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Engagement And Marriage
From beginning to end God’s Word speaks much about marriage. It makes clear the sanctity of marriage, for marriage was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden before our first parents sinned and was designed by Him for the blessing and joy of mankind. Marriage is also a lovely earthly picture to help us understand the relationship between Christ and the Assembly (Church). Ephesians 5:22-33 makes this very clear.
Scripture does not say much about engagement, the period of commitment immediately prior to the consummation of a marriage. But God’s Word definitely recognizes engagement, sometimes referred to as betrothal. Customs and practices in regard to engagement vary in different parts of the world. However, what is important for Christians is what God says in His Word.
In the western world two people may decide they want to get married and they then make this known by getting engaged. Sadly enough, in this ungodly world often a man and a woman simply begin living together and then perhaps later decide to get married. This is, of course, absolutely contrary to God’s will for mankind. No matter how commonplace it has become or how it is glamorized in the world, before God this is sin, and God’s Word speaks of it as fornication.
At the time the Bible was written engagement was normally a matter arranged by the parents or families of the couple. This pattern is still followed in many cultures today. It makes sense to the extent that parents normally have acquired experience in married life that their young people do not have, but it has serious, potential drawbacks too. Marriage is probably the second most important decision an individual has to make in his or her life, second only to accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as his or her personal Savior and Lord. The will of God must be paramount in our lives!
Strictly speaking, at least for Christians, engagement is a matter of a man and a woman committing themselves before God to marry one another (we emphasize, a man and a woman, for God’s Word does not recognize any other relationship as marriage, regardless of men’s laws or court rulings). The period of engagement is the final time for them to prepare themselves for marriage. Their love will be growing and they will want to be together, but they must exercise care to keep pure, avoiding all intimate contact for God has reserved the joys of this pleasure for the married couple.
If during the engagement either individual should find that he or she does not feel free before God to enter into a lifelong exclusive oneness with the other, this is the time to end the relationship, heartbreaking as this may be. Both God’s Word and practical life experience demonstrate the awful disaster that a wrong marriage can be for husband, wife, children and even the families and friends of both partners.
Some Scriptural Examples, Pro And Con
In Genesis 24 we see Abraham concerned about a wife for his son Isaac and sending his oldest servant to find one suited for him. He gave careful instructions as to where he should go and what kind of woman would not be suitable. Upon arriving where he was sent, the servant prayed for direction and eventually negotiated with the family of Rebekah. The family agreed that the match was of God, and Rebekah personally said, “I will go,” when asked whether she would go with the man. The family blessed Rebekah as she left. Arriving home, the servant told Isaac all that he had done. The marriage was consummated and Isaac loved Rebekah. Many today would have problems with such an arranged marriage, but this is the first marriage we read of after the original instance where God made and brought Adam his bride. Furthermore, in many of its details this story is a beautiful picture of His Bride, now being procured [taken] and prepared for our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the case of Esau we see him taking wives for himself that were a grief to his parents (Gen. 26:34-35). There is no word as to an engagement or even of his parents being consulted about whom he married. He took two Canaanite wives to begin with, and a daughter of Ishmael as a third wife when his parents were grieved because of the first two wives (Gen. 28:6-9). Nothing is said about his parents being involved in any of his decisions.
Isaac and Rebekah sent Jacob to his Uncle Laban to take a wife of his daughters (Gen. 28:1-5). Jacob went with his parents’ blessing but made his own arrangements (Gen. 29), ending up with both of Laban’s daughters plus their maidservants as his wives. Jacob worked seven years for Rachel whom he loved, he was deceived by his uncle who gave him Leah, and then he worked seven more years for Rachel. We see the disorder and strife that polygamy brings as we consider Jacob’s messy family life.
In Genesis 34, after Jacob’s daughter Dinah was humbled by Shechem, he and his father came to Jacob to arrange for Shechem to marry Dinah. Jacob’s sons came in from the field and involved themselves in the negotiations for this marriage. Shechem was noted as being honorable above all in the house of his father. But Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi were treacherous and killed Shechem, his father and all the males in their city. Thus the engagement was broken and no marriage occurred.
