Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Romance and Marriage Vows

Vows.jpgDavid Blankenhorn, in a column in 1997 (and anthologized in a book my class is reading —  Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (The Ethics of Everyday Life) ), discusses the potential symbolic value of marriage vows. He speaks of two changes in marriage vows today:


1. Modern vows routinely omit or downplay a pledge of permanence in marriage.
2. Modern vows are composed by the couple.

What do you think of these two changes? Do you think either of them matters? Do you think they embody a theory or a theology or a view of marriage? How do they matter (if they do)? I’m wondering what pastors are seeing? Marriage planners? Pre-marriage counselors?

Here is what Blankenhorn thinks:

The traditional view handed on to a couple an existing vow and it implied a view of marriage. The more typical form today is to compose the vow, make it personal, and create their own view of marriage as a result.

“In one view, the vow is prior to the couple. … In the new view, the couple is prior to the promise.”

“A reality in which the marriage is larger than the couple is replaced by a reality in which the couple is larger than the marriage.”

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posted March 25, 2009 at 6:22 am

Certainly the trend to downplay or omit a pledge of permanence is significant – how could it not be?
Writing their own vows is a different matter – this trend shows a tendency to devalue tradition and the importance of outside institutions and influences, but could attach greater significance and importance to the union or not.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 7:06 am

The positive is the sense of ownership. The negative is a lack of accountability.
However, this seems very postmodern. The community (at least the bride and groom) determine what marriage to them means. They define it, thus it becomes the truth (I know, this is somewhat simplistic, but you get the idea).

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posted March 25, 2009 at 7:20 am

Let’s be honest here… vows mean nothing in and of themselves. they only carry weight if the people listening to them truly believe the words being said. to change the vows for many people is to simply admit what is already being believed in their hearts.
So if people are re-writing vows that intentionally down play a pledge of permanence than these people are probably the same types who would not be impacted by traditional vows with such a pledge included.
I would agree with RJS. Writing your own vows can attach greater significance for many couples… The most beautiful ceremonies (and most worshipful) that I can remember involve friends of mine who wrote their own vows.
Maybe vows can be viewed like prayer… there is beauty in a pre-written prayer and in a prayer that comes from the heart in the moment. Maybe there is beauty in both type of vows…if the focus is the right one.

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Scot McKnight

posted March 25, 2009 at 7:28 am

One of my students, who is getting married, said the pastor told them they could write their vows but they were to include a commitment to permanence and a commitment to fidelity.
One student said he was at a wedding where they recited both the traditional vows and a personal set of vows.

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Rick in Texas

posted March 25, 2009 at 8:27 am

In my present ministry setting, I do not officiate at very many marriages. But I always invite the couples to participate in editing the vows along with me. NONE choose to do so.

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Carl Holmes

posted March 25, 2009 at 9:19 am

I encourage couples I do weddings for to write their own vows. I want them to own it, I want them to commit to it, and I want it to have meaning. Most Christians I do marriages for are not used to creeds and pre formatted prayers as the norm. Liturgical prayers, vows etcetera are just “old school” and not meaningful. I am post modern, as is much of those in my spiritual charge. I guess that is a sign of the times.
I have not been doing marriages long enough to say that those who write their own vows have a better or worse longevity then one who uses the traditional ones.
I believe it all comes down to a sense of ownership of the process. The more engaged they are in the ceremony, I believe the better. Time will tell on that I guess.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 9:41 am

Sot #4, I like it. My wife and I used the traditional vows. We felt that there was something special about repeating the same vows that have long been established. We did mean it. It was special. It was like standing on holy ground in a way. Others have stood there in the past but on this day it was our turn.

