September 15, 2019

Open Mic at the iMonk Cafe: That Not Exactly Married Couple….

no_flashHere’s today’s HYPOTHETICAL topic. A very common situation.

A couple asks to join your church. Well…..a non-married, living together 5 years, parenting 2 of her kids couple asks to join your church. They aren’t married because, basically, of not wanting to lose substantial child support. When that runs out next year, they tell you they will get married and they appear very serious about that.

They’ve visited your church for months. The kids are in the programs. They are in a small group. They are a great family. They just aren’t legally a married couple.

What do you do?

a) Receive them as married. (Leaning to a common law definition of marriage.)
b) Refuse to receive either as members until they repent of their sin and are married. (Rem: They have lived together as husband and wife exclusively for 5 years.)
c) Receive them as engaged.
d) Receive them as separate families.
e) Your better idea.

Special note: How do you believe Jesus would treat this couple? As married, since they are living as a married couple in every intention except government sanction or as unmarried?

Catholics: We know your answer, so you don’t need to explain it. But how would you deal with this couple in parish life?


  1. Assume a), and get to know them. Revise as necessary.

    • Ditto. What did Jesus say to the woman at the well about how many husbands she had had? In my book they are married. Being in this church will hopefully guide them in commitment to one another in a more solid marriage.

      • But in that story, Jesus made a distinction between the woman’s five previous husbands, and the man with whom she was now living, but was not married to. That seems to make a fairly good case against common law marriage.

        I especially like Laura’s answer (scroll down).

  2. They aren’t married because, basically, of not wanting to lose substantial child support.

    If I had the tact to do it properly I’d ask them why they view marriage as a system to be exploited for their convenience.

    • I might argue that this isn’t necessarily a case of exploitation. They may very well need the support of the person who created the child with them and the laws, unfortunately, don’t allow these situations to be played out fairly in every circumstance. I think it is safer to be generous on this one.

  3. Scott Miller says

    How people answer this is based on how they perceive marriage – is it a church sanctioned ceremony or a civil, government sanctioned ceremony?
    As you state in the special note, are people married because they live as a married couple? And how people answer also will apply to divorced/separated people. Do you turn them away and tell them to repent. Most churches will not turn anyone away or treat them any differently, especially if they have kids.
    I think, of your options, I would receive them as engaged. Depending on how strongly the church (small “c”) feels about such things, they are obviously living together and having sex. Maybe counsel them. Having them stay together just so that they can collect child support is almost as abhorrent to me as the relationship. I wish this was considered fraud in America.

    • amen

      • Is marriage either a church sanctioned ceremony or a civil, government sanctioned ceremony?

        I think it is neither. I think it is vows taken between two people to live as husband and wife. The ceremonies are just to share those vows with others, but their not necessary.

    • The biological father would and should owe child support regardless of the remarriage. Is this actually alimony she would lose? That might affect how we see this. I think (c) works best.

  4. e) Offer for the Church to marry them (after appropriate counseling) and for the Church to make up the difference in lost Child Support (which is the Church’s responsibility in the first place).

    ~I know of a Widow with five children. She homeschooled. Her oldest Son was at the Air Force Academy. When finances became a concern, her Church supported her in every way possible: financially and tangibly (home repair, for example) so she could stay home with her school-age Children and continue to educate them as they had always been educated. Her CHurch tried to keep life for them as they had known it when Dad had been alive. This helped them, greatly, transition to their “new normal”.

    And, besides, isn’t it the Church’s responsibility to care for the Widow and the Orphan until God brings a Redeemer-Kinsman? Which I’ve seen God do…my friend, a Widower and Pastor. They’ve been married about 5 years now. 🙂

    Maybe we need to trust God and not Man with our temporal needs… Jesus often ministered in this way: heal the immediate problem first to heal the heart and soul.

    • amen laura!

    • I LOVE this answer. And I can hear the chorus of protests that would ensue from the congregation. A whole lot about “encouraging sinful behavior” and “setting a bad example.” As if any of us ever needed any encouragement to be sinful. This is an answer full of grace and gospel and so will drive the religious crowd absolutely batty.
      It would take real guts for a pastor to pull this off, and he would have to have earned a great deal of trust from his congregation and leadership. I love it.

      • L. Winthrop says

        And what, pray tell, will you do when the new policy attracts a glut of new members who are widows in need of church support?

        • Praise God and pass the plate?

        • Good question, and one that the early church struggled with too, if 1 Timothy 5 is any indication.

        • Maybe forego the obsession with property and giant college like buildings and put the money in to the community in this way. I think I would want the couple to marry as soon as possible and make a new covenant with god. For me, the sex out side of marriage is a bigger issue.
          I have been in situations where I faced an impossible financial situation with seemingly no way out. somehow through Gods grace and love he has pulled me through. To do it I had to trust in some things to happen after the heavy lifting was done and i had done my best. If this couple is on a course to make things right and trusting God then that is all they can do. Individual situations are all different . and when the divorce rate in the church gets way lower than society at large, then maybe we can have some credibility.

