Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." (Genesis 2:24)

IDEA: While marriage customs differ dramatically, it is most important that we understand marriage as God's design for men and women created in His image, made for community and love.

PURPOSE: To help listeners understand that there are no hard-and-fast answers to questions about when marriage begins.

This program continues our conversation in response to Jessica's questions about marriage: when does marriage actually start? Does it start before the ceremony? If so, what indicates the beginning of a marriage? How did the wedding ceremony come into practice?

I. When does marriage actually start? Is it a wedding vow (covenant), sexual intercourse, or something else?

Over the centuries marriage customs have varied greatly.

When Isaac married Rebekah, it was arranged by his father (Abraham) who sent a servant to Mesopotamia to find a wife for his son from among his kindred there. The servant gave Rebekah a nose ring and silver bracelets, then took her to Isaac who "brought her into his mother Sarah's tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife and he loved her" (Genesis 24:66). The text does not mention any kind of marriage ceremony, and in ancient times most marriages were arranged by parents privately and then were consummated.

The Jewish Talmud later outlined marriage as consisting of two separate acts: Erusin or betrothal, later followed by chupah, the actual wedding some time later. While betrothal is like our idea of engagement, it was actually much stronger and could be broken only by divorce.

In a Jewish marriage during Talmudic times (1st century BC–6th century AD), the two ceremonies of betrothal (erusin) and wedding (chupah) usually took place a year apart. We see this in the betrothal of Mary and Joseph in Matthew 1:18.

Breaking a betrothal requires a formal Get, and a violation of betrothal is considered to be adultery.

In most cultures, the betrothed couple is expected to spend much time together, learning about each other. In some historical cultures (including colonial North America), the betrothal was essentially a trial marriage, with marriage required only in cases of conception of a child. It was also a way of testing a couple's fertility; a child conceived during betrothal was considered "legitimate" as long as the couple later married.

In the early Christian era (30-325 A.D.) marriage was considered to be a private affair with no uniform religious or other ceremony required. However, bishop Ignatius of Antioch (writing around 110 A.D. to bishop Polycarp of Smyrna) said, "It becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust."

Until 1545, Christian marriages in most of Europe were by mutual consent, declaration of intention to marry and upon the physical union of the parties. The presence of a priest or witnesses was not required. One of the functions of the church in the Middle Ages was to register marriages (this was not obligatory). The state was not involved.

As part of the Protestant Reformation, reflecting Martin Luther's view that marriage was a "worldly thing," the role of recording marriages and setting the rules for marriage passed to the state.

At the same time, the Council of Trent in 1563 (as part of the Counter-Reformation) decreed that a Roman Catholic marriage would be recognized only if the marriage ceremony was officiated by a priest with two witnesses.

John Calvin and his Protestant colleagues reformulated Christian marriage by enacting the Marriage Ordinance of Geneva, imposing "the dual requirements of state registration and church consecration to constitute marriage" for recognition.

In 1753 in England, Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act required a formal ceremony of marriage (officiated by an Anglican priest in the Anglican church with two witnesses and registration). (This act exempted Quakers and Jews from this new practice.)

Many countries today require a civil marriage ceremony to take place before the religious ceremony (e.g., Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, etc.).

From this brief historical sketch, it is clear that marriage customs have varied greatly over the centuries.

II. Where does that leave us in answering Jessica's questions?

Every culture develops its own answers to Jessica's questions.

Your community (town/city) has certain ideas about when marriage begins, as does the church you attend or the denomination to which it belongs.

When you align yourself with a church or a community, you assume that the beliefs and practices around weddings and marriage are right.

What matters most is that we take marriage seriously (however we think it begins), following God's process in Genesis 2:24:

We leave our families of origin and give our first allegiance to our spouse.

We cleave to our spouse--loyally loving and honoring him/her.

We see our "one-fleshness" as fully entering into physical intimacy but also including shared goals and purposes in our new life together.