What Would You Say?

A letter from a writer, appropriately edited to bury identification:

The question is open for you: What would you advise?

I have debated with myself for some while in regard to whether or not to send you this query. I am sure you receive many of these sorts of emails, and am quite comfortable with the knowledge that you may not be able to contribute to this. Perhaps someone has already discussed a similar issue, but I have not been able to find anything on it yet, so even if you can point me in the right direction I would be grateful. So here goes…

A certain person has become a committed part of our local church over a period of several years. She is passionate about following Jesus,  has obvious leadership potential, and a natural affinity for people. She displays genuine concern and interest in their well-being, and in her business life has been consistently involved with the marginalized. She has a family with a few children and has been faithful to their (non-Christian) father for a number of years. Here’s the catch: they are not legally married because he refuses to get married. In our discernment right now, in spite of prayer and compassion and love, he is unlikely to make a commitment to Christ. (We don’t count that out, but until then we have our problem anyway.)

The crux of the matter is what to do with her and her gifting and skills in the context of the local church. For me this has become somewhat of a theological matter. In the context of our wider circles she is “living in sin.” This would disqualify her from serving in any leadership or public capacity. To serve, she should be married.

But what constitutes Biblical marriage? Normally, my reply would be a church-based ceremony or somehow meeting the legal requirements. However, such a reply seems to be based on the legal requirements setting the standard.

In the confusion of all of the above, I am really asking if her faithful commitment to her partner over several decades, in the context of his unwillingness to fulfil legal requirements, is enough grounds for a local church to consider her fit for some form of influence.

Put another way, how would/should we respond if the person were from another cultural background, considered “married” in that culture, yet not considered legally married in the eyes of western law?

I have some ideas of my own, but I would be really interested if you know of anyone else who has addressed such issues!

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  • mick

    Interesting. It sounds like they are as married as most these days in or out of the church. I would say it depends on the maturity of your faith community. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. If this would be a stumbling block to a significant portion, I would not place her in a formal leadership position. But there may be little lost here. It sounds like she is already serving God in her life. Why mess it up with a title?

  • She may be married at common law. Which just goes to show you how ludicrous the notion is that sin should turn on an arbitrary mortal legal construct.

    I utterly reject the notion that God’s righteousness incorporates state law by reference.

  • AndyM

    a refusal to marry probably indicates that the man wants to keep his options open, so he feels he can walk out the door any time without consequences. Given the law may consider them “married” in terms of property distribution, this matters only insofar as the heart of the man could well be not committed to the relationship to the extent that marriage would expect.

  • Mark Edward

    This is the key part I think we need to take away from the post:

    “Here’s the catch: they are not legally married because he refuses to get married.”

    If the man ‘refuses to get married’, then he does not consider the woman to be his wife. By extension, for the woman to recognize this (to the point that it is common knowledge in her church), then she also does not consider the man to be her husband. Shutting out government papers or common law practices or cultures on the other side of the planet, leaving behind all of the philosophical musing, and looking only at the two of them within the scope of the world they live in…

    … they are not married.

    If this local church has drawn a line that ‘cohabitation’ outside of marriage is not permitted among its leaders, and both the woman and the man specifically consider themselves not to be married, then she is outside of that line. It’s obviously a painful matter to refuse her a position of leadership, because of all the great things she has done with and for the church… but it would be a serious compromise in convictions to rewrite the rules just for her. Either that local church would need to have an actual discussion on whether the rule is in itself wrong, or they need to stick to their convictions even if it means a painful decision.

  • AndyM

    a tangential but interesting question: she is in a sexual relationship that she knows is outside of marriage (the relationship that God has reserved sex for). Could a christian live for any period of time after conversion without the Holy Spirit and their conscience hammering on them for this area of sin? without it being something that she really struggled with?

    are we asking the wrong question in effectively wondering how we can justify the church using someone who is in unrepentant sin for ministry, when we should be asking whether someone who is in unrepentant sin is saved? her salvation is more important than whether she can do “stuff” to fill rosters and keep the wheels moving in the church.

  • Stephen W

    It seems to me the question is “Does Jesus care about her legal position, or does he care about her heart?”

    Answer that, and whatever you decide should follow naturally.

