Wedding Manual

A Manual of Marriage Instruction

Trinity 2003

by the Editors

When we heard earlier this year of the Dutch woman who had plans to marry herself on 28 May 2003, we weren’t surprised.  Leave it to the Netherlands to do the goofiest things first.  Yet, as United Press International Religion Editor Uwe Siemon-Netto reminded us in his report, “Whatever folly visits Holland will soon cross the Atlantic.”  So we had better brace ourselves, and be prepared to defend whatever traditional Christian wedding practices we have.  It is partly to that end that the editors of Gottesdienst have prepared this wedding issue.  It is also partly because of our awareness that churches have already lost much of what they had, and are even now on that very slipperly slope leading to, well, the appearance of a woman before the registrar of Haarlem, The Netherlands, promising to “love, respect and honor” herself in good times and in bad.  Much is at stake for the Christian Church.  It is imperative that her pastors rise to the task of leadership that is required of them.  Some things we may permit.  Others we must not.  Sometimes we must say No.   Always we must instruct.  And always we must be faithful to our Lord and to His Church.  Here follow some guidelines and instructions for the planning of a wedding.

Who May Marry

Marriage must be entered by the mutual and uncoerced consent of the bride and groom, and according to the laws governing the state in which a marriage will occur.  In addition, certain questions must be asked which may affect the eligibility of persons desiring to marry.  The determination of eligibility is ultimately a reflection of the honor we are bound to give to the divine mystery of holy matrimony (Ephesians 5:32), which is itself a reflection of Christ and His beloved Bride, the Church.

Are both parties baptized?  If not, then it is not permissible for the pastor to marry them, for St. Paul declares, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)  Unbaptized persons shall in no circumstances be permitted to approach the altar of the Church.  When such a case arises, however, this should be seen as an opportunity to offer Baptism and the eternal blessing of the Christian faith to the unbaptized party, prior to marriage.

Nota bene: If a member of a Christian congregation happens to be married to someone not baptized, that marriage is of course valid in the eyes of the Church, but to enter into such a marriage is not to be encouraged.  In such a case, the Christian party will do well to remember the famous fourth-century account of St. Monica, whose prayers for some thirty years for the conversion of her husband and son were at last answered by the deathbed conversion of her husband, the subsequent conversion of her son, and even his becoming one of the greatest preachers in the history of Christendom, St. Augustine.

Is either party a divorcee?  If so, the circumstances of the divorce should be explored, as the pastor must ascertain the spiritual condition of someone wishing to marry again.  Traditionally the “innocent party” in a divorce is one whose spouse has committed adultery, or one who has been deserted.  St. Paul declares, “If the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Corinthians 7:15).  Even in such cases, however, the matter of repentance must enter the discussion.  A Christian who has been divorced, no matter what the reason, will invariably be assailed by the pangs of guilt.  The pastor must recognize that guilt is never rightly assuaged by attempts to convince someone of his being the “innocent party,” but by contrition, confession, and the application of Holy Absolution.

What of divorcees who are guilty of adultery or have deserted their spouses?  May they remarry?  Mitigating circumstances may have to be taken into account.  Is the divorce legal and irreversible?  Is the pastor unwittingly abetting an adulterous relationship?   In general, the question of remarriage has been a source of debate and struggle within Christendom ever since the apostolic age, due in particular to one’s interpretation of the stark words of Jesus, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (St. Matthew 19:9).   The Church of Rome has sought to deal with the question of remarrying divorcees by means of her notorious grants of annulment, in some cases of marriages many years and several children old.  While this seems on the one hand to make a mockery of the marriage vows, on the other it recognizes the severity of Jesus’ words.  The marriage of divorced persons is not strictly prohibited among Lutherans, based on the presumption that Jesus’ words pertaining to divorce are meant to bring persons to repentance, but not to establish wedding policy.  In the words immediately preceding the oft-quoted passage, Jesus said, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  Lutheran pastors who must deal with the contingencies which arise from the prevalence of divorce find themselves in the same struggles as Moses did in his day.  Moreover, the primeval words of God still apply today: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Or again, St. Paul’s words, “If the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Corinthians 7:15), allow a certain freedom to Christians with respect to remarriage.  Hugh of St. Victor, whose eleventh-century compendium of Christian doctrine served as a predecessor to the Sentences of Peter Lombard, acknowledges the same: “The believer is not forced, obligated, as it were, by some debt, either to follow the one who departs or to endure him who scorns.  He is not subject to servitude; he is free to do what he wishes; only in the Lord let him take a wife, if the person is a man; if a woman, let her so marry” (On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, bk. 2, pt. 11, par. 8, emphasis added).  Nevertheless Jesus’ corrective must be considered: from the beginning it was not so.  Multiple marriages and divorces are not what God intended; so remarriage is a messy undertaking, even if only in regards to conscience, and there will be great need of repentance.  Where repentance is found and mercy earnestly sought, the Church’s offer of Absolution does not come with strings attached.  The question of remarriage is often so difficult that this offer of mercy must be sought not only by the wedding couple but even by the pastor who fears that he will be treading wrongly on a difficult terrain.  It is to be remembered that it is the mercy of God in Christ Jesus which alone sanctifies every marriage.

