Interfaith Marriage: Pastoral Discernment and Responsibility

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


Last weekend's ritual uniting Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton in marriage has generated some significant interest in the both the religious and the secular media. United Methodist News Service coverage focused on the fact that Chelsea, like her mother, identifies with The United Methodist Church and asked a United Methodist elder (Bill Shillady) be one of the presiders. The article mentioned in passing that Conservative Judaism, Marc's religious tradition, "frowns on intermarriage."

As a recent New York Times article notes, however, that may be putting it a bit lightly. The concerns about interfaith marriage in some circles in contemporary Judaism are profound and deep. Some of the concerns are specifically religious and grounded in understandings of scripture itself. And some of them are also grounded is significant research data showing the interfaith marriage in fact contributes significantly to losing people from Jewish faith, practice and culture altogether. Both of these-- the religious perspective and the data-- can lead to the conclusion that marrying outside the faith is a significant threat to the ongoing survival of Judaism itself.

In short the issues from many Jewish perspectives are not about tolerance or intolerance. They are about faithfulness and survival.

And of course, Christians have some history of very similar concerns, many of them summed up in Paul's admonition that Christian's should not be "unequally yoked with unbelievers" (I Corinthians 6:14). Does that term in that place refer specifically to marriage? The verb used here (heterozugein) appears only once in the NT, and there is not evidence in other contemporary literature that limits or even strongly connects the term to marriage. Is to be understood as a binding command on all Christians? These are both questions that are and have certainly been open to debate over the centuries. At the same time, there has also been a significant and even perhaps mainstream tradition in Christian interpretation that does interpret this phrase as at least an ideal if not an absolute ban on such marriages as an issue of scriptural faithfulness, if not as an issue of Christian survival. That distinction-- ideal versus absolute-- does matter, though. In I Corinthians itself, Paul addresses persons married to unbelievers and encourages them to stay married (see I Corinthians 7:12-16). Further, marriages in Paul's time (and in many cultures in the world today, still!) were often matters of pre-arrangement in which neither party was given a choice about who the marital partner would be.

While The United Methodist Church through our General Conference has not articulated a stand against interfaith marriages either in the Discipline or in the Book of Resolutions, we have made allowances for them, at the discretion of the pastor in charge, in the rubrics of our Book of Worship, which stands as one of the official ritual resources approved by General Conference and therefore speaks the mind of the General Conference on this issue.

"The decision to perform the ceremony is the right and responsibility of the pastor, in accordance with the laws of the state and The United Methodist Church" (p. 115).

"In the case of couples who are not church members or who are not prepared to make the Christian commitment expressed in our services, adaptations may be made at the discretion of the pastor" (p. 116).

Again, what is stated here are two things. First, pastors decide whether to perform such ceremonies at all. Pastors who are committed to the tradition that Christians should not marry persons of other faiths are empowered here to express that commitment by choosing not to preside in such cases. Second, pastors who are willing to offer such ceremonies are here authorized to do so, making any adaptations necessary so that the person of another faith tradition or no faith tradition is not being asked to say or do things such persons cannot say or do because of their faith commitments or lack thereof.

The decision whether to preside at such marriages and if so how the ritual can be properly adapted places a significant responsibility of discernment on pastors in our church.

How do you decide whether to preside at a marriage, interfaith or otherwise?

How do you decide how to adapt the United Methodist ritual when you choose to preside at a service of marriage that may require you to do so?