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FIRST-PERSON: When marriage isn’t God’s will

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–At a magazine publishing workshop in New York some years ago, I heard a financial counselor say that he’d never been able to talk anyone out of launching a new publication.

An expert in the field, he was often consulted on business plans, legal hurdles, and such, and in many cases, the figures just didn’t add up. By all reasonable expectations, the periodical was going to fail and the publisher’s bank account would take a major hit. Never mind that. Once the publishing bug bit, there was little or nothing you could say to dissuade them from economic self-harm. So, with a smile, he said he simply tried to facilitate the realization of their expensive dreams and minimize the damage that was almost sure to come. There was no fighting the romance of it all.

Another speaker surveyed a single year’s launches, as many as three a week in the U.S., as I recall. It was the age of niche magazines, and probably still is. For instance, the preceding 12 months saw the publication of, not just a new hunting magazine, but two new turkey hunting magazines. How could they possibly both survive? Again, it probably didn’t matter that much. The publishers were satisfied simply to be in print. It was the stuff of dreams.

Recently, I’ve been reminded of that workshop, but in a different connection. I never stop marveling at the way in which those who profess Christ will barge ahead with romances and even marriage plans where the Bible gives them no encouragement whatsoever. When the “love” bug bites, they will toss aside scruples, ignore Scripture, alienate their believing friends, horrify their family and embarrass the church. They will even fornicate and cohabitate as they slide into marriage. And though they may make a gesture or two toward breaking it off, they’ll then mope around as martyrs, only to spring back into each other’s arms at the slightest prompting from their fevered brows. As a ministerial colleague volunteered last week, there’s virtually no talking them out of it.

I have tried to dissuade them. And prayed. I remember one afternoon when my wife, Sharon, and I were on our knees at home in the hour before an illicit wedding involving one of our church members was to occur. I had preached God’s standard pointedly, taken stands in my wedding policy and caught the heat publicly. Through it all, the man in question had been my friend, and then he went right out and “followed his heart” away from the wife of his youth to marry a woman who had “followed her heart” away from the husband of her youth, right before our eyes. It was astonishing. “But surely God wanted them to be happy – and he would forgive them.” So the reasoning went, I suppose.

Why is this so? I can think of two reasons right off: relationship idolatry and mission deficit.

Of course, some folks dream of riotous, hedonistic living. Still others fantasize about pulling the levers of power in the highest corporate or governmental councils, not for the public good, but for their own gratification and aggrandizement. But most people would be satisfied with someone who would hold them on a cold night, offer a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, darn their socks or chop their wood, laugh with them over the intricacies of domesticity, buy them presents, plan trips with them and accompany them to entertainments. They just want someone who will make them feel good in a warmhearted sort of way. Who doesn’t?

Relationships can be wonderful — unless, that is, they violate God’s counsel. But God’s counsel is usually displaced in this culture, relegated to the back shelves, well behind the prime stock of affections, affirmations and commiserations. Even in church. Some call it the “Oprahfication of America.” Holiness is nice, but it doesn’t have a chance up against feelings.

Second, being “unequally yoked” or “living in sin” has little effect on spiritually useless lives. If there is no ministry to damage, no ministry gets damaged. With or without the stain of sexual or marital indiscretion, a vapid life is still vapid, at least in Kingdom terms. If you have no sense of teamship in marriage for the sake of the Great Commission, you hardly notice the loss when the very ground of that teamship –- holy matrimony between a consecrated man and woman -– is ignored.

Which brings me to Lottie Moon, the namesake of Southern Baptists’ annual offering for International Missions. She was engaged to Crawford Toy, a rising star in the universe of Baptist, and indeed American, academia. But when she found his treatment of Scripture objectionable, she walked away from the relationship and chose a life of sacrificial solitude half a world away. Consider this passage from Irwin Hyatt’s book, “Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three 19th Century Missionaries in East Shantung” (Harvard, 1976), found at the SBC website:

“Professor Toy, as he had now become, wrote reproposing marriage and suggesting mission work together in Japan. … He was known as a brilliant linguist and theologian. Following the Civil War he had studied in Europe, where he was exposed to Darwinian theory and to ‘the new ideas of the German scholars’ on Old Testament history and inspiration. … Her conclusion was that … evolution was for her an ‘untenable position.’ … Later in China, heated letters arrive, and ‘The temptation is great.’ The professor, however, now espouses theories that ‘do not square with God’s Word.’ Rejecting C.H. Toy, Harvard and glory, Miss Moon says, ‘My cross is loneliness. …'”

Of course, Lottie Moon was concerned with relationships, but those that mattered most were with her Lord and with the Chinese people to whom he sent her on mission. She could have consorted and snuggled with Professor Toy in Massachusetts or Japan, but she knew that he was not her soulmate on mission for the Lord. This was quite enough to end that romance and free her for heroic service in Christ.

Those seeking marriage outside the counsel of God often quote the Genesis verse that says it was not good for Adam to be alone. I’ve just passed the life-sized portrait of Lottie Moon, hanging in Southern Seminary’s Honeycutt Center, and I’ve been reminded that she was not at all alone. Standing around her are five Chinese beneficiaries of her life, prepared to say, “Thank you, Miss Moon” (and not “Mrs. Toy”).
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

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  • Mark Coppenger