 Is the couple cohabiting?  Since premarital sexual relations are an affront to the institution of marriage, they cannot be tolerated by the Church.  The widespread nature of this offense has resulted in the increased likelihood that young people wishing to marry may be scarcely aware of the impropriety of cohabitation; but the laws of God do not change with society.  People who are guilty of this offense must repent, and seek and receive Absolution before they can be married.  Pastors must therefore be prepared to ask whether the premarital couple are living a chaste and decent life according to the norms of the Sixth Commandment.  If they are living at the same address,  even the contention that they have separate bedrooms cannot gainsay the appearance of impropriety, unless they are living in a household with parents or relatives.  Yet when people who are living together without marriage come to the pastor to be married, the pastor may take the opportunity presented thereby to help the couple to set right what has been corrupted in their lives.  A couple with an earnest desire to be godfearing but with a limited knowledge of God’s law might in the end be eternally grateful to the pastor who gently but firmly leads them to confession and Absolution.  In the case of couples living together, the pastor should expect to see evidence of repentance, in that the couple will agree to rectify the offense, either by moving to separate quarters until they are wed, or by agreeing to wed without delay.  If their cohabitation has already produced a child or children, the second option may be the only one available.  The pastor may also expect that the couple which, under his guidance, have seen the error of their ways, and have sought and received Absolution, may even wish to have their own repentance and faith discreetly held forth, as an example for the encouragement of others. It is to be remembered that the sanctity of marriage does not come from purity of lifestyle, but from faith, which alone embraces the mystery of Christ and His Church.

 Is the couple male and female?  If a generation ago such a question were unthinkable even to ask, we know now that it is not.  The Church has never, and will never, consent to homosexual marriages.  Just this year, a report by the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church concluded that the Church should not proceed “at this time” with liturgical rites for same-sex relationships.  Therefore neither will we at this time consider whether such a Church by the employment of such rites—which would have to be considered abominable—places itself outside the pale of Christendom altogether.  “Male and female He created them,” and so only male and female are they to be married.  Even so-called sex-change operations do not really change one’s gender; they are in truth nothing more than self-mutilation.  People with homosexual tendencies must be led to repentance as is the case with everybody else.  Unlike the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, the Lutheran Church has traditionally held to the idea that concupiscence is sin; that is, the inclination to be homosexual, even when not acted upon, is itself sinful; and whoever finds himself having such an inclination needs to be advised of the truth, in order that he may be led to contrition, confession, and Absolution.  All inclinations to sin are in themselves sinful; failure to understand this is failure to understand the depths of human depravity.  To say that concupiscence is sin is not only traditional; it is biblical, as “the Scriptures say [of human flesh] in Galatians 5 and Romans 7” (The Small Catechism, “Christian Questions with Their Answers,” question 20).

The mystery of holy matrimony is embedded within the mystery of the two sexes in creation: Eve was taken from Adam’s side, and was returned to him for union and the production of offspring.  This mystery in turn is embedded within the mystery of Christ and His Church, for Christ, like Adam, fell into a deep sleep (in His death), and like Eve, the Church is created from that which came forth from the side of the Man.  In the Church’s participation in the Blessed Sacraments, moreover, she produces offspring, and is bound into a unity with Christ.  Creation is reflected in redemption and in sanctification.

 Is the couple adult?  When minors wish to marry, the pastor must obtain the consent of the parents of the couple, out of respect for their office as father and mother.

 Is the groom a pastor?  Although the Church of Rome initiated the reqirement of clerical celibacy about a millennium ago, no such requirement exists among Lutherans, nor is it biblical.  Even St. Peter had a mother-in-law.  On the other hand, the pastor who wishes to marry should seek the counsel and aid of another pastor in his time of courtship, since it is likely that his own sense of the propriety of his relationship to his fiancée could be clouded, particularly if she has been under his spiritual care, or if she has been divorced.  Moreover, by apostolic decree a pastor who desires to marry should not himself be a divorcée,  but “must be the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2).

