Why I disagree with John Piper on premarital pregnancy and his application of ‘unequally yoked’

John Piper has sent Twitter a-tweeting with one of his latest Ask Pastor John segments. In this particular case, a young couple with a child – the woman a believer and the guy not – are planning to marry because of the child they have together. The man asking the question wants to know whether he is right to caution against marriage unless the man becomes a Christian.

Piper answers this question with a definite ‘no’. He cites two pieces of evidence. First, he asserts (rightly) that scripture insists believers should only marry believers. So, as a general rule when looking to marry, believers are only to marry those ‘in the Lord’ according to the Bible. The second is his reference to 1 Cor 6:15-18. He wants to argue that although Paul insists sex with prostitutes creates a one-flesh union with them, he infers from these verses that Paul does not believe this constitutes a marriage covenant. Because of this latter set of verses particularly, Piper insists that the fruit of extra-marital relations (namely, a child) does not muddy the waters on the question. Believers marry believers and if the guy is not a believer, they shouldn’t marry whether they have a child or not. You can read his full answer here.

As I have said pretty much every time I have disagreed with Piper, which I have done periodically, I think he is a godly and theologically sound man. I think Piper is a gift to the church and I have benefitted from his ministry in many ways. I share almost all of his theological convictions and I respect him a Bible teacher. But I – seemingly along with a few others – didn’t agree with his answer to the question above.

I certainly agree with Piper on the first point. As a rule, scripture tells believers to marry believers. The second point, I’m not entirely sold on Piper’s reasoning. Just because Paul doesn’t say ‘now you’ve entered a one-flesh union with a prostitute, you must marry her’ does not necessarily infer that no covenant exists. Paul can’t insist you marry a prostitute you sleep with because – if you are already married – that would force you into other sin Paul thinks we ought not to buy into either. It is at least possible that Paul thinks sex outside of marriage is so serious specifically because it does create this ‘one-flesh’ relationship and forces you into a covenant that you simply cannot keep.

But even conceding that sex outside of marriage does not create a marriage covenant, once a child has been born there is a new dimension to the question. The Bible is clear about the responsibilities of fathers to their children and it is also clear that children are best cared for within stable family homes. Paul is quite clear that – for those who are married and have become believers since marriage – if their spouse doesn’t believe they are to remain with them (unless their partner specifically chooses to leave of their own volition). Paul is clear that there are occasions in which believers will be married to unbelievers.

Piper rightly wants to avoid saying unbelievers and believers should marry. But, in being quite so rigid, to not marry when a child is involved is to abrogate one’s responsibilities toward their children. Paul is quite clear what we should make of that in 1 Timothy 5:8. We obviously do not want to push people towards sin, but what do we do when someone’s already sinful action will lead to a situation in which any decision thereafter will (on some level) appear sinful. Having had premarital sex and created a child, the choice is either to marry (potentially) against Paul’s prohibition on mixed marriages or you don’t marry and end up in a relationship that the Bible considers necessarily damaging to your child and amounting to an abrogation of responsibility.

The problem is that we can’t even make a lesser of two evils arguments (such as we would want to). The fruit of a bad marriage can be spiritually deadly. But the fruit of a broken home can be similarly traumatic and damaging to the child (and potentially the parents). There is, in a sense, no lesser evil here.

So, here is my view. Sex outside of marriage is always sinful and always a problem. But in a fallen world, we must deal with the consequences of sin as best we can. A child being born, even from a sinful sexual union, is still a gift from God that must be cherished. It is not right for the child to bear the consequences of their parents’ sin. To grow up in a broken home is a far bigger problem for children than many give credit for today. Moreover, whilst in the ordinary scheme of things Paul says ‘no’ to any mixed marriages, for the sake of the child, to not permit those who have sinned to simply walk away from the consequences that result from their sin and to avoid similar sin in the abrogation of fatherly responsibility, under those circumstances, I think they should marry.

One of my elders once gave a young pregnant girl some sage advice: ‘you do not want to multiply sin. You don’t want to let one sin lead to more sin.’ I think (but am open to correction) that was over the question as to whether to keep the child. But in the scenario before us, my question in this: which sin that must follow is worse? Is it worse to marry an unbeliever or to abrogate parental responsibility by cutting and running? Is it more damaging – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to be in a mixed marriage or to live in a broken home? I can certainly think of instances I have dealt with where a broken home is preferable to the toxic impact in the home of somebody who has abrogated all fatherly duties (despite living in the house). But I want to say such cases are rarer than those in which encouraging the two people to marry would be better.

As Don Carson has helpfully said here:

The right thing to do… is usually (I can think of one or two difficult exceptions!) to finalize the other part. It is not to try to undo what has already been done! One cannot “undo” this sustained sexual, common-law, union. Thus to demand that a couple tear themselves apart after they’ve been living together for, say, five years, with perhaps a child or two, simply won’t do. What needs to be urged upon them is that they get “married” legally.

He also helpfully makes a distinction:

Earlier I mentioned a couple of exceptions. Let me take up only one. Suppose A and B are 19 and 18 years of age respectively. Suppose they have both been sleeping around for some time. Suppose B now becomes a Christian. Is she (or he) now morally obligated to marry the last person she (or he) has been with? I doubt it.

The question before Piper fell between these stalls. The couple were not yet married, and weren’t living together, but a child was involved. It is neither the A or B scenario envisioned by Carson. But I think his principle of ‘finalise the other part; don’t undo what has been done’ is at play. We cannot (and, in many ways, should not want to) undo the fact that there is now a child in the equation. We can’t undo that, so perhaps we ought to finalise the family home in which that child should be raised? I can think of a handful of scenarios where we wouldn’t do that but, generally speaking, we ought to finalise what has been left undone, not seek to undo what has been done.