A royal mess: Re-evaluating the church's role in the wedding business

May 11th, 2023

It may be an understatement to say that the church rules about who ministers can and can’t marry have been catastrophically dividing the western church in recent decades. In particular, mainline protestant denominations have had a rough road with these sorts of decisions, and entire denominations as well as local churches have ripped themselves apart. Many are still tragically bleeding out members, finances, public credibility, and leaders over the human sexuality controversies. 

Ironically, even though churches can’t agree on who ministers should be allowed to marry, they all seem to agree without question on one critical sticking point: that clergy-persons should be the officiants, and that the church belongs in the business of solemnizing marriages. And so the debates and divisions continue.

Is anyone researching or challenging the church’s role in the wedding business? What does it actually mean for a clergyperson to be officiant? What is the historical, biblical, legal, and theological significance of this practice?

I have researched answers to these and many other similar questions in my new book How Holy is Matrimony: Rethinking the Church’s Role in the Wedding Business. And the findings may surprise you.

Some people may think that churches and clergy persons are involved in a formal capacity in weddings nowadays because that’s in the Bible somewhere. Except that it isn’t in the Bible anywhere. Of all the dozens of descriptions of weddings in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, there is not one single example of a clergy person even attending a wedding, let alone officiating in some formal capacity. (The one arguable exception could be the wedding at Cana in John 2. But Jesus is attending as guest only, and makes it clear to his mother that he does not want to get involved any further than that.) I’m sure you might be wondering, why isn’t clergy involvement in weddings mentioned at all in the Bible? The reason is that clergy persons, whether Jewish priests or early Christian apostles, pastors, deacons, or bishops simply were not involved in a ministerial capacity at ancient weddings. Biblical roles for clergy mainly focused on worship, prayer, sacrifice, spiritual formation, and the ordering of faith communities. Ancient wedding practice was much different than it is now, rarely centering weddings in official ritual.

From a historical perspective, both the ancient Jewish and early church practice was to celebrate weddings outside the formal influence of religious institutions. Betrothals and wedding feasts were mainly a private family and community affair. If anyone pronounced blessings at the celebrations, it was not a clergy person, but a family member, such as the groom or father of the groom. What a fabulous concept! I wonder how returning to these earlier wedding practices might benefit the church today. For a fascinating detailed review of the history of clergy involvement in wedding practice, see How Holy is Matrimony.

At what point in history, then, did the church begin officially involving clergy persons and church buildings in the wedding business? There are many historical texts that give us clues about this gradual movement from private family weddings to full-blown requirements for officiating priests at weddings. This gradual movement took place throughout the Middle Ages. There were three different councils of the Roman Catholic Church that sealed the deal before the middle of the thirteenth century. These councils officially recognized marriage as a sacrament: the Second Lateran Council in 1139, the Council of Verona in 1184, and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. While for the first few centuries, the church allowed families and couples to largely make their own decisions and arrangements for coupling through private family, community, and state means, everything changed by 1215 CE. After this point in history, when weddings were an official sacrament of the church, only ordained priests could officiate them. And once the Protestant Reformation began splintering, even though many of the Protestant traditions removed marriage as an official sacrament, most still kept the practice of clergy as officiant. They also kept the practice of the use of church buildings and sacred spaces as designated locations for wedding ceremonies. And this practice remains largely unchanged even today.

One tool Methodist ministers in particular hold dear in theological discernment and practice is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The fourfold elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Perhaps the theological involvement and practice of clergy as wedding officiant and the use of sacred spaces should be reviewed once again through the lens of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. If Christian scripture and tradition do not require the involvement of clergy-persons or use of church buildings for Christian weddings, what about the final two elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: reason and experience?

Available from Cokesbury

Looking at the recent divisions over human sexuality, I make a reasonable argument in my new book that this practice has indeed harmed the mission and witness of the western church more than it has benefited her. I also offer a lengthy examination of the experience of grace with this practice. Not only my own personal experience, but that of a culture wildly obsessed with sex. Marriage and romance have become a cultural idol in the United States and has lured the church to worship this idol as well. The fact that the church has vociferously clung to this power and prioritized clergy and church involvement in wedding ceremonies demonstrates the central place of this idol in the Western church. She has fought for blood over the rules that would keep the church and clergy as heavy-handed participants in the wedding business. And the fact that both traditionalists and progressives have been willing to sacrifice and abandon  gospel unity of the church to keep this power, practice, and financial gain of involvement in the wedding business is further evidence of the church’s idol of romance.

What if the church or pastors decided to re-evaluate this ubiquitous practice of clergy and church building involvement in weddings? What if the church radically decided once again to allow families and friends to privately arrange and celebrate their couplings outside the jurisdiction of the church? What if the couples and families followed the laws of the land, like the early Christians did in the Greco-Roman world, and registered their own marriages with the state? Does the Christian minister need to necessarily collect compensation to be an agent of the state for Christians to marry in the United States? For a fuller discussion and exploration, please see the recently released book How Holy is Matrimony: Rethinking the Church’s Role in the Wedding Business and part II of this article, “What is the Appropriate Path Forward for Churches, Clergy, and Denominations and the Wedding Business?”

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