Marriage Ceremony and Requirements
1. What wedding customs prevailed among the Israelites?
The books of the Bible written expressly to and for Christians give no form of marriage ceremony for them. They do show that after the marriage was arranged for by the parents and through a go-between or marriage agent there was an engagement period of about a year in the case of virgin girls. Then on the wedding evening the bridegroom went to the bride’s home and took her away to her new home. There was a procession homeward by the couple amid a joyful group of celebrators. So the wedding became public property and was registered on the public consciousness, and on his bringing her home there was a wedding feast that was joined in by all the invited, as arranged by the bridegroom’s parents. Happy were those who were invited to the wedding evening meal. The bride did not keep her betrothed lover waiting before she put in appearance. She waited for him, all dressed up in her prettiest, ready to be given to him by her father or guardian.—Matt. 1:24; 22:1-11; 25:1-10; John 2:1-11; 3:29; Mark 2:19; Isa. 61:10; 62:5; Rev. 19:7, 8; 21:2, 9-11.
2. What facts regarding marriages are apparent from the Bible record?
2 It must be remembered that the first Christians were Jews, or Israelites, even as Jesus himself was. Reasonably, then, these Jewish Christians carried over their marriage customs and arrangements from their former Jewish social system to the new Christian system of things. But one thing is to be noted without fail, that from the days of Abraham forward there was no priest, Levite or other religious official present to perform any marriage ceremony. Yet the marriage was valid and recognized by Jehovah God. It was also registered at the city or village recording office, and births resulting from the marriage union were also recorded there. The two genealogical records of Jesus were doubtless copied from the town records of Bethlehem by Matthew and Luke. This leads to the question, By whom may valid Christian marriages be solemnized? Is a civil or nonreligious marriage just as binding as a religious one, or is marriage a sacrament and so valid only when religious?
3. What does the Bible show regarding the manner in which Isaac’s marriage took place?
3 No, marriage is not a sacrament requiring the presence and performance of a religious clergyman or a Christian minister. As God’s prophet, Abraham was his accepted priest for a large household, but there is no record that he was there when his oldest servant brought Rebekah from Mesopotamia to Isaac in the Negeb of Palestine. Isaac was walking alone, meditating, and the servant brought Rebekah to him and related to Isaac just how he had obtained her for him. “After that Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother. Thus he took Rebekah and she became his wife.” But this taking of her as wife had public witnesses, namely, Abraham’s marriage agent and “the men who were with him” and Rebekah’s “nurse” and her other “lady attendants.” (Gen. 24:2, 54, 59-61, 66, 67, NW) Isaac had not taken out any marriage license, any more than it is necessary to do so in some countries today. Isaac’s father Abraham, the head of the theocratic organization, had authorized it and Jehovah God who was looked to for guidance had directed the steps of the marriage procedure all the way. So a marriage license was not necessary in his case. But his taking her as wife was witnessed by more than four, and it was registered in the records of Abraham’s theocratic establishment and, of course, it is recorded in the Bible today. There was no religious ceremony about it, although God’s will was sought and recognized all the way through.
4. (a) What did the law not outline regarding marriages? (b) Marriage was what kind of affair and how was its binding nature emphasized?
4 There is no account of a religious ceremony for Isaac’s son Jacob when marrying Leah and Rachel. (Gen. 29:18-30) Neither did Jehovah God in all his hundreds of laws to his chosen people Israel order and outline a religious marriage ceremony for them. The right and duty to solemnize marriages was not assigned to the priestly family of Aaron or the Levite temple servants at all. The marriage, from the time of the engagement through to the uniting of bride and groom in his father’s home, was all of private, family arrangement without priestly or Levite participation (outside of the tribe of Levi itself). It was publicized to all the community, was duly witnessed and then was registered at the local recording office; which was why Joseph was required to go with his companion Bethlehemite Mary to their native city and get registered in the days of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus.—Luke 2:1-6, NW.