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Julie Clawson

posted March 25, 2009 at 9:47 am

well there is the issue with the traditional vows where the man promises one thing and the wife the other. some of us would rather make vows to a partnership than to a role of subservience. also, for our vows we expanded them not to be just about us, but to vow that our marriage was used to love and help the world.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 9:50 am

Hello, I have a question to be answered, and hopefully show where it is backed up with scripture. I am a 63 yr old female and have been divorced for 6 yrs. I have been seeing another man for about 5 yrs and we both live in separate houses. He lives a short distance from me so it’s so convient for both of us. We both are on Social security and pensions and feel that we can’t get married or I would loose to much money and he isn’t in the greatest shape. So if he was to pass away and we were married I wouldn’t have any income. We both are christians and both feel that we are only commited to each other, so to us this is like a marriage. To me marriage is a slip of paper, and it’s whats in your heart. I have never been able to find anything saying different in the Bible. Please help me answer this problem. We would like to find a preacher that would marry us but not by the law rules. Thank you, Blondy

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John W Frye

posted March 25, 2009 at 10:29 am

This is a huge discussion because vows are simply the entry point into what I believe the Bible presents as a binding (“oneness”) relationship between a man and a woman forever.
Of course couples are jumpy about making vows of permanence because of the erosion of marriage by McDivorce. Vows no longer reflect the concept of covenant, but as comment #9 by Blondy reports “convenience.” It is deplorable that economics is now more important than biblical direction.
As a pastor, I encourage couples to write their own vows with these directives: your own creative vow must declare permanence (ie, “until death parts you” however they want to express that) and fierce particularity–I am giving my life and vow to you and you alone, ie, no one else can ever claim my devotion or affection.
Pastors are not asked to *conduct* ceremonies; they are called to partner with God to establish enduring marriages.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 10:58 am

I agree with RJS that the specific trend to downplay or omit a pledge of permanence is significant and is a separate issue from the general trend toward writing one’s own vows.
The content of self-written vows could range anywhere on the spectrum and I think generally it is that content, rather than the bare fact of self-written vows, that tells you what the couple’s attitude is toward marriage.
Mike Mason’s excellent book “The Mystery of Marriage” has a great chapter on the meaning and purpose of marriage vows.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 11:49 am

My wife and I had to write our own vows because traditional vows include a pledge not only to raise Children a certain way, but to have children. We have no intention of having children and so were not comfortable saying vows which included a pledge to have them and then raise them a certain way. Also, like Julia, we felt it was important to express our bond and our -permanent- commitment in terms of a partnership rather than through more gender-based roles. So basically we re-wrote some things, but started with all the traditional templates.
I hear your concern though, and I share it. I’ve had friends make up vows out of whole cloth and they inevitably sound somehow insubstantial.

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Chris Hubbs

posted March 25, 2009 at 12:09 pm

I think modification/customization within reason is appropriate for the reasons already discussed – primarily, the feeling of ownership, and the fact that the couple is investing (we hope) significant time into creating these vows.
That being said, elimination of mentions of permanence is a non-starter. It needs to be “’til death do us part”.
With regard to the “which comes first, the couple or the marriage?” question, unless we’re going to revert back to parent-arranged marriages, some aspects of the “couple-ness” will come first. If that’s a problem for you, fine, but that is likely a separate discussion from the “do we customize the vows or not” discussion.

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Iris Alantiel

posted March 25, 2009 at 12:12 pm

My husband and I are Catholic, and when we married (almost two months ago) we were not given an option: we had to use the traditional vows, which include a promise to love and honour one another “all the days of my life”. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anybody make wedding vows that didn’t include some reference to permanence, even at the (admittedly few) non-Catholic weddings I’ve attended.

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Cam R

posted March 25, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I got married this past year. We chose to make traditional vows with slight modifications. We liked using the words others had used before us and believed in there meanings.
An important aspect of marriage that the premarriage course we took reinforced was viewing marriage as a covenant. This was enlightening for me. I don’t know if as a single person I had just not listened well about teachings on marriage or perhaps the meaning of covenant is lost to our culture. The traditional vows seemed to keep the idea of “covenant” in focus for us.
With some friends who are writing there own vows, there seems to be a trend toward vows that are hyperpermanent. Vows like “eternally yours” or “together for all eternity” which may sound very romantic but can you say them with integrity? Would you want your spouse to keep an eternal vow in the event that you passed away and they still could have many years of living ahead of them. “Until death parts us” to be right scope of permanence.
Paul #3 do you really think vows mean nothing? Don’t all words mean something and on some level the words you use in your promise matter?
Grace and Peace,

