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“Unequally Yoked”—One Pastor’s Perspective


An article posted on the Spectrum website on June 20, 2023, grabbed my attention because it candidly addressed an issue I’ve wrestled with for my entire ministry—marriage between an Adventist and a Christian of another denomination. The Spectrum article’s writer addressed the subject from the perspective of a single, professional, Adventist woman. By contrast, I’ve wrestled with it from the perspective of an Adventist pastor who has often been asked to officiate at such weddings.

The article, “Unequally Yoked: Bad Adventist Theology Is Burdening a Generation of Single Women” written by Shade Henry-Thompson raised important points that too often have been ignored or quickly swept under the carpet without being adequately addressed. I commend her candor. As I chime in with my pastoral perspective, which I believe is complementary to hers, let me share a brief story.

During the summer after I graduated from high school (1970), I worked in Northeast Missouri as a student literature evangelist. In other words, I was a youthful door-to-door seller of Seventh-day Adventist books—first and foremost, Arthur S. Maxwell’s 10-volume set of The Bible Story.

When potential customers showed no interest in my wares, or showed interest but didn’t buy despite having been subjected to all my powers of persuasion, I would graciously thank them, then ask if I could offer a prayer before leaving. Some people declined my offer. Others said, “Sure. Why not?” Still others expressed appreciation.

However, one woman—who was a member of a Christian sect with exceptionally strong feelings about all other denominations—quickly responded that she couldn’t stop me from praying if I was bound and determined to do so. But because I wasn’t a member of the “true church,” she wouldn’t be able to show any respect for my prayer, such as bowing her head. The reason, she explained, was that the prayer of the heathen is an abomination to God. And she wasn’t about to contribute to an abomination. Needless to say, I didn’t pray.

But being a relatively normal, red-blooded Christian, I didn’t take well to the woman’s certainty that I was so far removed from God that any prayer coming from my lips would be an abomination. It was a memorable, eye-opening experience. But not as eye-opening as it should have been.

Despite my having experienced the sting of such pointed and personal spiritual denigration, I did something not altogether different when early in my ministry a young Adventist introduced me to her fiancé and asked if I would officiate at her wedding. Although her fiancé had from early childhood been active in another Christian denomination, in the eyes of most people in our Adventist subculture, he still qualified as an “unbeliever.” Certainly too far from the kingdom of God to be united in marriage with one of our own.

Both the young Adventist and the non-Adventist were taken aback when I carefully, kindly, gently, lovingly (or so I tried to convince myself) explained that our denomination prohibited its ministers from officiating at weddings between Adventists and those of other Christian denominations. Nor were Adventist churches to be used for the ceremony if the couple seeking marriage were “unequally yoked.” And I provided the biblical chapter and verse on which we based our condemnation of such marriages.

Not surprisingly, the God-fearing, baptized-by-immersion, deeply committed Christian groom-to-be didn’t take well to the discovery that Adventists considered him an unbeliever. He responded to the news much as I had responded to being called a heathen a few years earlier. Suggesting a committed Christian is an unbeliever doesn’t create good public relations among our fellow Christians.

Of course, the couple went ahead and got married. Because, despite objections from a minister, the overwhelming majority of such couples do get married—granted that they’ve already fallen in love, have already become engaged, are already planning their wedding and, as a last step, are seeking a minister to officiate.

In the case of already-engaged denominationally mixed couples, the pertinent question isn’t whether the couple will get married. We might as well assume they will. It’s a near certainty. The question is whether or not the marriage will be solemnized by an Adventist minister, conducted in an Adventist church and handled in such a manner that the non-Adventist spouse will have really good feelings about the Seventh-day Adventist Church instead of bitterness from having been weighed and found so spiritually wanting that the Adventist Church has declared its churches off limits as a wedding venue and refuses to provide a marriage celebrant.

Note the following from the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Manual for Ministers, 1977 edition, from which I took my early cues:

“Ministers should not perform the marriage ceremony of believers with unbelievers, because this is expressly contrary to the teaching of the church.” Although the term unbeliever was not clearly defined in the Manual for Ministers, traditional Adventist practice left no question but what those from all other Christian denominations were in the forbidden zone when it came to seeking an acceptable spouse for an Adventist.

