This is the third installment of a multi-part series addressing why churches need to consider updating their organizational documents. The series is written in conjunction with Evan Lenow. This post is Part 3. For the first two parts, “There’s No Time…” and “We Believe…” see here. Disclaimer: This series of posts is not intended to provide legal advice regarding church law, membership issues, or lawsuits. While the posts have implications for potential legal matters, we suggest you consult an attorney for answers to any legal questions related to the subject matter of these posts.
Churches long have understood that not everything that is legal is acceptable in Scriptures or in the church. (e.g., see Exodus 20:7-12; Ephesians 4:25-31) Though adultery is legal in America today, few churches openly tolerate it among its membership.
American legislation long since left the Ten Commandments behind. Of the ten, one is selectively enforced—bearing false witness—and only two are normally illegal—stealing and murder.
The time has passed in which the church could assume that everyone in a community would understand, much less accept, its standards. The time is now for churches to spell out their beliefs and how those beliefs apply to the life and standards of the church clearly in by-laws and policies. And establishing current policies on weddings and wedding-related events is an important place to start.
In its wedding policies, we believe each church should speak to, at least, the following five areas:
1. Biblical and Theological Understanding of Marriage
2. Biblically Valid Marriage/Wedding
3. Member/Minister Participation in Weddings
4. Use of Church Facilities for Weddings and Wedding Receptions
5. Church Discipline
In this series, the second post laid foundations for areas 1 and 2. This post will address areas 2 and 3, and subsequent posts will provide help with areas 4 and 5.
Upon two keys hinge the entire wedding policies of the church. The first key is to what degree pastors, employees, and members of a church may participate in weddings, particularly in weddings the church considers to be outside the realm of biblically valid marriage. The second key is to what degree church facilities may be used to host or in connection with weddings. In this post, we will focus upon the first key.
Churches generally have given pastors great latitude in deciding which weddings to perform and under what circumstances. While that has worked well in the past, we believe that this is becoming a dangerous practice for churches for at least two reasons. First, the church should protect the pastor who should not be left out on an island of shifting cultural and legal sands. Having clear statements and standards tightly affixed to God’s Word allows the church to take pressure off and to stand beside the pastor. Second, as churches come under review of the courts, inconsistency in the treatment of requests might make it more difficult for churches to defend denials.
Weddings, for Christians, are worship services. Even for the non-Christian, a wedding in the church has all the earmarks of a worship service: prayer, Scripture, music, sermon/homily, and commitment, everything but an offering.
Therefore, we believe wedding policies, at a minimum, should answer the following questions related to prerequisites for a pastor, employee, or church member may participate in a wedding ceremony or related event:
1. What biblical qualifications must the couple meet?
2. What biblical standards of decorum and behavior must be accepted by those responsible for the wedding and whether those standards apply to any wedding-related reception or party, wherever those events are held?
3. To what set of biblical beliefs regarding marriage must those requesting a ceremony adhere?
Marriage by or in the church should demand appropriate humility by the couple and deference to the holiness of matrimony as an institution established and defined by God. In setting qualifications for couples, the church should point directly to its statement on marriage, gender, and sexuality in its constitution and by-laws. Here the church would confirm that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. As can be stated in the by-laws and affirmed here, a biblically valid marriage is one between one man and one woman who: 1) have never been married or are widowed and are not engaging in sexual sin; or 2) who have a biblically valid divorce(s) according to the church’s understanding of the Scriptures as stated in its by-laws. A couple engaging in fornication or living together would be required to repent and to show evidence of repentance prior to the wedding.
People attending events in the church facilities will receive a witness from the event. In fact, people who attend a church wedding can consider a reception/”after party” held elsewhere to be representative of the church. The church should protect its witness by establishing parameters of decorum both for the wedding and for any wedding-related events (rehearsals, rehearsal dinner, reception, even “bachelor parties”). These parameters include the sorts of decorations that can be used (Are cupid decorations consistent with the church’s witness?), the behavior of the wedding party (What if the wedding party comes down the aisle doing backflips? Have you seen the video? Or drunk?), the use of alcohol or marijuana or other drugs, dancing, music (Usually music must be approved by a pastor or designated member of the church.), etc. Churches might differ on some matters, but all churches should think on and state what a wedding is and is not.
Statement of Beliefs
The church should develop an abbreviated statement on marriage and weddings that comes directly from and refers to its larger statement. This statement should include key affirmations about marriage and the wedding, including, but not limited to, that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, that a wedding is a worship service, and that a church wedding gives a witness of the church to the community. The statement also should include statements on gender, sexuality, and other beliefs of the church on matters the church deems important to its witness (e.g., the use of alcohol, lewd behavior, coarse jesting and language, etc.). All involved in putting on the wedding should sign that they will adhere to the statement and will do nothing to change the church’s testimony in the community in this regard. (Note that “adhering” to a statement does not require “agreement” with the statement, necessarily.)
The church also should develop a facilities use policy, and we will address that in the next post.