Michael rushed up to me just before morning worship, his face alight with excitement and joy. "Guess what?" he gushed. "Annette wants to be baptized!"
My stomach tightened. My friendly grin suddenly developed rigor mortis. This couple had been living together for nearly a year and attending our church for a few months. Now they wanted a full relationship with God through Christ and a full relationship with the church. What should I do about their obvious and continuing sin?
I told them I'd be happy to talk it over with them.
Michael and Annette seemed to step into our church out of a TV drama. They are intelligent, attractive, and accomplished young professionals who quickly and casually decided to move in together, untroubled by moral questions. We soon began a Bible study together and developed a friendship that drove me to learn more about such couples.
Annette and Michael mirror a growing slice of society and an increasing challenge within the church. Young adults are intentionally delaying or forgoing marriage. The average age for first time marriages is 25 for women and 27 for men. Polls show many consider marriage a risky economic prospect, assuming that a quite likely first-marriage divorce will bankrupt them. For such vow-shy twenty-somethings, living together seems a convenient stopover on the way to later, legitimate family.
Michael and Annette came to our church only because we were in their neighborhood. Even though I grew to love them personally, I was not confident about their future. My experiences with such couples did not tend toward optimism.
Smiling tensely at Michael that Sunday morning, I hoped I wouldn't see a repeat of Robert and Kristen.
The ones that got away
We met Robert and Kristen though a church outreach program. They seemed excited and interested in making Christ the center of their lives. When it became obvious that they were living together with no plans to change the situation, I sat down with them to talk. My advice was not well received.
"We're glad you're with us and excited about our future together, but I have to discuss a delicate matter with you." I took a deep breath and dived in. "Surely you know that God isn't pleased with your living arrangements. His plan is for people to be married or else remain apart. He's not OK with unmarried people sleeping together."
Kristen shot a glance at Robert and blurted, "I'm ready to get married whenever he says."
A flat, vaguely hostile stare shuttered Robert's expression. He said nothing.
"I'm not trying to tell you that you must get married," I pressed on. "I'm saying that it is not God's will for people to live together without being married. Maybe it would be better for you to move into separate quarters until you decide whether you want to be married."
Robert carefully bit off each word. "I'm not ready to make that decision right now." He was finished with this conversation.
In my most sympathetic tone I responded, "Well, it's a decision that you both need to examine. I know that you can't remain in a right condition with God if you are going to persist in this arrangement."
Kristen sniffed and dabbed at her eyes as they walked out into the sunshine. That Robert clearly intended no commitment deeply wounded her. Two more worship services over the next month were all they could muster before they left us, still living together in an uneasy and unhappy accommodation.
Talking in a fair way
The situation with Michael and Annette was a bit different. Michael and I discovered we shared a passion for golf. Michael is a superb golfer. It was on the course, after another of his pro-style drives, that we began to approach his living arrangements with serious intent.