The prohibition seems straightforward. But the stance of the Seventh-day Adventist Church concerning other Christians is more ambiguous. You see, the General Conference Working Policy proclaims: “We recognize those agencies that lift up Christ before men as a part of the divine plan for evangelization of the world, and we hold in high esteem Christian men and women in other communions who are engaged in winning souls to Christ.”

To non-Adventists, that official policy statement, in isolation, probably sounds quite inviting. Until they encounter the reality, which is likely to happen if someone from one of “those agencies that uplift Christ” seeks to marry a Seventh-day Adventist. Then the non-Adventist discovers that many, if not most Adventists don’t truly view Christians from other denominations as “part of the divine plan for evangelization of the world.” Rather, they’re viewed as unbelievers. Emissaries of Babylon. Prime candidates to receive the mark of the beast.

Granted that being unequally yoked “is expressly contrary to the teaching of the church,” one would expect there might be some form of discipline taken against any Adventist who ignores such a clearcut teaching. But other than perhaps a bit of tongue-wagging, I’ve never heard of any violator of this teaching being censured.

I’ve never heard of an unequally yoked Adventist not being allowed to sing in the church choir or play the organ or teach in the children’s Sabbath School. By contrast, I’ve often heard, especially a few decades ago in the United States, of Adventists being deprived of such roles because they wore a wedding ring, whether it was given by an unequally yoked spouse or an equally yoked spouse. And I’m aware of other infractions that have led to varying degrees of punitive response. But marrying outside the church isn’t one of them, at least not that I’ve encountered.

Granted the high esteem in which our church holds those Christians who “lift up Christ,” and granted that we don’t inflict punitive measures on those who marry outside the denomination, granted that the overwhelming majority of already-engaged couples who come to a minister to discuss the wedding are going to get married whatever the minister has to say, and granted the negative impact of labeling fellow Christians as unbelievers, I’ve officiated over many years at quite a few marriages between Adventists and non-Adventists.

By the early 1990s the wording in the updated Manual for Ministers had morphed from “Adventist ministers should not perform the marriage ceremony of Adventists with non-Adventists” to “the Seventh-day Adventist Church strongly discourages marriage between a Seventh-day Adventist and a non-Seventh-day Adventist, and strongly urges Seventh-day Adventist ministers not to perform such weddings.”

Although on numerous occasions I may seem to have ignored both versions of the foregoing prohibition/recommendation, I did so because I felt the statement in the General Conference Working Policy more appropriately described the ideal than did either statement in the Manual for Ministers. I’ve officiated at such weddings because I felt it was not only the Golden Rule thing to do but also the evangelistic thing to do. But I‘ve never done it indifferently or casually.

As would be the case with most pastors, my agreement to officiate at a wedding comes with a premarital-counseling requirement. And a significant portion of my counseling addresses human differences. We’re not all wired the same. We have different life experiences and life expectations. We have varied personalities. We view life through different lenses. Such differences need to be taken into account as a couple creates the corporation-of-two that we call marriage. Certainly, religious differences can create some of the greatest tensions. And religious differences aren’t limited to the denominational labels we wear. They can exist within a denomination (and they often do) as well as between denominations.

Usually, the interdenominational couple aren’t religious dogmatists or zealots. They tend to be open-minded and/or have a laid-back attitude about religion—about both theirs and that of their intended partner. The outlook of both parties may be one of live and let live. So they may be oblivious to some of the tensions that may arise down the line.

Even a laid-back couple may harbor deeply buried beliefs that can at some point rise to the surface. And there are few situations that awaken such beliefs as quickly and as resolutely as having a child. Easy-going people can suddenly become intense when a beautiful baby enters the picture. So let’s just look at just one area of potential mixed-denomination marital conflict: baptism.

