Faith in Focus

How should the church of Jesus Christ respond to unbelievers "living together" outside the bonds of marriage?




As Christians we believe that unbelievers "living together" outside the bonds of marriage are living in sin. This flows out of our conviction that the Bible is the Word of the Living God. Because He is the only God, we believe He has the same 'cash value' for all people, in all times, and in all cultures. The fact that human beings as a whole do not recognize His authority over them doesn't make any difference. If God is God, He demands obedience and worship from all people, and all people shall give account to Him.

The purpose of this article, in the first instance, is to look at how believers should respond to the modern practice of unbelievers living together outside the bond of marriage. This question however is only a small part of the much wider question of how Christians are to respond meaningfully towards any of a myriad of social issues and questions which face us daily. The aim of this article therefore is to address the wider picture of the calling of Christians in the middle of a culture which has so resoundingly rejected the authority of God.

The cultural shift which has taken place.

The NZ Herald of 8th September 1997 told the story of the winding up of the "Motherhood of Man Movement" in Auckland. This organization had been set up in the Second World War to help "shamed" girls who had become pregnant to American servicemen. It offered maternity services and ran an adoption service. After 50 years the trustees opted to sell the assets because demand for its services has declined. The lawyer for the movement, John Homes, said that demand tapered off in the late 1960s and 1970s "when society no longer regarded girls who had babies out of wedlock as shamed".

This story evidences the massive shift of thought and practice which has taken place in New Zealand culture during the same 45 years of the existence of our denomination. The society in which we were established still lived on the remnants of Christian presuppositions. The society in which we live today has all but rejected any objective basis for moral standards. With the birth of my two sons at Middlemore hospital, in 1991 and 1995, on both occasions my wife was the only married mother in her ward. The New Zealand government recognizes the validity of de-facto relationships. There is continued pressure even for the legitimacy of homosexual marriages.

The marginalisation of Christianity.

At the same time, the forces of philosophical and cultural pluralism which have brought about these changes are the very same forces which have effectively marginalised the witness of the church with respect to these changes. We might even go further than this, and say that in many instances, the church in New Zealand has been carried along by these forces to such an extent, so that many modern Christians today have (perhaps in a de facto sense) adopted the tenets of a radically pluralistic culture. What I mean by this, is that in many instances, Christians have unwittingly become a part of the problem.

There is no question that the truth of Christianity has been completely marginalised. People applaud our beliefs if they do something for us, yet, resist any notion that our beliefs can be imposed upon them. The result of this marginalisation however, is that many Christians, partly due to an inability to form a better response, have allowed themselves to be marginalised. Thus while a modern Christian might hold firmly to the objective truth of God's Word in home and church life, once he moves into the secular realm, he will become rather accepting of practices which personally he knows are abhorrent to the Lord. For example, (although Christians cannot and are not called to avoid association with the ungodly of this world c/f 1 Corinthians 5.9-13), modern Christians express a far greater toleration towards and philosophical acceptance of immorality, de facto relationships, casual relationships, and even homosexuality in the context of society than they would in the context of the church. Lest we would deny this, we might ask, when we watch television or converse with our neighbours, how many 20th century Christians still burn with righteous anger at the slightest hint of practices abhorrent to God, let alone at blatant immorality. We have become increasingly accepting that these things, while not acceptable for us, are acceptable for a culture which does not know God. We will mourn in church and Bible studies over the sins of our nation, but the mourning moves down a gear when we confront evil face to face in the person of our next door neighbour living with his girlfriend.

The increase of subjectivity in Christianity.

Part of the reason for this changing mindset is that over the last generations, Christianity itself has moved in a more subjective direction. The dramatic growth of the charismatic movement over the past decades is no accident, for it reflects accurately the mood of modern man to seek truth from within one's own experience rather than from standards of objective truth. Indeed, many modern Christians have accepted the philosophy of "perspectivism". Any distinct theological position is written off as "a perspective". There is a decreasing amount of argument over what the text says on the basis of proper hermeneutics. Theology within the church has become a matter of personal opinion. "What I feel" becomes more important than what the text says. In fact, what the text says is seen by many to be hopelessly elusive because of our own cultural conditioning as we approach the text. We should not imagine however that this is only a problem of the charismatic church "out there". This filtering through of post-modern presuppositions which exalts the self as the ultimate arbiter of truth, is so powerfully pervasive that time and again you can hear it echoed within our own circles. Feelings for many are more decisive than solid hermeneutics and exegesis.

"Sharing" the Gospel.

One hallmark of postmodernism is "toleration". In many churches, there is no quest for truth, but rather, for toleration of a wide variety of perspectives. To be a dogmatic Christian is to commit the cardinal sin. The greatest heresy there is, is to infer that someone else might be a heretic. Likewise in society, the hallmark of a good Christian, is toleration. A Christian has a right to share his views, but proclamation of truth and declaration of sin is not to be tolerated. Indeed many Christians have given in to the faulty presuppositions of postmodernism in both church and society, and if they still have the nerve to confront an adulterous person with the Gospel, they will seek to share their perspective rather than commit the cardinal sin of condemning the sinner and calling him to repentance before the Lord. As I said before, Christians have in many instances, unwittingly, become part of the problem. The sheer force of post modernistic assumptions in culture have almost forced many Christians to tone down the absoluteness of the Biblical message. In order to survive in this sea of relativity, Christians have become adept at changing hats as they move from the realm of church into the realm of the world. What I want to do in a moment is explore the solution to the problem. Before I do so, I would like to put our modern context into perspective so that we can clearly see the issues which are at stake.

