This is a good place for a text that speaks to the issue.
There isn’t one.
I’m sorry. (Sorrier than I can tell you. Every preacher would love to have it spelled out in scriptural black and white that the minister can marry certain couples and should decline invitations to join in holy matrimony certain others.)
One of the first eye-openers to hit most beginning pastors is discovering that the Bible does not authorize the minister to marry anyone, much less whom and under what conditions.
I recall my surprise on finding that the Bible contains no wedding ceremonies. None, nada. It is not silent about marriage, but completely mute on weddings (well, other than the fact that Jesus catered the wine for one in Cana of Galilee, but as a card-totin’ Southern Baptist, I am not going there!).
Young pastors begin getting requests to join couples in holy matrimony and are excited at the opportunity to conduct their first weddings. Then they quickly learn they have been thrown into the deep end of the pastoral-decision-making pool. They have to choose–often with little preparation and guidance–whether to marry the divorced, the unchurched, and couples who are already living together as husband and wife.
Over this weekend, I had two conversations with young pastors over decisions they are facing in this area. Remembering my own frustration over finding so little of help in writing, I’d like to put something on this website.
So, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on whom the pastor is to join in matrimony…
First, the questions…
1) “Should I marry people who are divorced?”
Say ‘no’ to this–and stick with it–and I guarantee you will cut the number of your weddings in half.
Most of us, however, find that a “hard and fast” policy will not hold up in the long run. Sometimes, you will encounter a godly couple whose divorces were so remote (in years), whose lives are so exemplary, and/or whose circumstances are so compelling, you will toss this rule out the window.
Stay with me now.
2) “The couple is living together as man and wife. Now, they want me to do their wedding. What to do?”
Here’s a simple question: “Is it better for them to be married or not?” If it is, let’s get them wed.
That’s where I am on the issue…at the present time.
But personally, I’d rather not join them in an elaborate church ceremony. Can it be something smaller and simpler?
Some couples want it both ways. They are living together as husband and wife–and might even have a child or two–but now that they are getting married, she wants the wedding of her dreams with all the trimmings (long, flowing gown, a dozen maids and groomsmen, elaborate reception, etc). In this case, the easiest thing for you as the pastor is to say, “I wouldn’t be comfortable with this. You’ll need to find another minister.” (Whether that ceremony can be held in your church building is another matter altogether!)
After you have declined the honor of officiating in their ceremony, depending on who they are, you may have to deal with the consequences. (see below)
3) “They are not Christians. I’ve told them I will not marry non-Christians. And now, they’re angry and I think I just lost any opportunity to have a witness to them.”
As a young minister trying to find my way through the labyrinth of whom-to-marry-and-who-not-to, how to prepare them, etc., I turned down the sweetest young couple who were coming to my church and beginning to be open to the gospel. When I told them I would be unable to officiate since they were not Christians, they were hurt and dropped out of church. I have regretted my decision ever since.
In some cases, pastor, there is no single right answer.
Sorry (again). I wish this could be a cut-and-dried thing.
1) I believe you should take each invitation separately, consider it prayerfully, and do what the Spirit within you says.
2) If you try to be consistent with a rigid policy, you will drive yourself nuts and alienate people. Remember, “the letter of the law kills; the Spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6).
3) If you are a perfectionist, this is going to keep you up nights. There will be times when to marry a couple will offend certain people in your church or your community, and to turn them down is to offend another group. Welcome to the pastorate of the 21st century, preacher. No one said it was going to be simple or easy.
4) It’s best going in to a new pastorate to have a clear understanding with your church leadership concerning your policy about weddings. This involves…
–making sure they understand Scripture nowhere gives this assignment to pastors (or anyone else), so we “see through a glass darkly here.”
–the chances are likely you may have to offend people at one time or the other. You will want the leadership to stand with you, particularly when they are among the offended. Whether they can do this will say worlds about their own maturity level.
–you need to leave room to change your position regarding remarriage, divorce, marrying certain others, etc. If the leadership chose you as pastor because of your strong convictions in this area, they might unchoose you when you begin showing signs of weakening (as they see it) or becoming flexible.
Every young pastor faces this. Every. Young. Pastor. Faces. This. You are not the first nor the last.
Therefore, seek counsel from veteran ministers on this and other subjects. I suggest you ask them to meet you for coffee (you’re paying) because you need their advice. Do this with two or three of the most respected pastors you know.
Then, now that you are thoroughly confused–because their experience and their counsel will almost always be different–enter into your prayer room and don’t come out until you know what the Lord would have you to do.
My personal testimony on this…
…is much like every other preacher’s I know.
I started out strongly vowing I would not do weddings for divorced people. High standards, right?
My first wedding was for a relative and a guy who turned out to be an abuser and a bum. Nothing about the wedding violated my high standards, but the marriage was a complete disaster and short-lived.
In my seminary pastorate, a couple in their early 40s with whom we had become great friends asked me to do their wedding. Each was divorced. I worked hard to discover if they had biblical grounds for their divorces. Looking back, I see what a fiasco that was. She seemed to have grounds; he didn’t. Again and again, I thought, “Why am I in this situation? No one told me this came with the call into the ministry!” I talked to professors and other pastors.
Finally, going against all these high-flying convictions of mine, I did their wedding. The marriage lasted a few years and ended with another divorce.
I’ve known of famous pastors of megachurches taking hard-nosed stands against divorce….until it was their child who came home with a bloody nose or black eye from an abusive husband. Then, their position changed overnight.
Nothing is simple or cut-and-dried except for those who automatically reject complexities and contexts.
Everything I’m attempting to convey comes down to the following:
1) Know the Word and stay with it.
2) Seek the Lord and obey Him.
3) Love people and look for ways to bless them.
4) Put rules before either the Lord or people and nothing good will come of it.
5) Be open to growing and changing as the Lord leads.
6) Every wedding you conduct will be an act of faith since no one has ever learned how to predict which marriages will “make it” and which won’t.
7) If you have to choose on erring on the side of grace or law, choose grace.
If, after marrying people for a half-century (as I have), you cannot look back and see mistakes you have made, you will be the first.