 When a Wedding May Occur

The Church has a venerable and laudable custom of restricting wedding ceremonies only to non-penitential seasons.  This serves to preserve the dignity of the church year, and particularly the helpfulness that the penitential seasons offer for the faithful.  Weddings are festive in nature, while Advent and Lent are somber in nature; hence it is liturgically fitting to schedule all weddings either for the festive seasons or for ordinary time (Christmastide, Epiphany-tide, Eastertide, or during the second half of the church year).

Regard for Sundays has varying weight in liturgical tradition.  In some strains of tradition, a Sunday wedding is not permitted; in others, a wedding came as a part of the Sunday morning Mass.  Local customs dictate; but no wedding should be permitted to usurp the times scheduled for the congregation’s regular worship.

Whether a Wedding Should Include the Blessed Sacrament

 Nuptial Masses are encouraged in cases where both bride and groom are eligible to commune, and where the congregation participates in the Communion.  A wedding is naturally a time for considering the future; and since the future is always unknown, the comfort of the Blessed Sacrament is right for such an event.  The bride and groom are given the Sacrament as a defense against the trials that await them in the remainder of their life, and for the challenges that will confront them in the immediate future as they adopt to their new stations in life.  But if a nuptial Mass is not celebrated—and in most Lutheran parishes this is not the custom—it is advisable that the wedding be held on a Saturday, and that the newlyweds be encouraged to attend the Sacrament the following day, prior to embarking on their honeymoon.

What Constitutes a Marriage

St. Ambrose declared that “Not the deflowering of virginity but the conjugal pact makes marriage,” and St. Augustine, echoing the same sentiments, said that “the nuptial compact [is] the essence of a certain mystery [of marriage].”  The wedding ceremony is a matter of great importance, in that it provides for the Lord’s blessing upon the marriage entered by the public exchange of the wedding vows.

In addition, St. Augustine said that marriage is common to all people but that the sacredness of the mystery exists only in the city of our God and on His holy mount; and therefore Christian people rightly seek to make their wedding vows before God and to receive His blessing.  It was once customary that a suitor would seek the blessing of the father of the woman he was courting before asking her hand in marriage; in a greater sense, by marrying in a religious ceremony, the man and woman who seek to be married are asking the blessing of their Father in heaven for their marriage. 

On Premarital Instruction

The structure of premarital instruction before the pastor is provided by the structure of the marriage rite itself, as the pastor explains in detail each segment of the rite, and is thereby provided opportunity for appropriate exhortation, counsel, and encouragement.  The readings traditionally provided in the rite are best not exchanged for other readings, as they provide the relevant biblical material for pastoral counsel to those wishing to marry.  The length of time required for premarital instruction will vary depending on those planning to be married.  When one party is not a member of the church but desires membership, an entire course of catechetical instruction is desirable, with the other party also in attendance.  When this is not needed, premarital counsel need not be extensive, but only as long as is needed for appropriate introductory questions (such as are provided in this article), covering the materials in the rite, and allowing for private confession and Absolution.  In all cases private confession and Absolution are to be encouraged; and in some cases may be required.

Nota bene:  It is commonly assumed that the Lutheran Confessions’ prohibition of forcing parties to Private Absolution is absolute, and that the pastor ought never require someone to go to confession. The concern of the Confessions is that the promise of the Gospel, not the threat of the law, predominates in bringing a person to repentance. However, the requirement to confess in certain circumstances is also recognized by the Confessions. Augustana XXV indicates that confession is required prior to Communion.  And while the Confessions may not explicitly say so, the apostolic tradition of requiring confession before removing the ban (excommunication) is also retained.  Since the ban should rightly be applied in cases of public, willful, persistent sin, it is both according to the Confessions and good pastoral practice for the spiritual father of the parish (the pastor) to require confession, as he determines, in cases of cohabitation or divorce.

On the Marriage Rite

It is not fitting for the pastor or the wedding participants to tamper with the marriage rite, as it is the property of the whole Church.  Individual Christians are not free to write their own vows, to remove the requirement of the wife to “obey” her husband (as St. Paul also requires), or in any other way to alter what has been handed down in the rite.

