WHEN ARE TWO PEOPLE MARRIED IN THE SIGHT OF
The covenantal basis for Christian marriage is modeled after the covenant God made with Israel. God is pictured as trustworthy and forever faithful in expressing unconditional love to the people of God. This translates to the importance of permanence or covenantal love for human relationships as the basis upon which sexual and emotional intimacy are developed. This Christian view of marriage must be differentiated from the legal, civil definitions. In the United States, there has been a conflation of these two meanings so that pastors are able to perform legally recognized marriages. To help cement the Christian understanding of marriage in the sight of God, there are several important considerations.
First, does the couple need consent from parents or family before they can be considered married before God? While parental consent was part of Jewish marriage during biblical times, this was a cultural practice based on the mate-selection process. Whereas parental consent is certainly desirable, it would be difficult to find scriptural evidence that it is a requirement for marriage.
Second, does a couple need to make their commitment before a community of believers before they are married in God’s sight? The covenant of marriage is entered by relational partners, officiated by a minister or pastor, and sealed by God. One could argue that while it is wise to have support from a faith community, it is not a scriptural directive. There is not a mandate or decree regarding the presence of the church for the wedding ceremony.
Third, is the consent of civil authorities needed? Those who believe that persons should have the consent of the civil authorities point to health concerns—for example, blood tests for negative Rh factor or sexually transmitted diseases—that have ramifications for each partner and their future children. Also, it gives spouses certain legal, financial, and property rights. While there are excellent reasons to seek the consent of civil authorities, it would be difficult to support this as a scriptural mandate.
Following a “letter of the law” interpretation of Scripture, one could argue that none of the above conditions are required to be married in God’s sight. At the same time, we think it is important to understand the spirit of the law, which recognizes family, community, and civil authorities as structures that support marriage. Cohabiting couples who say they are married “before God” but fail to make it public miss out on a vital source of collective encouragement. The strength of a commitment multiplies when it is made before Christian witnesses who offer resources as well as a place of
accountability. The wisdom of making commitments within a believing community is especially noticeable during times of trouble. A couple depends on others to keep them resilient when life stresses come their way.
Partners who fail to legalize their “marriage” lose out on the government’s obligation to look out for the welfare of each partner, the couple, and their children. This especially has ramifications for spouses and their children in regard to financial and property rights, benefits that occur when a relationship has the legal support of society. There is a sense in which a personal commitment is maintained through a supportive community and society.
Some endorse a mutual covenant commitment made between an unmarried man and woman before God and sealed through sexual intercourse as the minimal biblical standard; others believe there is a need for the commitment to be made in the presence of the Christian community and/or within the accepted formal structure of civil society. The ceremony and the license are aspects that serve to integrate a couple into society. Evidence points to the fact that the individualistic ethic in our society keeps people from fully realizing the importance of personal commitments that are embedded in a community context.
IS COHAB ITATION A THREAT TO THE INSTITUTION OF
MARRIAGE? At the societal level, we do believe that cohabitation poses a threat to
marriage and family stability. In response, the church can offer an informed voice to support societal practices that undergird marriage and family life. At present, marriage in the United States is the accepted way of recognizing a social and legally binding relationship between two consenting adults, and cohabiters do not have that protection.
The negative impact of cohabitation on children continues to be a grave concern to the church. Children born to cohabiting couples are less likely to spend their childhood in a two-parent home than are children born to married couples. There is ample evidence that the economic and emotional impact of divorce on children has deleterious effects on them.
HOW SHOULD THE CHURCH RESPOND TO COHAB ITING
The church must make a distinction between how it responds to individuals who are in cohabiting relationships and how it responds to cohabitation as a practice or lifestyle. We advocate that Christians should offer grace to cohabiting couples over law. Churches may want to encourage congregants that are cohabiting to live into God’s covenant with the church and make a covenant commitment to one another.
A detailed discussion of how the Christian community can wisely respond to each of these cohabiting situations is beyond the limits of this chapter. We do offer some general guidelines, however, about how the Christian community can best respond to these different scenarios.
1. The Christian community promotes and encourages the biblical standard of a permanent covenant commitment between two people before God, presenting this through the compelling influence of modeling. The church as a faithful community demonstrates living into commitment, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. This community encourages each congregant to live out these experiences in daily life.
2. The Christian community offers hospitality, lovingly reaching out to all who enter their doors, offering covenant, grace, empowerment, and connection, which provides a place of belonging and security.
3. The Christian community openly receives children and family members into the church family, giving them a glimpse of the faithful, trustworthy presence of love and support among God’s people.
4. The Christian community offers a public ceremony within the community of faith to celebrate the covenant union when couples decide to marry, with no stigma or shame placed on them or their children.
5. The Christian community continues to show love and grace, accepting people as they are in the love of Christ without coercion.
6. The Christian community becomes a trustworthy place and loving community and never turns away anyone who seeks God.
We believe that the church often deprives cohabiting couples of a genuine place of caring and belonging and that we have so much to offer them in our communities of faith. If there is a decision to make covenant vows, it behooves the church to support them through a meaningful public ceremony. Elaborate and expensive wedding ceremonies may keep some from moving toward this. Helping with a simple, culturally appropriate ceremony that
includes congregation and family members as a witness to the covenant vows is really the important thing.
Here are just a couple personal examples of the faith community providing support in small but significant ways. Judy’s mother wore a simple gold dress for her wedding ceremony after the Sunday night church service. Her aunt and uncle stood with them, and the church provided cake and coffee for a small reception afterward. Jack’s parents had a similar ceremony after the Sunday morning church service. They invited the family and a few special friends over to the house for a light Sunday brunch reception. A wedding was an occasion to support the couple’s covenant commitment without all the fuss and flair of an expensive, elaborate wedding. Both sets of parents were married more than sixty years, a covenant commitment that lasted over their long lives. Tom and Gail also had a very simple ceremony. They were blessed to have Tom’s father, an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, officiate the ceremony. The wedding was followed by a small celebration with close friends and family.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the Christian community is to offer grace in the midst of the tension felt when those who enter the church to learn of God and God’s ways have a different set of value systems. The discouraging truth is that living outside of biblically based norms can negatively affect one’s attitudes toward those norms. Individuals grow accustomed to lifestyles outside of God’s intention for humanity, yet they experience glimpses of the blessings God intends for relationships even while living outside the standard. For example, cohabiting couples meet intimacy and relationship needs for one another. Joy and love are present. But ambivalence toward God’s intended design leads to devaluing marriage and covenant commitment. Discipling individuals and couples in situations like this means we need to extend the hand of hospitality and friendship first. As the church exposes individuals and families in this situation to more and more biblical truth, the relationship of grace and fellowship aids in the discipleship process. Rather than reacting with judgment or fear, the church is the place that opens wide its doors, welcoming all to come and learn of the ways of Jesus.
In its stance toward the practice of cohabitation, we believe that the church can err in two ways: either by failing to uphold the sacred purpose of marriage or by condemning and shutting out those who cohabit. In upholding marriage as God’s way with one hand, we should extend God’s grace with