An engaging proposal


A reflection on marriage and engagement from Campion College President Dr Ryan Messmore. Dr Messmore’s article first appeared in the US magazine Touchtstone’s January/February 2013 issue.

Campion College President Dr Ryan Messmore
Campion College President Dr Ryan Messmore.
The Marriage Covenant, Engaged

Is there anything in life more worth preparing for than marriage?

Marriage has profound implications for individuals, churches and communities alike. It has the power to make people happier or more miserable than almost anything else in the world. Research shows that healthy marriages correlate with numerous positive outcomes, from higher educational achievement to better physical health to increased levels of prosperity and happiness. Moreover, marriage has deep theological significance: the Apostle Paul points to it as the relationship most reflective of God’s relationship with the Church.

In light of this, it would seem that there are few decisions in life more momentous than proposing marriage (aka “popping the question”). Surely engagement deserves to be approached with great intentionality and planning.

Sadly, when it comes to getting engaged, our culture provides dating couples no normative process of deliberate preparation. Many churches offer aid in preparing for marriage, but they lack liturgies or catechetical processes for training and evaluating couples moving toward engagement. In the modern west, we view getting engaged as the start rather than the end result  of a process of intentional, church-guided examination and discernment. Part of the reason for this likely has to do with the dominant story in modern western culture about marriage and romance.

Two Centres of Gravity

Manhattan Institute senior fellow Kay Hymowitz summarises today’s common attitude toward romance and love: “the good life is about being cool, looking hot, and seeking pleasure however you want it. Marriage is great when it’s the culmination of a romantic love story, but if the going gets tough, it’s on to the next pleasure.” The centre of gravity in this story is romantic feeling; it’s a vision of love that maximises individual choice and sexual freedom. Such a story places the focus of marriage on the perceived well-being of the individuals involved. It puts forward no larger purpose, common task, or public office which might call for preparation or training.

Furthermore, this story invites fiancés to approach the meaning of marriage as something they get to determine willy-nilly. They decide what kind of obligations marriage entails and how binding those obligations will be. This approach is sometimes reflected in a couple’s desire to write their own wedding vows.

Such a mentality can lead to a “me-centred” approach to marriage preparation: “I’ll do it if I think it will make me happier  perhaps by giving my fiancé and me some techniques for avoiding conflict.” What’s missing is a sense that marriage is an ancient institution ordained for purposes beyond the spouses’ own happiness, and that couples desiring marriage may first have to learn what those purposes are and how to fulfill them.

In short, the modern story fails to portray marriage as a public vocation that requires a prior period of training and transformation - mental, spiritual, relational, and moral.

The Christian faith offers a different story of marital love. Its centre of gravity is the notion of covenant: a lifelong relationship, grounded in faithfulness, that launches members on a joint adventure with public responsibilities and obligations.

This narrative of spousal covenant love shapes the drama of Scripture. The Bible describes God’s relationship with his people in terms of a marriage covenant. Hosea speaks of God as a jealous husband (2:2-13), John refers to John the Baptist as the friend of the groom (3:29), and the book of Revelation describes the church as Christ’s bride (19:7-8).

Benefits of Premarital Counseling

Although the biblical narrative of love is marital in form, it seems to make little difference in the way Christians actually go through engagements and weddings.  They typically abide by the same cultural norms, follow the same rhythms, and progress through the same stages as their non-Christian peers.

The practice by which Christians are most likely to stand out from these peers is premarital counselling. This is a valuable tool that many churches offer to fiancés; it provides a valuable opportunity for them to talk through the meaning of marriage and the theological understanding of family, sex and love. It enables a third party to observe the couple’s communication style and relational dynamics.  And such counselling gives the couple a chance to discuss predictable areas of conflict (like money, in-laws, sex, children, and so forth) and to form more realistic expectations about married life.

This helps explain why, in the attempt to strengthen marriage in America, the nonprofit organisation Marriage Savers focuses primarily on pastors and the way they prepare members of their congregations for marriage. Marriage Savers encourages pastors to unite with other local pastors in refusing to marry any couple that hasn’t had significant premarital preparation from both clergy and a mentor couple. The results are impressive: churches that take this route have seen reduced divorce rates and improved marital relationships.

