Rev. Wayne Mueller
In a bygone era, when people were still ashamed to talk about it (Ephesians 5:12), it was called cohabitation. Today’s terms are more unashamedly descriptive: living together, shacking up, living in. Still, these more picturesque terms are mere euphemisms for what is going on behind closed doors. Not even the open-minded and open-mouthed Me Generation has the courage to come right out and say, “My friend and I are fornicating.”
Intimate sexual relationships outside of marriage are not only taking place among the young and foolish pleasure seekers in our society. Some middle-aged divorced persons want new companionship without commitment. Elderly widowers and widows may want partnership without pooling their financial resources for retirement. The reasons and excuses given by those who live together without marriage vary according to circumstance. But the modus operandi of this crime against God is always the same: people want to get something without giving up anything.
Use of a Good Gift
We have learned from Scripture that human sexuality is a good gift from a good God. But along with all of his gifts God lovingly sends instructions for proper and happy use. Money, for instance, is a gift of God. His instructions? Do not covet, cheat, bribe, or steal, but give gladly and generously for your own family, your church, and society’s needs. Health, too, is a gift of God. Instructions for beneficial use? Treat your body as God’s temple, work hard and honestly and get enough sleep.
So it is also with God’s good gift of human sexuality. Sexual intimacy, like all of God’s gifts, is used profitably only when we realize that we are stewards of the gift. That means we use the gift as our Master has directed. And God has directed that sexual intimacy be used only inside the bond of marriage.
God Gives Loving Instructions
In Genesis 2:24 God says that sexual intimacy is to take place only after a man and a woman have established a permanent relationship through mutual commitment. First, “a man will leave his father and mother.” Leaving one’s parents and breaking previous family ties does not take place in a vacuum. It will rarely be done secretly, without parents and family members knowing about it. Within the spiritual family of a Christian congregation one will also want his brothers and sisters in Christ to know that he intends to begin a new family unit.
The second thing which takes place before sexual intimacy is that a man will “be united to his wife.” The man commits himself to living with his wife for a lifetime. Before he asks or demands sexual satisfaction from her, he gives himself unconditionally to her. He gives before he takes. Jesus says that this is a permanent promise, not a conditional one (Matthew 19:6). Our marriage vows reflect this commitment with the words, “Till death do us part” (Romans 7:2).
And then, after the announcement to family and after the unconditional promises of both partners to live with each other until death — and only then — do husband and wife practice the sexual intimacy which is now a part of their “one flesh” relationship.
For a man or a woman to expect pleasure and companionship from another without first giving the promise of faithfulness is a sin against God’s instructions about the enjoyment of sexual intimacy. It will always be short term pleasure with long term pain. It is a presumptuous selfishness which makes a spiritual understanding of the popular term “making love” impossible. Taking before giving cannot be love.
God Defines Love For Us
At the heart of sinful premaritial and extramarital relationships is society’s perversion of the Bible’s definition of love. Christians learn the meaning of love in Sunday school: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). God defined love by giving himself without the promise of return. “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God did not experiment with love or try it out for a while to see how we would respond. He did not send his only Son to earth on a trial basis. He gave before he received. In fact, although he knew ahead of time that his love would often be ignored, rejected, and put to the test, “Christ loved the church and give himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
God’s love is true love. To love as God has loved is to commit yourself unconditionally to another. This kind of love which is expressed in the marriage vow alone elevates sexual intimacy above animal mating. Sex outside of marriage is purely pagan fornication, a perversion of the “one flesh” concept of Scripture (1 Corinthians 6:16). The bed before the promise is sin. But when two people love each other as God first loved us, they commit themselves. They have “true love.” Human sexuality is an expression of their commitment instead of a selfish demand for pleasure. They show that they are stewards of God’s gift because they enjoy it as the Master has directed it.
What You Can Do
The statistics are discouraging. Recent polls by evangelicals among their own young people are shocking. We are disheartened by the whisperings in our own congregations. But what may keep many of us from witnessing against the coarse sins of premarital sexual intimacy in society is our own guilty conscience.
Nobody I know has a spiritual track record free of sexual stumbling. There are the sins of youth, the lusts of discontent in middle age, and the wearied toleration of the world’s ways in old age. We hear fellow Christians say, “That’s just the way it is today. You may as well learn to live with it.” Few forms of media advertising and entertainment fail to appeal to a selfish use of our sexuality. If God has graciously kept our words and actions pure, our sexually sinful flesh has prevented the Spirit from dominating our thoughts.
So, we cannot approach those who live in sin as though we have none ourselves. But we must approach them, and our own guilty consciences must not block the way. Before we can lay down the law to fornicators, we must lay our own sexual sins at the cross of Christ. Jesus died for the adultery of David (2 Samuel 12:13) and of the woman caught in the act (John 8:11). And, thank God, he died also for my sexual sins and yours. His blood not only cleanses our consciences from sin, it gives us the reason not to continue committing those sins (Hebrews 9:14) and to witness against those who do (Ephesians 5:11).
Take a Spiritual Approach
There are no specifics in Scripture for dealing with all of the difficult family and social situations which may arise because a man and a woman are living together without marriage. Sin always causes confusion and hurt. But there are some very important guides God offers us in his word.
Your witness to the sinner will not be clear unless you are first of all clear yourself on the issue. Study your Bible. Review your catechism. Make your witness on the basis of what God says, so that you cannot be accused of merely presenting your personal moral preference. If you stand firm on the word you will not be taken in by the many rational arguments for this sin — that everybody’s doing it, or that it is no longer forbidden by civil law. After discussing sexual sins St. Paul writes, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:6). There are always many good reasons for sin (Genesis 3:6), but before God there are no excuses (Romans 1:18-20).
More important is your desire to approach your sinning brother spiritually (Galatians 6:1). Saying nothing at all will usually leave the impression that you condone the sin (Ephesians 5:7,11). Anger and ill-chosen words may drive the sinner farther from God (James 1:19,20; 3:2). A spiritual approach means you have the good of the sinner’s soul as your primary concern. You speak about his sin, not to “straighten him out,” but to lead him to repentance and faith in the Savior who rescued you. A spiritual approach is a loving approach. Even when you are laying down the law, the sinner will see that you are committed to giving him something for his own good rather than taking from him.
God will bless your witness in response to your prayers and in line with his will. God will forgive and give strength before he expects any change or response from the sinner. When we share that concept of God’s committed love, the sinner will learn what true love is and begin to practice sexual intimacy as a gift of God.