Should a Minister Officiate at the Weddings of Unbelievers?
— Thursday, September 11th, 2008 —
Early in my ministry, I found myself staring at the ceiling for hours each night, night after night. I had a decision to make, and I didn’t know what to do.
A couple, both of whom I cared about, asked me to officiate at their wedding. Neither of them were followers of Jesus. It was a torturous quandary because I wanted an ongoing relationship with them, as an inroad to the gospel.
This couple wasn’t in disobedience to the Word of God. This wasn’t the “unequal yoking” of a believer to an unbeliever. That would have been an easy decision, since the Scripture forbids it as sin.
Marriage though, unlike baptism and the Lord’s table, is a creation ordinance, given to all people (Gen 2:23-24). It is good for unbelievers to marry rather than to live in immorality. It’s good for them, for their children, and for society as a whole.
If I’d been in another Christian communion, I guess I could have called my Bishop. I’m a Baptist though. I was the bishop.
I called several pastors I know. One told me he marries virtually whoever asks, provided it fits with his schedule, but he saves the “really nice” ceremony for those who are believers. Another told me he routinely married unbelievers, as a means of sharing the gospel with them in premarital counseling.
I went away from these conversations depressed. It seemed to me there was something trivializing about these conversations, trivializing of both marriage and the call to preach.
Now, a dozen years later, I find that this question, should a minister officiate at the weddings of unbelievers, remains one of the most pressing questions for young ministers. So many have asked this question, that I’ve decided to put my counsel in print and say to young ministers what I wish someone had said to me.
That’s about as directly as I can put it. A minister of the gospel shouldn’t officiate at the weddings of unbelievers.
First of all, a minister of the gospel needs to know that he has no personal authority.
Ordination does not mystically confer authority to a preacher or pastor. The pastor has legitimate authority (Heb 13:17), and I believe ordination is biblical as the church setting apart those called and recognized as gifted for gospel ministry (1 Tim 3:1-7; 2 Tim 1:6). This authority though is not his authority. It is gospel authority, rooted only in the message he proclaims and in his calling from the church.
A minister is not an agent of the state. He is not a civil servant. A minister performs a wedding ceremony only because he represents the church, as one called out to the teaching office in the church, with the church gathered as witnesses to the vows being made.
In too many cases, though, a minister of the gospel assumes the role assigned to him in the lyrics of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” about Parson Brown: “He’ll say ‘Are you married?” We’ll say ‘No man, but you can do the job when you’re in town.’” This is hardly the shepherding function of the gospel minister we see in the New Testament.
In the New Testament, the marriages of church members are the business of the church community. Throughout the Scripture, the marriages of the members of the believing community are addressed to entire congregations (for instance, 1 Cor 7; Eph 5). At the same time, Paul tells the church at Corinth: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Cor 5:12-13).
That’s precisely the issue. For unbelievers the church has no right to hold a couple to their vows through church discipline. They are not, after all, members of the church. A church that isn’t able to hold a couple to their vows (through discipleship and discipline) as witnesses to the covenant made (through discipleship and discipline) has no right to solemnize these vows in the first place. What would the church do if the unbelieving non-members were to break these vows?
In the case of unbelievers, a minister of the state (such as a Justice of the Peace) is perfectly appropriate to officiate because it is the state, not the church, that will hold the couple accountable for any breaking of the vows made.
Almost every pastor I’ve ever heard who performs weddings indiscriminately appeals to the evangelistic potential. Every community has the “wedding chaplain” pastor who will marry anyone. He is rarely the soul-winning firebrand of the community. As a matter of fact (though I’m sure there are exceptions), I’ve not once met an unbelieving couple who were won to Christ by a pastor who was willing to marry them regardless of their belief in Christ. I know of several couples, though, who came to Christ because a faithful pastor lovingly told them no, and told them why.
For many young ministers, this question comes right down to a question of courage. If you’re not able, at the beginning of your ministry, to turn down family members and friends who expect you to act as a wedding chaplain for them, then how are you going to turn down unbelievers who want to baptized? How are you going to defy the armies of antichrist, should it come to that?
The gospel minister is made of sterner stuff than what many of us are accustomed to seeing. Refusing to place your ecclesial imprimatur on a Christless marriage is among the least dangerous things a minister will ever be called to do.
The wedding ceremony is one more place where we don’t need Masters of Ceremony or civil servants. We need ministers of the gospel, those with the courage to let their yes be yes and, when necessary, their no be no.