Vowing To Not Write Vows

There’s an interesting trend of people writing their own marriages vows instead of using traditional ones. Or maybe I’m just noticing it more as all my friends are getting married: ring by spring, baby! While I’m always happy for people on their special day, personalized wedding vows always felt a little off to me. I used to just chalk it up as my own lack of emotional sensitivity (which is probably still a part of the problem).
However, I recently heard Pastor Sam Allberry say on the Gospel Coalition Podcast, partially joking but partially serious: “I’ll only marry a couple if they DON’T write their own vows. The vows will entirely miss the point of what the whole ceremony is about. They’ll write vows about how they feel. [But] we [already] know how you feel. We don’t need seventeen stanzas of bad poetry to know how you feel on your wedding day.” -Sam Allberry (full podcast episode here). 
Now, on the one hand, the traditional wedding vows are not found in scripture; they’re not inspired by God. Traditional vows won’t strengthen your new marriage any more than a well-placed, motivational poster will strengthen your work environment. They’re both just symbols and signs. BUT these things have their place. And if we agree that the ceremony is important (Pinterest boards and pocketbooks currently confirm), then what we do and say here matters.
From the Bible’s perspective, marriage is not just something that happens between two consenting adults. Marriage is a life-long covenant between two sexually different persons, in which the two become one, resembling the relationship that Jesus has with his people (This doesn’t allow us to treat LGBT+ people with any less dignity, even if we respectfully disagree on this point.)
But, I think many wedding ceremonies miss the big picture of what marriage is supposed to represent. A wedding isn’t primarily about highlighting the individuality of the bride and groom, or the (untested) love the couple professes. As Russell Moore says, those gathered at the wedding at not “just guests at the party,” they are witnesses of what is happening. Why do weddings need witnesses? We attendees represent the “Body of Christ,” the people meant to help and the hold this couple to their life-long vows.
Because there is NO WAY anyone can predict what is coming for these two: the turbulence, the temptations, the trials. The couple most certainly can’t, and so flowery and flamboyant pronouncements of life-long fidelity just aren’t that valuable. EVERYONE feels good on the wedding day (except the ex-boyfriend), but what happens when, five years (or months) later, strong feelings fade? (And it’s always a matter of when not if). What do you look back upon? Anything anchored in wedding-day butterflies and feeling of infatuation will be long gone.
So what does anchor us? Not vows of self-actualization, but a vow of self-sacrifice: a simple promise (in front of an accountable community who will hold us to these vows). I love what Louis Mead says, a Dutch-American philosopher about marriage. Long quote but worth the read:
“When I make a promise, I bear witness that my future with you is not locked… in the hand I was dealt out with out of my parents’ genetic deck. When I make a promise, I testify that I was not routed along some unalterable itinerary by the psychic conditioning visited on me by my slightly wacky parents. When I make a promise, I declare that my future with people who depend on me is not predetermined by the mixed up culture of my tender years… I’m well aware that much of what I am and what I do is a gift or curse from my past, but when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me. No German shepherd ever promised to be with me, no computer ever promised to be a loyal help. Only a person can make a promise, and when you do, you are most free.” -Louis Mead
Why “most free?” In the instability of impulses and in the fleeting nature of feelings, we are often conditioned by our past and our biology (unpopular fact). But when we are anchored to a simple promise, in the presence of many witnesses, then we are free from the feelings of the moment.
So why do I like the following traditional vows better than anything anyone else comes up with?
They are external to me, not something that comes from within me. They are a great resource that comes from outside of me. Our culture constantly preaches that whatever feels right, deep down, is that which needs to be pursued at any and every cost (Think every Disney movie). In my opinion, Christian weddings could demonstrate respectful, counter-cultural, disagreement with this philosophy. This wedding day is not primarily about how we feel, but to celebrate and witness what God has done for us, what promises we make to each other, and the witnesses holding us to these promises.
What makes a wedding significant, notes Russell Moore, is not it’s differences from other weddings, but what makes them all the same. The decorations, the dress, the venue, the food are not what makes a wedding significant, but rather the eternal realities to which the wedding point. I think traditional vows are a great way in the ceremony to keep the same, significant meaning of marriage on full display.
The Declaration of Consent (Book of Common Prayer):
Name: Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor 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.
Will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor 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.