by Loren Seibold | 10 May 2022 |
“Where’d you get married?” I asked.
“In Jim’s church,” Terry said. Jim is a Seventh-day Adventist; Terry isn’t. “The Adventist pastor stood up in front with us and preached a sermon,” she said. “But he said he couldn’t marry an Adventist with a non-Adventist so we had to find another pastor who wasn’t a Seventh-day Adventist to pronounce the vows! It was the silliest thing I’ve ever seen. He’d be part of the ceremony, but wouldn’t complete it. That’s one reason,” she said, “that I’ve never joined the Seventh-day Adventist church, even though I like this congregation.”
I, too, once performed a wedding alongside another Seventh-day Adventist pastor who refused, for reasons of conscience, to sign the marriage certificate because the bride and groom weren’t both Seventh-day Adventists. They were both Christian people. He was the groom’s favorite pastor. He preached a lovely, encouraging sermon for them. But he wouldn’t conduct the vows.
It didn’t trouble him that his colleague did it, though.
Our Church Manual says, “The Seventh-day Adventist Church strongly discourages marriage between a Seventh-day Adventist and a non-Seventh-day Adventist (183).”
After many years in Seventh-day Adventist ministry, I understand the reason, I think. While there are many perfectly happy interfaith marriages, there seems a high risk of problems when one of the partners is a Seventh-day Adventist. Perhaps our distinctive beliefs permeate our lives more deeply than others’ do. Maybe our identity as Adventists trumps our other identities, even the family one. We may be too much of a family-oriented subculture to fully accept part-Adventist families.
Or maybe it’s because of how the denomination has framed this issue, planting the seed of pessimism in hopeful couples at the beginning of their life together.
For whatever reason, I’ve found that when half-Adventist marriages are on the rocks, the Adventist half often identifies faith as the reason, even in situations where there are clearly larger personal difficulties. So although I know happy interfaith couples of other faiths, I admit that many Seventh-day Adventists aren’t spiritually strong enough for it.
The Church Manual is more generous than some in the church have been, however:
If an individual does enter into such a marriage, the church is to demonstrate love and concern with the purpose of encouraging the couple toward complete unity in Christ.
OK, so there’s a motive there for our being nice, but I don’t think it is a bad one. I like to see families gathered together in church. Though it does seem to me a bit extreme to equate being members of the same church with “unity in Christ.” (I know way too many couples where both are members of the church, but who aren’t particularly unified. Adventist couples have marriage problems just like everyone else, and I don’t think it’s quite fair to blame their problems on how much they love Jesus.)
But please notice: pastors have a choice. The manual “strongly urges Seventh-day Adventist ministers not to perform such weddings,” but they aren’t forbidden to do it. The manual adds,
if the member chooses a marriage partner who is not a member of the church, the couple will realize and appreciate that the Seventh-day Adventist minister, who has covenanted to uphold the principles outlined above, should not be expected to perform such a marriage.
So “should not be expected”—but it’s not prohibited.
I wouldn’t argue with the Adventist pastor who chooses not to perform an interfaith marriage. He has the Church Manual on his side, not to mention these oft-observed complications of Seventh-day Adventist interfaith marriages. Plus I probably won’t change his mind anyway, if he feels he’s “covenanted” to uphold the Church Manual. So if he can live with the consequences of sending one of his own to another church or to the courthouse, and possibly alienating them from our church altogether, I guess that’s up to him.
But what I do dislike is pastors trying to straddle the middle. Either you support the couple, in which case you take them all the way through, or you keep your “covenant” with the Church Manual, in which case you stay home from the wedding in protest.
But to say, “I’ll bless your marriage with a homily, but it is against my conscience to perform the liturgy” is a little too much sophistry for me. You supported them in one way, but you also insulted them. Since they’re getting married anyway, and you’re there to be part of it, do you really want to leave your stamp of disapproval on this most memorable day of their lives?
For myself, I’m willing to err (if it is an error—I don’t believe it is) on the side of grace. I’ve not seen an engaged couple break off their engagement because the pastor told them he wouldn’t marry them. I think the goal of bringing them together in one faith is better achieved by marrying them, rather than by sending them to the justice of the peace or to some other church to get married.
In my theology, people are more important than the Church Manual. But that’s just me.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today. A version of this piece was published in 2009 on the Spectrum magazine website.