Too Little & Too Late?

Sadly, though, well over half of engaged couples do not participate in premarital counselling. Pastors report that those who do usually allow time for only two or three sessions, each lasting about an hour. In other words, individuals typically spend less time preparing to enter marriage than to take exams, file taxes, and run marathons.

Moreover, if premarital counseling takes place after engagement and right before the wedding, does it not come a bit late in the process?

By the time many engaged couples enter counselling, they have already set the wedding date. They’ve already booked the ceremony and reception sites.  They’ve already made the news public and have likely already sent invitations to every important person in their lives. He’s already paid for a ring, and she and her mother have already seen her in the dress. That’s a lot of subtle pressure, on both the couple and the pastor, to have the sessions turn out “successfully”!

It’s terribly disappointing to call off or postpone a wedding; it would be even more embarrassing if the cancellation were due to unforeseen disagreements that arose in counselling. So even if the parties realise they are at odds over an issue  like budget planning or whether to have children  they’re tempted to overlook the trouble spot, proceed according to plan, and set out to live happily ever after.

The Ancient Way

The Church has the resources to imagine a different approach. The larger biblical story of love incorporates aspects of the ancient Jewish process of entering a marriage covenant. This isn’t exactly the most romantic process, and certain aspects of it are undesirable and downright offensive by modern standards. But whatever else might be said about it, the ancient Jewish betrothal process provided young couples with a public, deliberate and timely route toward the wedding. It provided ritual guideposts that embodied the meaning of marriage as a covenant and that marked clear steps toward its consummation. And the process also had the benefit of separating out the foundational aspects of this covenant from the mere planning for the wedding.

It is in this regard that the ancient Jewish story of entering a marriage covenant might have something to teach us today.

In Old Testament Israel, and up through Jesus’ day, entering into a marriage covenant wasn’t something that happened in an instant  a 20- or 30-minute ceremony. Rather, it was a yearlong process marked by a number of public rituals and practices. Part of the reason betrothals were taken so seriously had to do with cultural context, including the tradition of arranged marriages. But the gravity of the process also stemmed from the nature of marriage as a covenant.

The Bible mentions various kinds of covenants, including covenants between friends (1 Sam. 18:3), nations (1 Kings 20:34), and marriage partners (Mal. 2:14).  In each instance, covenants are lifelong relationships demanding the total commitment of both parties.

What’s especially interesting is that, unlike a typical contract, entering a covenant forms a quasi-familial bond; it’s a way of extending the bond of blood beyond one’s kin.  According to scholar P. Kalluveettil, underlying all covenants is the idea that “‘I am yours, and you are mine.” Covenants bring about the kind of commitment to  and responsibility for  others that one finds in a healthy family.

Such a relationship is so serious that it is established under divine authority. In biblical times, people entering a covenant swore a solemn oath to God, followed by a shared meal and a blood-sprinkling ceremony. By shedding an animal’s blood, the parties essentially said to each other, in the presence of God, “May the same be done to me if I fail to keep this covenant.”

Entering into a Marriage Covenant

In ancient Israel, the path toward marriage consisted of at least four stages: First, a couple’s families first discussed and agreed upon the terms of the marriage covenant. Then, they sealed this covenant with a ritual. Third, the couple prepared the conditions for the covenant’s fulfillment. And finally, they consummated their marriage as part of the official wedding proceedings. After this fourth stage, the couple and their families celebrated the marriage’s completion with a party.

Here’s how the process worked for a typical Israelite couple: The fathers of the young man and woman met to work out the terms of the marriage covenant.  They wrote down these terms in a covenant document (ketubbah) that both parties signed. The young man said to the young woman, “Today I am your husband, and you are my wife,” and she responded in a similar fashion. Then the groom’s father might pour a cup of wine (representing the blood of an animal) and hand it to his son. The son sipped the wine and said something like, “This cup represents a covenant in blood.”  He then handed the cup to his bride to sip. This act sealed the betrothal (kiddushin). Typically, the groom also presented his bride with a betrothal gift, either in the form of money or a ring made of precious metal.  Finally, the families celebrated a betrothal meal together.

