ONLY IN THE LORD
At regular intervals there come demands that old standards should be re-examined: and that is good. For if the standards were sound, they will not suffer from being tested again, and they may gain in authority for being established anew in each succeeding generation. And if they were not sound, not much is lost if they do suffer: our business is to prove all things, and hold fast that which is good. Standards are liable to be forgotten if they are not re-affirmed, especially if there is strong pressure against them from private emotions or personal interests.

There is nothing of which this is more true than marriage, and there are many good reasons why the subject should be brought up again. These include: (1) there are many more sisters than brethren, within marriageable ages; (2) there is much more encounter, on frank terms, with possible partners who do not share our faith, than there used to be; (3) modern educational trends, particularly in the United States, put “dating”, dancing, courtship and marriage prominently in the minds of young people from very early ages; (4) no corresponding education from within our Sunday Schools or Youth Circles seems (by and large) to be there with power to redress the balance; (5) the obvious possibility of insincerity in the established procedure for dealing with “marriage out of the Truth”, is tending to bring that practice into disrepute: and voices are sometimes heard to say that it is better to accept alien-marriages with a good grace (and without discipline), than to adopt a procedure which invites the offenders to scoff at their impotent correction; (6) there is perhaps a weakening recognition of the likely consequences of such marriages.

More important than the procedure for coping with aberrations is a discussion of the fundamental problem which will show whether such things are aberrations; and will help to encourage the frame of mind which, if they are, seeks to avoid their occurrence. First principles, human problems, and loyalty to the calling wherewith we have been called, are the themes we have to deal with here.

Let it not be ignored, then, that hardheartedness is a poor qualification for approaching this problem. Any elderly person, happily married in the faith, who may be utterly unable to conceive how anyone could be so foolish and blind as to consider an alien-marriage, is not, perhaps, in the best position to win a hearing from a young person, particularly a sister, to whom the problem is a pressing reality, and who wants guidance rather than shocked prohibitions.

On the human side of this problem is the fact that young brethren and sisters, and older Sunday School scholars, at a time when they think perfectly naturally and properly of marriage, often find themselves in circumstances where a Christadelphian partner is not to hand, or where the necessary affection does not exist, or where profound attraction is exercised from other quarters. And there will be few who could look back to the powerful influences which worked in them at the time of their own courtship, who could regard this problem as trivial. That minimum of sympathy and understanding, at least, is called for at this stage.

But we must not forget that there are many who have solved the problem for themselves. There must be few of us who could not name a dozen of his acquaintances who have simply answered the challenge by not marrying at all: attraction from a proper quarter did not arise; real affection from without did not, unhappily, lead to the sincere conversion of the potential husband or wife. The course of reasoning was obviously: “Unless I can marry with a good conscience, I will not marry at all”.

No one among whose friends such sisters are included (for sisters they usually are) can doubt with what conflicts and pains such decisions were reached; and there could be no excuse for bringing their struggles back to them, were it not that the earlier paragraphs of this essay might be causing them to say to themselves: “Were our struggles then in vain? Was our battle for that which we thought was right a needless torture for ourselves, when such sympathy is poured out for those who are toying with the easier course? And is there, perhaps, not a worthier subject for compassion in ourselves than in those who would so easily compromise?”

It must be said at once that their decision was noble and right, and will, we are sure, not be forgotten by Him who knows that their singleness came upon them for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. They both deserve and have, in rich measure, the affectionate gratitude of all who know they can look to them as examples of godly self-denial; and they can be assured that their decision is a powerful weapon in the hands of those who seek the weal of our community. In such circumstances, I believe they would all want the weight of their virgin loyalties to be used to the full in this appeal to the generation which follows them.

Now we must first ask: is it true, as our forefathers have told us, that “marriage out of the Truth” is contrary to the commandments of Christ? This is not quite the spirit in which I want to approach the subject, for hard and fast commandments are after the pattern of the old covenant, and not of the new; and under our present liberties we have much more responsibility to think out the consequences of our actions than Israel had, who could point to a straight “Thou shalt not”. We should be just as sensitive to a negative answer to the question, “Would this course please the Lord?” as we would be to a precise commandment: and it might not, therefore, matter very much if a “commandment of Christ” could not be found in strict legal form.

Nevertheless, the much-quoted passage about unequal yoking (2 Cor. 6:14–18), which doubtless applies to other things besides marriage, could scarcely apply to anything else quite so cogently: for there is in Christian teaching no other yoking quite so binding or so vital. And the liberty given to a widow to marry whom she will, “only in the Lord” (7:39), can surely not be supposed to be untrue of virgins. The plain fact is that Paul takes it for granted that a believer will do no other than marry another believer: and we are justified in thinking of this as a commandment.

