November 30, 2020

“Will We Have To Leave?”

leaveI’m supply preaching these days at a small Presbyterian church in town. I usually arrive half an hour early, turn on the heat and just enjoy the silence of the sanctuary until the congregation arrives.

Most of my folks live right around the adjacent blocks, some within walking distance. Last Lord’s day, two older ladies arrived together, having walked from just around the corner.

“Yes,” one said, “we had a conversation with the girl that’s moved in across the street. We invited her to church and she said she might come. But she wanted to know if she brought her boyfriend, would she have to leave.”

For a moment, I was puzzled, but then it began to be clear to me.

“I’m guessing she lives with her boyfriend, right?” Both ladies nodded with a bit of embarrassment. Co-habitation is hardly an unusual situation in southeastern Kentucky, but it’s still not a frequent topic with your minister.

The other lady- who has been listening to my preaching at this church for most of 13 years- looked at me and said “They wouldn’t have to leave, would they?”

“No,” I said, “they wouldn’t have to leave. Tell her we’d be happy to have them worship, pray and share a meal with us. It would be our privilege.”

She nodded and we started talking about something else, but on the way home and the rest of the week, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I know there is a good lecture out there on social stigma and the value of marriage in a community. I’m old school. Co-habitation makes me a little less nervous than your grandmother, but not significantly.

I know the pastoral problems co-habitation brings to a church and an extended family. I hear you when you say “What do we tell the kids?”

But I also hear that line: “Will we have to leave?” There’s a story there and I think you can probably get most of it without a lot of help.

Maybe it was mom, or grandma, or an opinionated aunt. Or the preacher. In the little family-dominated churches here in the mountains, everyone knows everyone’s business, and it won’t be long before that business will show up in the sermon. It won’t be long before you’re told that you and your boyfriend aren’t welcome at church.

And when you’re gone, and you’re telling yourself that you want nothing to do with a God like that, the folks at church will be feeling good about themselves.

Nothing really works in this situation. People are broken and looking for something to glue themselves together. Religious people are accumulating morality points and abandoning the Gospel. The possibilities of a community of Christians to show what it means to love people as Jesus did and in their own weakness get lost in drawing lines and pretending there is such a think as justification by having never co-habitated.

The possibility of seeing someone repent of sin, come to Christ and move toward true gifts of forgiveness and marriage is apparently less appealing than the Pharisaic joys of letting sinners know they aren’t welcome with us or the God we worship until they clean up their mess.

This is hard stuff. Christians believe some things very deeply, but they don’t always see things clearly or express them with Gospel wisdom. When they forget the Gospel, they forget who they are and start finding ways to be justified in comparison to “real sinners.” There’s nothing about the Kingdom of God in a snarky morality club, but too many people don’t know the difference. They usher people out as if they are the angels gathering the elect at the last day, not signs pointing every person, no matter what their sin of the day, to the savior and the wedding feast at the end of the world.

There are some churches who welcome the cohabitating and aren’t sure what to do with them once they have them. I hope that whatever else we do, we teach, preach, sing and explain the Gospel. Let’s make it gently and lovingly clear that there’s no compromise on what is and is not marriage and even less compromise on what it means to be a broken and fallen human being saved by Christ and his righteousness alone.

Somehow I wish that the presence of a cohabitating couple in the midst of a church could be a reminder that while our fellowship is with Christ, our human reality is the predictable human mess and the movement Jesus gave us is a constant, but uneven, journey by real sinners towards the Kingdom of God. We’re a stopping place for pilgrims who are at lots of different places in the journey. Our commonality is going after Christ. We all have some things to learn and a lot of Gospel to apply.

“Will we have to leave?” That’s usually spoken by people who have already left. And spoken to people who, without the Gospel, are too sure of the wrong answer.


  1. Of course they can attend church. Bu the pastor needs to make clear that any sex between a man and a woman other than in a Christian marriage is sin. How to do that in loving terms and make that clear without driving them off is a difficult pastoral problem which makes me glad that I am not a pastor.

    My kids are still toddlers but they will be taught chastity as the bible teaches along with the social problems that are encountered should they chose to live together before marriage..And if they chose to engage in sinful behavior I love them enough not to tolerate or enable their behavior. I am surprised at the comments that we should look past their sin and look at the love they have for each other. I guess as long as they love each other sin is OK. Sin is never OK and real love is making sure they make it into heaven. I think many here who think pre-marital sex is OK are equating love with tolerance and are substituting their rationalizations for God’s word.

    • I can’t help but come back to Jesus’ words “The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath”. So far as I can tell, God is not arbitrary. So neither would His sexual ethics be.

      I find it rather funny that the idea of unmarried “horny but in love” twenty-somethings having sex has been described as being “abusive” and “destructive” to each other, but should these same “horny yet in love” twenty-somethings get married (even impulsively) suddenly their love is “pure and wholesome”. Their feelings for each other haven’t changed; only their legal status has. To me, getting married to someone just so you can have sex with them is the ultimate in “using them for their body”. Do we as the Church really want to say that the greatest definition of “holy sex” is not the feelings or respect that the two people have for each other, but the legal status of the people?

      I would like to point out that this alone is not (nor should it be taken to be) an argument against waiting to have sex when you are married. Rather, I’m wondering if perhaps we have lost sight of what God’s sexual ethics are supposed to be doing? Just like the Pharisees created a legalistic set of rules around the idea of the Sabbath (a day set aside to give all people– especially those involved in physical labor– a time to rest) and turned it from it’s original purpose of helping/restoring people into a chore that must be fulfilled, even if it meant suffering (accusing Jesus of breaking the Sabbath when he healed on that day) I wonder if we have done the same with sexual ethics? Are we so concerned about remaining “pure” sexually that we put up extra barriers and rules (no dancing, don’t be alone together (and recently) the “Christian side-hug”) to “save” ourselves? And further, do we look at the general prohibition against premarital sex (which actually isn’t in the Old Testament, by the way) as a rule that must be followed for it’s own sake or one that is created for our protection and well-being? I do not wish to put words into God’s mouth and do slightly worry that I am overstepping boundaries here, but could I not say “Sexual ethics were created for man, not man for sexual ethics”?

