Church Weddings

A history of the Christian wedding ceremony

by Robert Nguyen Cramer (version


Introductory remarks

The options of where to perform a wedding ceremony are continuing to increase. In early the Congregational Church, whose roots were in the Puritan tradition, wedding ceremonies were not conducted in churches. This Puritan tradition rejected sacraments, rites, and ceremonies that arose after Constantine became Emperor of Rome early in the fourth century. Puritans not only rejected the celebration of Christmas (which was simply a traditional pagan Roman holiday that was reinterpreted to give it Christian significance and justification), but Puritans also rejected conducting weddings in churches. Even today, though the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and some other churches consider matrimony as a sacrament, most Protestant denominations do not consider matrimony as a sacrament, even though they hold religious weddings in their church edifices -- and many wedding ceremonies are performed elsewhere.

A history whether or not to consider matrimony as a sacrament

George Wesley Buchanan (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature, NY: Harper Collins, 1996, pages 956-957) explains the history of the consideration of matrimony by some as being a sacrament and by others as not being a sacrament:

Although baptism and the Eucharist were considered the primary sacraments, the term "sacrament" was used in the early church to describe many kinds of religous ceremonies and practices. By the twelfth century Hugo of St. Voctor listed some thirty sacraments. This was probably the result of Augustine's definition of sacraments as signs pertaining to things divine, or visible forms of an invisible grace. Since there is no limit to the number of ways God's grace can be expressed, the number of sacraments increased with Christian sensitivity and imagination, but this made administrative control difficult. Therefore the Council of Trent (A.D. 1545) decreed that not all signs of sacred things had sacramental value. Visible signs become sacraments only if they represent an invisible grace and become its channels.

At a later council, the Roman Catholic church limited the number of sacraments to seven: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. Part of the need for exact definition came during the sixteenth century in response to the Reformation. The Reformers, in turn, responded to the conclusions of the Roman Catholic church as it was redefined at the Council of Trent.

The Reformers held that the number seven was chosen arbitrarily, so they defined "sacrament" still more sharply, claiming that "sacrament" should apply not to all visible means of an invisible grace but only to those means which Jesus himself commanded to be practiced. This limited the number to two -- baptism and the Eucharist...

Weddings in early Christian history

First-century Jews and Christians did not hold weddings in synagogues or churches. Kenneth Scott Latourette comments (A History of Christianity, Volumes I, Revised Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1975, pages 204-205):

Christians were not required to seek the blessing of the Church to give validity to their marriage. However, by the time of Tertullian [160-225 A.D.] it seems to have become customary to have a Christian ceremony in which the Church cemented the marriage, confirmed it with an oblation, and sealed it with a benediction.

A religious wedding ceremony did not begin to be considered as a sacrament until almost three centuries later, and, as mentioned above, it was not officially recognized as one of the seven sacraments until the Council of Trent, between 1545 and 1563. Wedding ceremonies very likely were performed in Christian homes prior to Constantine. Up to the time of Constantine churches were not edifices that were specifically built for Christian worship. They were Christians' houses in which fellow Christians gathered and worshipped, maybe the same houses in which weddings sometimes took place. It wasn't until the fourth century that Church edifices began to be built. The beginning of consideration of the wedding ceremony as a sacramental rite roughly coincided chronologically with the erecting of church edifices, which increasingly replaced houses as the places of worship.

For additional details regarding Jewish and early Christian weddings, see

To further explore house churches and the evolution of church edifices, see

Christian foundations for marriage

Jesus' words, as found in the New Testament

NRSV, Mar 10:6 From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

[In verse 6, Jesus is quoting from Gen 1:27. In verses 7-8, Jesus is quoting from Gen 2:24. See also Mat 19:4-6. The gospel verses here are taken from Mark, because Mark is widely believed to the earliest of the four gospels.]

NRSV, Mar 12:25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

[See also Mat 22:30; Luk 20:34-36]

Paul's words, as found in the New Testament

NRSV, 1Co 7:1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.

8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

25 Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.

28 ...If you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.

32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. 36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. 37 But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. 38 So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.




Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer