In February 2006, after having conducted 16 weddings in two years (which is a lot for a Baptist church, where generally we only marry our own people) I wrote an article in which I stated:
As I reflect upon these ‘statistics’, what surprises me most is how relatively few had been living together. Years ago, I used to make it condition that I would only marry couples who were living together, if in the period remaining before their marriage they were to live apart, as ‘a sign that they were prepared to take God seriously’. I no longer make that stipulation. Instead, I tell the couple that I do not approve of their living arrangements – but that I am happy to regularise their situation by marrying them.
Over the following five years the number of people in our church living together before marriage increased, but did not form the majority. However, this year there has been a marked change. By the end of December within a space of six months I will have conducted seven weddings – two couples were not living together, the rest were; and of those living together two couples had two children each, and another had one child. In 2014 I am likely to marry two further couples, and in both instances the couples have children. The one positive factor is that most of the couples living together who are getting married, are getting married because they want to put matters right.
The fact is that the values of the ‘world’ are becoming normative in the church. Outside the church living together before you marry is the ‘done’ thing. Indeed, most young adults seem to believe that moving in together before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce. The logics goes: ‘You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along’. But in fact the reverse is the case: research shows that couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce.
Clearly there are exceptions to the rule: there are indeed couples who have cohabited for many years whose commitment to one another is second to none. As a result there is a tendency, even within the church, to equate such committed relationships with the marriage relationship itself. And yet it is not the same.
Marriage involves the making of life-long vows – ‘till death do us part’; while co-habitation is a present relationship where the future is ill-defined. Furthermore, marriage is a public act in which families as also the community in general is involved (indeed, the law requires that the doors of the church have to be open during a wedding!), while co-habitation tends to be a private relationship between two individuals.
I see co-habiting couples as couples on the way to marriage – although perhaps ‘betrothed’ to one another, they have yet to fully ‘cleave’ to one another. Although they may enjoy sexual union, I do not see a co-habiting couple as being truly ‘one flesh’ – sexual intercourse is an integral part of marriage (indeed, in law a marriage without sexual union is not a marriage and can therefore be annulled), but by itself it does not make a marriage.