We've all seen them. The mass weddings conducted by the Unification Church (the Moonies), in which each couple was individually approved by the leader of that cult. Or perhaps we've come across other groups, like the International Church of Christ, in which leaders claiming the authority of spiritual shepherds inform their members who they'll marry, and then require obedience as proof of their true discipleship.
Most people recognize these and similar examples as a gross abuse of authority. It's one of the hallmarks of a cult—unreasonable claims to authority on the part of the leader and the requirement of absolute obedience on the part of the followers.
In light of such abuse, and having searched the Bible in vain for more specific guidance, many Christian singles have resigned themselves to personal preference as their main or only guide. Parents of course usually have advice. And so do pastors or other church leaders.
But while such counsel may be helpful, surely it doesn't have to be obeyed, does it? After all, in marriage, if not before, the young adult establishes himself or herself as an independent member of society. The command to honor one's father and mother remains, but is now expressed as respect rather than obedience. And while a pastor may have sound spiritual insight, surely his responsibility is to support and strengthen the marriage union we make, not to approve or veto it. Clearly the question of whom to marry is a matter of preference, not obedience; a matter of choice, not command. Right?
Over the course of the last year, my friend and fellow elder, Scott Croft, and I have published a number of articles on Boundless suggesting that while the decision to marry is a personal one, it is not private. We've said that relationships should be conducted under the context of church and family accountability and that fathers and pastors should especially be sought out for counsel and direction.
In a consumeristic, individualistic world, such ideas have seemed radical and shocking to many of you. Still, some of you at least have tried to put these ideas into practice. You've involved your parents or pastor. You've sought their counsel and submitted to their accountability. Everything seems to be going fine, until the day your pastor pulls you aside and says, "I don't think you should marry her/him." Now what? Having invited their involvement, do you have to obey?
Will it surprise you if my answer is "Yes and no"?
A Short History Lesson
But before I explain that, let me offer a short lesson from history that has largely shaped Protestant thinking on church authority since the Reformation.
In many ways, the English Reformation began and ended with a rejection of church authority. In 1527 Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Katherine of Aragon, but Pope Clement VII refused. His reasons were complicated (part theology and part politics), but at least in theory his refusal was grounded on the Bible's prohibition of divorce for any reason other than adultery. This was one crime of which everyone agreed Katherine was not guilty.
The Pope could point to numerous explicit statements in Scripture, not least Jesus words in Matthew 5:31-32 and Luke 16:18. Henry, however, was not about to let his political ambitions be stymied by Scripture, and so in 1534 he broke with Rome, and made himself head of the churches in England. Needless to say, he now found a more sympathetic ear for his request!
One hundred and thirty-five years later, yet another King wanted to cement his control over the now Protestant Church of England. He insisted that every local church pastor take an oath that everything in the Book of Common Prayer was sanctioned by the Bible. In 1662, over 2,000 ministers, fully one-third of the nation's clergy, could not square that demand with their consciences or their Bibles. Rather than submit to church authority, they suffered the consequences and were permanently "ejected" from the ministry.
So what do we learn from these two rejections of churchly authority that frame the English Reformation? In short, they illustrate for us the answer to the question, "Do I have to obey?"
Ironic as it may seem, this Protestant pastor takes Pope Clement VII's side in the debate with Henry VIII. Henry should not have divorced Katherine. Not because the Pope said so, but because God said so in the Bible. All the Pope was doing (or should have been doing) was telling Henry what God said, and calling Henry to obey his Lord.
On the other hand, as much as I love it, the fact remains that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer requires things in worship that God nowhere requires of his New Testament people. Had Charles II left such matters as mere suggestions, to be practiced according to an individual's conscience and wisdom, those ministers might have stayed put. Instead, the ministers of England were forced to choose between obeying God and obeying "church authority," and 2,000 of them made the right choice.
