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From common law to in-law

A pastor’s insight on marriage and weddings

Your daughter, Mandy, a third-year student at a nearby university, tells you she is coming home for Thanksgiving weekend with her boyfriend. They have been together for six months, and though you have heard lots about him you haven’t met yet. So Mom prepares Mandy’s room and puts clean sheets on the bed in the guest room. But whoops, when they get there Mandy, red-faced, tells Mom they will only need one room. “We usually sleep together and we don’t want to be hypocritical about it here. Mom, times have changed.”

How did that happen to this fine daughter and how are parents supposed to handle this? Their youth have reversed the biblical order of Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and they will be one flesh.” Pastors, church leaders and parents struggle with couples who move in together in common law relationships that “test drive” living together. Today’s culture encourages them to check out how compatible they are in the kitchen, in shopping and in the bedroom. But the apostle Paul says something about sharing the bedroom. In I Corinthians 7:8-9 he writes “It is good to stay unmarried as I am, but if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” We may not exactly like Paul’s reason for marrying, but there is little debate as to what he means. The sex drive is powerful.

So what do we say to the couple who has been living together and now decide they want to get married? When I ask a couple how they decided to move in together, I hear responses like, “It just happened. Once we started sleeping together we realized it made little sense to maintain two places. The reduced rent saves money for our wedding.” It was a practical, financial decision. Now they are ready for marriage and they want a nice wedding with all the bells and whistles in a church. So if I just marry the couple will everything be fine? At times I succumbed to that temptation; later I felt I had dishonoured God. What does God now want us to do? What is godly integrity? Some family members suggest a quiet (private?) wedding. We face a variety of possibilities. How do we move from common law living to family in-law living with biblical integrity?

I have learned to address the elephant in the room, whether dealing with a couple raised in the congregation or those who just think the church would be a nice place for their wedding. I usually tell them I’d love to “do” their service, but ask for two to three sessions to discuss what the Bible means when God “blesses a wedding.” At some point I’ll ask, “Have you shared your sexual history with each other?” In most instances I see blushing, quick glances and the kind of look that says “shall we be honest or lie?” Few couples have talked openly about this and certainly not with a third party present. I also know that many couples wanting to get married carry guilt regarding stuff from their past. It may be from a previous romantic experience or it may be related to the fact that they have gone “too far” with each other and have an unspoken agreement not to talk about it.

This is a good time to talk about the Bible’s teaching about sex to off-set some of the blatant, secular lies vividly portrayed in movies, magazines and books. God intends sex within the boundaries of two key principles: it is exclusive for husband and wife, and permanent until death do them part. With God and in the presence of family and friends they are vowing loyalty and faithfulness to each other. Likewise God commits himself by promising us, no matter what, “You can’t stop me from loving you!” His unshakeable commitment to us is our basis and model for a godly marriage. It is intended to be sealed (“consummated” is a good word!) with sexual intercourse as an expression of total love and deep unity. Each partner unconditionally gives the self – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to the other.

They join in an intimacy that is as close as any two human beings can be. In that almost perfect spirit of trust, love, vulnerability and safety a new life can be conceived. As with creation, the Spirit moves and stirs up that new life. Could any child have a better start than that?

Essential openness
In spite of this rather well-known Biblical teaching, not all come to the wedding as virgins; in fact, maybe few do. Many have had romantic relationships which included bedroom experiences known – or maybe still unknown – to the present partner. Others with longer courtships or engagements may have given up resisting powerful temptations. Whatever! In any case for many Christians, sex outside of marriage is an elephant in the room. Openness with each other is essential. I find this is a good time as pastor to help them face and deal with the guilt so they start a clean marriage. Guilt is like luggage; unless it is dealt with we drag it around. It follows us wherever we go, even into the bedroom! Luggage in the marriage bed during times of intimacy does not seem like fun to me!

Can a “wrong” start change to a guilt-free, God-honouring marriage? Yes, absolutely! The Christian wedding can portray the gospel at its best! As I talk with the couple about this, many acknowledge a desire for a clean start. (I have learned many married couples need and want the same.) I invite them to join me in prayer and as I lead them through some statements, which they repeat if they agree. I go through specific confessions acknowledging before God that they have hurt and offended God and themselves by ignoring his will in this important area. As they repeat my words they often begin to weep. When that happens I rejoice; these are tears of confession and repentance. I take on a priestly role and as I hold their hands or lay my hands on their heads, I declare that in the name of Jesus their sins are forgiven and blotted out. They are now clean “virgins” before God, each other and everyone else. I look straight into their eyes and urge them to go and sin no more. Through tears I see smiles. Ah, fresh air for the soul.

If they are living together they often ask, “Should we now separate?” My response is, “Do whatever it takes to protect your new gifts of virginity. If that means living in two different places, do that.” That may well be a challenge if younger children are involved. I urge them to figure it out; God will lead them. I assure them it is possible to refrain from sex for some time though it may be hard. The Apostle Paul says with “mutual consent” . . . for a period of time . . .  but not too long!” (I Cor. 7:8). Satan will tempt, as do our bodies. They might well revise their wedding timeline or plan a smaller wedding. With God’s help they can go forward with godly integrity.

Some years ago I urged a young couple in a common law relationship facing some four months of abstinence to be diligent about this. He could not move out due to three small children and limited finances. He stayed in the same house, but moved into another room.

I was skeptical so I asked, “How can I be of help?”

His response: “Just ask once in a while how I am doing. I’ll know what you are really asking.”

I agreed. Some weeks later when I saw him after a worship service, I approached him and casually asked, “Martin [not his real name], how are you doing?”

Without hesitation: “Fine, lots of cold showers.” We both smiled.

What an amazing God! He provides cold water to stay clean and close to him. That’s grace! 

Read Part One:
The road to forgiveness


  • Rev. Henry Wildeboer served as a pastor in three CRC churches. Now retired, he mentors young pastors and leaders. He’s also the author of When God Shows Up: A Pastor’s Journey. This is part one of a three-part series on rich, fresh grace.

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