I watched in a sort of awe. The most expensive hotel in the city. An orchestra for the wedding. A full swing band for the reception. Ten attendants on each side, with lodging and travel for all of them. And the decorations were out of this world: three-metre-tall flower towers at each table, so thickly packed with white orchids and roses that I could hardly imagine that they were real. A full meal—and not the kind you serve in the church fellowship hall. Dozens of friends flown in from around the globe. A day-before-the-wedding party. A morning-after-the-wedding party.
I did the calculations in my head. I couldn’t cost out this fantastic weekend at anything less than six figures. The couple could have purchased a small house for what they’d just spent on their wedding—and they’re not the first ones to do so. Joanie Lim, wedding planner and stylist, said custom weddings with personal touches complete with a hefty price tag were growing in popularity, as opposed to traditional and often cheaper ceremonies. For all I know, these couples can afford it. But what I wish I could have been assured of was their investment in their marriage.
It has never been easy
There was a time when marriage was thought to be a simple, straightforward proposition. Husband would work. Wife would have babies and run the house. It would be, as the traditional vows said, “Till death do us part.” If you weren’t any happier in your marriage back then, at least you knew the drill.
Since then the relational landscape has expanded in nearly every direction. There are so many more options—and so many more pitfalls. But marriage has never been easy, back then or now. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, important patriarchs of the Jewish nation, have some of the best-documented marriages in biblical history. But despite the centrality of these families to everything that comes after, they faced challenges and problems, as you can see from their stories in the book of Genesis.
No, marriage has always been hard and it’s getting harder. In Australia, one in three marriages ends in divorce, while the figures are one in two in New Zealand. But those figures don’t take into account that fewer couples are getting married in the first place, preferring cohabitation.
Which is why the popularity of a big wedding seems such an irony.
The fall and rise of marriage
The Old Testament says that God created humans as a pair: “He created them male and female and blessed them” (Genesis 5:2). The purpose appears to have been twofold. First, to create a new loving family unit: “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24); and second, to produce offspring: “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28).
The institution of marriage was practised rather sloppily, even among the Bible’s heroes. In spite of repeated marriage disasters, these perversions of the original relationship persisted. King David was said to have eight wives and 10 concubines, and his son Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines! Marriage turned into a man having enough children to advance the family “brand” and ensure his heritage. Think of Solomon marrying for political expansion (1 Kings 11:1, 2). Romantic love and sexual fulfilment with a single partner seem to have been missing, the biblical book Song of Solomon notwithstanding.
It remains for the New Testament to bring back the original model of marriage as a loving and faithful couple. The letter to the Hebrews counsels, “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (13:4).
The apostle Paul, though apparently a bachelor himself, gives some of the wisest advice about marriage: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Though nowhere in the Bible is polygamy outlawed, Jesus emphasised the original couple arrangement (Matthew 19:4). Ironically, it may have been the pagans who popularised monogamy, polygamy being against Greek and Roman law.
Weddings in history
Modern brides would find a biblical wedding decidedly unromantic. The pairing was arranged through families (the proposed partner often being a relative) and its first step was purely practical: a contract, which included “buying” the bride (Genesis 24:51–53). No special dress, no formal ceremony, no flower-strewn aisle. In the Old Testament, once family business was concluded, the couple was given a wedding feast. Then they were tucked into a tent to consummate their marriage (Genesis 24:64–67). By Jesus’ time, weddings had added attendants, a procession and, for the wealthy, a multiday banquet. But the highlight remained the public entry into the bed chamber.
Modern church weddings owe more to the Catholic Church making marriage a sacrament in the twelfth century than to any model found in the Bible. The twentieth century ushered in a new extravagance to weddings. The marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947, was the first royal wedding to be seen in newsreels across the world.
Then in 1950, an extraordinarily popular movie, Father of the Bride, showed Spencer Tracy pulling at his hair and emptying his wallet as he watched his daughter, a young Elizabeth Taylor, organise a lavish wedding. Before that, many weddings had happened at home or in a private church setting. Where the bride’s preparation had once been a “hope chest” of housekeeping necessities, there now grew a yearning to put on a celebration fancy enough to impress the neighbours. A whole wedding industry stepped in to fill that desire.
In this era of cohabitation you’ll occasionally hear it said that people have grown afraid of marriage. It’s more accurate to say they’re afraid of divorce. As a clergyman, I’ve been invited to perform wedding ceremonies for couples who have lived together for years. What does it mean to publicly celebrate a marriage when all the signifiers of marriage have already happened? An answer you’ll often hear is that the couple wanted to see whether the relationship worked before they made it official. Though it begs the question—What’s left to make official when they clearly own a home and have children together?—it still implies a backhanded respect for the institution of marriage and regret that it fails so often.
Perhaps such fears are behind the trend toward expensive weddings. Rituals lend weight to the life passage being celebrated. I suspect the subtext for some couples goes something like this: “I’m feeling very uncertain about the permanency of this relationship, so I’m hoping that a big, expensive ceremony will somehow seal the deal. How can it go wrong if it’s witnessed by so many people and costs so much money?”
Of course, the key to a good marriage is neither material nor ritual but spiritual. In a big wedding, couples are vividly aware that they’re making promises “in the face of this company,” but they forget the more important audience stated in the vows: “in the sight of God.” I’ve seen the pastor’s part in the wedding devolve to merely that of a necessary functionary. As much as the officiant attempts to stress the weight of the promises and vows, the religious ceremony gets buried under clothing, flowers, processions, music, dances, gifts and meals. God’s blessing seems no longer central, the religious ceremony being merely part of the background noise.* No wonder the vows are forgotten!
Couples need to remember that the wedding is the easy part. Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint, and the many years that follow take hard work. That kind of commitment can only be sustained by God’s power. Without a commitment to a lifelong relationship, a massive celebration is a futile gesture.
And I wonder whether most couples wouldn’t gladly trade all the hoopla for the simple assurance that they’ll manage to stay together ’til death do us part.
* I have more than once officiated for couples who spent tens of thousands of dollars on their weddings, including in one case a new iPad for every member of the wedding party, and not even received so much as a thank-you note from the bride and groom nor—which would have been even more welcome—any participation in congregational life afterwards.