Heath Lambert: Our guest, this week, is Dr. Kevin Carson who is a counselor certified with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. He is a pastor of Sunrise Baptist Church and a professor of Biblical Counseling at Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. I asked Kevin to join us this week to talk about how we would address and deal with couples who are living together but who are unmarried.
Kevin you know, because this is an emphasis of yours, that this can be an issue that gets people in a lot of trouble. I think back to some of the most trouble I have been in in local church ministry and it has had to do with this issue.
At one point I was preaching a sermon on Hebrews 13 about honoring the marriage bed and keeping it pure. I encouraged the congregation to not live together; that one of the ways they could dishonor the marriage bed would be by cohabitation. There was a fire storm in the church after that. I did not realize that there were about twelve couples in the church who were living together unmarried, and that did not go over very well. I had a local church pastor who heard about the sermon tell me that I better never preach sermons like that again.
I was amazed by that. That was my first year in ministry and I came to see that folks are nervous about addressing this issue because it can be so upsetting to the folks who have actually made a decision to live together.
So, for people who are listening to this – a pastor, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a church member – who know of someone who is living with somebody to whom they are not married and they are nervous about bringing this up and the consequences that might come from it, why do Christians need to address these issues with our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Kevin Carson: First, let me say that I appreciate the apprehension that friends, parents, and pastors may have as they seek to engage a couple living together who are not married. We value relationships and probably have heard of horror stories like the one you just told, or at least have day dreamed when we need to talk to somebody about how poorly it might go over.
This is an important issue for several reasons. As individuals who follow Christ we want to do everything for God’s glory which includes thinking and acting in ways which honor God. This also would include valuing what God values. Clearly God values marriage so we must also value marriage. So if a particular lifestyle choice such as living together unmarried doesn’t honor God, then we must think through the consequences of those choices. We know that life is generally better for any person who lives in a way that honors God. If a person decides not to live for God’s glory, typically life is harder which is often what we call the law of the harvest. So this choice to live together outside of marriage affects their relationship with God.
As we consider this couple that we love we want God’s best for them, and at the same time we want them to give their best for God. Thus, it is important that we be willing to talk with them. Furthermore, since we also love this couple, Romans 13:8 and 10 become important for our thinking. Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
So this brings up two different issues. If we love this couple, we must try to help them think through this issue. If we fail to try to do our part to help them, then we are not loving them. We, at least potentially, help keep them in a situation which does not honor God and for which God holds them responsible. So if we know what is good for them, but allow fear to keep us from talking with them, then we are the ones not doing the loving thing and potentially increasing God’s disfavor in their lives.
Here is the second issue; Romans 13 helps us think through the fact that since true biblical love – the kind that fulfills the law, the kind that pleases God, the kind that is based off of selflessness, the kind that Jesus Christ demonstrated on the cross, the kind that we are told to imitate in Ephesians 5:1 & 2 – does not cause harm to its neighbor. Yet we know that living together as a man and women in a committed relationship outside of marriage does invite God to bring reproof, correction, and discipline to this my closest neighbor and, according to 1 Thessalonians 4, defrauds my neighbor, then this relationship can’t be based upon true biblical love. Although the love shared together may be pleasing, it may be enjoyable, it may be pleasurable, it is not Christ’s love. True, biblical, Christ-like love is selfless and doesn’t cause harm for the neighbor.
Therefore, since we love this couple it is essential, even though we are apprehensive, that we seek to help them anyway we can.
Heath Lambert: So it is interesting because our love for God and our love for our neighbor who is caught in a sinful struggle is going to drive us to want to say things and engage in their life in a way that might make us uncomfortable.
Kevin Carson: It will.
Heath Lambert: So someone is listening to this and they say, “Ok, I am going to love someone. I am going to love someone in a hard and in a challenging way, but I want to do that well.” What are some strategies that you would recommend to us to keep in mind as we pursue this kind of encounter so that we could have the greatest chance of it going well?
Kevin Carson: That is a great question Heath and it takes some time to think through wisely. Let me suggest just a few key ideas to consider. First, we want to enter into the conversation as learners. Listen for what drives this couple’s heart or thinking. Seek to discern the reasons for choosing to live together without being married.
There are a number of reasons that I have heard over the years, including making sure it is going to work before they totally commit. Sometimes in the country we call it “kicking the tires” or “taking it for a test drive.” So they check it out before commitment takes place. If they were to get married, one or both of them might lose their benefits. This could include benefits from an insurance policy from a deceased parent, retirement benefits from a deceased spouse, loss of benefits received through previous divorce or other kinds of benefits. Another one I have heard – and it fits the general idea – some couples believe they are not ready to get married but it is too expensive to live separately, so they choose to live together. Some may not know it is anything more than non-traditional. They might not know that the Bible actually has something to say about it; that 1 Thessalonians 4 calls this immorality and says to flee immorality. They may not be aware of that, so it is important that we begin as learners.
