The consistory shall ensure that the members of the congregation marry only in the Lord, and that the ministers — as authorized by the consistory —solemnize only such marriages as are in accordance with the Word of God.
The solemnization of a marriage may take place either in a private ceremony or in a public worship service. The adopted Form for the Solemnization of Marriage shall be used.
Whoever scans the Acts of previous regional as well as general synods in the Netherlands will be amazed at the number of times the question of marriage came up at those assemblies. It was not only difficulties between marriage partners that constituted a large portion of these times but also the question of the solemnization of marriage. The task and role of the church in this respect were discussed extensively. Until the present time there still is no general consensus on the task of the church when two people are getting married.
In previous centuries the situation in the Netherlands was similar to what we have here in Canada: the civil authorities recognize marriages solemnized by ministers as valid and as having legal status. Certain conditions are to be met, but once the civil authorities have registered a minister as authorized to solemnize marriage, any marriage solemnized by him is valid and binding.
On purpose we put it in this manner: “registered as authorized.” There still is the wide-spread erroneous notion that “civil governments authorize ministers of religion to solemnize marriages on their behalf.” Civil governments, at least in Canada, do no such thing, and ministers of the Gospel do not solemnize marriage on behalf of the civil authorities. This is a myth. Solemnization of marriage is a provincial matter, and in various provincial marriage laws we consulted there was not one single suggestion that the authorization comes from civil authorities. On the contrary, the civil authorities acknowledge that the authorization comes from the church. The laws speak constantly of “registered as authorized.” The Marriage Act of Ontario can be quoted here. It states that the Provincial Secretary “may, subject to subsection 3, register any person as a person authorized to solemnize marriage.”
This subsection reads as follows.
(3) No person shall be registered unless it appears to the Provincial Secretary,
(a) that the person has been ordained or appointed according to the rites and usages of the religious body to which he belongs, or is, by the rules of that religious body, deemed ordained or appointed;
(b) that the person is duly recognized by the religious body to
which he belongs as entitled to solemnize marriage according to its rites and usages;
(c) that the religious body to which the person belongs is permanently established both as to the continuity of its existence and as to its rites and ceremonies.
There is one more section, (d), which is not relevant here. It is clear that the authorization comes from the religious body and not from the civil authorities. Perhaps it is superfluous, but one more quote may be added, this time from the Manitoba Act. It says that a person eighteen years of age or over who is “(b) a catechist, an evangelist, a missionary, or a theological student duly appointed and commissioned by the governing body of a religious denomination with special authority to solemnize marriage” can be registered. The next section then states that the Minister may “register the person as authorized to solemnize ceremonies of marriage.”
From these quotations it appears without a shadow of doubt that the civil authorities consider the authorization to come from the religious body. The churches are therefore completely correct when speaking of the ministers “as authorized by the consistory.” The right and authority to do so comes from his position within the church, which position he has received from the church. That is how the civil authorities look at it and speak about it. We could trace this back to the early days of colonization, or even go back in our thoughts to Europe and investigate the situation there before the discovery of the Americas, but this would take up too much space.
Being part of the work of a minister of the Word, also this activity is under the supervision of the consistory, and it is, again, the task of the consistory that we are speaking of in this article as well. One could argue that a marriage is not an ecclesiastical matter, and this has to be admitted. To be sure, each individual marriage is of extreme importance also for the church and even the initial contact between a man and a woman should receive the consistory’s full attention and care. For all this, it is not an ecclesiastical matter.
Ecclesiastical matters are those which involve the congregation, the church as a whole. By baptism one is openly ingrafted into the Christian church. The Lord’s Supper is a matter of the whole congregation, as are the ordination of office-bearers, the public profession of faith, and church discipline. But marriage, although it is important and affects the entire congregation, is not an ecclesiastical matter, just as a death affects the whole church, but is a private matter. Regarding funerals we find the provision: “Funerals are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly,” Art. 65. Likewise the provision could be made: “Marriages are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.”