  • RevGrant

    For me the question revolves more around the broader issue of what should we regard as a Biblically constituted marriage. Is it defined by secular legal constraints? Cultural practices relevant to the people concerned? A formal ceremony in a church service? A combination of these? I live in a community where historical cultural practices surrounding marriage are diverse and often at variance with “western law.” So when it comes to accepting a couple as married, who’s standard should we apply?

  • phil_style

    @AndyM “a refusal to marry probably indicates that the man wants to keep his options open, so he feels he can walk out the door any time without consequences.”

    You assume the worst of people. Perhaps he has philosophical reasons for this… how do we know what his reasons are, and whether or not they are justified? The writer has not stated why this man refuses to marry. To assume his motives are negative is just mean spirited.

    In fact, the whole tone of your response is worrisome. Your characterization of the church’s desire to understand “what to do with her and her gifting and skills in the context of the local church” as simply ” do ‘stuff’ to fill rosters and keep the wheels moving in the church” is glib, and unfair.

  • Scot –

    I personally have some thoughts. First off, it seems this pastor/leader has not approached this with a hard-nosed, black and white line. It is refreshing that they are desiring to walk out God’s best, but to not simply so, “No way!” with no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.

    If this co-habitation began before she became a Christian, it gives a little more openness in the situation. And that seems to be how it is going here. It’s like our dealings with African men who have multiple wives and then become Christians. Though Scripture teaches God’s best being one spouse, we don’t typically advise divorcing down to one because, in that society, the woman and her children can become outcasts and be left with nothing. Maybe the best for their “family” is to not leave him.

    So, again, I’d have to clarify if they came together in this co-habiting manner before her becoming a Christian. Having said that, even if that were true, pastorally considering the shepherding of the WHOLE flock, I’d probably not open the door to leadership at this point. This is no hard-line, black and white issue, as I acknowledged. But, in general, I have found it hard in my situation for one spouse to be in a leadership role without the support of the other spouse. It has caused some difficulties at times.

    But I also am VERY AWARE I do not know these people personally and, therefore, don’t believe I (or we) could faithfully speak into the situation. So to give my input is maybe worth a grain of salt. I would mainly advise bringing this before closely trusted brothers and sisters where close relationships already exist “in the flesh”. And maybe that is also being done.

  • Norman

    “She has a family with a few children and has been faithful to their (non-Christian) father for a number of years.”

    phil_style #8 : my sentiments as well.

    Can we possibly assume this man is also acting as the father of the “few children” and has been so “for a number of years”? It would be interesting to hear the (non-Christian) father’s perspective but it’s probably none of my business either unless he was willing to converse. I say love this family and let “love” have its day.

  • Chris

    Question: what does “marriage” mean to the husband? I know a lot of people that believe in a committed relationship without a ceremony that they consider antiquated and trivial religious drivel – they feel like its a way for religion to control them, so they’d rather not engage. But that does not mean that this man is not abiding by other definitions of marriage (namely that of scripture), so the question again comes (without assuming anything), what does he believe that “marriage” is?

  • Percival

    It seems to me that the real question is not does he consider himself married, but does she?

  • Steven Winiarski


    This question hits home for me. My mother and Father are divorced and have been since as long as i can remember. When I was growing up, my “dad” was my mom’s boyfriend. They co-habitated for several years. She claimed to be a believer and was committed to the churc, while he was an alchoholic. I beacme a christian at a young age and grew up with a conscious knowledge of the situation.

    I would say a couple of things here. First, if they have not committed themselves to marriage (both of them), then they are not married. Despite her committment to him, if he is not committed to her in the same way, then they are not married in any sense. They both have to have a mutual committment. Ifthey both have this mutual commitment,then going through the law and the church to declare this commitment should not be a problem. Second, if she defines herselfas unmarried (which it sounds like she does), then she should have some understanding that their cohabitation is sin and the longevity of the situation raises some questions concerning repentance in this situation. I know that my mom recognized that she was in sin, but refused to repent of the situation. Third, we understand that governemt is appointed by God and the laws of these governments does matter to some extent. If the Law says they are unmarried, then they are unmarried. I don’t thnk any one of us would argue that the laws concerning marriage in this country are in violation of scripture and can therefore be ignored. Also, you must think about the long term consequences concerning accepting her as married. What happens if one day she decided that she has had enough of dealing with him. Will the church then recognize her as initiating a divorce. If so, then she can always counter by saying thay she was not legally married. It also sets a precident of accepting all those who choose to cohabitate (which is becoming more and more prevalant) despite the situation. I hope this helps some. Feel free to reply.

