A Rite for the Uncommitted
Samuel Pascoe on “Shacking Up”
It is a new millennium, and by some accounts, that is reason enough to loosen the church’s long-held and well-reasoned conviction that the covenant of marriage is the only safe, healthy, life-affirming, and godly context for sexual relations. But there is one issue on which even conservative Christians tend to loosen the church’s teaching: Many of them, not least many conservative clergy, advocate abandoning the traditional ban on marrying couples who have lived together before their marriage.
Why is this bad? some people will ask. At least the couple are finally getting married. At least now they’re making a public commitment, and one that’s harder to get out of than simply living together. The man, as used to be said, is “making an honest woman” of his live-in partner. (And vice versa, of course.)
Deep Confusion About Marriage
Why is this bad? Because it is bad for marriage. The early results of the Sexual Revolution are coming in, and the results are not encouraging. Teen pregnancies are at an all-time high. (One-third of the babies born today are born to unwed mothers. The United States occupies the unenviable position of number one in the world rates of divorce and unwed motherhood.) Abortions continue at a level that makes the horrendous incidents of ethnic cleansing seem mild by comparison.
Reported cases of sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment proliferate at all levels of society, from preschools to the presidency. Even the Church is not immune, and the news media regularly report the sad news of yet another Christian leader who was overtaken by the spirit of the age.
Let us not forget what all this has done to the next generation. The predictable result has been a generation of children now deeply confused about sex, and following their parents in giving sex without commitment and following them too in suffering the consequences.
According to Reuters, reporting on the National Marriage Project’s The State of Our Unions 2000, the young people who preferred living together to marriage believe “that sex is for fun and has no strings attached,” fear divorce, and see marriage “as a potential economic liability.” Many young women, who begin to want to marry but are “disenchanted with the pool of prospective partners and the likelihood of finding a mate,” choose single motherhood.
Yet they find they want what they have prevented themselves from getting. “Oddly, however, most of the young men and women who participated in the study expected some day to meet and marry somebody who fulfilled their emotional and spiritual needs. The problem, researchers said, is that their current mercenary mating habits do not easily lead to the fulfillment of that goal.” As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has said, “we may be in a period of cultural cluelessness.”
Yet, all too often, and even in the face of such a crying need, the church’s response has been to loosen its belt to accommodate the increasingly flabby moral fiber of its people. Those churches that adjust their moral compass are usually motivated by a genuine desire to love God’s people, but in the words of the prophet, they have “healed the people’s wounds lightly.” They proclaim “‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace.”
These churches seem genuinely to desire to maintain relationships at any cost in order to gain a hearing for their message. But as a result of accommodating such wide deviations from Christian discipleship and godly living, such churches have abandoned any message worth listening to.
An Emptied Cross
What the larger church has been doing is not working. Studies show that the sexual conduct of children raised in churches is no different from that of their unchurched peers. Christians have lost their ethical edge. The message of holiness and righteousness, which logically and necessarily precedes the message of reconciliation and forgiveness, has been lost on a whole generation of young people. As a result, “the cross is emptied of its power” because nothing is left to forgive (1 Cor. 1:17).
Scripture has always taught, and the Church has always believed, that living together apart from the covenant of marriage is wrong. While the Bible calls sexual relationships outside of marriage by different names (adultery, fornication, immorality, unfaithfulness), it universally condemns the practice. Just one of many passages says this: “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge adulterers and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4).
It is important to note that the only one of the Ten Commandments that implies consensual adult behavior is the prohibition against adultery. In other words, an act can still be wrong even if it is between two consenting adults. And sex outside of marriage is wrong.
Why is God so “out of step with the times”? Because God is outside of time; he knows the long-term heartache and trouble that come from breaking the principles he has built into the universe.
Why is God so “puritanical”? Because he is pure. God forbids sexual relations outside of the covenant of marriage because they violate his nature and, as a result, violate the Image of God that each person bears. Fornication is no less than cosmic treason.
The Apostle Paul makes it clear that sexual sin is uniquely devastating in its effect. My almost 30 years in ministry have driven this point home to me again and again. Paul’s advice to the people of God in Corinth, who were living in perhaps the most sexually corrupt city in the ancient world, still rings true today: “Flee sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). As Episcopal Bishop John Howe has said, “For Christians—who do know [God’s laws about sexuality]—taking sexual activity out of the place of sacramental significance that God has given it would be like using the altar and the communion vessels for a drunken orgy.”
