John Piper: Christians who insist on marrying nonbelievers should be excommunicated

"a Christian who moves ahead with the marriage despite the counsel of elders must be removed from church membership 'to sober the disobedient believer, wake them up, and win them to a repentant and obedient heart and restoration.'" - CPost

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TylerR's picture

Editor

I suppose that is one way to handle it. My main question was what "restoration" could possibly look like in this situation. Piper explains:

So, repentance of sin in marrying an unbeliever does not include divorcing the unbeliever. What it includes is a heart change, not a marriage change: There should be an authentic remorse and regret for disobedience to 1 Corinthians 7:39. There should be an acknowledgment and repentance that the heart was not right in putting man above Christ in the affections. There should be an apology and sorrow for spurning the counsel of God’s leaders in the church. And all of these changes are possible while the marriage stays intact.

How would you know this actually happened? So, you excommunicate the guy, he comes to you and says he's sorry (etc.), then you recommend the church let him back? How do you measure this "heart change?" The guy will likely just not come back. I do not have concrete answers for this scenario, because every context is different. But, I'm not sure this is the best path to restoration.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dgszweda's picture

In my family, my Mom was saved and she married an unsaved man.  While there were repercussions for that decision, my dad was eventually saved.  Both my mom and dad raised 3 bible believing children.

I am not sure excommunication is the right choice.  Having remorse and regret for the disobedience for marrying the wrong person, while you are married to that person, is not a great recipe for success to that marriage.  Nor is it a great starting point for the church to have an influence on the unsaved spouse.  I would rather see energy spent working toward the salvation of the unsaved spouse and the support of the family.  God is sovereign.  The choice that is made will have consequences on its own.

TylerR's picture

Editor

dgszweda wrote:

Having remorse and regret for the disobedience for marrying the wrong person, while you are married to that person, is not a great recipe for success to that marriage.

That is true! This reminds me of a situation I faced several years ago:

  1. Christian woman has unsaved husband. He beats her, then leaves to live with his girlfriend. He then goes to jail for an unrelated crime.
  2. She wants a divorce and asks my advice. I advise her to divorce. She does.
  3. Several month later, she meets a Christian man and begins dating him.
  4. They approach me and ask if I'll marry them. In the two weeks leading up to their request it had become clear to me they were sleeping together.
  5. What should I do?

The scenario was similar, in that the "book answer" would likely accomplish nothing. Should I refuse to marry them because they'd been sleeping together? Should I refuse to marry them until they stopped sleeping together? If so, for how long? Should I really tell them, "I won't marry you until you stop sleeping together and you move out for *** weeks, and THEN it'll be ok for me to marry you?"

At some point it becomes ridiculous. I decided to take the approach of "What's happened has happened. It can't be undone. Let's move forward and do things right from here on out." So, I married them and they're still married today.

My gut instinct, which tends to be pragmatic on these matters, is to take the same approach. To say, "Look, you're going to have problems because you don't see the world the same way. You don't have the same committments or the same understanding of what marriage is." I'd ask them to study marriage from the Bible with me for several weeks, and pray God leads the unbelieving person to salvation or at least awakens her to what marriage really is.

Tim Keller's The Meaning of Marriage and the accompanying DVD is outstanding. The best thing I've ever seen. I recently preached two sermons about marriage before I read the book, and it's like Keller and I were copying from one another. It's almost as if we get our principles from the same book ... ! It's a good resource for your church, and even for evangelism.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dgszweda's picture

One of the areas that I believe we have lost our way is the overburden of keeping the church pure.  This seems to be a growing trend in Christianity, and I definitely see value in that growing trend.  Where I think that it has gone off course a bit is the extra burden that we have placed on this, without really being pragmatic about the sin that we all live in.  Taken too far, in terms of "purity" the church would be empty.  So I think we can all agree that this approach can be taken too far.  With that being the case, we need to be cautious on how far we take it.  We definitely need to demand purity and we shouldn't be soft to the point that we allow open sin taking place in defiance of God's Word.  But I think that we try too hard to drive a black and white line down everything.

