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Christian Ethics

Family Issues

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Back when the dinosaurs ruled the planet and I was a young boy, there was a peculiar social custom. In the presence of a child, no one mentioned the word “cancer.” Mrs. So-and-so had “stomach trouble” or “liver trouble” but not cancer. Somehow cancer was not quite socially acceptable then. But perhaps my youth was spent in a collection of overly stuffy churches.

The general technique is this: there are acceptable sins (or consequences) and those which must be hushed up. It’s now OK to admit that a Christian would actually get cancer – and suffer for it. But there are other things that are still in our closet.

Acceptable Sins and Consequences

See if any of these sound familiar to you:


Of all the changes in the church since the days of the dinosaur this is the largest You may test it this way: Suppose a young couple, new to the area, comes to our church one Sunday morning. They start to get involved with the church, happily performing the works of service a Christian should perform. Gradually it becomes known that the two are living together. What would our church do?

One humorist suggested that we should offer a ceremony in which the couple take the “Vows of Cohabitation” – to wit:

A Rite for Doing the Wrong Thing

I, N., take you, N., to be my live-in lover, to share some of my bed and some of my bills. I enter this arrangement with no real expectation that it will work out—which is why I am choosing not to marry you.

Let’s face it, we don’t know each other well enough to make a commitment, we just like sleeping together. My decision—to the extent that it was a decision and not just an impulse driven by fear, loneliness, or lust—is based on hormones, economics, and convenience. If this arrangement becomes inconvenient, I retain the right to leave you at any time for any reason and not be accountable to anyone for my decision.

I will stay as long as you interest me and meet my needs, or until someone I like better comes along. Because I expect the same from you, I will maintain a certain emotional distance from you. That way, if either of us decides to leave, it won’t hurt as much. It will also make it possible for me to more quickly enter into a similar arrangement with someone else.

If you get really sick or lose your looks or prove to be a person who has deep needs which may drain my emotional energy, I will try to stick around for a respectable period of time so I won’t appear shallow or self-absorbed, but then I will probably leave and never look back. I expect you to do the same.

If our birth-control method fails and we conceive a child, we can either get married out of guilt or shame, or one of us can leave—believing the other will not be a fit parent—or we can have the baby killed to preserve the sanctity of our personal freedom. Raising children, after all, requires commitment and responsibility—the very things we are trying to avoid by living together without getting married.

If we do decide at some point to make a public commitment to one another (like you, I don’t like using that m word just yet), I also realize that our decision to live together before making that commitment significantly reduces our chances of having a successful marriage. (Oops, I said the m word—but you know I didn’t mean it.)

I feel better having said these things to you. I hope you feel better having heard them. It’s good that neither of us has any illusions. 

(“A Rite for the Uncommitted” by Samuel Pascoe in the May, 2001 edition of Touchstone Magazine. www.touchstonemag.com)

Ok, so we’re not going to perform such rites (I hope.) But there still is one place where the church must approve or disapprove: suppose such a couple decides to get married. Does the church shout hallelujah, proclaim a victory over sin and grant the couple the full blessing of the church? Or do we insist that they make at least some attempt to cease cohabitation before getting married? In a world in which, by one estimate, 95% of the college age youth have sex before marriage, just what should the church do?

It’s not just a problem in dealing with the young. My wife’s father, at the age of 92, is in the process of buying a house and moving in with a woman half his age. What should we do when he asks us over for dinner with his erum[1]?

Divorce and remarriage

A similar situation exists in the problem of divorce and remarriage. Or, more correctly, a similar situation fails to exist. We seem to have dropped any thought of divorce and remarriage as being of interest to the church. As one elder’s wife explained it to me, “Our job is to wait until the divorce is over, and then help pick up the pieces.” Even that little is seldom done these days. You think not? Permit me a couple of questions:

  • How much assistance do we offer to divorced couples dealing with “co-parenting” issues? So often the children are pawns in a continuous game of “I hate my ex-.” Do we assist, or do we ignore?
  • Take it on the other end. The Bible clearly teaches that remarriage after divorce is usually sin. Suppose someone divorced decides to follow Christ’s command and stay single and celibate. What’s our attitude towards them?[2]
Blended families

Suppose that divorced man marries a divorced woman, both having custody of their own children. Poof! Instant blended family. Does the church have anything to say to help make this a success? Perhaps so:

  • Surely we could provide counseling to both; if they are to be married in the church, we should so provide. The problem of “children as pawns” does not go away; it becomes more complicated.
  • The kids are going to need some help as well – they are dealing with the consequences of their parents sin. That sometimes gives them a load of guilt; it also produces divided loyalties.

Does anyone know of a ministry to such families? Particularly one which aids the local church to do the right things?

Unacceptable Sins and Consequences

We don’t really act like we consider cohabitation and divorce as sins; but that doesn’t mean we’ve given up the idea that there are unacceptable sins out there.


