Is the wedding service a worship service and so to be regulated by the Regulative Principle? The recent wedding in PCC seems to me to be overtly austere and very solemn; but another wedding in a supposedly conservative church, which I attended after that, bordered on frivolity and jollity to the point of being offensive.

Your question is an interesting one with several implications. But I should first note that part of the reason why the recent worship service appeared to be “overtly austere and very solemn” is that, for many of us, this was the first time we were observing a wedding service without musical instruments. That “solemnised” the occasion significantly, so that even after the service, those who attended were unsure of when to clap and when not to clap, etc. Perhaps the situation was compounded by the fact that the officiating minister was not feeling well at all on that day.

In any case, it should be noted that in the past, the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) was seldom taught explicitly since most of the early Reformed and Puritan churches sang psalms unaccompanied: regardless of whether it was in a Lord’s Day worship service or a wedding service (if conducted in a church hall). There was little need to instruct the people on why the church practised the way she did because few would even ask. Neither was there a need to define whether a wedding service was a worship service. Today the situation is different. In view of the wide-spread departure from the biblical standards of worship, so that it has become the norm to sing uninspired hymns accompanied by musical instruments, there is now a real need to think clearly on the RPW. And with that comes also a real need to answer the question of what is worship so that we may be able to have a consistent practice. So the question of whether Bible Studies, Prayer Meetings, Fellowship Meetings, Wedding Services and Memorial Services are worship services becomes very pertinent. The supposition is that if they are not worship services, then there is no need to regulate them: then we need not restrict ourselves to singing Psalms, then women should be allowed to speak freely and we may introduce things which would otherwise be forbidden in worship, such as drama and puppet shows.

For this reason, churches and ministers which still hold to the RPW have sought to give definitive answers as to what is worship. Some say that so long as the elements of worship: prayer, reading of Scriptures and singing, are present, we should consider it as worship. The problem with this view is that it would make the reading of Scriptures, prayer and Psalm singing forbidden at any other time than at stated worship services. Consider, for example, the case of a church gathered for a business meeting (such as required by the Registry of Societies in Singapore). Base on this definition, it would be forbidden for the elder chairing the meeting to read a portion of Scripture, make a couple of remarks, and then open the meeting with prayer, for he would then have essentially brought the congregation into a worship situation and the meeting can no more precede!

Another definition is that a formal worship service, which should be regulated, must begin with a call to worship and end with benediction or prayer. Personally, after considering the options, I would prefer this second definition. However, I would add that if we have any meeting, which have any appearance of being congregational worship, we should regulate it as far as possible, i.e., we should not allow what is not sanctioned in the Word of God. With this in mind, the question of whether a particular meeting is technically a worship service becomes not as crucial as whether it is regarded as a worship service by those who attend or lead.

Nevertheless, allow me to take the question a bit further. Let me begin by saying that since marriage is common to all men and not just to Christians, it has to be a civil rather an ecclesiastical institution. In other words, it is ideal that marriage should be solemnised by a civil magistrate rather than a minister of the Gospel. However, given that the world’s idea of marriage and covenant-taking is very different from the biblical idea of marriage, in addition to other reasons, it is generally been felt, since the days of the Reformation, that it is fitting for ministers of the Gospel to solemnise marriages. The Westminster Directory of Public Worship of 1645 provides us a suffrage from a particular angle which we would also give assent unto:

Although marriage be no sacrament, nor peculiar to the church of God, but common to mankind, and of publick interest in every commonwealth; yet, because such as marry are to marry in the Lord, and have special need of instruction, direction, and exhortation, from the Word of God, at their entering into such a new condition, and of the blessing of God upon them therein, we judge it expedient that marriage be solemnised by a lawful minister of the Word, that he may accordingly counsel them, and pray for a blessing upon them.

Take note that this does not mean that the Assembly held that solemnisation must be done in a worship service. In fact, it is likely that many of the Puritans would not allow a wedding in the context of a worship service. Horton Davies noted this fact when he points out that some of the Puritans had objected to the Anglican’s permitting of “Holy Communion” to be celebrated at weddings, saying that they “were almost, as in Roman Catholic fashion, elevating an essentially civil ceremony into an ecclesiastical sacrament” (Worship of the American Puritans, 1629–1730 [SDG, 1999], 224).

Nevertheless, it must be confessed that the view that marriage should not be in a worship service was not as strongly and universally held among the Puritans as commonly assumed. John Calvin was wont to solemnise marriages as part of his Lord’s Day worship services in Geneva (Horton Davies, Worship of the English Puritans [SDG, 1997], 263). Then in 1556, a first “entirely Puritan prayer-book” was published with the title “The Forme of Prayer and Ministrations of the Sacraments, etc., used in the English Congregation at Geneva: and approved by the famous and godly learned man, Iohn Caluyn [i.e., John Calvin]” (Ibid., 116). In this book, the order of a Marriage Service is proposed in which marriage is to be solemnised in the presence of the congregation (Ibid., 121). Although it may be anachronistic to ask whether they had regarded the service as being technically a worship service, it is not difficult to see that there was no attempt to distinguish it from what may be regarded as public worship. The service includes prayers, exhortation and the singing of Psalm 128. Furthermore, in the Westminster Directory of Public Worship, it is advised that marriages should be publicly solemnised “in the place appointed by authority for publick worship.” This would have given the appearance to many that the services were worship services. But as I mentioned, it was not an issue then since the wedding services were never as elaborate as what we are accustomed to today.

But coming to the present local context, we must know that there is a wide-spread belief among Christians that a wedding service is indeed a worship service. This could be due to the wide-spread adoption of the Anglican liturgy by conservative non-Anglican churches.

This being the case, regardless of whether the wedding service is technically a worship service in the first place, we should regulate the service according to the RPW so that there be no confusion. This is the reason why we sing only Psalms unaccompanied, as we do during our regular worship services. What about the vows, the rings, the wedding gowns, the walk in by the bride, etc. For the vows, it should not be a problem since it can be shown that vows and oaths are lawful elements for religious worship (seeWCF 22:1). All the rest are optional, circumstantial and have no religious significance for us. The couple can come in ordinary dress if they choose to. There is nothing significant about the wedding gown though the friends and relatives who come may have certain expectations. As for the rings (which the Puritans forbid because Roman Catholicism has attributed it a sacramental meaning), we allow for discretionary reasons, as a pledge of the vows made, but the couple need not use it and we will not make any comment on them at all, nor do we have any ritual associated with the ring. We allow the groom to kiss the bride after the benediction, by which we declare the worship to be ended. The congregation may then clap! The signing of the Register is also after the benediction.

In this regard, the couple may feel free after the benediction to have the organ or piano played for the signing of the certificates and recessional. If they like to have any item presentations during the signing, etc., I would also have no real objections provided they clear any such additions with the Session prior to the actual day of wedding. Perhaps these things will help to liven up the wedding as befitting the joy of the occasion without intruding on the solemnity and God-centredness that the wedding service calls for. This provision is, of course, given not because we believe that regulated worship is dull, but rather because of the dullness of our hearts and the expectations based on experience, which the guests to the services may have.