Editors' Note: Even though they may have little connection to a church, many couples today still want a traditional wedding ceremony with a pastor officiating. If you were the pastor, how would you respond? In this article, Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission says “no.” For a different take, see Deepak Reju's answer.
Early in my ministry I found myself with a difficult decision. A couple asked me to officiate at their wedding. Neither of them was a follower 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 disobeying the God by “being unequally yoked.” That would have been an easy answer, since the Scripture forbids it as sin.
Marriage is a creation ordinance, given to all people (Gen 2:23-24). It is good for unbelievers to marry. It's good for them, for their children, and for society as a whole.
I called several pastors I know. One told me he marries virtually whoever asks. Another told me he routinely married unbelievers, as a means of sharing the gospel. I went away from these conversations depressed. It seemed to me there was something trivializing about marriage and the call to preach in these conversations.
I find that this question remains one of the most pressing questions for young ministers. Should a minister of the gospel marry 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 (1 Tim 3:1-7; 2 Tim 1:6). However, this authority is not his authority, it is gospel authority.
In the New Testament, the marriages of church members are the business of the church community (1 Cor 7; Eph 5). Furthermore, 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).
For unbelievers the church has no right to hold a couple to their vows through church discipline. They are not members of the church. A church that isn't able to hold a couple to their vows (through discipleship and discipline) has no right to solemnize these vows. So, in the case of unbelievers, a minister of the state is perfectly appropriate to officiate because it is the state, not the church, which will hold the couple accountable.
Almost every pastor I've ever heard who performs weddings appeals to the evangelistic potential. I've never 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 several couples, though, who came to Christ because a faithful pastor lovingly told them no, and why.
For many young ministers, this question comes down to a question of courage. If you're not able 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? The gospel minister is made of sterner stuff than what many of us are accustomed to seeing.
The wedding ceremony is one more place where we don't need civil servants. We need ministers of the gospel, those with the courage to let their yes be yes and their no be no.