What Is Engagement?

A friend of mine expects that she will soon be engaged to be married, and finds herself wondering about the nature of engagement. We assume it: We must get engaged to be married before we actually get married. But what is engagement? Is it an inviolable agreement with all the significance of marriage? Is it a tentative agreement that can be broken off on a whim? What exactly is this thing we call engagement?

The first thing we must admit is that there is no New Testament command that a couple must be engaged before they are married, and no New Testament edict about what an engagement looks like. We see a description of betrothal—something similar to engagement—in the lives of Mary and Joseph, but no prescription that we are to imitate this exact form of it. We see glimpses of similar traditions in the Old Testament but, again, nothing that binds us today.

Whatever engagement is, we need to admit that it is a cultural, not a biblical, construct. Like the white dress at the wedding or the black suit at the funeral, engagement is a construct that varies significantly from culture to culture. We see this when we can look past our own traditions.

My church has a significant Ghanian population and I have learned that the West African view of engagement is very different from the Canadian and American view; I have learned as well that many first- or second-generation immigrants practice a kind of hybrid engagement that combines elements of Ghana and Canada. As I travel to the southern United States I see that engagement there is a little bit different from engagement here in the Great White North. When I was in India I met a wonderful Christian couple who had been introduced to one another at their engagement ceremony, and who were still strangers on their wedding day. Each of these cultures has a form of engagement, but there are significant differences between them.

So what is true of engagement here in twenty-first century Western culture? And how can we do engagement well?

I understand engagement as a relationship where a couple deliberately increases the intimacy of their relationship as a prelude to marriage. The primary business of engagement is increasing relational intimacy to ensure compatibility. The couple makes their agreement (or engagement) with one another before their friends, family, and church, making it not only a personal agreement, but a community one. Engagement is a formal agreement that these two people are serious about pursuing the lifelong commitment of marriage and that, though they are not yet fully committed to marrying one another, they are escalating their intimacy to ensure that they can be suitable for one another.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about sexual intimacy. I am not even necessarily talking about physical intimacy. I am talking primarily about relational intimacy. While a man and woman are dating they may discuss previous relationships or past traumas, but when they are engaged they must begin to discuss these things—at least they must if they are wise. Their engagement gives them the structure, the urgency, and the end-goal that allows them to pursue topics that are too intimate for those who are dating, but too serious to leave until after wedding rings have been exchanged.

How does a couple do this? Primarily by both deliberate and casual communication. They talk together on their own, and tell one another about their joys, their fears, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They open up about their family backgrounds, their sexual history, their traumas, and their triumphs. They talk openly, honestly, exhaustively, and intimately.

But there is more. They take pre-marriage counseling together under the guidance of a godly pastor and his wife, or under the guidance of an experienced Christian couple. They read the Bible, pray, and worship together both together and corporately. They spend time with godly couples they admire, peppering them with questions and simply observing how different marriages works. They read books together—books on marriage, of course—but also perhaps books on money or sex or any other area that tends to cause difficulty in young marriages. They ramp up their relational intimacy toward what they will experience as husband and wife, while carefully holding off the sexual intimacy that will eventually seal their relationship.

Can an engagement be broken off? Yes, I believe that it can. After all, the couple has not yet taken their vows and has not yet experienced sexual union. And there is a sense in which this kind of engagement only makes sense if it can be broken. The increase in relational intimacy may expose certain sins or character traits or past traumas that one of them simply cannot tolerate. This makes the modern Western engagement somewhat different from ancient betrothal, and perhaps different from contemporary engagement in other parts of the world. Engagements can be broken off, but the tacit agreement is that this will happen only under the saddest or most serious circumstances.

That is engagement as I understand it at this time and in this place.

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