It could even be argued that, since marriages are family affairs, we should not have an article about it in our Church Order nor a form in our Book of Praise. This would go too far, as we are to take the historical background and development into account. Besides, it cannot be denied that the church’s interest in the marriage choice of its members is incalculable and that it is a momentous occasion when a couple can have their marriage solemnized by their own minister, when the Name of the Lord is invoked, and
when the Form is used in which the importance and purpose of marriage are explained from the Scriptures. Moreover, the promises made by the contracting parties manifest that the fear of the Lord is the guiding principle.
Some provinces allow a marriage to be solemnized when the banns have been published “in an audible voice during the divine worship service,” and no objection has been received from the congregation. Then the civil authorities trust that there are no legal impediments to the intended marriage and that the congregation has given its assent. In other provinces a marriage may be solemnized only when the couple can produce a marriage license, issued on behalf of the civil authorities.
Regarding the degrees of consanguinity which forbid marriage, the church follows the standards set by the civil authorities, and these standards fundamentally date back to what the Lord has commanded us in His Word, (cf. Lev. 18 and 20.)
Task of Consistory
As stated above, in Art. 63 we speak of the task of the consistory. The consistory has the supervision over the work of the minister, but also over the life of the members of the congregation and certainly over such an important matter as the marriage of two of its members. If a member marries not “in the Lord,” how can this marriage ever be a symbol of the relation between Christ and His church? There is also the grave danger in such a case that a whole generation becomes lost to the church and to the cause of the Lord.
Quite understandably, the first part of this article makes the provision that the consistory shall ensure that members marry “in the Lord.” This is an express command which we find in Scripture, 1 Cor. 7: 39. When a man and a woman enter the covenant of marriage, they are to do this in obedience to the Lord. No blessing should be expected if they begin their life together on the wrong foot. The Lord also tells us expressly that we shall not be “mismatched with an unbeliever,” 2 Cor. 6: 14. Although this does not specifically refer to the bond of marriage, there is nothing that prevents us from applying it to marriage as well. Would the command not apply to the life-long “match” of marriage? Should the Lord’s children not do everything “in Him,” in their communion with Him, as obedient children of the covenant which the Lord has established with them in the first place?
A consistory should not wait with paying due attention to the choice of partner until a marriage has been arranged and a date has been set for the wedding. As soon as a boy or a girl seems to become too closely attached to someone not belonging to the church the overseers should discuss this with the member and admonish him or her not to continue in this way. Even if the member should remain a member after marriage, the impact which the other partner will have on the family and the children, if they receive any, is such that the worst can be expected. The children will have to make a choice, and it will be extremely difficult for them to free themselves from the influence which tries to steer them into a direction which is contrary to the
will of the Lord. In case the other partner requests to be received as a member, and is admitted upon profession of faith, the fact remains that this partner may be unable to free himself or herself from the past, which still may influence the thinking and the upbringing of the children. There are exceptions, for which we are very thankful, but we should go by the rule.
Another element which is to be taken into account is that through a marriage two families are brought into closer contact with each other. Children will undergo the influence from two different branches and perhaps even worlds of thought when a mismatch in the Scriptural sense takes place.
In as much as it is the task of the consistory to take heed of the members and their choice of marriage partner, the brothers have the task to ensure that the minister solemnizes only such marriages that are in accordance with the Word of God. It is clear what these marriages are: they are marriages “in the Lord,” marriages which are truly a symbol of the relation between Christ and His church. The minister is subject to the supervision of the consistory in this part of his activities too.
The question may be raised whether only marriages of communicant members should be solemnized or whether also those of non-communicant members are included. “How could one who has not yet publicly declared his ‘choice’ for God give the solemn promise that binds one to a life’s partner for as long as they both shall live?” one might ask. No one will deny that there is some inconsistency here. Yet we should not declare the solemnization of a marriage a priori impermissible when either one or both of the parties are non-communicant members. In general we should insist on the condition that both parties have first declared that they dedicate their lives to the Lord before they pledge each other their troth. As a rule, this will not cause any difficulty, since by far the most members entering the marriage state have made profession of faith.
