Does “getting married” matter any more?

Does “getting married” matter any more? Four years ago when I preached a series on the moral maze I asked a different question. I asked “Is living in sin alright now?” For the publicity in NSBC in 2013 that question appeared too blunt. So I rephrased it. But the issue is more relevant than ever. It used to be called “living in sin”. Now it’s called “living together.” So is living in sin alright now?

How times have changed! Nobody blinks and eye at male and females students sharing flats or houses. But just how many couples are there living together? The most recent analyses I can find are seven years old.

Office of National Statistics: “Cohabitation in Great Britain: past, present and future trends and attitudes”

In the ten years between 1996 and 2006 the number of cohabiting couples rose by 65 per cent from 1.4million to 2.3million. The number of married couples fell by 4 per cent to 12.1million.

The number of single-parent families leapt by 8 per cent since 1996, to reach 2.6million,

Now one in five women chooses to live with a man while they are in their early 20s rather than to marry or to stay single. More than one in five women have lived with a man before the age of 25 without being married. In the 1970s, only one in 100 women did that.

One more statistic – an average cohabitation is thought to last around three years, while a typical marriage runs for 11 years.

So is what used to be called “living in sin” alright now?

The Bible regards marriage both as a “one-flesh” spiritual union and as a covenant. From Genesis 2:24 (repeated in Ephesians 5:31) we can see that marriage is part of God’s plan for all people, not just Christians. It is a “Creation Ordinance.”

Eph 5: 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Marriage in Western Society has been based on the Jewish Christian pattern for thousands of years. In the Bible, marriage involves three elements:-
• A man will leave his father and mother i.e. leaving parents to form a new family;
• and be united to his wife i.e. some clearly visible joining process based on mutual promises of permanent commitment; a covenant relationship between man and wife recognized as binding by society as a whole.
• and they will become one flesh i.e. the formation of a spiritual one-flesh union through sexual intercourse.

The apostle Paul speaks of this “one flesh union” in 1 Corinthians 6:14-17. Sexual intercourse forms a spiritual bond between a man and a woman, a “one-flesh union” which links them. Adultery is any sexual act which creates that “one-flesh union” outside of its proper context, that is a covenant of faithfulness and lifelong commitment.

A couple are joined in God’s eyes when they commit themselves to one another according to God’s ideal of an exclusive and lifelong relationship, and are united by intercourse in a “one-flesh” bond.

To be a true marriage, the act of joining to form the new relationship also needs to be recognised by the wider community in some way. But we must be wary of defining too closely any particular set of legal or religious vows required for this second element in marriage, or else we risk condemning some entire cultures as “living in sin” just because their wedding customs do not correspond sufficiently closely to our ideals. Our western ideal of a couple falling madly in love with each other is not shared in some eastern countries where arranged marriages are still common. However, all civilized societies agree that marriage requires the meaningful consent of both husband and wife. Forced marriage against especially the wife’s wishes is wrong and not true marriage.

But in today’s world so many couples are choosing not to get married at all – but just live together as if they were man and wife. What should Christians say about that?

The definitions of the words the Bible uses for adultery clearly include any acts of “sex before marriage” and “sex outside marriage”. And in the Old Testament the penalty for adultery was death by stoning. The Bible clearly condemns “one-night-stands” as adultery and it also condemns couples living together without being married. But “living together” covers a wide variety of circumstances.

A male and female who share a flat together, for example, should not be assumed to be living together. Although that would have been unheard of 30 years ago, now it is not uncommon. Brothers and sisters have often lived under the same roof, and bachelors often used to live in digs with widowed or spinster landladies. In these days of high property prices and high rents it is not unusual for males and females to share a house or flat, even though my generation would find that situation highly embarrassing. It is also not necessarily wise, because of the temptations it can create, but simply living under the same roof as a person of the opposite sex you aren’t married to is not necessarily wrong or wicked. Of course if that leads that couple into having sex together outside marriage, then that is indeed still sin.

And individuals who drift from one short relationship to the next, a few weeks with one person and then on to another person for the next month, are still living in sin. That lifestyle is not acceptable to God.

But consider a radically different situation. A couple who are deeply devoted to each other. For each, the other is their first partner. They choose to set up home and live together as man and wife and live faithfully with each other their entire lives – but never actually have a marriage ceremony. Perhaps they say it is for financial reasons, they can’t afford the expense of a big wedding. Or they might say they want it to be their love that keeps them together and not some legal obligation. But in every respect they are the perfect married couple – except they never actually got married.