As marriage is a reflection of the heavenly marriage between Christ and His Church, the traditional marriage rite, which is rooted in this understanding, implicitly shows forth the promise of Christ and the fidelity of the Church’s response.  The groom’s vow mirrors the promise of the Gospel, and the bride’s vow mirrors the response of faith.

Regarding the selection of music, while the wedding couple may appropriately offer input and take part in decisions regarding what is desired, the pastor’s determination regarding the propriety of music chosen must always take precedence, as he must be regarded as having chief responsibility for what transpires in a wedding ceremony.

On the Wedding Rehearsal

The rehearsal is intended to make the wedding ceremony dignified and orderly.  It is important that the rehearsal be set for a reasonable time for all involved.  The marriage license should be in the hands of the pastor no later than the date of the rehearsal.  The pastor should walk the wedding party through the rehearsal, including matters of rubrics.  Specific attention should be given not only to proper places to stand and when and where to move, but also appropriate times for reverences, responses, when to make the sign of the cross, etc.  The wedding party’s Amens can even serve as opportunities for demonstrating proper liturgical responses to the wedding guests.

Members of the wedding party should be advised, especially during the summer, that anyone feeling faint during the ceremony should at once seek a place to sit down, as the slight distraction this would cause would be less than that caused by a person fainting.

Traditional practices regarding processions may vary from place to place, but the practice of the groom leading his bride to the altar is fittingly retained, for the rich symbolism which is embedded in the practice, pertaining to Christ and His Church.

Courtesy and Decorum at a Wedding

On the wedding day, prompt arrival by all involved is important and courteous, since a late beginning to a wedding creates restlessness in the congregation.  Respect for the Church of the Lord is shown during the ceremony when each member of the wedding party conducts himself with reverence and when the ceremony takes place as rehearsed.  Displays of affection should be respectful and discreet, not drawing attention away from the Lord and His blessing.  No intoxicated persons should be permitted to participate in a wedding, and it is better to cancel the ceremony than to proceed with intoxicated participants.  The demeanor and behavior of the wedding party should at all times be respectful of the Lord and His sacramental presence.  Wedding guests likewise should be encouraged to refrain from conversation when they are seated for the service, and from hand‑clapping or other expressions of congratulations until after they have left the church.  Even during the rehearsal and during photographs on the day of the wedding, all conversations should be held in subdued respectful tones. Coarse language, off‑color jesting, and rude behavior are not fitting, and offending persons should be admonished and if necessary removed.  Parents should be encouraged to keep their children from running or climbing on the pews and other furniture.  No one should be permitted in the sanctuary (the altar area beyond the Communion rail) without the expressed permission of the pastor.  If the Rite of Holy Matrimony occurs within Holy Mass, members of the wedding party and guests should be encouraged to refrain from eating before the service. Smoking in the church is not proper.


Flowers are best purchased from the church’s usual florist.  Flowers should be delivered at least one hour prior to the wedding service. Other decorations such as pew bows and candles may serve as a tasteful enhancement to the ceremony, but consultation should be made with the pastor.  Rice and birdseed should not to be thrown inside the church. 


Photographs should not be taken during the ceremony, even if flash is not used, as the click of a camera’s shutter can be a distraction.  A video camera using natural lighting may be permitted by the pastor, but the video camera operator should be entirely inconspicuous, preferably in the church’s balcony.  During photographs taken after the ceremony, proper respect and behavior should always be shown in the church.  No photographs should be taken from the sanctuary (i.e., in front of the Communion rail).

Wedding Consultants

Wedding consultants can be quite helpful in arranging and planning a wedding, but are not required. Wedding consultants should never be permitted to direct or advise the pastor in terms of the rite, music, or ceremonial arrangements of the service.

The Role of the Witnesses (Attendants)

In most states the laws require that two persons witness a marriage. Usually, these two are the best man and the maid/matron of honor.  In addition to their legal duty of attesting with signature that the wedding occurred, these witnesses also have the churchly responsibility of reminding the couple of their solemn vows before God and His Church. While not signing any legal or ecclesiastical documents, other attendants in the wedding party have the same responsibility as the two primary witnesses.

Appropriate Fees and Honoraria

Those planning a wedding often wish to learn discreetly what sort of honoraria are expected of them.  It is usual for a church to set its own fees for the organist, cantor, and custodian.  It is also usual that while the pastor asks no honorarium for his services, an honorarium is appropriate, since his extra duties include premarital sessions and rehearsal as well as the wedding itself. The amount of the honorarium will vary depending on location, but is fittingly more than what is paid to the organist.  Fees and honoraria are fittingly paid prior to the wedding.