Should a Pastor Perform a Wedding for a Cohabiting Couple?

There is a growing trend in contemporary American society related to living together before getting married. According to the 2010 census data from the US Census Bureau, there were 7.529 million opposite sex unmarried couple households.[1] The National Marriage Project based at the University of Virginia notes:

Between 1960 and 2009, the number of cohabiting couples in the United States increased more than fifteenfold. About a quarter of unmarried women age 25 to 39 are currently living with a partner, and an additional quarter have lived with a partner at some time in the past. More than 60 percent of first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago. For many, cohabitation is a prelude to marriage. For others, it is simply better than living alone. For a small but growing number, it is considered an alternative to marriage.[2]

As a seminary professor who teaches a class on marriage and family, I try to prepare my students for that time in their ministry when someone asks them to perform a wedding ceremony. There are a number of questions we need to ask ourselves before agreeing to be a part of the ceremony. In fact, LifeWay Research released the results of a recent survey they performed on just this issue. The summary article can be found at Baptist Press and LifeWay’s Facts and Trends Online. The results are interesting and a little frightening.

The lead stat for the article relates to cohabitation before marriage. The study notes:

The survey of 1,000 randomly selected Protestant pastors found that a majority (58 percent) will perform weddings for couples they know are living together. Nearly a third (31 percent) will not, and 10 percent are not sure.

When it comes to cohabitating couples, pastors who consider themselves mainline are more likely to perform weddings then those who consider themselves evangelical.

In response to the question, “When asked to do so, will you perform a marriage ceremony for a couple whom you know is living together?” 68 percent of mainline pastors say yes compared with 57 percent of evangelicals. Twenty-four percent of mainline pastors and 34 percent of evangelicals say no.

A minister’s level of education also reveals differences in pastors’ willingness to perform marriage ceremonies for couples who are living together.

A full 62 percent of pastors with at least a master’s degree will marry cohabitating couples while only 52 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or less will perform weddings for couples living together before marriage. Twenty-nine percent of pastors with at least a master’s degree will not perform such ceremonies compared with 36 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or less.

To me, this statistic about the willingness of pastors to perform weddings for couples they know to be cohabiting is disturbing. If we set aside the biblical material that relates to cohabitation and just look at the sociological data, pastors should be reticent to perform such marriages.

The National Marriage Project notes that cohabitation is more common among those of lower educational levels, lower income levels, the less religious, “those who have been divorced, and those who have experienced parental divorce, fatherlessness, or high levels of marital discord during childhood.”[3] After noting all these demographic details, National Marriage Project states:

The belief that living together before marriage is a useful way “to find out whether you really get along,” and thus avoid a bad marriage and an eventual divorce, is now widespread among young people. But the available data on the effects of cohabitation fail to confirm this belief. In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage.[4]

Even though the authors acknowledge that the evidence is somewhat controversial, Wilcox concludes, “What can be said for certain is that no research from the United States has yet been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not.”[5]

So why would a pastor perform a marriage for a cohabiting couple when the sociological evidence says that such couple are more likely to get divorced? I think the answer is societal pressure and a desire not to offend. Certainly Scripture is clear in its condemnation of fornication (a KJV-style word for a pre-marital sexual relationship). Fornication and fornicators (as well as adulterers) are described as evil, subject to judgment, and not heirs of the kingdom of God (Matt 15:19; Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Cor 6:9; Heb 13:4).

What should one do when encountering this situation? Here are a few suggestions. First, remember that cohabitation is not the unpardonable sin. After Paul gives a vice list in 1 Cor 6:9–10 that says certain people, including fornicators and adulterers, will not inherit the kingdom of God, he states, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). We need to work with these couples to help them confess and repent of this sin. Ideally, this confession and repentance should have a public element to it within the church. This does not necessarily mean that they air their dirty laundry before the church on Sunday morning, but it should at least include their families and those in their circle of influence who are aware of the situation. Depending on the church, it may also include the entire church body.

Second, I believe separation from the cohabiting relationship is in order prior to marriage. This involves all aspects of the relationship. If it means a woman moves back home with her parents, or a man moves in with some friends for a period of a few months, then so be it. If the couple is not willing to do this for the remainder of the time leading up to the marriage, then they are not interested in honoring God with their marriage.

Third, assuming that the couple has cooperated in the first two points, I believe the pastor must still examine his own convictions about marriage to determine whether or not he desires to place his “stamp of approval” on the wedding by performing the ceremony.

I believe our culture has become too focused on the wedding ceremony, and some pastors are fearful that they might alienate an influential family in the church if they do not fulfill the daughter’s wish for a “dream wedding.” Marriage is much more than a ceremony. It is a lifetime covenant established by God (Gen 2:22–24). It is time we focus on the marriage and not the ceremony, but the decision to perform the wedding is part of that process.

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2010,” Table UC3. These couples self-identified as unmarried partners.

[2] W. Bradford Wilcox, ed., “When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America,” The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2010, 76.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 76–77.

[5] Ibid., 77.

2 thoughts on “Should a Pastor Perform a Wedding for a Cohabiting Couple?

  1. I received an email from a friend related to this post but addressing a slightly different topic. He asked whether or not a pastor should perform a wedding between two non-believers. I plan to address that question in my next post.

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