It’s important to note that, after the betrothal ceremony, the man and woman were considered husband and wife. From then on, society viewed any infidelity as adultery and treated the woman as a widow if the groom died. Their betrothal was legally binding and could only be broken by a formal divorce.

Upon sealing the covenant, the son returned home and began building a room onto his father’s house. This addition to the house would be the new residence for him and his bride. It typically took up to a year to complete. During this time, if the betrothed woman entered a market or other public place, she covered her face with a veil. This signalled to other men in town that she was already betrothed and prevented the groom from seeing her until their wedding night.

Consummating the Marriage Covenant

Upon completing the additional room, the young man gathered his family and friends and set off on the appointed day to claim his bride. On that day, the bride’s mother and bridesmaids helped her in a ritual bath (mikvah) that symbolised spiritual cleaning. Then they anointed her with perfumed oils, helped her into her wedding garments, and adorned her with jewels (Is. 61:10). Not knowing the precise hour her groom would come, the bride and her companions waited expectantly throughout the day and night.

Typically, a friend ran ahead and announced the groom’s arrival by blowing a ram’s horn (shofar). After the groom claimed his bride, the couple processed back to their new home. The Israelites held this wedding procession in the highest regard. The bride and groom wore crowns and were called “king” and “queen” (Song 3:11) in a custom that tied them to the first husband and wife, Adam and Eve, who reigned (“had dominion”) over the animals (Gen. 1:28).

According to one scholar, a story is told that the Jewish King Agrippa once encountered a bridal procession while out riding with his entourage. He ordered his followers to give way to them, explaining that, though he wore the crown all the time, they wore it only on that day. (Couples married in Eastern rite churches still go through a crowning ritual during their wedding, in a ceremony known as “the mystery of crowning.”)

Upon reaching the groom’s home, the couple listened as the covenant document was read aloud, repeated their solemn declaration (“I am your husband, you are my wife,” and vice versa), received a blessing, and again sipped from a cup of wine. Then, in a private room, they consummated their marriage covenant sexually. Friends of the groom guarded the door and, at the appropriate time, announced to the crowd that the consummation had taken place.

Afterward, the two families celebrated the marriage’s completion with a joyous feast.  The party could last up to seven days or more (Judges 14:12).

Lessons to Glean

This ancient Jewish pathway to marriage reveals several points for couples to consider today.

First, entering a marriage covenant was a process, and the covenantal nature of the entire process even the initial stage of betrothal was taken seriously.  That is, betrothal wasn’t just a declaration that the two would one day enter a covenant. It was the point at which the covenant process was initiated, and it was therefore approached with great gravity and intentionality.

Second, couples entered into betrothal publically, with family and friends to witness their oath.

Third, the two parties discussed their understanding of the covenant its terms and conditions before entering it. There was still planning and preparation to be done before it was consummated, but that had to do with preparing the conditions for the covenant’s fulfillment namely, the building of a common residence. This sort of planning took place after and distinct from discussions about the nature of marriage and the spouses’ roles within it.

Fourth, marriage was based on faithfulness to each other and to the covenant, not solely on romantic feelings (although, as the Song of Solomon and the story of Jacob and Rachel attest, there was room for that, too!).

How might these principles inform Christians’ approach to engagement today?

Participating in the Ancient Jewish Story

As seniors in college, my girlfriend Karin and I asked this question as we moved toward marriage.

We agreed that it would be both unworkable and undesirable to follow the ancient Jewish customs verbatim. We didn’t hanker for the cultural context of the ancient Middle East, and we certainly didn’t regret that our culture doesn’t practice arranged marriage Karin and I were thankful that we had a large say in choosing to enter into our relationship. We also prized the freedom and equality that Western women enjoy today compared to women in Old Testament times.  Furthermore, we appreciated the Christian Church’s rightful rejection of the institution of polygamy, not to mention the social acceptability of husbands keeping mistresses.