5. At the marriage at Cana what part only did Jesus play and what did he not do as regards marriage among his followers?
5 When Jesus performed his first miracle, at Cana, in the province of Galilee, he was at a wedding celebration. But he was not invited there to officiate as a minister, for he was not of the priestly family of Aaron nor of the tribe of Levi and was not recognized as a religious minister. He was invited there with his mother and his disciples merely as a guest, because the city was near his former place of carpenter business. So he did not sanctify the marriage while there, but provided the best of wine for the further enjoyment of all present. (John 2:1-11) In all his commandments to his twelve apostles and his evangelists he never told or commissioned them to solemnize anybody’s marriage, but left the matter of marriage just as it was among Jehovah’s people. He never turned marriage into a sacrament within the exclusive power and under the sanction solely of the apostles or Christian ministers.
6. What is the Scriptural position regarding civil marriages required by law?
6 Is, then, a religious marriage strictly necessary? No. Is a civil marriage authorized by God’s Book the Bible? Yes, and in this regard Christians may ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.’ In most countries of Christendom a civil marriage performed by an appointed officer of the state is either allowed or absolutely required. So no social or religious stigma rightfully attaches to a civil marriage, and the Most High God recognizes the civil marriage of his dedicated people and holds them bound by it. In some lands inside and outside of Christendom the governments recognize marriages performed by the Roman Catholic priests and by ministers of other recognized religions. These ministers it licenses to perform marriages in religious buildings or at certain registered places. Along with these the appointed ministers of Jehovah’s witnesses are authorized or licensed to solemnize the marriage. In all these cases the officiating minister of religion acts as a servant of the state in legalizing the marriage. Hence, too, such marriages are binding and have God’s recognition. When persons come into the New World society who have been married by the religious ceremonies of any of these authorized religions, Jehovah’s witnesses recognize the marriage of such incoming persons as binding and still having effect. Where Jehovah’s witnesses do not have authorized ministers of their own to officiate at a marriage, they can conscientiously go to the appointed government offices and have a valid, divinely recognized marriage performed by a state officer.
7. How does the Roman Catholic Church view civil marriages, as shown by what recent event?
7 In lands where the government authorizes, requires and recognizes only a civil marriage, the Roman Catholic Church does not look upon the civil marriage as valid and requires Catholics to be married afterward by a priest in a religious wedding. For instance, recently when the Catholic prince of Monaco married the Catholic Hollywood motion-picture star, the New York Times (April 20, 1956) reported: “The 32-year-old Prince and his 26-year-old bride, who were married in a civil ceremony yesterday in the Palace, were united in the eyes of the Church by the Bishop of Monaco, Monsignor Gilles Barthe. They received the blessing of Pope Pius XII through his Nuncio in Paris, Monsignor Paolo Marella. . . . She went to her place before the white marble altar first, custom giving way to a sovereign’s right to be waited upon. The Prince joined her a few moments later.”
8. Of what value is a religious meeting with the bride and groom after the civil marriage has been performed?
8 Of course, the Roman Catholic religious marriage after the civil wedding has no legal value, nor does the religious ceremony afterward of any other religious system. But where possible, or where requested, Jehovah’s witnesses may hold a religious meeting with the groom and his bride afterward. This meeting is not necessary and is no marriage and it is not held as if to add any legal value to the civil marriage already performed. It is held to give the newly married couple wholesome, timely Bible admonition and counsel on the opportunities and obligations of marriage and to bring the marriage more prominently before the local congregation and to give a witness to Jehovah’s matrimonial arrangement before all persons of good will present. This also affords a good time and occasion for the marriage to be registered with the congregation and notice of it to be filed with the congregation’s record.
9. When the law requires registration at a distant city not convenient to the newlyweds what can be done about it?
9 What is done before the congregation is done “before God,” just as in ancient Israel what was done before the judges or rulers was done before God. (Ex. 21:6; 22:8, 9, 28, NW; RS) What if there is an African marriage between Christians and the marriage is held in one town or village but it has to be registered with the government in a distant city, not convenient for the newlyweds to get to right away? At the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s witnesses a “Declaration of Marriage” can be filled out. This does not have any legal value and does not take the place of a civil registration, but it does have recognition among God’s people. It testifies before the New World society that the newly united couple acknowledge that their marriage is in force and binding, and that they will register it with the Civil Law as soon as it is convenient. This “Declaration of Marriage” is then filed with the records of the congregation and the Watch Tower Society’s office, and the newlyweds can enter into marriage relations until they get registered civilly. Thus the Society has a record of the marriage during the time that the civil government may not have it, and by its servants the Society can check, after an allowance of time, to see whether the proper civil registration has been made and the married couple have complied with the law.