        • My first thought upon reading your comment was, “What a powerful opportunity to practice ‘true religion’ taking care of widows and orphans. A church could do worse than be known for such things.

    • But a woman who has a living ex-husband and a current common-law husband is not a widow. And a child who is living with a father figure and who has a biological father who pays child support is not an orphan.

      • I disagree. The Marriage has been abandoned. The Children have been abandoned by the Father to some degree as has the Wife. That the Parents and Step-parent are all on good terms in a situation similar to this one is all fine and dandy, but we still have a case of someone leaving rather than cleaving. That leaves a Husband-less Woman and Father-less Children.

        In a forgotten definition, “husband” means “care” and “nurture”. Some Agricultural Colleges and Universities still teach Animal Husbandry; how to care and nurture your flock/herd. I submit, and Ephesians 5 backs me up, that this is the true role and meaning behind the word “Husband”.

        So, whether the Husband has died as in ceased to live, or the Husband has abandoned, as in ceased to care and nurture his Family, I think the case can be made that this Wife and Mother is widowed and her Children have been made orphans. Another Man has assumed the role of Husband and Father in their life…witness that he, as Head of the House, is ensuring their attendance in church on a Sunday and their participation is it’s activities. Not a bad thing in and of itself. Ideally, this arrangement needs to be formalised in a covenantal relationship; this Family needs to be taught what *real Family* looks like. And if this costs them dearly the Church could pick up the slack. I understand the fear that may be stopping them…I was a literal Widow as in Dead Husband. We need to teach that God means what He says and reliance on the State to help us and fix our problems is incorrect.

        We have a God Who is true; He has left us a Family that does amazing things given half a chance.

        In any case, quibbling over semantics really doesn’t change the role of the Church…or those of us IN the Church…in caring for those who need our care, our mercy, our substance. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind…

  5. wow, interesting situation.

    first the special note: i think, from what knowledge i have of the teaching of jesus, i hear him
    saying: ” trust me enough to provide for your needs. i love you friends won’t you put your whole trust in me? won’t i treat you better than the sparrows and lillies? repent and turn from your sin, be married and be joyful in that union. i’ll even come and celebrate with you.”

    so i guess that is my answer.

  6. Sherman the Tank says

    Until modern times, weddings were rare outside the wealthy, and common law marriage was the norm. We’re returning to that norm rapidly these days, so this will be more and more common, financial circumstances from this particular example aside.

    Marriage is as marriage does. A wedding is just a ritual to help everybody get used to the idea that a marriage is starting or is already present. Let them in, and everybody say hurrah for their wedding next year.

  7. Mea culpa: I’m an SBC pastor in the Southwest. (but often BINO: Baptist In Name Only…though often toward Bible church practice rather than like iMonk toward more liturgical denominational practice)

    I told our elders on Wednesday night that the issue of marriage (specifically in my case, who I can and cannot marry with a clear conscience) has caused more people to be more upset at me than any other issue in the church.

    The part of this story that really frustrates me is their reasoning. They are putting off marriage because of the financial ramifications? That, to me, sounds like an excuse. My old tennis coach used to define an excuse as the skin of reason stuffed with a lie. I can make logical arguments about the tax benefits of them being married and all that stuff, the estate planning issues and whatnot, custody of the kids and all that jazz. However, it seems that they are accepting the benefits of marriage (i.e. financial stability, partner support, parenting backup, sexual access, etc.) without being willing to accept the price (decreased patrimony). They need to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” I would strongly encourage them to make their marriage official and accept what that brings, and would not be willing to welcome them as members if they were unwilling to accept our elder’s counsel on this important an issue. That is what shepherds are for.

    I had a situation not too dissimilar last year, though in this case the wrinkle was that she was a Christian and he was not. It was about 6 months of mentorship, meeting, welcoming and discipleship before he made a profession of faith in Christ. Once he made that profession we opened the discussion of their marital situation (and her son and their mutual two kids). They were married a month later and were welcomed as members the following Sunday.

  8. L. Winthrop says

    Sign them up, and treat them as whatever they say they are (single, married, engaged).

  9. Dan Allison says

    For what it’s worth…I know a pastor PCUSA (he’s conservative for PCUSA) who performs a wedding ceremony “in the eyes of God” although not necessarily in the eyes of the state. This allows the widow (in this situation) to continue to receive her (justly earned) benefits and the church to receive the couple as “fully” married.

  10. I was about to say the same as Dan. The one I see more often is the elderly couple for whom getting legally married would have HUGE financial impact.

  11. e) blog about it and take an opinion poll, then decide from there.

  12. Have either of them been previously married? I’d think that’s a pretty important thing to know to be able to answer any of your questions.