The development of practical atheism.

It is precisely 150 years since the first publication of "Unbelief and Revolution" by Groen Van Prinsterer. In this important work, he traced the philosophies of his day back to the root cause of unbelief. He then went on to trace out the practical implications of this atheism into the ongoing political and social upheavals of the eighteenth century. He also made the important point that there is a certain inevitability to the development of the implications of atheism. "Once a strong impulsion, given to a whole people, has plucked it from the paths of custom to plunge it onto the tracks of change, no one can stop the movement. The sequence of events must run its course; the remedy against the evil lies solely in the full development of the evil, which will not pass until it has run through all its phases. In this sense, one can rightly say that revolutions propel their own coryphaei [leaders] and authors."1 He did not mean to abolish the personal responsibility of contemporaries against the irresistibility of the march of events, for no-one is compelled to bow before the idol of his age. "It is not his impotence to resist but his readiness to co-operate that will be charged to man's account."2

150 years later, the post modern pluralistic age in which we live is simply a further outworking of that same principle of rebellion against God which began with the rebellion of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. The difference in the late twentieth century however, is that the philosophical atheism of previous ages is now developing itself into a fully blown practical atheism in the life of western culture. For many years our culture has lived on the borrowed capital of Christian presuppositions. These Christian presuppositions afforded society some form of stability as society acted within a Christian framework without knowing why. Today however the true colours of atheism are beginning to shine through in every area of life. The current open acceptance of blatant immorality, the current debates about euthanasia and homosexual marriage etc, and the apparent loss of conscience towards God, are only the outworking of the underlying atheistic roots. In Romans 1, Paul also traces out the effects of suppression of the truth of God into immorality (v.24-27) and every manner of godless living (v.28-32). And as Christians who live today on the verge of the 21st century, in a society which has over a short period of time completely abandoned any absolute standards by which to measure the rules of life, we must understand that the age we live in is simply the end of a long process of rebellion, which began already in Genesis 3.

The author of the modern atheism.

When we view our modern age in Biblical-historical perspective, we are enabled to see that the task with which we are confronted is no different to the task which has faced the church of Jesus Christ in all ages. We are enabled to see too that the relativistic assumptions of modern pluralism are nothing more than a development of the schemes of the devil to destroy the witness of the church and thus the work of Christ. The so called leaders of post-modernistic thought, while carrying responsibility for their deeds and words, at the same time are also simply instruments of the age. They simply express most clearly what everybody is already thinking; they are the spokesmen, not the teachers, of public opinion. Lamennais in Des Progres de la Revolution says, "…in general, even the strongest men are never very much more than the passive instruments of a superior cause which is independent of their own thinking and willing: in finding themselves in the midst of a movement that is whirling society along, they hasten it; but they do not initiate it."3 In other words, the people of our time are also in a sense, pawns, carried along by an evil spirit. Our struggle is not ultimately against the flesh and blood agents of the spiritual revolution, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms which propel these agents (willingly) along in the path of destruction. (Ephesians 6.12,13).

Grappling anew with the antithesis.

Any attempt therefore to post a Christian response to our age must begin with the spiritual perspectives of Ephesians 6, and flowing from that, the applications of Ephesians 6 where Christians are pictured as soldiers of God's kingdom standing against the spiritual forces of evil. Although this may in the first instance sound rather trite, on further reflection we may find that it is precisely this area which needs to be thought through more consistently by modern Christians. Post modernism with its emphasis on perspectivism and toleration and complete relativity destroys the antithesis between right and wrong, light and darkness. Modern Christians growing up in this culture find themselves increasingly hard placed to take the firm stand enjoined by Paul in Ephesians 6.13,14.

I would go further than this and state that Christianity as a whole has failed to grapple sufficiently enough with the meaning of the antithesis. The day in which godless atheism rears its head in its most ugly way, would also seem to be the day when the Christian battle becomes the bloodiest as Christians stand firm. However on the whole, a relative calm rests over the church, and modern Christians are remarkably tolerated within society. (Understandably, there is little inclination among Christians to rock the cradle that holds our lives so comfortably). Many times we might pray that persecution would come our way in order to strengthen the church. We "rejoice" in the small political persecution which comes our way when the state further marginalises our beliefs by banning corporal punishment in schools. We are glad to take a stand if and when an issue is 'clear' to us. However, in our pluralistic culture, I don't think there is any great interest in antagonising the church too much. Most people in positions of power are quite prepared to let Christians practice their perspective in their own little corner. The one thing the nation cannot accept however is the prophetic voice of the church as it despises the atheistic foundations as a load of nonsense, and commands (not asks) all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17.30). If the apostle Paul were to live in Auckland with this message on his lips for those among whom he moved, I am sure he would not enjoy the toleration which we so often may enjoy today. He might not be stoned, but he would certainly be rejected entirely by men. I am sure his example would be rejected by many Christians too as being far too radical. After all, this sort of mindset would cost you your comfortable life.