We also want to enter the conversation with a clearer understanding that what we are discussing is simply sin. What do we know about sin? We know that we share the same sin nature as they. In other words we are sinners too; this conversation is between sinners. I think this helps us remember to be humble in our approach and reminds us of God’s grace both for this couple as well as ourselves as we have this conversation.
Plus, there are some other practical strategies to help us as we plan to discuss this issue. Let me just mention at least one more; don’t assume anything about their walk with Christ. First and foremost of course, do they have a personal relationship with Christ? Also, we want to be aware of what this couple knows about living for Christ. What do they think about their purpose in life? Do they understand biblical decisions making? Do they understand how to deal with lust? Do they understand God’s purpose for sex or God’s purpose for marriage? Do they understand sin and repentance? All of these questions flow out of our general understanding of discipleship and sanctification. Potentially, that is where the problem lies; it is not an all-out effort to not please God in their lives, instead, it is simply that they have never thought through the issues in a way that can be beneficial.
Heath Lambert: So those are some things we should do, what about some things we should avoid? We don’t want to assume that our instincts on this are always right. What are some mistakes that we can make as we draw near to people to try to help them with this sin?
Kevin Carson: Another great question; let me just mention two things. First, we do not want to approach a couple with a problem without having thought through some possible solutions. What practical help are you going to provide if they take what you say seriously and decide to separate? Another way of thinking about it is this; what hindrances stand in the way of them making a decision to follow Christ in the matter of living together unmarried? Once you think about and through these issues, then you have to decide what can you do to help. Are you willing, for instance, to allow someone to stay in your home? Are you willing to help them get an apartment? Is there a garage apartment or a mother-in-law suite available from someone in the church that you could offer? Are you willing to help pack boxes and move them? Do you have some money to share to get a hotel room for a couple of nights until they could get it worked out?
Here is my point: you do not want to go to confront this couple without some pointed, specific help that you can also offer them. You do not want to give them the law without offering them some potential means of fulfilling it. Plus, we don’t want to assume that this is the most important issue to deal with first. There may be much bigger issues in the lives of this couple that are more important than the issue of living together. I am not suggesting in any way that this issue is not important, because it is – it is vitally important – however we must use discernment to know when to address this issue verses some other issue in the life of the counselee.
Heath Lambert: So, just the other day I was speaking with a woman who has a grown son. He is living with a woman and they are not married. She has talked with him about it but they haven’t changed their lifestyle. She invited him to come home for Christmas and he said that he would only come home for Christmas if his girlfriend could stay in the bedroom with him at her home and she said ‘no’ and it went very, very badly. They are very much estranged now; he doesn’t want anything to do with her, neither does this young lady want anything to do with her boyfriend’s mom.
This woman is just devastated. She is trying to honor the Lord, she is trying to point out sin to her son, she is trying to say, “Hey there are some things we can do in our home and there are some things we can’t do, and this is one of them.” She is just devastated about the distance in her relationship with her son. What would you say to a woman like that who has addressed this issue, it has gone poorly, and now there is distance in that relationship?
Kevin Carson: Well, I think there are a few things to think about. First, this lady or any particular person or couple would have to ask themselves questions such as, when I initially brought it up, did I come at it from a heart of humility? Did I come at it with words that represented God’s grace as well as represented truth? Did I speak in ways that allow the person listening to hear my heart and love for them verses my heart and love for a particular principle? So I would say that is the first issue; ‘did I come at it humbly?’
Another question to ask is what is my general attitude? Is this like a bobble head so that you can’t miss it? You look at a person and all you can see is the fact that this bobble head is going back and forth. Is it a bobble head issue so that every time you think about this issue it is the primary thing on your mind, or is it their general walk with Christ and whether or not they are honoring God in other areas? So, I would say put it in the bigger perspective and consider what your attitude is.
A third thing would be when they are around you and when you spend time with other family members, does it become an issue of gossip or is there always a sense of awkwardness? Another thing you could do is to ask yourself, how often do I try to love this person that is living with my son or my daughter? Am I creatively serving them? Am I sending them notes? Do I tell them I pray for them and pray for them in terms of general life, not pray for them to repent and change.
Now I don’t think a parent should change their house rules, that is really on the son that he is not willing to submit to his parents because there is a mutual respect there that ought to happen. But in general terms it is usually that the pressure is on the one who confronts and the pressure is at the attitudinal level. Are they full of humility such that they are willing to deal with this issue and keep it in its proper perspective and then deal with their child and their relationship in general? Are they seeing this as one area they need to change, not the area; it is not make or break. In God’s timing, sometimes those relationships produce children and the best thing those children need is a grandparent that loves them and is honoring to God and is trying to serve them. So you have to ask yourself, is this the issue that I want to wage war over or is it something I want to deal with and then keep moving, hopefully to seek repentance in multiple areas?