Many times in my ministry, the topic of a couple “living together” without a proper wedding is placed on the agenda of elder’s meeting. How do we provide pastoral care? What should we say? What do we think? While most agree that what is best is a deep commitment blessed by their respective families, celebrated in community, blessed by God and firmly established in law, having a couple do less raises questions. In simple terms, we wonder “How do we bring good news”?
First, a brief History
So how did the church become involved in weddings? In Scriptural times, marriages were primarily family matters. At this point all marriages were on the basis of family decision and affirmed in community by common understanding. There were family rituals and perhaps even religious rituals. Somewhere along the line, Christian families decided that the blessing of God given by the pastor was an important part of the wedding day’s activities. Later because of concerns about property rights and good order in society the state regulated marriage. For convenience, the clergy were given the right to perform marriages. (I enjoyed reading Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz.) In recent years, in the western world, families have not had the same say in deciding who marries and who does not. The Individuals decide for themselves. And if it’s about individual decision, why should the family, community, church or state care about that decision?
When I listen to some of this history, I ask a few basic questions:
- Is marriage primarily a family matter or an individual matter?
- What are the interests of the church and the state in participation in the wedding?
- What is the role of supporting community?
The questions are not intended to start a debate but to make an observation. Many today have considerably different attitudes toward marriage than previous generations. Coupling is an individual decision. Church is less important. Legal matters become important when children are involved. Among these attitudes, the church is invited to bring good news.
Central Claims about Marriage
Marriage is never just about two individuals living under the same roof. It is not just about bedding down together under the sanction of law. The church says much more. We make claims about marriage that root themselves in the very fabric of creation. We call people to live in these relationships as imitators of Christ so that their marriage relationships may have redemptive qualities. The church makes grand claims and desires that couples live them. While I do not have an objection to individuals making the decision to marriage, I do not believe that these personal decisions are isolated from community. So let us examine a few of these claims.
First, to choose this way of life requires a life-long commitment. This is not a temporary contract in which two people achieve certain personal objectives. A couple enters a way of life together bound by a vow that commits them till death do they part. Recently I read Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children which argues that neuroscience supports the idea of a lifelong committed monogamous relationships. Marriage is the best way for joyful bonding to take place.
Second, this way of life changes the relational dynamics of family and community. While marriage (and living together) involves personal choice, it is a public act. It changes the way family, friends and community relate to a couple. It is best when this change in personal circumstances is publically acknowledged and named.
Third, this way of life is best lived as imitators of Christ who “gave himself up” to love us. Both Phil 2 and Eph 5 affirm that the attitude of Christ is critical to the well being of a marriage relationship. Offering to die for another is a radical commitment and practice. This cannot be achieved when we hold ourselves in reserve to test a relationship or enter into it selfishly. This is true for both marriages and living together.
Fourth, this way of life is best lived under the blessing of God. Moses on the mountain said to God, “If you do not go with us, do not send us from here.” At every point in our life, and certainly with a significant change in our life that marriage brings, we ought to seek the presence and blessing of God. As we said earlier, this personal decision is public. We can add that it also engages our relationship with God. To seek God’s blessing should be a normal part of this life changing decision.
Fifth, this way of life has obligations and rights that demand legal protection. Governments over the years have established laws regarding the behaviour of husbands, wives and parents. These laws seek to establish justice in the social life of the community and to ensure that a person take his or her responsibilities. While laws vary, the law assumes that these responsibilities exist even when couples live together without a marriage certificate. Property rights and children’s rights are certainly included in these legal obligations.
Sixth, this way of life, when well lived, is a gift to community and Kingdom. Marriage relationships are not just about the pleasure and benefits to a couple. When two become one, they are called to contribute in a new way to the community and Kingdom. How this is lived out differs from one couple to another, but a good relationship is also an invitation to a new way of contributing.
From Claims to People
Beyond these claims, I make an assumption. The couple who lives together without the wedding does not share my understanding. This should be obvious, but needs to be stated. They do not share my understanding of marriage, of the authority of church leaders, or effect of their decision on their spirituality. It is not simply that they have made a mistake, transgressed the law of God. I assume they are not convinced of the claims that the church makes about marriage and do not believe that the elders have any right to speak. I might be wrong, but I make the assumption as a way of being hospitable – creating space for conversation.
I also assume that they are risking their relationship with God. When we make decisions without considering the will of God or seeking the blessing of God, it reflects what is living in our heart. If Jesus is Lord, we are listening to his voice. But if we make our desires "Lord", then we risk our relationship to God. So I assume that the vast majority of those making the decision put themselves at risk.
Making these assumptions has a consequence. My primary concern is for the spiritual well-being of the couple. I want them to return to a healthy relationship with Christ. I believe that as a couple develops their walk with God they will make better choices about their relationship. So this is where I begin.
A Quick Note
Before I move on, I like to observe that the church order says a wedding is not primarily a church matter, but a family matter. This is certainly the way most weddings happen. Many times churches ask themselves under what conditions we will participate in this wedding. In order to address our concerns, we develop marriage policies that place requirements on the couple requesting the church’s participation.
Let me make a couple of cautionary comments. First, sometimes setting policy can become a means for us to feel good about our position, but not necessarily advance our ministry. Our ministry may end up becoming confrontational and judgmental. Second, a policy is sometimes used as a substitute for education. Since young people seldom read policies, it would be better to develop an educational program for youth that raises our concerns for healthy life-long relationships.
Finally, all policies will fail to address some particular pastoral concern. So addressing the concerns by developing policy seldom addresses the pastoral conversation that is needed.
