Courtship, Engagement, and the Wedding
Marriage is not a human custom that gradually came to be accepted during the early history of mankind. Marriage is a God-ordained sacred institution, and it is intended to be a lifetime proposition. Jesus said, “Have ye not read that he which made them at the beginning, made them male and female, and said For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh?” (Matthew 19:4-5).
Marriage originated at the time of creation; it is not a mere human invention. In Genesis 2:24 God says that a man should leave father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they two “shall be one flesh.” That text, given at the beginning of creation, says four things about marriage. Marriage is to be:
- monogamous—one man, one woman; a man and his wife
- permanent—joined to one another speaks of a binding commitment, like epoxy glue
- heterosexual—given in the context of a man and woman (Adam and Eve)
- a separate unit—the word “leave” means “to abandon the former relationship”
The Bible encourages young people to consider marriage—and certainly it is unwise for people to suddenly marry, without ever having paid any attention to each other, or without really getting to know each other. Therefore we approve of courtship among young people—but there are some instructions that need to be passed along to youth.
a. The dangers of courtship
There are many pitfalls during the years of courtship, but the most menacing danger is related to habits which can lead to sexual intimacy.
The primary reason why many marriages end in disaster is because during courtship the couple becomes too involved in their physical attraction for each other. They don’t really get to know each other as persons because the sexual attraction becomes predominant. It is very easy to overlook even obvious personality defects, since so much pleasurable emotion comes from the activities of touching and embracing (necking and petting). At those moments—when the passions are aroused—who cares about personality defects?
The sex experience is beautiful and right—but only within the bonds of true and honorable marriage. Why within marriage? Because God knows that the physical relationship between a man and a woman might lead to the birth of a child—and that the child will only get the proper nurture within the family situation of a godly marriage. The Bible says that “marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled, but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).
In the Bible, fornication (sex experience before one is married) is classified as being equal to stealing and murder and idolatry. Most Christians would never think of committing murder—taking the life of another person—but God says that fornication is equally wicked.
What most people during courtship don’t seem to understand—is that touching and embracing (necking and petting) are simple acts designed to pave the way to excite the passions for the ultimate act of sexual intercourse. Step by step—if these habits are started, you’ll likely push back the barriers of what you permit—until it is almost impossible to avoid the act of fornication.
Many young persons don’t seem to recognize the principle in human behavior which is known as “the moral law of diminishing returns.” The law simply says (when related to courtship practices) that once a couple has proceeded to one level of intimacy, it is almost impossible to return to a less intimate level. The couple who progresses from holding hands to the act of touching and embracing—can scarcely ever return to the less intimate level and be satisfied.
And so a dating couple should enjoy each other’s presence—carefully avoiding familiar intimacies that could tempt each other beyond the power of self-control. Those people who can’t seem to get enough of each other before marriage (spending evenings pawing all over each other)—are often the very ones who have all kinds of conflicts after marriage.
One of the best safeguards to a pure courtship is a well-planned date—an evening filled with activities that are all planned—things to do and places to go that are planned in advance.
- Visit the homes of lonely people in your community, especially the aged and widows and shut-ins. They enjoy having a group of energetic young people singing a song, engaging in conversation, or letting a word of testimony.
- Plan activities with the family at home. Spend time together cooking a meal, making candy, popping corn, looking at pictures, or playing simple games.
- Spend at least part of each dating period reading and discussing a passage of Scripture. Both can agree to read the same portion of the Bible at the same time each evening of the week. There’s something special about knowing that your special friend is doing the same thing you are doing at exactly the same time, even though separated by many miles.
These are things to do, and places to go, in order to make your courtship constructive and filled with purpose.
b. The choice of courtship
The Scriptures are clear: believers are not to even consider marriage with unbelievers under any circumstances at all. The Law in Israel forbade intermarriage with persons from the non-Jewish nations round about them (Deuteronomy 7:3). We are not to marry pagans. Believers are not to give their daughters to unbelieving boys or their sons to unbelieving girls. The New Testament commands the same thing. We are not to be “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
To those who are not yet married, we must say this: Those who seek your hand in marriage might be generous and well-trained and handsome—but unless they are children of God by faith in Jesus Christ (not necessarily members of your church), and are concerned about obedience to the Scriptures (and give clear evidence of knowing the Lord)—you must not even consider dating [courting] them. Failure to observe this basic law of God has led to shipwreck in thousands of homes—and any girl who marries a young man with the idea that she will change his undesirable traits after the ceremony, is only inviting disaster! If a person is not honest and trustworthy before the wedding day, the words of a marriage ceremony will not change him. If he is careless about handling money before marriage, he will likely exhibit the same characteristics later on.
