A couple days back, we began a new series of posts on "The Cost of Following Jesus". Thanks to all those who shared wisdom and thoughts regarding our scenario from yesterday: Brad, a new convert with a long-time live-in girlfriend and three children depending on his income. The reason I'm thankful for the comments and the reason I'm enjoying this series is that such situations are real human dramas for so many people and so many churches. Learning to respond biblically and with an understanding of the "costs" that will be paid to follow Jesus is a big part of shepherding well in these cases.
I don't pretend to have the "air tight" answers. So, my responses aren't meant to "settle" all open questions and be some kind of "advice from on high." I'm a fellow elder looking to be faithful and to think out loud about some hypothetical situations before I have to work through some real ones. And I'm hoping this exercise is a means of grace to us all. So a few thoughts.
The Costs Brad Will Pay
Obviously, Brad will need to figure out how to live faithfully before the Lord. And that means at least two things: no more sexual immorality, but also continuing to faithfully care for his children who need both his presence and his financial support.
Does he leave the family? If so, does he take the children with him? Does he leave the children and continue providing financial support?
Does he break off the 13-year relationship with Jill? Or, does he marry her? Since she is not a Christian, can he marry her (1 Cor. 7:39)? If he doesn't marry her, are we helping him to defraud her (1 Thess. 4)?
A father is more than a paycheck, so we don't want to weaken or harm the family as we help this brand new Christian discover how to follow Jesus. And Jesus' glory and our love for Him trumps all other loves, so we don't want to leave Brad putting Jill and the children before the Lord. Nor is the love and commitment shared over decades between a man and a woman a small thing to trifle with. All these things are risks associated with helping Brad follow the Lord and bear the costs.
And there are risks to the church and to Jill and the children. How this is handled communicates a lot either accurately or inaccurately about the nature of God's grace and Christian love. Jill and the children are not believers. We desire the family to see the gospel worked out in a winsome way that commends holiness as beautiful. Responding poorly will hurt one or more people in this family.
So what to do?
What would be the strengths or weaknesses of the following approach? What would have merit and would should be re-thought? With all of this, I'm talking a couple weeks, not a few months or years.
1. Encourage perseverance and sanctification. Avoid giving assurances based on unbiblical criteria. Instead, exhort the brother in those marks of the Christian life we see described in the Bible: love for the brethren, obedience as love to Jesus, sanctification, and so on. Help Brad to see the work of Christ in the Christian's life as extraordinary and extensive rather than small and trivial. That includes understanding that Jesus is Lord of his sex life as well. There are no intimacies over which the Lord does not say, "Mine." In short, work to give Brad a solid biblical view of what a Christian is.
2. Study with him a book like Ephesians or 1 Thessalonians. This is a practical way to approach #1 above. The books are short enough to cover in a couple weeks, and rich enough theologically and practically that a good picture of the Christian life emerges. Ephesians has the advantage of giving an exalted, Christ-centered view of marriage, something Brad and his girlfriend need. I Thessalonians has the advantage of addressing sanctification and sexual purity directly (chap. 4) and of pointing to the coming of Christ. Both give helpful instruction on the church and its role. As you study, let the Bible ask questions of Brad. Rather than launch a lot of imperatives at Brad, let the Lord's Spirit in His gentle and effective way use the word to address Brad. Ask good questions about the text, and prompt Brad to bring the text to his life.
3. Develop a plan with Brad to pursue marriage quickly. There may be a lot of work that needs to be put into this one. Brad and Jill don't esteem marriage. They have fears about it working. They're comfortable with their current commitments and arrangements. And Jill, at least, doesn't think their relationship is sinful. So, there's a lot of patient teaching that must be done here. There's a lot of exploration and shepherding that needs to be offered in order to help them make wise decisions. But, the aim would be to have a plan for getting Brad and Jill through their issues and to the marriage altar in good shape. Repentance for Brad looks like marrying Jill, which would be strengthening his commitment to her and the children. But the plan should also include some definite thoughts about leaving the relationship if Jill is unwilling to live with Brad as a believer or if she remains opposed to marriage.
4. Baptize Brad after steps 1-3. Teach the brother with all patience. Affirm his decision to follow the Lord and deepen that decision with instruction, rather than questioning the commitment and undermining his faith. Brad's mind needs to be renewed (Rom. 12:1-2) about a lot of things, but that doesn't happen over night. We all entered the baptismal waters in need of some continuing sanctification. Baptism pictures our union with Christ in His death and resurrection, not our glorification and perfection. Build up to the baptism in such a way that the baptism marks a decisive break with the world, but also a decisive beginning with Christ and the church. Avoid making "complete sanctification" the entry fee for the baptismal waters, but protect baptism by counseling the brother thoroughly.
With the Church
All of this, of course, depends on helping the congregation see this as precisely the kinds of opportunities we want to be helpful in, rather than the kinds of things we want to fix quickly, squash, or pretend doesn't happen. A couple of thoughts:
1. With Brad's support and testimony, before baptism and membership, explain Brad's situation at members' meeting, and share the highlights of the plan to help him live faithfully before the Lord. Call on the congregation to bear the brother's burden (Gal. 6:1-2) and to practically help wherever possible. Ask the congregation to faithfully pray for Brad, Jill and the children. Encourage the congregation to bring Brad into the family under the special care of the church. Have Brad make definite statements about the sin of cohabiting and fornication. Be clear, too, about the expectations for Brad should the counseling and efforts toward marriage not work. And be clear about the congregation's responsibility in loving correction should Brad refuse to listen to the church in the counseling and efforts at growing in grace.
2. Be an ally in helping to share the faith with his family. Encourage the church to involve Brad, Jill and the children in hospitality, church activities, and so on. Make the relationship with Brad about partnering in the gospel to win his family, rather than about separating Brad from the family as enemies. Love Jill and the kids in any practical way possible. Help her find better work, if that's a need. Babysit so they can have time to talk through things or attend relationship counseling. Work to make them think that Brad really has entered into this wide and caring family that cares for them all and wants the best for them all. A couple sisters from the church should be asked to develop a relationship with Jill with sharing the gospel and being a general source of support a main priority.
Well, those are my thoughts right now. Let me eat lunch and I may want to change some or all of this. I'm thinking through some of these things wanting to be clear but patient and sensitive as well. I don't know that these comments get the balance correct. So, what do you think? Help me out here.
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