Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Westminster Assembly on Dating and Courtship

The Westminster Assembly was a 17th century council of English Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian ministers who were tasked with unifying the English and Scottish churches with a shared statement of faith, catechism, system of government, and guidelines for worship. Its confession of faith and catechisms are still the doctrinal standards of Presbyterian churches today.

Today I want to share some of what the assembly said about biblical guidelines for the process of getting married. In evangelical circles in our time, there has been a bit of confusion and discussion about how to respond to the culture of individualism, casual dating, sexual "freedom" that surrounds us. Some have used the term "courtship" to describe a way of getting married that is more purposeful, careful, and respectful of parental authority. While this approach has gone well for some, myself included, in other people's experience the attempt to implement this alternative way has been messy and prone to overreaction, which is why I bring in this historical perspective. Over-reacting and under-reacting are both driven by an unbalanced focus on the present situation. The teachings of the church in other cultures and eras can give us balance, new insights, and the wisdom of experience. So what did the Westminster Assembly have to say about getting married?

First, the Westminster Assembly has a chapter on marriage in its Confession of Faith (chapter 24, see link for biblical footnotes). In short, it affirms that the Bible teaches that marriage is to be monogamous and heterosexual, for mutual help, procreation, and the prevention of immorality. Incestuous marriages cannot be made lawful, and divorce is only lawful in the case of adultery or willful desertion which is unable to be remedied by church and state. Article three of this chapter is particularly relevant for the topic of getting married:
"It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies." 
Second, the Westminster Assembly described the duties of the seventh commandment (the one against adultery) at length in the Larger Catechism (Q. 137-139). Not only does it describe our duty to be chaste in "body, mind, affections, words, and behavior," but also our duty to preserve our own chastity and the chastity of others. This requires "watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel" - certainly important directions in our present day which exalts pleasure, autonomous freedom, and irresponsible clothing choices. Most importantly for the topic of getting married, it affirms that one duty of the seventh commandment is "marriage by those that have not the gift of continency." If you are of marriageable age, you have a duty to seek marriage, unless you have a special gift of restraint such that sexual temptation is not a threat (1 Cor. 7:2-9; see this post for more on that text). The catechism says that one of the sins forbidden by the seventh commandment is the "undue delay of marriage."

Third, and perhaps most overlooked, is what the Westminster Assembly said about getting married in the Directory for Public Worship (under "The Solemnization of Marriage"). Before the directory gives directions for the wedding ceremony, it gives directions for the process of getting married. Give particular attention to how it handles the consent of the couple and their parents, beginning in the fourth paragraph. In short, the free consent of the couple (Gen. 24:57-58, Mal. 2:14) and of their parents (Ex. 20:12, 22:17, Deut. 7:3) are both needed before the engagement is made public (i.e. they all have ability to veto the marriage), although parents cannot deny their consent without just cause.
"Although marriage be no sacrament, nor peculiar to the church of God, but common to mankind, and of publick interest in every commonwealth; yet, because such as marry are to marry in the Lord, and have special need of instruction, direction, and exhortation, from the word of God, at their entering into such a new condition, and of the blessing of God upon them therein, we judge it expedient that marriage be solemnized by a lawful minister of the word, that he may accordingly counsel them, and pray for a blessing upon them.
Marriage is to be betwixt one man and one woman only; and they such as are not within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity prohibited by the word of God; and the parties are to be of years of discretion, fit to make their own choice, or, upon good grounds, to give their mutual consent. 
Before the solemnizing of marriage between any persons, the purpose of marriage shall be published by the minister three several sabbath-days, in the congregation, at the place or places of their most usual and constant abode, respectively. And of this publication the minister who is to join them in marriage shall have sufficient testimony, before he proceed to solemnize the marriage. 
Before that publication of such their purpose, (if the parties be under age,) the consent of the parents, or others under whose power they are, (in case the parents be dead,) is to be made known to the church officers of that congregation, to be recorded. 
The like is to be observed in the proceedings of all others, although of age, whose parents are living, for their first marriage. 
And, in after marriages of either of those parties, they shall be exhorted not to contract marriage without first acquainting their parents with it, (if with conveniency it may be done,) endeavouring to obtain their consent. 
Parents ought not to force their children to marry without their free consent, nor deny their own consent without just cause. 
After the purpose or contract of marriage hath been thus published, the marriage is not to be long deferred."
And fourth, even though it is not the product of the Westminster Assembly, but of one of its members, I would recommend William Gouge's book, Of Domestical Duties (1622), which has been published in a modern edition as Building a Godly Home, 3 volumes (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), available here. The topic of getting married is covered in volumes 2 and 3. William Gouge was a senior member of the Westminster Assembly, a Puritan pastor in London, and a married man with thirteen children. His book is worth reading. Here is one quote from him on the process of getting married:
"The first liking is sometimes on the parents' or other friends' part, and then made known to the party to be married ... (Gen. 24:58). Sometimes again the first liking is on the party's part that is to be married, and then if that party be under the authority of parents, the matter must be proposed to them, before there be any further proceeding ... (Judg. 14:2). Even if the party is not under the authority of any, it is very fitting that counsel be taken of wise and understanding friends ... After a liking is thus taken by one party for a good mate, that liking must be proposed to the other party so liked, to know if there is a reciprocal affection of one towards another ... Mutual love and good liking of each other is as glue. Let the parties to be married be well settled before they come to meet with trials through cohabitation, and that love will not easily be loosened by any trials ... When both parties have shown a mutual liking to each other, and upon mature deliberation and good advice do think one to be a fit match for another, it is necessary that a joint consent and absolute promise of marrying one another before sufficient witnesses be made." (Building a Godly Home, vol. 2, p. 17-19)

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