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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






18 February 2007

Obedience in the Wedding Vow


Q: My history class is studying the Renaissance. Marriage is one of the topics. Renaissance women were supposed to obey their husbands because the men had the ultimate authority over them. When and where were the first marriage vows performed and when did obedience get inserted into the vow?

A Renaissance WeddingA: In Christianity, both the use of vows and their basic content predate the Renaissance by centuries. These promises stem from Scripture. Vows were exchanged in Old and New Testament times in both betrothal and wedding ceremonies. Even most pagan religions have always used some sort of special promises to seal marriages. Christian vows are not exact quotes from the Bible although we glean them from various texts that refer to marriage. The greatest influence is Ephesians 5:22-22, Paul’s comparison of marriage to the relationship between Christ and his Church.

Vows often differ among various nations and locales. For centuries, Western Christendom shared a common Latin language liturgy but couples usually exchanged promises in their local tongues. Until nationalism and the state churches began to standardize practices, much variety existed from town to town or among various bishoprics. Among the English, Thomas Cranmer used “obey” in the vows enclosed in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549). This usage became the standard for the Anglican Church and bodies springing from it, including the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Most English emigrants to the Americas kept the basic Anglican ceremony intact. Meanwhile, other emigrants came here from various European nations and churches. Some of these used “obey” in their native rites while others didn’t. As they became more Americanized, congregations and church bodies began English language services. As they did this, they had the choice of translating their existing rites and services or else of coopting existing English orders for themselves. Those who based their English services upon the Anglican model usually used “obey” in their marriage ceremonies.

Martin and Katy LutherMy own Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) followed this pattern. We began changing from German in the early 1900s. Before this time, some German-language church agendas used “obey” while others did not.

As younger members understood less German, a slightly modified Book of Common Prayer rite replaced various German orders and “obey” entered regular use. Congregations using The Lutheran Hymnal or, later, Lutheran Worship continued this pattern. In latter days, we’ve seen some changes. Our newest rite in the Lutheran Service Book no longer uses “obey.” The pastor’s questions to the bride include these words: “Will you submit to [your husband] as the Church submits to Christ? Will you love, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others remain united to him alone, as long as you both shall live?”

No matter the exact words, Christians do best when they know, understand, and accept the Scriptural teaching on marriage. In premarital or marriage counseling, I follow God’s Word, teaching that “the husband is the head of the wife [and family] even as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23)” — not as tyrant, but as one who wants what is best for his wife and children. The wife’s response is still to be “obedient,” if obedience is properly understood. The root of “obey” in both New Testament Greek and in the Latin of the early Western Christian Church comes from words meaning “listen.” The somewhat old-fashioned word “harken” (as in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”) comes closer to the intent of Scripture-based obedience than does the concept of slavishly following a master’s every whim.

Harkening means listening intently and with purpose. Christ calls His Church to hang on His every word because all He says and does is good for His bride. This ideal is the model for the wife, also — especially since her husband is charged with loving his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)” The Church submits to her Lord because Jesus’ will is perfect for her. Through the apostle, Christ calls individual wives to this same submission to their own husbands.

Christ the BridegroomLikewise, the Christian husband pledges self-sacrificing love. This is the standard that Jesus models for the man, whose love should be displayed by putting his wife’s needs above his own desires. He says that he will do what is best for his bride, even if it brings pain upon himself. In this, the Christian groom stands with Christ, who loved His bride the Church and gave up His life for her.

All Christians are charged with “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)” Christian wives are then especially called to submit to their husbands. Similarly, Jesus’ command to His disciples to “love one another (John 15:12)” extends to all believers, as Paul wrote that we should “through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)” Yet in marriage, the husband receives a special imperative to selflessly and sacrificially love his wife.

Therefore, whether or not “obey” appears in the vows, a devout Christian wife desires to do everything according to her husband’s will. In this, she models the Church’s submission to her Bridegroom. Meanwhile, even as he heads the household, the believing husband still places all of his wife’s needs ahead of his own and gives her no cause to rebel against his decisions, whether or not she has promised to obey him, because his love for her is absolute.

Adam and EveMarried Christians find ample opportunity to lament their sinful human natures. Men are tempted to either to abuse their headship by tyrannically demanding obedience or else to surrender their God-given authority and ignore the responsibility He places on them. This first happened when Adam allowed Eve to eat the fruit and then tempt him with it. The temptation for women, who were created to be freely helping companions, is to chafe under the desire to ignore or overthrow male headship and to view submission as slavery rather than as worshipful service to the glory of God.

God’s grace brings married Christians to rise above these temptations. The Holy Spirit uses Christ’s forgiving Word to bind wounded hearts. He leads us away from demanding our own way and into desiring good for each other. He gently brings Christian spouses to a fuller expression of God’s will in their marriages and moves us to willingly model the relationship of Christ and His Church to a sinful world.

For more on this topic, please see the post Submission in Marriage.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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4 Comments:

Blogger John H said...

Personally, I'm glad the word "obey" is dropping out of most marriage liturgies today. The connotations of the word "obey" are very different from what is described in Ephesians 5, and it is almost impossible for modern westerners to hear the word in the vows without interpreting it as meaning, "I will do as I am told".

Biblical submission within marriage is about responsibility, about where the buck stops, not about "I tell you what to do and you do it, woman".

Plus, the use of the word "obey" in marriage vows has rarely been matched by any equivalent reinforcement of the far more stringent and searching requirements on husbands in Ephesians 5. The Church of England did dabble with having the groom say, "Love, honour and worship" in its 1980 liturgies, and indeed that's the form used at my own wedding, but this has now been dropped.

My wife did say "obey" at our wedding, but I try not to hold her to it. ;-)

23 February, 2007 02:21  
Blogger Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

I believe the words in my ceremony were "to regard my husband as the church regards Christ." They were from the standard ceremony that the pastor of my husband's church used.

I knew what the Biblical term "obey" meant, and didn't want to say it, both because I was concerned that those in the pews wouldn't understand its meaning, and also because knowing me, I knew there was no way I could measure up. I was 23, and still didn't completely understand that there was NO way that either one of us were going to keep our marriage vows perfectly, and it was Christ who was the bond of our marriage, not our own wills.

Today I look at that vow and I think "I can't believe that I expected your average joe in the pews to understand that one either." I think I would've preferred using obey or submit.

26 February, 2007 11:50  
Anonymous Sold Out said...

I hope the word obey is left in. I have heard a Pastor skirt the issue during a wedding ceremony while preaching on the roles of the woman to submit wo her husband... I believe we need not be afraid of what God had intended and simply fear God. Feminism has entered into Christianity and we need to obey His word....

K, God bless.

10 March, 2007 17:22  
Blogger Rach said...

thanks for this post! I am positive I said "obey" and I am certain that we are the only couple among any of our friends. Our 8th anniversary is on Tuesday & I wanted to post something about it on my blog....this was very helpful.

16 August, 2009 20:33  

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