The Matter of the Heart > > Home

Holy Matrimony?

Toward a biblical view of vow-officiating for unbelievers -or- Sam holds a lightning rod aloft

Posted Saturday, June 18, 2005 by Sam Yeiter

I hope to begin a dialogue on the question of marrying those outside the Church.  I hold a double standard, expecting one thing of unbelievers and something probably quite different for believers.  In this post i will only address the former.  I look forward to a vibrant discussion.

I've been a pastor for about six years now...hardly a veteran...but i've seen quite a bit already.  For the most part, my ministry has been with, among, and toward believers.  And i think this is quite normal (i can defend this in a later post…someone’s going to tell me that Timothy was instructed to do the work of an evangelist….).  A primary exception has been in the area of matrimony.  Here, my largest number of requests has come from those outside the Church.  And every story is different.  Most have been divorced, some seemed faultless, and others were definitely to blame.  Even more are having pre-marital sex or are openly living together. 

When i was a young pastor, i held that since marriage is to be a symbol of Christ and the Church (see Ephesians 5:21-33), i would only officiate over the vows of those i felt actually did justice to that symbol.  That ruled out a good bit of marriages.  I didn't marry unbelievers (obviously not a very good picture of Christ and the Church).  I wouldn't marry anyone who had been divorced (Matthew 5:31).  And I wouldn't marry believers who wanted to marry unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14)...and who knows...there might have been others that i wouldn't marry.

However, as i began my current ministry (yes, i've done my part to try to raise the average head pastoral ministry length back up to the five year mark...i think its currently at 4 years/ministry), i was asked by a trustee to officiate over the marital vows of some good friends of his.  This put me in the awkward position of having to re-evaluate my position on marriage.  I didn't want to just cave with regard to my standards...but i also didn't want to jeopardize my new relationship with my friend and trustee.  Until now i was very happy to not marry people (it is quite a hassle).  That was about to change.

As i began my new look at marriage, i really did try to throw myself back into the text...i was willing to tell them no, but i wasn't looking forward to it.  One of the first things i re-realized is that marriage is not a Christian invention.  Indulge me as i quote from the homily i gave at the recent wedding i did for a couple outside the Church. 

Our day begins about six thousand years ago in a garden for which we all long…the Garden of Eden.  I believe there was such a place, and that it was there God created man out of the dust of the earth and his breath.  The first story of humanity is pretty humorous.  Picture Adam, just created, standing there…he wants to take in the sights of this new world.  He looks like a tourist (except he’s naked).  He’s got the fanny pack on, and the camera out.  He’s almost out the door when God puts him to work.  His first job?  Name all the animals.  So he gets to work: bull…cow, buck…doe, lion…lioness… Before long he notices something.  There’s always a boy and a girl.  “Hmmm…I wonder where my girl is?”

            When Adam learns his need, God knocks him out (it’s a busy first day for Adam), and from some of his own flesh he creates Woman…Eve.  For the first time Adam saw something that was like him but wonderfully different.  She is the crown of creation.  It is then that God in his wisdom gives them to one another.  Thankfully, not every marriage comes about that way…but there’s the first.

            What I want you to see is that Marriage is not our idea…it is God’s.  It stood before the Church, before Israel, before another single human witness could stand there with it.  Creation itself is only five days older than Marriage.  Marriage stands ultimately in the presence of God alone.  Because of this it is holy and sacred.

What i have decided (for now), is that marriage is essentially vow-making before God.  Obviously, the first wedding is not necessarily normative, but i believe it is significant.  I also decided that i cannot expect unbelievers to live their lives like believers.  They do not accept the rule of God in their lives, and to expect them to do so in order for me to marry them might be similar to blackmail.  So i have come to the following conclusions. 