  13. How do “we” in the church categorize sin anymore? Personally, I have more trouble with why they’re not marrying than that they aren’t married, tho I’m not sure on what grounds. OTOH, if the church could look at my own heart and motives for my outward behaviors and sometimes private thoughts or behaviors, would I be welcomed into the church? Should I be? I’ve seen how selective church leadership can be in deciding what they will come out against and what they appear to turn a blind eye to and I’m not sure it’s the law of love and the Word that is guiding them. There were complicated issues faced in the NT churches and there are today.

    Bottomline, gather the elders of the church together, spend time in prayer and waiting before the Word and the Spirit, perhaps, bring them in to this wrestling place. He will guide you in this decision as he is the head and you are the closer family members of this local body of Christ. Michael, I know this are gutwrenching issues as there are real people involved.

    Is there a difference between church/denominal criteria for membership vs. what we glean from what made people a part of a local body in the NT?

  14. Is it possible to marry them in the church without marrying them within the state? If no marriage licence is filed, are they “officially” married?

  15. If it walks like a duck….

  16. Don in Phoenix says

    Marriage is historically neither a state action nor a church action, but rather a contractual relationship between families. God never commanded marriage in the eyes of the state, and neither Jesus nor his disciples performed marriages. It seems, therefore, that common law marriage is closer to the practice found in scripture than that promoted vehemently by the “traditional marriage” advocates. Paul only mandated monogamy for leadership, not everyone.

    If they consider themselves married, then the church should consider them married. If they couldn’t legally (or legalistically) marry because of extenuating circumstances or denominational rules that punish them for past sins that God has already forgiven, build a bridge and get over it.

    The mission of the Church is to reconcile the world to God, and this couple and their children are not going to be reconciled to God by the elders of the church persecuting them for having sex without a license.

    I’m more concerned with the statement that the woman would lose child support if she remarried. What kind of justice system allows a father to no longer have to support his kids simply because their mother is married to someone else now? In my experience, nothing short of adoption by the stepfather will relieve the father of his responsibility for child support. If it’s not child support, but government assistance, then the couple is defrauding the state and should be subject to church discipline. If it is in fact child support, then the church needs to advocate for a change in the law to fix the injustice.

  17. I like the heart of Laura’s idea with the logic of John C.’s points. In the context of welcoming relationship, in a counseling setting…explore the real ‘whys’ starting with ‘why do you want to be members?’
    Most churches I have attended have very little restriction from being involved as a regular attender who is not an official member, except some teaching/deaconing type positions. They should be welcome to attend and participate but not be in a position of leadership, until they decide to either marry legally, separate until they can marry legally, etc.
    The more I think about it, the more I feel like it is a really bad excuse. We all have situations in our lives that if we chose the immoral or sinful option it would save us money. Fraud is probably an accurate word.

  18. None of the present-day customs for Western, American marriage are biblical. In ancient Israel, a man would wish to marry, would go to a woman’s father and pay a dowry, collect his bride, take her home, and they would be considered married. No ceremony, no license, no rings, no ritual… except for one involving a bloody cloth that I won’t go into here.

    Point being, does God see committed cohabitation as marriage? From the bible’s depiction, yes He does.

    There’s no indication that the Samaritan in John 4.16 was living with the one “who is not your man,” as Jesus put it. Why wouldn’t he be her man? Because they weren’t committed; because they weren’t cohabiting; it may even have been adulterous. John really doesn’t say one way or the other. Yet knowing what we do about how marriages were arranged in first-century Palestine, it’s not wrong to assume that they didn’t lacked the two things necessary to create marriage back then: (1) Commitment. (2) Cohabitation.

    Now, for this hypothetical couple.

    If the child support is state-sponsored support based on parental (and step-parental) income, and they’re not legally married so the mother keeps getting it… well, that’s fraud, and probably a felony. I can’t endorse that. Giving them a religious ceremony without filing the legal paperwork would probably constitute abetting a felony. Wanna lose your tax-exempt status, or get your church shut down?

    There have gotta be other resources available to support the kids and their parents. The church should know some; it should be contributing towards them already.

    Otherwise, they’re married, I believe, in God’s eyes. For the sake of weaker Christians, and just because it’s good to formalize their commitment to one another, they should have a ceremony, but I wouldn’t demand it of them. I would only demand that they stop the fraud, and offer alternate help.

  19. (First of all, I am basing my answer below on the assumption that this couple wishes to join a fairly conservative church that discourages sexual activity outside of marriage.)

