And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass; I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
What follows is an article by Virginia Miller Lettinga appearing in the January 20, 2012 edition of theBanner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. The title of the article is: “Parenting: Mom We’re Living Together.”
She stirred her coffee nervously and announced in a low voice, “My mother has moved in with a friend she met in her retirement community. I like him. Really. I think he’s good for her. But they’ll screw up their finances if they get married, so they didn’t really consider it. I don’t know what to say to my kids.”
“I miss church,” said the young woman who dropped into the university chaplaincy where I work. “I miss the singing. God matters to me. I want to hear someone explain the Bible to me. But I’m living with my boyfriend. He’s not a Christian, but he wants me to be happy and encourages me to go to church and even offered to go with me. I don’t want to go because I’m afraid they’d only condemn us.”
“Dear Mom,” wrote a university student, “I wanted to let you know that John and I are planning to move in together next semester. I know this will be disappointing to you, and want to reassure you that I value the principles you gave me, but we have been dating for a long time and we really love and respect each other. Sharing a single apartment would also save a lot of money. I still expect us to get married sometime, and I hope this makes sense to you. We’re not turning our backs on God, but we think this will be best for us.”
Perhaps you know of a situation like one of these. Cohabiting—living together as a sexual couple without being married—has become common in North America. Recent census data in the U.S. and Canada shows that the number of unmarried couples living together has exponentially increased in the last 20 years. And if George Barna’s research is to be believed, there is little difference between the attitudes and behavior of young adults raised in the church and their unchurched peers (to view this research, visit tinyurl.com/BarnaStudy). Moreover, Barna names “church experiences related to sexuality” as one of the top six reasons young Christians leave the church.
This should concern us. The gap between what has become cultural practice and what is taught in churches has become so vast that people don’t expect relevant advice for their sexual lives from their church and can’t imagine finding grace from the church in the midst of their choices. Even though families increasingly muddle through in a loving way in spite of disappointment—utterly casting off a daughter or son over “shacking up” with someone is largely the drama of a previous generation—few can imagine finding a church that could also lovingly muddle through.
We dream of faithful, loving, and committed partnerships—marriage—for our daughters and sons. For our friends. For ourselves. We recognize God’s blessing in and for such relationships. To an older generation of Christians, cohabitation appears as a challenge to this dream, a distorted second-best. But when I said that to a cluster of students—Christians and nonbelievers—at my university, they were all surprised.
“My parents really don’t want me to think of getting married until I’ve graduated and found a job,” explained a Christian student. “And that’s probably going to be years away. It would be weird to wait until I was 30 to have sex. But I guess I’m not likely to actually live with someone until we’re married.”
“I think my parents would be upset if I didn’t live with my boyfriend before we got married!” stated a non-Christian, somewhat bewildered by my assertion. “They’d think we’re just crazily throwing a party and weren’t taking the relationship and our commitments seriously.”
While Christians participate in our culture’s enthusiasm for living as we wish when it comes to money, fashion, career choices, cars, and entertainment, surely it should be no surprise that young people assume sex is part of the smorgasbord of things that they can grab as they desire. Hedging sexuality with rules—going this far is OK; that touch is too much; looking at pornography is bad but Victoria Secret’s “angels” are OK—only creates a new kind of legalism. We need to grab hold of the idea of offering up our bodies as living sacrifices in a fresh way. But cohabiting couples should not necessarily be the first people to face this challenge.
So how should we respond?
1. Remember the law of Christ—the rule of love. That rule is more important than drawing a line in the sand. Unmarried couples live together for varied reasons: seniors in a retirement community, new Christians who are in an established relationship with an unbelieving partner,¹ a pair of recent university grads who plan to get married eventually. To respond lovingly, you need to know a person’s story. Galatians 6:2calls for gentleness and patience as our response and goes on to talk about restoration, not condemnation, for Christians.
2. Be forthright as well as gentle. Explain your concerns. God does want his people to live within married covenants rather than merely cohabit. You can respectfully refuse to let your 20-something son share the guest room with his partner when they visit, but you should do your best to gently explain your thinking and make their visit possible.
3. Advocate for faithfulness and commitment—within cohabitation if that is the starting point. Support loving, exclusive sexual partnership—even if it lacks the legal status of marriage. This does not mean you consider marriage insignificant; it does mean you are willing to love people as they are.
4. Hold off on your judgment. What would your judgment accomplish? Ask questions: Why are you living together without getting married? What can I do to support you and love you without giving you the impression that I think this is right? In a youth culture in which hook-ups are unremarkable, cohabitation is a kind of commitment toward faithfulness, sexual exclusivity, and responsible shared life.
5. Drop the old arguments and scare tactics against cohabitation. They’ve lost credibility. Cohabitation may once have made long-term marital success less likely (a claim you can find on many Christian websites), but that is not based on reliable data. It is the casualness of the relationships rather than cohabitation itself that predicts future trouble.
6. Avoid biblical proof texts about the “abomination of fornication.” In both the Old and New Testaments, God affirms marriage as a picture of his relationship with his people, and so it is right to honor marriage and to aim for it. But consider Jesus’ response when the woman who was caught in adultery was brought to him (John 8:11).
7. Challenge people to delve into Scripture and to grow in God. Other parts of our lives fall into order when first things really are first. A friend in a large student church in Oxford, England, caught our attention when she said, “We used to have a sermon on sexual morality each term. Then we noticed that hearing a clear sermon on sexual morality was less successful in teaching sexual purity than getting the students to dig into the Bible themselves. A year of consciously trying to apply Scripture reshaped people’s lives—including their sexual lives—in ways the old sermons never did.” God himself became the center and everything else fell into place.
