The young pastor’s dilemma: Should I perform this wedding?

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.



35 thoughts on “The young pastor’s dilemma: Should I perform this wedding?

  1. On a somewhat related note, what do you do about a person who wants to join your church when they are living with someone and not married to them?

    • The pastor can make a unilateral decision on what weddings he will do and which he will not, but as to who can join the church, if a policy is needed the decision should involve more people than just the preacher. It’s so easy to become hypocritical here. “If we say this guy cannot join our church because this area of his life is unbiblical, what about the members who sell liquor in grocery stores? Or serve drinks to diners in their restaurants?” It may be the best way (I’m just saying “may be”) not to have a church policy on this, but once again–as in weddings–to take each one on an individual basis. Consistency is not the aim; obedience and grace are.

  2. I talked with a jail chaplain last week who hands out his card to everyone he talks with, one of which got to the girlfriend of a Muslim in jail on immigration charges. He and the woman, a Christian Counselor, (go figure) had planned to be married Dec. 12, before Immigration picked him up. The woman called the chaplain to ask if he would marry them.

    He didn’t mention anything about them being “unequally yoked; he just asked her if she understood the culture that could end up with her being abused. She said he was not like that; he was kind, and they prayed together every night.

    After the ceremony, the groom remained in jail. He started coming to the chaplain’s weekly Bible study, which always closes with an invitation to come to Jesus, and two weeks after the wedding, the groom came forward to say, “I want that Jesus.”

    All kinds of questions come into my mind, but my only comment is that this chaplain showed the grace you wrote about, Bro. Joe. The marriage and the couple are in God’s hands now.

  3. I am sure this is a difficult issue and I admire your willingness to go to the Lord for guidance..not making a rigid “man made”rule for yourself….it is especially hard to handle borken people and issues when they are our own. God does give guidance, as you know..and you are wise in seeking it.

      • Just a question from a non-pastor Christian… Where’s that grace you spoke about here? The individual circumstances? Or the understanding that all ‘sin’ is equal? Seems kind of hypocritical from a guy who is so graceful in some circumstances. 🙁

        • Grace is all through that article. “Love people and look for ways to bless them.” You thought grace meant I have to do whatever they want to do, regardless of what God’s word says? Sorry. I won’t be doing that.

          • 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

            What about these statements in which you made earlier?
            You are completely contradicting your own words here. Are you not?

  4. Joe, thanks for bringing this subject up. I’ve been a Baptist pastor now almost 27 years. I’ve always been troubled by how we seem to stigmatize the ‘divorced’, like a scarlet D is emblazoned on them. I know it is not in God’s ideal plan. But I’ve come to wonder, if the divorcee has confessed the sin of getting a divorce to God and has been forgiven, then shouldn’t the church exhibit grace to them also? So why not ask those who have been divorced questions like, “Did it seem like the only solution?” “Were you sorry it had to end that way?” “Did you acknowledge it was a sin and asked God for forgiveness?”
    I have wrestled with this too! But I don’t think divorce is the unforgivable sin.

    • I think churches are coming around on this issue, too. Our church’s new chairman of deacons was divorced (several decades ago). He is a wonderful and godly man who has proven himself in a hundred ways.

  5. This is an excellent article because all pastors will be faced with situations that are not spelled out in black and white. Your counsel is very helpful Joe.
    The other side of it is that on the issue of divorce and remarriage, we have our positions and convictions. I have no problem if someone takes a different position than I do. I do have a problem if it violates my convictions. The issue of divorce and remarriage is something that should continually drive us back to God’s word and let it shape your convictions, not the circumstances. But I think we also need to respect another’s convictions and if a pastor performs a wedding that violates his convictions, that is sin.

