Most pastors, or at least the pastors I know, will tell you that weddings are one of the least enjoyable aspects of their vocation as pastor. They do not say this because of “bridezillas” or overbearing mothers of the bride or mother-in-laws to be. They do not object to weddings themselves, which can of course be wonderful and joyous celebrations of God’s gift of marriage. Instead they say this because time and again the meeting with a couple who wants to get married confronts the pastor with the issue of cohabitation.
We live in a culture where a couple living together before marriage is considered normal. For many, cohabitation is simply the expected step that leads from dating to marriage as a relationship deepens. In a world where sexual intercourse is part of dating, the decision to share a bed in the same residence is a natural progression.
The problem is that such a practice is diametrically opposed to God’s ordering of creation that he has revealed in his Word. God created man in his image as male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). He created the woman from the man as the helper who perfectly corresponded to him – the helper whom man needed because God declared that it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18-23). In the creation of the woman God instituted marriage and established sexual intercourse as the constitutive action that establishes a new and permanent union. We read in Genesis 2, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). Jesus affirmed this fact and its permanence when he said:
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6 ESV)
Because sexual intercourse is intrinsic to God’s ordering of marriage, engaging in sex outside of marriage is a violation of God’s will and is sin. The New Testament refers to this misuse of sex with the word πορνεία, usually translated as “sexual immorality” or “fornication.” God’s Word leaves no doubt that if a person does not repent and receive forgiveness, fornication is a sin that brings eternal damnation:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality (πορνεία), impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV; see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Although God’s Word is clear on this point, the sexual revolution that has advanced since the 1960’s has created a situation in which the culture now assumes that sex outside of marriage, and therefore cohabitation, is entirely acceptable and normal. This has created tremendous pressure on the Church to accommodate the world and its new sexual behavior. The simple fact is that many churches that claim the name Christian have caved. In mainline protestant churches the wedding of a couple living together is unremarkable. Roman Catholic priests perform weddings for cohabiting couples. In the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod too, it is not difficult to find pastors who regularly marry a man and a woman who are living together.
In many of these cases, it is not that the priests and pastors believe cohabitation is acceptable. Often there is a pragmatism that recognizes the risk that if these couples are not allowed to marry, they will leave the congregation and go somewhere else where they can be married while living together. Many times pastors face great internal pressure from family members, such as parents, who attend the same congregation.
A common justification for the practice of marrying a cohabiting couple is that by marrying them, the sin of fornication is removed. If the problem is that the couple is engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage, by marrying them the issue has been solved.
Yet such an approach completely fails to address the need for repentance. Jesus’ ministry was one which called sinners to repentance. Mark tells us, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15 ESV). Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32 ESV). After his resurrection he told the disciples, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47 ESV).
Repentance does not only mean that a sinner admits that sin has occurred and forgiveness is needed. It also means that the person stops and turns away from that sin. As Yahweh told Ezekiel: “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV).
Christians cannot engage in “planned repentance.” They cannot think, “I will engage in this sin now. Then later I will ask for forgiveness and everything will be ok.” Such willful sin is the path that drives out the Holy Spirit. Cohabitation is unique in character because it is the planned, conscious and willful decision to live in a sinful state. This is not a case in which on some night alcohol lowered inhibitions and things went too far. It is instead the very deliberate and involved process of moving in together so that the couple can engage in sex on a regular basis.
Ideally, a pastor should never face the issue of cohabitation for the first time when he meets with a couple to begin wedding preparations. When a pastor learns about congregation members who are living together he should engage in pastoral care that leads either to a termination of cohabitation apart from a wedding in church (see below) or ultimately to excommunication. When pastors know about a couple living together, they are unfaithful in their call to care for Christ’s flock (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:11) if they do not address the situation with pastoral care that leads one of these outcomes.
However, the conscientious pastor can still find himself surprised. Even in a smaller congregation the pastor cannot know everything about members and an absence of knowledge becomes more likely as the size of the congregation increases (a fact that is part of the appeal of a large congregation for some people). Since pastors often find themselves asked to marry a congregation member’s daughter or son who does not live in the area, even the most faithful pastor can experience the sinking feeling of seeing that the address on the information forms is the same.
When confronted with this situation, it is unfaithful and unacceptable simply to proceed with a wedding in church. The practice in which couples live together up to the day of their wedding in church is institutionalized fornication. To do so denies all that we confess about the Sixth Commandment. It says that fornication is entirely acceptable and normal for Christians, and is simply the entry into marriage.
Only baptized Christians will be married in church (1 Corinthians 7:39). However, for many who have been baptized at some point in their life, the faith no longer plays any meaningful role. Pastors often find themselves asked to marry individuals who do not see their wedding and marriage as being focused on Christ.
From the perspective of faith and God’s will for life, it may seem strange that such couples want a wedding in church. But in our culture a wedding is “the big show.” It is “the big party.” When it is assumed that a couple lives together before marriage, a wedding is not the start of something completely new. The wedding night holds no mystery for the couple. The wedding does not signal the beginning of life lived together. Instead the church is the stage and the pastor is a prop that is needed for “the wedding of their dreams.” The couple wants the experience of the wedding, and the church and pastor are necessary elements of this, like the dress, the flowers and the meal. Woe to the pastor who has the audacity to “deny them” this because of the Sixth Commandment.
