Sex and Sexuality #3 – Is Living Together the Same as Getting Married?
In the first two blogs in this Sex and Sexuality series, we’ve looked at what the Bible teaches about marriage. That has raised a good questions from many readers. Is this actually about marriage or is it just about people getting together. Is there really any difference between marriage and simply living together? I’ve therefore had a chat with some of the other pastors at Everyday Church, and this is how we’d answer some of the questions that people have raised. I hope you find the answers helpful. Remember, if you make no claim to follow Jesus then you’re off the hook here – we’re not expecting you to live as if you did. This is teaching for people who want to follow Jesus, people who grasp that unless he is Lord of all then he isn’t Lord at all.
Isn’t living together essentially the same thing as marriage, if two people are in love and committed to one another?
We assume that you don’t just mean living together as house-mates, but living together as a sexually active couple who have decided to cohabit without making marriage vows to one another before God. If that’s what you mean then it sounds like the symptom of a bigger problem.
When somebody says “I don’t need a piece of paper to love my partner,” they aren’t using the word “love” in the way that the Bible uses it. They are assuming that love is, in essence, a particular kind of feeling. They are saying, “I feel romantic passion towards my partner and I don’t need a piece of paper to enhance that.” If we define “love” as the amount of affection which we feel towards somebody, then we may well come to the conclusion that marriage vows are unnecessary. But this misunderstands what love actually is.
The Bible, more than any other book in history, defines what true love really is. 1 John 3:16 tells us that “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” When the Bible speaks of love, it does not measure it by how much you feel affection for somebody, but by how much you are willing to give of yourself to somebody. That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies and our marriage partner even when we don’t feel much affection for them. When a person says, “I don’t need a piece of paper to love you,” the Bible’s definition of love suggests that they are saying, “My love for you has not yet reached the marriage level.”
The reason why we run marriage preparation courses as a church is that a wedding marks a major graduation day in a couple’s love for one another. The journey towards marriage gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves some life-changing questions. How much am I willing to lose for the sake of this person? How much of my freedom am I willing to sacrifice? How much of my precious time, emotion and resources am I willing to invest in this person’s welfare? Am I truly willing to pour out my life for this person’s good – for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, as long as we both shall live?
For decisions as large as this, the marriage vow is not just helpful. It is a fundamental test. In many cases, when one person says to another, “I love you, but let’s not ruin it by getting married,” that person is actually saying, “I don’t love you enough to give myself to you that thoroughly.”
But surely buying a house or having children together implies that a couple has this self-sacrificing love for one another, even if they are not married?
Marriage was not invented by humans as a way to safeguard property rights or to create a stable home in which to bring up children. It was invented by God and he emphasises its importance throughout the Bible, from start to finish. The Bible starts with a wedding (Genesis 1-2) and ends with a wedding (Revelation 21-22), because marriage is a covenant which a couple makes before God and before the community in which they live. As part of a wedding service, a man and woman make vows to God before they make their vows to one another. Their commitment to one another takes place in a context bigger than themselves. The Bible tells us that the vows we make are first and foremost to God and only secondly to one another (Ezekiel 17:18-19). The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way before his execution by the Nazis:
Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love, you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love, you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.” (‘Letters and Papers from Prison’)
Something very profound takes place on a couple’s wedding day.
But surely it makes sense for a couple to live together before they marry to see whether or not they are compatible?
This argument may sound convincing, but the facts suggests otherwise. Couples who live together before marriage are statistically more likely to divorce than couples who do not live together beforehand. There are probably many factors at play here, but one of the main ones is that the best preparation for marriage is to understand up front that the biggest enemy of any marriage is self-centredness. Happy marriages are those in which a couple have promised to sacrifice their lives for one another, no matter what. If a person wants to “try before they buy” then it means they have not yet fully understood this.
The truth is that no two people are fully compatible, because we are all tainted with the self-centredness of sin. Marriage means deciding and declaring publicly that you love another person enough to commit yourself to serving their needs above your own needs for the rest of your life. Living with somebody conditionally doesn’t help prepare you to do this. It actually undermines it.
We aren’t married so how does this affect our being part of Everyday Church?
On one level, it doesn’t affect it at all. We gather a mixture of believers and nonbelievers to all of our meetings. You are very welcome to continue attending. However, we do want to help you to count the cost of following Jesus. We want to help you to surrender your life to Jesus in every area of his teaching – whether it is his teaching about truthfulness, about purity of speech, about humility, about sex, about money or about a host of other issues. If you wish to be baptised or become a member of Everyday Church, then this would be one of the issues which we would want to help you to address beforehand. We aren’t looking for perfection, but we want to help you to make baptism and church membership the expression of your genuine and heartfelt desire to go God’s way rather than your own.
What kind of help is on offer to us as we process this decision?
As with all of our pastoral support, your Life Group Leaders should be your first port of call for help. They know you as a couple so they can provide you with practical help from within your Pastorate community. We often help cohabiting couples to find alternative living arrangements whilst they decide whether or not they will get married. Doing this in the context of your Pastorate is very helpful, since pastoral support is very rarely one-size-fits-all. For example, if you have young children then your Life Group Leaders will want to help you to continue to parent them as a united team during this process. We would want to help you to make this next step in your relationship as a couple an exciting step for your children as well. Another example would be if you want to marry but your partner doesn’t. This is where the wisdom of Pastorate Leaders is really helpful.
Your Life Group Leaders will also be able to connect you with the regular marriage preparation courses which we run for dating, engaged or cohabiting couples.
Whether or not you are part of Everyday Church, the biggest help of all that we can give you is help from God. Marriage is a massive calling, a weighty calling, a holy calling, a God-given calling. As a result, God promises to bless those who obey him by doing more than simply living together. Proverbs 18:22 assures us that “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favour from the Lord.”
We’ll continue to help you over the next few weeks through these Sex and Sexuality blogs and through the next message in our Sex and Sexuality sermon series at Everyday Church this coming Sunday. In the meantime, keep your questions coming. It’s great to be exploring these issues so openly together.