The dividing point of liberal vs. conservative churches in Protestant America is homosexuality. In liberal Christianity’s view, we are to wax euphoric over this newly approved way to love, all the while looking down the nose at the “right wing fundamentalist” view.[3] To hear them tell it, it’s only the stupid or ignorant who could possibly oppose homosexuality. Why? There are two primary arguments:

  • “It’s genetic.” The idea here is that being homosexual is something you are born with; you have no choice. As of late this has declined – for the simple reason that pedophiles make the same argument. Already the drums are beating for the next group of sexually persecuted to be liberated. When second grade girls dress in fishnet hose, can we really say they are not yet sexual creatures? (The implications are disturbing.)
  • “We have a right to privacy; what we do in private is none of your concern.” It is when you then proclaim it to be righteousness for the church. Distinguish, please, between what the law of the land might enforce as opposed to the righteousness expected of every Christian. We no longer prohibit adultery by law – does that make it any less a sin?
Sexual abuse (including incest)

The difficulty in dealing with incest is that the church doesn’t want to admit it could happen within their fellowship – and when it does happen, we therefore don’t know what to do with it. Many years ago we had a preacher who should have been more aware of his tendency to gossip. He told me, “in complete confidence,” that one of the elders (he named him) was committing incest with his daughters. There was nothing I was asked to do about it; just gossip. Can you imagine how difficult it was to be in the same room and respect that elder? Whatever the right solution to the problem was, we didn’t find it.[4]

Worse, the threat of false accusation has made us leery of believing it happens. It’s a common threat during divorce; she threatens to “expose” him. It’s one of those accusations which is extremely difficult to deal with. Deny it, and people assume you do so only to escape the consequences. Your kids don’t remember anything about it? That’s “repressed memory” – just that much more evidence that you did it.[5] In fact, the lack of evidence is generally the best proof of guilt. It’s an ugly sin and you’re supposed to hide it.

But the act does occur; which leads us to the next issue: what happens when the daughter is pregnant by dad, or stepbrother, or …? Many conservative Christians consider this moral ground for abortion, which says something about our view of incest. Is it? And if the young lady decides to have the baby, what does that say about her? Worse, knowing all this, how does the church treat the mother – and child? Often enough the victim of incest takes on much of the blame by deciding to keep the child.

Family violence

The most common instance of family violence is, of course, beating the wife. This is indeed a work of Satan. You must remember, Satan cannot create; he can only twist what God creates. God gives the man authority over his wife, with the commensurate responsibility and model of servant leadership. Satan keeps the authority – and nothing else. Often enough this air of authority is enough to keep the wife from complaining. Until she shoots him. Is that self-defense? Worse, did the church know about it – and do nothing?

Why would a woman put up with this? One reason is simply this: do you want to send the prime breadwinner in the family to jail, and lose his income? A rich woman can afford this, and her husband knows it. The poor woman can’t afford it, and that’s clear also.

There is one hope in this: that family needs to bring Christ into their lives. It is all too common for a Bible teacher or pastor to find themselves counseling such people. From that experience I would tell you that this happens only after hopelessness overwhelms fears of poverty and rejection. Call the fire department as soon as you see flames; don’t wait until the whole house is ablaze.

Positive steps for the church

So what can we do about this? What should we do about this?

Example – living and words

First, we can by our example as well as words make it very clear: a Christian marriage (and family) are different. By our actions we can teach others that faithfulness is still a virtue; that the man’s authority is worked out in service; that we consider divorce “not an option.”

But we also need to weigh our words. An elder’s wife at our church (Eastside) once told my wife, “You need to divorce that man.” Can you imagine the effect that had on the other women within hearing? We were new to the church at the time; it certainly shaped our view of the church. (And it hasn’t changed that much, either).

You can see the problem: we have been molding the Scripture to fit our ideas. We hear from the pulpit that a wife is no longer in submission to her husband; she owes him merely “respect.” Another minister once told me that if his wife ever lost her face or her figure, she was begging for a divorce – and she knew it. (He’s right; she does know it). Can this be right?

Taking the Scripture seriously

Perhaps we might look at this set of problems in reverse. Suppose we took the Scriptures seriously – really, I mean it – what would we conclude?

  • If you are really “created by God” - then what? What does that say about incest and family violence? Should a child of God do these things? Should a child of God be forced to put up with such things? Does “Good Samaritan” extend to such people? What a difference it makes – being animal with a soul, versus being just an animal.
  • If the Bible really tells us that there is a divine plan for marriage – even if it doesn’t fit into modern feminism – then what? Should we have the courage to endure the slanders and pity of others?
  • If the Bible says divorce is a sin, then what? Can we possibly see divorce as the last resort, not the “logical solution?”

I submit that our problem is that we don’t take the Scriptures seriously. We have groups to help you through the aftermath of your divorce; we don’t have groups to help you prevent divorce. Who would show up at a “twelve step” meeting for those who commit incest? Or even those who are victims of it?

If it’s sin, let’s call it that – and treat it as God prescribes. There is only one qualification for becoming a Christian: you need to be a sinner first. Even if that sin is socially unacceptable, the love of Christ, the fellowship of the church should be given freely. The church should not be a “fashion follower” but the hospital for the sinner – even the socially unacceptable ones.

[1] Erum – cohabitation partner. From the difficulty of introducing such a person to your aunt from Iowa, as in, “This is my er, um, …”

[2] I have known such a person; she kept that fact a secret. She was afraid she was going to be viewed as both abnormal and “holier-than-thou.”

[3] Like the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church who told their right wing that they should “hold their truths more lightly.” It seems that Episcopalian truth comes in several flavors.

[4] King David had a similar problem dealing with Amnon and Tamar (2nd Samuel 13).

[5] Yes, I have been accused. By my sister. At my father’s funeral (she accused him, too).

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