In the last commentary, I argued that a Christian minister ought not to officiate at wedding ceremonies for unbelievers. These weddings, I argued, represent the trivialization of the Christian ministry and a loss of pastoral courage. Since then, I’ve received lots of queries about funerals. Should a Christian minister preach the funeral of an unbeliever? That’s a very good question.
Some of the saddest moments of my ministry have been in funeral homes, preaching for people I didn’t know. Early on in ministry, I became the “go to” minister for a local mortician when one of his deceased passed away with no religious affiliation. I’ve seen almost empty chapels, with no one to do the eulogy but me. And I’ve seen full chapels of family members who clearly hated the deceased. I had one deceased woman’s daughter tell me there was nothing positive she could think to say about her mother, nothing at all, except that she did feed the birds in her backyard.
Do I think it was biblically acceptable to preach those funerals? Yes. Would I do it again today? Yes.
A funeral is an entirely different matter than a wedding. A wedding is about the near future (near meaning the next thirty to seventy years or so). A funeral is about the past, and about the ultimate future (the resurrection from the dead). A wedding is the witnessing of vows, the calling together of a covenant between two persons. A funeral doesn’t call any reality together. It commits the body of the dead to the earth and awaits the resurrection of both the just and the unjust.
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.