I have something of a confession to make. I really do not enjoy officiating weddings. When I tell other ministers, they inevitably seek to chide me in less than subtle, hyper-spiritual, passive agressive kinds of ways–giving me a list of all the reasons why they love officiating weddings. “Aw, come on! It’s such a beautiful picture of Christ and the Church,” one will say. “There is no greater celebration in this fallen world,” another insists. And on and on they go (as if I’ve never thought about any of those things before). The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t enjoy officiating weddings because I never want to be the catalyst for ruining someone’s special day. You’ve seen the videos, no doubt, in which a minister is caught doing something completely awkward, thereby ruining the ceremony of which the bride has dreamed her entire life. I never want to be that guy. All of this, however, also begs the question, “Does God expect lawfully ordained ministers to officiate the weddings of believers?” The answer I give may surprise you.
I’m not entirely sure that ministers of the Gospel are responsible for officiating weddings–yes, even a Christian wedding. In all my reading of Scripture, I have yet to come across either a descriptive or a prescriptive passage that intimates that it is the responsibility of a minister of the Gospel to officiate a wedding. Nowhere in the pastoral epistles (i.e. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) does the Apostle Paul ever suggest that it is part of the God-given role of a minister of the Gospel to officiate a wedding. When the Apostle corrected the church in Corinth over their worldly adherence to certain ministers and ministerial practices, he doesn’t say, “Did I oversee the marriage of any of you except that of…?” The best biblical argument one can muster is that which draws by way of vague inference off of the fact that God officiated Adam and Eve’s wedding. Beyond that, we can only argue from two standpoints. First, the history of the Christian church is a history of lawfully ordained ministers of the Gospel officiating the weddings of believers. Second, there is a pragmatic and functional need for a minister to officiate a wedding if it is to include biblical elements.
The history of Protestantism certainly supplies us with rich ministerial manuals that include orders of various ceremonial services. For instance, the Directory for the Public Worship of God gives the following statement about ministers and marriage:
“Although marriage be no sacrament, nor peculiar to the church of God, but common to mankind, and of public interest in every commonwealth; yet, because such as marry are to marry in the Lord, and have special need of instruction, direction, and exhortation, from the word of God, at their entering into such a new condition, and of the blessing of God upon them therein, we judge it expedient that marriage be solemnized by a lawful minister of the word, that he may accordingly counsel them, and pray for a blessing upon them.”
Agreeing fully with the argument that believers “have special need of instruction, direction, and exhortation, from the word of God, at their entering into such a new condition, and of the blessing of God upon them,” I would insist that all of the necessary instruction, direction and exhortation from the word of God can be done prior to the wedding ceremony. While I do not enjoy officiating weddings, I thoroughly enjoy the marriage counseling aspect of pastoral ministry.
It is interesting to note that while the Directory for the Public Worship of God makes a clear statement about the role of ministers overseeing the marriage of believers, the Westminster Confession of Faith only speaks of the role of church courts in making decisions about what may be deemed a lawful divorce:
“Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage; wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case.”
Note that the members of the Westminster Assembly (119 of the best theologians in church history) acknowledge two courts with regard to the oversight of marriage–the ecclesiastical court and the civil court. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a lawful marriage and divorce is legitimated either by the recognition of the church or by the recognition of the state. Of course, it would be advantageous to the well-being of the church for both courts to agree. By deduction, however, the statement in the Confession means that a lawful marriage may be carried out solely by the civil magistrate. The implication, of course, is that a lawful marriage before God does not require officiation by a lawfully ordained minister of the Gospel.
Having said this, I do believe that pragmatic considerations almost make it a functional necessity to have a lawfully ordained minister of the Gospel officiate a Christian marriage. There is clearly a difference between a Christian marriage and the marriage of unbelievers. While both are legitimate and binding, one has a sacred aspect to it that the other does not. Both are marriages recognized as legitimate before God, but a Christian marriage is one in which the covenant people of God are covenanting together for the well-being and the growth of the church of God.
In a day when special interest groups are seeking to ensnare and overthrow the church of God with cries of discrimination concerning the ministerial refusal to officiate certain weddings, it would certainly do us good to consider whether it is even a God-ordained, Scriptural responsibility of ministers to officiate weddings. As you do, you may actually come to the conclusion that it is our prerogative to officiate the weddings of believers, but not a God-ordained responsibility of ministers. No matter what conclusion you ultimately draw, of this much we can certainly agree: If you do officiate a wedding, don’t mess it up!