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I don’t! Pastor balks at rites

‘Inter-faithless’ marriages come under scrutiny

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The nightmare begins when the Rev. Joe McKeever turns and faces the bride and groom.

He smiles. They smile. The family, friends and faithful smile. Then McKeever begins reciting the lovely words he has said hundreds of times in nearly four decades of ministry. Only this time, he hears a voice inside his head saying something radically different.

"Dear friends, we have gathered here today to witness a disaster in the making," says the voice. "Martha here has decided she wants to marry Chester. Martha — churchgoer, hymn-singer, happy, raised right — is throwing it all away in order to marry Chet here, a smug, ungodly rascal. . . . Why Chester and Martha want to lock themselves into marriage is beyond me."

And so forth. Then one day, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Kenner, La., did a strange thing. He wrote down what that voice was saying and sent this warped wedding rite to a Southern Baptist newspaper, assuming the editors wouldn't publish it. They did.

Some folks weren't amused. They accused him of saying that inter-faithless marriages are doomed and that the unbelieving spouses are automatically going to hell.

"The whole thing is a satire," said McKeever. "I know it isn't funny. But I'm not laughing, either. What I'm saying is that this seems to be happening more often. . . . What we're doing is marrying two people who are like trains running in different directions or even on tracks that cross. We're causing train wrecks."

After all, he said, St. Paul warned people who were getting married in the early church: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what . . . communion hath light with darkness?"

So why do Bible-preaching pastors do all of these weddings? In McKeever's satirical ceremony, that inner voice answers: "Probably because Martha's folks are leaders in our church, and I thought it would anger them if I declined. And some people think, maybe we can reach Chester this way. Frankly, I'm not too sure that disobeying the clear teaching of scripture is a good way to reach anybody for the Lord."

And once today's pastors start asking this kind of tough pre-wedding question, others are sure to follow. What if Martha and Chester are living together? What if Martha's pregnant? What if Chester says he's a believer but doesn't act like it? What if the bride or groom is divorced? What if they sit in the pastor's study, during the obligatory three premarital counseling sessions, and say they know they're supposed to get married "because it just feels right"?

Meanwhile, some of America's most conservative church leaders are wrestling with a report released last year by the evangelical number-crunchers at the Barna Research Group. It said 27 percent of born-again Christians are now or have been divorced, compared with 24 percent of other Americans. For Baptists, the number was 29 percent and it's 34 percent in non-denominational churches.

That could mean these churches are doing a good job of reaching people who are already divorced, said McKeever. But surely it also means that many pastors are doing lots of weddings that they should not be doing.

It doesn't help that preachers can stand in their pulpits and spot a few rascals who have, in fact, been converted through conjugal evangelism.

"It all works out just enough to keep that myth alive," he said. "We keep telling women not to go into marriage thinking they're going to fix those guys. But nine times out of 10, it just doesn't work. Then they get hurt. The kids get hurt. Everybody gets hurt."

But that train wreck comes long after the end of McKeever's bizarre wedding ceremony, after the soprano sings that "Titanic" song. First, the pastor has to wrap things up.

"I'll say some religious words over you as we all pretend that somehow God is blessing what he has forbidden," says the anti-pastor. "You will exchange rings and vows and saliva and leave here seeking the lowest common denominator in your values, your beliefs and your convictions . . . So let us pray, and pray and pray."