Chapters 1-3: Introduction to the Course
WHY DISCUSS THE MARRIAGE FORM?
For so many of us, the Form of the Solemnization of Marriage has a very unique significance. It contains the words that were read out on our wedding day, and records the questions to which we voiced –maybe with eagerness, maybe with trepidation¬– those loaded words, “I do”. Since that memorable day of long ago (or not so long ago), we’ve learned in the hard school of life that living within holy wedlock is not as simple as we may have thought. What should being a husband actually look like in the rough and tumble of this broken life? Is ‘headship’ not an antiquated model? And what should being a Godly wife actually look like? Must she really be ‘submissive’ to her husband? What, for that matter, is the role of sex within marriage – now that sexuality has been explored and the children have come along?
Others of us, particularly the young, search and perhaps keep searching for a potential marriage partner. But what should we seek in such a partner? What is marriage really all about? How can one prepare for marriage? What ought one to do with sexuality before marriage?
Again others of us are perhaps content to go through life alone. We’ve seen too much pain come from the ‘holy state of marriage’, and now want no part of it. A relationship without commitment seems the preferable way to go. Yet is a relationship without commitment an option the Lord allows in His Word? Or is it acceptable to have a ‘marriage’ relationship with a person of the same gender?
As it turns out, the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage has put together in brief form the Scripture’s answers to questions as these.
What makes the study and understanding of the Marriage Form the more necessary is the increasing secularization of the culture in which we live. Our society has turned its back on God, and acts as if God does not exist. Obviously, if there is no God, the institution of marriage cannot come from God. The institution of marriage as today’s society has received it from its parents must instead be simply a human tradition – which can therefore be changed to suit new times and new expectations. Consider: by what law of nature can you insist that sexual relations must be confined to marriage? By what law of nature can you insist that marriage is even necessary? By what law of nature can you insist that marriage must be between two people and not three or four? What law of nature dictates that a man must marry a woman, and not another man – or, for that matter, a dog? On what natural principle can you insist that the man must be the head in marriage, and the wife his helper? My point is this: since the existence of God is denied in our postmodern society, there can be no ultimate right or wrong. Marriage as it’s traditionally been understood has lost its foundation, and even its raison d’etre. There is something quite logical and predictable about Canada’s government changing the traditional definition of marriage as involving a man and a woman, and now defining marriage as “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.” It is also quite logical and predicable that this new definition of marriage will not last.
Behind this development is the spiritual warfare the Lord has spoken about in His Word. The struggle, says the Holy Spirit through Paul, “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Satan is desperate to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. Yet it is primarily through the family that the ascended Christ gathers His church. So the guns of the Evil One are set on the family, and hence on the institution of marriage.
That is why in turn the answer to today’s attack on the institution of marriage is ultimately not better laws from the government (as if the problem is political at heart) or the appointment of judges that protect marriage (as if the problem is judicial at heart). The problem is spiritual, and therefore the battle must be engaged on the spiritual level. The reality of God’s existence must be proclaimed and taken seriously, and so His revelation in Scripture studied humbly and applied faithfully. By definition this cannot happen at a national or provincial level until it has happened at the local, individual level. The defense of marriage in Canada begins with individual Canadians submitting to the authority of the Maker of marriage, and then living from His norms for marriage both within as well as outside of the married state.
Yet Christians of Canada cannot even assume that all Christians are reading from the same page. Mainline churches of Canada have already acquiesced to the new official definition of marriage, and so tolerate –and even sanction– same-sex marriages. The battle, then, cannot be drawn with all Canada’s church-going population fighting on the one side, against an unbelieving enemy on the other. The ‘Christian’ population of the land is itself divided on the subject of hermeneutics, the science of how one reads the Bible. For that reason I want to make it abundantly clear at the outset that I consider the Bible to be God’s clear and infallible revelation to man, as the church has traditionally explained the concept in Articles 3-7 of the Belgic Confession. In the pages that follow I seek simply to listen to what God has revealed in Scripture about marriage and marriage life.
