Churches, Pastors, Marriage and Bylaws—Oh, My

The Huffington Post recently published a story on conservative Christian churches that are enacting bylaw changes to guard themselves from possible lawsuits when they turn away same sex couples who wish to be married. [“DOMA, Gay Marriage Rulings Prompt Churches To Change Bylaws,” 8/24/13] These kinds of stories have been floating around for a while: the concern that the denial of marriage to some people will invite legal action.

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, or perhaps sharing a secret that I should be keeping to myself, but I deny weddings to couples on a regular basis at Old South. So far, even though gay marriage is now legal in Maine, I haven’t—at least not knowingly—denied a wedding to a gay couple. But, I have denied plenty of others.

So, what are the reasons why I’ve turned away couples wishing to tie the knot at my church?

1. Not enough notice. Sometimes people call me when their anticipated wedding date is only a week or two away. Sorry. No can do. I am not a justice of the peace. I don’t work at a Las Vegas wedding chapel. I’m a pastor of a Christian church. I require plenty of notice, mostly because I require pre-marital counseling—and, that brings me to the next reason.
2. Premarital counseling. I require it and some couples don’t want to do it. True, most couples live together before they get married. But, it turns out, living together doesn’t actually mean that couples have discussed all of the important things that come with marriage. Do they plan to have children? How many? How will they take care of those children? And, one of the most important questions that many couples have never talked about: what happens if one of them is offered a fabulous job opportunity that requires a move?
3. Church rental. Sometimes a couple, especially if they live in the same small city where Old South is located, just like the look of the church and think that it would be a great place to get married. I get calls that pose the question, “Is it possible to rent the church for our wedding?” And, then the pause and the following question, “And I’d like to have my Uncle So-and-So do the wedding.” No. You can’t “rent” the church without “renting” me. The sanctuary is not a rental hall.
4. Religious stuff. There are some phone calls that get through a lot of the preliminaries before they ask the question about religion. This question usually involves a lot of hemming and hawing, but basically comes down to this: “Can we have our wedding at your church and have you not mention God?” The answer: No.

I turn people away on a regular basis. I suspect that at some point I may also end up saying no to gay couples too. But, not because I have a problem with gay marriage. I don’t. Just like the heterosexual couples that I marry, homosexual couples will need to follow my rules too.

The rules that I’ve set are not meant to give people a hard time—just because. My intention is to set a tone, to honor the worship space, and to preserve its dignity and significance. The rules are set to create an atmosphere that reminds everyone that marriage is sacred and holy. It’s not just about the dress, or the photographs or the great party. It’s about the most important day in a couple’s life, when they make promises that are hard to keep, and when they embark on a journey together that creates a new family, a place of companionship, support, encouragement, and love—a place where each of them has the possibility of becoming more fully themselves than they could by living alone or outside of those deep and abiding promises.

My approach, and my rules, may be “old fashioned,” but I’m sticking to them—because that’s part of what I am called to do as a Christian pastor.

I think those churches that are enacting bylaw changes just to spell out clearly and defiantly that the Bible teaches that a marriage can only be between one man and one woman are not really doing themselves any favors. Although I completely disagree with their interpretation of scripture, I believe all churches have not only the right, but the responsibility, to conduct weddings in accordance with their faith and understanding of God’s wishes. The bylaws of those churches likely already articulate who they are and the understanding of their mission. To change bylaws simply because they are afraid of possible civil rights lawsuits is a sad commentary. If those churches spell out marriage as between one man and one woman, perhaps they also spell out that marriage may not be the ideal state for followers of Christ, in accordance with the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7?

Churches, and their pastors, should not be driven by fear—of anything. They should live their faith, in love and in hope, in accordance to how the Spirit speaks to them.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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