I will marry unbelievers if they will accept the following.  If they will give me opportunity to teach them what i think are the biblical roles in marriage, how they are to treat one another in a marriage relationship, the salvation story (cleverly starting in the Garden, sometime after their idyllic wedding), and as long as I think they understand that their wedding is a taking of vows before God and man, i will do their wedding.  I also demand freedom to perform a Christian wedding, and to declare the gospel message concisely. 

I realize that there are potential problems with this position.  A primary fear of mine is that I (or the Church...or worse, God) will be seen as endorsing sin (most couples who have come to me to be married were living together...and everyone knew it).  I deal with this by making sure the couple knows the truth pertaining to their situation.  To those who have been divorced, i make sure they realize that God hates divorce.  To those who are having pre-marital relations, i make sure they realize that God designed such activity for within a marriage relationship, and so on.  At the same time i try to convey God's love and healing power within a wounded relationship.  I am also careful during the homily and the rest of the vow-officiating that i do not speak untruth.  I do, however, ask for God's blessing upon them after they have taken their vows.  It is my deepest hope that God will indeed bless them.  This brings me to my conclusion.

Unfortunately, this sounds a bit pragmatic (but perhaps wisdom is somewhat pragmatic).  To my knowledge, couples that i declined to marry went elsewhere (at least they said they were going to).  If they don't find what they want at Target, they'll go to Wal-Mart.  They are going to pay me for my services, so they keep shopping if i turn them down.  I fear that they will end up with some pastor who is like the Ninevites, not knowing his left hand from his right.  I also fear that having been stung by the church once, they won't risk a second injury.  It is my hope that the Word of Truth will get lodged somewhere in their mind and eventually get enough soil, sun and water to take root.  It is my hope that when marital problems (or any of the other guaranteed evils) come, they might think of me.  Perhaps i will have a chance to prevent further breaking of Shalom in the future.  I guess i'm hoping that time spent with someone who knows and loves God just might make a difference in their lives. some point i have to stop this post...there must be a character limit...what is it Brian, like 2.5 million?  Also, i've grown tired.  Talking about marrying unbelievers wears me out.  However, we want to show them love and compassion, and we must address it.  So, i'm hoping that i will get a discussion going.  I know i've not brought a tremendous amount of scripture to bear...there is more to say.  In Malachi 2, Israel is condemned once for marrying unbelievers, and then a second time for divorcing those wives...thanks a lot Ezra.  Also, we probably need to spend more time looking at the words of Jesus and Paul regarding marriage and try to determine what applies to the church and what applies to Israel (oops...did i just reveal my dispensationalism?).

Also, up to this point we have only been talking about the task of marrying non-believers.  It seems that there is much to be said regarding the marrying of those who claim Christ as Lord and Savior.  However, all i will say for now is that i expect believers to act like believers.  Perhaps that will be reserved for a future post…or perhaps as we discuss the topic of marrying those outside the Church, we will be constrained to speak also of those within.  Okay, that's all i'm going to say...nothing more...I look forward to helpful criticism and discussion of my post. 


Wednesday, June 15, 2005 3:03 PM

Brian wrote: 

I do not have a problem with the marrying of unbelievers. I would suggest the following additions to your thoughts.

  1. Their previous sin of "Living in Sin" is a rather legalistic perspective. Before they get married, they are living in the sin of adultery/fornication. After they are married, however, they are still living in the sins sins of envy, selfishness, and other which are (thankfully?) more subtle. Your assistance in helping them leave a life of sin is good. Your role in this called "being the friend of sinners."
  2. I will not marry a couple when either one has divorced their previous spouse without cause - infidelity or abuse.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005 8:04 PM

Sam wrote: 

Real quick...i'm not sure what you mean by "living in sin" being a legalistic perspective.  i avoid that phrase for the very reason that it makes it sound as if sexual immorality is a special sin that can be made up for by marrying (which it cannot).  My reason for noting it in particular is that i don't have a tremendous desire to marry a couple that i don't think is going to take their vows seriously, and the willingness to engage in sexual activity before marriage is simply the willingness to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage.  If they have that willingness now, will they not have that willingness in the future, and thus be prone to wander (as the old hymn says:)?  And that wandering is among the most destructive of failings (at least as far as its immediately observable effects).

