One of the things I have found most perplexing about Western marriage is the extreme emphasis placed on the ceremony and what goes into it. For most Christians, discussion of marriage often begins with what happens during the ceremony, particularly the vows. The vows, as most “conservatives” apparently believe, are the bedrock of marriage. A couple is not considered married prior to the vows, and after the vows are husband and wife. The vows, it would seem, make and establish the union. If a husband or wife does something wrong in the marriage, protest against it most often appeals to the vows made at the wedding.
Taking another look at the sketch of the marriage process I provided previously, we can see that much ado is made of the wedding. In fact, it has reached a point in Western culture in which more stress is apparently placed on how the wedding is conducted than is placed on how the marriage itself is conducted. This view basically sabotages the marriage from the very start. No matter how well the wedding, whatever its nature might be, might go off, to neglect the marriage itself is to make everything for naught. A cursory reading of Scripture reveals that relatively little is said of weddings, while marriage itself is a recurring theme emphasized and explained over and over.
Imagine a man in 21st-Century America who chooses a wife for his son. The woman assents to the union, and immediately goes to the son. The moment they meet, they join in sexual union and set up house together. What would be the typical “conservative” Christian response? Likely, “Fornication! Shacking up! Cohabitation! Living in sin!” Their pastors would be called onto the scene to persuade the couple of their transgression and convince them to repent and separate until a proper wedding could be performed.
But the entire scenario of the young man and young woman moving in together with their respective fathers’ consent and direct involvement is exactly what happened in the case of Isaac and Rebekah.
And Isaac came from the way of the well Lahairoi; for he dwelt in the south country. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide: and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming. And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel. For she had said unto the servant, What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us? And the servant had said, It is my master: therefore she took a vail, and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all things that he had done. And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. – Genesis 24:62-67
At no point were friends and family called from far and near to witness an elaborate ceremony, listen to an officiant regale the onlookers and feed the couple their vows line by line, and throw rice (or birdseed, or whatever they throw these days). Not once did they apply for a license. No engagement period, no wedding party, no ringing bells. By both secular and religious standards in the modern West, Isaac and Rebekah were no more than boyfriend and girlfriend. The entire wedding process in this account is summed up as, “And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife.” We don’t need more detail to figure out that Isaac had relations with Rebekah, and that sealed the deal. They were husband and wife.
A similar situation occurred in the case of Jacob (Genesis 29:21-30). After he had worked seven years for Rachel, Laban deceived him with Leah. Jacob was upset, not because he’d said vows to the wrong woman, but because he’d accepted authority over, and slept with, the wrong woman. He was upset because he was now bound to a woman he had never intended to marry. When he “went in unto” Leah, he established the union. When, a week later, Laban gave Rachel to Jacob and “he went in also unto Rachel” (Genesis 29:30), thus making Rachel his wife as well.
Yes, feasts were typically involved in marriages, usually lasting seven days (Judges 14:10-19, Genesis 29:27-28, John 2:1-10), but these were not in any way considered part of the wedding process, but rather celebratory of the wedding process – which merely consisted of the bride and groom becoming one flesh in sexual union. The two were already considered husband and wife since they had been betrothed. The wedding was the day on which the couple made it official by going into a private tent or room to consummate while the guests feasted and celebrated outside. If the woman wasn’t widowed or divorced, she was expected to be a virgin, and the blood resultant of their first sexual union would stain her clothes or a bedcovering. The woman’s parents then kept the bloodstained item in a secure place as evidence in case her husband ever accused her of not being a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-32). The guests served as witnesses that the “proof of virginity” had been procured. No vows, no officiant. Nothing in Biblical weddings even remotely resembled what we’re accustomed to seeing today.
The idea of elaborate wedding ceremonies is largely of ancient Greek and Roman origin, customs which were adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as were many other customs now considered unique to the Christian faith. The wedding customs of today, and the importance placed on them, survived the Protestant split, and continued on into our current era. The entire ceremony concept, while not necessarily a sin or an evil, has been given so much importance in our culture that most Christians have simply assumed that a marriage is invalid unless the couple have gone through all the motions and recited all the words. This idea is not in any way Biblical. Yahweh God never instituted marriage ceremonies. Pagan cultures did.
When God made His marriage covenant with Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19), the vows spoken were an agreement to the conditions which God laid out to them. This is to be expected in any marriage – that the woman agree beforehand to the conditions of marriage, to be faithful and obedient. This does not finalize a marriage between a husband and wife. What does finalize it is the establishment of the unique relationship between the two spouses, as demonstrated in the cases of Isaac, Jacob, and others throughout Scripture. The covenant is the foundation of marriage, whether it is spoken before witnesses or assented to between the couple in private. The sexual union is the beginning of that marriage.
As long as a proper transfer of authority over the woman has been made from the woman’s father to the husband, and the transaction has been sealed by the sexual union of the woman and the man, a marriage is valid in the eyes of YHWH. Those two things are the only requirements. All else is but frills and trimmings, nice traditions which are in no way either essential or sinful and may vary from culture to culture. The danger of emphasizing the traditions as indispensible to a godly union lies in “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 5:19). Traditions are all well and good for the evolution of a national culture, but when those traditions become taught as the commandments of God they become dangerous. It was for this that Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees. They had completely laid aside the Law in favor of Judaistic tradition, and in so doing were leading Israel down a destructive path.
Tradition, if not recognized strictly as tradition, can be a dangerous thing. Once it becomes so important that it trumps truth, it grows into a false religion, an idol made by the hands of men. It’s all right to observe tradition as long as it is recognized only as tradition. Tradition helps make a people stand out from others and unites a group through universally recognized and accepted ways of doing things. As long as it doesn’t contradict or usurp the Law of God, tradition is healthy. However, listing tradition as a divine requirement is putting words in God’s mouth – essentially adding to the Word (Deuteronomy 12:32, Revelation 22:18-19). In this case, “conservatives” are truly guilty.