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posted March 25, 2009 at 12:25 pm

I also believe the deliberate omission of the word ‘obedience’ or even any flavor of it, is a poor statement as to the condition of marriage…
My own personal marriage, as well as the marriages that I see as ‘Christian’ all contain this element; a recognition that I must die to myself, and serve my spouse in submission, if we are to have a life together that could truly be called a ‘marriage.’
I understand why people dislike a woman being called to obedience, while the man is not, (as in many of the traditional vows) but the solution is not to ‘lower the bar’ for women, but rather to raise it for men.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 12:42 pm

If I may paraphrase Bonhoeffer’s words that seem apropos of this conversation: It’s not love that makes the marriage but marriage that makes the love.
We are about to celebrate 35 years of marriage and I come to understand Bonhoeffer’s words more and more. When you are young and pledge “for better or worse” you have no idea how good better can be or how bad worse can get.
Also been a pastor for 37 years… seems to me many are far more interested in having a wedding than a marriage and the vows need to match the “event”.
I’d rather preach a funeral for the old any day than perform a wedding for the young.

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Ed Gentry

posted March 25, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Sadly this, in my view, is a partially result of our modern culture’s redefinition of the word love. Instead of love meaning, commitment, service, and self-sacrifice (as demonstrated by The One who loved). Love now means a particular kind of emotion.
With this kind of shift in definition of love, marriage moves from from “as long as you both shall live” to “as long as you both shall love.”
The watering down of Love calls into question the basis for the entire wedding ceremony. It becomes a nice occasion to foster warm feelings. In our more sane moments we know these feelings will come and go.
Why even bother? Weddings without commitment are a meaningless social convention.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 1:25 pm

oops, LOL – my post number 7 — I meant to say “Scot #4.” Scot sees his name spelled as Scott a lot, but I bet he doesn’t see “Sot” every day!

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Travis Greene

posted March 25, 2009 at 1:45 pm

John @ 10,
I think you should take it easy on Blondy. She’s struggling with a real and tough situation and wrestling with important questions about what marriage is, and what the role of church and state are in defining it. This isn’t about economics vs. biblical direction (especially since much biblical direction is about economics, i.e. Levirate marriage).

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posted March 25, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Blondy #9,
Beliefnet seems not to be working quite right. I can only see 10 comments right now, so this may already be addressed by someone else.
Blondy, you are in a tough spot and I feel for you. I am going to give a list of verses that I think confirm the notion of Christian marriage. I don’t mean to Bible-bash you. You asked for a biblical defense and these verses are important ones to consider, I believe.
Starting at the end of Gen 2, we see that God intended a man and a woman to be married. Proverbs 5:18 is an example of staying true to ones wife (or husband) for a lifetime. In Malachi 2, God says that he hates it when men, shall we say, create the first wives club (divorce their first wife for someone new). In 1 Cor 7, Paul gives the famous “marry rather than burn” passage. If you can’t stay apart, you should get married. I believe that these verses all intend a man and a woman getting and staying married for life. Together, they cover several genres, including Genesis (history, didactic, whatever you want to peg it as), wisdom, and prophets.
In 1 Thessalonians 4, it is God’s will that we avoid sexual immorality. Those who reject this teaching, Paul says, are rejecting God.
Galatians 5, Colossians 3 both peg “immorality” as a sin of the flesh. Immorality has long been understood to mean sex outside of marriage.
Ephesians 5 draws marriage between one man and one woman as a metaphor for the Christ and the Church.
In more than one place, Paul describes leaders of the church as one-woman men – implying faithful marriage.
There is no sin in a man and a woman being friends and playing dominoes. There is sin in them being friends and sleeping in the same bed.
This list is not meant to attack you nor is it a complete defense. It is a starting place of verses to consider when looking for what the Bible says about marriage. Hope it is food for thought for you. I would encourage you to spend some time praying, really praying, asking God to open a door for you so that you would find a way to make marriage work. Most people don’t want to live alone, whether they are 33 or 63. I hope a way becomes clear for you to marry “Mr. Blondy” and live happily ever after :-)

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posted March 25, 2009 at 2:07 pm

#21 MatthewS, click the Comments link again…it toggles between a rolled up list or an extended list.

