As we hear during the holy Christmas season of the chaste relationship of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth “before they came together” (Matthew 1:18), namely, that they were “espoused” or solemnly committed to one another in Holy Marriage but had not as yet consummated their union, it was suggested to your editor that we re-run an article on “engagement” that originally appeared in the November-December issue in 2006 as a timely reminder, especially to our young people, of the seriousness of this matter in the light of God’s Word. And this we are happy to do.
By God’s grace, we continue to hold on the basis of clear Scripture, with no divisions among us (I Corinthians 1:10), that “marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman unto one flesh;” that “marriage was instituted by God and is entered into by rightful betrothal or engagement” (Synodical Catechism, 1943 Ed., Q/A 61, p. 70). Throughout the Scriptures, with the perfect consistency we can expect only of the Holy Ghost, marriage is represented as an estate or relationship entered into by a man and a woman by mutual consent or bilateral agreement. The essence of marriage is therefore quite properly speaking a contract in which both parties agree to live as one entity (Genesis 2:24) characterized by mutual exclusivity (I Corinthians 7:2), indissolubility (Matthew 19:6b), and lifelong permanency here in this world (Romans 7:2; I Corinthians 7:39). In a rightful betrothal, all of those conditions are agreed to ahead of time; and the three purposes of marriage, as set forth in Holy Scripture, are acknowledged and agreed to as well, namely, a) mutual companionship and love (Genesis 2:18, 20b; etc.), b) the lawful procreation of children (Psalm 127:3-5; 128), and c) the prevention of unchastity, specifically of fornication — promiscuous intimacy outside of marriage (I Corinthians 7:2) by legitimate, “honorable” and “undefiled” intimacy within marriage (Hebrews 13:4) as what is mutually “due” or owed to one another, the husband to his wife, and the wife to her husband (vv. 3-4). That mutual consent or bilateral commitment IS marriage in the sight of God. As clear testimony of that principle, when Joseph and Mary were “espoused” to one another, before their relationship was physically consummated, God’s angel called Mary Joseph’s “wife,” and Joseph Mary’s “husband” (Matthew 1:18ff.).
However, for such mutual consent to be a rightful (i.e. legitimate) betrothal, certain conditions must have been met by the parties betrothed to one another; and these, too, are Scriptural conditions: 1) The parties must be “marriageable” people, that is, they must be eligible to enter upon the married estate, particularly in the sight of God but also according to the regulations of the state; and the former, of course, takes precedence over the latter (Acts 5:29). Thus, it must be a heterosexual couple (Romans 1:26ff.); neither of the parties may be already married [i.e. exclusively committed] to someone else (Exodus 20:14); neither may have been the guilty party in a divorce and therefore ineligible to re-marry (Matthew 19:9); the couple may not be of such near kinship that their relationship would be regarded as incestuous, either by Scripture or by the state; both parties must be of sufficient age to contract marriage legally, or, if minor children, have their parents’ consent; and both parties must be of sound mind so that they are able to discern both the nature of and the responsibilities inherent in marriage and thus to make their commitment on the basis of appropriate knowledge. 2) The mutual consent must be solemnly, sincerely, and freely given. Engagement contracted in jest is no rightful betrothal, nor is mutual consent given in an intoxicated state of any legitimate value. Since a life-long relationship is being contracted and established, appropriate time should be taken for due consideration of the matter; and, particularly for Christian couples —of any age— whose Gospel-motivated desire to honor their fathers and mothers according to the Fourth Commandment also comes into play, the advice and blessing of their parents should be sought, valued and considered as part of the process (Proverbs 23:22), even though absolute obedience is not required of grown offspring (Genesis 2:24, etc.). For minor children, the explicit consent of the parents is usually required, particularly by the state; and children [J JX6<“] must “obey” their parents when consent is refused and not try to circumvent their authority (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20; Proverbs 30:17). And finally, neither party may be under duress of any kind to consent to marriage unwillingly.
Thus, marriage is not “paperwork;” it is not a “ceremony,” a “service,” or a “party” as some have tried to represent it. Marriage is an “estate” which requires no “third party” (pastor, judge, justice of the peace, ship’s captain, etc.) to bring it into existence and to legitimatize it before God. Nevertheless, witnessed ratification is usually required by the state to make the union a matter of “record” and to enforce the “contract” before men; and a public ceremony is generally deemed advisable to avoid the offense that would be given by a couple “living together” on the basis of a clandestine engagement or a secret marriage. However, a pastor or judge does not “join” two people in holy wedlock; they made the commitment that “joined” them long before they got to “the altar.” Rather, the state-authorized official merely “solemnizes” the marriage, conducting a formal ceremony or ritual in which the mutual consent, already expressed privately at the time of engagement, is repeated publicly to make it a matter of witnessed record (II Corinthians 13:1). It goes without saying that a Christian couple should want to have their marriage solemnized by their God-given shepherd because a Christian pastor and Seelsorger then has special opportunity to instruct his sheep (and the assembled guests) from God’s Word concerning the proper conduct of husbands and wives toward one another according to God’s ordinance, to beseech God’s blessing upon their marriage in prayer, and to lead the assembled witnesses (congregation) in a proper, Godpleasing celebration of their union.