Judah in Genesis 38 acted shamefully and entirely on his own – first in having a Canaanite as a close friend, then in taking a Canaanite wife. His shame continued in looking for a prostitute and later in almost having his daughter-in-law burned for her pregnancy for which he was responsible.
Deuteronomy gives us a restatement of the Law God gave to Israel. Galatians shows us clearly that we Christians are not under that Mosaic Law, yet there are many things we can learn from it. Several times, and especially in Deuteronomy 22, we find God making a distinction between a woman who was married, a woman who was engaged, and one who was not engaged and thus not married. We see that the penalty for lying with a man’s wife – what we would term adultery – was more severe than for the rape of an unmarried young woman. The penalty for raping an engaged woman was more severe than if she was not engaged. Thus God clearly differentiates between non-engaged women, engaged women and married women. The distinctions God makes show us plainly that engagement is not a light thing in His holy eyes.
How sad to read of Samson’s engagement and subsequent wedding in Judges 14. “She pleases me well” or the converse is still the criterion for many an engagement and wedding in the world today. Insistent self will, putting pressure on parents, acting against God’s expressed will, keeping secrets from parents and spouses, marrying out of the will of God, making worldly friendships, following customs of the world – all these things are integral to [essential parts of] the lives of all too many, even Christians.
Turning to the New Testament we find in its very first chapter an engaged couple, Joseph and Mary. Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant. He was called her husband although they were not yet married and Mary was still a virgin, something Luke also emphasizes. Matthew 1 calls Joseph an honorable man and says that he was not willing to expose Mary publicly, so he wanted to break the engagement secretly. God’s angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling Him not to fear to take Mary as his wife for the child she was bearing was by the Holy Spirit, and this Son would save His people from their sins. Inspired, Matthew added that all this was according to prophecy, which he then cited. So we see that under normal circumstances Joseph could have broken the engagement, but that it took a message given by an angel in a dream to keep him from doing this.
The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11 spoke of espousing (engaging) the believers at Corinth to Christ. He wanted to present them as a chaste virgin to Christ, but they were listening to false teachers and thus being unfaithful to Him. He regarded this as a very serious issue. We, indeed, are in a period of engagement waiting for our Lord to come and take us to Himself. After this the marriage supper of the Lamb can be celebrated for which the Bride has made herself ready (Rev. 19).
Dissolving An Engagement
These passages from both the Old Testament and New Testament show clearly that engagement and marriage are not the same in the eyes of God. Engagement is a solemn commitment which should never be taken lightly, but there are circumstances under which an engagement can be broken. One of these would be fornication on the part of either the woman or the man. Also if two individuals are engaged and one is a believer and the other is not, the believer should not marry the unbeliever. Scripture tells us that our “yes” should be yes and our “no,” no. But we must obey God; and there are circumstances where we need to humble ourselves, recognizing that in getting engaged we have failed by making a wrong decision or agreement. In such a case we should humble ourselves before the Lord, confessing that what we have done is wrong rather than making the matter worse by entering into a marriage that would bind us for a lifetime in a relationship that is contrary to the will of God. These are not the only reasons that would warrant dissolving an engagement.
When it comes to wanting to dissolve an engagement simply because one feels that he or she loves someone else more, this must be seriously weighed before the Lord. Do not enter into marriage lightly! God tells the husband to love his wife (Eph. 5:25,28,33) and the wife to love her husband (Ti. 2:4). Beware of entering into a marriage if your heart is taken up with someone else rather than the person you are engaged to marry! When a person is engaged he or she should be looking forward to married life with the one they are engaged and not be occupied with someone else.
Many other factors may enter into the matter of engagement and marriage: wealth or poverty, education or illiteracy, unity of faith or lack of this, health, goals in life, family, social or cultural pressures and so much more. But the most important thing for Christians is that both the man and the woman must be firmly convinced that the engagement and the marriage before them is truly the Lord’s direction and will. If such is not the case, the marriage will be a prospective disaster. It would be better to break off the engagement and relationship than to have to live in a marriage not of God the rest of one’s life – or to break such a marriage by divorce, which is something God hates (Mal. 2:16). Divorce is not in God’s plan for marriage for it completely spoils the picture of Christ and the Assembly, which human marriage is meant to portray. May the Lord be seen in all that we do!
By Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.