The battle is spiritual – and does not pass by those who take God’s Word seriously. Not only in society at large, but also amongst devout Christians, one sees more marriage break-ups than used to be the case. One sees a decline in the sizes of our families, sees husbands not carrying out their task as the head of the family and wives not being willing to submit to their husbands. It is so predictable: we are touched by the society in which we live. For that very reason must work be done in our own midst, so that marriages of today and of tomorrow be strengthened – and our marriages made a model and a blessing for the nation in which we live.
Yet tomorrow’s marriages shall not be strong if today’s youth grow up in homes where the holy state of marriage is not respected and maintained. Hours upon hours of premarital instruction will not make straight the damage done when parents failed to model for the next generation what a Godly marriage actually looks like. Beneficial though a premarital course may be, I’m convinced the problem needs to be tackled a step earlier in the piece, namely, the home wherein tomorrow’s bride and groom are today living needs to be taught what God says about marriage. More important than a premarriage course may well be a ‘post-marriage’ course, a refresher for the parents of tomorrow’s bridegroom and bride.
Again, it is not just the parents of tomorrow’s bridegroom and bride that can do with instruction on marriage. The apostle Paul instructs Titus to instruct the older women to “train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:4,5). To carry out this mandate, these older sisters of the congregation obviously need to know what the Lord God has revealed in His word about the place of the woman in marriage and in the home – to say nothing of self-control and purity. Older men, of course, have a parallel role in relation to the younger men of the congregation. They too, then, can do with reading (again) what the Lord God says about marriage.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND to the FORM
In the course of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church saw fit to declare that marriage was a sacrament. It picked up this notion from Ephesians 5:32 where the apostle Paul spoke of marriage “a great mystery”. In the Greek language in which the New Testament was written, one also finds the word ‘mystery’ used here. However, in the Latin translation of the Bible (known as the Vulgate), the word ‘mystery’ is here translated as ‘sacrament.’ On the basis of this Latin translation, the Roman Catholic Church found room to declare the institution of marriage as a sacrament. Since sacraments are means of grace (see Lord’s Day 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism), the Roman Catholic Church believes a spiritual benefit comes through marriage to those who are married. This in turn means that in the Roman Church all marriages require the involvement and blessing of the priest.
Despite this requirement of the church, there were many in the Middle Ages who did not have their marriage solemnized by the church; a man and a woman moved in together and had a de facto marriage. The Roman Church replied that it was not solemnization itself that made marriage a real marriage but rather its consummation (ie, sexual intercourse, or ‘carnal knowledge’, in older English). The logical extension of this position was that all who had sexual relations with another were in fact considered married – even before they received the blessing of the church.
Reformers as Luther and Calvin opposed the Roman Catholic notion of marriage being a sacrament, on grounds that the Bible nowhere says that marriage is a means of grace. The Reformers also discarded the notion that ‘carnal knowledge’ is the equivalent of marriage. In the midst of warped notions about marriage and sexuality, the reformers realized that they had to instruct the people in what God teaches in His Word concerning marriage.
As early as 1533 the first Biblically based Marriage Form saw the light of day. This Form was written by William Farel, and subsequently adopted in unaltered form by John Calvin. Characteristic of this form was its attempt to teach the hearers what the Lord God revealed in Scripture about His gift of marriage.
In the Netherlands a reformed Marriage Form first appeared in 1566. Notice: this is the same decade as when the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) were written. Guido deBres, author of the Belgic Confession, died a martyr’s death in the southern Netherlands in 1567, one of countless victims of persecution by a staunchly Roman Catholic government. One might think that in circumstances of such persecution there were more important matters requiring attention than preparing a Marriage Form. Yet church leaders considered Biblical instruction on the holy state of marriage to be so important that a Form for the Solemnization of Marriage was prepared for the churches before a Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons. Their thinking is understandable: husband and wife in holy marriage reflect the relation between Jesus Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). The (non-Reformed) world should receive from the marriages around them an accurate perception of Christ’s relation to the Church. Further, it is to Christian parents that God entrusts His children-by-covenant. Those Christian parents need to nurture these children in the fear of the Lord, and that requires a home atmosphere –including the marriage relationship– that’s built on the revelation of God in Scripture. Small wonder that a Biblically founded Marriage Form was made available as a teaching tool for the believers; at stake were the future generations of the church.