There are other instructions related to choosing a good partner. Sometimes I’ve been asked the question, “How can I know when I’m in love with the right person?” There is no formula that can be used to accurately answer that question—but here are some statements that will be true about the two of you if you are intended for each other:
- 1. There will be a feeling that you’ve been lifted to a higher spiritual level through the association with your special friend. One young man said, “Every time I’m with her, she inspires me to become a better person.”
- 2. You will have confidence and trust in your special friend, and will not really have a desire to date other persons. True love creates a “we” feeling.
- 3. You will want to see and meet and know your partner’s parents—and brothers and sisters and relatives and friends.
- 4. You will have respect for the one you love—respect for that person’s beliefs and convictions and moral standards. These things will be more important than his or her physical attractiveness.
- 5. You will be lonely when circumstances require the two of you to be separated. You will long for the day and the hour when you can be together again.
- 6. You will hurt when your special friend is hurt or criticized. You will rush to the defense of your friend and seek to support him (or her).
- 7. You will want your children to have the character qualities and attitudes which are evident in the life of your special friend.
If each of you is bubbling over with these seven characteristics, it is quite evident that love between the two of you is really growing. And remember that true love can thrive without physical contact. If you can’t be together without hugging and holding and squeezing—something is wrong. The base for your companionship is too shallow. Your interest must be in the total person, not merely in his or her physical charms.
If you took a trip together shortly after your marriage—and you were in a car accident—and the body of the girl (or the boy) you just married is really battered—and her face is re-arranged—and the doctor says “She will never quite be the same,” would you still be able to love her and take care of her? True love is concerned about the total well-being of the potential partner, and is not merely a romantic dream about spending eternity in each other’s arms!
All of us have read the account of the engagement of Joseph and Mary, as it is given in Matthew 1:18-25. “Engagement” is a definite mutual agreement between a courting couple, stating that they will plan for and look forward to marriage. They prepare for marriage by further testing their love, further learning to make adjustments, seeking to correct faults, and making plans for the wedding day.
The couple should only enter into the betrothal period after much prayer, and with the full confidence that God has been leading. There’s a new joy and thrill that comes when planning things together—thinking about the future together. This new, closer companionship will help determine whether your partner’s love is really genuine, or whether it is only a clever imitation.
Sometimes when a young man becomes engaged, he thinks that because the matter of whom he is going to marry has been settled—he can now relax and let his ordinary behavior surface. He may have previously been play-acting. For this reason, sometimes, one (or both) of the partners realizes that the engagement was a mistake (and this is not to encourage breaking engagements)—yet while engagements should not be taken lightly, it is far better to break an engagement than to seek a divorce after marriage.
a. Qualities that should surface during engagement
- A prospective marriage partner should have a strong faith in God and should accept the teachings of the Bible as his rule for life—including the practices of nonconformity and nonresistance.
- He should possess self-confidence, not with an air of superiority thinking he knows it all, but with a positive feeling that he is going to meet and work through life’s problems.
- He should manifest self-discipline, exercising reasonable control over his temper, his words, and his bodily appetites.
- He should have ambition and purpose, showing a sense of responsibility toward work, and toward getting things done on time.
- He should be willing to admit his mistakes, take responsibility for them, and vow to profit from them.
- He should have mature ideas about how to handle money. He should not be a miser who saves every penny, nor should he be a careless spender, spending everything as fast as he earns it.
- He should reflect a sense of respect for his home, his parents, and his brothers and sisters.
And of course, any person who looks for those qualities in a potential marriage companion should work diligently to develop those same qualities in his or her own life.
b. Purposes for the engagement period
- a time when you prove your love, and guarantee that you are a team, and are both going in the same direction.
- a time when you discover in each other an increasing companionship and a growing respect and admiration for each other.
- a time when you make plans for the wedding and the household that will be established.
- a time when you discuss such matters as how the money will be handled, how family worship will be conducted, who will take the garbage out, where you will live, and to which church you will belong. The Bible and wisdom teach that it is best not to live at either parental home. To “leave” father and mother—means to abandon the former relationship, not to dishonor father and mother.