  • Jon Altman

    “Biblical Marriage” (which is a term that varies greatly in actual definition and description) most often referred to that time when a man and a woman had sex. There’s great support for the notion that this man and woman ARE “married,” as most people of the two thousand year period covered by the Bible would have understood the term.

  • This passage came to mind…I know that it isn’t an exact match but seems to be at least a bit applicable.

    Acts 5.34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men…Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

  • MatthewS

    I believe that Mark’s point in #4 is valid – there is a deeply enough embedded concept of marriage in our culture that the man in this situation seems to be holding out on it. As asked in the question, the man does seem to see himself in a different status besides “married.”

    This is a sad reality, but have we not all seen people who were living together for 10 years, finally get married, then divorce within 2 years? That scenario has been repeated many times, not that it necessarily has anything to do with this situation, but the point is that our culture does have a concept of marriage and many people, often men, are leery of making that commitment.

  • To clarify – we seem to be spending all the discussion around this woman’s circumstances and not discussing her call. If she has been anointed to teach and lead by G_d then which of us should assume we know better than He when it comes to her worthiness to lead? Sounds like her pastor affirms her ‘call.’

    Just my $.02

  • RB

    I agree with Don in #17. It seems to me that God often used people to do Kingdom work despite their cirmcumstances. Now we’re up to $.04 cents Don!

  • Norman

    Frankly, if the body of Christ is not willing to get their hands dirty and reach out to this woman, her husband and children and love them first unconditionally then all the pronouncements and judgments are nothing but wind.

    Why not give “Christian Love a chance”?

    You really can’t have influence unless you have relationship and trying to tie every knot and dot every i reminds me of this verse.

    Luke 18: 9-13 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed[a] thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

    Frankly I don’t know where my family would have ended up if it weren’t for gracious church neighbors who reached out to us although my father was a strident atheist. They respected my dad and treated him kindly and thus he tolerated my mother and us siblings going to church. Even though he hated God and ridiculed the church at least he married my mother. I hate to think what the churches reaction would be toward embracing us if he also didn’t believe in formal marriage and we children were conceived and raised in sin.

  • Liz K.

    I appreciate ScottL’s point in bringing up polygamy and the African church. In our wrestling with our own cultural context it’s easy to forget that our brothers and sisters in Africa have been dealing with alternative models of marriage and sexual behavior for a long time and have a lot of wisdom to offer. We could probably avoid a lot of mistakes if we are willing to learn from them. Recently, and PhD student friend of mine who grew up in Africa emailed me a short list of resources on polygamy and the African church. I haven’t been able to read any yet, but I’ve pasted in her list, in case they’re helpful to anyone:

    “I read through Samuel Waje Kunhiyop’s section on polygamy in his book African Christian Ethics (Hippo Books). That isn’t too long, but it is definitely a good place to start as he surveys various stances that have been taken, etc. He also footnotes, so there are some good suggestions for texts to follow up on, though his sources are generally older ones. I’d say some other places to start would be B. Kisembo, L. Magesa and A. Shorter, “African Christian Marriage” (1977) and Adrian Hastings “Christian Marriage in Africa” (1973), as well as Danfulani Kore’s “Culture and the Christian Home” (1995).”

  • Adam

    I had a recent discussion about a related topic a few days ago.

    “But what constitutes Biblical marriage?” was the question that was posted originally, but I think it’s important to simplify that to “what constitutes marriage?”. In the majority of countries, cultures, and religions, marriage is granted on behalf of an authority. Church/state/king/ship captain/etc. The individuals themselves don’t declare themselves married, only an authority does that. This is a confusion I am seeing often. We’re trying to individualize marriage and that in turn is destroying marriage.

    Things I think important to the discussion:
    1) Who are friends of the couple? What are their views on the relationship?
    2) Is this relationship serving the community? Vice versa? Is it simply being ignored?

