June is a month for weddings and denominational meetings, two sets of festivities that might seem to have little in common but do-for without strong churches our likelihood of strong marriages is enormously decreased, and vice versa. Happily married couples are the mainstay of most churches, and church teaching about honoring God rather than our own sexual fantasies helps to preserve many marriages.
Strong marriages are part of a larger picture: Churches, the new Israel, are to be holy lands amid what we can expect to be an unholy culture. The apostle Paul was one of the first to grasp this. He taught the Corinthian Christians, living in one of the Roman Empire's most dissolute cities, of the need for holiness within the church: "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you. . . . Let him who has done this be removed from among you" (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). He told the Ephesians that they "must no longer live as the Gentiles" who "indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more" (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Churches, wherever their locations, were to maintain high standards. That's why churches interviewed new adult members and disciplined, even to the point of excommunication, those who took pride in disobedience. People married up when they married Christ; as the second-century philosopher Justin Martyr wrote, "Those who once delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone."
Many churches are far from being holy lands today. Stats about similar divorce rates among the once-born and those who call themselves born-again are well-known. Not only conservatives are concerned about this. Ron Sider tells a story all too common: "A man and a woman from two different married couples had an affair, divorced their spouses, married each other, and assumed they could continue in good standing in the congregation in spite of their defiance of Jesus' teaching and the destruction of two families. Not even in this blatant case of stark disobedience could this evangelical congregation muster the courage to exercise church discipline."
The often sad record has an impact outside the church. Today, Christians strive for laws that defend life and marriage, but credibility in that task comes only when churches are the new model cities. Some complaints about homosexual marriage sound tinny when heterosexual marriages formed in our churches so often break apart. The impact inside the church is also severe. How can pastors credibly tell testosterone-flooded young men to maintain chastity if middle-aged men don't show restraint? And older women should mentor teenage girls, not act like them.
The dark clouds have silver linings. Some have cited as evidence of evangelical hypocrisy the study of 12,000 church-connected adolescents that showed 88 percent over a six-year period breaking their pledge to have no sexual relations before marriage. News flash: People sin!! Nevertheless, the "True Love Waits" program made a difference: Girls delayed their age for first having sex from 16.7 years to 19.9 years. Correlations between church involvement and resistance to wrongful activity are particularly strong in inner-city areas, where the difference between the churched and unchurched in everything from crisis pregnancies to arrests has been well-researched.
According to a recent Barna poll, only 44 percent of non-Christians have a positive view of Christian ministers, and only 22 percent a positive view of evangelicals generally. Some negativity is inevitable: Those who hate Christ will hate Christians. But at least we can quiet some cries of hypocrisy by making our churches known as places where troubled marriages are helped, pressures to sin are acknowledged but opposed, and membership is reserved for those endeavoring to act as becomes followers of Christ.
We can also do much more in our churches to make those around us rejoice at a Christian presence. For example, we can work on making mercy central rather than peripheral. Sometimes that may mean following the example of a Maryland church and budgeting funds to help Christians in Africa before funding nonessential improvements to the sanctuary. It will always mean caring for widows and orphans, because even the marriages that start this month may end sadly; that's why we need to keep praying.
Given sin within and lures without, churches will never become pure holy lands for the same reason the original Holy Land was unsuccessful. But we can strive to do better, by God's grace.