When we must obey
God's Word gives us a number of explicit instructions about many things, including marriage. Paul tells us that if we are Christians, we must marry "in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39). Jesus tells us that if we marry someone who's been divorced unbiblically, we commit adultery (Luke 16:18). Jesus also tells us that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, excluding polygamy, serial monogamy, and homosexual unions (Matthew 19:4-6). Finally, the Old Testament lays down a number of other rules that have continuing force, such as the prohibition against incest (Leviticus 18) or the requirement of parental consent in the case of minors (Ex. 22:17).
In each of these cases, it is no abuse of authority for a pastor to say, "You cannot marry this person." He's not exercising personal authority. He's simply declaring God's Word to you. Like Henry VIII, you can still choose to disobey. But it won't be your pastor you're defying. Ultimately it's God's authority you're rejecting.
When we're free to disobey
In 1 Corinthians 7:39, Paul says, "A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord." What that means is that so long as the Biblical requirements are met, you really are free before God to marry whomever you choose. And any attempts to impose requirements beyond that are illegitimate.
It might be wise to marry someone who agrees with your denominational distinctives, or political persuasions, or regional loyalties. It might be practical to pick someone that your siblings like or that your grandmother approves. You'll probably be well served by marrying someone who is at least as spiritually mature as you are. But if a pastor comes along and says, "You have to marry this person ..." or "You can't marry this person ..." because of reasons like those, then like those 2,000 ministers in 1662, you are free to reject such counsel without fear that you are defying God's authority.
So do you have to obey your pastor when he says, "You should (or should not) marry him/her"? It all depends. When a pastor declares God's revealed will to you from Scripture, then you must obey. If, as is more usual, he's offering his counsel and wisdom, then you are free to take it or not.
Theologians describe biblical pastoral authority as being "only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice" (PCA Book of Church Order, Preface, II.7). In other words, the pastor might (and probably does) have lots of wisdom. But when it comes to saying "you must obey this," he can go no further than what God's Word says (declarative) since he's only authorized to act on God's behalf (ministerial).
Now this might seem obvious to many of you. But what all of us need to realize is that what seems obvious today may seem much less obvious when we're madly in love and looking for ways to rationalize our decisions. All of us are prone to disregard God's revealed will at some point or another. When we give in to the temptation to lust, or vent our anger, or shade the truth to our own advantage, it's not because God's Word wasn't clear enough on those matters. It's because something other than God and his glory had captured our hearts. So why should getting married be any different?
So before you write this article off as only stating the obvious, consider that the most important issues in choosing a spouse have already been addressed by God in His Word. We can talk about the nuances of what to do with the pastor's advice on matters of prudence and wisdom. But that's merely arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic if we've not first cultivated the humility to hear and heed God's authority in those matters to which He has spoken.
How do we cultivate such humility? Here are a few suggestions:
- Spend time regularly in God's Word, and each time ask yourself how the passage you read is calling you to repent.
- Cultivate relationships with other Christians in which godly criticism and rebuke is expected and welcomed.
- Ask yourself the following questions regularly: "When was the last time I laughed at myself?" "When was the last time I asked someone for forgiveness?" "When was the last time I admitted that I was wrong or that I didn't know the answer to a question?"
- Meditate on the cross often, remembering that it was your sin, not your weakness or ignorance, that Christ died for.
- Cultivate a sense of the greatness and majesty and glory of God.
- Read CJ Mahaney's book, Humility: True Greatness (Multnomah, 2005). There's no better short treatment of humility out there.
So having laid out the "yes and no" of obedience to pastoral authority, I recognize that most of us live somewhere in between. On the one hand, we know what the Bible requires and we mean to obey it. On the other hand, our pastors aren't saying we can't marry this girl or that guy, just that they don't think it's such a good idea.
What do we do when pastoral authority comes to us, not as requirement and obligation, but as advice and admonition? And to make matters more pointed, what do we do when that pastoral advice cuts against the desires of our hearts? For that, stay tuned for my next article. In the meantime, work on cultivating a heart that is eager to hear and heed wisdom from God.
A Duke graduate, Michael received a Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a doctorate in Church History at Cambridge University. He and his wife, Adrienne, have four children: Michael, Christian, Samuel, and Sarah. He currently serves as an Associate Pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.