Jesus sharply admonished the church of Thyatira for allowing the woman Jezebel to remain a member of the church (Rev. 2:20). Jesus required the church to discipline this Jezebel and, if necessary, to cast her out. Three sins characterized this Jezebel. First, she “calleth herself a prophetess.” Lettinga, too, is guilty of this. A note included with her article in the Banner says she once claimed to share with her husband “the position of Christian Reformed campus minister.” Lettinga calls herself a minister, but God does not. As far as God is concerned, women can only wickedlypretend to be ministers but they cannot in fact be ministers (I Cor. 14:34; I Tim. 2:11). Second, this Jezebel lived in fornication. There is no reason to believe that Lettinga lives in fornication. However, Lettinga is guilty of the third and distinguishing sin of the Jezebel mentioned in Revelation 2:20—she teaches and seduces God’s “servants to commit fornication.” Lettinga teaches that the evil fornication of cohabitation should be tolerated by the church. Lettinga is a modern-day Jezebel.
Lettinga’s call to place God at “the center” rings hollow. In her entire article she puts people before God. God’s Word has something to say about fornication, but Mrs. Lettinga says those passages are not to be used. She knows that God calls cohabitation an “abomination of fornication,” but she advises that it is best to avoid calling it that. Refusing to call cohabitation sin, Lettinga puts lipstick on it, describing it as “a kind of commitment toward faithfulness, sexual exclusivity, and responsible shared life.”
By her twisting of the teachings of the Bible to accommodate them to the philosophies of men, Lettinga reveals what she thinks of God and of His Word and truth. She appeals to John 8:11 as if Jesus shares her views that people living in adultery should not be told they are living in sin but should only be encouraged to see that marriage is a better option than cohabitation. But Jesus did not encourage the woman living in adultery to get married. He told her to “go and sin no more.” Jesus called for her to repent and leave her sin behind. Lettinga’s teaching is contrary to Jesus’ teaching. She teaches that cohabiters should not be judged as sinners who need to turn from their sins, but that they should be viewed positively as people who are seeking to live in a committed relationship but need to be encouraged that it would be better for them to marry.
Mrs. Lettinga promotes the false idea that God loves sinners “as they are” and therefore Christians should also love sinners “as they are.” If she meant by this only that God loves sinners, then perhaps we could accept the statement that God loves sinners “as they are.” But Mrs. Lettinga’s teaching is that God loves sinners “as they are” and does not demand change. Even if they do not change, God will still go on loving them, and Christians should love them too. But this is not the teaching of Scripture. God loves sinners with a powerful love that changes them. In His love God renews His people in the image of Jesus Christ. In His love God calls sinners to repent and leave sin behind. Mrs. Lettinga disapproves of the previous generation’s “drama” of “casting off a daughter or son over ‘shacking up.'” But the truth is that the previous generation’s actions reflected the love of God. Sin was called sin. Sinners were called to repent. The truth was spoken in love for God and the sinner.
Mrs. Lettinga’s teaching must be seen for what it is, a call to love sin and sinners more than God. Mrs. Lettinga may claim to encourage people to marry and be sexually pure. But what she is really teaching is, and this is what especially the young people will hear in her teachings, “go ahead and have sex outside of marriage. God still loves you and we do too.”
This loving tolerance of sin supposedly makes this generation more loving than the previous generation in Lettinga’s opinion. But this generation is foolish. A sin tolerated is a sin that spreads. Unbiblical divorce has been tolerated in the church, and such divorces have multiplied. Every form of fornication will spread throughout the church if the idea that sex outside of marriage is legitimate takes root.
Lettinga subtly indicates she would view homosexuals the same way she views those who cohabitate. She speaks of a son bringing his “partner” home. The “old generation” didn’t use the word partner. Sons had girlfriends and daughters had boyfriends. “Partner” is this generation’s politically correct word that puts homo-sexuality on equal footing with relationships between men and women. Lettinga’s teaching would fill the church with cohabiters, homosexuals, and fornicators of every stripe.
Lettinga herself would probably “draw a line in the sand” when it comes to other forms of fornication. She likely would not argue, for example, that pedophiles should be treated with the same “we love you as you are” attitude that she promotes for cohabiters. But what is to stop the next generation from determining that Lettinga’s line in the sand is unloving, and that the church needs to accept pedophiles? Let me be clear. I am not saying that Lettinga argues for loving pedophiles “as they are” or that the next generation will take this position. The point is that failure to draw a line in the sand where Scripture draws it opens up the possibility that the line can be moved to wherever each generation wants to put it.
To modern-day churches that tolerate fornication and teachers who promote it, Jesus speaks the very same word He spoke to the church of Thyatira: “I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel.” Jesus’ disapproval here is not directed at those who commit fornication. His disapproval is not directed at those who agree with and teach doctrines promoting fornication. Jesus’ disapproval is directed to those who know the doctrines of Jezebel are wrong but did nothing to discipline the woman and protect the church from her evil teachings. To every church that suffers those who teach tolerance for cohabitation, homosexuality, unbiblical divorce, or any other form of fornication, Jesus says, “I have a few things against thee.”
Jesus does not share Thyatira’s tolerance of Jezebel and her disciples. He says, “Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works” (Rev. 2:22-23).
The church that truly loves Jesus Christ will take this word to heart and call those who promote fornication in the church to repent. If the modern-day Jezebels “re-pent not” the faithful church must cast them out. This is the only way to put God at the center and to please Jesus Christ.
¹ Lettinga either is ignorant of or ignores what God says about believers marrying unbelievers in I Corinthians 7:39 and other passages. Space does not permit further discussion on this point. Suffice it to say that parents must teach their children not to marry or date unbelievers. If a child does begin a relationship with an unbeliever there is no room for “muddling through in love.” The word of God to that child is, break up now!