Mailbag #15: Officiating Non-Christian Weddings; Meaningful Membership before Establishing Elders; Excommunicate for Not Giving Money; Transfer Membership
A recent conversation came up among some of my church staff. Should we who are ordained pastors or elders officiate weddings for non-Christian couples? Everyone at the table said that they wouldn’t perform a wedding for a homosexual couple because marriage is “between one man and one woman.” My thought is that “one man and one woman” is only part of the definition. Marriage is also a God-ordained institution meant to display the love that Christ has for the church. A non-Christian marriage may display some areas of common grace, but certainly not the intentional, pursuing love of Jesus.
Would you officiate non-Christian weddings? What is the most loving thing to do?
—Mike, North Carolina
The answer to your question is a little more complicated than you might think. For starters, we need to make a distinction between biblical principle and practice. In principle, I believe ministers are free to marry non-Christians. In practice, I’m a little more reluctant over the wisdom of the matter. Let me make three points of principle and two more points of prudence.
Speaking at the level of biblical principle:
1) Marriage is a creation institution. God established it for all people. And whoever possesses authority to marry Christians should also possess the authority to marry non-Christians. Like the blessings of the Noahic covenant, it extends to humanity in common. And just as God does not limit who can and cannot see the rainbow, so there is no biblical basis for dividing the what, who, or how of marriage and wedding ceremonies between humanity at large and God’s special-covenant people. It’s a common covenant ordinance.
No, a non-Christian marriage might not demonstrate Christ’s love for the church as well as we would like, but it might, too. Non-Christians can have good marriages! But the larger point is, don’t confuse the sign (or type) for the thing signified (or antitype). Marriage is the sign. Christ’s relationship to the church is the thing that is signified. And one of the very reasons God gave marriage to all humanity is so that they might have a sign of the thing they don’t have, the knowledge of Christ’s love for them as a member of the church. He embedded this symbol within creation as a “natural” pointer to salvation.
2) In our society, the state undertakes the function of regulating marriage (which I think we might be able to deduce from Scripture as a second or third order-implication), and insofar as it does I believe the state is free to designate whomever it wants to officiate such ceremonies. If it wanted to give construction crew foreman or bank managers or anyone who is left-handed the authority to perform this function, it could. In our society, the state designates ministers as possessing this authority, which I think ministers are free to undertake. A minister does not have to undertake the work of administrating weddings on behalf of the state. The Bible does not require a minister to do so (see next point). But if he does undertake it, I see no principled basis for discriminating between Christians and non-Christians. Again, it’s a common covenant ordinance (point 1 above).
3) Nowhere does the Bible explicitly connect the office or work of an elder/pastor and the work of performing weddings. More to the point, nowhere does the Bible authorize elders/pastors to perform weddings—between Christians or non-Christians. This means, biblically speaking, an elder who undertakes this work does so in his capacity as a citizen, not in his capacity as an elder (even if the state authorizes him because he’s a minister). Now, some people want to grant elders or pastors the authority to perform only Christian weddings by tying the wedding performance to the ministry of the Word. And it’s true that many of the things we do in most Christian wedding ceremonies (preaching, praying, singing hymns, etc.) involve the ministry of the Word. But the sine qua non of a marriage ceremony is the pronouncement: “I declare you man and wife.” And this is something categorically different than an elder’s ministry of the Word. In order for a person to make such a pronouncement in a way that’s officially recognized by the state, whether for Christians or non-Christians, he must act as an agent of the state, which is to say, not in his biblical capacity as an elder or pastor.
To sum up the principled-side of the discussion, I’d say a minister is free to marry Christians or non-Christians, but a minister should recognize that he is performing this function not in his biblically-authorized capacity as a pastor but as an agent of the state. For that reason, I think it’s appropriate for a minister to declare something like, “By the power vested in me by the State of Maryland, I pronounce…” but not to say, “As a minister of the gospel, I pronounce…”
With these three principled considerations in mind, let me offer two more practical words:
4) Insofar as the work of performing weddings it not a part of an elder’s biblical job description (just like it does not belong to a bank manager or construction crew foreman’s job description), I’d encourage elders not to set aside prior biblical obligations for these purposes. In other words, don’t let it get in the way of your day job. Now, the Bible tells elders to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:4), and insofar as the process of pre-marital counseling allows an elder to do this, it may be a good use of time. But there are plenty of other ways to evangelize. And his primary “vocational” obligation as an elder is the instruction and oversight of the church. That’s worth keeping in mind.
5) In our litigious American context, I’d generally recommend that churches adopt the policy of only hosting weddings where at least one party is a church member. Same-sex marriage is recognized in a number of countries. But Americans seem especially excited to take one another to court. For that reason, a church protects itself by only hosting weddings for its members. Now, assuming that a minister’s non-Christian nephew wants to marry his non-Christian girl friend, I think it’s fine for him to do this. Yet I would encourage him to do it somewhere other than the church for the sake of protecting the church. Also, a minister should recognize that, as he begins to make exceptions of this kind, he begins to remove his legal protection for turning down any couple who shows up on the doorstep of his church. If a minister tells a judge that his church has a policy of only performing marriages where at least one member is involved, the judge’s first question will be, “Does your church actually live by this practice?”
