Wednesday, March 17, 2004
I was talking to an engaged couple, not from this congregation, about performing their wedding. At some point in our telephone conversations, I realized that this couple was living together. When I asked about this, their first reaction was, “It shouldn’t matter. It’s nobody else’s business.”
I paused. I wondered whether or not if it really was my business that they were living together before getting married. I wondered how I could talk to them about this without being judgmental. Did it really matter whether they were living together, I mean, after all they were engaged, they had a wedding date? Is it anybody else’s business what they do?
At that point, I realized I could have three reactions: 1) I could agree with them that it is nobody’s business, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re living together or not; 2) I could judge their actions as sinful and refuse to perform their wedding; or 3) I could point out their sin, urge them to live as Christians, while still walking with them and not condemning them. The third option sounded the most difficult, but it also sounded the most like the message of God’s Word. However, before I could settle on the third option, of urging them to live their lives as Christians while also still showing them love, before I could settle on that action, I had to figure out what was wrong with the first two options.
The first option is to agree that it is nobody’s business. A couple says they are living together without marriage, and whether or not they plan on getting married, the couple says that it is nobody’s business what they do. The church shouldn’t bother them about it. Other people shouldn’t act like it is wrong. It is nobody’s business what they do in their private lives.
And this sounds good. It sounds like the American ideals we hold to be so self-evident: freedom, liberty, privacy. However, listen to these words of Paul from Ephesians chapter 5: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (5:1-3).
There must be no hint of sexual immorality. When an unmarried couple lives together, is there a hint of sexual immorality? How does their living arrangement appear to other people? What kind of impression do other people take from this action? I think it gives more than a hint of sexual immorality; I think it is assumed that the couple is having sex. However, I guess a couple could still come back and say, “That’s nobody’s business.”
But let’s use that same logic in a different situation. Let’s suppose for a moment that I decide that I want to start a local Nazi party. I hold these meetings at my house to discuss Nazism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy. It’s a peaceful group; we break no laws. However, how many of you would have a problem with me leading a Nazi group? Raise your hands.
But it’s nobody’s business, right? That’s my private life. It shouldn’t matter what I do, right? This is an extreme example, of course, but you can use this same argument about it being nobody’s business, you can use this same argument to cover a multitude of sins.
So what’s the problem? Why can our actions in our private lives become a problem, why can the Church or other Christians point out our sins from our private lives? Because when someone says that they are a Christian, their fellow Christians have an expectation that they’ll find that person living their life as a Christian.
So when I tell you that I am a believer in Jesus, you would be right to be disturbed to find me leading a local Nazi group. My actions do not match what I say I believe. It doesn’t matter that I’m doing this at home, in my private life. As my brothers and sisters in Christ, you should expect to find me living my life as a Christian.
In that same way, when an unmarried couple tells us that they are Christians, but then also live together before marriage, giving the hint of sexual immorality, then indeed their actions do not match what they say they believe. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we expect to find each other living our lives as Christians.
This is called accountability; we are accountable, answerable to others about our actions. When I tell you that I believe in Jesus, then I am accountable to you, I am answerable to you, if you find that I am not living according to God’s ways. That applies to living together before marriage, to greediness, to any kind of sin.
So the first option of saying that it is nobody’s business, that it shouldn’t matter whether a couple is living together or not, that logic doesn’t work out, and it goes against the expectations that we have of each other as Christians, to find one another truly living as Christians. However, does that set us up for the second option, to judge, to condemn, to exclude, ignore, reject a couple that is living together? Certainly this can’t be the option either.
Jesus says in Matthew chapter 7, the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (7:1-2). If we judge, condemn, and reject a couple that is living together, then by that same measure, we can be judged, condemned, and rejected for our sins. We can’t pick and choose among God’s commands about which sins get condemned by us and which sins we’ll allow. If we’re going to judge and condemn living together without marriage, then we better judge and condemn those who lie, gossip, have lustful thoughts, hate others, and say, “Oh, my God.”
In other words, our reaction to sin, whatever sin it is, our reaction is to be seasoned with love and mercy and forgiveness, just as our Father in heaven approaches our sinfulness. God has shown us in His Son, Jesus, that we have forgiveness for all of our sins, from the smallest to the greatest sins, they are all paid for on the cross. We spend these days of Lent contemplating our sins and realizing just how much we need Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
This is the Gospel message, the Good News that is to be our predominant message. Whenever we talk to someone about their sin, we are not to judge and condemn. We are to point out sin while also offering God’s forgiveness for sin.
Which brings us to the third reaction when a couple says they are living together: I could point out their sin, urge them to live as Christians, while still walking with them and not condemning them. This is the Gospel-filled reaction; this is the most difficult reaction; this is God’s reaction; this is the reaction Pastor Miller and I strive for, this is what this congregation strives for.
