What Happened to Wedding Vows?
If you've attended many recent weddings, you've likely heard brides and grooms exchange promises that deviate from the traditional vows taken from the Book of Common Prayer.
More and more couples alter the traditional lines or write their own —going along with the Pinterest-fueled movement to personalize nearly every element of the wedding day. They'll stand before witnesses to pledge things like:
"I will always peel your clementines."
"I promise to support your coffee habit."
"I vow to be on time."
As I researched marriage trends for A Christ-Centered Wedding—the book I co-wrote with my mom, Linda—I noticed a strong desire among today's brides and grooms-to-be to express themselves uniquely, to include inside jokes and specific references throughout.
Some churches, though, resist their efforts, requiring traditional vows to preserve the sanctity of the ceremony. When couples are excited about the fun and fanfare of their wedding day, these kinds of rules can seem overly rigid. But when we consider the long-term significance of those solemn words, it makes sense.
Even those outside the church recognize the correlation between vows and our understanding of marriage. More than light-hearted statements on deferring to one another's preferences, vows are the cornerstone of a wedding ceremony—the promises that bind together the bride and groom.
At my college reunion, I met up with friends whose weddings I had witnessed and whose marriages I had followed. Seeing them several years into their marriages, I recognized how they'd already lived their vows.
I looked in the eyes of those who had rejoiced "for better" and ached "for worse." I saw the disease of "in sickness" and the gracious healing of "in health." I laughed with those who were walking through "poorer" times, and benefited from the generosity of those now "richer." These people—my people—were testimonies that the grace of God had enabled them to keep their vows through disease, infertility, death, uncertainty, familial strife, loss of jobs, suffering in gospel ministry, and countless other challenges.
The vow to peel one another's clementines would not have been enough to guide a couple through these intense sorrows. But a promise "to have and to hold," "to love and to cherish," no matter the outcome, until death—that means something. A promise to be faithful to a covenant, by the grace of God—this is the language we can recall and rejoice in when the unexpected blows us away. This is the language that reflects the faithfulness and love of our great God and Savior.
We learn how to make and keep vows by looking at God. In Ezekiel 16:8, God says to Israel, "When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine." We know from God's very character and nature that he is a covenant-keeping, vow-honoring God. Even in relationship with an unfaithful bride, he keeps his promises.
The reason some churches use standard vows is not to restrict couples. Rather, it is to submit to the joyful commonality of marriage itself. When we make our vows to one another, and the vows are the same ones couples have committed themselves to for hundreds of years, we are joining an ages-old fraternity. We are submitting ourselves to God's design for marriage, rather than redefining it in our own terms.
On the other hand, simply reciting the same words we've heard over and over again in weddings has the potential to create complacency. These vows, the words of which were a battleground for the reformers, become stagnant statements if we don't own them for ourselves. For this reason, some pastors require couples to write their own vows, thereby encouraging them to think long about the meaning of their commitment.
In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller wrote on the unique purpose of wedding vows, saying:
Wedding vows are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love. A wedding should not be primarily a celebration of how loving you feel now—that can be safely assumed. Rather, in a wedding you stand up before God, your family, and all the main institutions of society, and you promise to be loving, faithful, and true to the other person in the future, regardless of undulating internal feelings or external circumstances.
But anyone ever touched by divorce (which, sadly, is probably the vast majority of us), knows that just saying words—any words—does not a covenant-keeper make. We are dependent on the grace of God to keep our vows.
John Calvin stressed this in his marriage ceremonies, making use of multiple opportunities to pray for the Holy Spirit to work in the couple's lives and stressing the need for divine grace by quoting Psalm 124:8: "Our help is in the name of the Lord."
Whether we use the standard vows formed hundreds of years ago or write our own based on the truths of Scripture, at the end of the day we know marriage is as much about forgiving as it is vow-keeping. No vow will make us perfect, but grace is not just for keeping the vows—it's for when we don't as well.
Catherine Parks, writes from home in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, Erik, and their two young children. Catherine cries at every wedding she attends and wrote A Christ Centered Wedding: Rejoicing in the Gospel on Your Big Day with her mother Linda Strode.
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