There’s a growing trend in the Christian marriage service that when the minister asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”, both the father and mother of the bride stand and respond by saying, “We do”. In some instances, the father and mother both walk their daughter down the aisle. More recently, this practice is being extended in a growing number of evangelical churches to include the father and mother of the groom as well.
What is at stake in making such a significant alteration? Is this a positive step forward in acknowledging the many sacrifices in parenting from both sets of parents—especially the bride’s mother—as well as their inherent equality before God? Or is this a watering down of the truth of God’s Word. In particular, the difference in role responsibility that exists between a man and a woman?
There’s an old saying that before you remove a fence, you should first find out why it was erected. Maybe the reason for doing so has legitimately passed, or perhaps the need for protecting something important and precious still remains. I believe that the latter is the case, rather than the former. And what follows is my humble attempt to persuade the reader as to why the traditional practice should be retained.
What is it the husband and wife actually say?
It has often been observed that the precise wording of what the bride and groom promise to one another in a reformed wedding ceremony is not “I do”, but rather “I will”. This is of no small significance. The essence of their vows is an ongoing commitment to relate to one another in a certain way, one which is based not on how they might feel emotionally on a particular day, but whatever the circumstances, to treat one another with what might be called “gracious generosity”.
For the husband, this means to lay down his life in sacrificial service for his bride just as Christ did for the church. This is not because she is worthy of such love, but rather, because that is how God first loved us. What’s more, if he doesn’t honour his wife in this way, then his own fellowship with the Lord will be affected (1 Peter 3:7).
The wife is commanded to submit to her husband as the church does to Christ. Again, this is not because he deserves such respect but because by relating to him in such a way she is making herself beautiful and strengthening her marriage (1 Peter 3:1-6).
Significantly, it is the father of the bride alone in the traditional Christian wedding service who responds to the minister by saying, “I do”. And in so doing he gives permission for his daughter to be given away to another man. Unlike the vow between a husband and wife, the father’s vow is punctiliar. It’s a one-off statement relinquishing both authority and responsibility.
The spirit of the age
The practice of asking this of the father of the bride alone—historically common to every church tradition—is reflective of the complementarian ordering of creation in which the husband is the head of his wife (1 Cor. 11:2-16). But with the rise of feminism, the spirit of this current age is characterised by a creeping egalitarianism.
This is also evidenced in how few Christian women include the words “to honour and obey” in their wedding vows. Indeed, it is increasingly rare to hear a passage such as Ephesians 5:22-33 being read aloud at a wedding. And instead, it seems that more and more couples of opting for more generic passages such as Philippians 2 or something about love from the book of 1 John.
My own pastoral observation is that this is no mere oversight but a conscious decision on the part of the couple not to ‘offend’ unbelieving friends and relatives. The request is to “preach the Gospel”, which I must say is rather odd considering that Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 explicitly parallel Christian marriage to what Christ himself has done upon the cross!
Is there still a place for veils?
To my complete surprise, my daughter asked me before we left her apartment for the church to put on her veil as a final step of getting ready. I had no expectation personally about doing this, but she really wanted me to. She then explained that it would be her soon-to-be husband who would be the one to remove her veil after they’d both made their vows and the minister declared that they were husband and wife.
Many would roll their eyes and scoff at such an antiquated, clearly patriarchal act. However, it was deeply meaningful and incredibly moving – a memory which I will always cherish. Here was a man who would protect and cherish my little girl! Someone who would take over the responsibility I once had but was now handing over to him. No wonder fathers cry as they walk their daughters down the aisle…
Even though I’ve officiated over a number of weddings, I gained a whole new perspective the day my own daughter was married. In particular, I learned more about what it means to be the “father of the bride” and the significance of that role both spiritually and socially. Yes, my wife had an enormous part to play in our daughter’s upbringing. But as the head of our home, it was my responsibility for how the family was doing.
Not only did I give me daughter away in marriage recently, but in the past twelve months I also witnessed two of my sons get married. Three weddings in one year…that has to be some kind of record! But as I rejoiced in their union to two beautiful godly women, giving away one’s daughter is a rather different experience.
It all goes back to Eden…
Ultimately, it reflects back on the creation of woman herself. In Genesis 2 we read how she was not taken from the dust of the earth as the man was. Thus, while both Adam and Eve were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) there is not a direct equivalence of roles. As the woman is taken from the man’s side, so too the Bible says that the man in particular will leave his father and mother to become one flesh with his wife.
Significantly, the same thing is not said of the woman. Why? Because the husband is the one who is given the responsibility of headship in forming a new household. And as such, it is inappropriate for him to ask permission from his parents, but it is entirely appropriate to seek a blessing from the father of his bride.
Matthew Henry once wrote:
The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.
Asking the father of the bride to say, “I do” in a Christian wedding ceremony is a wonderful reflection of that reality. In particular, it models for the church—and the unbelieving world—an authority motivated by sacrificial service rather than selfish interest (Mark 10:42-45). And as such, it’s something which should not be lost but consistently affirmed.
– Mark Powell