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When to attend a wedding

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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I wrote a Daily Article on July 12, 2017 on this question: Should a Christian attend a same-sex wedding? My article elicited a wide range of responses. All were gracious; most readers agreed with the position I suggested.

However, some took different positions and several asked about the larger issues involved with wedding attendance. What about a Christian marrying a non-Christian? What if the marrying couple is living together before their wedding? What if either person has been divorced? If we don’t attend the wedding, how can we minister to the couple?

These issues are too involved to be addressed fully in a Daily Article, so I’ve written this white paper in hopes of providing guidelines. Let’s begin with some biblical context.

Christians marrying non-Christians

Deuteronomy 7:4 prohibited the Jews from marrying members of various Canaanite nations. Upon their return from Babylon, Nehemiah further prohibited the people from marrying Gentiles (Nehemiah 13:23–30). Gentiles could marry Jews only if they converted to Judaism. As a result, the question of intermarriage outside the Jewish faith was not a practical issue during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

This issue arose, however, when the Christian movement expanded into the larger Gentile world. In Corinth, a city notorious for its immoral culture, the question of Christians marrying non-Christians rose to such a level that Paul warned the Corinthians, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

His metaphor has applications outside marriage, but most commentators believe that it applies to the question of Christians marrying nonbelievers. We know that such marriages existed in Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:12–16). A Christian who was married to a non-Christian should not divorce her if she were willing to live with him. However, he was not so obligated if the non-Christian left the marriage.

In summary, Paul clearly discouraged Christians from choosing to marry non-believers.

Sex before marriage

God intends sex as a beautiful expression of the marriage covenant (cf. Genesis 1:28 and numerous passages in the Song of Solomon). However, his word reserves sex only for marriage. Other sexual activity is considered immoral (1 Corinthians 7:2; Hebrews 13:4).

While cohabitation is more common than ever, such arrangements are inconsistent with God’s intention for the marriage covenant.

The issue of divorce

God says, “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16, NASB). However, I believe that his word offers three exceptions.

Adultery

Jesus’ teaching on this issue was clear: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). “Sexual immorality” refers to adultery, sexual relations between a person and someone who is not their spouse. Such an act breaks the marriage union, rendering it null and void.

Divorcing a woman for any other reason “makes her commit adultery” since she will need to remarry to support herself but is still married to her husband in the eyes of God. “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” as well.

Abandonment

In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul focuses on a marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian with this injunction: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” If the nonbeliever abandons the marriage, the believer is innocent.

Abuse

Physical, emotional, and verbal abuse are epidemic in marriages today. While the Bible nowhere addresses abuse with regard to divorce, I believe we can draw two conclusions from biblical truth.

First, abuse is always wrong: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Wives are to just as loving, supportive, and sacrificial with their husbands (Eph. 5:22–24).

Second, life must be protected: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). You must protect yourself and your children from abuse.

As a result, biblical counselors recommend that an abused person separate from the spouse immediately. Get yourself and your children to safety. Seek intensive counseling. But don’t give up—God can heal any marriage if both partners surrender fully to him. I’ve seen abusers repent and be restored. Consider divorce only as the lesser of two evils in order to protect the abused, and only if there are no other options.

As I understand Scripture, these are the conditions under which divorce is permissible biblically: adultery, abandonment and abuse. Note that the Bible does not prescribe divorce even in these painful circumstances, but only permits it.

If you’ve been divorced

What if you’ve already experienced divorce as a result of adultery, abandonment, or abuse? You are the innocent party. You will need counseling, healing, and help. But you must reject the guilt you may feel and move forward into God’s grace and hope.

What if your divorce was not for biblical reasons? Here I must speak very carefully. I want to do nothing which will encourage someone considering a divorce to do so. The consequences of divorce are very real, and those who have experienced them know their pain better than anyone else.

But at the same time, know that divorce is not the “unpardonable sin.” God can forgive any person who repents and returns to his word and will. Scripture is clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). “All” includes divorce.

