Is Betrothal the ONLY Way to Find a Wife?
First, I want to be clear in this post that I agree with virtually every statement that has been made about the modern catwalk program called dating. I Thessalonians 4:3-5ff should settle that issue for every believer. I believe that parents are in charge of their children throughout this process, and that children must submit to and follow the guidance of their parents.
I agree with Pastor Brandenburg all the way up to the point where he says “only.” I think that betrothal is one way that a man finds a wife, but I cannot argue, as he has, that every way of finding a wife besides betrothal falls under the heading of “the lust of concupiscence.” There are other legitimate points that can be made about this process, and I want to make those arguments in this post.
I don’t mind strong positions, and I most certainly appreciate Pastor Brandenburg’s strong stand on this issue. I will say that this is the first time I have seen him lay out his case for it, and I am glad to read it. And, so far as I know, based on discussions we have had on this in the past, he isn’t trying to line up a mate for his children while they are still under thirteen — which is a refreshing difference from the betrothal crowd I knew when I was growing up. I don’t mind saying that I much prefer his way of doing things to theirs. The only other betrothal people I ever knew of had contracts on their children by age five.
That approach has no basis in Scripture, no matter how many texts one might bend and stretch to make their case.
Pastor Brandenburg is absolutely correct that betrothal was commonly practiced in medieval times. Anyone who reads literature from that time period will know this. And, like many customs of that time, the practice has been caricatured beyond recognition, giving it very scarecrow-like qualities. Certainly, like anything else, the system can go wrong. We are, after all, a fallen race, and whatever we touch we mess up. But in many cases, the system was marked by a loving father seeking the best interests of his children.
So, no, I don’t believe that betrothal is a WRONG way to find a wife. Certainly, we see examples of it in Scripture. I see that it has been argued that betrothal is the ideal way to find a wife. Perhaps so. The principles behind the betrothal idea are certainly good and right, and therefore are ideal. I will reserve judgement on the practical aspects of it until Pastor Brandenburg has laid them out in his promised fourth post.
My point in this post (with apologies for the lengthy introduction) is simply to say that there are other ways that fall under the heading of “ideal.” And to say that those other ways are also lawful. But before I do so, I need to answer the claim that betrothal is the ONLY way for a man to obtain a wife.
Are You “BO” (Betrothal Only)?
The key argument that has been made for betrothal is that God gave a wife to Adam, and to Christ. Without this argument, the arguments from Abraham are completely without weight. The example of Abraham can only be argued as authoritative given the argument that God gave a wife to Adam and to Christ. And, certainly, it is undeniable that God gave a wife to both Adams, the first and the Second.
I hate to over-qualify, but it bears repeating that I am not arguing against betrothal as a way of finding a wife. It is a legitimate way. However, we should also point out that God did not search among the possibles for a wife for either Adam. God created a wife for each. So, while the example remains intact, the application of it to our situation in this world is clearly different. The fact that God created a wife for the two Adams makes these unique and special cases.
God has created a wife for each man. Godly parents (and their children) will be praying that God will guide them to that wife. And, by faith, we believe that God will. When we find that one, we believe that we can say with Adam,
This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
And with Christ,
What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
To say then that God’s choice of a wife for Adam and for Christ relates to our situation takes the example beyond its primary meaning. Clearly, God has made a wife for each of the Sons of Adam. He instructs us that we are to search for and find who that is. But this does not tell us how he intends for us to find which one he made for us. Nor does it limit us with Abraham’s example.
So, does God’s giving both Adam and Jesus a wife make this the universal pattern for marriage? Yes. And no. Yes, because God gives a wife to every married man (What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder), and no because it does not follow from this that God requires every man to take a wife for his son without the son’s involvement.
The argument extends from God’s giving of a bride to his two sons, to Abraham’s giving a wife to Isaac. Pastor Brandenburg says,
In the story of Isaac, the two marriage candidates aren’t involved with each other at all. They must fully trust authority in their lives. This is pictured as the ideal.
Do we have any Scripture to tell us that this is the ideal? None has been offered to tell us that Abraham’s way of doing this was the ideal. In fact, the only evidence that has been offered to prove that this is the ideal has been the fact that God gave a wife to Adam and to Jesus. Since we have here another father finding a wife for his son, therefore we are told that this makes it a universal pattern.
