Wedding As Adornment

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Dear Darla,

I hear from Nancy via your mother that Trent has proposed, and that you have accepted. So good job, everybody. Now we’re talking.

If you will permit me just one more short letter, allow me to tie this happy thing off with just a few surrounding observations. In all the happiness and excitement of getting ready for marriage, and with all the planning for the wedding, it is sometimes easy to forget which is the gift and which is the altar. Here is what I mean.

Let me begin by defining what it is that constitutes a marriage. What is it that causes a marriage to come into existence? There are two elements, and neither one is necessarily what we would call ceremonial. Those two elements are, first, the covenant that is struck, in a manner recognized by the society in which the marriage is happening, and the second element is the sexual consummation. When both these conditions have been met, then you have a marriage, and if only one of them has, then you do not yet have a marriage. If covenant vows are taken, but there is no consummation, then it is not a marriage. If sex has occurred, but no covenant, then there is no marriage.

So first a note about what it means to be societally recognized. It is not just a matter of promising—it has to be a covenant promise, and it needs to be publicly binding. If a young man gets his girlfriend into the back seat of a car by promising to love her “forever and a day,” that is not a covenant. He is trying to get around his social obligations, and is not contracting social obligations. He is making and breaking a personal promise, but it does not have the force of a covenant. In different societies there might be different performative rites that mean the covenant is made—exchanging rings is what we usually do—but the thing that matters is that the covenant commitment is made and everybody knows about it.

Now if a couple get married by a justice of the peace, and the “ceremony” is conducted over a formica counter top at the county courthouse, it is a ceremony with no frills, right? But the society recognizes it, and a couple married in that way have identical obligations before the law as a couple who got married in a cathedral, with the bride entering on the back of an elephant to Ravel’s Bolero. The ceremonial aspects do not create the covenantal obligations, but rather (when done right) simply respect and honor and adorn those obligations. And this kind of honor is commanded in Scripture.

“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous”

Hebrews 13:4) (KJV)

When we have a nice church wedding, and we all gather for it, we are honoring marriage. We are making a big deal out of it. But as the honor becomes more and more ornate, it creates at least the temptation for us to forget what it is we are actually doing. This is what is happening (in extreme forms) when the wedding prep makes absolutely everyone miserable because the bride has become bridezilla. Instead of the wedding adorning the marriage, the wedding has taken on a life of its own, and it is kind of a ceremonial mutant. This is what I meant by comparing it to the Lord’s jab about the gold and the temple, or the gift and the altar. Everything is twisted backwards.

It is the marriage that makes the wedding important, not the wedding that makes the marriage important. The exchange of covenant vows starts the process of forming the marriage, which will be completed later that evening at the hotel. This means that the wedding is the doorway into the marriage. The various ceremonies we have are decorations of that door—like a Christmas wreath on your door during Advent. They do not create or frame the door, but rather simply adorn it.

The old hymn The Sands of Time are Sinking refers to this truth:

The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory
But on my King of grace.

Your task is to focus on Trent, and do not in any way sacrifice your relationship to him, or to anyone else either, for the sake of the decorated doorway. You want the ceremony to be a true adornment of your marriage, and not some third thing that enters into some kind of weird competition with your marriage.

And this brings us to the second element that constitutes a marriage, which is the sexual consummation. In my experience talking about this, this is something that a good many tender-hearted Christians struggle with. They think it is endearing and sweet when a quadriplegic “marries” his high school sweetheart, regardless of the accident rendered him incapable of consummating the marriage. To be clear, I have no objection to such arrangements—I just don’t want to call it a marriage. Marriage is a one-flesh union, sealed with a covenant. That is what it is.

This is why the category of annulment is needed, as something distinct from divorce. Say a couple get married, and for whatever reason the union is no consummated. Say that the bride has an emotional melt down, and refuses. Or say that the groom is unable to perform. A couple in such straits should seek out marital counseling immediately, and they they should work through their issues until their union is successfully consummated. Great, happy ending. But if it is not resolved, their marital union should be annulled, not dissolved. It is not there to be dissolved. The scriptural criteria for lawful divorce don’t apply. It is not the same thing.

It is good for you and your mother to adorn the marriage with a ceremony that honors this reality, but we must never forget that the sexual act is just about the most unceremonious thing in the world. And so, sometimes young Christian women are distracted by the ceremonial honor, and then can be somewhat startled when the whole thing turns overtly sexual.

But this is what marriage is. It is a covenant that surrounds and binds a sexual relationship. Now I am not saying that marriages are kept together by sex and sex alone. No, of course not. Hollywood is crammed full of sexy people who can’t for the life of them stay married to each other. Compare all of this to a meal. Scripture tells us that it is better to have thin carrot soup with harmony than to have feasting with strife (Prov. 17:1). But we should at least be able to agree that there needs to be food of some sort on the table. That is what a meal is.

We look forward to getting your invitation. It will be great seeing you all again, and I look forward to meeting Trent.

Your uncle,