I do agree with you however, that they will likely continue to live in sins of selfishness, etc.  But is that not what fornication is...selfishness?  I reject what God tells me to do my own thing.  In sex, like everything else, it takes a considerable bending of the will to be selfless.

I hope to come back to this after my golf your heart out Adam...because i want to address your second point, and find out your basis for that rule.

Thanks for your're making me think!  I had almost forgotten how much fun it is.

Friday, June 24, 2005 8:24 PM

Adam wrote: 


   I have no problem with you marrying non-believers (and I even think they can be a good picture of Christ and the Church), but I'm not sure I understand why you refuse to hold them to the same standard of behavior that you would a believing couple. Simply because they do not accept the rule of God in their lives does not mean that God doesn't rule over their lives, and certainly his standard for them as individuals is the same as it is for you, be holy as he is holy, so I don't see why his standard for their marriage would be different than his standard for yours, or why it would be blackmail to insist that, if you are to marry them, their present relationship be moral and chaste. It seems meaningless to explain the truth to them, as you propose to do, but then not expect them to do anything about it. In fact, does it not actually weaken the force of the truth you present, because why should they have any respect for something that does not apply to them?

   Surely there must be some point at which you would draw the line, so I am curious to know what that is. Also, I don't quite understand what distinction you are making between your view of marriage and the traditional view. As far as I am aware, marriage understood as vow making is very traditional (otherwise, why are all these vows being made in weddings), so are you arguing for a new concept of marriage, or a new concept of vows, or what?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 2:24 PM

Sam wrote: 

I’m currently developing my view of whom I wouldn’t marry.  My lowest standard would be:  I won’t marry people who have treated their previous marriage covenant(s) shabbily.  Meaning, if a guy divorces his wife after cheating on her and now wants to marry some new young thang, I’ll have to decline to be a part of it.  What I feel is the safest standard is: Any breaking of a previous marriage covenant prevents me from re-marrying them. 


As I was talking with my wife last night, I suggested the following.  The marriage vow is not dependent upon both people keeping it.  I do not escape my vow if my wife breaks hers.  The vow is only ended at death.  This means that a woman whose husband runs off on her and gets re-married, may not marry again.  She must live out her life bereft of the intimate marriage relationship because of her husband’s sinful actions.  This is not fair, of course…but then again, God has never promised us fairness.  (Wow, there are a lot of issues being brought up…maybe I’ll do my PhD on this topic…)  What I need to determine is whether or not God expects this of an individual.  If so, then I’m willing to go with it.


Regarding your belief that an unsaved couple can be a good picture of Christ and the Church…do you really believe that an unsaved man can be said to be a good image of Christ when he is not caring for the spiritual needs of his wife?  I agree that an unsaved man can love his wife, and that an unsaved woman can respect her husband…but the spiritual issue seems to dominate Paul’s thoughts in Ephesians…


Ok, finally, to the issue of chastity before marriage.  Where does the Bible say that a man and woman have to have a chaste relationship in order to be married?  I know that unchastity in the OT was a capital offense, but I think it’s a tough case to make.  Now, certainly, promiscuity is destructive, and may indicate that this fellow and/or girl are not going to take their vows seriously, but are there not other such sins.  In fact, wouldn’t issues of honesty, work ethics, road-rage also indicate that things may not work out.  Do we expect people to be perfect to get married?  I always reserve the right to decline a marriage where I believe one or both of the individuals are not going to seek to uphold their vows.  And I may well counsel a couple to wait or not to marry based on character flaws I see, but I might still marry them if they know what they’re getting into.