    As for the rest, I have no idea as to whether this scenario is a “true story” and like most case-studies it leaves out a lot of crucial information. So first of all, I’d like to get some answers to these questions:

    1. How long have both partners been Christians?
    2 Were they Christians at the time they started dating? Cohabitating?
    3. What is it about the child support agreement that makes it terminate upon the female partner’s remarriage? Is this a social security matter or an issue of court-ordered child support?
    4.If this is truly a child support matter, have they contacted a lawyer about their situation in hopes of re-negotiating child support?
    5.Are they truly dependent on the child support money? Given that the child support money is to end soon, why is it that they cannot afford to marry now, but can afford to marry next year? What does their household budget look like?
    6. Why, given their situation, did they decide to cohabitate instead of simply engaging in an extended courtship? Why didn’t either partner obtain a higher paying job or seek training so as to get a higher paid job that could make up for the child support shortfall?
    7. What is their relationship with the female partner’s previous spouse/partner? Does the male partner have a former spouse? Children?

    I am not entirely comfortable with the idea that cohabitation can be a de facto marriage (most states no longer recognize common law marriage). I understand the sentiment behind the recognition of such arrangements, but given their lack of legal and social identity, I don’t recommend them.

    At the same time, I’d probably not advise that the couple physically separate, as I believe that this would be disruptive to both their relationship and the children. If I felt that the couple had exercised poor judgment in deciding to cohabitate, I would work with them to prepare for their marriage, and revisit the issue of membership after they married. If there had been extenuating circumstances that prompted the decision to cohabitate (one of the partners or the child had a disability, extreme poverty, etc) I might be prepared to receive them as members and then hold them accountable to their plans to marry when the child support ended.

  20. [not the same as the earlier one[

    Most of what I thought about writing was quickly covered by Lainie before I had time to put my thoughts together. Now I mostly have to say “ditto” to everything she said with a little additional observation that this common scenario must vary a bit from region to region.

    Living in the Northwest I have never heard of any simple remarriage that compromises any obligation to financially support a child from an earlier marriage. I’ve heard of deadbeat dads and moms alike having wages or salaries garnished, and even heard of one case where a man who contested paternity for a child he refused to financially support ended up in prison for some reason.

  21. The early church probably had to deal with even more confusing issues over marriage than we do today, especially as the church spread out into predominately gentile areas. You have to keep in mind that the Roman Empire had a huge slave population, and, unless I’m mistaken, state-recognized marriage was not available to those with slave status. They could pair up as their masters allowed — or as they could get away with behind their masters’ backs. So, I would imagine that the early church found itself recognizing a lot of marriages that weren’t recognized by the state. And, of course, you had many slaves, both male and female, being used as sex toys, and in cases of female slaves, being impregnated by their masters. I wonder how the church dealt with that in cases when the slave was a Christian and the master was not. In First Corinthians Chapter 7, Paul addresses some of these issues, and he seems to follow a policy that, regardless of the nature of the relationship (be it husbands and wives or slaves and masters), these relationships should be regarded as secondary and subject to a person’s relationship with Christ and the church. In verse 24, Paul tells people to be content in the condition in which they come to Christ — which seems to suggest a church policy of accepting people in the condition in which they come.
    With all that said, I think churches should accept unmarried couples (such as the one this post describes) simply as people needing Christ, His transforming work in their lives, and the kind of discipleship and instruction that the church is there to provide. I don’t think any particular label or classification of their relationship necessarily has to be established. From my own experience in the church — and I mean a church that maintains sound and frequent teaching on marriage and relationships — such couples will either eventually follow the conviction to get married in the church or one or both of them will leave. I believe that it’s part of the church’s mission in this world to help bring broken or screwed up relationships into the healing and transforming hands of Jesus. And such healing and transformation usually takes some time — which requires some patience and a willingness to reserve judgement on the part of the church.

  22. I think the danger lies in what the children think as they grow older. They already have been abandoned (in one way or another) by their biological father. Their mother and “stepfather” are not marrying yet out of financial convenience. So when the children grow up and date, why won’t they say to themselves: “Mom and Dad lived and slept together before marriage. Why shouldn’t I?” That is what I would discuss with the couple.

  23. I don’t think the church should shut them out just because they don’t have the official marriage papers. In God’s eyes, they are married. Treat them as married but membership should come with counseling and relationship-building. Throughout serious, continual counseling sessions and prayer, this couple will (hopefully) grow in their faith in God and relationships to each other. Who knows? they may be the most faithful, God-centered couple in the church!
    As far as the child support issue goes, I would look at the history of the child support. Has it been consistent over the years? Has the woman had to fight to get it from the ex? In my experiences with friends and family collecting child support, it isn’t given easily. They have had to fight and fight to even get a dime of it. Is waiting for the child support even worth waiting one more year of living in sin?

  24. i guess another question i would wrestle with is “what is marriage?” are we married when the state says that we are married. i mean can a minister perform a marriage ceremony and pronounce the couple married, but not have that legal status with the state? i mean if the United States collapsed today would all of our marriages no longer be valid, because the sanctioning body no longer exists? i think that the answer would be no, therefore can the church pronounce someone married even if it is not recognized by the state? did the people in Jesus’ day have to go to Pilate for him to pronounce them married? i realize that this opens a whole can of worms…but there is a difference between a Christian marriage and a secular marriage…right?? a Christian marriage can be recognized by the Church and the state, but a state marriage does not have to be recognized by the Church..correct?