So, how do we begin the conversation with a couple (at least one of whom is a baptized member of the church) who is living together but without the marriage certificate? I begin with an assumption. The couple likely knew that the pastors, the elders and probably the parents would not approve of their new living arrangements. Whatever justification for their choice, they knew they were at odds with position of the church community. I also assume that in most instances simply telling them this is so is unlikely to change their behaviour. A pastoral conversation is needed.
I like to ask a series of questions:
- What commitment have you made to each other? Is this a trial or are you have you made a permanent commitment to each other?
- How do you understand the difference between “living together” and “marriage”?
- Have you received your families’ blessing? How did that happen?
- If this is so important to you, did you seek God’s blessing?
- How do you understand some of the legal ramifications of your decisions?
Each question helps me understand the nature of their relationship, the commitments they have made, and their desire to walk with God.
At this point I wonder to myself: where is the sin?
- Is it ignorance? It could be ignorance of Scripture, of the claims we embrace about marriage, or the kind of preparation that builds a healthy marriage. Ignorance is not about the commitments made, but it certainly has consequences.
- Is it the failure to make a lifelong commitment? I have visited couples who have made the commitment of marriage to each other. They tell me about it – at times with great stories. At other times a couple could say “you don’t buy the car without taking a test drive.” The latter is clearly not a commitment.
- Is it a failure to appreciate and live in the context of their community? There are relational dynamics that go beyond the couple to family, friends and community. These relationships are important. Public commitments make for healthy relationships.
- Is it a failure in their desire to walk through life with God? Are they practical atheists who simply do not understand that all their life is lived in the context of God’s power, grace and rule?
Notice that my approach can differ depending on how I discern the way in which sin is configured in their life together. Making things right is not merely a matter of a marriage certificate. It involves key relationships lived in and through the grace of the Lord. The claims we make about marriage challenge many aspects of their life together.
My next step is figuring out the strategy for healing and growth. To me this involves a few critical matters. Here is how Dallas Willard describes it:
V-I-M: The General Pattern
With these two illustrations before us (language learning and AA), the general pattern of personal transformation should now be clear. We emphasize that it also holds for those transformations that can only occur through Grace: through the initiative and through the constant direction and upholding of God. To keep the general pattern in mind as we continue, we will use the little acronym "VIM," as in the phrase "vim and vigor."
"Vim" is grammatically related to the Latin term "vis," meaning direction, strength, force, vigor, power, energy, or virtue; and sometimes meaning sense, import, nature or essence. Now spiritual formation in Christlikeness is all of this to human existence. It is the path by which we can truly, as Paul told the Ephesians, "be empowered in the Lord and in the energy of his might" (Ephesians 6:10) and "become mighty with his energy through his Spirit entering into the inward person" (3:16). It spells out the "life to the full" that Jesus, in his own person, brought into the life of humankind. (John 10:10) Only by receiving this life do we become adequate to our calling. God never intended anything else.
In line with this, I wonder:
- What is your vision for your life together? Some of this we know. But it needs to be articulated again. We want to hear them say that they desire a lifelong relationship in which they together serve the Lord.
- What is your intention? What commitment are you prepared to make to God, community and each other? Commitment may be the issue. Their will needs to be engaged. A “yes” needs to be said.
- What are the ways/means that we can make your intention a reality? Here we offer them the means that can make their intention real. Once I had a bible study with the couple. Every few weeks we got together to learn about the spiritual life. Other times, attending an Alpha course may be appropriate. Perhaps we need to help them financially to get a better start. Perhaps we need to marry them in their living room. Perhaps they need to go take some marriage preparation courses. Always they need people who will walk them through this time using a variety of means through which they can grow in grace.
If our vision is rooted in our claims about a healthy marriage, we need to ask what are we prepared to do to take this journey with them.
Is it ever right to call them to separate?
Yes. But it is not usually the first step. It is important to have the conversation which explores with them how to make things right. I want any separation to be their decision for the sake of their relationships and their walk with God. I make no demand prior to meaningful and significant conversations. Each circumstance requires discernment. Making things right does not always follow a single path.
The first major time when a call to separate is appropriate is where the couple clearly intends their relationship to be temporary. A commitment that is not life-long will impair the persons and couples spiritual and emotional integrity.
Also there are times of repentance when an appropriate act demonstrating their desire to make things right will lead them to separate prior to the celebration of their commitment. This does not mean a denial of their previous commitment, but a way of walking into a deeper unity of spirit and emotion.
There also may be times when to honour community and family, a separation may be appropriate. Since we are convinced these personal relationships are also public matters, sometimes, to heal the relationship in community, separation may be helpful.
It is always best when the couple themselves discerns this way themselves. If they do not agree, we need to remember that the central concern is their spiritual well-being. It is not about me (or us) as much as it is about the redemptive work of Christ in their lives.
What about married couples?
It may seem odd to raise this question at this time. But it is important. The fact is that many of those living together without a license look at those who are legally married and find those relationships wanting. At the beginning of this article I said, "While most agree that what is best is a deep commitment blessed by their respective families, celebrated in community, blessed by God and firmly established in law, having a couple do less raises questions." Less is found not just where couples are living together without the marriage certificate. There are times when married couples also need to be challenged. I wonder about weddings that take place far from the community. I wonder about weddings where the blessing of God is not seriously sought. The claims we make for healthy marriages ought to challenge some popular practices.
The goal is to build marriages in which God is honoured and the kingdom advanced. Marriages can be a great gift of God. Troubled marriages and relationships are a great sadness. Our ministry seeks to encourage all to develop their relationships and marriages, deepen our mutual bonds and serve God.
May God bless your ministry.