To marry or not: what to do?

It does not take a prophet to suggest that the church needs to do some careful thinking about marriage in our 21st century world. Or, more exactly, we need to do some careful thinking about how to respond faithfully to relationships that don’t exactly fit the mold the church is used to including in their fellowship.

So, with that in mind, consider this fictional—but realistic scenario—and in your comments let’s think it through together.

The situation
Jan grew up in a Christian family, but fell away from faith during high school and moved out as soon as she could. She had fallen in love with a classmate, David, and they moved in together soon after graduation. From the beginning they were clear that this was not temporary, but a permanent relationship. They were committed for life. A combination of disillusionment about the church, some political libertarianism, and no doubt a bit of rebellion kept them from having either a civil or a church wedding ceremony.

Jan’s family did not withdraw from them but included David in family gatherings, and though some tension was always present tried to make both Jan and David feel welcome. Not surprisingly, they said some things they later regretted, and wish they could do some things over, but on the whole they tried to keep communication open.

Then, after two years of living together, Jan and David began coming to faith (whether coming to faith or back to faith is beside the point—whom besides God can tell, anyway?). They started attending church with Jan’s parents, and hanging with them more. They asked questions, and discussions about faith became conversations instead of debates. One day they suggested they’d like to get married, and planned a date about a year in the future. Jan’s parents suggested that there seemed no reason to wait that long, so they moved the date up by six months. Jan and David went to the pastor of the church they were attending with Jan’s parents and asked him to counsel them and to perform the ceremony.

A date was set for beginning the counseling, but the pastor said he could marry them only if they stopped living together. (David and Jan were deeply angered by his requirement.) He came to this conclusion after talking with 5 other ministers in his denomination, as well as with the elders of the church. His concerns leading to his conclusion were three:

1. If Jan and David were really repenting of living together outside of marriage, they needed to act on their repentance.

2. A wedding ceremony is a service of worship, which would be compromised if the couple being married were publicly known to be living in a relationship not sanctioned by Scripture.

3. A wedding is public, and simply marrying Jan and David would send a message to both the church and wider community that there was no consequence for cohabitation.

Response #2
The pastor should marry them without the precondition of their living separately, considering these five points:

1. All couples married in the church are sinners—equally sinners. The only question is whether we can see their sin and whether it’s the type of sin about which we set preconditions for.

2. There is a real danger that this precondition will turn Jan and David away from faith in these tender moments when their faith is weak and young and easily stumbled. That would be a greater tragedy—and the irony would be that the church would refuse to marry them while being the institution that insists they are wrong not to be married.

3. Even if this is repentance on the part of Jan and David, it is wrong to assume that when the Spirit works in someone the same results will always flow in the same order. Let’s face it: people grow at different paces and in weird ways. This precondition, no matter how well intentioned, is an imposition of law when grace is needed.

4. There are other ways to signal disapproval of cohabitation, if such is deemed necessary—one way is to bar them from the Lord’s Table until their wedding, and then welcome them to the Sacrament during the service.

5. As our world changes we need to be clear about what biblical marriage consists of, which is two things, namely a personal commitment to a life-long covenant relationship and a public declaration of that commitment. Since the Scripture neither mandates a civil license nor a church service, by this measure Jan and David are already married. The church should recognize this and develop ways to welcome couples like them—since doubtless there will be many more like them in the decades ahead as God calls members of the postmodern generation to himself.

Your response?

So, how should Christians think about this? How should the church respond to couples like David and Jan? What biblical texts are relevant? What, in other words, does faithfulness look like? And is this a matter for the church not for individuals?


  1. wow, i guess you stumped everyone.

  2. Denis – I’ve been thinking about this for the past several days and I’m still not sure how to respond.

    I’m inclined to say yes, they should be married. If we ask them to separate for an amount of time before getting married, how long are we asking them to do that? Also, are we prepared to help them with extra financial costs they may incur as a result?

    Taken a step further, why are we treating this sin differently than any other? There are lots of other extremely public sins a couple could engage in, are we going to make them wait to get married too?

    Also, as you said, biblically speaking, I think the way we address unrepentant sin is by barring a person from the Lord’s Supper.

    I dunno though, it’s a really tough one. But I think I’d allow them to be married.

  3. I’ve seen this situation (or at least one very similar to it) at least twice that I can remember over the years. Our response will doubtless prove dissatisfying to some, but it seemed good at the time and the results have been good, too.

    The central question in our thinking: How does God see their relationship before the wedding? A good case can be made, I think, that a couple that has loved one another and lived together for so long are married. (We had neighbors in Massachusetts who were in their 60s and had been living together for over 20 years. He still introduced her as his fiancee.)

    Of course they don’t think they are married, and their thinking is pretty important. Often hiding behind rhetoric like “We don’t need a piece of paper to legitimize our relationship” is the unspoken assumption “I can leave this if/when it becomes annoying.” It’s here, I think, that having a wedding is important: not to sanctify their sexual relationship, but to formalize their commitment to one another, before witnesses, and before our Lord.

    So what did we do? Instead of having a wedding, which implies they weren’t really married before now, we had a service of recognition and commitment: recognition that what the Scriptures speak of as two becoming one has already begun in this relationship, and the commitment to continue that relationship by God’s grace until death or until the Lord comes.

    By the way, both marriages were successful in keeping that commitment.

  4. This is an interesting dilemma. A possible compromise might be to have the couple get married at the courthouse immediately, to be followed by a church sacrament when they can get their arrangements completed. While it is true that civil marriage is not what makes you married in the sight of God, in our culture it is what binds you to someone legally (and in Bible times, marriages were done according to the laws of that time, and I believe that God expected this). Why? Because, if we decide that being married in God's eyes is just a matter of making the commitment, how does one demonstrate that commitment? I believe it is by being legally wed. Without that commitment, the ability to walk away is much easier – which is why so many do not get legally married, but just live together. Appearances are not everything, but Christians are to avoid the appearance of evil, and I believe that living together lends such an appearance. Therefore, I believe Pastors would be justified in asking the couple to live apart or to have a civil ceremony pending their church ceremony.