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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,991
October 10, 2019
Should Pastors Marry Cohabitating Couples?
By Mike McManus

A poll by LifeWay Research reports that most Protestant pastors will perform marriage ceremonies for cohabiting couples.

"If I believed them to be in sin, why wouldn't I help get them out?" asks Rev. Douglas Wilson of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. "I think it's over-scrupulous - overly pietistic - to refuse to perform a ceremony that gets someone from a morally questionable situation into an honorable estate."

By contrast, Rev. Ted Cunningham, author of Young and In Love, asserts, "I require couples to separate during the engagement." He also urges them to "practice abstinence before marriage."

He's critical of churches that are "moving away from being a church that honors marriage to becoming a justice of the peace" who marries anyone.

Cohabitation has become very popular. Last year 9 million couples were cohabiting - up 29% since 2007 when 7 million couples were doing so. It is a relatively new phenomenon. Only 430,000 couples were living together in 1960.

There were only 2.3 million marriages in 2018. About three-fifths were living together, 1.3 million couples. What happened to the other 7.7 million cohabiting couples? Most broke up, or would soon do so.

Cohabitation is the worst possible preparation for marriage. My wife and I wrote a book, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers. Here's one of the widely believed myths: about cohabitation: "Living together is a trial marriage."

"Actually," we write, "cohabitation is the worst possible preparation for a healthy marriage. It increases the odds of divorce by 50 percent."

Another myth: "A marriage license is just a piece of paper."

"No, it represents a way of life, a state of being blessed by God and sanctioned by the church, government and community," we respond. "It affects every aspect of life, health, happiness, longevity, and sex. They are all better with that piece of paper."

Some 39% of cohabiting couples have children - virtually the same as 40% of married couples who do so. Children of cohabiting couples fare poorly. One study found that 90% of them are more likely to see their parents break up compared to children born to married parents.

The U.S. unwed birth rate of 40% is 20 times higher than the 2% rate in Japan. No wonder American kids score only 487 on math tests vs. 540-600 by Asian kids.

Soaring cohabitation has sharply reduced the number of people who marry. There were more weddings in 1970 (2,159,000) than in 2015 (2,077,000). If the same percentage of couples were marrying now as in 1970, there would be 1.3 million more marriages a year!

One sad result is that the number of never-married Americans has nearly quintupled from 8.7 million in 1970 to 41.3 million never-married in 2015.

Why do so many pastors marry cohabiting couples, without asking them to move apart for a period? "There is a mistaken notion that a wedding corrects a sin problem. But a wedding does not lead to repentance," says Rev. Jeffrey Meyers, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Overland Park, Kansas.

He says another reason pastors marry couples living together is that clergy hope the couple will become members of his church.

What should clergy do with cohabiting couples who ask to be married? Rev. Meyers says they should be asked move apart and become chaste. Second, they should take a marriage preparation course with a trained Mentor Couple who administers a premarital inventory to help the couple assess their relationship. They react to 150 statements like these:

  • I go out of my way to avoid conflict with my partner.
  • I am concerned that my partner is more of a spender than I am.

My wife and I ran such a course at our church preparing 288 couples for marriage over a decade. We personally worked with 61 couples, only 10 of whom were chaste. We asked them to become chaste, and 43 couples did so.

Of the 288 couples, 58 decided NOT to marry - a big 20%. But of the 230 couples who did marry, we know of only 20 divorces after 20 years - a 90%+ success rate..

I asked Rev. Meyers if he attempted to persuade his denomination to refuse to marry cohabiting couples. He did persuade his district of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to adopt such a resolution. Has your denomination taken such a step?

In fact, have you ever heard your pastor even preach a sermon against cohabitation? I bet not.

The church is part of the problem.

Living together does not work because cohabiting couples can't practice permanence.

Copyright (c) 2019 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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