I guess it strikes me that works without faith are dead.  Hebrews says that apart from faith we cannot please God.  If a person is unwilling to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ in their lives, and thus come into a saving relationship with God, then what good is it to demand their actions to conform to God’s values in order to marry them?  When I was talking about blackmail, I was primarily intending to say that I don’t want to tell them that they have to convert in order for me to marry them.  If they reject Christ, then my explanation of virtues will seem like foolishness to them, and off they go to the Unitarian pastor.  And if they agree to stop having relations until marriage, and yet they are unconvinced of God’s rule, what good is it?  My grandma would say, “He who is convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”


I want to acknowledge that there may be benefit to them by stopping whatever sexual sin in which they are involved (Proverbs would testify to this), but it sure seems like a little band-aid being put on a gaping wound.


Finally, (I mean it this time), why does the clergy get to determine who gets married and who doesn’t.  Nowhere does God command us to oversee marriages (that I know of), yet we’re practically always present.  Marriage is not the Church saying such and such a couple are married, it is the taking of vows between a man and woman (yes, I’ll vote for the amendment), presumably in front of witnesses…I feel like I have a lot of unanswered questions about marriage…maybe I’ll take a marrying hiatus until I have it figured out.  Fortunately, I don’t have another scheduled until next summer.


Adam, I’m sorry for the rambling response…you brought up a lot of questions, and then I brought up more.  Thanks for your criticism; I miss having you here in person to get things worked out (without public humiliation!).


Tuesday, June 28, 2005 3:05 PM

Brian wrote: 


The marriage vow is dependent on both members keeping it.
You say:

I do not escape my vow if my wife breaks hers.

In Matthew 19:9 Jesus says,

whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery

The sexual immorality is her immorality, and this road goes both ways. So in your example of the husband cheating, his wife is no longer bound by her vow. The marriage covenant (like any covenant) is dependant on both people keeping it.

This isn't to say that honoring one's vows in the face of betrayal is worthless. There is great value and honor given to the Lord when the betrayed spouse forgives and the two are reconciled.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 8:50 AM

Sam wrote: 



Well, two things. 

  1. The rest of the verse says, “and whoever marries her who is put away commits adultery.”  I think we need to deal with this as well.  Is this referring to any woman who is put away, or the woman who is put away because of her immorality?  If we can clearly answer this, then we are most of the way home.
  2. I think you might be confusing the issue by equating the breaking of the vow with the sin of adultery.  Certainly, adultery breaks the vow, but does not end it, or free the adulterer from the responsibility to fulfill it.  The typical vow is to “love, honor, cherish in sickness and in health until death.”  I don’t see how you can stop loving, honoring and cherishing and be said to have kept your vow.  But I have not committed adultery if I stop loving my wife…I’ve committed a different sin altogether.  If a man puts away his wife because of her unfaithfulness and marries another woman, he may not be committing adultery according to Jesus’ statement here in Matthew, but I don’t see how he can be said to be keeping the vow he made.

It seems to me that the marriage covenant is (or should be) unconditional.  There are different covenants, some are conditional, and some are not.  I guess its possible to have your vows stated in a conditional way, “I vow to love and cherish until you’re unfaithful, or I find my real soulmate,” but it seems contrary to the nature of marriage, and especially the love relationship of which it is an image, that of Christ and the Church.  See also our good friend Hosea.

This is off the top of my head…the lower stuff is being used for other things right now…I hope it is coherent.



Wednesday, June 29, 2005 8:11 PM

Jason wrote:  Brothers,

This is a very worthy discussion. I am one of Sam's friends in Chicago (didn't know he had any out here, eh?) and he invited me to partake of the blogging frenzy as I have time. I hope you will welcome my contributing comments at least.

It may be interesting to consider what differences there may be between a contract and a covenant. It seems to me that if marriage is contractual, then the breaking of that agreement by one spouse releases the other from his/her obligations. This type of relationship is very appropriate in a work or ministry environment, or even perhaps for a partnership. The two remain two distinct and unique parties to the contract--and the contract governs the nature of their relationship. When the contract expires--by death or disagreement--the two parties remain entirely themselves, except that they are no longer in a relationship to one another. (sorry to bring up another topic for your PhD, Sam, but it seems to me that "pre-nuptial agreements" presuppose a view of marriage as a contractual agreement.)