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Ed Eubanks

posted March 25, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Blondy (#9),
I sympathize with your situation, and recognize the value of much of what you are saying– that on the one hand, marriage is, in the end, about your commitment to one another before the Lord (and not necessarily about a ceremony, a certificate, or a license); and on the other hand, there are some very practical issues that present an obstacle to a legal marriage for you and your man.
I appreciate– and agree with– Matthew’s replies from Scripture, so I won’t re-hash that.
I will, however, suggest this: Scripture is clear that believers are called to submit themselves to the governance of the authorities they are under. This was true of Christians in the New Testament era, where they (and others) were oppressed, abused, and even murdered for fun by the governing bodies over them. So it is certainly true for us, as well. Unless the laws of our civic authorities violate what the Word of God instructs us to do, we are to be obedient (and respectful).
It seems like the issue before you might be exactly this. You realize that, if you are recognized as legally married, it will potentially have an adverse effect on your financial stability and well-being. Because of this, you wonder if it is “permissible” to avoid the distinction of legal/formal marriage.
The answer is, yes– if you wish to remain unmarried. Nothing in Scripture requires you to marry. However, there is good reason to conclude (as Matthew has offered) that certain relationships are off-limits to you if you are not married and wish to be obedient to God’s Word. Therefore, as Paul says, it is better to marry than to be severely tempted by such relationships. If that is the case, then you should be willing to accept the potential consequences of your marriage.
All of us who are married ought to see it this way– not just when finances are threatened. We accept the consequences, good and bad, of marrying another. There are many blessings in marriage, and many responsibilities as well.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 5:03 pm

#9, 10, 20 and 21
The problem isn’t that economics trumps Scripture or anything else so high minded. The problem is that the legal contract provided by the state creates economic hardship where it ought not be created. The only reason we tolerate the state’s intrusion into this religious practice (marriage) is that supposedly the state has a vested interest in promoting community stability and (religious) marriage) supposedly provides this. But a state contract which forces a retired woman to give up her income in order to be married and then makes no condition to restore it to her if her new husband dies is simply a flawed contract.
Rather than attacking the religious commitment of this woman, why aren’t we attacking the absurdity of legal contract marriage which is a complete affront to everything religious marriage is supposed to be?

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posted March 25, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Good gracious! I don’t think anything Blondy said is questioning the institution of marriage between a man and a woman for life! And the only proper response from Christians who do not think that the religious and legal institutions of marriage can/should be separated is an offer to provide the financial support Blondy will need if she legally marries this man. If I were Blondy, I would be terribly insulted at the obvious implication that she needs a bible lesson on the institution of marriage. And very disappointed that no one has offered a reasonable way for her to resolve her God-given desire to be bonded in marriage with a man and our government’s rules which make this very good thing practically disasterous. This is how people are driven from churches.
All that being said, the problem with the “just a piece of paper” argument is that when marriage is really, really hard, often that piece of paper is a powerful mental speed bump that can keep us from bailing. This is a very real thing which is hard for the church to duplicate. We live in a society where people move from church to church with such ease that a commitment made before a church community is just far too easy for us to leave behind. Sometimes we really do need something more powerful and binding than our own conscience to keep us on the straight and narrow. Which is why I always hesitate at the idea of a church marriage without legal backing.
It seems to me that perhaps this is issue is a place where the church can step in to minister through financial help to right a terrible wrong that our secular government has created. Providing this needed assistance to our seniors would be a FAR superior witness for Christ than hammering people with bible verses they almost certainly don’t need to be reminded of and telling them to choose between starvation and marriage.

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Dana Ames

posted March 25, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I was quite intrigued to find out that no vows are made in an Orthodox wedding. It consists of two sections, the betrothal (prayers and exchange of rings) and the crowning service (prayers, psalms, crowns, candles, scripture readings, Lord’s Prayer, drinking from a common cup of wine, and procession symbolizing the first steps of life together). Nary a vow to be found, not even the “I take thee, (name) as my lawfully wedded, etc. Marriage is not viewed as a legal contract, but rather a vocation, a calling to a certain level of relationship between two Persons. I like this very much.
If it is the commitment that keeps the love together, then there is something external imposing a kind of legality. Real love includes but is more than the emotion; it actually is the strength that drives whatever commitment there is.

