In Biblical Betrothal, Couples Commit To Marriage Before Even Going On A Date
In some Christian communities, parents seek out spouses for their children. And according to some experts, the process — in which couples date only after they've committed to marry — might not be a bad idea.
When Israel Wayne was in his early twenties, his mom started talking to him about a girl named Brook. Specifically, she asked him to pray and think about whether Brook should become his wife. Israel had met Brook a few times — she was a few years younger, and they both worked in Christian publishing — but they'd never been on a date. Israel's mom had felt during prayer that Brook should become his wife. Though Brook and Israel didn't even live in the same state, they ended up getting married in 1999 through a process called Biblical betrothal. She was 20 and he was 23.
Right now Biblical betrothal is confined to just a few Christian communities, but this family-centered way of getting married is starting to get a lot of mainstream attention. And experts say it may actually be as good a way of finding a partner as any.
Different groups use the term "Biblical betrothal" in different ways, but for the Waynes, it meant that instead of dating or even courting Brook (a way of dating with an eye to marriage preferred in some Christian churches), Israel talked to his mom about whether she would make a good wife, and then prayed. When he decided God wanted the marriage, he asked Brook's parents for her hand. They asked her — Wayne is clear that "nowhere in scripture nor in what we practice" would a woman be forced to marry anyone — and she said yes. So the two entered into a betrothal, a binding engagement that guarantees marriage. Four and a half months later, after a few visits, during which they spent very little time alone, they were married. Wayne says, "our first kiss was at the altar."
For her part, Brook Wayne says she'd been terrified of divorce since the age of 8. The fear came from her own reading and stories from her parents about the heartbreak they experienced while dating, before they met each other. So when she was a teenager and her parents started talking to her about "saving your heart for the person that you marry" — that is, refraining from love or romance until making a firm commitment — she was intrigued. She thought about marrying Israel after they first met: "I was out praying and I felt like the Lord was telling me Israel was supposed to be my husband." At the time, he didn't seem ready for marriage, so she didn't speak up — they ended up marrying two and a half years later. So although some people thought she might be making a snap decision in marrying Israel, she didn't feel that way at all.
Israel Wayne says the process was a way to ensure their parents' support: "we wanted to make sure that we were showing proper respect and honor to our parents and looking to them for counsel, guidance, wisdom and blessing on who we would marry." And, he says, it gave them a sense of security: because they had entered a binding betrothal before they began spending significant time together, "we were able to give each other our hearts emotionally and romantically without fear that we would break this off." If any problems came up, "we had to figure out how to work it out and move forward as opposed to stepping back."
Sociologist Mary Ann Lamanna, co-author of Marriages and Families: Making Choices in a Diverse Society, says Biblical betrothal could potentially be "as good a way as any to meet prospective marital partners that one might have something in common with and that have been checked out, so to speak, out as to character." She adds that relationships tend to do best when they arise out of a couple's existing social networks, and "this could be viewed as one version of social networking." However, there's one big caveat: if the parents coerce the child into marriage, or if the child "is afraid to say no or make his/her own judgment," the marriage is unlikely to work.
Advocates of Biblical betrothal also emphasize emotional security. Bret Smith, a Georgia-based Christian broadcaster who also hosts workshops on Biblical betrothal, says Biblical betrothal protects young people's feelings by postponing emotional involvement until a couple have already committed to marry. All the romantic activities we usually associate with dating are reserved for the period after binding betrothal — according to Smith, that's "when the man brings the woman flowers, he sings songs to her, they talk about their dreams; that's the time to fall in love, after they've committed." He adds, "God never intended the process of finding a mate to be a process that destroys your emotions."
Do couples who barely knew each other before they committed to marry successfully fall in love? Smith says of the fifteen to twenty couples he's known who have gone through the Biblical betrothal process, none had any trouble bonding or loving each other. Israel Wayne says he and Brook "we were very romantically in love by the time we were married." However, he has known couples who went through betrothal and later divorced: "I wouldn't say betrothal is any kind of guarantee that people are going to have a blissful lifelong marriage."
In some cases, betrothal may also be the victim of its own success. Wayne says the process enjoyed a burst of popularity in the nineties, which apparently inspired some parents to push Biblical betrothal simply as a way to control who their children married. Betrothal works best, he says, when the children themselves want their parents' involvement — if the parents are forcing their kids to marry against their will, "that is always going to be disastrous."
Biblical betrothal may look strange to outsiders — some families Smith has known have exchanged a symbolic "bride-price" with roots in the Bible, typically 15 ounces of silver, which might strike non-believers as especially archaic. But some who study marriage say Biblical betrothal can be as good — or as flawed — as any system for bringing people together. Psychologist Everett Worthington, who studies religion and marriage, says the practice "can result in good (and poor) marriages, in the same way that romantic attraction as the basis for marriage can result in good (and poor) marriages." It may work especially well if couple stay within a group — like a church or homeschooling community — where such betrothal is the norm.
Pamela Haag, author of Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, says the last decade has seen a growing interest in "alternatives to the romantic models of mate selection in the past decade," with some arguing that romantic love is actually "a really terrible way to make marital decisions." So Biblical betrothal may be part of a larger trend. But she agrees with Lamanna (and Israel Wayne), that the consent of the couple is crucial: "in any process for getting engaged, control still has to be with the young people involved."
Brook and Israel Wayne, now in their thirties, live in Michigan with their seven children. While they hope their kids come to them for marriage advice when the time comes, they aren't set on Biblical betrothals for them. Says Brook, "I would love to see them surrender the whole issue of marriage to the Lord and follow what he plans for them," and "if I have shown myself trustworthy, I would love for them to come to me for wisdom."