In a covenant relationship, on the other hand, there are some profound differences. A covenant requires a witness (or witnesses). At minimum, in a Christian marriage this is God. However, in non-Biblical (I hesitate to use that word very often, but I do think it fits here--I'm not trying to use a power-play) marriage, the witnesses might include family, magistrates, judges, some other god, etc. But among the witnesses there is usually someone representing a higher authority--a church or temple, the state, the nation, the house of lords.

God makes a covenant with Abraham. He swears by Himself (what higher authority would there be?). It is an everlasting covenant. God loves His people. They rebel against Him, commit adultery, slaughter His messengers who are sent to bring the bride back to her Husband. God responds in many ways throughout this history, but He remains faithful to His covenant despite the unfaithfulness of His Bride. An everlasting covenant is obviously intended to be just that--everlasting. Even when one of the two in the relationship breaks all that has been agreed to.

Is marriage then--whether Christian or not--the "cutting" of an everlasting covenant? Is it intended to last forever, or is it just a partnership between two people for a specific time or task? What does it mean that the two become one flesh? That is unique to the marriage relationship. We don't say that about brothers, for example, even if they are the closest of kin. What does this mystery add to our discussion?

Thursday, June 30, 2005 7:00 AM

Brian wrote:  Hello, Jason.
It is delightful to...see a new face around here.
The Abrahamic covenant is unique because the Lord swears by himself rather than because it is a covenant. The Lord makes a unilateral covenant, promising to keep it regardless of how Abrahamor his descendants break it.
Covenants are much like contracts albeit with a "cross my heart, hope to die." Nevertheless a contract is also a binding agreement. The distinction you make between contract and covenant seems to have more to do with the connotations of covenant -since appears in our Bibles - than to do with a difference in meaning between the two words. I don't think the Lord favors the breaking of a contract any more than the breaking of a covenant.
Your point of a pre-nup still stands however. The couple is preparing for a divorce even before they tie the slip-knot. They do not take their marriage vows seriously.

Monday, July 11, 2005 11:16 AM

Jason wrote: 


Thanks for the follow up comment. I'm sorry I wasn't checking this for a little while. I need some clarification. What you wrote seems to suggest that a contract and a covenant are really two words for the same thing. I agree with your defense of contracts, but I do think there is a categorical difference between "acceptable" ways to fulfill a contract and a covenant. That's what I was trying to focus my attention on.

A contract as I understand it typically involves stipulations (written or implied) which limit liability so that one or both parties can acceptably dissolve or fulfill the contract under agreed upon circumstances without any additional guilt or ongoing obligation.

When Jonathan makes a covenant with David, is that really a 'contract' as described above? What makes it different? Perhaps clarifying your position on that would help me understand where you're coming from on this topic.

Thanks for the welcome!

Friday, July 22, 2005 11:10 AM

Brian wrote: 


I agree that a contract usually has an acceptable way to end or fulfill it while a covenant is expected to be forever. Nevertheless, this presents a problem with defining marriage as a covenant.


In 1 Corinthians 7:12, Paul advises a believer not to divorce his or her unbelieving spouse if they will consent to hang around. On the other hand, if the unbelieving spouse leaves, the believer is no longer bound by his or her marriage vows. This means that one person’s marriage vows are only binding while the spouse honors them.


12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.


In Matthew 19:9 Jesus says that the only acceptable cause for divorce is your spouse cheating on you.


And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”


Jesus gave infidelity as the one acceptable cause for divorce, and Paul showed that this “marriage covenant” can cease to be binding on the righteous person. Therefore, I conclude that if your spouse cheats on you, you are no longer bound by your marriage vows.

Login to add comments