About six months ago, one of my students was actively pursuing a ministry position after graduating from seminary. During his search, a friend sent him a link to a new “ministry” that provided ministerial wedding services indiscriminately to anyone willing to pay the fee. They had a slick website and a pledge to “make your wedding personal” despite never meeting the minister until a few weeks before the nuptials. For me, this raised the question of whether or not a pastor should perform weddings with little or no concern for the spiritual lives of the couple.
For most ministers I know, the question of performing a wedding ceremony between a believer and an unbeliever is a non-starter. We quickly jump to 1 Cor 7:39 and 2 Cor 6:14–15. These verses make it clear that believers are instructed not to marry unbelievers. However, there are no biblical instructions regarding two unbelievers marrying. In fact, the assumption is that if believers are only marrying other believers, then unbelievers will be marrying unbelievers. That leaves us with the question of whether or not a Christian pastor should perform the wedding ceremony for two unbelievers.
Before we can answer that question, we first need to address the nature of marriage. While there are some (e.g., Catholics) who argue that marriage is a church ordinance (or sacrament), we must acknowledge that marriage was instituted prior to the church (Gen 2). There are also those who argue that marriage is a state ordinance (e.g., most secularists). However, there was no government in the Garden of Eden either. Instead, marriage is a creation ordinance given to all mankind as a gift. Russell Moore writes, “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.” There are a host of benefits to society that come from marriage—economic development from family-owned businesses, social stability through the family unit, and care for the young by parents.
If marriage is a creation ordinance and it is good for unbelievers to marry one another, then should a pastor perform a wedding between two unbelievers? My answer to that question is a resounding “No.” Let me explain.
First, a pastor is not a “lone ranger” exercising his ecclesiastical duties apart from the authority of the local church. When a pastor performs a wedding ceremony, he is placing his stamp of approval (and that of the church) on the marriage relationship. However, the church has no business giving its blessing to a marriage between unbelievers because there is no mechanism to hold them accountable. Moore states, “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?”
Second, Christian marriage is a depiction of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:22–33). A pastor’s intention in performing a ceremony should be to direct the couple and those witnessing the ceremony to understand that biblical picture. However, a marriage between two unbelievers lacks the key element to make that picture complete—a relationship with Christ. Without that relationship, a husband and wife have no desire to honor God with their marriage. Thus, the pastor should have no interest in blessing a marriage that sets out from the beginning with no intention to recognize God’s design for marriage.
Third, while proclaiming the gospel is appropriate (and necessary in my view) during a wedding ceremony, it should not be the goal of a ceremony to proclaim the gospel to the bride and groom. The best gospel proclamation in a wedding is the living testimony of the couple as they depict the Christ-church relationship. The pastor puts Scripture and words to that picture to explain it. Moore aptly describes the faulty view of performing weddings as evangelism:
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.
I believe that many pastors who perform such ceremonies are more concerned with not offending others than they are with seeing God’s design for marriage upheld. If two unbelievers want to get married, send them to a justice of the peace or someone else authorized to sanction a marriage. Moore concludes his admonition to ministers with the following:
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 [be] 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.
I agree with Russell Moore on this one. Let’s avoid performing such marriages, even when it is family members who ask. Placing our “blessing” on a marriage should be reserved for those marriages that will reflect the true nature of marriage and depict the Christ-church relationship. In fact, I would say there are even times when we should say “no” to believers who have the wrong intentions for marriage.
Russell Moore, “Should a Minister Officiate at the Weddings of Unbelievers,” September 11, 2008. Moore’s article from three years ago helped to solidify my position on this question. I am greatly indebted to him for his brief, yet substantive thoughts on the issue.