There are many who will guffaw at this very question: how absurdly old fashioned, not to say narrow-minded and bigoted of Christians to shame/alienate/offend lovely couples whose commitment to one another is beyond question. There may have been no vows, but there is faithfulness, mutuality, responsibility and dedication. There might even be children. What greater commitment to permanence can there be? Is that more important than a piece of paper saying ‘married’? What is marriage anyway?
Couples choose to cohabit for many reasons, not least of which is the immense financial pressures people face, not to mention certain tax advantages and the vast cost of a wedding. A society in which around a third of marriages end in divorce also begins to actively encourage ‘trial’ marriages, which may be dissolved without all the legal struggle of a divorce. For many, the commitment to cohabit is seen as a perfectly reasonable alternative to a commitment to marry. It’s a sort of ‘I promise, but I might change my mind’, and this is considered by many Christians (and those of other faiths) to somehow keep the ‘heart’ out of the union. Thus cohabitation is ‘living in sin’: a pursuit for those with little or no self-control; an opportunity for pleasure without commitment or responsibility.
But cohabitation is not a matter of promiscuity, and neither is it that there is no moral or emotional bond. Why should there be no place for non-marital relationships which are physical, emotional, social and high-minded, but decline to be irrevocable?
If cohabitation is marriage in all but name, because the commitment really is there, it raises the question of when does marriage occur? The traditional formulations permit three main possibilities: with the consent of two people; at the ceremony (which ensures witnesses for the consent); or on consummation. Moral tradition governs sexual activity with a ‘before’ and ‘after’ temporal framework: the legitimising wedding has traditionally provided the dividing line. But a theology which equates a marriage with the wedding has become (or has always been) deficient: after all, it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1563 that the Roman Catholic Church insisted that marriages derive their validity within the context of Christian ceremony: it a ‘sacramental moment’.
While the legal and financial requirements of nation states demand a reliable means of documenting a ‘before’ and ‘after’, it appears to have become a simple matter of convenience that ‘after’ also signals when sexual intercourse may take place. But to insist that the ceremony establishes a marriage union is to ignore the teaching of Jesus that marriage occurs when the couple becomes one flesh (Mt 19:5; Mk 10:8). Further, a public moment of consent before witnesses presupposes a prior private moment of consent between the couple: Since the parties are themselves the ministers of the sacrament of marriage, and the role of the Church is to recognise, solemnise, pronounce and bless, the parties may regard themselves as married prior to any wedding that subsequently takes place. Any sex they have will be pre-ceremonial but not pre-marital.
Thus, while the law, for financial and ownership purposes, demands an unambiguous means of establishing whether one is married or not, the ethics can be rather more nuanced, and may talk of ‘how married’ one is. Indeed, for very many , the Bible says absolutely nothing about the degree of intimacy permitted in preparation for marriage: it is a matter for the individual conscience, or for two consciences operating with mutual consent. Sexual ethics can offer recognition of gradual process which the law cannot.
And it needs to be observed that theological thinking on marriage has manifestly evolved over the past 2000 years, in particular through the Reformation emphasis on the ‘mutual society’ of the man and wife (for priests, too), and the post-Enlightenment concept of romantic love. These have led to the modern expectation that the couple should be ‘in love’ prior to marriage, with a consequent raising of expectations. If the primary purpose of marriage is to bring up children, or the pursuit of relationship, the absence of both may have become sufficient grounds for non-permanence, but the presence of both may also be enjoyed in the absence of a marriage. Sexual intercourse is not simply about the production of children, but it strengthens and enriches the relationship of men and women and unites them with a bond of shared emotional and physical experience.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that if human understanding of the purpose of sex within marriage has developed, there may be an argument for revisiting the question of pre-marital sex and acknowledging that it may be a means of preparing for marriage. The Church of England has expressed an understanding of the development of the purpose of sex in its own formularies: the 1662 Prayer Book states that the prime purpose of marriage, and so the sex act within it, was the procreation of children; the 1980 Alternative Services Book talks of the ‘joy of their bodily union’ which is said to ‘strengthen the union of their hearts and lives’. If a cohabiting couple come to their church, insisting that they have embarked on a sexual union to ‘strengthen the union of their hearts and lives’, it would be unreasonable to assert that such a strengthening is irrelevant throughout the courtship or engagement. This is not to ignore the potential procreativity, but shifts the emphasis to the emotional, psychological and relational purpose of sex. Some vicars and Christian leaders really couldn’t care less that two people are already cohabiting (most manifestly are), but there are still quite a few who pretend not to have noticed that the couple both give the same address.