Actions have meaning. In fact the saying is true when it comes to practice in the Church: Actions speak louder than words. It will not do to teach the Sixth Commandment in catechesis and then deny it in practice by marrying couples who live together. Some parts of the Church have been so impacted by the culture that cohabitation is just no longer an issue. Others know what is true, but find themselves unable stand up to the cultural pressure.
Most often the pastoral practice of marrying cohabiting couples is couched in the language of being “loving” and “understanding.” A variety of factors are cited (such as economic ones) that prohibit the couple from living in separate locations. The pastor may then tell the couple to live in separate rooms and to abstain from sexual intercourse until the wedding. Such an arrangement is expected to exist for months on end until the wedding date.
Yet such pastoral practice cannot be considered acceptable for two reasons. First, no pastor should counsel individuals to place themselves in the setting of certain and intense temptation. A couple that intends to marry feels intense emotional feelings toward one another. The cohabiting couple has already experienced sexual intercourse and this has become part of their life together. The notion that such a couple will then continue to live in the same residence without having sex is folly. The pastor is permitting them to exist in a setting of intense temptation where it is highly likely that they will sin.
The second reason is the witness that cohabitation gives to the world. Everyone knows what happens when a couple in a relationship lives together – they have sexual intercourse. This is what people (rightly) assume. When a Christian couple lives together and then gets married in church, the Church is telling the world that she is no different from the world. This cannot be.
When a pastor learns that a couple that wants to get married is living together, the matter is no longer about a wedding. Instead, it is about pastoral care for the spiritual welfare of the two individuals. By living together outside of marriage, they have intentionally placed themselves into a sinful state. The only way to deal with this is repentance, confession and absolution.
Repentance means not simply admitting they have done wrong but also turning away from this sin. The sinful state must be ended immediately. In private confession and absolution the sin must be confessed and forgiveness spoken. If the couple wishes to be married in church they must end their cohabitation and establish residence in separate locations.
There will be situations in which couples object that this is not possible for any number of reasons (financial are the most commonly cited). When faced with this, the pastor can tell the couple that one of them must stay at a separate location for the brief time that it takes get a marriage license and be married by the justice of the peace. This marriage can later be consecrated in church using the Rite of the Blessing of Civil Marriage. Such a service allows for the opportunity of much of the ceremonial people wish to experience in the public setting of church. As a concession by the pastor and congregation, in the same scenario of living separately until they can get a marriage license, the pastor may be willing to marry them in a private ceremony.
Many couples will react strongly against such a suggestion. After all it, it denies them their “dream wedding” and is done in the admission that living together was sin. Yet this is often the nature of repentance. No one ever said that turning away from sin is easy. It is sin that seems like the easy way. With good reason Jesus said:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV).
If they are not willing to end their cohabitation, or if they are not willing to get married immediately in this fashion, then they love their sin more than Christ and his Word, and have no business being married in Church. The Church and her ministry are for repentant sinners.
With ever increasing frequency, cohabitation involves children from previous relationships. When children are present in this way, the household is functioning as a de facto family. This is challenging for the pastor since now he must also take the welfare of the children into consideration. In this situation, it does not seem prudent to tell the couple to end the cohabitation by moving apart until a later wedding date. Instead, the immediate options of a wedding license and marriage by the justice of the peace or a private ceremony with the pastor seem best. In such situations it may not be best for one parent to stay in a different location until the wedding license is obtained and the marriage takes place. Instead, the best option may be to tell the couple to abstain from sexual intercourse during this brief time.
There will be those pastors who object that how they choose to handle cohabitation is their choice and their responsibility alone as the called overseer in that place. In the challenging circumstances of our present culture, they are free to carry out pastoral practice as they are permitted by their own conscience.
However a pastor and a congregation never stand alone. How one part of the Body of Christ chooses to act impacts other parts. This is especially true when congregations have chosen to join together on the basis of common confession and practice such as the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. The pastor who chooses to marry cohabiting couples creates difficulties for the pastor who does not. As an experienced layman once told me about this issue: “Well, different pastors choose to handle it in different ways.” The implication was that there is not a right way, just different opinions about how to handle it. Such a view does not reflect what Scripture teaches, and instead comes from the world. It is very challenging to handle cohabitation faithfully. It becomes even more difficult when people know that the LCMS pastor down the road marries people who live together. Members seek to transfer to that congregation so that they can live together before marriage. The pastor who marries cohabiting couples is considered “pastoral, loving and understanding,” while the one who does not is “judgmental, unloving and rigid.” The ministry of the pastor who marries cohabiting couples undermines the ministry of the one who faithfully deals with the situation.
The biblical facts about the Sixth Commandment, cohabitation and marriage are simple and clear. Certainly, the application in the world of this truth revealed by God is challenging. But the challenge is a product of the world’s culture and how sinful it has become. The Church cannot accommodate and so enable sin. The regular practice of marrying people who live together outside of marriage is institutionalized fornication. It is a denial of the Sixth Commandment. It a denial of God’s Word. This is not something that early Church was willing to do. There is much that we can learn by considering the context of the early Church during the first six centuries and the way the Church chose to handle issues related to the Sixth Commandment. To that I will turn in a second post.