Mailbag #28: Are “Unequally Yoked” Marriages Always Sin?; Can You Discipline over Sins of Omission?; Is Dancing Acceptable in Corporate Gatherings?
Are believer/unbeliever marriages always sin (see Mailbag #7)? What about a believer/unbeliever couple who have children together? Remaining together and unmarried would be sinful. They aren’t already married, so 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 doesn’t seem to apply. And getting married seems to violate 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. Yet advising them to end the relationship seems intuitively wrong. What advice should be offered to the believer, and based on what biblical instruction or principle?
—Paul, Prince Edward Island
In situations like these, you have two moral principles pitted against one another, which means you will feel intuitively wrong, somehow, no matter which direction you go. Welcome to life in a fallen world! Do you choose the apparent wrong of breaking apart a family and denying children the chance to live with two parents, or do you choose the apparent wrong of marrying a believer and an unbeliever? These are the two options, as I see it. Continued co-habitation is not an option. Either they fully marry, or they separate.
And the moral stakes are high in both directions. I confess I wade into this question with some fear.
On the one hand, a fully biblical marriage takes several ingredients, and the couple you describe already have several of those ingredients: they have committed (in some undefined sense) to one another; they have structured their lives together; they have made themselves a family; they have become publicly known for being together and being a family; and they have become one flesh. What they have not done is formally affirmed this commitment with a “till death do us part” promise, which, to be sure, is an essential ingredient of a marriage. Yet godly men that I trust would say that they are already married, and that you need to acknowledge this by supplying that last ingredient lest you undermine what’s already there. You might call this the common-law-marriage argument. It recognizes that, between the man and the woman, something marriage-like is already there.
Furthermore, my Christian friends on this side would say, should you encourage the man and woman to separate, you would be leveraging the Bible and the name of Jesus to tear apart a family, even if not a fully legitimate family. What kind of testimony will that be to the parents and the children alike?
On the other hand, we don’t want to subtly legitimate and exonerate the co-habiting couple who says, “We know we love each other. Why do we need a marriage certificate!” The common-law-marriage argument can almost sound like we’re responding to the cohabiting couple, “Yeah, that’s right. You’re basically married.” But we know that’s not true. The co-habiting couple is co-habiting. They are not married. Something marriage-like is not there. Therefore, you are right to feel the weight of God’s commands for a Christian to marry “only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39).
Furthermore, our emotions may root for the children, and marrying the believer and unbeliever seems better for the children. But I’m not convinced this is not short-term thinking. Marriages between believers and unbelievers have their share of significant hardships which the children will experience first-hand, and these hardships may well stretch on for a lifetime. God’s command for Christians to marry “only in the Lord” is not arbitrary.
So far, Paul, I have tried to lay out the two sides for you. What’s difficult is, you have a moral certainty pitted against a moral uncertainty. The command to marry only in the Lord is certain. Whether or not this couple is already sufficiently married is uncertain (at least in my mind). But if they are already married by some type of common-law reality, you would not want to tear apart what God has joined together.
Personally, I give greater weight to the moral certainty than to the moral uncertainty. Therefore, I don’t think I would marry them. But I do give some weight to the uncertainty. Therefore, I would not forbid them from marriage, at least with the threat of church discipline. You could say I would do nothing: neither marry nor forbid to marry. To the believing spouse, I would say, “I won’t personally marry you, lest I break God’s command. But I will not recommend church discipline if you do marry him/her, lest I destroy what God may have already established between the two of you.” In short, I would leave it to the individual’s conscience.
It’s rare, but the elders of my church have taken this kind of stance on some ethical dilemmas. Is it a pastoral cop out? Maybe. Or maybe it is recognizing the limitations of our wisdom, and trusting the Holy Spirit to do right in spite of our limitations.
I would, of course, instruct the believing partner that he/she will give an account to God on the Last Day, just as we as pastors will give an account for the instruction we give in such moments. And God will ask them (and us), Did you obey my commands? Further, I would tell the believing spouse that God’s commands are good and not burdensome, and that they can be trusted fully.
I have been praying non-stop while writing this answer, Paul. The matter is soul wrenching. I hope I have not given in to a wrongful fear, but answered with faith and love.
Blessings to you.
I am a young pastor at a small church and I have been teaching my church about membership and discipline over the past year and a half. We recently have had a couple that is struggling because the husband is not showing love to his wife in any substantial way. In counseling with him he has admitted that he has tried here and there to be loving in his own way (doing things around their house/property) but he has not really tried to love her in any of the ways that she has shown him that she needs (along with leading them spiritually). The wife feels as though this has been the case for all 25 years of their marriage. He doesn’t seem to disagree. I have challenged him to take action to love her in an active way for about a month and a half and he continues to tell me that he has taken no action. I am curious if/when an unwillingness to show love to a wife is grounds for discipline. It seems to me that there are blatant sinful acts where, if there is no repentance, a discipline process is appropriate. But I struggle with feeling as though this is more of a judgment call.
