Questions From Readers
How seriously should Christians view an engagement to marry?
An engagement to marry is a cause for happiness, but it is also a serious matter. No mature Christian should take an engagement lightly, feeling that he at any time can end it on a whim. The period of engagement is also a time for the couple to get better acquainted before marriage.
In discussing this topic, we need to realize that social customs involving marriage, and the steps leading to it, vary greatly in different places and times. The Bible illustrates this.
Lot’s two daughters, who had “never had intercourse with a man,” were in some way engaged to two local men. Lot’s ‘sons-in-law were to take his daughters,’ yet the Bible does not tell us why or how the engagements came about. Were the daughters adults? Did they have a key voice in choosing whom to marry? Did they become engaged by taking some public step? We do not know. (Genesis 19:8-14) We do know that Jacob made his own agreement with Rachel’s father to marry Rachel after he worked seven years for him. Though Jacob spoke of Rachel as “my wife,” they had no sexual relations during those years. (Genesis 29:18-21) As another example, before he could marry Saul’s daughter, David had to gain a victory over the Philistines. Upon meeting Saul’s demand, David could marry the daughter, Michal. (1 Samuel 18:20-28) Those “engagements” differed from one another and from what is common in many lands today.
The Mosaic Law had regulations about marriage and engagement. For example, a man could have more than one wife; he could obtain a divorce on various grounds, though apparently a wife could not. (Exodus 22:16, 17; Deuteronomy 24:1-4) A man who seduced an unengaged virgin had to marry her if her father agreed, and he could never divorce her. (Deuteronomy 22:28, 29) Other laws applied in marriage, such as when sexual relations were to be avoided. (Leviticus 12:2, 5; 15:24; 18:19) What regulations dealt with engagement?
An engaged Israelite woman had a different legal standing from that of an unengaged woman; in some respects she was considered to be married. (Deuteronomy 22:23-29; Matthew 1:18, 19) Israelites could not get engaged to or marry certain relatives. Usually these were blood relatives, but some engagements and marriages were prohibited because of inheritance rights. (Leviticus 18:6-20; see The Watchtower of March 15, 1978, pages 25-8.) It is plain that servants of God were not to view engagement lightly.
Israelites were under all such regulations of the Law, but Christians are not under that Law, including its regulations about engagement or marriage. (Romans 7:4, 6; Ephesians 2:15; Hebrews 8:6, 13) In fact, Jesus taught that the Christian norm relating to marriage differed from that of the Law. (Matthew 19:3-9) Still, he did not minimize the seriousness of marriage, nor that of engagement. So, what of the topic under consideration, engagement among Christians?
In many lands individuals make their own choice as to whom they will marry. Once a man and woman promise to marry each other, they are considered engaged. Usually, no added formal step is required to establish the engagement. Granted, in some places it is common for the man to give his wife-to-be a ring to signify their engagement. Or it is customary to announce the engagement to relatives and friends, such as at a family meal or other small gathering. These are personal choices, not Scriptural requirements. What makes the engagement is the agreement by the two.*
A Christian should not rush into courtship, engagement, or marriage. We publish Bible-based material that can help single individuals to decide whether it is wise to commence a courtship or to take steps toward engagement or marriage.* A key element of the counsel is that a Christian marriage is permanent.—Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:6-9.
Two Christians ought to know each other quite well before they begin thinking of engagement. Each can ask, ‘Am I really sure of the other’s spirituality and devotion to God? Can I envision serving God with that one for a lifetime? Have we been adequately exposed to each other’s personality traits? Am I confident that we will be lastingly compatible? Do we know enough about the past actions and present circumstances of each other?’
Once two Christians are betrothed, it is right for them and for others to expect that marriage will follow. Jesus admonished: “Let your word Yes mean Yes, your No, No.” (Matthew 5:37) Christians who get engaged should mean it. In a rare case, however, an engaged Christian may learn that something serious was not mentioned or was concealed before the betrothal. It might be a significant fact about the other’s past, even criminal or immoral acts. The Christian coming to know of this must decide what to do. Perhaps the two will discuss the matter thoroughly and agree to continue their engagement. Or they may mutually decide to end the engagement. Though doing so may be a private matter—not something that others should intrude into, try to second-guess, or judge—it is a very weighty decision. On the other hand, the one learning of the serious issue may personally feel compelled to end the engagement, even if the other person wants it to continue.—See “Questions From Readers” in The Watchtower of June 15, 1975.
There is good reason for resolving such issues before entering a marriage. Jesus said that the only Scriptural basis for divorce that frees one to remarry is por·neiʹa, gross sexual immorality on the part of the other marriage mate. (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) He did not say that a legal marriage can be ended by divorce if one learns of a grave problem or wrongdoing that preceded the wedding.
For example, in Jesus’ day contracting leprosy was distinctly possible. If a Jewish husband learned that his mate was (knowingly or unknowingly) leprous when she married him, would he have a basis for divorce? A Jew under the Law might thus divorce, but Jesus did not say that this was fitting for his followers. Consider some modern-day situations. A man infected with syphilis, genital herpes, HIV, or another serious communicable disease might marry without revealing that fact. Maybe his infection was contracted through sexual immorality before or during the engagement. The wife’s later learning of his disease or past immorality (even of sterility or impotence) does not change the fact that they are now married. An unsavory past before the wedding is not a Scriptural basis for ending the marriage any more than if she had contracted some disease or even was concealing a pregnancy by another man when marrying. They are married now and have committed themselves to each other.
Granted, such sad situations are rare, but these examples should add emphasis to the basic point: Engagement is not to be taken lightly. Before and during an engagement, Christians should strive to get to know each other well. They ought to be honest about what the other party wants to know or has a right to know. (In some lands couples are legally required to have a medical examination before marriage. Others may want such a checkup for their own information.) Thus the joyousness and seriousness of an engagement will serve an honorable purpose as the two move toward the even more joyous and serious state of marriage.—Proverbs 5:18, 19; Ephesians 5:33.
In some societies parents still arrange for the betrothal of their children. This may be done quite some time before the two would be in a position to marry. In the meantime they are recognized as engaged, or promised to each other, but they are not yet married.
See Questions Young People Ask—Answers That Work, chapters 28-32, and The Secret of Family Happiness, chapter 2, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.