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Adventists and Interfaith Weddings

“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. We had to find another, non-Adventist pastor 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, although I love 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 the ministry, I can’t disagree with the basic principle. I don’t know enough to say that all interfaith marriages are troubled, but there seem to be significant risks 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. Or, we may be too much of a family-oriented subculture to fully accept part-Adventist families.

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 some happy interfaith couples of other faiths, I agree with our church manual that we Seventh-day Adventists are not especially well equipped for interfaith marriage.

However, the church manual is a bit more generous than some of our churches have been, at least in the past: “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 in church, none missing.

Pastors, apparently, have a choice. The manual “strongly urges Seventh-day Adventist ministers not to perform such weddings,” but they aren’t prohibited. The manual adds, reasonably, “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.”

I would never argue with the Adventist pastor who chooses not to perform an interfaith marriage. He has the church manual and some oft-observed complications of Seventh-day Adventist interfaith marriages on his side, and if he can live with the consequences of sending one of his own to another church or even to the justice of the peace, and possibly alienating them from the church altogether, that’s up to him.

What I don’t like is the attempt to straddle the difference. Either you support the couple, in which case you take them all the way through, or you don’t support it, in which case you stand aside. 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 casuistry 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) 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 our faith is better achieved by marrying them, rather than by sending them to some other church to get married.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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