Thanks for any help.
Maybe you have heard that life-saturating line in a prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer: “We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Along these lines, Christians have long distinguished between sins of omission and sins of commission, or sins of failing to do something you should and sins of doing something you shouldn’t. Both categories are sins. Both offend against God’s holy laws. But generally, as pastors, we deal with the two categories differently.
For one, sins of omission are much harder to diagnose or assess or respond to. Also, sins of omission are often the result of fear and weakness rather than something malignant. And it is relatively easy for me to envision a believer struggling with fear or weakness all of his or her life, at least in comparison to a life-long struggle with something more malignant, aggressive, and active.
For reasons like these, I typically teach that churches should only pursue public church discipline or excommunication for sins of commission, not for sins of omission. There are exceptions of course, as with a man who does not provide for his children. But I think this is a decent rule of thumb.
Based on what you have described to me, yes, you should continue to instruct and correct this man privately, and “discipline” him in that sense. But I have a hard time envisioning going beyond private remonstrations to something more public.
In fact, I might even encourage husband and wife to consider all the evidences of grace in their marriage in how he has loved her. Has he remained physically faithful to her? That is a sign of God’s grace in the man’s love. Has he provided her with food, clothing, and marital rights (see Ex. 21:10)? That is a sign of God’s grace in the man’s love. Has he maintained the home in good repair? That’s God’s grace and the man’s love. Has he sought to fulfill her other needs? That’s God’s grace in the man’s love. Tell them both to write down such a list and make it as long as they can.
I am not telling her or him to be content with just these things. I am saying that, if every good gift comes from the Father above, we should acknowledge all of these gifts as coming from him, lest we rob God of praise he deserves. And that act of thanksgiving helps to transform the heart and to create the expectation of more gifts to come, together with prayerfulness and the desire to work to that end.
Then continue to walk with the brother. Encourage the good. Rebuke continued neglect. Give him practical ideas. Pray for him. And push him toward relationships with other godly brothers. Care for her, too. Work to make sure she has sisters around her who can support her amidst her husband’s neglect.
Paul’s counsel may provide the best conclusion: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thes. 5:14).
I have recently had a lady in our church ask if it was appropriate if she would join the worship service as a dancer. She has done a Bible study and has come to the understanding that dancing, as a part of worship, is good and would like to introduce it to our congregation. Her questions to me are sensitive to the needs of others and doesn’t seek to make a spectacle of herself. She also doesn’t desire to be divisive, but would like to find out what our pastoral staff thinks, along with the elder board. How would you answer her?
I’m grateful for this woman’s humble and unity-seeking heart. I’m also grateful that she wants to use her dancing for the glory of God as an act of worship, as 1 Corinthians 10:31 teaches and King David demonstrated before the ark of the covenant. Encourage her for these things.
When it comes to what the church does when it gathers, however, I hold to a freedom from principle rather than a freedom to principle. Individuals sometimes insist that, in light of 1 Corinthians 10:31, they are free to worship God however they please in corporate worship.
My response is to speak on behalf of the congregation: I believe a congregation should remain able to gather with the church every week, since God commands them to, yet remain free from being required to worship in a way that they find troublesome or a stumbling block. Beware using the church’s corporate gathering as a venue for self-expression, which people today too often confuse with being “authentic” or “real.” (I’m not at all assuming this woman is doing that, but am writing for a broader audience on this point.)
I only want to bind the congregation’s conscience where Scripture binds it. To allow one person to dance in the corporate gathering, another to finger paint, another to mime, and another to play Beatles songs for the prelude, requires every person in attendance to worship God in those ways, at least as witnesses. Better, I think, to only require what Scripture requires of the saints when they gather: preaching Bible, reading Bible, singing Bible, celebrating the ordinances, gathering offerings, and doing anything else necessary to remaining a corporate body in good order (like giving announcements, etc.).
What about David dancing before the ark? David also brought sacrifices to the tabernacle, which we would never permit. In other words, I don’t think we can take Old Testament tablernacle worship as directly applicable to a New Testament church. We’re under a New Covenant. On the one hand, this New Covenant promises a comparatively high degree of personal freedom relative to the Old. But this means, on the other hand, imposing relatively few requirements on corporate life of the saints. The corporate life of the church, therefore, should remain relatively mere—again, for the sake of honoring individual freedom and the individual’s conscience in how each person would worship God!
All this is sometimes referred to as the regulative principle. You’ll find a slightly fuller discussion in my article, “Regulative Like Jazz.”
I pray this helps.