There are truckloads of webpages about how to officiate a marriage ceremony. And for the most part, what the couple wants may dictate the majority of those details. But I believe there are three essential parts of a marriage ceremony where I encourage every Bride and Groom, and Officiant, to focus the majority of their attention if you want to have a gospel-centered marriage: 1) Pre-Marital Counseling 2) The Sermon 3) And the Vows.
I snuck in this point because I think it is indeed pertinent to the actual ceremony. Some pastors and counselors I know say that you should sit down with the couple for no more than 2 sessions for marriage counseling. Others have told me to go for a whole 6 months! I’m not going to set a timer on anyone, but quality marriage counseling will make the marriage ceremony even more meaningful to the Bride and Groom, including the Officiant.
One of the ways you can make the marriage counseling meaningful is to find a good, godly book to use as a segue into gospel-centered, Christ-exalting discussions about marriage. I use Preparing for Marriage God’s Way by Wayne Mack. This book is jam-packed full of questions and topics you can discuss with your newlyweds that I think will aid any counselor, pastor, or experienced believer to develop key areas for the marriage.
Furthermore, I personally handpick certain sections and questions to use from the book and issue out specific assignments so that the amount of time we spend is usually no more than 1 hour per meeting, and is laser-focused on principles fundamental to a biblical marriage. We also go out on dates to restaurants, or have more personal meetings at my own home, so that the they are comfortable and ready to open up. Because for me, if I am officiating the wedding, the more spiritually meaningful our interactions are, the more meaningful the vows and celebration will be.
While the Bride and Groom are the center of attention (more the Bride really), the word of God must take double honor. Though we should have fun and join together to celebrate the wonderful union of our couples, we must take advantage of this opportunity to proclaim the very foundation for their marriage. But we must do it in a way that explicitly gospel-centered. What do I mean?
As I mentioned in a previous article, I was asked to preach an explicit gospel message at the weddings I officiated. Although some would think this is a strange request, when you think about it, it isn’t. Because the couples and I remembered the weddings we’ve attended that gave predictable, yet uncomprehendable, expositions about Christ and the Church. Or, we’ve recollected the sermons that spent 45 minutes to talk about love, and some related Scripture regarding marriage, but unfortunately, failed to use plain and easy to understand language to proclaim the gospel.
What these young couples wanted was a succinct, 10-15 minute, easy-to-understand sermon that will focus on our need for salvation and reconciliation with God, expound upon the greatness of our sin, then reveal the goodness of God exclusively through Christ to save sinners, meanwhile calling those in the gathering to repentance and faith, proclaiming that they must be born again, and exalting the nature of God to fulfill His redemptive promises. This should be an easy swing. But for too many, we strikeout.*
And to make the sermon more meaningful, the couples and I agreed that instead of preaching over the couple and to the congregation, I just move to the front of the couple to preach directly to those attending. That way, there’s a no misinterpretation that I am commanding the attention of those in attendance. Why? Because for many, this will be one of the few opportunities they have to hear an unadulterated, undiluted, and uncomplicated gospel message before they die, other than at the funerals they attend. And as ambassadors of the gospel, we were sent for this purpose (2 Cor. 5:16-21). Therefore, let this charge embolden you for the task.
Finally, we should show extra attention to the vows. Because this is the moment by which the couple is affirming their covenant to one another before God and many witnesses. And if your pre-marital counseling was spiritually meaningful and edifying, this is also the moment where all those principles of a gospel-centered marriage discussed in private comes to life in public.
What I do, first, is draw attention to the importance of the vows by saying:
Officiant: We have now reached our wonderful exchange of the vows. This part is truly exciting!
Because we all have the privilege to witness this couple, made in the image of God, make a covenant together before God and man, that they will remain committed to one another, for the rest of their lives.
So I invite all of us to attentively consider these words together as they have been carefully crafted from Scripture to reflect God’s will for marriage.
After that, I take my time going through the vows. I do this because I want the couple, and those attending, to savor this moment. And during the marriage planning, I discuss with the couple why I want them to take their time and consider the words as well. This is a special moment they will (and must) remember for the rest of their lives. The moment that they will look back on when their love and commitment to one another is challenged. As an Officiant, prayerfully work with the Bride and Groom to make this moment godly, special, meaningful. And not just bland, rote, or mindless exercise. And as I’ve mentioned already, quality marriage counseling will make this happen.
Here is what I’ve written:
Officiant: (Groom’s name), Do you promise to exclusively love your wife, as Christ loved the church, giving your life to her sacrificially, to protect her when she’s vulnerable, to embrace her when she’s discouraged, to enjoy her when times get busy, to forgive her when she (optional humor: pick an innocent action that she does that slightly bothers him, but won’t embarrass her), to honor her, to pray for her, and to always be enraptured by her love, as joint heirs together with Christ, in sickness and in health, in poverty or riches, as long as you both shall live?
Officiant: (Bride’s name), Do you promise to exclusively love and submit to your husband as unto to the LORD, willingly giving your life as a helper, to strengthen him when he’s weak, to embrace him when he’s broken, to enjoy him when times get busy, to forgive him when he (optional humor: pick an innocent action that he does that slightly bothers her, but won’t embarrass him) to honor him, to pray for him, and to endeavor to do him good, as joint heirs together with Christ, in sickness and in health, in poverty or riches, as long as you both shall live?
Some couples choose to write their own vows in conjunction with the vows declared by the Officiant. Others just want to know when to say “I do” because they are already so nervous. But regardless, as the Officiant, I would encourage you to carefully craft the wording to reflect a biblical view of marriage. Make the words meaningful. Tailor it to some of the principles discussed in the counseling. Add some humor if you’d like. And most importantly, ask the Bride and Groom their thoughts before the ceremony. But choose the best words that will honor the Bride and Groom, and most of all, God’s covenant of marriage.
Every marriage has its special moments. Though we spend weeks and months planning the ceremony, it will fly by! I encourage every Officiant, Bride, and Groom, to take it slow and enjoy every moment. Work as a team to honor God and each other in this special time. Think of every moment as the build-up for the next. Gospel-centered pre-marital counseling lays the foundation for the vows and the marriage. Then, the sermon publicly declares everyone’s fundamental need to be reconciled to God and the basis for the marriage. And finally, the covenant vows further expounds and solidifies these truths by the couple’s confession and commitment to one another.
So in the end, when the couples finally kiss, and we celebrate together, we if we demonstrate biblical excellence in these three important areas of the ceremony, we can rest assured that Christ was glorified, the gospel was proclaimed, and the marriage was honored.
-Until we go home