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Cohabitation: Spirit or Letter of the Law?

In a recent article I read the following scenario that was given in order to spark a conversation on different ways of trying to go about handling it from a minister's perspective ... what would you do? Serena and Santiago began attending Hope Fellowship after they discovered they were pregnant and that the baby, their second, would have significant birth defects. The congregation welcomed the young couple and prayed with them as they shared their fears and questions. The congregation's encouragement helped assure them that abortion was not the only option for such a pregnancy. Even though Serena and Santiago were not married, that did not prevent the congregation from welcoming and supporting the couple. "We don't pull back when people are in need," said the pastor. "We want to be where Jesus would be—and that's walking alongside people even in messy situations."We ask couples in this situation to live apart, but for the man to continue to financially support the woman and his children. We point to the truth and away from worldly ways. When Serena and Santiago expressed their appreciation for the congregation's support, it was affirming to the leaders of Hope Fellowship, who had been seeking ways to reach out to the Spanish speaking community near the church. When little Javier was born, with misshapen legs and a compromised immune system, the congregation prayed him through the treatments and surgeries, and brought meals and baby outfits to the family and toys for older brother Pedro. Within months Serena had committed her life to Christ and was in a women's Bible study, eager to grow in her faith. Santiago, however, did not find close connections at church. He stayed home with the boys on Sunday mornings, but he was supportive of Serena's church involvement. Then Serena, in response to a sermon on the value of church membership, applied to become a member. When she met with the elders to share her testimony, she happily told about accepting Christ and being discipled by the women in the church to be a faithful mom to Pedro and Javier. One of the elders asked Serena if she and Santiago planned to get married. "Oh, I would love to get married!" she said. "But Santiago says we can't afford it. I'm on Medicaid, and if we got married, his insurance premiums would more than triple. Javier still needs treatments and medical supplies. We're barely making it on Santiago's paycheck as it is. Someday we can get married, but Santiago says no way for right now." The interview ended with the elders thanking Serena for her testimony and praying for her. They said they'd be back in touch regarding the membership process. As they debriefed afterward, the elders realized they weren't in agreement. Some wanted to approve Serena for membership, and they emphasized: 1. She is a believer, growing in her faith. 2. No one is without sin, and while her relationship with Santiago may have started out as sin, Serena is now being faithful to her children and their father. 3. She wants to get married, but she can't if Santiago doesn't consent. And she is right not to make her children fatherless by leaving Santiago. The spirit of 1 Corinthians 7:13-17 applies here. Those not in support of Serena's application for membership emphasized: 1. Having sex without being married is living in an ongoing sinful relationship. 2. The church cannot endorse cohabitation as acceptable for members. Endorsing her as a church member now would be a bad example and even worse as a precedent. 3. Even if they were to marry, Serena would be "unequally yoked" (2 Cor. 6:14). A divided elder board asks you, as pastor, for your guidance. What biblical truths are most important here? What is the best decision here for both the church and for Serena and Santiago? What, if anything, can the church do to make this decision as redemptive as possible? Please comment on what types of things would you consider in your response to this scenario as a minister and why?


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