Should a pastor conduct the wedding of two non-Christians? What about a Christian marrying a non-Christian? Are there any circumstances in which a pastor should not marry two Christians?
These are questions I hear all the time from other pastors. What makes it permissible to conduct a wedding in this or that situation, and when should a pastor say no?
I’m keenly aware there are many strong opinions on each version of the marriage question, and lively disagreements about which couples evangelical pastors should marry. And with last year’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, the debate of course does not end there.
Assuming agreement that marriage is between one man and one woman, I suggest the following boundaries within three common templates.
1. Christian marrying a non-Christian.
Most agree, as I do, that Scripture does not permit a Christian to marry a non-Christian (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14–18), so it’s unwise for a pastor to perform a wedding in this circumstance. Though many of us know examples where the unbelieving spouse was eventually converted, I would never encourage a believer to marry an unbeliever. And therefore I would never encourage a pastor to conduct such a wedding.
That said, if you are shepherding a Christian spouse married to an unbeliever, 1 Peter 3:1–6 is profoundly relevant. A Christian woman trying to live in faithfulness and peace with an unbelieving husband is one of the most powerful witnesses to Christ I’ve encountered. Still, I would never willingly encourage a woman to assume this post. Marriage between two believers is hard enough.
2. Christian marrying a Christian.
A pastor’s ideal scenario is to marry two Christians—particularly a couple he knows well, one he’s able to counsel before the wedding and will be able to shepherd through the early years of marriage. Wisdom and discernment are required when two Christians ask a pastor to marry them yet are neither plugged into a local church nor connected to a pastor who’s taken responsibility for them.
Regardless of the scenario, if you marry two Christians the ceremony should be seen as a worship service in which the gospel is preached. You should be acquainted well enough with the couple that you can exhort them to relate to one another in a way that clearly displays Christ’s love for his bride, the church (Eph. 5:22–33), and to live with one another in an understanding way when marriage gets difficult, which it will (1 Pet. 3:1–7).
If a couple is living in open, habitual, and unrepentant sin (such as cohabiting or being physically intimate), you should forego performing the ceremony—assuming they persist in their unrepentance—since you cannot commend them as public witnesses living exemplary lives.
3. Non-Christian marrying a non-Christian.
This is where much of the debate lies. Biblical warrant for marrying two non-Christians comes from Genesis 2, where marriage is viewed as a common-grace institution of creation in which God is glorified as his original design (one man and one woman) is reflected—even if the union doesn’t fulfill his ultimate redemptive purpose (Eph. 5:22–33).
But it is finally a matter of conscience.
If your conscience allows you to wed two non-Christians, make sure the wedding isn’t presented as a worship service. It should be done simply as a ceremony that allows you, a pastor, to join the man and woman together with witnesses present. This can serve as a strategic opportunity to preach the gospel—but I’d make that part of the agreement with the bride and groom before committing to marrying them in the first place.
Three Brief Tips
Remember, you should never feel forced to do any wedding, regardless of the pressure that comes from family or church members. If you have concerns whether two people should be married, here are three ways to seek God’s guidance:
1. Listen to your conscience.
The Holy Spirit works powerfully through our conscience, and we should not ignore it. Conscience is especially important on matters not explicitly clear in Scripture. Listen well.
2. Be guided by Scripture.
Your certainty on whether to conduct a wedding should equal your certainty on how clearly God’s Word addresses the issues involved. We must not shout where Scripture is silent. As Tim Keller puts it, “We must be so immersed in God’s written Word and truth that we are trained to choose rightly even in cases to which the Bible doesn’t speak directly.”
This simple principle is helpful in determining complicated wedding decisions.
3. Seek counsel from other pastors.
We should always sit at the feet of older, more seasoned pastors, and learn from their mistakes. Often, implications of a wedding don’t show up for years, sometimes even decades. Listen to wise voices who’ve married some and rejoiced, but have also married others and grieved. They will help you avoid similar mistakes.
And whatever you decide about a unique wedding circumstance, don’t make the decision alone. Involve others. Get help from those who’ve walked in the tracks you now tread.
Every pastor will eventually face a decision surrounding a unique wedding situation. May God grant us wisdom to think through each case with pastoral sensitivity and biblical care.