Questions From Readers
● If a Christian unilaterally breaks his (or her) engagement to marry, what effect would this have on such a one’s being used in an exemplary way in the congregation?
Both the making and the breaking of an engagement to marry are serious steps, not to be taken lightly. Both, however, are basically private matters. There is no need for congregational elders to inquire into such matters unless a complaint is lodged with them by one of the parties or there is evidence that a number in the congregation are disturbed, with corresponding lack of respect for the one thus breaking the engagement. In some cases it may be that the ones who are disturbed need to have a clearer understanding of the principles involved.
We may note that, under the Israelite arrangement, engaged women were viewed as bound by that engagement, and if they became guilty of any infidelity, the Mosaic law provided that they should be dealt with as a married woman would be. (Deut. 22:23, 24) The Israelite man had greater freedom and could break the engagement, as Joseph of Nazareth planned to do. Matthew 1:19 relates that, after learning of Mary’s pregnancy, “being a man of principle, and at the same time wanting to save her from exposure, Joseph desired to have the marriage contract set aside quietly.” (New English Bible; compare Deuteronomy 24:1.) Christians, however, are not under the Law covenant, and in large areas today an engaged woman is not viewed as bound to the same extent as was the case then.
At Matthew 5:37 Jesus said: “Just let your word Yes mean Yes, your No, No; for what is in excess of these is from the wicked one.” The context shows he was here counseling against the practice many had of frequently accompanying statements by an oath, regularly swearing by heaven or Jerusalem or something else. But by this warning against such excess, Jesus did not say that, when an individual realizes he or she has made a serious mistake, it is wrong to make an effort toward correcting it. Proverbs 6:1-5 speaks of the one who goes surety for another and has “been ensnared by the sayings” of his mouth, “caught” by them, and counsels that such a one should take action to deliver himself, saying: “Go humble yourself and storm your fellowman with importunities.” A person who is engaged to marry may also come to realize that he or she has made an unwise step. It is a fact that during courtship prior to engagement a man or woman generally presents his or her ‘best face,’ puts his or her ‘best foot forward.’ Following the announced engagement, however, an individual may begin to let more of the real self show through. One of the two may now see serious problems that were not evident before.
In those special cases where elders do find it necessary to inquire into the matter of a broken engagement, they should be concerned with ascertaining whether the reasons for it were valid. What might be a “valid” reason? In a “Question from Readers” published in The Watchtower of October 1, 1968, two examples were given. Consider here a few other examples. During the engagement period the woman might begin to reveal a very “bossy” attitude, not showing real respect for headship, thus giving strong evidence of being the type of person described at Proverbs 19:13; 21:9; 27:15, 16. Or, during that period, the man might participate in some serious wrongdoing, perhaps becoming drunk, engaging in some immorality or seriously dishonest act. Or one of the two might see some other definite spiritual weakness, perhaps a very strong materialistic attitude, in the other party and might conscientiously feel that to carry out the marriage could impose a serious burden on his or her spiritual strength, perhaps more than he or she feels able to carry without harm. This does not mean, however, that in every case the other person will be viewed as deficient or inferior. One may feel that the other person is a very fine individual but simply may come to realize that there are very strong differences in personality or outlook that would make the marital relationship a very difficult one for both of them. These, then, are some, but by no means all, of the serious reasons that might cause one, after careful thought and prayer, to decide for termination of the engagement. Of course, mutual agreement to break the engagement would be far preferable to a unilateral action. But it may be that the other party does not see, or even prefers to ignore, the problem that is there.
All of this emphasizes the value of not rushing into an engagement to marry but rather seeking first to get to know the other party well. Love of neighbor should prevent anyone from taking a light attitude toward becoming engaged, realizing the emotional hurt that it can bring if the engagement is broken.
In cases where an individual has lost a mate, through death or through infidelity (and Scriptural divorce), his or her emotional state may be such that there is a keen feeling of need for companionship to combat loneliness. There may be an inclination to enter into an engagement more quickly than if under other circumstances. On gaining emotional balance, the person may realize that the engagement was unwise. In the case of an elder, this might or might not reflect on his stability. The circumstances would have to be considered.
In the case, then, of one who is in an exemplary position, such as an elder or a ministerial servant, a member of a Bethel family, or other person in full-time service, the body of elders should look at the whole picture of what the person is and not solely at the one act of terminating unilaterally an engagement. If the person’s past course shows an inclination or pattern of taking such matters lightly, then the elders might find it advisable to recommend removal from any exemplary position. They may find that the reason for the breaking of the engagement is simply that the person has allowed someone else to get his attention and interest, a course showing fickleness. If a considerable portion of the congregation gives evidence of having lost respect for such a one, this will also be given due consideration. Local attitudes and circumstances must be taken into account, since some countries or regions of the world take a much stricter view as regards such arrangements than do others.
However, if these negative factors are not present and the person has shown himself or herself to be serious, conscientious and considerate of others, the decision to end an engagement unilaterally would not necessarily call for removal from an exemplary position or a restriction of congregational privileges. Whether there are valid reasons or not for terminating the engagement will always be a determining factor.