For years, those who took a firm stand on the issue were pilloried as “prudes” or “puritans,” anachronistic in their advocacy of a moral code that is increasingly ignored and ridiculed. Well, call me what you want, but count me in. As I said, over the years I have changed my mind. Here are just a few of my reasons (and most of these are taken from reports in the secular press):
• “Couples who lived together before marrying have nearly an 80 percent higher divorce rate than those who did not.” (Florida Times-Union, December 8, 1987)
• “If a couple lived together before they were married, they were twice as likely to have trouble later.” (USA Today, August 8, 1988)
• “A recent study of 17,024 couples . . . found that cohabiting couples had significantly lower premarital satisfaction compared to couples where the two people still lived alone before marriage. . . . This is significant because the premarital relationship is predictive of later marital success.” (Prepare/Enrich Newsletter, Fall 1988)
• “Abusive behavior is more common among people who live together without being married than among married couples. Abuse occurs in approximately 35 percent of cohabiting couples during a given year, compared to only 15 percent of married couples.” (Family in America, December 1991)
• “Fear is often behind the decision to cohabit. The couples love their partners but fear that the relationship won’t last. . . .” (American Demographics, November 1991)
• “Many couples think living together will help them ‘test’ their relationship. They call it a trial marriage but it’s really a euphemism for trial divorce. Only 15 percent of those who start living together end up in a marriage that lasts. . . . Indeed, living-together couples are most apt to score low on the communications section of the pre-marital inventories, maybe because they are less inclined to face hard issues.” (Author and correspondent for Time, Michael McManus)
• “The growing custom of unmarried romantic partners living together may impair the mental health of those in long-term relationships, particularly women with kids. ‘Childless couples who share housing as a possible prelude to marriage and either wed or break up within two years are about as mentally healthy as married adults,’ says sociologist Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University, but ‘Longer-term “live-in” relationships . . . may promote depression and hinder life satisfaction,’ Brown will tell the American Sociological Association.” (USA Today, August 20, 1998)
• “Cohabitation . . . is a cubic-zirconium lifestyle. It may look good at a glance. But it doesn’t exactly inspire awe up close. For example, Washington State University researcher Jan Slets reports that women in cohabiting unions are more than twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence than married women.” (USA Today, July 13, 1998)
• “Cohabiting women have rates of depression more than three times higher than married women—and more than twice as high as other unmarried women. Several recent studies suggest the absence of a permanent commitment heightens ‘sexual anxiety’—a factor which UCLA researchers Stuart Perlman and Paul Abrahamson have shown to hinder sexual satisfaction among cohabiting couples.” (USA Today, July 13, 1998)
• “Even more significantly, the National Institute for Healthcare Research notes that couples who cohabited prior to marriage report significantly lower levels of marital happiness than other couples. And a recent research summary by Scott Stanley of the University of Denver says that couples who cohabited before marriage have significantly higher divorce rates than those who did not.” (USA Today, July 13, 1998)
• “Cohabitation does not reduce the likelihood of eventual divorce; in fact, it may lead to a higher divorce rate. . . . Virtually all the research on the topic has found that the divorce rate is higher for couples who live together before marriage. . . . Cohabiting when children were involved proved especially destructive to the family unit.” (Florida Times Union, February 22, 1999)
In light of the clear teaching of Scripture, the clear teaching of the Church, and the clear evidence of the social sciences, I simply ask engaged couples to live apart without sex before their marriage. This one act of simple obedience to the commands of Christ will be a visible testimony to their intention to bring their relationship under the lordship of Christ.
And what other reason is there for being married in the Church other than to signify that intention? Thus, for those couples who are living together outside the covenant of marriage, we simply ask that the first step in their process of “submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Eph. 5:21) be a willingness to live separately until after their wedding. In order to “put our money where our mouth is,” we stand willing to help if finances seem to preclude such an arrangement.
We believe this policy will be the most healing in the long run, and not just for the couples presenting themselves for marriage. We think especially of our young people. Our youth director and volunteers work faithfully to impress upon our youth the reality that sexual relations outside of marriage are wrong, destructive, and dangerous. Yet, when a church continues to marry couples who choose to live in this way without even a tsk-tsk, it tells the youth the opposite.
Just Say No
What can we say to men and women who knowingly and willingly disobey the clear teaching of the Church and the Lord of the Church, even as they come and seek its blessing and his? In the past, the church’s action, and its inaction, spoke so loudly that I fear our young people could not hear the admonitions and advice of Scripture and the wisdom of the ages.
I realize that this policy may seem controversial and “out of step” with modern custom. I would point out that, to the extent that it seems so, it is the society that is “out of step,” not the Scriptures or the Church. If we are going to reform our world, our message must not be muted by inconsistent actions. It is our humble and heart-felt hope that this policy will bring our actions in line with our convictions.
However, some people will not accept this. So I have written my parish the following.
If, after considering the biblical teaching, you are still committed to not being committed, the clergy of Grace Church will be willing to officiate at a Service of Non-committal. We recommend the following rite if you and your current partner would like to formalize your arrangement.
A Rite for Doing the Wrong Thing
I, N., take you, N., to be my live-in lover, to share some of my bed and some of my bills. I enter this arrangement with no real expectation that it will work out—which is why I am choosing not to marry you.
Let’s face it, we don’t know each other well enough to make a commitment, we just like sleeping together. My decision—to the extent that it was a decision and not just an impulse driven by fear, loneliness, or lust—is based on hormones, economics, and convenience. If this arrangement becomes inconvenient, I retain the right to leave you at any time for any reason and not be accountable to anyone for my decision.
I will stay as long as you interest me and meet my needs, or until someone I like better comes along. Because I expect the same from you, I will maintain a certain emotional distance from you. That way, if either of us decides to leave, it won’t hurt as much. It will also make it possible for me to more quickly enter into a similar arrangement with someone else.
If you get really sick or lose your looks or prove to be a person who has deep needs which may drain my emotional energy, I will try to stick around for a respectable period of time so I won’t appear shallow or self-absorbed, but then I will probably leave and never look back. I expect you to do the same.
If our birth-control method fails and we conceive a child, we can either get married out of guilt or shame, or one of us can leave—believing the other will not be a fit parent—or we can have the baby killed to preserve the sanctity of our personal freedom. Raising children, after all, requires commitment and responsibility—the very things we are trying to avoid by living together without getting married.
If we do decide at some point to make a public commitment to one another (like you, I don’t like using that m word just yet), I also realize that our decision to live together before making that commitment significantly reduces our chances of having a successful marriage. (Oops, I said the m word—but you know I didn’t mean it.)
I feel better having said these things to you. I hope you feel better having heard them. It’s good that neither of us has any illusions.
The Reverend Samuel Pascoe is rector of Grace Church in Orange Park, Florida, and a leader of First Promise, a reform movement in the Episcopal Church. He is the author of Buried Alive: The Articles of Religion’s Place in Today’s Church (Latimer Press, 1999).
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“A Rite for the Uncommitted” first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.