      • Emily,

        Making a biblical case that God approves of sex outside of marriage is not possible. See Romans 1:29-31, I Corinthians 7:2, Galatians 5:19-20, and Jude 1:7.

        But you are also exactly right, when you say that a couple getitng married just for the sake of having sex is pharisaical. Marriage is to be ,modeled after Christ’s love for hsi church.

        • Respectfully, I did not intend for this to be an argument in favor of premarital sex. (the argument could PERHAPS be made, and I am open to the possibility, but I’m not out to attack the more traditional view of waiting until marriage– mainly because I am not convinced either way at this point. But this is neither here nor there.) Rather, I was interested in the fact that so many people seemed to want to push marriage as the obvious solution to the issue when, to my mind, this solution seems to ignore a wholistic view of sexual ethics as well– saying that ALL sex within marriage is automatically good is not quite true. It is entirely possible to have no respect for your husband/wife and only be concerned with your own pleasure. Something I believe is not acceptable to Christian sexual ethics.

  2. Apart from the sexual-sin aspects of this conversation – – does anyone find it odd that, in 1 Cor 5:10-12, I can associate with an unrepentant person who makes no claim to be a Christian… but the moment he calls himself my brother, dinnertime is over!

  3. How are Christians supposed to deal with a Christian brother or sister who has, as the phrase goes, “fallen into sin?” On the one hand, there’s the Paul of 1 Cor 5, who says, “Expel the wicked man from among you!” On the other hand, there’s the Paul of Galatians 6, who says that we are to correct the erring person “gently” and that we are to “bear one another’s burdens.” How do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory Pauls?

    The key is to remember that Paul wrote these letters, under the inspiration of the Spirit, to different churches dealing with different issues and problems. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church was appropriate _for the Corinthian Church_, given its situation. Paul’s instruction to the Galatian church was appropriate _for the Galatian church_, given _its_ situation. Neither instruction is appropriate for _all_ Churches in _all_ situations.

    What caused Paul to give such harsh instructions to Corinth? The situation there appears to have been more serious and more desperate. The problem wasn’t just that a man was sinning; it was that he and the Church were _boasting_ about the sin. It also appears that, probably due to the surrounding culture, that the members of the Corinthian church weaker and less able to resist temptation. Thus sin and the temptation to follow it had to be removed quickly and completely. The Galatian church apparently didn’t suffer from this weakness.

    So what’s the take-home lesson from these two passages? When faced with such a situation, we need to rely on the Spirit to help us discern whether we are in a Corinthian situation or a Galatian situation, and act accordingly. Given how many times Paul says that correction should be gentle (Gal 6, 1 Tim 2:24-26, Col 3:12, Eph 4:32), the Galatian response is called for far more often that the Corinthian response. Corinthians 1:5 presents the exception, not the rule, for dealing with issues like this.

  4. I agree that cutting him off is not the right way to address the situation. However I would go further and have a serious man on man talk with him. I would not assume that he understands what he is doing is wrong both from a biblical perspective and also from a social justuce perspective. Study after study has shown that our kids are not getting the proper biblical and theological instruction. And going to college will in most cases cause their faith to stall. That is why having open communication with your kids even as adults. After I turned 21 my dad and I went started going out to dinner once a month probably in case he needed to slip in one of these serious talks. Something I’m planning on doing with mine as well.

    But on the other hand, I wouldn’t enable their sin. If they were to stay at your house I wouldn’t allow them to stay in the same bedroom. Both to prevent more sin in the house (there is enough in the house already with my sins) but also to prevent the example and what that might show to the other kids.

  5. “Co-habitation makes me a little less nervous than your grandmother, but not significantly.”

    Why does my grandmother make you nervous? What’s wrong with her, Michael?


  6. Waltizing Matilda says

    I don’t understand cohabitation. I also think, if you’re cohabitating, you’re married for all intensive purposes. Why not go ahead and make it legal?

    My son and his girlfriend live together. I always introduce his girlfriend as “my daughter-in-law.” It’s just my little way of making it known how I feel about the situation.

  7. Jesus wasn’t welcome at church either. They once tried to stone him, once tried to throw him off a cliff, and finally did crucify him. (He was born out of wedlock, you know.)

  8. I’ve tried to read most of the comments. I find this discussion confusing because I think the matter is rather straightforward.

    The couple in the story are not, from what I can tell, claiming to be Christians. They are interested in coming to church. Coming to church does not make one a Christian.

    The church has a problem if they automatically equate presence on a Sunday with conversion.

    There are elements in church life that are for Christians (like the sacraments). Why a visiting couple would want to participate in these is beyond me.

    Cohabitation is clearly a sin. But shouldn’t we expect non-Christians to be sinners? If we’re talking about Christians it’s a different issue – and if we’re talking about serving in ministry the Bible is pretty clear on the character required for leaders in the church.

    I think any church with unrepentant sinners leading is in trouble. As much trouble as any church that doesn’t welcome sinners through the doors.

    It didn’t seem to me that the original post was about professing Christians who have lapsed into sin – more about professing sinners investigating Christ. What sort of church shuts its doors to these types of people?

    Why is this so hard?

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