The audience viewing the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, according to some reports, was 1.9 billion people. People may have been attracted by the beauty and pageantry of the ceremony as the son of the future king married a stunning TV star. Yet, there is perhaps more than the beauty and pageantry that attracts us to weddings. The wedding of a man and woman is the very image of the union of Christ and his bride, the church.
A scholar told me some years ago that even though churches in Europe are often nearly empty for worship, couples still wanted to have their wedding in a church. There is something about a church wedding that draws us. That could be because a wedding is more than a human event.
Early in the service, the Dean of Windsor read the purposes of marriage one of which links the marriage to the divine union of Christ and the church, “It[marriage] is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.” The Book of Common Worship used by many Protestant pastors explains the link between human marriage and the divine union this way, “God gave us marriage as a holy mystery in which a man and a woman are joined together, and become one, just as Christ is one with the church.” This purpose of marriage is drawn from Paul writing in Scripture,
“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Paul is quoting Genesis 2 here, where God instituted marriage. Then Paul links the marriage of a man and woman to Christ’s union with the church. Protestant author and pastor John Piper observes that when God instituted the marriage of a man and a woman in Genesis 2, “he didn’t roll dice, draw straws, or flip a coin as to how they might be related to each other. He patterned marriage very purposefully after the relationship between his Son and the church, which he had planned from all eternity.”
Consider the ways that the wedding of a man and woman images Christ’s union with the church. A wedding is a covenant-making service. Harry and Meghan formed a covenant through the making of vows. Jesus Christ forms a covenant relationship of marriage with his bride, the church. The covenant unites not only the man and woman but also their families. Harry and Meghan made covenant vows before God and witnesses that united them in a one-flesh union. That covenant now unites two families not previously related by blood. Catholic theologian John Bergsma highlights the differences between Scripture’s use of contracts and covenants, “Contracts exchange properties… covenants bind persons. Contracts were based on mutual self-interests; covenants required selfless loyalty…and sacrificial love…contracts were temporary; covenants were permanent…” You can make a contract to sell your cow, but only covenant vows create a marriage.
Visualize the wedding of Henry and Meghan as the image of Christ and his bride. The bridegroom waits for his bride at the front of the sanctuary. Then when all is ready, the bride enters the sanctuary dressed in white. In the same way, Scripture tells us, “The wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear.” (Rev. 19:7-8). And the Ephesians passage quoted above continues, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish…” (Eph 5:25-26).
Just as Meghan’s face was hidden behind a veil and she saw her bridegroom only “dimly” and from a distance, so the church now sees her bridegroom dimly and from a distance, yet she loves him. The bride is led down the aisle, usually by her father. Meghan was led down the aisle by the future king. The father led the bride to his son. In the same way, God the Father leads the bride, the church, to Jesus, his Son. Jesus prays in John’s Gospel, “They were yours; you gave them to me…” The Father, the king, gave the bride—the church—to his Son.
Only when the bride is at the groom’s side does he lift her veil and the bride sees her beloved face to face. So too, it is only when the bride is at the side of her beloved in Revelation 22 that she will see him face to face.
Early in a marriage ceremony, the bridegroom and bride each declare their intention to be joined. The groom responded to the question, “Harry, will you take Meghan to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live.” Meghan gave a similar declaration. The declaration of intent shows that the marriage is not coerced, but entered into willingly. I assert in a forth-coming book that the divine marriage begins with the betrothal at Sinai where, before the terms of the marriage covenant or Ten Commandments are stated, the bride declares her intention to be united saying, “We will do everything the LORD has said.”
After the declaration of intent, there is the exchange of vows. The groom and then the bride vows to “have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, til death us do part, according to God’s holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.”
The marriage covenant is marked by a sign that points to all that the covenant means. As the couple exchange rings, they promise, “I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you, within the love of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The covenant commitment includes every area of life: “all that I am, all that I have.” So too, the covenant commitment of the church, and therefore each Christian, to her bridegroom includes every area of life.
A great exchange is made in these covenant vows and promises. Markle’s dysfunctional family with all of its drama becomes Harry’s family. And Harry’s royal family becomes Meghan’s. As she is united with Harry and made one, Harry’s father is now her father and she may call the future king, dad. She accepts the royal responsibilities and therefore behaves and lives as royalty. What she does reflects on the royal family. The wealth of the royal family is now her inheritance.
So, too in the Christian life, as believers are united with Christ, his Father becomes, “our Father.” Christ’s inheritance becomes our inheritance. And we are called to live as royalty, as children of the king. All that is ours becomes Christ’s and all that is his becomes ours. Martin Luther explained the divine exchange between Christ and his bride this way:
By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh (Eph.5:32). And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage—indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and see the inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is the bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of this bride, how shall he not take all that is hers? (Martin Luther, Treatise on Christian Liberty (1520)).
After the wedding, Harry and Meghan joined their guests in celebrating their union with a meal. The union of Christ and his church is celebrated at the “wedding supper of the Lamb” described in Revelation 19.
The Gospel is a love story. A love story that began in Genesis and is consummated in Revelation. Bergsma writes that marriage is not a “side-teaching” of Scripture. “Marriage is a central theme of God’s Word, arguably the central theme…If you don’t ‘get’ marriage, you don’t ‘get’ the message of the Bible.” Each human marriage is an image of the divine union between Christ and the church.
This is why attempts in mainline denominations to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples are so significant. It is why we fought those attempts in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Sadly, we failed and in 2013, the PCUSA redefined marriage in its constitution to be between “two people.” Many church members, however, know that to redefine marriage is to redefine the Gospel. Therefore, members and congregations are leaving the PCUSA in record numbers. The denomination lost 67,714 members in 2017 and has lost more than 400,000 members since 2012.
Scripture begins and ends with a marriage. It begins with the first marriage of a man and a woman, which is then marred by sin, and it ends with Christ’s marriage to the church, without blemish, spot, or wrinkle. Eighteenth-century, Protestant pastor Jonathan Edwards preached, “the creation of the world seems to have been especially for this end, that the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse towards whom he might fully exercise the infinite benevolence of his nature, and to whom he might, as it were, open and pour fourth all that immense fountain of condescension, love, and grace that was in his heart, and that in this way might be glorified.”
Sue Cyre is Executive Director Emeritus of Presbyterians for Faith Family and Ministry and editor of Theology Matters. Cyre holds an M.Div from Bethel Theological Seminary and is a former pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA).