The tradition used to be that when a couple got married the father of the bride would give money or property to the groom called a dowry. This was a great way to help a couple getting started in their lives, but it also created a problem. Cheapskates would move from town to town getting married, collecting dowries, and then leaving their brides to collect money in another place.
As a defense against this, weddings would happen in two stages. First, the couple would be betrothed—normally on the steps of the church. Then there would be a waiting period as people in the family sent letters or visited friends and family in neighboring towns to see if that person had previously been married. They may also talk to the groom’s hometown to verify his references. Then, at the wedding proper, families would report on their findings.
We still see evidence of these traditions in our wedding services today. First, when the couple comes forward, there is often part of the service that happens at the steps of the sanctuary. Have you ever noticed that the questions of intent are very similar to the wedding vows? That is because our service today is a blending of what used to be 2 services—a betrothal and a wedding.
Second, the pastor will sometimes as something like, “If anyone has any reason why these two should not be married then speak now or however hold their peace.” This is a holdover from the process of checking up on the groom. This is the point in the service where people could stand up and report back on their investigation of his background.
Over time, the need to track weddings has become more important for the government to be involved in. Things like pensions, social security, life insurance, and custody battles require clearly delineated legal marriages. Also, the means to track marriages has developed. When a couple wants to get married they get a marriage license where the state confirms that they are both eligible for marriage (i.e. not currently married to anyone else). All of this is tracked on computers today.
So there was a time when the government did not have the systems in place or the need to track marriages so closely. Now they do. We are left with a process where pastors work for the state when they do weddings.
This leads us to an important question: why are pastors still working for the state as part of the wedding process? Pastors are not presiding over a legal agreement. Pastors are presiding over a covenant agreement. There is no other area where we work for the government in this way.
Now we are in a situation where many Christians are upset that the government is changing the definition of marriage, but too few are asking why the church is in a position where the government gets to define how we look at marriage. A government cannot be expected to define marriage the way conservative Christians do.
I wonder if it is time to separate civil marriage from Christian weddings. What would it look like if people, when they went to get their marriage license, actually got married in the eyes of the state? Then the wedding covenant could be made separately before God and the church if people wanted that. This would allow churches to define weddings in their context the way they see fit and would allow government to define legal marriage the way they see fit.
What problems do you see with this idea? Do you have alternative ides?