  • Percival

    It’s clear to me from these comments that there is nothing approaching a consensus on what marriage is. You can’t solve a problem that you can’t define.

  • Percival

    Adam #21
    I have to disagree. Civil authorities do not grant marriage. They only recognize it.

  • Rob Henderson

    My nickel’s worth of advice would that she be allowed to assist in various ministry functions, but it is very critical for the leadership of the Church to be allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the unsaved boyfriend/non-husband. I would not consider them married because they are not married.

    As a pastor I would strive to develop a relationship with the boyfriend/non-husband or have another leader do so. Perhaps he’s got some hang-ups about the church and/or his ladyfriend’s involvement.

    We are not in Africa. However, we do have a subculture of co-habitation that needs to be addressed by the Church at large.

  • Robert

    We’ve had people like that at my church over the years, and we treat them as married. Marriage is a relationship not a wedding or a legal certificate.

  • Adam

    Percival #23, I didn’t specify civil authorities, just authorities. If you’re agnostic or atheist it’s a civil authority. As christians do we not recognize a marriage license assigned by the state? Is a marriage null and void if it happens in a court house under a judge instead of a pastor?

    If it’s a christian wedding supposedly it’s the authority of the church and God, but show me a wedding where the pastor doesn’t say “By the power invested in me by the state of …”.

    The point is that a marriage is not individual, it’s communal. A marriage doesn’t happen because the individuals say it does but because the community says it does.

  • Dana Ames

    Francis Schaeffer believed that “biblical marriage” consisted of a couple somehow publicly declaring themselves married (not necessarily in a Ceremony), with sexual consummation.

    Tricky pastoral situation. Seems clear the woman considers herself married, and the man is at the very least acting like he is married. If it were my opinion alone, I would say they’re married, and grant her some latitude in ministry, as long as everyone is honest about the situation and the church leadership is united.

    I agree that his voice should be heard, if he’s willing to share. Being befriended by church people has to be done without an agenda of getting them married or of “getting him saved” – otherwise, it’s not friendship, it’s continued judgment – and that judgment harms souls more than living without benefit of nuptuals does.

    My .002 cents’ worth.


  • Percival

    Adam #26,
    Thanks for the clarification.
    As for authority, didn’t God already call their union marriage when it was consummated? No matter what licenses are issued a marriage is null and void if it was never consummated. Thousands of years of human history have focused on the act of sexual union as the defining moment of marriage. If we are to ignore that history and heritage, we had better have a good reason. I’m not sure why in your final sentence you went back to marriage being communally defined. This opens the door for all types of relationships to be called marriage.

  • metanoia

    There are myriad places and ways “sinners” serve in the church. Gluttons have been known to teach Sunday school, gossips have been allowed to visit shut-ins, people with anger issues have been ushers, etc. But leadership is a totally different thing. The standard of conduct, maturity, and piety is higher for those who are called to serve in a position where they are looked upon as role models.

    I doubt that the parents of a young teen would want someone who is co-habitating outside of the normal Christian definition of marriage to be leading a youth group.

    She can still use her gifts while she works out her salvation with fear and trembling, but to place someone in her particular state in a leadership position is probably opening up a can of worms that is unnecessary and in the eyes of some the taking of another step toward or down the slippery slope.

    Sometimes love for the one needs to be balanced with the love of the rest of the Body.

  • Percival

    Wow, Dana. Don’t sell your comments short. I would have paid you 1000 times that to hear what you thought. (That would be $.02 I believe) : )

  • MatthewS

    If you knew me in real life you would know how much I’m not a Bible-basher. So I don’t want to come across like I am one, or like I’m throwing proof-texts at a problem.

    But if we are people of the book, then sin and righteousness (or whatever terms you prefer) aren’t what aunt Maude defines, nor what I define, but rather what the book lays out. Stepping back away from the details of this particular situation, we do have some direct statements that apply in general:

    1 Thess 4:3-8 3 God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. 4 Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor— 5 not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways. 6 Never harm or cheat a Christian brother in this matter by violating his wife, for the Lord avenges all such sins, as we have solemnly warned you before. 7 God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. 8 Therefore, anyone who refuses to live by these rules is not disobeying human teaching but is rejecting God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

    Col 3:5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. 6 Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming.

    Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4 contain similar, along with “walk worthy” and walking in the Spirit and fruit of the Spirit, and living out truth in love. There are vices we are to “take off” and virtues we are to “put on.”

    If a pastoral staff has a clear conscience that a person is not living in sin and is “above reproach” (which is not the same thing as sinless perfection) then good!

    Obviously every situation has its particulars. An unsaved spouse which is committed to the relationship certainly seems different than two believers in some sort of open marriage, for example. Every situation calls for grace and gentleness. Our orientation is to invite people into something, not trying to cast them away. Whatever we do must be done with love and compassion, never bashing away with a 10 pound hammer. With all that in mind, these passages are normative and if there is a reasonable question, whatever decision is made ought to be informed by them, taking seriously that “anyone who refuses to live by these rules is not disobeying human teaching but is rejecting God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”

  • Tom F.

    First thing: there is very little chance that we as outsiders are going to be able to really know what the best decision here is. As many have pointed out, each congregation is different. This could be a terrible thing in some congregations, and a non-issue in others. Don’t let go of the fact that you know your congregation unlike any of us do.

    However, maybe what could be helpful is some questions and paradigms.

    How does your denomination and your congregation think ethically? If the congregation tends to view things more in black and white (theologically, perhaps divine command theory), then this is likely not a good move. If they lean more towards seeing how our ethics help us to grow into Christlikeness (love ethic or virtue ethic) than you may or may not have more options.

    What defines a marriage in your context? Perhaps the legal ceremony is more important. Perhaps the sense of life-long committment? Perhaps the mutual sacrifice? How you answer this question will tell you whether people in the congregation will say to themselves “hmm, close enough” or “nope, not married at all”.

    How does the couple describe their relationship? (Can you bring both of them in? Maybe just be frank with both about the difficulties here?) What is the husband sense of why they don’t want to get married?

    If they were to break-up, does each consider that possibility as being as serious as a divorce? If they both consider a break-up to be completely off the table, that pushes it more towards common-law marriage.

    How has the congregation understood her situation? Acceptance? Nervousness? Avoidance?

    I get that you are hoping for a theological answer in light of changing cultural definitions of marriage, both across times and across cultures. But seriously, your church already has a cultural definition of marriage. Your first job is to find out what it is, and start there. It doesn’t matter what some other culture thinks. I mean, it matters in sort of a big picture as we ponder on this blog these sort of big, theological questions. It matters as a pastor as you think about the theological trajectory that you might hope to persuade people to gradually take in your congregation. over the next 5-10 years.

    But frankly, it doesn’t matter to this situation. I know that sounds weird, but in the short term, unless its a very serious issue of doctrine or teaching, starting in any other place than where your congregation is currently at is a very, very bad idea.

  • Adam

    Percival #28,

    I don’t think God declares a marriage just because sex happened. Why then are there vows? Why are vows declared before other people? Why does the Levitical law state that a man who rapes a woman MUST marry her instead of saying he IS married to her? Why does Jesus say to the woman at the well, “the man you live with now is not your husband”? Sex does not define a marriage, nor declare a marriage.

    A marriage is a covenant relationship. The act of marrying someone is the act of forming a covenant, declaring vows, making promises. It’s the joining of families. It is not, and hasn’t been, a private individual affair. But we’re trying to make it that.

  • metanoia

    Quite an extraordinary contrast between #31 and #32! According to #31 Paul would have told the immoral man in 1 Cor. 5 to clean up his act or risk being booted. According to #32, Paul should (notice, i said “should”) have said, “it’s really your choice as a church.” After all, according to 1 Cor. 5:2, they were ok with the situation.

    I’ll take my chances with #31. 😉

  • Norman

    The older ones left the stoning to the younger ones and left; while the woman who had 5 husbands simply had to tell everyone else about the Messiah.

  • BradK

    Assuming there are rules within her local church that prevent her from being ordained to serve in specific capacities, might one ask is ordination actually required for her to serve? Obviously she has been faithfully serving the Lord for years in spite of her marriage situation. Can she continue to serve in new ways without being officially appointed to a certain position? E.g. she may not be able to be ordained as a pastor due to denominational or church rules, but that doesn’t mean she can’t shepherd a flock. I’ve seen lay leaders in large churches doing every possible duty that a pastor would do in a smaller church without officially being given any title. This would obviously depend on denomination since in some one couldn’t (for example) administer a sacrament without being ordained.

