Pastoral Care with Couples Living Together Outside of Marriage
A Study Paper of The American Lutheran Church, no date
This paper is an analysis commended by the Standing Committee, Office of Church in Society, The American Lutheran Church, addressed to pastors, counselors, and members of ALC congregations for study and action as they deem appropriate. It does not represent an official statement of ALC policy.
Summary of This Paper:
1.1 This paper discusses the implications for pastoral care of the phenomenon of heterosexual couples living together when they are not legally married, a practice known as cohabitation. Typically, such couples approach a pastor for counseling when they are ready to plan a marriage. Some couples may also seek counsel on related matters, including psychological, legal, financial, physical or religious factors which make marriage for them undesirable at the present time. The paper summarizes the reasons couples give for living together, identifies areas which cause concern to congregations and pastors, and lifts up specific ethical issues. The paper urges couples to declare their commitment to each other in a public way. It urges couples and congregation members to be in communication about one another's concerns. Finally, it urges both couples and their faith communities to work toward equitable laws which will allow marriages to occur and not impose financial penalty or diminish one of the partners.
Context of This Paper:
1.2 This paper is presented within the larger context of official positions taken by The ALC, most recently in 1980 (Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior) and in 1982 (Teachings and Practice on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage). Concerning marriage, The ALC has affirmed that:
Marriage ceremonies serve as symbols of public acceptance of responsibility of husband and wife to one another.
Marriage provides the framework within which children can be nurtured. . . .1
Marriage builds on the foundation of trust, mutual acceptance of agreed-upon roles and expectations, community sanctions and support, and long-term commitment.2
Each pastor should become informed on the marriage and divorce laws of the state in which he or she ministers. . . . All pastors, as well as other church members, should support sound legislation both to foster high standards for marriage and family and to correct the evils and abuses which much divorce legislation now condones.3
1.3 Concerning expression of human sexuality in heterosexual relationships, The ALC has affirmed:
By its very nature sexual intercourse expresses a commitment to another person which constitutes marriage.4
Sexual intercourse reaches its greatest potential only within the committed trust relationship of marriage.5
Heterosexual behavior even within marriage can be sinful when it becomes hurtful or exploitative.6
1.4 Concerning the need for believers to he open with one another in the setting of the community of faith, The ALC has said:
Members of ALC congregations need opportunity to discuss together their attitudes and expectations toward sexuality and sexual behavior. They may discover issues on which they should work together toward correcting unwholesome and advancing wholesome attitudes, behaviors and community standards.7
For many persons sexuality is so emotional a topic that they are uneasy at its mere mention. . . . To them various forms of sexual behavior are so abhorrent that they would drive the sexual sinner from the fellowship. Yet in self-righteousness over feeling so superior to other persons they may incur the condemnation the Lord spoke in Luke 18: 14.8
Intent of This Paper:
1.5 This document does not give easy answers to the questions being asked by pastors, families, congregations, and couples. It does hold up some issues for consideration, and invites interested people to continue the dialogue begun on these pages. The paper highlights some ethical issues and suggests that these be discussed among all involved parties. The paper does not seek to establish policy for The American Lutheran Church or its congregations.
Reasons for This Paper:
1.6 People today find themselves in the midst of profound social change. In the past, similar societal changes have been compelling enough to force long-held traditional family forms to be abandoned or reconstituted. For example, the agriculturally based, multi-generational extended family gave way to the industrially oriented nuclear family.9 That entity, in turn, is now being replaced by a multiplicity of living arrangements,10 such as single parent households, blended families, communal groups, never-married individuals, divorced same-sex couples, etc. One of the arrangements currently growing in incidence is that of heterosexual couples who live together without being legally married (an arrangement having some similarity to "common law" marriages). The number of such couples has risen in America from 640,000 in 1970 to 1.3 million in 1977,11 to more than three times the 1970 figure by 1983.12 By some estimates, an average of 40% of Lutheran couples in the United States now cohabit before seeking a church marriage.13
1.7 Cohabiting couples include all ages and represent a variety of motivations. Retired persons, for example, may lose their social security or other benefits if they marry: sharing an apartment with a loved one without legal marriage allows expenses to be cut without reduction of retirement benefits. Couples who have been married previously may live together and not marry because of distrust of the institution of marriage or fear of the pain of divorce. Others may live together in order to test a relationship prior to making a final commitment to remarriage. Still others may find that retention of tax or public-assistance benefits is an incentive for remaining legally single. For purposes of this document, all such couples, of all life situations and generations, are included in the designation "couples living together outside of marriage.
