In a recent Banner article, a respected psychologist and therapist in the Christian Reformed Church proposed that we revise our traditional ecclesiastical posture towards committed couples living together before marriage, given the older ages at which couples wed these days. Professional counselors work with hurting people who are often crippled by guilt and shame over such things. A softer ecclesiastical stance might seem to present a more helpful approach.
I agree that we need to be a grace-filled community that does not judge and condemn. We must bring and be good news to all whenever they, and we, stray from God’s paths. That includes couples living common-law. I also agree that the Bible does not define specifically what is included in the sin of “fornication.”
Still, my reading of Scripture does lead me to reaffirm the Christian church’s position that a mutual, public vow of unity, faithfulness, and love should precede living together. As a pastor who has learned from couples in the context of marriage preparation, counseling, and milestone anniversaries for some 40 years, I believe that waiting honors God’s will, and God blesses such obedience in key ways.
Building a healthy marriage depends on many different ways of finding each other and growing together. When couples get ahead of themselves sexually or live together to see if they’re compatible, they make it almost impossible to assess clearly whether they are growing the kind of relationship that will allow them to face the challenges of marriage for the long run. Such actions create a dependency that clouds their judgment and makes it much harder to part company should they find they are not right for each other. Sex alone cannot keep a marriage together, so it should never be what keeps couples limping forward when the rest of their relationship is faltering. I’ve seen that all too often.
Common-law couples often tell me that marriage is “just a piece of paper.” That’s precisely the point. If you too quickly start living as husband and wife only to find you are not compatible, your parting will hurt you (and those around you) just as if you had that paper. It’s a divorce all the same because, biblically speaking, when you gave yourselves to each other sexually, you already became husband and wife (Gen.2:24, 1 Cor. 6:16)—even though you and your community weren’t even ready for that commitment.
Scripture offers sufficient warning not to get ahead of ourselves. But my favorite text puts all this in the positive: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Verses 3-5 clearly show that the psalmist isn’t just thinking of bricks and mortar. God knows how to knit lovers together into a solid household. He’s good at it (Gen. 2:22-25). Couples who build their relationship God’s way can count on it. Allow God to build the foundation first. Let him finish building your spiritual house. Then, by all means, move into the bedroom.
If you really love each other, let your relationship be built to last. Then every new step will bring a fresh blessing to you, your loved ones, and God’s kingdom.