  25. Steve Newell says

    There is a theological aspect of marriage that I would like to bring up. The purpose of Christian marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the Church. In Eph. 5:32, Paul writes that marriage of man and women reflects that of Christ and the Church. In Eph 5, Paul compares to the role of the husband as head of the wife even as Christ is head of the Church.

    How does this understanding of Christian marriage affect your answer to Michael’s question? Christian marriage is more than just a relationship between two people, it impacts the Church as well. I’m not sure what the appropriate answer is, but we must base on answer on Holy Scripture regardless of the legal, economic and social consequences are.

  26. To answer a couple of factuals….

    1. Both are Christians for many years.
    2. Child support has been consistent and there’s been no fight over it.

    • Have either of them been previously married?

    • Yes. Her, hence the child support.

      • Okay, I wasn’t sure because child support doesn’t necessarily imply a previous marriage these days.

    • Not trying to be contentious here, Michael, but I do confess to trying hard to wrap my mind around this one.

      #2 above indicates that the child support has been consistent and that there has been no fight about it. I am trying to understand how uncontested child support can be curtailed simply on the basis of the custodial parent’s remarriage. It sounds as if what is being called “child support” is actually spousal support combined with child support. If I am wrong, please tell me, but child support is supposed to reflect a non-custodial parent’s contribution to the support of their children, and a remarriage should affect this.

      #1 is also a concern. I’d like to know how they came to the decision to cohabitate. Were they not involved in a church at the time of the cohabitation? If they were, were they then asked to leave? I understand how people can become enmeshed in these situations, but I’d like to get some clarity as to how this couple understands the church, the community, and how they feel disciples ought to make decisions regarding their lives.

  27. This question/discussion is good, messy, but good.

    Marriage should never be viewed by the people of God as simply a state sanctioned “piece of paper”.

    Marriage is meant to take place in the community of believers. This is why the phrase “before God and these witnesses” is used. In many ways it is private, but in many aspects it is a very public thing (at least as far as the church goes)

    In the community of faith there should be accountability and interdependence, therefore when a believing couple gets married and is a part of a church it isn’t just about those two and their wants and needs. They are a part of the community, the body.

    this needs to be taken into consideration when discussing a matter such as this as well.


  28. Got to be e)
    All of the others are saying you have to be ‘something’ before you are welcome as part of this church and if you don’t fit within our defined ‘somethings’ you can’t come in.
    Grace says we are accepted as we are and then work to change in becoming more Christ-like. It doesn’t dispense with the need for ‘shepherding’ and guiding the couple towards a better expression of their relationship within the church community, but it does mean that they don’t need to attain some ‘standard’ before they are brought into the church family.
    I realise the issue here is membership rather than simply one of attendance, but membership should be based on their commitment to God. It might be a different scenario should they wish to take up any sort of leadership position, but that’s not even at stake here.

    • SteveO, that’s a good point. The counterpoint is asking whether their commitment to God can be questioned based on their reasoning for not marrying. You can’t serve God and money, and in this case we would need more discussion to make sure that they are serving Him. We are also told to police open sin in our midst as a congregation.

      For the arguments (not from SteveO) that there is no biblical ceremony commemorating a marriage, it would seem John 2 denies that idea at least somewhat. The wedding celebration of Christ’s first miracle is a public, community recognition of a wedding. It is certainly true that the state does not need to be involved, but then the question arises again of why they would not want it to? I am really concerned that fraud is being perpetrated or that money is driving life instead of commitment to God and His ways. And I say that without trying to wag a finger or be holier-than-thou, but as a shepherd who seeks to lead people to know Christ, grow in Him, and serve Him.

  29. Steve in Toronto says

    I am coming at this with some experience. My present wife and I lived together for over a year while we waited for my divorce to work its way through the byzantine family law courts. My ex-wife had left me but the combination of her drug use, mental heath issues and the likely termination of her spousal support once we had a final settlement meant that my divorce was not final until nearly 4 years after my first wife had left me. In the end we actually had a big “unofficial” church wedding followed small “official” wedding once all the papers were actually signed. I should probably add that my new wife was visibly pregnant at our “unofficial” wedding and that my new son was present at the alter during the “official” one.
    I am an Anglican so their was never any ecclesiastical issues about us participating fully in the life of our Chuch before the “real” wedding but I come from a very evangelical family (my Dad is a PCA ruling elder) and my irregular living situation caused a great deal of tension in the family. My folks never let me and my partner share a bedroom under their roof (even when she was 6 months pregnant) but both my sisters (both evangelical Baptists) welcomed me and my new family (I have two step children) into their homes without reservations.
    I don’t think I would have minded if I had been told that I could not become a member of our church until our marriage was “official” but it is a issue that has to be handled delicately. It is very important for sinners to feel welcome in Chuch and we certainly don’t want to stigmatize the children. If I were the pastor of the couple in question I would encourage them to get married right away and refer them to a good lawyer to help them with the child suport issues. my understanding of the law is that child support is unrelated to marital status (my suspicion is that the actual issue is spousal support and that is often linked to marital status but since we are talking about a common law situation here they may actual be committing fraud by not notifying the women’s ex or her current living situation) either way they need good legal as well as spiritual advice.
    God Bless
    Steve in Toronto