Nor must we be blind to what was prescribed for Israel when precise commandments were more numerous. Marriage with the alien inhabitants of Palestine was forbidden: and that not merely because those who were there when Joshua entered the land were condemned to extermination, but because of the danger that the hearts of the people would be turned away from their God to the idols of the nations. The breach of this law was regarded as gravely by Nehemiah as it was by Moses, even if the punishment was less severe: and the pitiful condition of the children who could speak neither parent’s language properly leads us from consideration of commandments to thought of consequences.

It can rightly be said that few of our contemporaries are so far sunk in idolatry and gross immorality as the heathen inhabitants of Canaan. And although radical error disfigures the opinions of even the religious in a great number of cases, it would be difficult to compare a sincere worshipper in one of the many denominations of Christendom with a follower of Molech in the days of the Kings, or a Bacchanalian of later times. “Unbeliever” may well be the right word to use of many purely nominal Christians of our day, but it does not carry in most cases the sharp criticism of their moral lives which it would have done in Old Testament times. It is possible that a brother or sister might contemplate a partner from “the world” whose moral life yields nothing in excellence to their own.

But it is still proper to draw the parallel. However greatly modern non-Christadelphian men and women may differ from the heathens of old, two important points of comparison remain: (i) that as partners they might turn away the heart of the believer from his faith; and (ii) that as parents they may impose upon their children the immense disability of speaking neither of the parents’ religious tongues, but of being torn from the start between divided opinions.

It may be answered that the believer might turn the unbeliever towards the true faith; and children should reach their convictions by being able to maintain them against competition. But neither answer is really tenable, and neither springs from real conviction. The believer does not marry the unbeliever in order to convert him, but because she wants him for her husband. She would like to convert him other things being equal, but she intends to marry him come what may. Children of mixed marriages are not by design confronted with two opinions from the start, so that their faith may be won out of conflict. They inherit a situation forced upon them by the parents’ action, which had nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of such an education. It can be hazarded with fair certainty that in both these cases the parent would (in later life at least) admit that problems would have been eased had there not existed this difference of religious outlook between husband and wife.

A moment’s examination will show that the perils vastly outweigh the hypothetical benefits. It sometimes happens that the unconverted partner is won to faith by the believer, and God is to be thanked when this happy outcome follows the unpropitious start. But it much more often happens that the entire married life is lived in a state of strain, and all the distractions from a godly life which Paul tells us come in the wake of even the harmonious marriage become multiplied and strengthened. The wife is deflected from the things of the Lord, not merely to please a husband who also loves the things of the Lord but must have his dinner as well; but to please a husband whose spiritual interests are not the same, and whose dinner may well be one of the few matters in which she can please him while retaining her faith. And the strain may prove too much: to have married in this way in the first place does not argue any too great strength in the Lord’s service, and the determined opposition of the partner for whose sake the compromise was made not infrequently brings in its train further compromise, and then surrender.

With the children it is at least equally bad. Those who have a longer experience of child-guidance than the author assure him that the age in which children become conscious of their waxing powers, of their independence of thought and movement, and of the weight which must be given to the opinions of their fellows, is a supremely difficult age in which to present acceptably the claims of the Truth. Anything so disruptive to their untroubled contemplation of our faith as an evident lack of unity amongst their parents cannot fail to make the task more difficult. It is not so much that they will thus be given opportunities of examining at first hand two points of view, as that they will be obliged to conclude that neither parent seems to think faith so important as marriage. And that is not conductive to seriousness of purpose.

It would be well, too, to look a generation ahead. Very few really doubt, whether they have themselves been guilty of the act or not, that marriage by a brother or sister with one not of our faith is (to put it very gently) unwise and frought with peril. It is always extenuating circumstances which seem to justify an act which is, generally, recognized to be in itself undesirable. The much disputed “admission of fault” after this has been done may not always be as sincere as could be wished, but a few years’ experience is usually enough to provide proof that the fault was there: from a practical standpoint at least. Those around see it in many who have so married; and most of these feel it readily enough for themselves. But imagine a situation in which the practice became general (always, of course, with extenuating circumstances), and suppose that the children of such marriages are sufficiently convinced of the truth of our faith to be baptized. When the question of their own marriage approaches, and they go to their parents for advice, what advice will they be given? Will it be: “Do it if you like, for I did, and I cannot say you nay”?—which would be honest, but quite evidently disastrous. Or will it be, “Do it at your peril, but it is contrary to the commandment of the Lord”? Any children at all given to be headstrong will surely feel themselves entitled to reply, “It would be no worse for me to do it than it was for you!”—and so to carry on with their own plans without hindrance.