- a time to learn about the more intimate things of marriage—including sexual activity and the birth of children. Seek the counsel of someone in whom you have confidence and speak about the details. A helpful book on the subject (from a Christian perspective, for persons who will soon marry) is “Sexual Happiness in Marriage” by Herbert J. Miles.
It is very important to remember that just because you are engaged, you are not free to explore each other’s bodies. Sexual relationships are for cementing the marriage relationship into a strong and permanent bond.
- The Wedding
When it comes time to plan the wedding, determine to let the occasion be marked by simplicity and modesty. The money spent for a showy wedding is not an investment that will pay dividends; it is money spent that is gone forever. Think of the thousands of people in Africa and India who are dying this week.
The wedding is an important ceremony because marriage is a sacred event. Jesus says that at the time of marriage, the couple leaves father and mother and they cleave to each other. They are no more two, but one flesh (Matthew 19:6). Just as Satan tries to take Christ out of Christmas and the resurrection out of Easter, so he seeks to take the deeper spiritual essence out of the wedding ceremony and put trivia there instead.
a) The wedding event is often too elaborate and expensive.
The average formal wedding today, among many circles in the Western world, involves decorations and gowns and suits and invitations and postage and pictures and a reception—so that the cost often falls between $5,000 and $10,000 and even more. Yet we are aware that a wedding ceremony can be beautiful and impressive and sacred without blindly following the routine cultural patterns.
There are ways to keep the cost of a wedding in a more moderate range. Here are some suggestions.
- 1) Buy (or make) a nice mid-calf length dress for the bride, and wear it occasionally after the wedding day.
- 2) Have only a limited number of attendants for the wedding ceremony, and request that the attendants wear clothing which they can wear after the wedding day.
- 3) Write your own personal notes of invitation instead of sending expensive engraved invitations.
- 4) Consider limiting the reception to a light snack instead of a full meal. Weddings would be a lot more Christian if they were a lot less elaborate!
There is beauty in simplicity. A wedding is not intended to be a fashion show. It is to be one of the most sacred of all Christian services. The serious purpose of binding two hearts and lives together for a lifetime of home-building must not be lost in the midst of the formality and display of an elaborate wedding procedure. It does not cost much to walk to the front of a church auditorium, and seriously repeat the marriage vows, and then kneel together and pray.
b) The wedding event is often built around the bride.
The typical wedding in many cultures is saturated with matriarchcalism. It centers on the bride, and thus violates the Bible principle of mutual love and dignity that should surround both parties in a marriage.
In some circles, the wedding format is something like this:
The people begin to arrive in the church building; there is quiet pre-ceremonial music; the ushers seat the women; the men tag along behind like frightened little puppy dogs. After a few musical selections, the clergy, the groom, and the best man appear from somewhere at the front of the church auditorium. Then, down the aisle come some sweet little girls carrying flowers, followed by some sweet big girls clad in beautiful dresses (often very immodestly designed); and finally—the big, important, momentous occasion arrives! As the rear door opens—and in answer to the call of music—finally, here comes the bride!
All eyes are glued on the bride; the people smile and everybody stands; all eyes watch the bride’s movements very carefully. After someone “gives away” the bride, the people sit down—and from that point the ceremony is in charge of the officiating minister.
It would be much more in keeping with mutual love if the bride and the groom would walk into the auditorium together—or even for the bride to come via one door with her parents, and the groom come via another door with his parents—and the two meet together at the altar, facing the minister in charge. In the Christian wedding, the worship, honor and glory should be directed toward Jesus Christ, not toward the bride.
After the ceremony the newly married couple should be allowed to greet guests, and then leave the scene of the wedding in peace—with the echo of their vows ringing in their ears, the good wishes of their friends lingering in their hearts, and the blessing of God upon their marriage.
When two people stand side by side and promise to love and cherish each other until death separates them—it’s not hard to believe that the angels in Heaven hush their songs for a while, and stand in awe as they listen to the solemn vows. May God help each young person to find joy in living, whether your lot in life involves marriage, or whether in the providence of God you happen to remain single. To those who have never married, and you are somewhat older, the right person might still appear on the scene—but if not, don’t become discouraged. It’s better to want what you don’t have than to have what you don’t want!
BIBLE HELPS | Robert Lehigh, Editor | PO Box 391, Hanover, PA 17331 United States of America