However, a few points should be made on this. First, if this was God’s ideal way for finding a wife, Isaac apparantly was not aware of this. Either that, or Isaac rebelled against it in disobedience. When it came time for Jacob to find a wife, Isaac made no attempt to find him one. Isaac sent Jacob to take a wife. We will get into Jacob’s folly in a few paragraphs. But for the time being, we will merely note that Isaac did not follow the pattern, and we will further note that God did not rebuke Isaac for this rebellion against the pattern. In fact, not once in Scripture do we find a place that tells us that we are transgressing God’s law if we send our sons out to find their own wife. Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for Isaac, Isaac sent Jacob to find himself a wife. And God says nothing about it.
Of course, at this point we can fully expect the famous rebuttal… “that’s an argument from silence.” This particular rebuttal is a curious thing, to say the least. The argument for betrothal relies heavily on arguments from silence. One might even argue that the entire premise rests on what isn’t said in Scripture. Nevertheless, the “argument from silence” rebuttal continues to be used arbitrarily as it suits. But the fact remains that we cannot condemn what God does not, lest we make ourselves more holy than He.
We certainly can claim that betrothal is a lawful way for a man to find a wife. But we cannot claim that for Jacob to find his own wife at all was sin. We cannot claim that Isaac was in sin to send Jacob to find his own wife. And to argue that the result proves it to be sin and wrong is to assign a false cause. We cannot argue conclusively that Jacob’s folly resulted from Jacob leaving his father’s authority to find his own wife. First, Jacob went to find his own wife with his father’s full blessing, and under his father’s authority. Secondly, Jacob’s folly was the result of Laban’s fraud.
And that brings us to another comment that needs to be answered. Earlier in a comment thread, Pastor Brandenburg made this statement:
You say that Jacob’s pattern was the same as Abraham’s. Laban gave Jacob Leah. Laban, the authority for the daughters, wanted Jacob to have Leah. I believe that the troubles for Jacob show the problem with the son taking the intiative. And so he takes another wife. And another. And another. I can’t take anything as a pattern of what to do from Jacob. He didn’t even follow Laban. Laban gave Leah, but he had to have Rachel.
The truth is, Laban committed a fraud against Jacob. If Laban, as the daughter’s authority, wanted Jacob to have Leah, he should have said so, not snuck her in at the ceremony. I have a feeling that if a man did this to Pastor Brandenburg’s son, there would be cries of “foul.” The polygamy that resulted from Laban’s fraud is another discussion for another time. I will only point out that polygamy was a social custom of the time, and was perfectly acceptable. Jacob could have demanded that he be given Rachel, and that the marriage to Leah be annulled. Instead, he did the honorable thing and kept Leah. And the Genesis account of this event shows that Laban suggested that Jacob take Rachel as well (Genesis 29:26-28). We can hardly place the blame for this on Jacob, and we certainly cannot say that this was caused by Jacob’s rebellion in leaving the authority of his father.
Jacob’s problems were caused by sin… a sinful father-in-law in particular, and they demonstrate that even when we follow parental authority, things can still be messed up.
There are only two other minor arguments for the BO (Betrothal Only) position that must be answered, and then we can move on to making a case for alternative methods. First, the argument has been made that a boy is not a man until his father says he is.
There is the assumption in Scripture that a Dad has this kind of authority over his son as well. We read this in Galatians 4:1-2
Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.
When does a boy become a man? When his Dad says that he does. A Dad is to understand manhood, inform his son how to get there, and then tell him when he’s arrived.
Now, first, we should point out that Paul’s major point here is not to say that the son is not a man until his father says he is. Paul is illustrating something else, using a cultural custom. But this verse, which certainly is not written to say that a boy is not a man until his father says he is, does not undo what Scripture clearly says about a boy reaching manhood. Consider…
Ex 30:14 Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the LORD.
Ex 38:26 A bekah for every man, that is, half a shekel, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one that went to be numbered, from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men.
Le 27:3 And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary.
Nu 1:3 From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies.
Nu 1:18 And they assembled all the congregation together on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, by their polls.
