As egalitarians, we’ve all cringed at certain wedding traditions. There’s the practice of a father “giving away” his daughter—as if daughters are property to be transferred from one man to another. There are the wedding vows in which the bride promises to “submit to and obey” her husband. Then, there’s the announcement of couples as Mr. and Mrs. [insert just the husband’s full name]. These are just to name a few.
Not all tradition is bad; honoring the past can be a beautiful thing. I also have no judgment for any woman who wants her dad to walk her down the aisle or takes her husband's last name. Each of us gets to decide what traditions we do and don’t incorporate in our day. Yet I do think egalitarian couples have a unique chance to critically examine the symbolism of patriarchal wedding traditions and challenge the typical wedding narrative. Instead of relying on patriarchal wedding traditions of centuries and decades past, egalitarians can reinterpret old ideas and practices—or even bring fresh ones.
Some people think that the wedding day sets the tone for a couple’s marriage. Yes, the wedding day is important. But couples should determine their values and live them out long before they walk down the aisle. The dating/pre-engagement phase is a great time to figure out what you both believe about marriage.
So, how can couples establish their shared commitment to egalitarian values from the start, including when they’re dating? And how can they use their engagements and wedding ceremonies to express those values?
My husband and I recently celebrated our three-year anniversary. From the start, we knew we wanted to live out egalitarian values and practice mutual submission. Both our pre-engagement phase and our wedding ceremony reflected our commitment to building an equal partnership. Using some of our own experience as well as other ideas, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions for establishing an egalitarian marriage—before and after the "I do's."
An equal partnership begins with having open conversations about opinions and beliefs about gender roles during the dating period. How do you feel about women pastors and elders in the church? How will you and your spouse negotiate having careers and family responsibilities? Who, if anyone, is the leader in your relationship?
Couples should make sure they’re on the same page when it comes to how they will live out gender equality in their relationship. These and many other topics need to be explored while dating, and before a couple can make an informed decision regarding marriage. Before getting engaged, my husband and I read and discussed several books such as The Five Love Languages, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, and 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged. I recommend all couples do the same to make sure they know what the other believes about love and relationships. Premarital counseling with a licensed mental health professional or pastor can also help couples get on the same page about important topics in marriage.
In our society, engagements are often initiated and planned by men only. But for us, engagement was the natural progression of many mutual conversations about our relationship and life plans. We took that step toward marriage together.
Egalitarian couples might consider centering their egalitarian values by going ring shopping together, planning their wedding together, and making important pre-married life decisions together—such as where they will live, which church they will attend, and if/when to have children.
Before our wedding, my husband and I communicated our egalitarian beliefs to the pastors who married us. We even asked them to consider a list of terms not to say in our wedding ceremony like: obey, submit, leader, and “head.” We also provided a list of words they were encouraged to say: commitment, grace, sacrifice, partner.
My husband and I decided to write our own personal wedding vows, as well as recite a few more traditional ones. Some egalitarian couples may decide to walk down the aisle together, or each with their own parents. Instead of the traditional “Who gives this woman?”, our pastor asked: “Who comes to bless this marriage?” Then, both of my parents responded, “We do.”
We used the charge, “You may now seal your vows with a kiss,” instead of “You may now kiss the bride,” which to us suggested that the bride is a passive recipient of her husband’s advances. We wanted our first kiss as a married couple to be a mutual symbol of our love. We asked our pastor to introduce us by both of our names. We also asked that he refer to me as “Dr.” instead of "Mrs." since my husband celebrates the doctoral degree I earned prior to meeting him. These ideas can add a spirit of equality and partnership to your wedding day.
As newlyweds, your egalitarian beliefs should naturally extend into your daily life as a couple. In our newlywed years, we practiced mutual submission in everyday ways. My husband equally shared the housework responsibilities. We made significant decisions as equal partners, such as moving and buying a new house when I was offered a college faculty job. My husband proudly tells others that we practice “non-traditional gender roles” and that we’re “equal partners on the same team."
Over three years into our marriage, we’re not quite newlyweds anymore—especially after adding our baby daughter to the family last year. Pregnancy and parenting have brought a whole new set of challenges to our marriage and to our egalitarian practices. Still, my husband and I are as committed as ever to navigating obstacles together and maintaining our equal partnership.
If you’re dating or engaged, I encourage you to consider how you might begin incorporating egalitarian practices into your relationship and wedding plans. Think through each tradition in your wedding, from the way invitations are addressed to who pays for the wedding. Weigh each choice against your beliefs and don’t be afraid to get creative in reframing old traditions or inventing new ones.
If you’re a newlywed, consider starting your marriage off in a way that reflects you and your spouse’s beliefs about mutual submission and co-leadership. Consider how your egalitarian values might shape the way you run your household, parent, and relate to each other.
As for the rest of us: let’s reflect on practical ways we can support and encourage the egalitarian couples in our lives. A few ideas: Don’t assume a married woman will change her last name, or quit her job if the couple has children. Honor men who subvert the traditional mold by taking on equal (or more) responsibility in child-rearing or household management. Ask women about their careers and professional goals, not just about their roles as mothers.
My husband and I hail from the Southern Unites States. Egalitarian couples are a bit of an anomaly here, especially in the denomination to which my husband and I belong. But for those of us who strongly believe the Bible teaches mutual submission, thinking outside the box of traditional gender roles is a necessity.
As egalitarians, let’s be thoughtful and innovative as we challenge and rethink common patriarchal engagement and wedding practices. Let’s reclaim what we can from the past and boldly establish new customs—customs that reflect our belief in the full equality of men and women.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article was published in Arise Weekly. At the request of the author, this version contains some minor revisions.