1.8 Because of this growing reality of sharing residence prior to (or instead of) marriage, American Lutheran Church members have felt a need to reflect on its meaning and function within the context of the church. Family members and fellow church members seek help in understanding and relating to people with household styles different from their own.
1.9 Pastors, wishing to be conscientious about their pastoral responsibilities to couples and to the full community of faith, have also requested analysis of this practice.
1.10 Cohabiting couples themselves have expressed a desire to be in dialogue with the church about their concerns and commitments.
1.11 In response to these voices of inquiry, this paper will address the reasons couples give for living together, some questions cohabitation poses for the church community, and some thoughts for the church's pastoral response.
2. Why Is This Practice Increasing?
2.1 The reasons given by couples for living together are almost as diverse as the couples themselves.14 High on the list is a feeling of caution or fear of establishing a lifetime commitment to another person without further testing of a relationship first through experiencing a daily relationship. This cautious attitude towards marriage seems to be the result of a number of causes: experience with their parents' unfortunate marriage and/or divorce, prior unsatisfactory marriage of their own, inability to comprehend a commitment lasting -- potentially -- half a century or more, fear of physical or mental abuse, resistance by women to loss of legal and psychological identity, fear of unknown factors about another person's living habits, fear of unknown chemical abuse problems, fear of sex role stereotypes, unresolved family-of-origin problems such as incest or death of a loved one, sexual performance doubts, mental health issues, and others.
2.2 A second group of reasons for sharing living quarters revolves around economic issues: the couple can't afford to run two households, dating is expensive, social security could be reduced if they married, taxes would increase, public assistance programs may stipulate an unmarried status, etc.
2.3 A third group of reasons for living together centers on time: dating and travel are time consuming, running two households is time consuming, two people in one household can share child care on an alternating basis, the couple can help each other save time, even though they may not yet be ready for marriage.
2.4 Fourthly, sharing living space allows for privacy, a place where intimacy can occur, within the framework of a committed relationship.
2.5 A fifth rationale cited for cohabitation is that all the traditional reasons for getting married legally in previous years can now be handled independently of marriage. For example, women now have their own income, couples don't necessarily want children, elderly parents are cared for professionally, birth control frees partners from fear of childbearing burdens, women are allowed to have their own identify without being "owned" by a male, etc.
2.6 In general, couples live together because doing so addresses one or more problems in their lives. They rarely choose to share living quarters in order to create problems for their family, their church, or the community.
2.7 Societal changes themselves affect a couple's options and decisions. A typical couple today, of any age bracket, is likely to be confronted with such forces as, for example, high mobility in employment, a changing industrial base, tax policies based on marital status, loss of extended family support systems, financial insecurity, changing legal codes regulating marriage/cohabitation, lessening of constraints imposed by traditional expectations, a growing acceptance of diversity in living styles, and a shift in focus from procreation to fulfillment in marriage. Such societal change is not new to American experience, but is confronted anew by every generation. "In a country based on both immigration and a constantly expanding frontier, there has never been a time when an older generation could pass on to its children a society and landscape exactly like those it had known in its youth."15 The challenge remains one of intentionally shaping our present and future family structures, not one of holding onto those past forms which may be beyond their appropriateness.
3. Why Cohabitation Presents Questions for the Faith Community
3.1 As Christians, we believe that God deals graciously with us (Rom. 5:1-2) and joins us together as a community by means of a covenant relationship with God and with each other (Ex. 6:4-8; Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 9:15). As members of "the body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:12-13), we are called to love one another with a healing and forgiving love (Mt. 22:37-40; Jn. 15:12-17; 1 Cor. 12:27-13:13). Within the context of this loving community, all members become children of God, related in Christ to one another and united by the Holy Spirit. We believe our primary identity comes from our relationship with God and from our membership in the Christian community. Such a close identification with God provides certain privileges and assumes corresponding responsibilities to the community and respect for the individual person. Christians seek to express this theology through styles of behavior.
3.2 Over time and among different cultures Christians have utilized a variety of living arrangements to express their identity as the people of God. The earliest Christian communities appear to have been communal, sharing living space, food, labor and resources among married and unmarried people of all circumstances (Acts 4:32-6:7). This ideal, though imperfectly executed, was believed to be just and equitable, and therefore the most appropriate manner of living for a redeemed group of people (Acts 4:32). Other New Testament communities appear to have included extended biological families (Lk. 4:38), nuclear monogamous marriages (1 Tim. 3:2-5), "families" of unrelated adults bound together by a similar philosophy (Mt. 12:48-50), unmarried individuals (1 Cor. 7:8), perhaps cohabiting celibate couples (1 Cor. 7:36-38) ~ and more, all of which were considered to be theologically appropriate.