Nu 1:20 And the children of Reuben, Israel’s eldest son, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;
(see also vv. 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, and 45)
Nu 14:29 Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me,
Nu 32:11 Surely none of the men that came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob; because they have not wholly followed me:
According to the Old Testament then, at the age of twenty a young man was responsible to pay his own offering, was old enough to go to war, and was numbered separately from his father’s household. In other words, he was a man. And at that point in life, he was free to leave his father’s house.
We can argue as we wish that the pattern in Scripture is father’s finding a wife for their sons. But the Bible makes a very clear statement in regards to sons and marriage, and we find this statement repeatedly throughout Scripture.
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
The second minor argument to answer is the argument that the historical practice among Christians was for the father to find a bride for the son without the son’s involvement. Pastor Brandenburg has said,
In the story of Isaac, the two marriage candidates aren’t involved with each other at all. They must fully trust authority in their lives. This is pictured as the ideal.
In this day and age, we have placed way too much emphasis on things like “compatability,” “romantic interest,” and even “love.” A dating couple loves dating. They love being with someone else who shares feelings with them. They love romance and flowers and chocolates and activities together. Do they also love each other? They will say that they do. Today. Tomorrow that might change. But one thing is sure. They love to date.
Whether they really love each other or not is debatable. I thought that I loved my wife before we married. We felt like we were “in love.” We told each other that, probably too much. But that all seems so childish and immature now. So, I won’t argue too vehemantly against limited involvement. I will only say that historically, even when betrothal and arranged marriage was common, there was not an utter rejection of romantic interest. In fact, I am told that the Puritans did not utterly reject romantic interest.
…the Puritans did not consider romantic unions the wayward by-product of “affectionate individualism,” for it was a pairing of both body and soul. The Reformers too did not believe that anyone should be forced to enter marriage. They actually executed fines, and even imprisonment, on parents if the consent of their children upon entering a marriage had not been freely given.
– from Debbie Maken, Getting Serious about Getting Married, p. 49. She sites John Witte, Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. And Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were.
The reason to answer those two minor points is simply to show that young men are not bound to their fathers in the same way that young ladies are, and that a rejection of “dating” does not require a rejection of all romantic interest. Romantic interest is good and necessary for a proper start to a Biblical union.
And having said all that, we move on to show that other approaches to marriage are equally lawful.
Around the Parents, Not the Couple
The question has been raised whether or not the Bible shows Dad’s involvement in any way in a son’s individual pursuit of a young lady. The answer is, yes. Of course. Proverbs is full of counsel to a young man in pursuit of marriage. And, I would argue, the father is teaching the son the importance of listening to his father. I am not, nor will I argue that a young man need not listen to his father, or seek fatherly counsel if circumstances prevent him from getting his father’s involvement. But what we see in Proverbs is a father advising his son, pointing out the wrong kind, warning against disastrous pursuits of marriage, but all the while assuming that the son will be pursuing marriage.
This is a pattern in Scripture. As we pointed out earlier, the son leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. But there is one argument that I believe sets the courtship model over and above the idea of “arranged marriage.” And that is simply this. While there is one example in Scripture of a father finding a wife and bringing her to his son, the Bible is full of commands to a father regarding his authority over his daughter in her marriage interests and sexual purity. Numbers 30 would be an example. Deuteronomy 22:13ff would be another. And I Corinthians 7 would be another. We also have historical grounds for saying so, as the long-standing custom has been for the father to give the daughter in marriage, as symbolized at the wedding. It would be a strange thing to see the groom’s father walking him down the aisle. The wedding ceremony starts with the bride’s father walking her down the aisle and giving her in marriage. And this is a picture of what has been happening in the events leading up to the ceremony.
The Bible clearly states that Fathers give their daughters in marriage, and says nothing about the father of the groom. The plain statement of Scripture carries more weight than Biblical examples, and this leads us to the point about Biblical “courtship.” One parent has to be in charge, when it comes to seeking a wife. The Bible makes it very clear that the one in charge is the father of the bride. He gives her in marriage, and not the other way around.
The mature son then should approach the girl’s father, and should work through him towards marriage. And so long as he is no Laban, he will be protected, he will be directed, and he will find the wife God has prepared for him.