Thought Question: Should a Preacher Marry a Couple Living Together?

According to an article in Baptist Press,

The survey of 1,000 randomly selected Protestant pastors found that a majority (58 percent) will perform weddings for couples they know are living together. Nearly a third (31 percent) will not, and 10 percent are not sure.

When it comes to cohabitating couples, pastors who consider themselves mainline are more likely to perform weddings then those who consider themselves evangelical.

On first reading, this struck me as an obvious choice, but on reflection, there are some subtleties. What do you think?

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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30 Responses to Thought Question: Should a Preacher Marry a Couple Living Together?

  1. Alan says:

    Certainly if there are children, the parents should marry, making a lifetime commitment to each other and to the family. And so it is right for a minister to facilitate that happening.

  2. Irvin Deskins says:

    Only if they repent and ask God for forgiveness

  3. Alan says:

    Only if they repent and ask God for forgiveness

    They’d have to do that in order to be baptized, for sure. In order to be married? Refusing to perform the ceremony merely obstructs their doing the right thing from this point forward.

  4. Alabama John says:

    If they have been living together long, they are already married.

    Preacher is just a formality.

    Could of jumped a broom with same result.

  5. Price says:

    I wonder what the percentage of divorce is in the church these days ?? It used to be nearly as bad as those that didn’t go to church….. I’m not sure we should stand in judgement of someone that wishes to make that life long commitment. Maybe it’ll last longer than the average marriage of “church goers.” As big of a mess as we’ve made of marriage it doesn’t surprise me that children from divorced families are looking for something different… I pray that God will direct them instead of Hollywood.

  6. While I’m not officially, a pastor, I regularly perform wedding ceremonies, as part of my personal marriage ministry.

    Often today, we seem to forget that a “wedding ceremony” is a relative recent phenomena, from a historical perspective.

    For most of human history, couples were married when they agreed to be married. No ceremony. No wedding license. Just an agreement between those who were becoming a couple.

    Yes, I’ll perform a wedding for a couple living together. It’s an opportunity for me to establish a relationship with them, and hopefully, become a positive influence in their lives by loving them the way Jesus loves me.

    Remember the woman at the well, she’d had multiple husbands and was living with another man, but Jesus did not beat her over the head with her sinfulness. Rather, he connected with her in a way that he could draw her close to himself.

    Recently, a couple was referred to me by the guy’s cousin. The man is nominally Roman Catholic. The woman is Buddhist. They’ve been living together for a couple of years. In part because I was willing to perform their wedding, I was able to help them with some pre-marriage counseling — and now six months after the wedding, have been able to maintain a connection with them.

    Pastors often need to get over their self-righteousness … if only their congregations will let them.

  7. Rose Marie says:

    I agree with Alabama John. It is not a popular position in religious circles and doesn’t take into account any living ex-spouses or other parents of children of the individuals, but it does come as close as humans can come to understanding what God meant when he said to leave father and mother and cling together and be fruitful. In some cases this might be the beginning of the kinds of fruit that He mentioned in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Maybe especially faithfulness and self-control. We all can use starters for these kinds of fruits in our lives.

  8. Alan says:

    I understand the common law marriage point. But it’s not a marriage unless it’s a commitment for life. Anything less is immorality.

  9. Alan,
    Obviously, your point is correct … but a wedding ceremony with a preacher does not effect the level of commitment the couple brings to the marriage.

  10. Yes, there are subtle points here. “I will marry you if you don’t live together for X days.” What do you choose for X?

    And if “the preacher” won’t marry the couple, they go to the Justice of the Peace and they have their piece of paper.

    Please Note: this discussion assumes that the couple has come to a church building to talk to a preacher. They are SEEKING something. Do we welcome seekers unconditionally? What example(s) did Jesus set for us?

  11. Alan says:

    They are SEEKING something

    Seeking God? Sometimes yes. Sometimes not. Often they have become pregnant and are choosing marriage over options like abortion and single motherhood. I’d still marry them.

  12. Todd Collier says:

    Have actually been in this position quite a few times- it is almost normal when working with pre-Christians. I do require counseling – which I use to point them to an even larger committment. Very few have not been baptized on the way to being wed. After they express their decision to make the committment to Christ I ask them to abstain from “relations” until after the wedding in His honor. Then I baptize him and he baptizes her. None of my couples has ever challenged this request.

  13. David Hines wrote,

    Pastors often need to get over their self-righteousness … if only their congregations will let them.

    How true! I’ve seen harm and no good come from refusing to marry someone for any number of reasons: previous marriage, Christian to non-Christian, living together, too brief an acquaintance before the wedding, etc., etc. etc.

    A couple who’d know each other only a few weeks (less than six) came to me wanting me to marry them. She was a member of the congregation; he had no religious background at all. I tried to talk them into waiting a while; they were adamant. I asked what they would do if I refused to marry them; they said they’d just go to the justice of the peace. So I married them on the condition that he would agree to study the Bible with me. Twenty-five years later, long after I had moved on, I visited that congregation – and he was one of their elders.

    Jerry

  14. Charles McLean says:

    ‘Bama John has it right, the preacher is not the issue at all. That he should make his judgment of the pasts of others an issue in performing a marriage is mostly personal puffery. The couple called a pastor to ask for this service; if they wanted a JUDGE, they could have found one easily enough. We should not make it hard for people to do the right thing.

    And while Alan’s note about marriage being “for life” is true, I am not sure that co-habitation is much different than the “serial monogamy w/paperwork” which we so often see.

  15. Nancy says:

    Seems like if you believe that living together is sinful and that by being married by a preacher somehow makes everything right in the eyes of God, why would you refuse to marry them? Wouldn’t you want them married (as defined by the state and the church) as quickly as possible?

  16. Nancy says:

    Todd wrote that he requires counseling…do you mean that you require premarital counseling for “pre-Christians” or for those “pre-Christians” that are living together or do you counsel all couples that ask you to conduct their marriage ceremony? I’m confused.

    What about couples that are already having relations but aren’t technically living together. What sort of position do you guys take with these couples? Do you refuse to marry them until they are celibate for a set period? Or maybe you refuse to marry any couple that has already had sex. How do you decide.

  17. Charles McLean says:

    Nancy, I think Paul requires a 30-day cooling off period of celibacy prior to a church wedding. That’s in Second Lithuanians 12:14, as I recall. However, if the couple can provide an affidavit of short-term celibacy over the previous 30 days, the waiting period can be waived by one prophet or two evangelists. One problem is getting witnesses who can verify that the couple didn’t have sex. But we have these rules for a reason.

    Also, the current idea that people should submit to pre-marital counseling from a person with little or no education in counseling is clearly based on Thaddeus’ First Epistle to the Clergymen’s Union, chapter five, paragraph 4(a). “Counseling, Marital, Pre” is listed right after “Congregational Autonomy” and right before “Driving the Church Van”.

  18. Charles, I wish we a “like” button on these posts.

  19. Todd Collier says:

    I require counseling with anyone who wants me to perform their marriage. As for asking for them to be celibate prior to the wedding – that is a part of helping them come to grip with a lifestyle of holiness – after all, my job as an evangelist is to bring people to Jesus, not perform weddings. In fact I have been “fired” from a wedding before because the celebrants wanted me, they just didn’t want Jesus showing up and I wasn’t ok with that.

    Charles, thanks for the ‘tude, but I was just telling folks how I handle a difficult situation, not laying down any law for others. I don’t hire PI’s or install camera’s to police things, though I do ask questions on a regular basis to keep folks accountable. Sometimes that is uncomfortable, but it is my job. As for my preparedness to do the counseling, not sure you actually know whether I’m prepared for that or not.

    If there actually were scripture for this things would be a lot easier, glad you are comfortable making up your own.

  20. K. Rex Butts says:

    I married a couple last year who were living together with the two children they had together. I required them to engage in five sessions of pre-marrital counseling with me. After their marriage, I began reading the Bible with them since they were interested (even though they literally had no knowledge of what the Bible said…they didn’t even know the name of one book in the Bible). They now also visit the Sunday morning worship pretty regularly. They’re not Christians yet but they are joining with the church and continuing to learn about the life God is calling them to live in Christ. Perhaps one day they will come to faith in Jesus and surrender their lives to Jesus in baptism. Perhaps they won’t. But I wonder how things might have gone had I judged them for who they are at the time (sinners engaged in sin) rather than who they will be as people baptized into Jesus Christ. I don’t know. What I know is that I helped people accept a relationship that God I believe God blesses (the marriage of husband and wife) and that has also opened the door for me to help the same people discover more about the life that God blesses.

  21. Bruce Morton says:

    Todd:
    Thank you for describing what you do — and for doing it. Sounds like an echo to me of Jesus’ constant teaching to bring together the social and the spiritual — in a world that often wants to separate the two. Encouraging.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  22. Charles McLean says:

    Todd, it was nothing personal. It’s just a response to the ‘tude I have seen for years among clergymen– to take this little patch of ceremonial turf and make something of it that it is not. If you are trained to counsel others about marriage, that’s wonderful and should be beneficial. Although it would have been simpler for you to say you DO have such training, instead of leaving the matter in doubt.