There are better cases, of course, and this outcome may not be inevitable. But it would be difficult to deny that it is very likely, and the writer seems to know of meetings which in bro. Roberts’s days were very strong, which unfortunately found themselves cut off from the society of brethren of the soundest principles, and which fell to pieces in the course of a couple of generations through indulgence in this very practice.

A situation has arisen recently in the writer’s experience which seems to demand mention. It appears to arise from a recognition that to “marry out of the Truth” is not a good thing, and that to seek reconciliation with the ecclesias after discipline has fallen is not a good thing either. “Very good”, runs the argument: “it is wrong to marry out of the faith, but if I marry before I am baptized I have not been guilty of that. And since all sins are forgiven at baptism I then cease to be guilty at all. Is not this the obvious solution?” This is not imagination. A parent gave this advice to a child in my hearing; and a young man who told me that he thought of marrying first, and accepting the truth in due course—he was not at the time courting as far as I know—may well have been pursuing the same policy.

Only the sternest words are adequate for the case. If it arises from guile it is one of the most perverse pieces of diplomacy in matters of faith which it is possible to imagine. If it arises from thoughtlessness, it is high time that the matter was thought out thoroughly. It amounts to saying, in the former case, “I know of a way in which ecclesial discipline can be completely circumvented: I will therefore pursue that way and laugh at the provisions for preventing mixed marriages”. It amounts, in the latter, to supposing that God can be made the victim of our convenience, and that we can choose the moment of our repentance to suit ourselves. It may well be that those responsible for interviewing candidates for baptism will find themselves confronted with a difficult task if such a case comes before them: but what matters far more than the interviewers’ dilemma is the conscience of the interviewed.

It must be very difficult with a clear conscience to feel repentance of an act which has been done with a view to this very situation: and we perhaps remember less than we ought that baptism is “the answer of a good conscience towards God”. It may be a light matter to deceive a brother, but God is not lightly mocked.

The plain fact is, of course, that a person who desires baptism in the only acceptable spirit, could never put it off out of considerations of convenience; and a person who did put off baptism with a view to committing what he or she knows would afterwards be a sin, is guilty of that sin already: and a much more searching repentance is called for, when a sin is committed in this fashion, than of those deeds done in the days of our ignorance before the knowledge of the Truth blossomed in us.

What remains to be done in this essay on principles, is to point out two decisive factors: the first, that God does not leave his servants defenceless in the moment of their trial, nor in the days of their human loneliness, if their desire is to do his will. “He (or she) shall receive an hundredfold”, is not spoken in vain of those who forsake wife or husband for the Lord’s sake and the Gospel’s. There is a fulfilment of our purpose of life which, on Paul’s distinct statement, is greater for the unmarried than for the married, and if circumstances require that, having no possible partner in the faith, we will have none of any kind, then God is not unrighteous to forget our devotion.

The second goes back to the problem of young sisters in particular, and touches on another matter which also presents its problems. In the matter of adornment, demeanour, and habits, it is often said that one is excluded from the society which makes for a happy time before marriage, and good prospects of securing a partner in due course, if our garb and make-up, ease of society manners, and willingness to go to the world’s entertainments, are not like those of others. In a worldly sense this is doubtless true: the number of entanglements which lead to marriage with a worldly person will be kept down by keeping away from such associations: that is one of the virtues of such abstinence. But there are men in the world who do not respect the kind of young women among whom they move; there are those who would look with a new kind of affection on a person who could be lovely without being painted—and it is splendidly possible; happy without being drugged and diverted; and friendly without being forward: the person who could say in effect when overtures were made: “Come with me, and see the things, read the things, hear the things which I like. If you like them, too, that may be splendid for both of us”. Surely this also comes within the scope of Peter’s “won by the quiet conversation of the wives”? And perhaps this is a better way of seeking the solution of disparity of numbers between our brethren and sisters: better than compromising with the world, and better than losing our grip of the Bible’s wonderful conception of marriage as a picture of the union between the Lord and his Church. Cannot the sisters teaching our senior classes take up this matter in earnest?

A. D. Norris.
Source: The Christadelphian : Volume 90 pp. 364-368

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