    On the other hand she, like all of those who are married, may just find herself somewhat limited in ability to serve in some ways. Isn’t this why Paul told the Corinthians that he wished they could be presumably unmarried as he was? So that their ability to serve God would not be hampered by a spouse?

  • Robin

    I view this the same as being a Christian. Being a Christian requires internal transformation, and according to the bible it is always followed by baptism. Even if there is an internal commitment by both parties, there needs to be an outward confession testifying to that commitment. It could be a marriage license or ceremony or something else, but the narrative presented makes it sound like HE refuses to recognize a lifelong commitment in any form.

    For those taking the “sex=marriage” so she is married position, that also means that everyone who has had sex with multiple partners is either a bigamist or serial divorcee, even if no legal marriages or divorces occurred. Might be true in God’s eyes, but would be disastrous for setting church leadership and policy.

  • AndyM

    @Phil_style #8: the way i expressed the way the church is seeking to use the woman’s skills was a secondary issue compared to whether the church is ignoring the condition of her salvation if she could seemingly not be bothered by her conscience living in a relationship that she knows isn’t “marriage”.

  • Robin

    And to the “she is committed even if he isn’t, shouldn’t that count” crowd…one simple question…if you went to a wedding ceremony, one party said the vows and the other party refused to make any verbal commitment at all, they just stood there while the other person took vows, would you think a marriage had occurred.

    It takes internal committment by both parties and outward confession…let me clarify…it might be a marriage without the outward confession of the committment, but there is no way that the church can see HIS heart, so unless he makes an outward confession of that committment I don’t think the church can recognize HIM as married.

  • Robin

    Last note…if there was a person going to my church who walked and talked like a Christian, but refused to ever publicly confess that union, refused to be baptized over a period of several years, refused to partake in the Lord’s supper….

    He might be a Christian internally without those outward expressions, but I cannot see his heart, and if he refuses to publicly acknowledge it, there is no way the church could recognize something he isn’t willing to publicly confess.

  • Much to-do is made over the first part of 1 Peter 3:1, but how about the last part: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives…” In early Christianity, the unbelief of a husband was common. This woman cannot force him to consent to legal marriage; she can only serve the Lord and pray for the man she loves who is also the father of her children. She should not be limited in using her gifts because of the sin of another person. The believers in her community should lift her up all the more because of this heartbreaking situation she must wrestle with every day.

  • Tom F.


    I feel my blood pressure rising a bit. What the heck? (Deep breath….)

    So this issue is a non-negotiable for you. Fine. I can respect that. But why imply that what I said is somehow completely opposed to what Paul said in such a snarky way?

    I’m going to pretend you said this.

    Tom F. – While I respect your heart for the local context of a church, I don’t believe your flexibility on this issue adequately represents Paul’s call to sexual holiness, found, for example, in 1st Corinthians. This is not an issue I believe that churches can disagree on.

    I could totally have respected this, as it is, your response is inadequate.

  • AndyM

    Charity Jill: Can she be a wife, if he refuses to be a husband?

  • DRT

    Isn’t this really a question of the degree of “sin” that a church is willing to tolerate before allowing someone to be a leader in the church? The type of sin is, perhaps, irrelevant to the notion of leadership. If you found out that someone wanting to be a leader was a compulsive gambler, drunk, disrespector, liar, etc. would that be equivalent?

    I am with Tom F. #32, if it is good for the body, the context, then it is fine. The criterion in my view is whether this is good for the community, defined by almost any dimension imagined but primarily causation to sin for others.

    What we are talking about here is whether she should be in leadership, which, by definition, is a position of greater influence than just a member, though a member can also be in a position of influence and that must be considered as a different case. They have already accepted her as part of the body, and the influence that goes along with that, so what does it mean to hold her up as a leader? Does that incremental amount of influence and implied acceptance cause others to sin? Or does it lead more to the King (not Elvis).

    This is a context based decision, like Tom F. says.

  • DRT

    An example may help illustrate.

