Uh oh, not again. As the new pastor of Leonard Chapel, I had serious concerns over something I had seen in the church directory. The names of two members (let's call them Mr. Brown and Ms. Rice) were in different places in the directory, but under each was the same address. A mistake perhaps? Or, I thought hopefully, maybe a coincidence with some innocent explanation. But alas, this was not the case.
Soon I learned a truth I really did not want to hear. Mr. Brown and Ms. Rice were living together, functioning as husband and wife, but had never married. They had lived together for many years and had a number of children together. Still, for whatever reason, they had never chosen to marry.
I knew this was not a matter to rush into headlong. It needed to be addressed prayerfully and carefully, with the clear wisdom and counsel of the Holy Spirit. And quite honestly, I found myself dragging my feet about dealing with it. Ms. Rice was attending faithfully and was very attentive in church, and Mr. Brown came as well, though not as regularly as Ms. Rice. It appeared that, at least on some level, they were truly seeking God and His righteousness. Why shake things up?
Confrontation -- a Delicate Affair
But over time the Holy Spirit kept nudging me to speak to the couple about their cohabitation. My reluctance to act on that nudge stemmed in part from an incident a few years earlier, when I was serving a different congregation and a similar situation came to light. In that case, two people in key leadership positions in the church were living together, unmarried, and I felt led to confront them. So, carefully, biblically, and with love, I approached them and tried to communicate that, as believers, it is important for us to do things God's way.
Without going into great detail, let me say that my attempt at biblical diplomacy basically blew up in my face. The two individuals were highly offended and, with significant support from others in the church, they took action. In a very short time, I was no longer the pastor of that church, and that was that.
Now, facing a similar case, part of me felt I had good reason to decide not to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Still, the Holy Spirit was definitely directing me otherwise. Then one day, a few months later, the Lord arranged a chance for me to speak with Ms. Rice. I had hoped to meet with the couple together, but that scenario didn't work out that day. Instead, my wife and I had an opportunity to sit and talk quietly with Ms. Rice alone.
Now, allow me to be clear on this point. People are too precious to be handled roughly or abrasively even when we are giving them the truth. God's Word directs us to "speak the truth in love." So the three of us spoke together, calmly and earnestly. And when it came to confronting Ms. Rice, basically, what I said was, "Sister Rice, you come to church regularly and faithfully, you are very attentive, and you seem to have a genuine love for the Lord and the things of God. Yet, I want to graciously bring this issue before you to consider. Why not do things God's way and marry?"
To be honest I didn't know what reaction to expect, whether offense, anger or something else. Initially, Ms. Rice sat graciously and quietly, saying nothing. She seemed to be thinking deeply about my words, and it was as though I could see her heart in her eyes, which were shining with the tears forming there.
The first thing she said was, "How did you know?" After I explained briefly about the "coincidence" of their addresses in the directory, we began to talk further. Afterward, an ongoing, three-way conversation developed between Ms. Rice, my wife, and me, during which I learned that Ms. Rice and Mr. Brown had lived together for more than 20 years, raising their children together and functioning as a family. "I wanted to marry, but we just never did," Ms. Rice confessed one day. "But now," she added, "I really think I want to do this -- to make this step."
It was decided that my wife and I would talk with Mr. Brown about the matter soon -- first alone, then with him and Ms. Rice together. When the four of us met together, Mr. Brown too seemed open to getting married at last. I reminded the couple that it was their decision to make together, but I urged them that it would be wise to take this step and to take it fairly soon -- possibly within the next month or two. I felt certain that postponing the decision indefinitely or deciding but relegating the act itself to a vague "sometime" in the future would be neither helpful nor fruitful.
The two of them decided that, yes, they would marry, and they selected a date, opting for a relatively short "engagement." The two seemed surprisingly excited -- especially Ms. Rice. Her demeanor seemed to me more like that of a 20-year-old virgin bride-to-be than of an unmarried matron who has already shared a home with the father of her children for more than two decades.
Marriage as God Intended
The date arrived and the wedding was beautiful. Their three daughters were in the wedding party, and as I watched their proud procession, I could not help thinking what a positive message and life lesson this was to the three children from their parents. A number of other relatives were either in the wedding or present to witness the momentous occasion. One of Ms. Rice's sisters said that she had been praying for that day for years.
Of course, I personally felt privileged, not only to witness the wedding but also to perform the ceremony. I remember distinctly during those precious moments of the solemnization, seeing the tears of joy streaming down Ms. Rice's face. I believe those were tears that flowed from a heart that was seeing a long-awaited dream fulfilled.
Praise God! Besides making a public affirmation of their lifelong commitment to one another, those unconventional newlyweds also sent a very powerful message out that day -- not only to their family but to the entire community:
That marriage, as God ordained it, is more than a domestic arrangement, more than a "civil union," and far more than something two people just decide to do, or not do, depending on their emotional attachment or personal convenience.
Marriage, done according to the Word and will of God, is a blessed and "honorable estate." It is an act of community and of communion, designed to reflect of the mystery of God's divine love for His people, even as it establishes a family within His kingdom. And although some might argue that the ceremony was superfluous, no one looking upon the radiant face of the bride that day would have needed to ask whether, even after more than 20 years, marriage really matters. It does, because God meant for it to matter.
As tough as that confrontation was, I will never regret having spoken to the couple now known as Mr. and Mrs. Brown. We in the Church must be not only willing but lovingly aggressive to share God's Word with others, and we must aggressively encourage others to live by its wisdom. The Word reveals to us the heart of a God who always wants the best for His children, which is why God's way is the always the best way to do anything.