Only occasionally does a marriage take place where this condition is not met. This will be mostly the case when a baby is already on the way. We fail to see why in such a case a minister should not be allowed to solemnize the marriage. Would it be in accordance with the will of the Lord that in such an event we send the brother and sister to a marriage commissioner or justice of the peace? They definitely were wrong to behave as if they were already married. But now that this resulted in pregnancy, is it ecclesiastical style to refuse the solemnization of their marriage? We cannot accept that; on the contrary, we would say that they need the guidance and prayer of the congregation the more urgently.
Where there is no “hurry” it should be pointed out to the couple that they are to make profession of faith first, although the consistory should see to it that the couple does not make profession of faith just to have their marriage solemnized by their minister. It must be a matter of heartfelt conviction and not a formal gesture, made necessary by the circumstances.
When a minister is unsure how he should proceed, he should put the question before the consistory, and he as well as the couple will have to honour the consistory's decision. After all, it is not the minister's or the consistory’s doing that the couple want to get married before having made profession of faith. The couple should realize that.
What about a marriage between a member and a non-member? Here, too, the consistory should consider the matter and come to a conclusion. Our Church Order does not make extensive stipulations here, but gives only general guidelines. The point of “in the Lord” is to be the guiding factor. We would not right away declare solemnization of such a marriage impermissible. Imagine a case in which the non-member has expressed a desire to join the church but, owing to pressure by his or her family, has not dared to take that step before the wedding day. In such an event we would consider it wrong to refuse the solemnization by the minister. Refusal might even alienate the member. However, the consistory has the final say in the matter.
Another question is whether a marriage may be solemnized if one of the partners is divorced. Alas, this phenomenon with all its sad consequences also for the children is not unknown within the churches.
Though the question of divorce has received plenty of attention, we cannot say that full agreement has been reached concerning this matter. The church should certainly not follow the prevailing trend around us. There divorce is made as easy as selling a house or buying a car. One can even buy “Do-it-yourself divorce kits!” The church is to go solely by what the Lord has revealed in His Word and should, with its understanding of God’s revelation, not let itself be influenced by all sorts of unbelieving theories propagated all around us.
What we understand from the Lord’s revelation is that divorce is “legitimate” in two instances only. The first is when adultery is involved. When the Lord Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery, Mt. 19: 9, this “except” would not make any sense unless it expressed a legitimate reason for divorce. Thus, when one of the partners has committed adultery, the innocent party can legitimately seek a divorce and is then also free to marry again. We keep in mind that we are dealing with church polity and not with ethics. For this reason we confine ourselves to these few remarks.
The second possibility is when one of the partners leaves the other partner because of hatred against the service of the Lord, 1 Cor. 7: 12-16. When the apostle writes that the brother or sister is not bound in such a case, this can hardly mean anything else than that the believing party is free to obtain a divorce and to marry again, that is to say: in the Lord.
We cannot find any other valid ground for divorce in the Word of God, a ground that would likewise permit the solemnization of another marriage. Although a lengthy separation may be acceptable in today’s society, the Scriptures do not mention this as a valid ground. The same applies to all sorts of other excuses which are adduced, such as incompatibility.
What is to be done if someone who obtained a divorce on grounds that cannot stand the Lord’s scrutiny wants to get married? What if someone who has obtained a divorce on the ground of incompatibility marries and thus commits adultery? What about the other partner?
According to the words of our Saviour no marriage is allowed in these circumstances, since they are still bound to each other in the eyes of the Lord. The one who married someone else committed adultery, but the other party, who must have consented to the divorce on the ground of incompatibility, is not permitted to enter into another marriage either. Both have to remain unmarried.
If one of the parties does get married and if either this party or the one who enters into marriage with him or her is a member of the church, they should be admonished. This will have taken place already after the illegitimate divorce, but now there is the added sin of another marriage. This will intensify the admonitions. But what may not be demanded is that this second marriage shall be dissolved. This would be possible only on grounds which cannot stand before the Lord. All a consistory can do is bring the couple to the confession that both the divorce and the subsequent marriage were wrong, and that they sincerely repent of it. More may not be demanded of them.
