The 9 Different Types of Wedding Ceremonies: Your Expert Guide

Turns out there are more options than just religious and civil.
Bride and groom getting married at colorful wedding ceremony in rustic building
Photo: Khaki Bedford
kim forrest the knot
by
Kim Forrest
kim forrest the knot
Kim Forrest
Senior Editor
  • Kim writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in etiquette and planning advice
  • Kim manages freelance writers for The Knot Worldwide
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Kim was Associate Bridal Editor at Washingtonian magazine and Associate Fashion Editor at Conde Nast’s Brides Local magazines
Updated Jul 17, 2023

It's easy to get swept up in planning your wedding reception (I mean, who doesn't love a party?) and spend less time thinking about the ceremony. Here's the thing, though: Without the ceremony, you're not actually married, so it's super important to get it right. This isn't a one-size-fits-all situation, there are quite a few types of wedding ceremonies to choose from, and you'll want to decide early on which one you're having so you can choose the right officiant and plan accordingly.

Ultimately, the type of wedding ceremony you choose should feel personal to you and your partner—keeping your religious backgrounds, cultures and family traditions in mind. I've been writing about weddings for 15 years, and have found that the most memorable weddings are the ones where the ceremony felt personal and unique. Of course, with certain religious ceremonies you'll need to follow a script, but there are ways to add your own touches. We're here to give you a run down of the different types of marriage ceremonies to help you decide which one is right for you.

In this article:

1. Civil Ceremonies

A civil ceremony isn't necessarily a drive-through, Vegas-style affair. "Civil" merely means in accordance with the state's laws rather than in the eyes of a church, mosque or temple. A civil ceremony is presided over by a legal official—a judge, magistrate, justice of the peace, county or court clerk, mayor, or notary public (not, despite what you may have heard, a ship captain—unless he also holds one of the above civil titles).

The exact requirements vary from state to state (and even from county to county) but generally include a charge to the couple ("Do you, Tracy, take Austin to be your lawfully wedded spouse...?), a ring exchange and the pronouncement of marriage by the officiant. Beyond the paperwork, it's pretty much up to you where you wed (providing that your officiant agrees to come). Call the county's marriage license bureau or visit their website for details on the civil process and requirements in your wedding location.

2. Religious Ceremonies

While a civil ceremony is all that you need to be legally married, many people want their church or congregation to recognize their marriage, too. A religious ceremony is officiated by a religious leader and incorporates the wedding customs, traditions and rules of that faith, along with the state's legal requirements. The wedding can be short and sweet or long and lavish, although it generally follows a specific format prescribed by the religion, whether Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or others. The precise elements may depend on the branch and, sometimes, the particular congregation.

A religious service can be held in a church, temple, mosque, or meeting room, and some clergy will officiate at nonreligious sites. You'll likely be required to have several sessions of prewedding counseling with your officiant as well.

3. Interfaith Ceremonies

Your partner is Jewish and you're Christian? Or, your parents are Catholic, theirs are Muslim, and you two practice Buddhism? If one of you plans to convert to the other's religion, the ceremony can be a great time to begin involvement with the new faith. If you plan to keep your individual faiths, you may want to create an interfaith ceremony as the first of a lifetime of blending rituals.

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Each religion has its own view on interfaith unions, from "Go for it!" to "No way." Some religions and sects leave the decision up to individual clergy members. You might choose an interfaith officiant, or if both of your religions are somewhat flexible, you may look for an officiant from each to preside over a joint ceremony. This is the most complicated plan but also the most popular because it guarantees that each side's beliefs are included. It also reflects the meaning of marriage: You're joining your lives. Your officiant(s) can help you identify customs which religious traditions won't conflict with the tenets of the other, and help you choose readings and musical selections, consult texts from both religions. Consider reading passages from each other's faith, or asking family members to do so. Create as many opportunities for family to participate as possible; it will make everyone feel included in this joining of two different backgrounds.