This perhaps gets down to the crux of the matter. Have we as modern Christians have become far too comfortable in this world? Have we adequately worked out the implications of union with the Lord Jesus Christ? Paul tells us in Philippians 1.29 that it has been given to us not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for Him. The suffering which Paul envisages there is a direct result of Christians contending as one man for the faith of the Gospel. And the background to this suffering with Christ comes directly from Christ Himself in the upper room in the night before the cross where he foretold the hatred of the world against those who are united with Christ (John 15.18-25). The very reason that Christ was ultimately rejected is because He spoke the truth and testified that what the world did was evil (John 7.7). Jesus envisages that His disciples will be hated, partly because they are associated with Him, but also partly because as they increase in the intimacy, love, obedience and fruitfulness depicted in John 15, they will have the same effect on the world as their Master. The foundational theological differences between the followers of Christ and the world of necessity force a reaction.

DA Carson in his commentary on John 15.17ff says: "From an evangelistic perspective, these verses demand decision, because the issues are of ultimate importance. Following Jesus costs something (cf. Lk. 9:57-62; 14:25-33), and may cost life itself. Yet not following Jesus means one is siding with a lost and hateful world. To warn prospective disciples of these unyielding realities serves to discourage spurious conversions and to foster true ones …"4

The urgency of the question.

I do not think that Christians have grappled sufficiently with the meaning of the antithesis in our new cultural setting. Perhaps this is partly because Christians too have been bound up with the profound changes which have moved our world in the last fifty years. Perhaps we have been too close to it to see the whole picture. And yet, it is very urgent that we do work out the implications of the 'new world' on our discipleship of Christ, also for the sake of the next generation.

Many young Christians, bombarded by post modernism in their years of growing up, find it increasingly hard to keep hold of the objective reality of their faith. In the words of David Wells, God is becoming increasingly "weightless" in our culture. He simply means that God Himself has become marginalised, even for the modern Christian. This weightlessness is a condition which afflicts religious liberals and conservatives alike. It has nothing to do with a change in theology per se. Rather it is a cognitive and psychological disposition which seeks to exclude God from our reality.5 To put this another way, the forces of relativism at work around us, coming at us from every different direction, can profoundly affect the very way in which we perceive truth. The category of truth itself has become unsettled. Thus the modern Christian can move within the orbit of traditional Christian belief on Sunday, and switch into a different mindset on the Monday, moving comfortably in the world of the television, pub, cinema, concert, gossip magazines and night-club without being able to discern the contradiction. Truth for many modern Christians has become less absolute than before. The antithesis has become very blurry. To summarise the words of Wells, 'Many people who state clearly that they believe in God, may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, His commands less authoritative than their appetites, His judgements no more awe inspiring than the evening news; and His truth less compelling than the advertisers sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. God has been pushed out of the relevant areas of life. The engine of the modern world rumbles on, and God is but a speck in its path.' 6

Conclusion.

This is the age in which we live. Understanding the age in which we live ought to assist us as we think about a proper Christian response to that age. Indeed, it is imperative that we do think deeply about it. I believe that one of the greatest dangers facing the western church in the late 20th century is that of having her beliefs completely marginalised by a post-modern pluralistic culture which absolutely denies any claim to absolute truth. At the same time, it is her greatest challenge to seek to proclaim the absolute claims of God in a meaningful way within that culture.

How then should we as Christians respond to unbelievers who live together outside of marriage? As Christians we have the mind and the Spirit of Christ. We must therefore respond as Jesus did towards a sinful generation. He did not come into this world to 'save' his life or to 'fulfil' himself. Rather, when He came, He laid aside the Glory of Who He was, and came to serve, even unto death. He came from the Father "full of grace and truth."(John 1.14). First of all, grace. "God did not send His Son to condemn the world but to save the world through Him."(John 3.17). He came 'to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and the recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' (Luke 4.18ff). Jesus was motivated by grace and mercy, speaking so as to draw the world unto Himself as the only Saviour of the world. In order to be gracious however, He spoke the truth in love. The modern toleration was the furthest thing from His mind, because He loved the world too much to let it go on in ignorance. They crucified Him because He spoke the truth. But even on the cross, His motive had not changed, when He prayed "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

It is this mind and Spirit of Christ which we need to read about, think about, meditate upon, pray about, and seek to cultivate, in every area of our life in this culture, if we want to be His disciples in the modern world. Paul put it this way. "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage, so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body whether by life or by death….it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him." (Phil 1). "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."(Gal.2.20). Or in the words of Jesus. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."(Lk 9.23,24).

Rev. Peter Kossen. (Mangere)

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised November 97 / Copyright 1997