We did sound a warning against casuistry before, but have to repeat it here. What should be kept in view are the rather simple and clear commands of the Lord. It is true that we live in a sinful and broken world and we are to remember that perfection will come only when our Saviour has appeared on the clouds of heaven. Therefore we should not judge harshly; we may be compelled to accept situations which cannot be changed in this dispensation.
What is the meaning of the solemnization of a marriage? When a man and a woman begin to love each other and agree that they should go through life as husband and wife, they are not by that very fact married to each other. They are to enter into this covenant on well-defined stipulations, in the presence of two witnesses. This is the normal and legitimate way in spite of all theories to the contrary.
The civil authorities have assured themselves of the sufficiency and validity of the vows made at the solemnization before having any minister of the churches registered as authorized to solemnize marriage. The legal position as husband and wife must be established, also, though not exclusively, with a view to possible children.
At the solemnization of their marriage the brother and sister openly enter into the covenant of marriage, give each other their promises and pledge each other their troth in the presence of witnesses. Doing this, they acknowledge that the Lord is the Head of their union and household and that they wish to proceed only under His guidance. They also solicit the prayers of their relatives, friends, and of the whole congregation.
For almost four hundred years the following announcement was made to the congregation: “A. and B. desire to enter into the holy state of matrimony according to the ordinance of God. To this end they crave the Christian prayers in their behalf of the whole congregation in order that they may begin this Christian state in the Name of the Lord and may complete it blessedly to His glory.”
Here we find nothing of the “confirmation” or “blessing,” which terms were introduced later. The minister or even the church has no task or authority to “bless” the marriage, and ministers who raise one hand (and why not both hands here?) in a gesture of blessing when uttering the wish at the end of the Form had better omit this. No one has authorized the church or the minister to bless a just solemnized marriage. This “blessing” is a remnant of the “ecclesiastical blessing of a marriage” which was considered necessary since, according to one old fallacy, marriage as such belongs to the natural life, to the area of the “common grace,” and is not complete or fit for the kingdom of God without an ecclesiastical blessing.
Should the solemnization of a marriage take place during a worship service or may it be done in a private ceremony? Actually, we should turn the question around and say: “Should it take place in a private ceremony or in a public worship service?”
The question most likely would never have been raised if the situation in the Netherlands had not dominated the thoughts of the immigrants.
Since 1809 the civil government in the Netherlands made a civil marriage mandatory. Before this time approximately the same practice was followed which is customary here: marriages were solemnized by the ministers. Those who wish to trace their roots should to consult the church records prior to 1809.
Being used to the involvement of the minister, the new-Canadians did not consider the civil ceremony sufficient or satisfying, and thus an ecclesiastical ceremony followed. The marriage had to be “ecclesiastically confirmed” or “blessed.” This was and still is done in an official worship service, although in some instances only the families were and are present. There are some couples in the Netherlands who simply notify the consistory that they are going to get married on, say Thursday, and now request the special intercession by the congregation on the Sunday after. No special ceremony, no special service, just the special prayer in the regular worship service.
This is contrary to the provision in the Dutch Church Order which reads, Art. 70, “The consistory shall see to it that marriages are ecclesiastically confirmed, wherewith the form adopted for this purpose shall be used.” Old customs die hard, don’t they? At one of the ceremonies which this writer conducted here in Canada a brother visiting from the Netherlands walked out because pictures were being taken during the ceremony, and he thought that it was an official worship service! He was wrong in more than one respect.
It must be admitted that it is a concession to that old Dutch influence when Art. 63 makes the provision that the solemnization may take place during a public worship service. The churches did not want to impose a different course of action upon a church which might still want to continue this practice.
When it comes to the point, however, the solemnization of a marriage does not belong in a worship service. It should be done in a private ceremony, although nothing would prevent having the private ceremony in a church building.
Whatever happens in a worship service should be an ecclesiastical, congregational matter. Solemnization of a marriage is not one of these matters.
Since the prayers of the brothers and sisters are solicited, it is advisable to have the ceremony held at an hour at which many members of the congregation can be present if, of course, they wish to. In case the solemnization takes place in a private residence this consideration does not enter the picture.
Marriages are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.