God wants to help you and heal you. He plans to prosper you and not harm you, to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). The Bible is clear: “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion” (Isaiah 30:18 NIV). God grieves with you, cries with you, walks with you, and accepts and loves you just as you are, right now.

As I understand Scripture, remarriage is a biblical option for you. With counsel and help, restoration and healing, I believe God can lead you into another marriage. In the churches I pastored, every ministry of the church was open to those who had experienced divorce. There were those among our ministry staff, our deacons, Sunday school teachers and choir members who had experienced the pain of divorce. And God used them in wonderful ways.

Billy Graham said, “I am opposed to divorce and regard the increase in divorces today as one of the most alarming problems in society. However, I know that the Lord can forgive and heal.”

I readily admit that many Bible-believing Christians will disagree with me on this issue. Some believe that a non-biblical divorce exempts a person from remarriage. Others believe that the biblical prohibitions against divorce are less relevant in today’s pluralistic society. I can only state my understanding of Scripture while recognizing that others view God’s word on this issue differently.

Same-sex weddings

In my Daily Article for July 12, 2017, I addressed the subject of same-sex weddings. There I offered four biblical facts which I will reproduce here:

One: Scripture forbids same-sex sexual relations. I have written extensively on this issue (see my How to Defend Biblical Marriage, for example). A same-sex marriage contradicts God’s intention for us.

Two: God created and defined marriage. In his view, marriage is only between a man and a woman (cf. Genesis 1:28; Jeremiah 29:6; Matthew 19:4–5; 1 Corinthians 7:14). Therefore, a same-sex “marriage” is not a biblical marriage.

(Some claim that God’s word doesn’t address this subject, alleging that such marriages did not exist in the biblical era. This is not true. Same-sex relations were known in ancient Canaan; the emperor Nero was married to two men in separate ceremonies. Biblical writers had abundant opportunity to endorse such relationships, but they consistently forbade them.)

Three: We should not endorse what the Bible prohibits. Paul refused to engage in behavior that would make his brother “stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Our witness is vital to our public ministry as followers of Jesus.

Four: God loves gay people and calls us to do the same. We are all broken by sin (Romans 3:23). Jesus died for all sinners (Romans 5:8) and loves us unconditionally (John 3:16). Now we are to love others because “he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Foundational principles

In light of the biblical discussion above, it is clear that the Lord’s perfect will for marriage is a man and woman who are virgins and enter into a lifelong covenant of marriage. If you are invited to attend the wedding of two non-believers, or a Christian and a non-Christian, or a cohabitating couple, or a same-sex couple, what should you do?

Let’s begin by acknowledging that we are asking questions the Bible does not address specifically. Apart from Jesus’ ministry to the wedding in Cana (John 2) and references to weddings as metaphors for our relationship with Jesus (cf. Matthew 25:1–12; Revelation 19:6–10), the New Testament does not speak directly to the wedding ceremony itself. Nor do we find specific principles regarding which weddings we should attend.

As a result, we must apply biblical principles to this issue. Sincere Christians are likely to disagree on such applications. I offer the following as guidelines while encouraging you to seek and follow the Lord’s leadership in your life.

One: God forgives all that we confess to him.

His word repeatedly assures us that his forgiveness is absolute (1 John 1:9) as he separates our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), casts it “into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19), and remembers it no more (Isaiah 43:25). Whether the issue involves marriage to a non-Christian, unbiblical divorce, sex before marriage, or same-sex activity, his grace is greater than our sins.

Two: He can forgive only what we confess.

God’s forgiveness is conditional in only one way: we must first admit our sins to him in a spirit of repentance (Acts 3:19; 2 Corinthians 7:10). Just as Jesus called the Samaritan woman to repentance (John 4), so he calls us to repent of our sins and turn to him for his forgiving grace. When we do, he will always forgive us and restore us to himself.

Three: Our ministry to people is our highest Kingdom priority.

Souls are eternal. Millennia after a wedding has been forgotten, those who participated in it and attended its celebration will be either with the Lord or separated from him. Thus, our decision regarding whether to attend a wedding should be motivated by what actions will best enable us to minister to those involved.