10. (a) What is it proper for those married by tribal custom to do? (b) What kind of marriages are recommended for tribespeople belonging to the New World society, and why?
10 Where tribespeople have married according to the tribal custom before they get the Kingdom truth and enter the New World society, their marriage still binds them and is recognized. A remarriage is not necessary, but it is proper to record the tribal marriage with the New World society by signing a Declaration of Marriage if there has been no civil registration with the government. But in a certain land there might be a benefit legally for a man and his family to have such tribespeople remarried under the civil law of the land. For unmarried tribespeople who become part of the New World society we recommend a civil marriage, as it carries with it greater advantages and secures greater protection from the law, which makes provision for the wife and children after death of her husband. Certainly for former pagans to marry according to the pagan custom is a step backward, and if there were unscriptural pagan rites connected with it then it would be making a compromise with this world, a denial of faith, and might call for a disfellowshiping.
11, 12. (a) Why does a bride-price marriage not need to be repeated upon one’s coming into the truth? (b) What assistance may congregations give toward civil registrations? (c) What do reason and theocratic rule indicate as to showers, invitations, weddings, receptions?
11 A dowry or bride-price marriage before one becomes a Christian does not need to be supplemented by an expensive remarriage. Coming into the truth and dedicating oneself to God does not make a previous bride-price marriage null and void nor does it declare or make such persons who were married tribal-style and who are continuing in such marriage fornicators. To help in relieving persons of great matrimonial expenses the records that the New World society requires are drawn up and kept free of charge. If a congregation wants to pay or help pay for civil registration of the marriage of any of its members, this is a very practical thing to do by those who willingly want to help bear this expense. It is not obligatory upon any members of a congregation to give a “shower,” that is, to get together and bestow a mass of presents upon a prospective bride for her use and enjoyment after marriage. A “shower” is a private matter and to share in it must be left to each one’s unpressured choice.
12 “Showers” and wedding announcements should be made privately, and not from the platform of the Kingdom Hall or by other notices in the Kingdom Hall. As for sending out formal printed invitations to one’s wedding and the reception afterward, reasonableness should be exercised. Some who are not intimate acquaintances or are merely speaking acquaintances or who live at distances making it impractical for them to accept and act on a wedding invitation resent having a wedding invitation thrust upon them because of the feeling of obligation under which it puts them. Wedding ceremonies may be held at the Kingdom Hall at any time that these will not interfere with meetings or other service arrangements. Receptions following weddings should not be held at the Kingdom Hall, converting it into a place of entertainment.
13. How should one be dressed for a wedding, and why is the lack of a ring no discredit?
13 The wearing of rich clothes is not necessary for a civil marriage. The main thing is to be dressed neatly, becomingly, and, as a Christian, to be spiritually well-clothed with love, humility, obedience and faithfulness. A wedding ring may not be customary or may be beyond one’s means. The marriage estate is not everywhere symbolized by a wedding ring. It is no essential part of a marriage ceremony. Failure to give a wedding ring is not to one’s discredit. Even where the wedding ring is recognized as marking a married woman and serves notice upon anyone with passionate desires, some may conscientiously object to featuring a ring in the ceremony, having in mind the pagan origin of the customary wedding ring in Christendom. In some places the marriage estate of a woman is indicated by the style of dress that she wears or the new piece that she adds to her garments. Locally this is just as effective as a finger ring, in fact more noticeable. A wedding ring amounts to nothing if there is no real tie or if the marriage tie is not respected. A passionate woman will not let a ring keep her from committing adultery. The use of a ring in a marriage ceremony should therefore be left to each one’s decision according to conscience and local custom.
14. (a) Upon coming into the truth what must a polygamist do? (b) And upon accepting the truth what should a woman do that is married to a polygamist where this is legal or customary?