I don’t want to suggest that living together without being formally married is God’s perfect plan. But on the other hand, that is the situation of many couples who are living together. They are totally committed to each other. And sadly many non-Christians and new Christians are driven away from churches that condemn such couples from the outset for “living in sin”.

Wouldn’t it be better for churches to be prepared to show God’s love and welcome such a couple “as they are” and then lovingly challenge them to make a formal legal commitment to each other at an appropriate time later on.

I introduced you a couple of weeks ago to a little saying which I am finding helpful as we approach pastoral situation in the 21st century.
“We must welcome people as Jesus welcomed them, rely on the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin and leave it to God to be their Judge.”

We are living in a messed up world. Many folk in the world around are not living by Christian standards but by the mixed up values of a world which has rejected God. At one point we have talked about “lesser evil ethics”. That sometimes it might be the right course of action to do something which is in itself evil, as an alternative to some greater evil. The lie which, though regrettable, is the only way to save the life of an innocent person. To terminate a pregnancy, which although ending the life of an unborn baby saves the life of a mother who would otherwise die. We have talked about the tensions which sometimes exist between obeying different parts of scripture. The command to obey the civil authorities against the command to love our neighbour in a society where our innocent neighbours are being persecuted and mistreated. Tonight I would encouraget us to think about another tension which exists as we proclaim the gospel into a sinful world – the tension between showing God’s love to sinners and upholding God’s standards of marriage. I am not advocating compromise – just getting our priorities right!

Let me introduce five situations and just raise some issues. I am not going to provide answers – just ask the questions.

The first scenario is that couple who are living together faithfully as husband and wife even though they haven’t been married. The very liberal church they belonged to told them that living together was alright and that they didn’t need to get married. When they moved and began to think of starting a family, they went to a Baptist Church. The minister there told them that he would only consider marrying them after they had been living apart for six months. So then they changed churches and started worshipping with the church I was minister of, they didn’t want to talk about getting married. One church had misled them, another had rejected them. They were perfectly happy as they were.
So what does my church do?
• Do we insist they live apart before they talk about getting married? Or do we offer to marry them as soon as possible?
• Do we accept them as Christians into membership of the church? Or do we insist they get married first?

Another situation. A lapsed Christian comes along to the baptism of her younger sister. wearing just about as little as any woman I have ever seen in a church, deliberately intending to shock the very respectable church we were in. She is living with her boyfriend who is not a Christian and they have a little baby together. But as the months go by she makes friends in the church and rediscovers her Christian faith. She wants to become a member of the church. We suggest she might like to get married first – but her boyfriend doesn’t ever want to get married.
• Do we let her become a member of the church?
• Or do we tell her to take her baby and leave the boyfriend because she is “living in sin”?
I knew that woman had been a heroin addict. I discovered only recently that she had also been a page 3 girl. That story has a happy ending because in due course they get married, husband becomes a Christian, , the baby grows up to get baptized herself and the mum becomes a worship leader and Deacon in the church. And through that long, long process that church has also learned a lot about accepting people as they are.

A third situation. Christians. Church members. Son or daughter has left home and starts living with girlfriend or boyfriend with no thought of getting married.
• Do we disown them for living in sin?
• When offspring and partner come to stay, do we let them share a bedroom?

A fourth situation. A man or woman comes into the church and they are gloriously converted through Alpha. But they are living with somebody and they have children together but they are not married. Nevertheless they are saved and they ask to be baptized.
• Do we baptize them even though they aren’t married?
• Or do we say they have to leave their partner and their kids in order to be baptized?
• Do we let them become members of the church?
A complicated situation in a fallen world. What would Jesus do?

And just to make these situation a bit more complicated. Would it make any difference to our responses if any of the couples in these scenarios are of the same sex? Does that change what Jesus would do?

That brings us to our fifth scenario. It looks like the law on marriage will change and the state will say that couples of the same sex are not only entitled to enter a civil partnership but are actually allowed to be married. Our government is going to completely redefine marriage. Any time now a same-sex married couple could arrive at our church. Will we treat them any differently to the ways we treat a married couple? When it comes to offering baptism, or church membership for example. They will be legally married. What will we do?

No answers – just questions to start us thinking. Because reaching out with God’s love into this fallen world these are the kinds of questions we will need to answer – and probably much sooner than we expect.

“We must welcome people as Jesus welcomed them, rely on the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin and leave it to God to be their Judge.”

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