I pray all this is useful to you, Mike. For that fifth reason alone, I might generally encourage ministers in an American context these days to avoid marrying non-Christians. Yet on biblical grounds I believe you are free to do so.
I go to a relatively small and traditional (one pastor, hymns-only) Southern Baptist church that has been maturing greatly in the last couple of years. Most of the leaders here realize that we need to implement a plurality of elders and that we have not been taking membership anywhere near seriously enough. That said, we have disagreed on what we should focus more on first. On the one hand, it seems like a church who fully understood biblical membership would accept multiple elders. On the other hand, it seems like multiple elders would make teaching and implementing biblical membership a smoother process. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks in advance,
The Bible tells us what our churches should do (preach the word, recognize elders, sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, make disciples), but it does not always say how we should go about these things. Much of the how depends on context and considerations of prudence.
Your question of whether to reform your membership practice or to recognize multiple elders first is a how question, which means, the answer depends upon wisdom or prudence. It’s not biblically scripted. So my short answer is, do whatever is easiest and most conducive to unity. Is there more unanimity on one or the other of those matters at present? Do that. Typically, a first step toward biblical faithfulness and health will make any second step easier.
That said, I have a slight theological and practical preference for reforming your membership practices first. The church consists of its members. Strictly speaking, you can have a church without elders (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Also, Jesus has tasked the congregation with guarding the who and the what of the gospel (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:4-5, 11; Gal. 1:6-9), which means they have the responsibility to affirm or deny who the elders are. All that inclines me to say, if possible, attend to your membership matters first. You should want biblically-informed and gospel-protecting members eventually affirming who the elders are. Otherwise, you may have a bunch of carnal nominal Christians making decisions about who the elders are. And that’s not a good recipe for the long-term health of the church.
But let me again emphasize the importance of being politically wise in this. Which of the two issues will be a harder sell for the church? Which possesses more support among the leaders? How strong is the opposition? Who is the opposition? How likely is a split? How mature is your congregation already? These are the questions I’d be thinking about as you make pastoral decisions about moving carefully in a biblical direction.
I pray God causes your love to abound in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you might discern what is best.
Why shouldn’t we require people to give financially to the church in the same way we require them to attend? I know you attempted to answer this question in Mailbag #2, but the question was never really answered. Part of being a member is agreeing to support the church financially. So, doesn’t the church have the duty and obligation to make sure people keep their promises? We expect them to faithfully and regularly attend (Heb. 10:25). If they fade away over time they may be ex-communicated. Why is it different with giving? We are told that each man should give what he has decided (2 Cor. 9:7). I think the implication is that each man will give something. To suppose that giving nothing is possible would leave “unfulfilled” the money spoken of in 1 Corinthians 9:14 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18. Therefore, it seems that church members are commanded to give money to their local church in the same way they are admonished to meet together. Shouldn’t we have some mechanism in place to gently instruct and admonish those who are violating their promise?
Yes, churches should teach and encourage their members to give financially to the church, just as Scripture does: “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14; see also 1 Tim 5:17-18). Pay your pastors. If you have an income, and you make a regular habit of not giving to your church, in all likelihood you are in sin.
That said, three things keep me from saying that you are necessarily sinning on every occasion that you don’t give, or that churches should excommunicate people who don’t give. First, Paul ties how much people give to their circumstances and income: “Each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper” (1 Cor. 16:2, ESV) or “in keeping with your income” (NIV). And it’s conceivable in my mind that there may be circumstances in a person’s life where they do receive an income but, for some reason, they are unable to give for a paycheck or two. Now, I would probably exhort that person to give something even if they feel unable, even if it’s a dollar. This is a good chance to exercise their faith muscles. But I’m not positive they would be sinning if they don’t. Maybe they are paying off a bookie for grandpa’s sinful gambling debt, and the bookie is threatening grandpa. That might sound extreme. But the point is, I cannot say for certain that someone is sinning every time they neglect to give. Paul, furthermore, demonstrates such situational sensitivity in 1 Corinthians 16.
Second, I don’t think we should excommunicate over a failure to give, even when the lack of giving is sin, because of what Paul says in the very verse you quote: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (1 Cor. 9:7). People should not give “under compulsion.” To threaten excommunication is to compel, which means people will give reluctantly and not cheerfully. And God doesn’t want that! Notice then the new covenant balance that Paul strikes: he commands people to give, but then he relies upon the Holy Spirit to make them want to give. He does not require them. I think we should do the same.
For transfers, do members at CHBC vote on these or do elders just inform body when church receives a notice of transfer of membership?
—Chad, North Carolina
As a congregationalist, I believe that Jesus makes every church responsible to guard the who and the what of the gospel and that the Holy Spirit makes us competent for that work. Therefore, I would not encourage any church to accept new members on the word of another church. Every congregation is responsible before God to do what Jesus did with Peter in Matthew 16 with every prospective member: ask them who they believe Jesus is.
Your church is responsible for anyone who would be a member of your church. And the other church is responsible for anyone who would be a member of their church.
Therefore, with every new member, whether by baptism or transfer, our elders interview the person and make sure they understand the gospel. Then they present that person’s testimony and profession to the church for a vote. I hope that’s clarifying.