14 For a Christian God’s Word rules out polygamy, regardless of how a national or tribal government may rule on it. A Christian man may not be polygynous; a Christian woman may not be polyandrous. If a polygamist wants to come into the New World society, dedicating himself to God through Christ, he may keep only one of the wives that he may have gained by dowry or bride price or lobola. He will have to dismiss the others and send them back home, the way the priest Ezra and the Jewish governor Nehemiah had the Israelites do that had violated God’s law against marrying with pagans. (Ezra 10:1-44; Neh. 13:23-31) If a woman accepting the Kingdom truth is married to a polygamist where this is legal or customary, what should she do? She should explain to him the step that she has decided to take and the obligations before God that this will lay upon her as a Christian and a witness of his. Then she must take the consequences of her stand. Let the polygamist return her to her parents or guardians and reclaim the dowry that he gave for her, and thus free her. God’s law pronounces her relations with the polygamist fornication, not a marriage. Continuing in this relationship debars her from being baptized, although she may attend meetings and talk the truths of God’s Word to others.
CONSENSUAL AND COMMON-LAW MARRIAGE
15, 16. (a) What is common-law marriage and what is consensual marriage? (b) What circumstances and mental attitudes account for many living in such an arrangement?
15 This leads to the subject of common-law marriage. Such is a marriage according to common law (not civil or canon law), a marriage without a legal civil ceremony or religious ceremony, but where the man and the woman privately decide to live together as man and wife, so making it a consensual marriage also. There is no dowry or bride price given in such a case. Often in lands where the canon law of a church governs and consensual marriage is not legally recognized the two in such a consensual arrangement would like to marry legally but the marriage fees demanded by the clergy who hold it a sacrament are not within the means of the couple; they are too poor. The necessary legal steps, such as presenting a birth certificate that may not exist, are hard steps to take. Or it may be that the national government under no circumstances allows legal divorce, or the getting of a divorce from a mate even on Scriptural grounds is such an expensive and long-drawn-out matter. So the undivorced person who wants to remarry privately enters into relations with another person of the opposite sex to live as man and wife. This is a case of their living together without marriage. But very often a man undertakes consensual marriage because he wants to keep a woman inferior, dependent upon him. If she wants his support in a home that he provides, she must stick faithful in morals to him. But whereas he wants her to stick to him he may not want to keep her always. If he is not legally bound to her by marriage, he can at any time that he chooses feel free to leave his consensual partner and the children and take up such a life with another woman. So the women desire a legal marriage for the protection of themselves and their children, but the man may selfishly refuse to legalize their union.
16 A postwar reason for many to live together without marriage is that the woman is receiving an allowance from the government as a war widow or otherwise and she would lose this if she remarried. So she and the man agree to live together without marriage to keep the government allowance coming to her, and the illegitimate children of this union are taught to keep up this pretense by calling the man “uncle,” not “father.”
17. (a) How does common-law marriage often begin, and why is this wrong? (b) What is one result of common-law marriages, and how are these legalized in some lands?
17 Oftentimes a consensual marriage is started by the girl’s letting the man have intercourse with her on his mere promise to marry her. Then after he starts having relations with her he takes up living with her and never takes the legal steps. But a promise to marry is no Scriptural ground for beginning intercourse. Even engaged persons are Scripturally forbidden to indulge in intercourse during their betrothal period. Trial marriages that are not legalized but merely make a test of whether the couple can get along together are not right, for God’s law pronounces them outright fornication, immorality. Some states do recognize common-law marriage so that it is a real binding marriage with legal obligations; but many states and countries (even Catholic lands) that do not recognize it do nothing about consensual marriage. As a result it is very prevalent in most lands, and in most places the neighborhood accepts it as a regular thing. Thus many illegitimate children are born; in one country we know of up to fifty-five percent of the children, in another up to eighty percent. In some lands a consensual-marriage couple are entitled to a legal civil or religious marriage after they have lived together for a minimum number of years or after a child has been born. The court may then rule it a legal marriage automatically. The “de facto” marriage may be registered with the government on the application of one or both consensual partners.
