“Pastor, our gay son is engaged.”
“Pastor, a few years ago my brother left his wife for another woman. Now they’ve invited us to the wedding.”
“Pastor, my daughter wants to marry a non-Christian.”
Pastor, should we go to the wedding?
Questions like these punctuate conversations in pastors’ studies across America today. And they highlight the dilemma created for Christians by the revolution that has taken place regarding sexuality, marriage, divorce, and the nature of the family.
Marriage has come to be viewed as a means to cement a deepening commitment between two people, or even as a way to express intense romantic feelings without much thought to lifelong mutual obligation. Questions of morality and sexual ethics—of what’s right and good and true—are banished, almost entirely, from mind. A wedding is now an elective procedure that centers exclusively on the wishes of the parties involved.
Under these conditions, when Christians push back on a loved one’s intention to marry, their ethical objections often come as a complete surprise and are met with uncomprehending outrage. Their concerns are seen only as casting ill will on what the bride or groom assumes will be their special day.
“Why can’t you just be happy for me?” on the lips of a deeply loved friend or family member can exert a powerful pull on our hearts and cloud our judgment as we try to think clearly and make faithful and loving decisions in light of biblical truth.
One way to navigate these complex ethical conundrums is to ask some foundational questions: “What is a wedding?” and “What kind of act am I engaged in when I attend a wedding?” Answering these questions can help us decide when to go and when to stay home.
What Is a Wedding?
Before we go any further, let’s simply acknowledge two biblical facts about weddings. First, we have no detailed examples of wedding ceremonies in Scripture. None. What does a “biblical wedding ceremony” look like? No idea! But, second: the Bible’s teaching on marriage helps us understand what wedding ceremonies ought to look like.
1. Marriage is designed by God for the intimate and lifelong union of one man and one woman.
This is the implication of Genesis 2, where God declares that man’s aloneness is “not good” (v. 18). In what we might call the first-ever premarital counseling class, God brought every animal to Adam to name, as if to pound home the fact that among all other creatures “there was not found a helper fit for him” (v. 20). Only woman was made to be the complement and partner of man.
‘What is a wedding?’ and ‘What kind of act am I engaged in when I attend a wedding?’ Answering these questions can help us decide when to go and when to stay home.
2. Becoming husband and wife entails a solemn covenant marked by binding vows.
We know that prior to marriage there was commonly a period of public engagement (Deut. 20:7; Matt. 1:18; 1 Cor. 7:25–28), which required a heightened level of commitment and public recognition of the intent to marry. Similarly, the extended (and fascinating) marriage negotiations in Genesis 24 undertaken by Abraham’s servant in his search for a wife for Isaac are predicated upon the eventual establishment of a formal, publicly acknowledged marital bond.
Another important text in this discussion is Ezekiel 16:8, a passage that offers a tantalizing glimpse of Ancient Near Eastern wedding practice. The Lord speaks of Jerusalem using the metaphor of marriage, saying, “I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you . . . and you became mine.” The metaphor assumes a common practice of public covenanting, involving the exchange of vows, as part of entering into marriage.
3. Marriage is intended by God to be both universal and sacred.
Let’s remember that marriage was not given to us as a concession to help ameliorate our sinful liabilities after the fall. It was given to address the only “not good” thing that existed prior to sin: “it was not good that the man should be alone.” God instituted marriage as a part of his generous care for us, as creatures designed for intimacy and community. Together with the Sabbath and the so-called cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28, marriage is a “creation ordinance”: a binding pattern for all, meant for the welfare of all. Marriage, in other words, is intended for human beings simply as creatures and image-bearers, not just for believers in the God of the Bible.
But the universality of marriage should not be understood to suggest that marriage is somehow only customary or utilitarian—only valuable to society so long as it continues to serve a useful social function. No, the simple fact that marriage was instituted by God, and not by us, reminds us that it’s a sacred institution with which we have no right to tamper. It’s for this reason that the Bible uses the language of marriage to describe the holy bond of love and intimacy between God and Israel, Christ and his church.
Thus, a biblically faithful understanding of weddings will insist on these two propositions: marriage is for everyone and marriage is holy.
What Am I Doing When I Go to a Wedding?
We’re now in a position to think through what kind of act we engage in when we go to a wedding.
1. We’re approving.
We’ve already seen that, in Scripture, weddings involve a solemn and publicly recognized covenant bond. The community, by its presence, affirms the legitimacy of the marital bond being established. This is why in some older wedding liturgies the congregation is asked “if anyone knows of any lawful impediment why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony to speak now or forever hold their peace.”
We’re not mere spectators when we go to a wedding. We’re witnesses. We testify to the legitimacy of the union being established before us.
2. We’re celebrating.
Weddings are festive occasions. Jesus, when asked about fasting (a customary sign of mourning), said that it was inappropriate for the wedding guests while the Bridegroom was present (Luke 5:34–35). Jesus was talking about himself—bodily present with his disciples—but using the image to make this point only works because everyone knows that weddings are for celebration, not for mourning. They’re occasions for joy.
And since, in their original scriptural character and intent, they’re also sacred, that celebration is appropriately expressed in praise to the triune God. He’s the one who, in his common grace, has made the provision of marriage for our welfare and comfort. He’s the one who binds the couple together and who blesses their union. So, as we celebrate the happiness of the couple, let’s also lift up our hearts in glad adoration to God who showers his grace upon us.
3. We’re renewing our own vows.
In a wedding, we’re not meant to be incidental spectators, looking on as all the action takes place at the front between the officiant and the happy couple. We’re meant to be participants.
Specifically, we’re being formed and instructed in the nature and worth of marriage, and we’re being called upon, explicitly or implicitly, to renew our own commitments to fidelity and love in marriage and chastity and contentment in singleness.
4. We’re hearing (and seeing) the gospel.
Every lawful marriage between a man and a woman bears at least an echo of the covenant bond that God establishes between himself and his people in Christ. But in Christian marriage this covenantal bond is especially clear, for then we speak openly of the love of Christ, the Bridegroom, who gave himself up for his church, the Bride, at the cross. As vows are taken and we hear each pledge “I will,” we’re meant to hear the covenant promise of God in Jesus Christ to us “in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want” now and forever.
Should I Attend This Wedding?
If we’re doing at least these four things at a wedding, before we agree to go, we need to ask ourselves whether we can conscientiously attend.
Since attending a wedding means more than just showing up, but actually showing approval, we should ask ourselves if this particular union is one we can add our affirmation to cheerfully and with a clear and biblically informed conscience. If attending a wedding means entering into and expressing joy at the proceedings, is this particular union one you can celebrate before the Lord? If attending a wedding means being formed in your own convictions about marriage, is this wedding ceremony—and the union it establishes—one that will shape you and others in a biblical direction? Questions like these can help us consider whether saying “yes” to a wedding invitation is a God-honoring decision.
Since attending a wedding means more than just showing up, but actually showing approval, we should ask ourselves if this particular union is one we can affirm with a clear conscience.
Of course, we need to be clear that a decision not to attend may cause confusion and hurt, and it might well come at a high relational cost to us. And yet, in this cultural moment, these are decisions Christians will be called upon to make more and more frequently. We must find a way to adjust our expectations and consider these decisions part of the cost of discipleship. Having said that, if we find we cannot in good conscience attend, we ought to make every possible effort to signal our continued love and concern for the couple in other ways, as we seek to extend and communicate the grace of Christ to broken people who bear the image of their Maker.
To be a wedding guest is an honor and a responsibility. Let’s say “yes” when we can and “no” out of love for Christ—who calls us to love our neighbors by loving him first.