I enjoy John Piper’s “Ask Pastor John” feature and often benefit from hearing (or reading) his answers to the more than 1200 questions he has taken on so far. It reflects a lifetime of studying Scripture and applying its principles. He recently answered a question on whether premarital pregnancy nullifies the principle of “unequally yoked” and I want to interact with it just a little. Here’s the question:
A young couple at my church is unmarried, and they have a child together. They are now living in a state of chastity, apart. The man is not a believer. She is. They plan to marry, though I have advised her not to marry him unless he becomes a believer (based on 2 Corinthians 6:14–18). Categorically speaking, am I correct here? Or does the bringing of a child together into the world override Paul’s ‘unequally yoked’ principle?”
Piper’s answer is unsurprising to those who are familiar with his ministry and theology. “I think Patrick’s interpretation and instincts are correct.” He points to 1 Corinthians 7:39 as a key text: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” and points out, “That’s Paul’s explicit statement. Christians marry only people ‘in the Lord’ — who are Christians.” He says, “I think these commands from the apostle stand as the perpetual guide for marriage in the Christian church, and the fact that a person has had sex before marriage, or even given birth to a child before marriage, does not change this instruction.”
He also goes to 1 Corinthians 6:15–18 to show that the one-flesh union does not create a marriage covenant. Therefore, two people who sleep together or who conceive a child together are not now under an obligation to marry. “Sexual union is precious, unique, and profound. It is intended by God as the consummation of a marriage covenant. But by itself — isolated out there in some brothel or in some house at the beach as teenagers — it does not create a covenant. Isolated from the marriage covenant, it doesn’t create a marriage covenant.”
I mostly agree with Piper—with his conclusions and with the biblical reasoning through which he gets there. It’s clear: neither sex nor pregnancy creates a marriage covenant; therefore, neither sex nor pregnancy are appropriate grounds for violating a scriptural principle. I very much appreciate his clear pastoral concern and his desire to carefully apply biblical wisdom to a difficult situation. But I do think there are circumstances in which the opposite counsel can be considered a legitimate alternative.
(Parenthetical note: the fact that there are varying approaches to an issue like this one shows that we should treat it cautiously and humbly. In such cases, it seems to me the pastor’s role is not to demand one action over another, but to advise about which he thinks is most biblical, leaving the decision to the individual. He needs to be explicit whether he means to communicate, “I believe one approach is correct and the other is sinful” or “I believe both approaches are potentially valid, but here’s the one I think is most consistent with Scripture.”)
A difficulty inherent in any “advice column” approach is that it poses a question without providing much context—even context that can be helpful or even crucial to properly assessing a situation. In this case, this is all we know: the couple is young; the woman is pregnant with the man’s child; they are currently living in a state of chastity, apart; and she is a believer while he is not. The reality of their lives, of course, is every bit as colorful and complex as yours and mine.
Now, how might I think differently about this situation? I’ll preface my answer with this: We do not want to function as pragmatists who weigh the positives and negatives of different approaches and choose the one that seems least offensive or most propitious. We also do not want to function as relativists who bend truth to suit our situations. Rather, we want to function as Christians who acknowledge the necessity of seeking out and heeding the wisdom of the Bible.
Yet the Bible does not speak clearly and unequivocally to the matter at-hand. It does not say “thou must marry an unbeliever with whom you’ve conceived a child” or “thou must not marry an unbeliever with whom you’ve conceived a child.” This means we have to look at broader biblical principles and apply them to this specific situation. And, indeed, that’s exactly what Piper has done. But just as there’s a principle that would say, “they should not marry” I think we could find a principle that indicates, “it may be advisable to marry.” That principle is found in the Bible’s emphasis on family, on the goodness of the family, on the unique roles of both father and mother, and so on. (To consider: Instructions for child-raising in Ephesians 6:4; the necessity of provision in 1 Timothy 5:8; the “remain as you are” principle in 1 Corinthians 7:10-17; etc.) The Bible makes it clear that family is precious and good and not to be disrupted. Obviously it assumes that children follow a wedding rather than precede it. It generally (though not exclusively) assumes children are being raised by two Christian parents. But it was written in a time and culture far removed from our own and that leaves us having to ask, “How do we apply this to today, in a culture like this one?”
The reality of the Western world today is that families exist where marriage does not. In the past marriage initiated a new family, but today it often merely formalizes an existing one. Cohabitation gives societal blessing to not only living and sleeping together, but to having children together. Here in suburban Canada I’ve seen many couples live together for years and have children together long before they finally get married. Society considers them a family, workplaces consider them a family, government considers them a family, and, of course, they consider themselves a family. The fact that they have different last names and haven’t exchanged vows is considered completely immaterial. As Christians, we would err to consider them married, but we would also err to not consider them a family or at least like a family.
I think in the situation Piper speaks to we can assume this is a young couple that began a sexual relationship and conceived a child. They were never a family. In such a situation I would likely agree with his counsel—it may be wisest and most consistent with Scripture to not get married. But a situation many pastors have had to deal with (or will soon have to deal with) is something like this: “We have been living together for years. We have children together and are raising them together as their father and mother. I’ve become a Christian, but he hasn’t. He is willing to be married. Should I marry him?” A scenario like this leaves us “caught” between two things the Bible would call us to avoid: Destroying a family on the one hand, and becoming unequally yoked on the other. But to tell them they must not marry is to tell them to do something akin to divorce—to disrupt what is essentially a family. In such situations, and especially where there is not only pregnancy but also existing children, perhaps it would be best to advocate something like this: Stop sleeping together today; get married tomorrow; continue to be a family.
Where sin and ignorance have established deep roots, there will never be easy answers or painless solutions. Disrupting a family is difficult and painful; marrying an unbeliever is bound to be difficult and painful. Sadly, sometimes the only options available to us are painful and less-than-perfect ones. In situations like the ones John Piper and I have responded to, we must prayerfully consider the Scriptures specific words and general themes, then boldly heed wisdom and conscience, trusting the Lord is eager and able to forgive all sin and redeem all trouble.
(After writing this article I found an excellent one from D.A. Carson who does a far better job than I do of answering a similar question. He says, “One cannot ‘undo’ this sustained sexual, common-law, union. Thus to demand that a couple tear themselves apart after they’ve been living together for, say, five years, with perhaps a child or two, simply won’t do. What needs to be urged upon them is that they get ‘married’ legally—i.e., publicly, according to the cultural standards of the state.”)