3.3 The Old Testament witness introduces even more models. Polygyny (2 Sam. 5:13; 1 Kings 11:3), Levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5; Mt. 22:24), betrothal (Deut. 20:7; Mt. 1:18-19) and concubinage (Gen. 16:2; 1 Kings 11:3), were well known Hebrew customs, some of which were still assumed in Jesus' time.
3.4 Out of this variety, monogamous marriage with lifelong commitment became the norm, in affirmation of the biblical endorsement of permanent fidelity and commitment to both Cod and spouse (Hosea; Ezek. 16:8-22; Eph. 5:32-33; Mk. 10:2-12). By the time of the Middle Ages, marriage between one man and one woman had evolved into a Christian sacrament, a means of grace which was the ideal for the laity. The key to whether marriage -- and thus the sacrament -- that occurred (making divorce impossible) came to be identified in 1142 with the act of sexual intercourse.16 Simultaneously, the celibate life became the norm for those who professed religious vows. After centuries of opposition, celibacy was finally made a requirement for the priesthood at the Lateran Council of 1215.17 Variety had been reduced to two sacramental options. Although Lutherans do not view either marriage or religious vows (incorporating celibacy) as sacraments, this part of history has had lasting effects among us. There is uneasiness about persons who are neither formally bonded nor declared celibates. There is concern over what such people are doing with the tremendous power of their sexuality. Others in the church may feel threatened by it.
3.5 Martin Luther argued against the sacramentality of both celibacy and marriage. He claimed marriage was not a sacrament because the state of marriage does not include a word of divine promise, and it is appropriate for all humankind, not just Christians. He rejected the role of the church as regulator of marriage, preferring that it be under the jurisdiction of secular authorities.18
3.6 Through the centuries, the church gained more and more regulatory powers over marriage. As the church came to be, in the Middle Ages, the sole arbiter of marital issues, many questions needed answering. For example: What constitutes a marriage? Are secret unions between two people true marriages? What are impediments to a marriage?
And so forth. Although secret marriages between consenting adults were accepted as valid by the church for centuries, the difficulty of proving that such a promise of marriage had occurred in private resulted in a decree by the Council of Trent in 1563 that all marriages not contracted before a priest and two public witnesses would be void.19
3.7 Current statements of The American Lutheran Church affirm the biblical example of monogamous marriage 20 as part of the created order.21 At the same time, the communal nature of the Christian experience is recognized. "Marriage ceremonies serve as symbols of public acceptance and responsibility of husband and wife to one another."22
3.8 Although contemporary American clergy perform marriage ceremonies, in the United States it is governmental authorities, not churches, who regulate marriage. At weddings, clergy act as servants of the state. The church's role is to bless the union so declared, and to provide witnesses to the contract, although currently the civil ceremony and religious celebration are so co-mingled as to be indistinguishable in many cases.23 The officiating person in American weddings need not be a clergy person; an equally valid marriage may be witnessed by a judge or justice of the peace.
3.9 In the United States, marriage is constituted by means of a three-party contract among a man, a woman and the state, whereby the man and woman legally commit themselves to a complex set of nonnegotiable obligations and rights, predetermined by the state. Yet, the terms of the contract are rarely explained to the contracting parties. "No state gives the prospective bride and groom a chance to read the terms of their marriage contract, or asks them if they are willing to abide by its terms." 24 These legal stipulations can entail hundreds of expectations both written and unwritten. Often, they cause the loss of rights for the couple, because there is a different status for married people than for single people.25
3.10 This historical background sets the stage for a number of potential conflicts within the faith community over the question of living together outside of marriage.
a. Theologically, traditional Christian symbolism (drawn from such biblical books as Hosea, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel)26 has associated marriage with religious fidelity (faithful, covenant relationships) and sexual license with apostasy or paganism. These extremes of symbolic paradigms are thrown into confusion by a relationship such as cohabitation which is less covenantal than marriage but is also not casual or licentious. There seems to be little precedence for relating such an arrangement to religious symbolism, making it hard to fit into a predetermined paradigm to be automatically "approved" or "disapproved."
b. Theologically, the Christian tradition of covenant community (Body of Christ) is challenged and affronted by the private decision to cohabit without any accompanying public communication by means of announced betrothal, religious rite, or church-state ceremony.