Since marriage is properly-speaking a civil estate, that is, one created for mankind here in this world for the purposes noted above, namely, a) mutual companionship and love (Genesis 2:18, 20b; etc.), b) the lawful procreation of children (Psalm 127:3-5; 128), and c) the prevention of unchastity, specifically of fornication, that is, promiscuous intimacy outside of marriage (I Corinthians 7:2; Hebrews 13:4), a legitimate or legally binding marriage may be entered into or “contracted” by the mutual consent of two marriageable unbelievers. Christian faith is not essential to a legitimate, binding, and divinely-instituted civil union; for “marriage is honorable in all,” the Scriptures tell us (Hebrews 13:4); and that union, even between unbelievers, should be respected as God’s ordinance and kept unbroken until the husband and wife are parted in death (Matthew 19:6; Romans 7:2).
Nevertheless, it is of no small significance that marriage was instituted by God for mankind before the fall into sin, that is, when Adam and Eve still possessed the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and thus led truly Godpleasing lives in perfect conformity with His will. Moreover, as sinless beings, they were perfectly joined together in their relationship with one another, perfectly happy and blessed, not yet having suffered the ravages of sin which produce “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21), and damage and often decimate the blissful relationship that God intended for man and woman to enjoy in the holy estate of matrimony. When, however, both Adam and Eve willingly hearkened unto the tempting voice of Satan and disobeyed God’s explicit prohibition concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, sin entered into the world (Romans 5:12) and spoiled, along with everything else, the Godpleasing relationship of man and woman in marriage. Man completely lost the image of God and became totally corrupt, so that still today man by nature is without true fear, love and trust in God, is devoid of righteousness, is disposed only to evil, and is spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God (Cf. Catechism Q/A 94 and 95).
Consequently, while marriage is still God’s institution for an “honorable” relationship between a man and a woman in this present world and for the orderly establishment of the family as the basic unit of human society, not every marriage is a Godpleasing marriage, neither is every engagement (whereby marriage is entered into) a Godpleasing engagement; for “they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8), and “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Only in believers is a beginning made of the renewal of God’s image in their lives of sanctification; and yet that renewal is incomplete because of their sinful flesh in which “dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18), so that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) because of their imperfection and could therefore never avail, even in the slightest degree, for our justification in the sight of God (Galatians 3:11). Nevertheless, concerning our lives of sanctification and the fruit that saving faith produces in the Christian (John 15:5, 8; James 2:20; etc.), we confess in our Catechism that “in the sight of God a good work is everything that a child of God [i.e., a true believer] does, speaks, or thinks in faith, according to the Ten Commandments [in conformity with God’s Law], for the glory of God, and for the benefit of his neighbor” (Luther’s Small Catechism, 1943 Ed., Q/A 170).
Thus, with reference to the specific topic of this present discussion, only a true believer, and only with another true believer, can, by mutual consent, enter into a truly Godpleasing marriage by way of a truly Godpleasing engagement. And the Lord Himself in His precious Word makes that abundantly clear, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, God explicitly prohibited His people from entering into marriages with the heathen (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Joshua 23:12; I Kings 11:2-4), not merely to keep the “gene pool” of Israel pure from Gentile adulteration (cf. Rahab, Ruth, etc.), but to keep His people from becoming spiritually contaminated, led away unto idolatry, and ultimately lost for heaven. The tragic results of such “mixed marriages” are documented in Holy Scripture (Genesis 6:2; 26:34ff.; Judges 3:5-7; I Kings 16:31; etc.) and are readily recognized in life experience as the norm rather than the exception.
It is often claimed, of course, that, in the New Testament, God nowhere absolutely forbids religiously-mixed marriages, that those Old Testament taboos belonged to the Ceremonial Law or to the Political Law of Israel, and that they are no longer binding upon Christians today. “Don’t forget,” such people argue, “we are no longer under the Law but under grace! Besides, it’s not an absolute certainty that an unbelieving spouse will lead a believer away from the true faith.” Nevertheless, if such a tragic result were even a statistical probability, and therefore wise counsel would suggest that religiously-mixed marriages be avoided, why would a consistent Christian heedlessly dismiss such Godly advice? Why indeed would a believer, whose Savior redeemed him from all iniquity and purified him unto Himself a special person zealous of good works (Titus 2:14), deliberately ignore the spiritual dangers that the Bible warns are imminent in any close association with the wicked and even with the heterodox (I Corinthians 15:33; etc.)? And why would a child of God despise the Lord’s own valuation of a truly virtuous wife and refuse to recognize the deceitfulness and vanity of mere “favor” and “beauty” when it comes to marriage with a person who is not a believer (Proverbs 31:30)?