For the Adventist partner in this duo, there’s no urgent issue regarding baptism. The child will decide whether or not to be baptized at some point several years in the future. But the once-laid-back non-Adventist spouse may suddenly go through a spiritual panic with the arrival of the baby. Having grown up with the belief that a baby’s eternal destiny may be in question if the infant isn’t baptized, there may be an amazing level of angst that the Adventist simply doesn’t understand. But the non-Adventist does. And it’s very real. And what parent wants to risk consigning an innocent newborn to hell simply because of not having provided the rite of baptism.

Baptism is but one of many potential friction points that can come to light with the arrival of a newborn or in the wake of some other life-impacting event. A mixed-denomination couple who have coasted along with scarcely a tense moment for years may suddenly find themselves facing a level of religious tension they would never have dreamed possible. Of course, other potential friction areas may be apparent from the outset—such as the Sabbath, and where and how to worship and a long list of denomination-based prescriptions and proscriptions.

The potential for friction in mixed-denomination couples may seem obvious to many. What may often be less obvious is the potential friction between partners from the same denomination. Friction can be there for an array of reasons: What constitutes appropriate Sabbath observance? What dietary patterns will be followed? Should the children be sent to an Adventist school, or might a public school be the better option in certain situations? Is mass distribution of the book The Great Controversy a source of religious pride or a cause for cringeworthy embarrassment? What’s a reasonable amount of time, talent and treasure to commit to the church and its many ministries? How much decision-making about spiritual life should be determined by the individual believer and how much should be dictated by the church hierarchy? The list of such potential friction points in marriage is long. In any marriage.

I would argue that the most accurate indicator of potential religious stress within a marriage is whether one—or both—of the parties in the union is a zealot/dogmatist. If one partner has an unbending personality and rigid worldview, and the other doesn’t, the more submissive person may find little warmth, joy and fulfillment in either the marriage or the religion. On the other hand, if both partners are dogmatists—let alone dogmatists-on-steroids—we’d better hope their dogmatism is about the same issues and pointed in the same direction. Otherwise it’s guaranteed not to be a pretty picture. The simple fact is, religion can be a strongly unifying force or a highly divisive force within any marriage. And that fact needs to be highlighted in all premarital counseling.

One of the points I emphasize when doing premarital counseling for mixed-denomination couples is that it is inappropriate for the Adventist to harbor assumptions—either stated or unstated—that the non-Adventist will eventually become an Adventist. An Adventist who marries a non-Adventist should enter the relationship fully prepared for the spouse to never switch denominations.

Likewise, a non-Adventist marrying an Adventist should not sign on to the relationship with expectations that eventually the spouse will abandon the Adventist faith. Marriage is for better or for worse. And if the status quo entered into at the time of the marriage isn’t perceived as acceptable long-term, then it should be viewed as unacceptable even in the short term. In other words, it should be a deal-breaker, and the couple shouldn’t marry.

In premarital counseling, the foregoing issues and much more can be addressed comprehensively and in a friendly, caring, loving, nonjudgmental, friendship-building manner. Such issues are facts of life. Good people have differing perspectives. And couples need to be aware of the kinds of differences that exist already or may arise, so they won’t be blindsided. Addressing such issues not only ensures that the couple is better equipped to deal with them, but it also helps to make both spouses feel more comfortable seeking additional input if down the line such issues do indeed arise.

In summary, I see two realistic options: A pastor can declare interdenominational marriage unacceptable—in all likelihood meaning the couple will receive little or no premarital counseling concerning the role religious differences may play in married life. Or a pastor can be supportive but candid, spending numerous sessions in premarital counseling to help the couple understand the challenges they may face. The pastor can use that time to build a base of personal friendship with the couple—and in so doing help to bond the couple to both the Adventist congregation and the Adventist denomination. Friendship evangelism, we might call it.

Certainly, interdenominational marriage adds unique wrinkles and challenges. But I’m convinced those challenges are best addressed in a friendly, caring, supportive, accepting environment rather than in telling the couple that the Adventist Church so strongly disapproves of their relationship that Adventist clergy should not be involved in any way that might be construed as support for what the church has officially stated or implied is an unbiblical union.

James Coffin spent 36 years as a pastor and editor in both the United States and Australia. After retirement from denominational employment, he served for 11 years as the executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

Title image by Matteo Raw on Unsplash.

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