In short, a lot about the cultural, social, and political context of ancient Israel is problematic to modern Westerners, even Christian ones. Karin and I didn’t want to baptise the ancient Jewish marriage process whole cloth, but we also didn’t want to assume, arrogantly, that no aspects of it were of value to our own relationship. We thought that some of the insights and principles of this ancient tradition would be worth heeding.

Pre-engagement counselling struck us as a way of incorporating those principles into our journey toward marriage. So we approached our pastor, who was also a good friend, about the idea.

“You want what?” he asked when we first broached the topic. We explained our desire for him to take us through the same process he led couples through in pre-marital counselling sessions. He then inquired, “How long do you want the counselling to go?”

“As long as you think it needs to,” we answered.

“And then...?”

“Then tell us whether or not you think we should marry.”

I don’t think our pastor was used to couples voluntarily submitting to that kind of authority. But he agreed and put us through our paces the rest of our senior year.

In addition to unpacking the Scriptures with us, he had us create a sample budget for our first year of marriage. He also watched us handle disagreements and counselled us about how we fight with each other. (At times, we left the office in tears, which I’ve come to view as an almost necessary component of good pre-engagement counseling.) We also discussed with him issues ranging from sex and parenting to in-laws and gender differences.

We benefited immensely from these sessions, especially since we could assess our “progress” or “success” free from external influences, like an already-announced wedding date. Only after our pastor said he thought we were ready did we proceed with the engagement.

Participating in a Larger Dance

This approach is not for everyone. It may even be unhealthy for some to pursue such intentionality before getting engaged. Couples should only embark on such a journey if they have developed an appropriate level of trust and intimacy and if they possess the necessary maturity. The decision to start intentional preparation for engagement should be made with careful discernment and input from others who know the couple well such as their parents, mentors, friends, and pastors.

For those who do pursue pre-engagement counseling, the fact of a proposal will likely not come as a surprise. The way the proposal takes place, though, can still be creative, imaginative and meaningful.

I wanted my proposal to Karin to symbolise our understanding of the commitment we would begin entering at that moment. I desired our engagement to participate in the larger story of covenant marriage in the biblical tradition.

On a rainy April night, on the observation platform atop the Duke Chapel tower, I got down on one knee in front of Karin. Using traditional covenant language, I declared to her that I wanted to be her husband, and I asked if she would be my wife. I then poured wine into a crystal chalice and said, “This cup represents a covenant in blood.” I took a sip and handed it to her to do the same. We then held each other close and danced in the rain. The huge spotlights that illumine the chapel each night shone up at us, casting our silhouettes against the low-hanging clouds. It was truly a profound moment.

As we swayed to the music, I sensed that we were taking our place in a larger dance - we were tapping into something ancient and solemn, joyful and right.  With the cup with which we had sealed our engagement, we toasted the Author of the Great Love Story.

Participating in the Larger Biblical Story

Ultimately, that story is of the Almighty’s relationship with His people. It’s the biblical tale of God desiring intimate, bodily communion, entering the process of covenant making, preparing for its faithful fulfillment, and celebrating its consummation. In one of the narrative’s most dramatic moments, the Son of God drinks from a cup of wine and says to his disciples, “this [cup] is my blood of the new covenant” (Matt. 26:28). To their ears, might this have sounded like the sealing of a marriage covenant?

Shortly thereafter, Jesus tells the disciples that soon he will go to his Father’s home to prepare rooms for them (John 14:2). And at an unexpected hour, he will return to claim his followers as his bride and bring them to share in the ultimate wedding banquet (Rev. 19:9).

This is the story that earthly engagements, weddings, and marriages are meant to echo. Each step of the process deserves intentional training and preparation, guided by church authority and celebrated with liturgy.

How we journey toward marriage narrates to the world something about covenant love  and the larger story of divine union with Christ. Is there any story more worth preparing ourselves and our relationships to reflect?

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