We begin by pointing out sin. Living together without marriage clearly goes against God’s Word. It hints at sexual immorality, and sexual immorality goes against the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Adultery isn’t just an affair involving a married person. Jesus defines adultery to cover all sexual sin when He says that even lusting in your heart is committing adultery.
So our first reaction is to point out sin. This is true, of course, for any sin. We cannot comprehend our need for Jesus Christ, our need for forgiveness and salvation, without realizing our sinfulness. Some people may think we are being unloving when we point out sin, but if the goal is Gospel, if the goal is mercy and forgiveness, we must also speak God’s Law that shows our sins and our great need for the cross.
After we talk to a couple about the sinfulness of living together without marriage, we urge that couple to live their lives according to God’s Word. Again, if the couple says they are Christians, then we talk about the expectation that they will indeed live their lives as Christians. This isn’t just something we tell couples who are living together. This is the same message spoken to married couples who are not treating each other in Christian love. This is the same message spoken to parents who are not treating their children in Christian love. This is the same message spoken to anyone we talk to about their spiritual lives: live according to God’s Word.
When we work with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a role to play in calling one another to live our lives as Christians. This is called admonishment. It is not judgment; it is not condemnation where you point out sin and reject and damn. Admonishment points out sins, urging a change in behavior, while still walking with that person, while still showing them love and forgiveness and respect.
We point out the sinfulness of living together without marriage, urge the couple to change their lives, and we walk with them in making those changes. Often we will encourage a couple to either move apart or get married right away. Moving apart provides the greatest chance for the couple to build a successful relationship before marriage. Data shows that couples who live together before marriage put themselves at almost twice the risk of a divorce, a risk that is already high enough. By moving apart, the couple gets to work through their relationship issues before living together. Pastor Miller works with couple in pre-marital counseling to offer the couple a chance at a strong relationship in Christ.
The other option, getting married right away with a possible future celebration of that marriage, is an option that puts an end to a sinful situation. However, here again, Pastor Miller works with the couple to help them build their relationship even while already married.
If a couple decides that don’t agree with either option, Pastor Miller, the congregation’s leadership, and I have agreed that then the couple cannot be married in our congregation. If they don’t agree with these options, in many cases, the couple is not agreeing that their situation is a sin. We cannot change our definition of sin; that is based on God’s Word.
It is unfortunate when a couple comes to this conclusion, because the conversation usually ends abruptly. There is not chance to continue to work through this issue, no chance to study God’s Word together. We try not to let the conversation end, but unfortunately, some couples make that choice.
Another concern some people bring up is how this approach to living together without marriage is applied differently in different situations. First of all, pastoral discretion is always an option. There are many pieces to a situation that may be unknown to the rest of us which lead Pastor Miller to work with one couple differently than another. Also, when someone is coming from outside the church, when someone has not been an active Christian prior to wanting to be married, that is a very different situation than a church member approaching us. With a church member, we have the expectation that they are living as a Christian. With someone new to the faith, they are only now beginning to adjust their lives to God’s ways. This may lead to a different handling of living together without marriage.
One last thing about why some couples who live together are able to get married here and others aren’t is that sometimes couples don’t tell us they’re living together. If a couple hides this from us, this is not the fault of Pastor Miller; this is a couple hiding something they know the church considers to be a sin. So sure, a couple that lies to the church about their living situation is rewarded, in a sense, because they are able to get married in this congregation. A couple that tells the truth may not be able to get married here; it looks like a punishment for telling the truth. However, the couple that lies must at some point admit that they lied, admit that to themselves, their family, or their church. And back to the difficulties faced by couples who live together before marriage, the couple that lies misses any opportunity to work through their relationship issues and, in turn, they put themselves at greater risk of divorce. These things are most definitely not a reward for their lying.
Therefore, when a couple says, “It’s none of your business whether we’re living together or not,” we choose the third option, the most difficult option, the option that follows God’s Word: we point out their sin, urge them to live as Christians, while still walking with them and not condemning them. May this be our reaction to any sin, because this reaction aims at Gospel. Yes, you have sinned, but God still loves you. Yes, you will need to accept your sinfulness and accept the consequences, but we will walk together. Yes, you have disappointed God, but He has sent His Son to die for you so that you can have eternal life, He has given you a gift you don’t deserve, I don’t deserve, no one deserves. We tell each other about our sins, but we do this with love and grace and mercy and forgiveness.
If you know of someone who ended the conversation with us about marriage because they knew we said living together without marriage is a sin, please urge them to continue the conversation with us. This takes time to study God’s Word together and walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ. If you know of someone who is mad about how the congregation has handled this in the past, please urge them to talk to us. There is no way to understand our position without studying it and seeing whether it matches God’s Word. If you feel that we have made a mistake, if we have not aimed at Gospel, please tell us. For indeed, even as Pastor Miller and I are called to point out sin, we too sin. We need your admonishment, your correction, your forgiveness.
May we ever strive together to live according to God’s Word—both His commands and His Gospel, His Good News, His forgiveness and love.