I Do?

An Argument For Traditional Wedding Vows

BY: David Blankenhorn


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It would be hard to exaggerate the symbolic importance of this shift toward self-composed vows. The old vows were created by society and presented to the couple, signifying the goal of conforming the couple to marriage. The new vows are created by the couple and presented to society, signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple. The two approaches reflect strikingly divergent views of marriage and of reality itself.

In one view, the vow is prior to the couple. The vow exists on its own, exerting social and sacred authority that is independent of the couple. In this sense, the vow helps to create the couple. In making the same promise that others before them have made and that others after them will make, the couple vows on their wedding day to become accountable to an ideal of marriage that is outside of them and bigger than they are.

In the other, the couple is prior to the promise. The vow is not an external reality, like gravity or the weather, but instead a subjective projection, deriving its meaning solely from the couple. From this perspective, the couple approaches the vow as a painter approaches a canvas. Rather than the vow creating the couple, the couple creates the vow. With this one procedural change in the making and exchanging of vows, a ceremony of continuity and idealized forms is displaced by a ceremony of creativity and personal expression.

The essence of this change reflects a dramatic shrinking of our idea of marriage. With the new vows, the robust expectation of marital permanence shrinks to a frail, often unstated hope. Marriage as a vital communal institution shrinks to marriage as a frail, often unstated hope. As the idea of marriage gets weaker, so does the reality. In this sense, the new vows are important philosophical authorizations for our divorce culture. They are both minor causes and revealing results of a society in which marriage as an institution is decomposing before our eyes.

Who is to blame for the transformation of the vow? There are three possible answers: society, the couples, and the pastors. All things considered, I suggest that we blame the clergy. I do not understand why the clergy, the custodians of our marriage tradition, so willingly relinquish their authority and, in effect, collaborate in their own marginalization. Much of the content of contemporary weddings, of which vows are only one aspect, stems from a massive transfer of authority--generally, from the community to the individual, and specifically, from the pastor to the couple.

What is to be done? Here are four proposals. First, individual pastors, and ultimately, denominational leaders, should reclaim the historic responsibility inherent in communities of faith to promulgate and maintain the integrity of the marriage vows exchanged in their churches. Central to this reclamation would be the revival of the vow of marital permanence.

Second, pastors should agree to marry couples in their churches only when at least one member of the couple is also a member of the church. That would help end the current practice among many couples of choosing a church for the wedding primarily on the basis of architecture and reducing the pastor to a bit player. Third, pastors should require all couples who marry in their churches to participate in a serious program of church-sponsored premarital education.

And finally, individual churches should formally embrace the goal of strengthening marriage and lowering the divorce rate in their congregations, specifically through ongoing programs aimed at marital enrichment and "marriage-saving," and generally by seeking to create a marriage culture within the divorce community that is distinct from the divorce culture in the larger society.

Together, these policies would convey a clear message to engaged couples: Couples who get married here learn what marriage is. Couples who get married here understand and accept as their own the marriage promise that this community of faith requires, including the vow of marital permanence. Couples who get married here become part of a community that affirms and supports marriage. As a result, couples who get married here are more likely to be able to keep their promises, in part because they make promises worth keeping.

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