    If she were a member of a church where 89% of the people were ex-spouses of abused partners and there is a pattern of self destructive behavior, and if this guy was an otherwise righteous guy how would lose his inheritance if he married before the age of 40, then would you say it is just plain wrong?

  • metanoia

    Tom F: You definitely said it better than I did. My apologies for offending.

  • One is either married or not, and despite what the culture says, remember, we are the church, not the culture, she is not married. Therefore, I don’t think she’s fit for service. I wonder, would this person have the same qualms if the woman were not gifted for service? It sounds as if he’s just trying to find some kind of loophole.

  • In our tradition marriage is one of the seven sacraments. It starts with a covenantal declaration in the public assembly of believers. You can blame the lady for missing that, but if she becomes a leader, there will be confusion, especially among the young people and the weak people in the church. The guy has put this great lady behind the eight ball. She is doing well. She reminds me of the gospel “women” which Richard Bauckham talks about.

  • Meant to say: “You can’t blame the lady for missing that.”

  • John I.

    “living in sin”: so many posters have taken their (unrecognized) western cultural view as a default perspective and a justification for accusing her of living in sin. By their reasoning she would not be committing a sin if she left the man and legally married another. So legalistic and an exercise in missing the point.

    I suppose Adam and Eve were living in sin, as were their children, because there was no civil authority to recognize their “marriage”.

    And why should his rejection of “being in a marriage” be given more weight than her “we are married” when defining the relationship?

    Marriage as a sacrament, and marriages being recognized only if recorded legally by a civil authority are recent western cultural innovations.

    God is quite clear that we become joined–even to a prostitute–when we know someone, and are known by them, sexually.

    Any couple having sexual intercourse is joined in the eyes of God. Any couple that seeks to be disciples of God will remain sfaithful to each other and would, if the opportunity is available, make their relationship a public one. Where possible this would be by means of a ceremony before a local church body. But the lack of such a church body ceremony (e.g., in a communist country, or a civil marriage before becoming christian) does not invalidate the marriage. Moreover, a marriage before a local church body or even before village elders would not be invalid just because it is not civilly recognized by local authorities (e.g., marriages in the jungles of central or south america).

    Though one is joined to a prostitute, there is no “marriage” per se because there is no faithful commitment.

    There is no more that this woman can do to be faithful to God and her local church body because the man will not undertake any kind of public ceremony (as the marriage is recognized at common law, and in some places by operation of statute, there is no question that the relationship is recognized as a marraige by the relevant legal authorities). For her to leave the man would be unfaithfulness, and to join herself to anyone else while he is alive would be adultery.

    Hence, there is nothing immoral in remaining with the man. She is not living in sin. (The bloggers who commented about polygamy in Africa made good points).

    Paul’s pastoral admonition to have local church leaders who are of one spouse is just that: a wise pastoral admonition and not a law of God that if broken results in the commital of a sin. That is, it would not be sinful to use or employ a remarried person or a polygamist, though it would not be wise.

    Therefore, the relevant consideration is not sin, but wisdom. Is it wise to use her gifts in a more prominant way? Yes, she suffers by not being able to more prominently or widely use her gifts, but she has partly brought this suffering upon herself. And even if she were entirely innocent, the fact of suffering is not a reason to permit exceptions to morality or wisdom; suffering must be endured and is part of our identification with Christ.

    What kind of example would she set? I think it’s entirely possible that she could set a very good example if she is very Christlike. It could be that she is an example in that church of the negative effects of sin and the fact that Christ can rescue us from our sin and God can make good come out of any evil happening. She may also be an excellent model of the Jesus way and of mature discipleship.

    And since a local church body is just that–a body–one must take the entire body into account when determining which course of action is wise. If the body can accept her and her work and support and affirm that work, then by all means enable her. But if such enabling would cause dissension, disunity, etc., then her suffering must continue for a time while the pastor and others in the church teach the entire body and bring them to a point where she can be enabled to work (laying on of hands, commissioning, etc., whatever that local church does). Some people may leave, but at least among all that remain they should either accept the pastor’s teaching or agree to disagree on the teaching but submit to the authority of the church and let her teach, etc.

    This disagreement would be like disagreeing on whether the various spiritual gifts continue. I may disagree that those gifts have continued, but if my church allows speaking in tongues during a service I must submit to that and let it occur to the blessing of those involved. This includes not stabbing in the back or gossiping, though in appropriate contexts my disagreement could be made known and discussed.