  30. Encourage them to marry and forfeit the child support. The new husband is now her provider. They are the ones putting money ahead of morality and they need to repent of that mindset, which is the same philosophy behind the “abortion for convenience” argument. Think about it. The money is what is driving these people into sin. The love of money is indeed the root of all kinds of evil. If money will force them to sin at the beginning of their marriage, will it not force them to sin later on? In the wedding ceremony, this is the “for poorer” part of a vow she is apparently unwilling to make. How can you be sure they will ever really get married? The church should DEFINITELY NOT obligate themselves to pay the difference between this woman’s first husband’s standard of living and the standard of living provided by her current premarital affair partner. What a horrible precedent to set for all the other couples living together outside of marriage.

  31. Rick Saenz says

    e) Give up on viewing the church as a club you can somehow join.

  32. The question on my mind is how do we differentiate marriage from just living together?

    Say a couple meets, fall in love, move in together, have sex and then a few years later go their separate ways. What is difference between marriage and divorce and having a relationship and parting ways? Again, is it time, consent, legal boundaries, the church’s perspective? Why not just let people live as they will without some unclear expectation placed on them?

    Maybe we would have more peaceful lives if we didn’t have marriage and divorce.

    I say you would simply receive them and minister to them. It is better to serve than to sever.

    • MWPeak, the problem with that is the biblical commands for marriage in 1 Cor 7 and Hebrews 13:4. If we do away with marriage we do away with a biblical mandate. Eek! 🙂

  33. I’m Catholic and situations like this are not uncommon, especially in Latino parishes. If both adults are Catholic, they would be welcome to join the parish, although, they wouldn’t be considered married. If they are not Catholic, they would be invited to join the RCIA class and they would be able to join the Church officially when the situation was resolved. Until the situation is resolved, they would not be able to participate in the sacraments, serve on the altar, or teach. They would be welcome to worship with us and be involved in planning social events and such. The children would be welcome to participate in the sacramental life of the Church. Catholics believe that marriage has both sacramental and civil effects, so a sacramental marriage without a civil marriage is reserved for very serious cases, such as when one of the spouses is on their deathbed.

    • At last … truth and sanity.

      Debates over issues like this one are one of the many reasons why I am departing from my Evangelical Protestant roots and becoming Catholic. The teaching of the Church in these matters is clear and authoritative and ultimately the most loving, full of grace and truth.

  34. My opinion is that the very fact that there’s any question about this shows that we’ve fallen a long way. Conservative evangelicals get up in arms over gay marriage and start talking about the “sanctity” of marriage and quoting Bible verses, but then the same group turns around and winks at widespread divorce and cohabitation amongst its members and leaders. How do we expect the world to take anything we say seriously if we don’t practice what we preach? The early church fathers (and mothers) chose poverty, shame, torture and even death over any compromise. If you read the lives of the early saints, it’s amazing how they consistently chose to make clear where they stood on the big things (Christ’s divinity and Lordship) as well as the small things (individual moral and ethical choices)—there was never any compromise no matter what it cost them personally. The argument that people need the money and so they have to live in unbiblical relationships goes totally against the self-sacrificing attitude of the great saints. I think that unless we recapture that attitude, the church will continue to diminish. Why would the world care about our mesage when our attitudes and lifestyles aren’t distinct and separate from the world (i.e., “holy”) in any way?

  35. I don’t mean the above statement to come across so harsh as to make it sound like every choice is easy or that there aren’t areas where because of our human limitations, things don’t appear in various “shades of gray.” I just wanted to make the point about the attitude and mindset with which we approach these questions and how important it is for the ultimate credibility of our confession to the world.

  36. Why can’t the church perform a wedding (minus state sanction) and pronounce them married?

    • Pondering this right now.

      We have a couple who are living together with children (their own and one they’ve taken in who is the daughter of a relative). They “look” married but are not. If they marry, because of the laws in our state, she will lose medical support for ongoing health problems. And they cannot afford to pay for this support on their own. He is a hard worker, a blue collar builder man, but times are lean and there’s not steady work. Getting legally married would sink them financially.

      We think they should be married and have discussed church paying health costs. But we’re not a well-to-do congregation and the expenses, and their indefinite duration, could be more than we even collectively can handle.

