Q&R: Should a Pastor Marry a Non-Religious Couple?

Q&R: Should a Pastor Marry a Non-Religious Couple? February 29, 2016

shutterstock_371684425Here’s the Question:

Should a Christian pastor conduct a secular wedding? The bride was an active youth in our progressive ELCA Lutheran congregation and her family is still active. She is now getting married and her groom has requested no scripture, no mention of God, no prayers or blessings. This isn’t the first time one member of the couple is not a believer, but it is the first time one has had such anger and open animosity to God and religion in general.

Here’s the Response:

Many pastors struggle with questions like these. I wouldn’t want to make a rule because I think situations like these demand pastoral sensitivity and practical wisdom, not to mention situational guidance from the Spirit! As I imagine being in your situation, here is what I notice.

If the groom wants a wedding that reflects his convictions but is insensitive to the concerns of his bride and her family, I would see this as an occasion for some premarital counseling … just as I would if the situation were reversed. So I would enter into a premarital counseling relationship with the couple and be sure this issue is addressed. I might also ask to meet with the groom privately to make his animosity a topic of conversation. In other words, if he wants me to perform the ceremony, maybe he would trust me enough to talk about unprocessed spiritual pain.

I also notice that the bride doesn’t seem to be making herself heard in this. Again, that is a subject for premarital counseling.

All this presumes a general commitment I made when I was a pastor, that I wouldn’t perform a wedding without premarital counseling. I can see situations were exceptions might be made, but it was a good commitment that I don’t regret making.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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  • John Thomas

    Indeed. Fundamentally, Christian weddings (with presider and church setting) are worship services. I understand using less traditional scriptural passages (perhaps out of the Song of Songs), and even alternative names for God, but would insist on something that makes the wedding a service of Christian worship. It’s one thing to sign the civil marriage certificate, say for a non-religious couple that can’t afford a JP to do it or some other act of mercy, but this situation is very much a point of pastoral care and I think Brian’s right here– what about the bride’s opinion for the wedding? Not just the wedding itself, but perhaps there’s a deeper sign of conflict between the couple (will the children be allowed, by the husband, to attend church?) — no value judgement here, just another reason for pastoral counseling.

  • James

    The question itself seems rather biased. “Requested no scripture, no mention of God, no prayers or blessings ” does NOT equal “…had such anger and open animosity to God and religion in general.” People simply not believing in any given religion isn’t animosity towards that religion anymore than not believing in Shiva means someone hates Hindus or Hinduism. Speaking as an atheist myself, it seems like bad judgment for the couple to ask a pastor to perform a non-religious ceremony. But I suggest the person who is asking this question should think about this for a minute or two from the groom’s perspective: if one is non-religious, then participating in an overtly religious ceremony feels phony because it IS phony.

    The bride and groom need to get on the same page first. If she also is non-religious, or “spiritual not religious,” then it seems likely she’s asking a pastor to perform the ceremony because that’s what the family wants – not what she wants. In this case, a secular celebrant makes more sense for performing the wedding and the family needs to deal with it because it’s not about them; it’s about the couple. If she is a progressive believer, then there are ways of accommodating both person’s wishes. I’ve attended a wedding before between a progressive believer and an atheist and it was the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever witnessed, with personalized vows, respect given to the believers in the audience, and a mix of secular and religious themes.

  • John

    I believe that non-believers have a right to get married and that a pastor is free to perform the ceremony. Some type of pre-marital counseling should be a requirement regardless of their faith so as to address very practical relationship and conflict issues. I disagree that a wedding is a de facto worship service and I do not believe the pastor enters into some covenant or is responsible for their marriage in any way. Still, if there are huge red flags then I would not perform the ceremony and would be open as to why. We can’t live in and be a part of this fallen world without interacting with our fellow beings. I would not turn them away from such a reasonable request and would remind them that the church (and myself) are here should they need help.