I attended a few weddings this past year that left me feeling a little uncomfortable with some small traditional details.
When the pastor introduces the bride and groom as a married couple for the first time, he/she often refers to the couple as, “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith,” not “Mr. and Mrs. John and Mary Smith” or even “Mr. John Smith and Mrs. Mary Johnson” (if each partner chooses to retain their last name). The woman’s name is erased—completely removed from their identity as a couple. Her individual identity is swallowed up in his identity, as if her name and personhood no longer matter.
Although many women do not generally continue to use their husband’s first name in place of their own after their wedding day, the tradition still holds sway. My mom noted that, when she was growing up, it was proper to address a letter or any mail to a married woman as “Mrs. John Smith.” (This likely proved for a lot of mail mix-ups, considering the couple has to look for a one-letter difference). Additionally, women go from Miss to Mrs. (and the title Ms. is so often overlooked) when they get married, but men go from a Mr. to a Mr., indicating that marriage for a woman necessitates a change in status, whereas a man’s status remains the same.
Thus, marriage truly is about a change in identity. However, this tradition implies that only one-half of the couple’s identity has to change to accommodate the oneness of marriage—and it just happens to be the woman’s identity. I don’t take issue with the inclusion of tradition in wedding ceremonies, but I do think it’s important for egalitarians to think carefully about the meaning behind various traditions, and whether those practices accurately reflect their personal theology.
Traditionally, men have held a significantly higher position in marriage than women—they are called the “head” of the household, the name bearer, the leader, the breadwinner, and the spiritual guide. Yet, I do not believe that any of these prescriptions for men actually fit God’s original design for marriage. God designed marriage to be an equal partnership in which both the husband and wife use their God-given gifts freely and to their fullness. Only when we, as a culture, break out of the boxes that command husbands to fill one role absolutely and wives to fill the other, will we truly know the full kingdom potential of marriage. Despite the implication of this tradition, one partner is not more important than the other. Both are united in an equal partnership before God for his glory and for the good of the world.
In my own future wedding, I want my belief in biblical equality to be as evident in the wedding ceremony as it will be in my marriage.
As you consider what your own egalitarian wedding ceremony might look like, I’d like to share a few thoughts on other wedding traditions that I personally may want to change in my wedding in order to fully display God’s design for mutuality in marriage.
1. The bride is the only one to be given away in marriage by her parents (usually by her father).
The groom apparently has no need to be given away to his bride. He gives himself as he is traditionally seen as the one who can depend on and take care of himself. This wedding tradition implies that women always need someone to provide for them (fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons). This practice still hangs on a cultural assumption about the nature of men and women, and thus this tradition might be one that egalitarians may choose to rethink (based on their own preferences).
2. The bride’s father usually escorts his daughter down the aisle alone.
Despite the fact that, often, a bride’s mother has taught, cared for, and provided for her daughter just as much, the father is given this honor. This tradition implies that the father has a greater role in raising his daughter and preparing her for marriage—regardless of the nature of a mother’s relationship and history with her daughter. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful literal picture of biblical equality to have both the bride and groom escorted by both of their parents?
3. The bride’s family pays for the wedding.
Traditionally (historically), this was seen as the bride’s dowry—payment to the groom for taking the bride in marriage, now under his protection and provision, and therefore his new responsibility. This leaves egalitarians with the same problem—the tradition hangs on the assumption that women cannot provide for themselves and thus, when they are “given” in marriage, become the burden of their new husbands. In situations where it is fiscally feasible (and comfortable for the couple), I think having both the bride and groom chip in, as well as those in their lives that can and want to, is a great picture of the mutuality and equality the couple will share in their marriage.
4. The use of the term “taken” in regards to engagements and engagement rings.
Is that what the engagement ring is for—to say that a women is “taken” by a certain man? This phrase seems to imply ownership, and as history testifies, women were traditionally given in marriage as belongings with no voice or personal will. So, I think we should leave behind traditions that are colored heavily by the concept of ownership. There are ways to make new traditions or redeem old ones (if a couple chooses). I know this one may hit hard for many, but why can’t the groom have an engagement ring too?
Okay, last one!
5. It’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.
This one is wrapped up in superstition, but its origins aren’t all that kind to women. Because marriages were once seen as business transactions between families, it was customary to keep the bride hidden to prevent the groom from changing his mind about marrying her and taking on a new financial burden. Nowadays, the tradition of keeping the bride hidden remains. To get around this, many couples blindfold the groom so the couple can “see” each other before the actual ceremony without the groom actually seeing the bride. Though most couples don’t subscribe to the tradition for historical reasons, I do think the origins are something to think about. Personally, I suggest that the bride and groom either both see each other or neither do. But, on the plus side, I think that a private moment before the ceremony would be nice, and maybe the only chance the couple has alone together before the end of the reception.
To those of you who have used any of these traditions or plan to in the future, my only intention is to make you think. Does your marriage now reflect the traditions you abided by on your wedding day? Before doing something in your wedding because it’s a tradition, think about whether you are including it for the sake of tradition or because it means something to you. Either way, if you consider God’s design of equality in marriage to be your intention, then no tradition can hold sway over your marriage.