Four: Our public witness is vital to our Kingdom service.

If people know that we follow Jesus, they will interpret our actions in light of our faith. Everywhere we go and everything we do is a Kingdom matter. The culture judges Christ by Christians.

Practical principles

How do these principles relate to issues regarding wedding attendance? The following suggestions comprise my view on the subject; I expect some sincere believers to have different views.

One: If a Christian couple has engaged in non-biblical activity prior to their wedding (living together or a nonbiblical divorce, for instance) but has repented and sought God’s forgiveness, I would attend their wedding. Even though their repentance may not be known to others and my attendance might be interpreted as endorsing their previous sins, I would give higher priority to the couple and my ministry with them than I would to avoiding being misunderstood by others.

Two: If a Christian couple has not been repentant, I would not attend their wedding. I would explain to them that I do not believe God can bless their union and would not want to encourage it by my attendance. I would do everything possible to assure them of my love for them and explain that I intend only what is best for them.

Three: If the couple are not Christians, I would decide whether to attend their wedding based on my relationship with them. If I could explain my absence in a way that would not jeopardize my future ministry to them, I would avoid the wedding lest I imply an endorsement of their previous sins. If I believe that this decision would endanger my ability to minister to them, however, I would place the highest priority on their eternal salvation and would therefore attend the wedding.

I would make an exception for a same-sex wedding, however, for reasons discussed next.

Four: If the wedding is between a same-sex couple, they are obviously not repentant. Therefore, I could not attend their wedding. As I noted in my July 12 Daily Article,

“I would meet with the couple beforehand to explain: because I care for them, I cannot endorse what I believe is not best for them. I will pray for them and want to be involved in their lives. But I believe that a wedding celebrates a sacred covenant between a couple and God. I cannot attend such a ceremony if it violates his word and will.

“Since my decision may damage my relationship with the couple, I would do all I could before and after the wedding to demonstrate my love for them. Jesus ate with sinners (Matthew 9:10) and calls us to love everyone he loves. But love sometimes requires us to say what people need to hear even when it is not what they want to hear.”

In my view, attending the wedding implies an endorsement of their lifestyle on a more significant level than for heterosexuals living together or coming out of divorce. Unless those in the audience know the heterosexual couple well, they are not likely to know of these issues in their lives. However, a gay wedding is obviously the union of a same-sex couple. My attendance would suggest my support for their lifestyle in a way I feel should be avoided.

With the other issues we have discussed, the focus is on the couple’s past. With a same-sex wedding, the focus is on the couple’s future. My participation in their wedding indicates my endorsement of a lifestyle God’s word prohibits.

Here is an exception to what I have suggested above: there may be situations where our decision not to attend a “non-biblical” wedding would damage our relationship with the couple irrevocably. In this case, even though we intend to communicate biblical truth to them through our decision, we could render future ministry to the couple impossible.

In such situations, it may be necessary for us to attend such a wedding for the sake of future relationship. We could find precedent in Jesus’ decision to eat a meal with the noted sinner Zacchaeus. As a result of their relationship, the tax collector repented of his sins in a very public and profound way (Luke 19:1–10).

This provision, however, could easily be used to justify any decision to attend a “non-biblical” wedding. In my view, a person should make such an exception only if he or she is led clearly by the Holy Spirit to do so.

Conclusion

Jesus associated so frequently with Gentiles and other “sinners” that the religious authorities of his day criticized him for such relationships (cf. Matthew 9:10–12). He responded, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 13).

Our goal regarding wedding attendance and any other public function should be the same. What will communicate biblical truth most effectively? What will preserve our witness while advancing our ministry?

Our Father loves us all, regardless of our mistakes and failures. His Son died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). We are all broken people in need of his saving grace. In fact, we are all broken sexually. Whether our sins are heterosexual lust, premarital sex, adultery, or homosexual activity, none of us is exempt.

As a result, we should approach the issue of wedding attendance in humility and grace, seeking to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Our holy Father and our fallen culture deserve no less.