I heard a common story from a new friend last night. As far as she knew about church people, “living together” was so frowned upon that she and her boyfriend suspected they would be ostracized if they got involved in Circle of Hope.
I said to her, “You guys are married, though, right?” She said, “Yes.” (This is not a transcript of our conversation, but that was the gist). What stood in the way of the official ceremony was money. They did not have wealthy or supportive parents; they did not have the money for a big party, money for the ring, the dress, etc.; plus, she wanted to feel more established financially before they made a commitment. This story is so common it seems to represent a new rite of passage into adulthood.
Care about people where they are
The “principle Christians” sometimes criticize Circle of Hope, as a whole, for our acceptance of people who are “cohabiting,” like my friend is. The implication is that we should consider these people taboo until they get themselves corrected. Instead, we apparently just let people have sex, willy nilly, and encourage people to sin. (Really, that’s gotten back through the gossip chain).
But, in truth, we’ve come up with an alternative. We care about people the way we meet them. So we usually get to know people who are cohabiting and ask them if they are married. Most of the time, if they aren’t just sharing an address, they say “Yes.”
I think people need to make a public covenant and have the benefit of a church-sanctioned marriage for any number of reasons. I’m not sure they need the government involved in their marriage at all – if they see that as an advantage, fine. But if they have taken one another home, and we all know they are a “they,” I don’t feel out of line by acknowledging their marriage.
Like I noted in a former post, cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States. It climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. It looks like most young adults today will, at some point, live with a sexual partner outside of marriage. The stats say that a majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. Often their parents encourage these “trial runs.” It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married. It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.
Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not. Sex is easier now. The capacity to marry for love (as well as be unfaithful) provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. Divorce is easier. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage. It is easier to be “abnormal” now. Since the 1960’s, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable.
Although the contours of marriage have changed over time, the definition has not. Americans still overwhelmingly define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, even though many break their vows. They are pulled between opposites and are still sorting things out. They want the connection of marriage, but they have slowly become accustomed to being individualistic and consumeristic. They want the security and safety of marriage, but they still want all their choices unencumbered. They want to marry or exclusively cohabit, but then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan, but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
What is the best way to marry?
Even though there are very few negative social consequences for breaking former sexual codes by not being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. Even same-sex couples want to marry and thirteen states will allow them to do it legally. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why people mate the way they do, but I do want to respond to what is happening with grace and discernment.
It is an interesting era. I am watching it as something of an outsider, since I and my Anabaptist tradition do not tune our faith to the varying pitches of government music or the society’s dance. As far as I am concerned, state and federal government definitions of marriage do not necessarily serve to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith. I don’t think legislation on sex, finances, or even procreation will protect marriage enough to make it work. It takes commitment. I don’t think couples need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But I do think they need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.
As a church, we have not fully answered all the questions (including the ones that come through the gossip chain): Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that many of those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited?
A new look at the spectrum of how people, in general, are changing marriage from contract to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt:
- Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle! Just stand up during the Love Feast; we’ll marry you and you can have a big party on your fifth anniversary.
- Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before they enter their covenant publically. That would be something like the way we embrace people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
- Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant.
- Maybe we should stop keeping secrets. Why should someone feel like they are secretly married just because they have not jumped through all the sometimes-arbitrary hoops? Why shouldn’t we help people have healthy, godly relationships with the people they are living with?
- Maybe we can help people who are getting married to relax about it and not try to meet the demands of the wedding industry. That might encourage others to celebrate the relationship they have made with more freedom and less stress.
Here are some more blog posts and pages about marriage:
The Marriage Story (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-marriage-story/
Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus (April 2012)
Monica and the new marriage (June 2011)
Go Ahead and Marry (2000)