  6. I remember the days of “What I will do and what I won’t!” , and the wonderful counsel of Dr. Tew , one of the kindest men I have ever known. Everything you said Joe he said as well. He used to love when couples living together would come to him because, as he put it , “this is one of the few times I can have an active role in eliminating sin in their life.” I will never forget that. My rules are always simple… I dont delve into their past much, but do put myself squarely in their present. We meet and I express my qualifications to do the wedding, which have been whittled down over the years to a list of about 5 things they have to committ too ( one being 5 weeks of pre-marital counseling) and 4 others that can be a challenge to many. I am at a place of peace when it comes to marrying folks, but it took 24 years. Let me know Joe if any of the young guns want my steps … Love you and thanks again for your leadership…. .

  7. Your comments on pastors in premarital counseling asking the couple if they are living together or are they sexually active. Do you think this steps over the lines of privacy. I have never been able to ask that question because it really is none of my business and out of repsect to the couple. I have pastor friends who do and order a cease and deceist. Your thoughts please.

    • There are no good answers (that I know of) to this, Gordon. Evade the issue and it feels cowardly. Bring it up and it feels like prying. Evasive, invasive–choose your poison. The only thing I would say to a pastor is, “Listen to the Holy Spirit and obey Him.”

  8. Joe: Good article and insightful. When asked to perform a ceremony for a couple pregnancies, living together etc I had to examine the hard and fast rule in my life. In my mind and heart I had to answer the question,”If they went somewhere else and got married would I then invite to become a part of the church and extend love and concern to them”? Certainly I would. So why not extend love and concern to them and help with the wedding. It gave me an opportunity to share the gospel and witness that I would not have had otherwise.

  9. Pingback: Marriage Policy Triage « Lane Corley

  10. The Lord lead me to this site-Praise God! I have be asked to perform a wedding on a divorced man and never married woman-both saved, but not members of the church I pastor. (family friends) I told them I couldn’t give them an answer at this time. Still praying to see what God would have me do. Thanks for the Godly advice.

  11. Bro Joe, you bring up some good points. To the pastors here, my dad is a pastor so i have seen him pray over decisions such as this. Bro Joe, If you will remember you helped a young lady start the healing process when her husband abandoned her. To add insult to injury the pastor at her church, at the time of the divorce, informed her that she needed to find another church to attend. That young lady and i were later married by my dad in the chapel at First Baptist here in Columbus. 32 years, 2 children, and 4 grand children later we are going strong, and serving, to our best ability, in our church. Churches should be the hospitals that the wounded freely and without fear come to for comfort and healing. I am thankful that we were able to get married in a church and start our marriage at the alter before God. I am thankful for my Dad who was willing to marry us. I am thankful that God led me to my wife. I am thankful for a God who forgives.

  12. There’s only one unforgivable sin in the Bible – and all of you know divorce isn’t it. Using reason – seems most pastors would rather see a married couple than an unmarried pair living together. Of course, dispense with same sex marriage requests quickly (They are rare anyway). In most other cases however, remember the old saying: “a church is a hospital for sinners” to be healed (get saved), so to paraphrase – a pastor/preacher will quote from a Bible as compared to a secular notary-type person wedding and marriage participants take it more seriously from a religiously worded Biblical passage.. Quit being so judgmental and marry them all. The only problem would be whether allowed in a church service or not. Marry them in the pastors study, in their home or reception hall and quit trying to use your pious thoughts to judge the reasons for their joining lives together under God. Besides, even if you know it won’t work out, there is no way under the Sun to talk a woman out of marrying that person if her mind is made up. After the vows are made – Let God take over from there. . .

  13. When I was a young pastor, our worship leader started a relationship with one of the young divorced mums in the church (she had some 3 years earlier fled an abusive husband who had ended up in prison for the abuse). At first it all seemed like a friendship which was wholesome, but I found out that they were sleeping together. What to do? I wanted to be gracious, but knew I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. For starters I made him step down from all ministry in the church, but didn’t feel that it was gracious to put them out of fellowship. Rightly or wrongly, I challenged them on their behaviour and they (claimed to have) stopped and put their relationship right with the Lord.
    Some time later (? a couple of months by memory) they asked if I would marry them. Again, I had a very difficult decision to make, but felt on balance that to marry them was the most gracious course of action, so I conducted a marriage ceremony. The lady’s boys now had a father who really did love them and their mother. That was about 25 years ago and they are still happily married and committed to each other – and to the Lord.
    I still worry about whether I handled things well or not, but am grateful to the Lord that my actions did not discredit the gospel or the church I pastored.
    I have now moved on, am older and (not necessarily!) wiser. To be honest this tension between “law & grace & license” is still as strong and it is becoming more important to get it right as our societies diverge from general Christian values towards an “anything goes” society.

