Pastors and Weddings

From John Frye

“I am not here to perform your wedding; I’m here to help you establish a Christian home.” This is what I tell young (or older) couples who anticipate marriage. I love weddings. They are a celebrative aspect of pastoral ministry. Imagine after all the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents and then Jesus saying to that sinner, “Now, here’s the cross. Get use to carrying it daily.” No, I am not saying marriage is a cross to bear. But marriage is a serious covenant to keep. A wedding is a joy-in-heaven event; a marriage is a “long obedience in the same direction.” I cannot simply detach a wedding from what it symbolizes and from what can go so tragically wrong when a couple gets into marital danger. I love the wedding festivities: the beautiful dresses, the handsome men in tuxes, the flowers, the beaming families and friends, the heartfelt prayers, the tear-inducing vows, the toasts, the music and dancing, the cutting of the cake—all this expressing the sheer joy of a wedding. Pastors should be present and immersed in all that. Yet a pastor’s heart is peering into the years ahead. He or she will remind the couple that at some time in the future the only thing to remind them of their life-long covenant will be the visible rings on their hands. When the music stops, the dancing shoes come off. They won’t necessarily “feel” married every day.

As most pastors know, there is a dark underbelly in many marriages. I’ve heard some of the most heart-wrenching stories of marriages gone wrong. It is at those times I find myself asking, “Where in the New Testament is the church directed to perform weddings and get into marriage-making?” The pronouncement of the Justice of the Peace is just as binding as any pastor’s words in making a marriage legal—Christian or otherwise. The recent DOMA ruling got the conversation restarted about the role of the church in marriage with the complexities of spiritual, relational, ecclesial, and civil dimensions. I read just today Fuller Seminary’s President, Mark Labberton’s comments to an AP story about Fuller and the GLBT issue regarding a student group at Fuller called “One Table.” It is a volatile position to take in our culture as President Labberton responded that according to Fuller’s Community Standards “premarital, extramarital, and homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct (are) inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture.”

In terms of wedding practice, I, like most pastors, require rigorous premarital education. I have a rule of thumb that a wedding should be as unique as the couple who are getting married. There is no firm, standardized template. Only two things are needed to make it “legal”—a public exchange of vows and the pronouncement of the union by “an agent of the state.” The rest of the wedding ceremony can be as free and creative as the couple wants it to be. I encourage couples to write their own vows. I suggest to them that on their tenth anniversary when they watch their wedding video, their own words will be much more meaningful than just parroting the traditional vows. Yet, if a couple wants the exchange the traditional vows, that is fine with me. To include both families into the ceremony, I suggest “the couple given away” segment, not just the bride given away. This gives me opportunity to address and hear responses from both sets of parents “in the giving and receiving.” All this can get tricky when there has been divorce and remarriage of parents. I usually explain the symbolism around the exchange of rings because most people have forgotten why that is a part of the wedding ceremony. Finally, in the context of trusting relationships, I affirm to the couple that I am available at any time to help them as they navigate their marital journey.

As an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor, I cannot perform, bless or participate in a same-sex union ceremony. I may, however, attend such a ceremony. At the same time, as an ECC pastor, I will offer spiritual and pastoral direction to anyone or any couple who desires or needs it.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • CJ Pankey

    When you allow couples to write their own vows, do you review them before the ceremony to make sure they are actual vows? Most of the time when I hear vows written by the couple themselves, they’re just stating how the other makes them feel which isn’t a vow/promise/covenant.

  • HgsDctr

    Good post and true that “Only two things are needed to make it ‘legal’—a public exchange of vows and the pronouncement of the union by ‘an agent of the state.”
    However, I have been thinking lately about the difference between “Legal marriage” (recognized by the state) and “one flesh” (recognized by God). I think pastors should think through the implications of the spiritual reality of marriage. It’s analogous to being placed in the body of Christ at the time of salvation; that’s something God does and it’s more “real” that membership in a church institution. At a wedding we officiate a ceremony that the state recognizes as creating a legal contract, but we also observe a man and a woman to vow before God and their family/friends that they will become one flesh. In a way, that is more “real” than the legalities. You can get divorced, but that can’t dissolve the bond God created. Eventually people of all persuasions will be able to “get married” before the state, but that doesn’t make it a Matthew 19:5-6 experience (“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”) any more than legalizing male pregnancy would result in a lot of dads giving birth. So when I officiate a wedding I’m not thinking about being “duly ordained” by the state but rather about being present when God joins a man and a woman in marriage.


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