josh p's picture

I think a lot of it depends on if there is a “plan” to continue in sin or if it was a spur of the moment bad decision. At my last church, there was a man who was marrying a Catholic woman. His plan was to get married in the Catholic Church. I tried to explain why all this was wrong but was (mostly) dismissed. The pastor or anyone else didn’t seem to concerned about it and they did get married. In my opinion, that should have been a church discipline situation with the goal of restoration. If a man was planning to leave his wife, beating his kids, planning to do any number of sinful things, it seems like an obvious case of starting the process.

Jonathan Charles's picture

If a believer came to join the church and had married an unbelieving spouse 10 years before, would they investigate her about her past decision to marry that person before allowing her to join the church?

josh p's picture

Jonathan Charles wrote:

If a believer came to join the church and had married an unbelieving spouse 10 years before, would they investigate her about her past decision to marry that person before allowing her to join the church?

I can't comment on anyone else's opinion but this would seem to be a bad decision that, if repented of, should not hinder someone joining. To me that's different than "I will do this sinful thing and I don't care what you say about it or what God says about it." 

TylerR's picture

Editor

I have a woman at my church married to an unbeliever. Should I recommend we pursue church discipline against her, because she violated scripture when she married him knowing he was an unbeliever 20+ years ago? If you agree with Piper, why shouldn't I recommend church discipline against her? I am asking seriously, not sarcastically. 

On a related note, my wife and I spent three hours with a female church member last night whose 37 year marriage is crumbling. The marriage has been a mess for a while. Husband has given up. She is glad he moved out, because she just wants it all to be over. I just about convinced her she can't be the one to give up and betray God and her marriage vows. I convinced her to let me arrange a peace summit with both of them, and lay out to each of them several propositions about marriage, what it means, and the obligations on each party, and ask point blank to each of them if they'll commit to try to honor them and agree to benchmarks for the next four weeks. 

She was honest and said she might not agree to them. I asked her to pray about it and agree to the meeting. She agreed. I told her, "whichever one of you goes 'on the record' before God as saying you refuse to honor your vows to God and to the other, you'll know where you stand and can make plans from there." She's intelligent enough to realize she can just hope he says no so she'll have a "get out of jail" free card. But, what am I to do in this situation? Put her under church discipline? Threaten church discipline?

This is all so messy. I don't like rigid formulas for these things. Still, I understand Piper is responding to a generic question on the fly. That's a tough one.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

Piper also takes Heck’s old position (which he later abandoned after not being able to defend it biblically) that all divorce is wrong. He clearly wants to preserve biblical marriage which is great. We just need to be careful not to go beyond the scriptures.

Don Johnson's picture

Note this word in the headline, I think it is the important word that most are ignoring in the mostly irrelevant discussion so far.

If someone joins a church after the fact, they do so acknowledging past mistakes. We've seen this in our ministry. We've also seen an individual *insist* on proceeding in an ostensibly unequal marriage against our counsel. We disciplined him. His subsequent multiple marriages and live in girlfriends shows his profession of salvation was hollow. I think we did the right thing.

There is lots of grace for those who realize their errors, but those who insist on sinning in spite of biblical counsel need to be removed from membership.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

TylerR's picture

Editor

The CP headline is a paraphrase. Here is the actual question from Desiring God:

Here’s one of those questions, from a listener named Eric, a pastor. “Hello, Pastor John! I’m a pastor wondering what should be a corrective course of action when a Christian knowingly marries an unbeliever. The believer was forewarned and went ahead with the union anyway. Now the marriage has been formalized. So how should we, the church, now respond?”

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that punishment #1 for the person who marries an unbeliever is that...they're married to someone who is an unbeliever, and therefore they cannot share the most intimate part of their life with their spouse.  They get to wake up each day and think "I love you, honey, and if you were to die today, I know you would go to Hell."  (I've actually described this with teens in youth group....some felt it was too harsh, but....)

