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Complementary Vows

16th September 2020

The engagement period is meant to help the couple know their own hearts. Sexual attraction and social pressure can sometimes fog over one’s eyes and better judgment. By the wedding day, it is time to walk in the light. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “If your eye be single, your body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). There is no more important time for people to be single-minded than in committing themselves to each other for life. 

The service provides two last enquiries regarding the couple’s readiness to marry. The first is addressed to the public: 

Into this holy union N.N. and N.N. now come to be joined. If any of you can show just cause why they may not be married in accordance with God’s Word, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace. 

Though last-minute objections and revelations happen more often in movies or novels than in real life, such are not unheard of, and the priest or pastor is obligated to evaluate their seriousness. Having paused, he will then turn to the couple and say:

I require and charge you both, in the name of God, from whom no secrets are hid, that if either of you know any impediment why you may not be married rightly, you do now confess it; being assured that those who are joined contrary to God’s Word are not truly united in Holy Matrimony. 

The term impediment refers to a prior condition that would render a marriage null and void. Impediments may include such things as false identity, bigamy, or coercion of one party, all of which involve secrets of the heart, hidden perhaps from one another but known to God.

Having cleared the air of any objection, the couple then confirm their promise to marry with a pair of betrothal vows.

John, will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together out of reverence for Christ in the covenant of Holy Matrimony? Will you love her, honor her, comfort and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live? I will. 
Mary, will you have this man to be your husband; to live together out of reverence for Christ in the covenant of Holy Matrimony? Will you honor him, love him, comfort and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live? I will. 

These vows express a complementary understanding of the roles and relationships of husband and wife in Holy Matrimony. The term “complementary” combines two elements: order and reciprocity. Some critics find this combination contradictory, but it is rooted in the book of Genesis, where the woman is a “fit helper” for the man. It is also central to St. Paul’s vision of the mystery of marriage in Ephesians, chapter 5. By adding the words “out of reverence for Christ,” the Anglican Church in North America vows recall this text. 

The betrothal vows of the 1662 Prayer Book express complementarity in a hierarchical cast: the bride promises to “obey and serve” her husband. Some recent rites veer in an egalitarian direction, making the vows identical. Neither of these wordings quite captures the sense of St. Paul’s teaching in Ephesians. Paul differentiates the role of wives and husbands as part of the “mutual subjection” to Christ; but Paul does not use the word “to obey” for the wife but rather “to subject herself,” first to Christ and then to her husband. 

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:21-25).

By inverting the order of the two vows – the man promises to love and honor his wife, while the woman promises to honor and love her husband – the revised text teaches that while men and women are equally made in God’s image and equally redeemed in Christ, they live out their marriage and family life in complementary ways. The wife respects and follows the husband as the church follows Christ; the husband acts lovingly and sacrificially for the wife, as Christ acts for the church. Headship and submission is not a command structure, much less a kind of domestic slavery. Think of it as a beautiful dance, whatever the cultural expression. The challenge for husbands and wives is to perform this beautiful dance together with grace out of love and reverence for Christ and one another.


[Bride] I am my beloved’s and he is mine; he grazes among the lilies. 
[Bridegroom] You are beautiful, my dearest companion, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners. 
(Song of Solomon 6:3-4)

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