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!