I’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.