c. Theologically, Christians have found the practice of lifelong marriage an appropriate expression of their trust in God, who is their source of strength and guidance. By cohabiting, couples seem to suggest that faith is not a resource for them, and that trust depends only on unreliable human communities.
d. Institutionally, the church has viewed marriage as the appropriate arena for sexual expression, placing it within "the committed trust relationship" of "a lifelong monogamous marriage," 27 although this view may be changing somewhat.28 Living together challenges the stance that all non-marital sexual activity is sinful, and invites the church to reflect upon its traditional positions and behavior. It challenges, among other things, the belief by some that marriage be defined by sexual activity rather than by companionship. And it challenges the double standard by which some members are censured for extra-marital sexual behavior, while others equally at fault are not censured. The church's position that marriage is the appropriate arena for sexual activity should be equally applied to male and female, cohabiting and non-cohabiting members.
e. Institutionally, control over marriage has traditionally been lodged with the parents, the government, and/or the church. Couples today are assuming more of that power for themselves, seeking to determine who, when, how, and if they will marry. One result is something of a power struggle. Who shall control marriage?
f. Ethically, the worshiping community, the parents, the pastor and the individuals all have consciences which may differ over the question of living together and/or marital procedure. Regarding marriage, the institutional church has tended to favor the conscience of the pastor over the consciences of the couple, giving the pastor the right to deny marriage to a couple seeking it if his or her conscience does not agree concerning their readiness for marriage or with their life-style. Couples who live together act out of their own consciences, sometimes putting them at odds with family, other church members, and their pastors.
g. Ethically, the need for couples to live together to avoid financial distress or other penalties, presents a challenge to the church to work actively for changes in unjust laws and monetary policies which affect couples contemplating marriage.
h. Pastorally, the clergy and the faith community are concerned about individuals and couples who appear to be placing themselves in relationships that are unprotected by legal safeguards and traditional social structures. They would like to see more concrete and public commitment expressed by couples.
i. Legally, the close association of government licensing and regulating with the religious ceremony and counseling confuses the specific interests and jurisdiction each institution has in the area of marriage. The practice of living together without legal marriage calls into question the association of "legal" with "moral" and "illegal" with "sinful."
j. Socially, one aim of marriage has been childbearing and nurture. Cohabitation poses the problem of legal responsibility for child care and expense, but it also introduces the possibility that procreation might not be the goal of all intimate relationships, as some families or traditions seem to expect from couples.
k. Philosophically, the practice of cohabitation challenges the institution of marriage as the church understands it and as it is lived out in today's society. Cohabiting couples often point to the stark contrast between marriage as the ideal option and the actual incidence of divorce, violence, demoralization, and distress that seems to characterize the institution of marriage. Cohabitation challenges the church to show concern for the quality of everyone's sexual relationships -- before, during, after, and outside of marriage.
4. The Church's Pastoral Response
4.1 Couples and churches alike are affected by social changes and a growing variety of relationship styles. Couples have some reasons which they see as valid for living together, rather than marrying in a traditional sense. Churches have some reasons which they consider valid for questioning cohabitation as a living arrangement. Both couples and churches could benefit from an open and creative attempt to understand one another's concerns.
4.2 Couples may view as inappropriate the church's insistence on making and imposing the rules of conduct for them, while expecting the couple to bear the full burden of the physical, emotional and economic costs of that conduct. Shared freedom of decision-making requires shared responsibility for the consequences. Thus, churches that insist upon marriage before a couple may live together need to be aware of all aspects which contribute to the couple's desire to cohabit. For example, will the couple lose retirement or social security benefits if they marry, yet use up all of their resources paying for rent or utilities if they live separately? Part of the ministry of the church community should be sharing responsibility with its marginal members whose economic, emotional or physical resources are strained to the breaking point. Creative, cooperative counseling may find ways to satisfy both couples and congregation. At the same time, churches have the right to be concerned when couples make private decisions about living arrangements and later expect the church to provide personnel and facilities and blessing for church weddings. Openness and cooperative planning is needed on both sides, with respect for all parties involved.
4.3 Couples can work at being sensitive to the concerns of the community of faith. That community typically wonders if the couple:
a. feels a sense of responsibility to the larger community;
b. recognizes that families, church, and government have a valid interest in the establishment of permanent, committed relationships;
c. respects the legal interests of children who may be born to the couple;
d. considers the biblical paradigm in which the intimacy of sexual expression is reserved for the relationship of publicly declared marriage.