18. What scriptures show that we are to witness to those living in common-law marriage?
18 The New World society does not recognize consensual marriage and common-law marriage as complete. That does not mean we dare not preach the truth to persons living in such a marriage. At Jacob’s fountain in the Samaritan city of Sychar Jesus himself talked privately to a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands and whose man then having relations with her was not her husband. To this woman Jesus preached salvation and even confessed that he was the promised Messiah or Christ. (John 4:4-30) If the truth could not be preached to the immoral, how could Paul mention fornicators, adulterers and sodomites as unfit for God’s kingdom and then say to faithful Christians: “Yet that is what some of you were”?—1 Cor. 6:9-11, NW.
19. What does the New World society require of its members as regards common-law marriage and consensual marriage?
19 No one coming into the New World society is permitted to enter into a consensual marriage or a common-law marriage thereafter. As for those who are already in it when the Kingdom message reaches them, they must legalize their marriage with an appropriate legal ceremony before they may be baptized in water in symbol of their having dedicated themselves to God. So they must expressly recognize the legal obligations of marriage as well as put themselves within the protection and other benefits of the law by having the marriage registered and legally recognized. They must have the birth of their children certified legally and must acknowledge their being the parents of them. Then, too, the New World society makes and keeps record of this legal marriage. As it is written: “In whatever condition each one was called, brothers, let him remain in it associated with God.” (1 Cor. 7:24, NW) He cannot be associated with God in it if the condition is unclean.
20. (a) Under what conditions can a consensual marriage be recognized, and under what obligations does this place the woman? (b) In what circumstances must a woman refuse to have anything to do with her onetime consensual husband?
20 Suppose a consensual wife accepts the truth and she wants to have the marriage legalized and registered but the man for selfish reasons absolutely refuses to be talked into it by the woman. The New World society will recognize the marriage as “de facto” provided the helpless woman promises and signs a written statement that she will be faithful to this consensual partner as to a husband and will get the marriage legalized as soon as she can get the man to legalize it. Hence she herself may not thereafter cancel this “de facto” marriage by herself separating from the man. This temporary recognition of her “de facto” marriage gains for the woman no legal benefits but it does result in spiritual benefits to her. Her dedication to God may now be looked upon as accepted by Him and she may be baptized in water and treated as a member of the congregation and entitled to privileges of preaching the Kingdom message. As the apostle Peter advises wives, she will try to bring the man into the truth and thus bring him to an eagerness to legalize their de facto marriage and register it. The registration of a marriage is an obligation that a couple owe to the community in which they live, declaring their relationship as man and wife by law before all the community and before the government under which they live. A man who loves his wife will legalize and register his marriage to her proudly. If a consensual husband will not legalize the marriage and if the woman is not dependent and if she does not choose to declare herself before God’s congregation as his bound wife, she must tell the man to stay away and have nothing further to do with him. She must live single till she can enter legal marriage. In lands or states where the law recognizes common-law marriage, this marriage may be dissolved only by legal steps taken by one or both of the marriage mates.
21, 22. (a) What must a man do if the truth finds him in consensual marriage with two wives? (b) If one or both women accept the truth what is their responsibility?
21 In many Catholic-controlled lands a man will carry on two or more consensual marriages at the same time. Here a case presents itself of where two of his women take up the message of God’s kingdom, the man also accepting the message or not doing so. How can the dedication of any one or all of them be viewed as acceptable to God and how can a baptism in water be performed in symbol thereof? If the man takes the truth, he must decide which of the two or more women he wants as his wife and get legally married to her and have no further relations with any of the others. If he does not come into the truth, it is then up to the two women. Both cannot continue relations with the same man in support of fornication. One must arrange with the man to be his one woman and get him to legalize their marriage or she must declare herself before the congregation as bound to him as his chosen woman until legalization is possible. The other woman must recognize this arrangement and have no further relations with the man. Otherwise, both women must have nothing further to do with the man, especially if he is still carrying on other consensual arrangements with other women. They cannot be rendering wifely privileges to a polygynous man.
22 More on this discussion of marriage problems and of the Scriptural view of singleness will appear in the next succeeding issue of The Watchtower.