    Bottom line, she is not engaged in anything immoral and so the wisdom of the local church body should prevail.

    John I.

  • Rusty

    Being a church leader is different than being a member. I cannot imagine having a leader in the church who lived in a situation that was in conflict with their values to this extent.

    I would explore why the man does not want to be married? Is there an opportunity to help him work through issues that may be causing him to reject the idea of marriage. I know someone just like this who has unresolved issues from the past that cause this.

  • Dana Ames

    Adam @33,

    Only in the west is it a matter of covenant and vows. Even the Jewish Ketubah, without which there is no marriage and which was standardized in the 1st century CE, is not a matter of vows, or of “purchasing” a woman from her family, but of the willingness of the bridegroom to provide materially and socially (and thus also emotionally and spiritually) for his bride. Read the standard document, easily found on the ‘Net; read it in light of what Christ has provided for us – a breathtaking picture of Christ as Bridegroom. Do a little research on the western wedding ceremony; the “traditional” ceremony with which we are familiar was largely written by Thomas Cranmer. I imagine Jesus said what he said to the woman at the well because she was living without benefit of ketubah, therefore not married. That didn’t stop him from conversing with her and revealing to her some astonishing things.

    The Eastern Orthodox wedding ceremony does not have vows. In fact, the bride and groom don’t say anything at all, unless they want to join in the responses everyone else says: Lord have mercy, Amen, the Our Father and the Doxology. The Orthodox Church blesses the natural longings and conditions of human beings – which are good and God-given – and takes them into the very life of Christ. Orthodox folk have managed to stay married at least to the same extent as those who recite vows.

    It is not the that make the marriage, but the condition of the relationship (love) that gives meaning to vows.


  • Dana Ames

    …meant to say it is not the vows that make the marriage, etc.


  • Tom F.

    I still think it would be dangerous to operate outside of the local understanding of marriage at this questioner’s church. Ironically, for those who criticized me, that means the end result would be that she will likely not be able to serve in the typical evangelical church.

    I think so many posting here take any view of marriage that includes a cultural component as being anti-biblical. The truth is, many, many parts of marriage change even from period to period in the bible. While we can debate which parts are cultural and which parts are universal, I think there needs to be more admission that culture plays a larger role.

    I think the current western approach to marriage, including public vows, legal recognition, and so on is a mostly good thing. It fits our context in a way that other historic or cross-cultural forms would not. I think that should be respected. But I strongly feel it should not be absolutized. To suggest that the poster’s original question is simply not even up for discussion is to absolutize a certain culture form in a way unfaithful to the diversity of forms marriage took throughout history and the bible.

  • CK

    The question that rises above all else for me is, who would be deprived of her gifts of leadership if the culturally-bound concept of marriage excludes her from serving? And how would this church deprive her of the opportunity to use her God-giftedness? It seems to me that the only loving response is to let her lead! (If she were unhappy or abused in her marriage, then the loving response would be something else – but that does not seem to be the case.)

  • Ben Thorp

    My £0.02 having skim read the comments:
    Given that neither party regards themselves as married, I think it’s pretty clear they’re not married.

    I think for a Christian, the words of the marriage service are fitting – they are there (at the marriage ceremony) to get married before God and the church, with marriage as a covenant between 2 people. I think there’s certain weight to also include Paul’s exoneration to submit to secular authority too, and thus there should be a legal marriage too.

    Whilst I appreciate the complexities of the situation, and also that we are in no way hearing the full story, I think we do need to question what the woman is feeling in this situation. She obviously regards her situation as being “unmarried”, but does she thus regard her sexual activity outside of marriage as sin? We also have to be very wary not to drop into situational ethics.

    Lastly, in any ministry position, in particular leadership, the criteria should be character, not gifting (/skills/talents). The guidelines for leaders in the NT primarily focus on their character, and so should we. The question is not “is this person gifted and able to fulfil this role?” but rather “does this person show good Christian character?” I would suggest that, given the previous paragraph, we have to spend some time with this lady to ascertain her own struggles with this question, and whether or not she recognises the “dissonance” of her situation.