The Marriage Form released in the Netherlands in 1566 underwent some minor modifications in the years till the great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619. The redaction adopted by that Synod served the reformed churches of the Netherlands in unaltered form for some three centuries. This Form has also been translated into the English language, where it served with distinction in many second world countries. Modifications to the Form in the Netherlands in 1933 colored the Form in use for the first three decades of the history of the Canadian Reformed Churches. In 1980 Synod Smithville of the Canadian Reformed Churches adopted the redaction discussed in this publication. Despite the changes of 1933 and 1980, this Form remains essentially the one adopted by the Synod of Dort nearly 400 years ago. It’s understood that this Form has captured well what the Lord God has revealed in Scripture about the holy state of marriage.
MARRIAGE “IN THE NAME OF THE LORD”
As a thread of gold, the phrase “in the Name of the Lord” runs through the Marriage Form – and gives us its essential flavor. We find it in the Form in the following places:
Announcement (page 634)
“The consistory announces that ____________ and ____________ have indicated their intention to enter into the married state, according to the ordinance of God. They desire to begin this holy state in the Name of the Lord and to complete it to His glory.”
Introduction (page 634f)
“____________ and ____________, since the consistory has duly made known to the congregation your desire to enter into the married state, and no lawful objection has been presented, we may now proceed to the solemnisation of your marriage in the Name of the Lord.”
The Duties of Marriage (page 637)
... ____________ and ____________, you have now heard what the Lord requires of you and what He has promised you. May our gracious God give you the strength and the faithfulness to live together as husband and wife in this manner and may your help be in the Name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
The Marriage Form has adopted the phrase “in the Name of the Lord” from Scripture itself. In Deuteronomy 21:5 we read that Lord had chosen “the priests, the sons of Levi, … to minister to Him and to bless in the name of the LORD.” The priests were not simply “to bless”; they were “to bless in the name of the LORD.” We understand that something important is added by the reference to the name of the Lord, for the priests actions were done on God’s authority, was done with the weight of God’s reputation behind them, and therefore their blessing was effective. To receive a blessing ‘in the name of the LORD’ was a very different thing than to receive a blessing without the name of the Lord.
Similarly, David’s words to Goliath are enlightening. “You come against me with a sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied” (1 Samuel 17:45). Had David come against Goliath on own authority, or backed the reputation of the gods of Canaan, Goliath would have had nothing to fear. As it was, David claimed to come in the name of the LORD, and it was this conviction that gave David his victory.
Again, Elijah’s challenge to Israel’s Baal worshipers is instructive. “You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire He is God” (1 Kings 18:24). The people in turn called on Baal, but Baal, of course, had no wherewithal to respond – for Baal did not exist outside the imagination of his worshipers. When Elijah in turn called on the LORD, fire instantly consumed the sacrifice, simply because the LORD is real, powerful, almighty. Actions done in His name are effective, and so bring about results.
In the Marriage Form the phrase ‘in the Name of the Lord’ appears three times. The phrase appears repeatedly in recognition of the fact that this marriage occurs on the authority of the Lord; none less than He is at work bringing the bridegroom and bride together into the holy state of marriage. If it is none less than God Himself who brings bridegroom and bride together, they may –despite their weaknesses and life’s trials– proceed to live together in this holy state in strength supplied by the God who joined them together. Here is enormous encouragement for the bridal couple: to marry ‘in the name of the LORD’ is to reckon with God’s reputation, authority and work in marriage. What He has begun He will certainly bring to completion (Psalm 138:8).
A marriage between two people –the bride and groom– involves then more than simply the two. At bottom, God Himself is present, and intimately involved in the proceedings as well as in the essence of what is happening. Marriage ultimately is not simply a line with the bride on the one end and the groom on the other; marriage essentially is a triangle, with the bride and the groom forming the two base points and the Lord Himself forming the apex. The bond that joins bride and groom together is not something between the two of them (be it love or necessity or something else), but the bond that ties the Godly bride and the Godly groom together is ultimately their respective relations with the Lord (the vertical lines) – His claim on them in the covenant, and their response of faith.
In a secular world, where there is a distance between God and man and so between God and marriage too, the church makes bold to recognize God’s hand in marriage. By acting ‘in the Name of the Lord’ at a wedding ceremony the church makes a public statement that marriage comes from God, and is very possible under the blessing of God.