There remains a genuine concern amongst all Christian leaders for meaning and value in relationships, which is a concern for their quality and very soul. Cohabitation, while traditionally viewed as fornication, may be seen to constitute a marriage insofar as there is an intention to meet the biblical criteria for marriage. It may be an embryonic marriage, not least because the only omission is the lack of a formal ceremony, and what need all that fuss and bother? Marriage is an invention of God; weddings are the inventions of cultures.
The reality is that the Church’s traditional teaching that sex before marriage is wrong is not only considered old fashioned; it is inherited baggage from a bygone era, now felt as a heavy load for many couples. And so the teaching has changed through praxis: marriage is not demeaned by cohabitation, but defended by providing a new path from the single state to the married one.
Indeed, a good cohabitation could flourish better than a bad marriage. But by the time one has the right to call a cohabitation ‘successful’, it would have shown the qualities to which marriage aspires; the life-enhancing reciprocity in which a man and a woman take each other to love and to cherish. There is no grim necessity for moralists to impugn the validity of such a union when it has become happily established, just because it has not been ‘solemnised’.
And yet, and yet..
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God (1Cor 6:9f)
Funny how we hear an awful lot about ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ (variously elsewhere translated ‘men who have sex with men’ [NIV]; homosexuality [ESV], homosexuals [NASB]; ‘sodomites’ [Young’s], but not much at all about fornicators, who (it might be noted) St Paul placed first in his list, even before the idolators. Bit harsh, isn’t it?
‘Fornication’ is a dirty word. But if sexuality is not, as such, unclean, why must it be confined so rigidly to matrimony? It may be observed that ‘fornication’ as defined in the NT was more to do with prostitution than relationship (cf 1Cor 6:15-18). If, by fornication, St Paul had meant a sexual relationship with someone who was not a prostitute – with a woman whom one hoped to marry, for example – the argument would not have worked. The Church might therefore consider not making cohabiting people feel like prostitutes who have somehow demeaned sex, but acknowledge openly the potential advantages of cohabitation. Fornication is ‘living in sin’; cohabitation is a relative virtue.
The ethical approach of defending marital values by extending the marital norm is attractive in the modern context: talk about ‘living in sin’ is missionally obtuse if the words become a stumbling block. Perhaps there should be a revival of the practice of ‘betrothal’, whereby a declaration of an intention to marry would form the beginning of a marriage, thereby retaining an important witness to traditional Christian teaching about fidelity and taking into account contemporary lifestyle choices, the fear of commitment, and the apparent loosening up of attitudes towards premarital sex. If betrothal can be reclaimed, then the theology of marriage as a process of growth towards God and one another can be better promoted. While such ‘marriages’ would lack the social acceptability of legal recognition, they would undeniably meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of marrying couples by retrieving a practice that is embedded in the Bible and recognised in Christian tradition, and should not be confused with casual sex, where no marriage is intended or desired.
There are, however, certain unresolved ambiguities, not least that a betrothal itself constitutes precisely the sort of formalisation rejected by many today. There are also the theological questions: how, for example, might marriage as a sacrament be accommodated? And yet churches have patently softened the canonical, juridical, technical, quantitative approach to marriage, in favour of a path which stresses the personal, relational and qualitative. The repudiation of ‘rules’ has been not only accommodated, but often encouraged.
There are those who would insist that, far from being a defence of marriage, any concession to cohabitation contributes to its demise, undermining traditional teachings on restraint and fidelity. It is to compromise with the permissive society, and relegate sex to the prevailing utilitarian hedonism. But large numbers of young people (and quite a few older ones) are rejecting the Church over the cohabitation issue (not to mention other ethical-sexual matters), and it is absurd to pretend otherwise. Who wants to be like the sort of Christian who is always worrying about ‘standards’ and seems to have lost sight of people? When the Church appears to forget that morality is about people and their joys and sorrows and what is truly good for them, it is no wonder that so many non-Christians have come to expect no understanding or compassion from the Church.
But it is only in the aspiration to permanence that cohabitation will enhance marriage. In a sexual union which does not aspire to permanence, the commitment of a man and a woman to one another is being both given and withheld. Marriage unites two lives for as long as they both shall live in such a way as to exclude all others. Here, uniquely among human relationships, a certain possessiveness is in place; a conscious and mutual belonging. Yes, there may be advantages to cohabitation, but marriage alone gives a couple a chance to take their relationship for granted: not indeed to presume upon it, but to let their love for each other grow without continually pulling it up by the roots to see how it is getting on.
The diminishing of provisionality remains the principal defence of marriage over cohabitation. As an ‘embryonic marriage’, cohabitation will always need to mature to ‘full marriage’, if only to prove to itself its certainty and resolve. Marriage is the ultimate proof of love because it asserts the choice of one above others. But let’s not pretend that the ‘standard’ is more important than the radical inclusion of the person.