Like many other pagan symbols, the ring has been adopted into Christian ceremonies and rites. There is no biblical reference decreeing the wedding ring as a requirement. The requirement is that people promise to love one another, and the ring is used to symbolise this.
Christians could just as easily use a written contract, tattoo a bar-code on the forehead, or any other long-lasting sign. But it was handy in the early days to simply adopt an existing and familiar badge showing that an agreement had been made; the ring.
In addition to the wedding ring, rings are used as powerful symbols in other parts of the Church. For example the gold Fisherman's Ring, annulus piscatorius, decorated with a depiction of St. Peter in a boat casting his net, is worn by the Pope. It is used to seal papal official documents (Briefs), and comes from the Bible's teachings about God-fearing Christians being fishermen. A bishop wears a ring to signify his union with the Church. Certain orders of nuns do not marry yet wear wedding rings to signify their 'spiritual marriage to Christ'.
And that gives us a clue to the significance of the ring in a Christian ceremony: Just as one is worn today by bishops but not priests, the ring was worn by leaders as a symbol or seal of authority.
The authoritative symbolism is used in a Christian wedding ceremony. The ring-giving symbolises one person transfering their authoritative rights to the other person. It is given as a token that one person is transferring their valuable property to the other. It is given as a symbol that one person promises to love the other. For most people, there are no magical, supernatural or even religious connotations to this. (Love is above those things anyway.) Wedding rings are older than Christianity, and there is not much to suggest they were ever invested with any precise religious significance. A priest may bless the rings and this is considered by some, especially Catholics, to make the rings sacramental.
In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church introduced the ring into the ceremony. The groom would slide the wedding ring part way up and then down his bride's thumb, then her first finger, and then her middle finger, saying: "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" before finally placing it on the next finger in line; the ring finger. The Protestants started using the ring a little while after the Catholics. In 1549, the wedding ring finger changed from right hand to the left hand for Protestants but Catholics continued to place the ring on the right hand.
Today, almost all Christians accept the wedding ring, doubtlessly helped by the Christianization of the old vena amoris tale, plus a bit of pressure from the likes of Cartier and BVLGARI.
There are several passages mentioning rings: Gen. 24:22, 30, 53; Gen. 41:42 (given as a token of fidelity); Esth. 8:2, 8; and Luke 15:22 (given as a token of adoption). These are rings worn as a sign of authority or privilege rather than merely decoration. There is no specific mention of rings used as part of a wedding ceremony. (Indeed, as L.F. kindly pointed out to us, there is not even mention of a 'wedding ceremony'; just 'wedding feasts'. No wedding vows, either.)
Pay heed, however, to 1 Tim. 2:9-10 and 1 Pet. 3:3-4 which advise against having anything too glitzy. Beauty comes not from adornment, but from the inner self.
The ecclesiastical laws in England are derived from the Roman pontiffs, and the canon law of marriage according to the English Parliament and the Common Prayer Book, is the basis of marriage throughout Europe. Marriages in the Episcopal Church are governed by the Rubric - a title or article in certain ancient common-law books. The rubric directs that "the man shall give unto the woman a ring, laying the same upon the book; and the priest, taking the ring, shall deliver it unto the man to put it on the fourth finger of the woman's left hand."
The wedding ring is the centre of attention for some of the standard vows in a religious wedding ceremony. For example,
- Jewish: Harey at mekuddeshet li b'taba'at zo k'dat Moshe v'Israel (Behold, thou art consecrated unto me with this ring according to the Law of Moses and of Israel).
- Anglican, Episcopal, Protestant: I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow (or 'love'), and with all that I am and all that I have, I honour you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- Presbyterian: This ring I give you, in token and pledge of our constant faith and abiding love.
- Latin Rite Catholic: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, take and wear this ring as sign of my love and faithfulness.
- Unitarian: With this ring, I wed you, and pledge you my love, now and forever.
The wedding ring is a visible sign that the couple are committed to one another, and for this reason, the ring forms an essential part of the wedding service. Although we use the word 'essential', most priests these days would accommodate a wedding where no rings were desired by the couple.1