  14. I have read much in the comments above about the forgiveness of sin. It is true that God forgives sin, but His forgiving sin does not give one the right to go ahead and do whatever they want after he or she has received forgiveness. There are consequences for sin. The Lord, in His Word, gives qualifucations for the office of deacon and pastor, and He gives clear instruction concerning marriage. Sin and forgiveness aside, does one meet the qualifications to do what they are doing? I think that is the important question.

  15. Dear sir, all that you have said here is very good, and I appreciate your input. I only want to make one suggestion. Just about every denomination has a Statement of Faith posted or written somewhere for people to examine, and folks, if they are smart, will want to know what a church believes before getting involved. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to add a clause that says something like “Our position concerning marriage: We will not join in holy matrimony people that are not Christians, nor will we marry a Christian with a non Christian. We recommend a civil marriage be considered by those in these two categories if they are determined to wed, although we are persuaded that couples that are surrendered to the Lord will be best equipped by God to enjoy the blessings of matrimony as they grow in grace and knowledge of His Word.”
    A statement such as this would hopefully cause non Christians to think about how important it is to have the Lord in their lives. And if they DID opt for a civil marriage, they would always have the memory of such a clause in the church declaration that could possibly convict them of their need for Christ when the future trials come ( and they will come). I hope my suggestion can be helpful. I’m sure you are doing all that you can by God’s grace to protect your flock. God bless.

  16. I divorced after a 30 year separation from my Ex. He molested both our children and several others. I have now met a Christian man who is a deacon in a church and does missionary work and we plan to be married.
    I was in this abusive marriage 16 years and tried to make it work till he was turned in to the police.
    For the protection of my kids I left and I feel God is a living God and knows that I did not go into my marriage light heartedly.
    And I feel My remarrying will have Gods Blessing.
    My fiancé and I pray for Gods guidance and will in our lives. We don’t live together and have no intentions of any relations till we marry as that is how God wants it to be and we will follow his will in our lives.
    I hope we find a minister that will be willing to marry us under the circumstances.
    And I will add this I feel ministers need to be less judge mental on this. The Bible does say whomever has sinned not throw the first stone. It’s so important for all people to hear Gods word. Especially those who are not Christians. Don’t banish them from the church welcome them. You just may lead them to the Lord.

  17. We have no business marrying people who are outside the will of God. Would you marry 2 homosexuals? I hope not! Sin is sin God created a marriage covenant for his children not for everyone. We try to make people righteous by saying “shacking is sin so let’s get you out of that sin” you can take 100 sins out of the life of a person but you can’t take away a unrepentant heart. You’re only making it a work based salvation. It doesn’t matter fif Susan and Jim really love each other. If they don’t love the Lord that marriage means nothing in the eyes of God. It’s not of him and they are 2 souls heading to an inferno. Tell the truth in love.