    This is not about form, however, but about motive. I must commend Rex’s actions, even though he did require the couple to meet with him five times prior to being the master of ceremonies at their rite. It is his clear interest in these people over and above their “situation”, and well beyond doing a wedding ceremony that appeals to me here. I especially am encouraged by the connection of non-believers to a community of believers. If your method has a similar intent and produces similar connections, I would think well of it also, even if the form was not to my specific taste.

    If, on the other hand, the intention of such a requirement was merely to disassociate onesself from the sins of others by creating rules for ministering to them– as has been the practice of many of my preaching brothers –I would not be similarly impressed.

  23. Brian B. says:

    Irvin Deskins, on October 25th, 2011 at 6:23 am Said:
    “Only if they repent and ask God for forgiveness”

    Irvin, what do you understand repentance to mean? Isn’t it a change in behavior? Therefore, wouldn’t the fact that the couple is now seeking a marriage a form of repentance?

  24. Brian B. says:

    Alan, on October 25th, 2011 at 7:49 am Said:
    “I understand the common law marriage point. But it’s not a marriage unless it’s a commitment for life. Anything less is immorality.”

    And how do you propose to judge this for any couple requesting to be married whether they are living together or not? I haven’t been to a wedding yet where I thought the couple did not intend to commit for life.

  25. Marie says:

    Hi…I sought out this website tonight looking for some perspective. My daughter who is twenty five has been living with her fiancée for two years. They were an instant connection and are very devoted to one another. They want to get married in May of 2014 and we asked a friend of ours who is a wonderful man of God to perform the ceremony. He initially responded with a “yes” and his wife, my very dear friend, told me so I gave my daughter the good news. Well since he feels convicted that he cannot marry them with with God’s approval because…they are sleeping together and assumes they will be headed towards divorce. I have not told my daughter yet and I have asked them to pray for wisdom. This couple who are both very good friends of mine are open to meeting my daughters fiancée and offering counseling in an attempt to help them to see what God’s will is in this. This issue can be very confusing because why assume that God is going to curse this union…didn’t God have a hand in them meeting in the first place? God’s word is vital for walking in the Spirit, I know this and I love Him and dearly want my daughter and her fiancée to walk in His ways. I am afraid that my daughter is going to feel very rejected by this person that she has admired and loved and known as a Godly man all the years she was growing up. I feel a bit disappointed at the moment but the amazing thing is that I know God will, somehow through prayer and seeking Him, give me understanding and the right words to say to my daughter.

  26. Mark says:

    Too many people are involved in this. You, the man’s wife, and the daughter. Let the daughter decide who wants to conduct the wedding. Feeling rejected as you say your daughter might is a possibility. I’d stay out of the situation instead of making it worse.

  27. Terry says:

    Marie, congratulations on your daughter’s upcoming marriage. Based on scripture and personnel experience God’s has a special place in His Heart for the prayers of mothers for their children. I too believe He will give you the wisdom and words to say. I know of a couple and recently heard of another couple that repented and stopped having sex prior to their marriage. In these cases their decision strengthened their relationship to each other and certainly to God. It may be this is one of those times God gives us to reevaluate our priorities and our commitment to Him. In my humble opinion, I suggest a discussion with your daughter and her commitment to her marriage being one that brings glory to God. It is God that joins them together into one, the preacher is just acting out what God has done. We are happy for you and your daughter. May God bless you as you pray for His wisdom.

  28. Alabama John says:

    Be thankful they want to become one in marriage. Many today just live together. Been to many marriages where the bride was obviously pregnant.
    I hear from young folks that you do not buy a car without driving it first and that is the way many of this day and time feel about marriage.
    On the positive note, I know of many that had sex before marriage that are still together as one for over 50 years and many more that would be together that long if their partner had not died. They will be together again.
    If they are, or are not, suited for each other and who really knows that by dating, they will stay together and if not, they will go separate ways. I don’t believe the sex or who does the marrying or where its done or what anyone thinks has anything to do with it.
    God bless their wanting to become one so be very thankful for that.
    This old body will die, but their spirits will live forever. Let that be your thinking and be grateful for them both and for God creating their spirit for eternity.
    NOW FOR GRANDCHILDREN!!!!!
    You are blessed. Be happy. Don’t let anyone spoil this for you or them.

  29. mark says:

    I know plenty who only married for sex and a ticket out of the college dorm. I would have more problem conducting their wedding than a couple who had lived together.

  30. Marie says:

    Hi again…thank you everyone very much for your kindness and responding to my comment/situation. I am going to do what God has been training me to do since I moved overseas to take care of my mother who has Alzheimer…that is to pray instead of worrying and bowing to fear. I find it very comforting as well to have the ability to come to a site like this and ask for the opinions of other believers. I believe that is also something that pleases God that we come together and help one another. Thank you very very much…God bless you all.

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