National Lutheran News

Do Christians still believe in marriage?

Why are so many living together without getting married?

A poll conducted by the Barna Research Group in 1999 concluded that atheists and agnostics have a lower divorce rate than professing Christians. The former yielded a 21% divorce rate, and the latter 27%. Within the Christian population, non-denominational believers had the highest divorce rate, at 34%. Baptists were next in line, with 29%.
Only Lutherans and Roman Catholics held a divorce rate as low as the atheists and agnostics.

No matter where the exact statistics fall, it is clear that Christians, including Lutherans, do not have the same faith in marriage they once did. Perhaps having an even greater impact on the attitude toward marriage is the increase in cohabitation among unmarried couples. Recent findings suggest that as many as half of the couples who marry today have lived together. These statistics have many wondering: Do Christians still believe in marriage?

While the Lutheran Church’s teachings are as clear as any Protestant denomination on the issues of divorce and cohabitation, in practice they are realistic as well. Some researchers claim that two in every five college-age people cohabitate. Such statistics force the church to respond. Most Lutheran churches require a couple to attend counseling before tying the knot. Rev. Kirk Griebel of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Owa-tonna has his doubts about the effectiveness of this approach when it comes to couples that are already living together.

“I think that discussing living together outside of marriage with a couple that is already living together is almost as pointless as waiting until a person dies to discuss whether or not they went to heaven. It is just not possible to have an honest and objective discussion about living together outside of marriage with a couple that is already cohabiting.”

In an informational pamphlet entitled “What about living together without marriage?” The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has this to say: “Simply stated, a couple that lives together as man and wife without being married is sinning.” Most statements from church offices express similar ideas, all revolving around the conviction that pre-marital sex is a sin.

But cohabitation is not all about sex, says Rev. John Manz, a counselor at Lu-theran Social Service in Minneapolis. This is “not a simple question that lends itself to a simple answer,” he says. While he admits that, “love needs structure to hold it together,” he claims that “Jesus had a lot more to worry about than whether pants are zipped up or not.”

The more one looks into it, the more complex the question of cohabitation becomes. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a male and a female to be roommates without romantic involvement. This begs the question of how anyone, including the church, defines cohabitation.

In a culture where the drawstrings of marriage are loosening, the church, feeling the relentless pull of both cultural relevancy and traditional values, looks for ways to respond.

Some, like Manz, see the institution of marriage as a cultural product, and not as a spiritual mandate. Like clothing styles that may at one time have been shocking to the church but have since been accepted, cohabitation may not be far from becoming a normal part of anyone’s life — Christians included. Manz does not dismiss the notion that, “maybe there is something good and healthy about [cohabitation].”

Others, however, see marriage as a lasting biblical, as well as cultural, institution that should not lose its privileged status. “The accepted norm these days is to wait until the 30s to settle down,” says Griebel. “This is unrealistic. Years of experimenting while a person is in their 20s is not healthy.”

Some couples may claim they’re not ready for a marriage commitment as early as their parents were, with school and careers taking the priority of those in their 20s. Griebel responds, “As soon as young people are ready to start thinking about their careers they should start thinking about their families. They should explore what family life is like with those who already have families, think about what they would like in a spouse and get lots of input from their parents and others who know them well. All the factors that go into a healthy marriage should be thoroughly explored before living together even becomes an option. Then young people will not feel like they have to live together before they are married to know what they are getting into.”

But what about the benefits of getting to know a potential spouse by sharing living space before the big plunge? Jahred Stephens, 22, and his fiancée Jen Hecht, 24, have lived together for over two years. They now share a residence in St. Paul and are planning to be married at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. “I feel as though our time together has better helped prepare [us] for what our lives will be like after being married,” says Jahred. Jen adds, “Many of our friends didn’t live together before they got married and I see their first year of marriage being what we have already been through. Cohabiting has gradually got[ten] us used to each other, knowing when we need our time alone and when it’s okay to problem-solve together!”

But the couple is aware of a lingering stigma regarding cohabitation.

“When we first started living together I did feel as though we were doing something wrong,” says Jahred. “However, as we spent more time together I knew that it was the right decision.” Jen claims, however, that the Lutheran Church is very understanding of their decision. “I believe the Lutheran Church is accepting of whatever walk of life you come from. If I felt that I wasn’t accepted in the church, I would look for another outlet of faith.”

Other couples have found that not living together has strengthened their relationship. Because of military service and schooling, Becca Middeke, 25, and Robert Conlin, 24, have been apart for almost 4 years of their 4-year relationship. Yet they claim that distance makes their communication more effective.

“We know how to talk and understand each other far better than if we had lived in the same city or even the same building together,” says Robert, who recently graduated from the Univer-sity of Minnesota. Becca, who attends Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and who was interviewed separately, agrees. “Knowing that we can discuss challenging items without actually being there with each other,” she says, “I think has allowed us to know how to approach such situations in person much more effectively.”
So what advice does a non-cohabiting couple have for those who may be considering living together before the “I do’s”?
“Living together before marriage is a commitment that is not to be taken lightly, but I cannot tell someone else what is right for them,” says Becca. “I would personally suggest not living with a girlfriend/boyfriend unless there has been some deeper commitment to the future.”

With an accelerating divorce rate, marriage no longer offers the promise of commitment and security to today’s young adults that it once did for their parents. It falls upon the individual and the couple to decide what their commitment level is and whether it warrants living together. Becca’s fiancé, Bob, agrees. “I would say that it depends on the couple and the circumstances.”

Even with the cultural changes that impact our view of marriage, one thing remains the same: it must always be more than either the church or state can dictate.
“A piece of paper is not what makes a marriage,” Jen Hecht declares. “A marriage is made while running for an ice cream craving in the middle of the night or realizing that your spouse may not be the best spouse but is someone who is special and has meaning to you.”

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Richmann, a freelance writ-er, is a student at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.