When should a pastor say "no" to officiating a wedding...

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Under the post, "Dealing with sexual predators; objections answered...," one reader asked: "Tim, if you won't marry someone who doesn't intend to have children, how do you deal with 1Corinthians 7:9?"

But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Here's my response...

Marriage is an institution created by God and is to fulfill the purposes for which He created it. As the Westminster Standards put it, they are three: 

  1. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife;
  2. for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed;
  3. and for preventing of uncleanness.

Where the couple intending marriage also intends not to fulfill these purposes, the marriage is in rebellion against God. How any couple may fulfill these purposes, how often, and in what way is another question, but that the couple is embracing these God-ordained purposes is necessary for the marriage to honor God.

So no, marriage simply for the preventing of uncleanness while being opposed to mutual help and the increase of the Church with a holy seed is not a Biblical marriage. Marriage simply for the purpose of the increase of the Church with a holy seed while being opposed to mutual help and the preventing of uncleanness is not a Biblical marriage. Marriage simply for the increase of mutual help while being opposed to the increase of the Church with a holy seed and the prevention of uncleanness is not a Biblical marriage.

Move from intent to ability and things get more complicated. Is there a difference between impotence that's the result of prostate treatment and impotence that's the result of a thoroughgoing homosexual inclination that is so awful that there's no libido towards the opposite sex? Is there a difference between a couple that decides they both want to keep their careers and don't want children and an elderly couple who can't have children? Is there a difference between a couple where one of the people is unable to have desire for intercourse and tells the other person prior to marriage and where he or she waits until after the marriage to tell the other person?

The questions and details giving rise to the questions are endless, and many of these we run into in pastoral ministry. I can't take the time to engage in an online exchange on moral theology and its application to the decision to or not to officiate a marriage ceremony, but a couple other things are worth saying.

First, in connection with the details of these matters, always keep in mind that part of the DNA of our decadent age is our morbid habit of sacrificing the normal (God's purposes) on the altar of the abnormal. Which is to say, the exception does not disprove the rule.

Second, today we never have to argue that marriage's purposes of mutual help or the prevention of uncleanness need to be restored. Rather it's the purpose Margaret Sanger attacked that has died in the Church today. And in that connection, the Church across history has never seen the prevention of the procreative purpose of the marriage bed as anything but sin. (Until around 1950, that is, when Margaret Sanger's long and heroic campaign to get birth control to be legalized in these United States finally succeeded and the U.S. Supreme Court issued its rulings throwing out all the laws prohibiting birth control. Just like Roe. v. Wade in 1973.) And this opposition by the Church was most definitely not a Roman Catholic vs. Protestant thing. There is a great need today for Christians to be called again to submit ourselves to God's commands that we propagate a godly seed, be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. Children are not a choice but a blessing from the Lord and happy is the man whose quiver is full.

Sure, to restore the beauty of fruitfulness to the marriage bed makes our idolatry of education in the Reformed church more difficult, but what is an education, anyhow? Is it degrees? You remember Mark Twain warned against parents allowing schooling to get in the way of our children's education. Have all previous generations of Reformed men and women lacked self-actualization or self-awareness or meaningful existence because they didn't have a university diploma? Because they didn't know Latin? Because they never got to hear Tony Campolo or Rob Bell or Carolyn Custis James (Covenant College) preach in the chapel?

Finally, in the polity of Reformed churches, the elders have authority over when the sacraments will be administered, and to whom, as the pastor has authority over when he will officiate a wedding and for whom. This is not to say elders may not be consulted and sometimes rule on weddings, nor that pastors are not required to administer the sacraments. I'm speaking of the norm and pointing out that, generally speaking, in our polity the sacraments are the turf of the elders and presiding over wedding ceremonies is the turf of the pastor. Across the years I've had to make many decisions about whether or not I would agree to officiate a whole host of marriages with a whole host of details that called a particular intended marriage into question, and in that regard it's always been helpful to me to remember that the PC(USA) constitution said "if a pastor is convinced the blessing of God will not rest on a marriage, he shall not perform that marriage ceremony."

This may seem a low hurdle to those who haven't thought about it, but really it is a very high hurdle. We must be convinced that God is opposed to a marriage if we decline to officiate a marriage ceremony. It cannot simply be our discomfort with the wedding's circumstances or our concerns for the match of personalities. Rather, it must be something on the order of the man or woman repudiating the Order of Creation of Adam and Eve and refusing to allow the word 'obey' in the bride's vow, the bride and groom being the same sex, the man or woman not wanting children and intending to use birth control to prevent the marriage bed from being fruitful, or one of the parties being a confessing Christian and the other not.

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There's much on Baylyblog about marital fruitfulness, but those disinclined to do the work might start here:

Clement of Alexandria:
Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted.

Marital relations even with a lawful wife, are unlawful and degrading when the conception of a child is deliberately frustrated. This was the sin of Onan, and God struck him dead because of it.

Relations with one's wife, when conception is deliberately prevented, are as unlawful and impure as the conduct of Onan who was slain.

Next to murder, by which an actually existent human being is destroyed, we rank this sin by which the generation of a human being is prevented.

Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. . . . We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.

John Calvin:
Besides, he [Onan] not only defrauded his brother of the right due him, but also preferred his semen to putrify on the ground, rather than to beget a son in his brother’s name. The voluntary spilling of semen outside intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!