4. Humanist Ceremony

If having a wedding that's super-personalized is important to you and your future spouse, you might consider a humanist wedding ceremony. A humanist ceremony is a non-religious wedding ceremony that is inclusive and focuses on the couple's individuality and love for each other. By hosting a humanist wedding ceremony, you won't be tied down by many of the rules and restrictions of religious ceremonies and can have some flexibility in the style and wording of your ceremony—you can add poetry, music, personal vows, really anything that's meaningful to you and your partner.

While this may sound similar to a non-religious civil ceremony, the biggest difference is that humanist wedding ceremonies are performed by a celebrant, or non-clergy officiant. You'll still need to follow the laws of your county and state, and visit the County Clerk's office before your wedding day to ensure your marriage is legally registered.

5. Spiritual Ceremony

Many couples want a ceremony that's not totally religious, but not a civil ceremony either—and that's where a spiritual ceremony may come in. A spiritual ceremony shows the couple's belief in a higher power, but gives the flexibility to incorporate different religious elements, or just a general sense of spirituality. With a spiritual ceremony, you won't be held to any specific religion's guidelines, but can incorporate traditions that are meaningful to you and your partner. It can be ideal for couples who have different religious beliefs, or don't ascribe to a particular religion, but still want to incorporate a spiritual feel into their ceremony.

If this all feels a bit nebulous to you, it's worth talking to a nondenominational officiant to figure out what a spiritual ceremony would look like for you. Also of note: Spiritual wedding ceremonies often take place outdoors, as many couples find most inspired and connected to their spirituality in nature.

6. Commitment Ceremony

A commitment ceremony is similar to a marriage ceremony, except it is not legally binding. Before same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states, same-sex couples had commitment ceremonies as an alternative to a wedding ceremony. Nowadays, there are other reasons why a couple might opt for this type of ceremony. For example, couples may want to have a destination wedding in a country where they can't legally marry because of residency requirements or other restrictions—in that case, they might get legally married in their home country and host a commitment ceremony in their preferred destination. Couples may also prefer not to marry legally for tax purposes, because they don't have an officiant to perform the ceremony or simply personal choice.

For a commitment ceremony, you can opt to have an officiant or a completely private event with just you and your partner. Because this isn't a legal ceremony, there really are no rules! However, know that if you and your partner would like to gain the legal benefits of marriage, you'll need to have a legal ceremony at some point.

7. Military Wedding Ceremony

If you and/or your partner are on active duty with the U.S. Armed Forces or are retired veterans, you may opt for a military wedding. Depending on which branch of the military you're a part of, there are different traditions and protocols, from the Arch of Sabers to the flag display. Military weddings may take place in a military academy chapel or on a base, and the couple may wear their uniforms. Often, a military chaplain will officiate these weddings to ensure proper protocol is followed.

8. Elopement Ceremony or Minimony

When you hear the word "elope", you might envision a couple running off to get married in secret. And yes, some elopements do happen that way. But these days, an elopement simply refers to a small, intimate ceremony that either is completely private (just the couple and an officiant) or includes only immediate family. While elopements can take place at a courthouse, city hall or Vegas-style chapel, many couples are also choosing scenic outdoor settings for their elopements. Typically, elopements are ceremony-only, though we've seen couples incorporate casual receptions, like picnic lunch or dinner at a favorite restaurant as part of their elopement.

Similar to an elopement, a minimony is an intimate wedding ceremony with around 10 guests. This concept was popularized during the pandemic, when larger weddings were not recommended. Now, some couples are opting for minimonies if they prefer a more private ceremony experience, and celebrating with a larger reception at a later date.

9. Vow Renewal Ceremony

Whether you've been married for one year or 50, you might be considering hosting a vow renewal. A vow renewal is a ceremony where couples reaffirm their marriage vows. It's not legally binding, so the format can be flexible. Some couples opt for a private vow renewal, while others include family and friends. You can even have an anniversary reception afterwards. It's a lovely way to celebrate your years of marriage and recommit to each other.

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