A recent poll conducted by LifeWay Research found that 58 percent of Protestant pastors would perform marriage ceremonies for cohabitating couples; 31 percent would not, and 10 percent were not sure.

"If I believed them to be in sin, why wouldn't I help get them out? The apostle Paul addresses that; if you're having trouble keeping your hands to yourself, then marry her. Basically, I think it's over-scrupulous—overly pietistic—to refuse to perform a ceremony that gets someone from a morally questionable situation into an honorable estate."

Douglas Wilson, minister, Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho

"I will most likely officiate at a wedding for a couple who has been living together. The arms of the church need to be open, giving them an opportunity to know the grace of Christ and hopefully to become a part of the congregation. What I do with people is that when they come with a situation where they've been living together before they get married, I talk with them about engaging with the church. There are a lot of issues that we could worry about in the world. For me, that's just not one that's high on the list for me. I just want to have the arms of the church embrace them and I want them to sense the grace of God."

Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean, Fuller Theological Seminary

"Under most state law, cohabitating couples have no legal protection from such things as abandonment, adultery, property protection, or financial support, so marriage is clearly the best legal option to protect the person you love. So if a pastor refuses to marry the couple based on moral grounds, the couple is robbed of the benefits of marriage in a sense. However, social science research shows that cohabitating couples actually sabotage their chances for a lifetime of happiness by their premarital cohabitation. So if a pastor marries the couple based on the fact that marriage is a better (both legally and spiritually) union for the couple without explaining these facts, the couple is robbed of the understanding of how cohabitation sabotages a marriage. The benefits of doing things in the proper order cannot be underestimated and ought to be explained. When couples understand the implications of their actions, in choices of marriage or cohabitation, they can make better decisions for themselves and their partner. Pastors can come alongside and bring wisdom and counsel to the couples' decision, and use the question 'Should I perform your marriage?' as an entrée to leading them and their future together closer to the foot of the cross, where their marriage will thrive permanently."

Article continues below

Lynne Marie Kohm, John Brown McCarty Professor of Family Law, Regent University School of Law

"While we are always attracted to cut-and-dried answers, it's important to carefully consider the situation and makeup of those to whom we minister before giving counsel. Imagine you are a pastor to a community that lives in poverty and are counseling a couple that has lived together for ten years, has several children, and live on food stamps. Asking them to separate would mean separating a household, at least temporarily, and asking the family to, in effect, endure the stresses and dangers of divorce when this family does not have the resources to withstand it. On the other hand, imagine a pastor sitting with two college students who have been living together for six weeks, are caught up in the excitement of romance, and 'want to make it permanent.' Very likely they need to separate and find help developing a more realistic view of themselves and setting the relationship on a much more certain foundation. In other words, knowing that a couple is cohabitating doesn't really tell you all you need to know to love them well. The goal is to help cohabitating couples understand what they must know and do to live in the pattern of covenant faithfulness that God has given us. The pathway there is one that must be discerned with wisdom and care."

Winston Smith, faculty, Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation

"I require cohabitating couples to separate during the engagement. The ultimate goal is for them to separate—abstinence before marriage, you know. And to the world it just seems trite that, 'Okay, we've been having sex for three years, we want to get married, and now you're telling us we can't have sex for eight weeks?' Yes, that's exactly right. I ask cohabitating couples who attend our church, 'Do you want to start this marriage off right?' If we get to the point of marrying cohabitating couples without asking them to separate or practice abstinence before marriage, we're really starting to move away from being a church that honors marriage and becoming a justice of the peace. The bigger question is: 'What's your value of marriage? Is marrying a cohabiting couple honoring marriage?'"

Article continues below

Ted Cunningham, author, Young and in Love

"Couples who cohabit and then marry are 61 percent more likely to divorce than those who remain apart before the wedding—because sin leads to sin leads to sin. We need to do everything we can to help couples build relationships that are likely to endure. And a better way to prepare couples for marriage is to actually encourage that couple to move apart and prepare for marriage by taking a premarital inventory, and discussing the issues it surfaces with a trained mentor couple. If a pastor doesn't bring up the cohabitation issue, they're acting irresponsibly. They're neither being biblical nor practical in helping that couple."

Mike McManus, president, Marriage Savers

"Pastors are stewards of a biblical understanding of sexuality. Marrying cohabiters miscommunicates the teaching function of marriage. I would only marry couples that were repentant, had forsaken the sin of cohabitating, and sought the remedy of marriage. Marriage does not simply validate the long-term commitment of a couple whose relationship has been based upon cohabitation. There's another problem, which has to do with the fact that pastors are not the only stewards of marriage. In other words, marriage is accessible to persons outside the church. So when the church allows a marriage to take place within its life, it should be validating this in a way that goes beyond marriage as a creation institution and gets to what marriage is teaching in the ceremony of the church and the church's stewardship of marriage."

R. Albert Mohler Jr, president, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Related Elsewhere:

Additional Christianity Today articles on marriage and cohabitation include:

The Science of Shacking Up | Why cohabitating couples are putting their future at risk. An interview with Glenn Stanton on 'The Ring Makes All the Difference.' (September 19, 2011)

Marriage in Obsolescence| Why recent headlines on marriage don't do the new Pew survey justice. (November 19, 2010)

The Case for Early Marriage| Amid our purity pledges and attempts to make chastity hip, we forgot to teach young Christians how to tie the knot. (July 31, 2009)

Better Together?

Previous topics for discussion include church disruptions,politicians and infidelity,politicians and religious persecution,faith healing and legal protection,pastors' housing allowances,sacred spaces,stinginess,TSA screening,Christmas carols with questionable theology, andlife ethics for the unborn.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.