Marrying Unbelievers

Question
From a biblical perspective is it wrong for a pastor to marry two unbelievers? I am aware of the "unequally yoked" discussion and why it would be wrong to marry an unbeliever to a believer. Does it also follow logically that it would be wrong to marry two unbelievers? How should the church respond to two unbelievers who ask for marriage? I know many pastors who marry them thinking the act may plant a seed for them and help them think positively of the church.
Answer
The main call of ministers is to perform covenant marriages, that is, marriages between those who are part of the visible church. It is not to perform a service for the civil government. The Bible does not explicitly state that this, but I think it implies it.

First, in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul argued that it was not his business, and not the church's business, to judge those outside the church regarding spiritual and ethical matters. He also argued that it was his and the church's business to judge those within the church on these matters. Passages like this one demonstrate that the church is not to exceed the bounds of the covenant society in rendering judgments.

In 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, Paul went on to argue that the church should act as the primary civil court for its members. He even said that we should prefer to be defrauded if it means staying out of civil court. Passages like this imply that the church is to be a substitute for the civil government on behalf of the church in areas where the church is somehow compromised by participating in the civil process. That is, the example is that the church goes to trial at church, not that the society as a whole may freely take advantage of church courts. The church is competent to judge civil matters for society at large, but not obligated to expend its resources in that direction.

God has delegated to the civil government certain powers appropriate to it (Rom. 13:1ff.), and the church is not to seize those powers from the government. With regard to at least some of these delegated powers (e.g., capital punishment), it does not appear to me that the church is even permitted to receive those powers if the government allows it.

Marriage is a creation mandate that applies to all people equally. In this regard, it is appropriately regulated by civil governments and not appropriately restricted to the church.

The foregoing examples generally outline a system in which the church's responsibilities are somewhat distinct from the civil government's responsibilities. Certainly there is some overlap of interests, such as in the marriage of believers. But it would seem that these overlaps are instances in which responsibility essentially shifts to the church on the basis of church/covenant membership. The church has no original responsibility or jurisdiction over those outside the church, and there is no reasonable basis for shifting this responsibility from the government to the church in the case of those outside the church.

So, then, the church has no obligation to marry those outside the church. Does it, however, have the right to do this if it so chooses? I think that depends on the nature of what is communicated by the marriage ceremony in each specific instance. But in most cases I think it won't easily work.

First and foremost, Christian marriage offers covenant blessings. Only those in covenant can rightly be offered covenant blessings. I don't see how a church can rightly offer covenant blessings to a couple that is not in covenant with God. The marriage would have to be civil marriage conducted by the church, not a church marriage.

Besides this, Christian/church marriage involves calling on God as witness and judge. Would anyone who refuses to join the church be willing to do this when the only possible outcome is condemnation? And if such people invite God's judgment so openly, aren't we party to their rebellion when we endorse their marriage?

Some of the same issues exist for covenant marriage between unbelievers. But in their case they are already in covenant with God, meaning that the same requirements are laid on them and the same judgment awaits them regardless of whether they marry in church or in civil court. Moreover, church marriage provides a means of formal discipline for unbelieving church members because it calls the church to hold them accountable. This is not true in the case of civil marriages performed by the church.

Finally, there is the point of public reputation. Does a civil marriage conducted in the church imply that the church does not believe God's covenant or his gospel to be important? If so, the church should refrain from doing it.

I think, then, that it is usually wise for the church not to perform civil marriages. There may be times when it is okay, but my guess is that these times would be rare in my own society and culture.

But what about a minister who marries people outside the church? I see nothing wrong with ministers using the authority vested in them by the government to perform civil marriages outside the bounds of their ministerial duties. I do think there needs to be some sort of demarcation so that the practice is not misunderstood by those who attend. For example, a minister probably should not perform a civil ceremony while wearing vestments. As a caveat, if a government vests ministers with the authority to marry on the basis that marriage is an aspect of their church's ministerial duties, then any civil marriage performed by the minister is not really outside the bounds of his ministerial duties and is in fact a church marriage.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.