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Bill H

posted March 25, 2009 at 11:47 pm

I see the omission as another form of the loss of our language as Christians. In the same sense as the conservative push toward what is termed covenant marriage, the revision of the vows – acknowledging that the vows in and of themselves do not make the marriage – is an indication that we are adrift from the foundation of our faith.

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Mike Clawson

posted March 25, 2009 at 11:58 pm

As a wedding pastor for hire, I do a lot of weddings, and quite honestly I haven’t noticed either of these supposed trends to any significant degree. I always offer couples the chance to write or edit their own vows, and only a very few ever take me up on it (and those usually tend to be the ones who are on their second marriage). And I haven’t noticed any deliberately trying to downplay or omit a pledge to permanence. I’m not sure where Blankenhorn is getting his data, but I haven’t found it to be the case in my own experience.

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Rev. Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D.

posted March 26, 2009 at 9:38 am

I do think the vow is important. I was working with a couple that came in with “I promise to be with you as long as we love each other.” That scared me! We all need a commitment to pull us through tough times.
If we understand it as a vocation, that does have a lifetime feel to it. But anything that helps a couple to see “we are in it together, through thick and thin, no matter what” seems helpful to me.
My real hope is churches will wake up to the role of supporting couples. Many churches provide premarital counseling, but what about mentoring programs, retreats, date nights, classes, etc.? The couple takes a vow, but so should the church.
Rev. Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D.
author of Save Your Christian Marriage

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posted March 26, 2009 at 11:06 am

I was shocked the first time I went to a wedding and the vows didn’t include “til death do us part” — neither the words nor the idea.
I think the vows reflect, rather than create, your ideas about marriage, and in our society a marriage is no more binding than a lease — and maybe less so.

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posted March 26, 2009 at 11:38 am

I’ve seen that attitude creep into the church firsthand, ChrisB. In our Episcopal diocese one of the leading priests (and delegate to the national episcopal general convention) argued in a diocesan meeting against the “rigid and outdated” traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. Her point regarding our need to be open to other living arrangements, less permanent arrangements than marriage, same-sex partnerships, couples living together before marriage to test how compatible they are, and the need to drop references to permanence from marriage vows etc. was:
“Our society is already doing it, so our job is to bless it and see how we can become a part of it.”
Seriously, that is what she said. The church exists to sanctify and bless and join in what society does. You’ll alienate, exclude and “other” them if you do otherwise. You’ll become irrelevant. And the more amazing thing was that heads all around the room were nodding in agreement.

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posted April 2, 2009 at 9:31 am

Amazing that I should find this article today, the day that I seek an answer to the question… What is more important to god… that I live and love in my marriage with integrity or follow my marriage vow til death us do part? I met my husband at 12, started a physical relationship at 16, stayed with him because I believed that if I did god would forgive me. We married at 23. At 28 I realised that although I loved him, like family, my part in the marriage was a role -play.
I interpret the bible as a rule book. My vows ‘To death us do part’ and ‘for better or worse’ are absolute’with no subjective caveat.
I’m true to him, resist temptation, yet my role in this marriage is a deception. My husband deserves to be loved how he loves me. When he’s home I tell him I love him, people think we have the model marriage…but when he leaves I am desperate. 45 now, I foresee another 20-30 yrs of this.
Outside of the marriage I could enjoy the love I have for him.
This morning I spoke to my local revd who feels that God does not intend the rules to be so prescriptive. He would not want me to live in the guilt that deceiving my family brings. Christian counselling may help but I’m sure it goes down the subjective route.
I just want to understand and follow the rules as they are.If being true to God must come before being true to myself or others. If my happiness and integrity is inconsequential, then ‘worse’ it will be.
My smile,kiss,cup of tea and ‘I love you’ will be there to great him
when he walks through the door…as my vows demand.

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