could not argue for a different penalty for her seducer because she was “betrothed in her heart.” And if her father decided to “give her unto him,” there had to be a way of telling if he had done that or not. If he did not, the seducer owed money toward her dowry (restoring something of what he had stolen, making her more marrigable). So we see that betrothal was a legal status. And so is divorce.
“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house” (Dt. 24:1).
If there is no such thing as legal title to something, then a bill requiring transfer or abandonment of that legal title would obviously be a contradiction. In biblical law, betrothal was a legal status, as was divorce.
It follows that marriage has to be the same kind of thing, and that there would have to be some sort of visible and measureable way of telling when that borderline had been crossed. This is because before that border is crossed, there are other borders, having mostly to do with her clothing, that a man must not cross. If he does cross them, he is guilty of forniciation. After that legal border is crossed, then all those restrictions are lifted.
In the same way, bastard was legal category. But that means that marriage has to be a legal category. Without legitimacy of marriage, legally recognized, legitimacy for children is an incoherent concept.
“A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD” (Dt. 23:2).
Now, different societies execute their legal instruments in different ways. Sure. You could toss a sandal, you could put your hand under your father’s thigh, you could sign a paper, you could file something at the county courthouse, you could throw a wineglass into the fireplace, I don’t really care. What matters is that the society understands and enforces the meaning of whatever action it is. Marriage is a social institution, and it must therefore be established by a mutually understood social act.
At the time of Christ, a bride was led from the house of her father to her new home with her husband. The procession was a merry one, and when they arrived at her new home, a formula was spoken–something like “take her according to the Law of Moses and of Israel.” After this, a formal legal instrument was signed, an instrument called the Kethubah. In this instrument, he promised to work for her, honor, keep and care for her. “Til death do us part” was added later by Thomas Cranmer.
The Bible does not tell us what particular formula to use in our vows. But it does teach us that marriage is created by something that has the force of a vow, and which is to be treated by society as such. And apart from the presence of such a vow, sexual privileges are denied.
If marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled (Heb. 13:4), and if God will judge whoremongers and adulterers, then this means that marriage must be socially and legally visible. There must be something other than the sexual activity which distinguishes the sexual activity which we must all honor, and the kind that God will judge. Given the nature of the case, therefore, there must be vows. The Bible doesn’t tell us what formula the vows must use, but it does require us to develop something that is suitable for the occasion. This is something which our fathers did, and which we are forgetting. We should stop that. We should renew our vows.