      I’ve thought about saying “Why not marry them in the eyes of the church and God but without state sanction?”
      But that feels dishonest. Like we’re trying to do an end around the state.

      Your post is timely. I have no idea what we’ll do.

      But we’re also not hammering them or talking to them incessantly about this. They’re not asking for church membership. They are relatively new Christians but are growing by leaps and bounds spiritually. That’s more my concern now anyway.

    • that would be how i would try to handle it. what is important is the exchange of vows as expression of lifetime commitment before God and others.

    • The couple should be welcomed and loved as Jesus would have loved them. They should be taught, discipled , and counseled . If the couple then repents then they need to decide to either marry, or to split the house and get separate addresses (perhaps postponing or eliminating the goal of marriage ) .

      Living together ( been there ) has a certain mindset that is different from marriage. People that claim to desire marriage while sharing the same address always have a very good excuse for not getting married, and when they face the truth it is often found that they have never examined the real reasons for postponing marriage. Often they themselves never looked too closely at the wjole situation.

      • add:

        Many reasons for not marrying AND for not splitting. Yes The Children.
        Not an easy issue.
        Hopefully they will get married AND tell the ex-husband the truth because they must come clean with him.

    • I’m uncomfortable with this option because it seems to me that marriage has always been a relationship that is recognized in specific ways by the community in which one lives (and not just the church). Since most modern American communities no longer recognize common law marriage, it seems a stretch to say that a marriage exists on the basis of a ceremony at a local church.

      • Would the church recognize state sanction for ordinations? Would the church recognize state legislation on its preaching or gathering?

        • A lawyer-type person did some legwork for me today.

          Turns out if I perform a marriage ceremony in my state for a couple with no marriage license, apart from state sanction, I can face up to six months in jail and a $300 fine.
          The couple would face prosecution as well.

        • I wonder what the actual mechanics would be of such a charge? For example, if I claimed to perform a legal marriage in the eyes of the state, yes. But if I said “We as a congregation recognize that a marriage exists and choose to treat you as such,” it would be a tough sell to any court.

          • Yeah, he recommended I consult a local family/probate lawyer, and I probably will.

            I don’t want to leave this couple out to dry.

            And maybe we can’t do an end-around.
            Maybe that means we do a state-sanctioned marriage and eat her medical bills. Churches need to put their money where their mouth is, and I don’t want to pastor one that asks people to bear a burden we’re not willing to help them carry.

        • Preaching/gathering/ordination aren’t institutions under state sanction and they are not secular social institutions in the same way marriage is (at least here in the United States).

          When I officiate at a marriage ceremony, I am signing off on a state-issued license, which in turn obligates the spouses legally to each other. There is no such equivalent with the other rites, sacraments or other religious duties that I perform.

  37. Laslo Caldwell says

    Simple. Tell them to get married today. If they really need that extra support money for some crucial reason, tell them the church will make up the difference.

  38. Just a note: We aren’t going to call other commenter’s suggestions insulting names. This isn’t the 5th grade.

  39. [mod edit] They are deliberately living as a married couple apart from the rules and norms for fellowship subscribed to by their fellow believers. Moreover, they are doing so for (purely?) financial reasons. If we are serious about being holy as he is holy and if we truly believe we are commanded to bear one another’s burdens, then I believe that Laura’s solution is the best one.

    [mod edit]

  40. It would have to be clear on all sides that this is not a state recognized marriage and confers no legal benefits. There may be state restrictions on the minister in that he or she may not be allowed to perform state recognized marriages if they also perform something they call marriage that is not state recognized (the state has an interest in preventing confusion; think newspaper headlines of a ‘wife’ thinking she was legally married because they were married in a church and leaves the workforce to take care of her ‘husband’ until her ‘husband’ goes and marries someone else (or he dies without a will and she has no legal right to inherit)). In many cases the denomination may have rules against it (IIRC the Catholic church requires that the marriage also be legal in the eyes of the state). The church could always call it religious union instead of marriage.

  41. The ex-husband/child-support …[mod edit]…needs to stop immediately. This is not living in the light no matter how you spin it.
    If the couple splits the house then perhaps the church could budget a fund for the Kids.
    Example: The parents could work with the church and come up with a reasonable kid-budget, and the church could then figure out how much of those expenses they can afford to support.
    Meanwhile parents are living apart and enrolled in pre-engagement counseling and discipleship classes (small group) etc etc .

  42. Adding information not in the original question in order to make the couple into really bad people is not going to be tolerated.

    Going to moderation for a while until the people who know more about this couple than I did when I wrote the question chill out.

  43. I would probably see if they viewed their situation as a committment between them and God or just a matter of convenience. I wish I knew all the marriage customs from Biblical times, but I’m sure it’s quite a bit different from the ones used today. I have seen many marriage ceremonies done with quite the fanfare but little committment fo a lifetime partnership before God. So I guess I would test their heart (as best as anyone can) then err on the side of grace.