The Christian is directed by the Apostle Paul to view marriage (and the relationship of husband and wife within marriage) as a type or picture of the spiritual intimacy that exists between Christ and His bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:22-27). There is, of course, NO spiritual intimacy between a believer and an unbeliever, between the orthodox and the heterodox, between those who are “unequally yoked together” without being in Godpleasing fellowship with one another, without real spiritual communion or unity, without true concord on the basis of God’s Word, without sharing a common faith, without agreeing in their confession of faith (II Corinthians 6:14-16). Husbands and wife who are not in fellowship with one another cannot pray together, cannot worship together, cannot establish a “family altar” in their home, cannot jointly bring their problems and cares to the Lord, and cannot together recognize Him as the Head of their house and His Word as the chief nourishment for their family. Moreover, the unbelieving or heterodox spouse dare not be permitted to teach or influence the children in matters of faith and life; for that would give grave offense to Christ’s little ones and endanger their souls (Matthew 18:6). And the pious spouse (particularly a pious father) will have to warn the children of the other parent’s dire spiritual condition and jeopardy for eternity and teach them diligently the truths of Scripture if indeed they are to be brought up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Ephesians 6:4). The mere fact that the pious spouse is married to an unbeliever or even to a heterodox professing Christian may well give offense to the children because it appears that he does not take his own faith seriously and that his actions speak more loudly than do his words.
The fact that, particularly in I Corinthians 7:12-14 and I Peter 3:1, the Lord’s apostles point out that a difference in faith is not grounds for divorce, but that an unbelieving spouse may indeed be influenced and even gained for heaven by the chaste behavior and Godfearing way of life of the believer, those words in no way contradict Scripture’s warnings against religiously mixed marriages. In the early days of the Christian church, it was common that, in an already-existing marriage between two unbelievers, one spouse became a believer, while the other did not. That spiritual disunity after-the-fact did not entitle the believing spouse to desert or break the marriage, but neither did it constitute a kind of “contrary precedent” for others to follow in establishing marriages with unbelievers (or with the heterodox) contrary to the Word of God. Neither do the words of Paul and Peter guarantee success in winning an unbelieving spouse for heaven, any more than every contact with the Gospel insures conversion to saving faith (Cf. Romans 1:16 with 10:16). In point of fact, experience teaches the very opposite, both with respect to religiously-mixed marriages and to the preaching of the Gospel, as both Isaiah (53:1) and St. Paul clearly testify.
Therefore, the factor that distinguishes a truly Godpleasing engagement and marriage from a merely legitimate and valid one is that the mutual consent to live together in the holy estate of matrimony according to God’s ordinance and in conformity with His Word be sincerely and freely given to one another by a marriageable man and a marriageable woman who are “the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26), “as being heirs together of the grace of life” (I Peter 3:7), enjoying “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). For the Apostle Paul exhorts Christian husbands and wives, as he exhorts all who profess having been “called unto the fellowship of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, …that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10). Thus pious Joshua challenged the Children of Israel regarding their resolve to be more than a “valid” family, more than a “legitimate” nation, more than the “nominal” people of God, and to dedicate themselves and their families to live as God’s children in His faith and fear: “If it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; …but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!” (Joshua 24:15).
Thus it behooves God’s people, BEFORE they enter into the unbreakable covenant of marriage (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9), BEFORE they become engaged to someone of another faith, to address this most important matter with their love-interest, to explain carefully why the warnings of God’s Word are not to be despised or taken lightly, why the will of God for His children is always the best and most desirable, why spiritual unity in the family enhances its cohesiveness, and why God’s blessing upon a married couple and eventually upon their family cannot be expected when its members turn away their hearing from His Word (Proverbs 28:9). Wanton disregard for the Word and will of God plays directly into the hand of Satan, who asked Eve, “Yea, hath God said…?” and then blatantly contradicted God’s prohibition and convinced Eve to disregard it as well. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” And Dr. Luther rightly states: “We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us nor seduce us into misbelief, despair and other great shame and vice; and, though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome and obtain the victory.” The unbeliever or heterodox Christian, if such is envisioned as a marriage partner, should FIRST be instructed and confirmed and recognized as being in “the unity of the spirit” (Ephesians 4:3) BEFORE engagement, BEFORE a lifelong commitment is made, BEFORE Holy Marriage is entered into, motivated by the love of the Savior and His precious Word (II Cor. 5:14)!
Needless to say, a Christian pastor should not be asked to solemnize a religiously “mixed” marriage and thus to become “partaker of other men’s sins” (I Timothy 5:22), to give a false impression of faithful Christian practice (I Corinthians 14:8), to ask in prayer God’s blessing upon that which displeases Him (I John 5:14), and to bestow God’s blessing in his benediction upon those who despise His Word (Luke 11:28), who turn away their ears from its hearing (Proverbs 28:9), and who prefer their own way to the “walk in the spirit” that He desires of His people (Galatians 5:25), namely, a truly Godpleasing engagement and marriage.
Yea, blest that house where faith ye find,
and all within have set their mind
to trust their God and serve Him still
and do in all His holy will!
Blest such a house! It prospers well!
In peace and joy the parents dwell;
and in their children’s lot is shown
how richly God can bless His own!
Then here will I and mine today
a solemn covenant make and say:
Though all the world forsake Thy Word,
I and my house will serve the Lord!
(TLH 625, 2, 4, and 5)
—D. T. M.