OK, and church discipline is going to meaningfully add to this punishment....how?  And we would think it was a good idea to separate a sister or brother from fellowship to help out her/his unbelieving spouse.....why?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

josh p's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

It strikes me that punishment #1 for the person who marries an unbeliever is that...they're married to someone who is an unbeliever, and therefore they cannot share the most intimate part of their life with their spouse.  They get to wake up each day and think "I love you, honey, and if you were to die today, I know you would go to Hell."  (I've actually described this with teens in youth group....some felt it was too harsh, but....)

OK, and church discipline is going to meaningfully add to this punishment....how?  And we would think it was a good idea to separate a sister or brother from fellowship to help out her/his unbelieving spouse.....why?

Bert, do you agree that a person in unrepentant sin should be disciplined? Especially one of such life-long consequence? The discussion is about a person who sets out to do a sinful thing against all godly counsel. I think most (all?) would agree that a previously repented sin is entirely different. 
Also church discipline is not about separating a person from fellowship. It's about restoring them to Christlikeness. It may result in that if the person is unrepentant. 

josh p's picture

"I have a woman at my church married to an unbeliever. Should I recommend we pursue church discipline against her, because she violated scripture when she married him knowing he was an unbeliever 20+ years ago? If you agree with Piper, why shouldn't I recommend church discipline against her? I am asking seriously, not sarcastically. "

No you shouldn't if she has repented. At that point she is a testament to the wonderful forgiveness of God, as we all are for different reasons. I agree that this stuff is messy and I'm no pastor but the situation seems straightforward. 

Bert Perry's picture

Josh, sure, the person in unrepentant sin ought to be disciplined--the question is how and by whom?  My comment is merely to suggest that in a situation where the sinner is bound to find that he's acted in haste and is free to repent at leisure, that an additional punishment by the church amounts to little more than piling on.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I asked:

I have a woman at my church married to an unbeliever. Should I recommend we pursue church discipline against her, because she violated scripture when she married him knowing he was an unbeliever 20+ years ago? If you agree with Piper, why shouldn't I recommend church discipline against her? I am asking seriously, not sarcastically.

You replied:

No you shouldn't if she has repented. At that point she is a testament to the wonderful forgiveness of God, as we all are for different reasons. I agree that this stuff is messy and I'm no pastor but the situation seems straightforward. 

You suggest that I:

  1. Approach her out of the blue
  2. ask her if she has repented for marrying an unbeliever 20 years ago
  3. then threaten her with church discipline if she does not repent?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

TylerR wrote:

I asked:

I have a woman at my church married to an unbeliever. Should I recommend we pursue church discipline against her, because she violated scripture when she married him knowing he was an unbeliever 20+ years ago? If you agree with Piper, why shouldn't I recommend church discipline against her? I am asking seriously, not sarcastically.

You replied:

No you shouldn't if she has repented. At that point she is a testament to the wonderful forgiveness of God, as we all are for different reasons. I agree that this stuff is messy and I'm no pastor but the situation seems straightforward. 

You suggest that I:

  1. Approach her out of the blue
  2. ask her if she has repented for marrying an unbeliever 20 years ago
  3. then threaten her with church discipline if she does not repent?

Wouldn't the assumption be that she has repented of past sin if she is a born again believer? That's still different to me than someone who is already a member in your church and planning a sinful decision. 

Don Johnson's picture

TylerR wrote:

The CP headline is a paraphrase. Here is the actual question from Desiring God:

Here’s one of those questions, from a listener named Eric, a pastor. “Hello, Pastor John! I’m a pastor wondering what should be a corrective course of action when a Christian knowingly marries an unbeliever. The believer was forewarned and went ahead with the union anyway. Now the marriage has been formalized. So how should we, the church, now respond?”

How is the CP headline incorrect, if it is?

 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3