    • I forgot to ask, does the new “husband” see his role as father to her children? If so, then he can provide financially for them and not rely on the “old dad”. For me, this would be a great example for the children, that he takes his committment to his new family very seriously. I know it would be a great witness to the seriousness of marriage to me, much more than just living together so you can get money from a third party to live your lifestyle.

  44. Just an observation: I’m seeing a whole lot of law and not a lot of Gospel… for what my opinion is worth.

    Why not just welcome them into the church community and let Jesus and the Holy Spirit take on the task of changing their hearts and minds where needed, if needed at all?

    The talk of marriage being a sort of “social contract” within the church seems awfully one-directional.

  45. One issue that has come up here but hasn’t been addressed directly is the larger question of what to do when there are unjust laws — specifically, in this case, laws that increase economic hardship for people if they try to do the right thing. Should people be made to adhere to the letter of such laws even if it means hardship and suffering, or should we seek to change such laws so that people do not suffer for doing the right thing?

    • John,

      I agree with you about the laws. If I wrote what I think about them and those who make them without thinking about the consequences, I’d be banned. GRIN.

  46. Jon Trouten says

    They’re not married. Don’t treat them as a married couple.

  47. For me this is not a “hypothetical” question. I am an evangelical Baptist pastor in Canada (from a Baptist stream with theological similarity to the SBC) and this is a real question dealing with a couple in my current church where I serve as the senior pastor).

    In my Canadian context these couples’ “common law” status with the state basically recognizes them as married even though they’ve never had a ceremony. They have almost all the same rights and recognitions as my wife and I do, even though they’ve never signed a piece of paper. There would even be spousal support available if the relationship ended. While their legal recognition isn’t exactly the same as marriage…it is pretty close.

    So in the eyes of the government they are essentially married. Their relationship is consummated and there are children…so it seems that they are joined in the eyes of God. They publically pronounce their committment to each other. They just haven’t been through a ceremony involving the community and they don’t have a piece of legal paper. Child support isn’t an issue because that relates to the children, not the parent’s relationship status.

    It may be that legal realities are the same in the U.S. and this just reiterates IMonks exact same question. If so…I’m sorry. The big point is…this isn’t hypothetical. It’s a couple that just doesn’t see the need to have a ceremony or go get a piece of paper. Is there really a biblical basis on which to demand they do one or both of these things before they are welcomed as members? If so…where? Which of IMonks options applies here?

  48. I’d be comfortable with working with them in this situation, and perhaps even having them solemnize their covenant of marriage to each other without the sanction of the state. The Westminster Confession speaks of marriage being according to the laws of the state, but I think this would qualify as an exception to that. I see Jesus meeting people where they are, and helping them get further along.

  49. That reminds me of another situation Paul probably had to face during his ministry: polygamy.

    Back in the day, it was not uncommon to bump into polygamist families in the church. Up to the time when Jesus was born, this was common practice, even amongst the Jews.

    In the Early Church, there was not a “membership certificate” issued by the churches. People were loved and accepted as they confessed the Lord and became part of the fellowship. And I cannot find any evidence that these polygamists were excluded from the fellowship of the saints. However, Paul sets the standard for leadership model: the leader must be the husband of ONE wife.

    I believe the same flexibility should be applied to the case in point. If a couple is not married, they should be educated on the issue and encouraged to get legally married. If they do not do it, they shouldn’t be forced or harassed to do it. That indicates there are still things from the old life that have to be purged out from them, and that happens thru discipleship, not thru a legalistic approach.

    They have to be loved and accepted, not excluded or prejudiced against. However, they are not to have any leadership role in the church. They have to be discipled to grew spiritually to the point where they will naturally obey the Lord and surrender ALL areas of their lives.

  50. Steve in Toronto says

    I have a couple additional comments to make. First it’s interesting to see how evangelical culture has shifted on the whole issue of “living together” I never sensed any kind of stigma during my period of “living in sin” apart from ironically my parents (this may because everyone know we wanted to get married but were being prevented from doing so by my ex-wife’s legal machinations) however I suspect there is a lot of blind eyes being turned (especially in urban parishes) to young couples. In the church I grew up in our minister would not even marry a couple unless they had been living apart for a significant period of time and showed “real repentance” and to my knowledge no one has suggested that she is ineligible for remarriage due to the fact that her ex-husband is still alive.
    As someone who spent 4 years paying 1/3 of my salary (that’s gross not net) to my ex-wife I feel as if I should say something about the fact that there is a strong probability that this couple is committing fraud at the expence of her ex husband. Keep in mind that the man who was blackmailing David Letterman did it primarily because he was driven into deeply into debt by extravagant child and spousal support payments. I found writing those check to my ex wife to be both emotionally and financially devastating. It is important to make sure that the church does appear to be indorsing the exploitation of her ex husband.