    • Hello Roderick, in one broad brush stoke you killed the whole of humanity; the good and the evil. Mat 5:45
      I think to myself if Bro Roderick is so convinced of Gods infallible judgement of remarriage that he must be missing body parts by now because the Scriptures say in Mat 18:8 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast [them] from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. Umm not to mention your eyes too.
      You sound like myself when I was a young buck for Jesus in my 20’s, I too had a scorched earth policy (from my pastors preaching) until the day I prayfully (3 months on my knees) went to my Pastor to discuss his brothers leadership role when he clearly did not abide by church by laws for a leadership position. The deacons warned not to touch “thy anointed” (the pastor) , I was resoundly shunned by pastors instruction from the church and asked to leave because I dare bring a charge against pastors leadership. My heart was broken, I was the do anything, pick up anybody, give to all church needs, soul win every sat, not attend college classes if they fall on Wed, arrive at 8am leave at 10pm Sunday night kind of church guy, until that day!
      Over the next 20 years of life I learned to not allow my faith to revolve upon my pastor but build my own personal relationship with Jesus; daily at HIs feet, confessing my sins and imploring the Holy Spirit for His wisdom this day.
      “You who have NO SIN cast the first stone.” “For the Son of Man has come to seek and save the Lost.” Bless you on your Journey with Christ brother; pray with tear filled eyes and weep with many, may your days be filled with affliction that we too may learn obedience to our Lord. By the way that church folded in 12 months after I was shunned away.

  18. I’m a Western missionary and have been living and ministering in East Africa for 40 years. Here we face different issues, but on the similar topic. Here the issue revolves around as question: “When are a man and a woman considered to be husband and wife?” In most churches here, there are many people who certainly consider themselves husband and wife (i.e., they don’t see themselves as cohabitors) but have never had a wedding. Their families consider them to be husband and wife, the culture and community in which they live consider them to be husband and wife, the government considers them to be husband and wife. I believe that God sees them as husband and wife (marriage has happened in all societies at all times — long before weddings existed). What they have never had is a wedding — but they have a marriage.
    Now, many such couples want to have a wedding. I have a problem with this. Why have a wedding (not a renewal of vows, not a celebration of their marriage, etc., but a wedding) for people who are already married? Performing such weddings seems to suggest that their marriage was somehow inferior to marriages that had weddings. That somehow such marriages are less solemn than marriages that had weddings. That God might even see their marriage as somehow tainted. I think it sends all the wrong messages. We are trying to create a totally different ceremony for such couples. Not sure what we will call it. But it won’t be “wedding.”

    I’d appreciate any comments or feedback on this.

    • You have certainly brought a new situation & insight into the discussion. Since I wrote this article several years ago–I have no idea where you found it–I suspect there’ll not be responses to your good note on this website. If you’re on Facebook, that would be a good place for you to post your situation and ask for input. Thank you.

  19. Hello Chip, Bless you brother for your work in East Africa! May I offer heart felt insight into your situation from a outsiders perspective: both of my parents were born and raised in two different countries outside of America, I have been tinted by different cultures and viewpoints from most of America culture which I grew up under. I might be able to see under the belly of the beast so to speak of than a Westerner such as you because I live on the other side of the tracks than your perspective might allow you to venture. First may I caution you not to let your Western cultural influences taint your perspective of Gods love and concern for these East African men and women. Remember your Lord and Savior is NOT a American but a Middle Eastern Cultural Man who most likely is not your shade of physical color and definitely not of your upbringing, unless you abandoned all housing, income or marriage plans and intended to live well below the poverty level of today and forgo your retirement income.
    So brother lets show great deference to God’s unmerited Grace upon His saved children here on earth and explain what was intended in Gen 3 of Bonding to a women (God did not officiate this Marriage) and how sin polluted, altered all things even marriage from that day forward. Fallen men who become Missionarys to East Africa might marry (with all the trimmings) other Fallen saints in East Africa who might in the hands of a Mighty God become Missionarys to America in 2021. For our cultural heritage is well nigh gone!

  20. I am in my early 60’s but I still remember when the preacher of my church refused to marry my late husband of almost 20 years because both of us had been married and divorced earlier. About 2 months after the honeymoon we were invited to a wedding at church where the bride was very pregnant, had 2 children by another man and had lived with this man for 5 years before wanting to say “I do”
    Because of this I did not step back into this nor any other church for 20+ years. I back now but it took a lot of prayers from me, family, and friends.

    • what probably happened, Susan, was that the preacher had to face the reality that some of his loved ones–like his daughter or son!–was in a similar situation, and his hard-and-fast rules just don’t work.

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