4.4 Pastors, family members, and fellow church members can work hard at being sensitive to the very real problems faced by couples, problems for which cohabitation often seems like a good solution. Among the concerns of couples may be:
a. serious fears and reservations about the institution of marriage, because of their own or parental negative experience;
b. economic factors that make legal marriage unattractive;
c. sexual expression outside of legal marriage as an issue for family members or church authorities, but not for the couple;
d. the injustice of singling out cohabiting couples for censure, while ignoring a host of other relationship problems such as family violence, incest, chemical abuse, psychological abuse, and casual sexual expression between unmarried people who do not cohabit.
4.5 Congregations can seek -- in their teachings about marriage and family -- to underscore what is central. With reference to living together, consideration such as these appear to be basic:
a. Coupling is most nurturing when it is not a solely private decision made by just two people. Members of families, congregation members, pastors of the couple -- all should be taken into the couple's counsel and celebration. A climate of acceptance permitting such consultation should be the goal.
b. Some public recognition of a relationship is needed. If a couple believes that legal marriage is not the answer, can the church recognize and bless a committed, covenant relationship apart from governmental regulation? Can a churchly ceremony for such relationships be developed?
c. Sexual expression in the most intimate sense 1elongs in the context of a committed relationship between a woman and a man, marked by an expectation of dependability, fidelity, and permanence.
d. Real problems are not solved by a peripheral ceremony or acquiescence to an institutional rule, but are best addressed by counseling, analysis and action against the particular problem itself. Can the church advocate against economic and legal policies which make marriage undesirable to couples today?
e. Churches can strive for even-handedness in their attention to matters of human sexuality, which means not focusing on cohabiting couples alone, but giving as much attention to the quality of relationships in traditional marriages and to the casual sexual expression between couples who retain different addresses.
4.6 The importance of communication among couples, pastors, and congregation members cannot be overstated. Pastors and parishes wishing to approach cohabitation constructively will seek to create a climate of openness in which concerns of both couples and congregations may be shared and the guidance of God can be sought.
1 Teachings and Practice on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The American Lutheran Church, a statement of policy and practice adopted by the Eleventh General Convention, 1982, p. 2, I-A-2.
2 Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, p. 2, I-A-2.
3 Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior, The American Lutheran Church, a statement of comment and counsel adopted by the Tenth General Convention, 1980, p. 4,C-i.
4 Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, p. 4, I-C-9.
5 Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, p. 4, I-C-9.
6 Human Sexuality, p. 5, C-3.
7 Human Sexuality, p. 12, H-3-4.
8 Human Sexuality, p. 12, H-3-4.
9 For a comprehensive history of family forms, see Bernard I. Murstein, Love, Sex, and Marriage Through the Ages, New York: Springer Pub. Co., 1974.
10 For a comprehensive history of family forms, see Bernard I. Murstein, Love, Sex, and Marriage Through the Ages, New York: Springer Pub. Co., 1974.
11 The nuclear family of employed husband, stay-at-home wife, and their minor children represented only 37% of the U.S. population in 1978, according to James B. Nelson, Embodiment, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978, p. 131.
12 Arlene Skolnick, The Intimate Environment: Exploring Marriage and the Family, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978, p. 374.
13 U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1983. Current Population Report, Population Characteristics, Series P-20, No. 389, p. 6.
14 Statistics gathered in an unofficial survey of 55 pastors in the state of Illinois for presentation to the Consultation on Pastoral Care with Couples, by David Bugh and Judith Bugh, October 1984. In Sweden, a predominantly Lutheran country, an estimated 99% of couples cohabit before marriage, according to Birgit Leigren, "In Sweden, Living Together Is the Norm," Minneapolis Tribune, Nov. 14, 1982, p. 20.
15 According to information compiled from experienced counselors, from couples in several consultations with the Office of Church in Society staff, and from published materials on the subject.
16 Skolnick, The Intimate Environment, p. 29
18 Murstein, Love, Sex, and Marriage, p. 92.
21 Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior, p. 5, C-3.
22 Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, p. 1, I-A-i.
23 Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, p. 2, I-A-2.
24 For a fuller discussion of church regulations throughout history, see Murstein, Love, Sex, and Marriage, pp. 108-124.
25 Arlene Skolnick, The Intimate Environment, p. 242
26 For further discussion of this point, see Skolnick, The Intimate Environment, p. 242.
27 Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, p. 2, I-B-6.
28 Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior, p. 5, C-3.
29 James B. Nelson, Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience, New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1983, p. 88.