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Lutherans/Pastors doing Weddings for Co-habitating Couples

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Dear Pastor Peterson,

I'm an LCMS Lutheran and I've been an active layman for awhile now. For quite some time I've been considering going to seminary and studying for the ministry. That's another story though. One of the things that weighs on me a lot is how difficult that might be in today's world. I know we ultimately have to place ourselves in the Lord's hands though. But one issue that I keep turning over in my mind is what would I do if I were a pastor and a couple who was co-habitating wanted me to marry them and they refused to stop living together before the wedding. I ask because at the parishes I've been in the pastors usually will marry such couples. I've even seen examples of couples who live together planning their wedding 1 or 2 years in advance and the pastor knows they're living together the whole time and does the pre-marital counseling and still does the wedding for them even if they're living together all that time. I know that a lot of pastors probably look the other way because of the "wrath" he might face in refusing to do such weddings when it incolves families who have been at the parish a long time. But is this really right? Is it LCMS policy. From a Biblical perspective and from my conscience I would have to say that the right thing to do would be to bring up the fact that what they're doing is wrong, and if after a number of meetings they refuse to stop living together to tell them I can't do your wedding, or even communion since I know you're living in open sin.. I know that this would definitely be construed as unloving and draw a lot of criticism but I believe it's actually what orthodox Lutheran practice would demand is it not? Or is there some other argument for going ahead and blessing such marriages, and communing people who live together openly for a long time in the church? Could you speak to both of these issues: marrying unrepentant co-habitating couples, and communing them? And also should we allow men to serve as deacons who live with their girlfriend? Obviously from a biblical perspective no? But how do you handle such things in your ministry? I need some encouragement. I have a desire to become a pastor but I am not surrounded by those who can give me much hope in these matters!

Answer
Thanks for your question.  This is one of the more difficult questions that pastors who still hold to a Biblical morality must face.  I know at seminary it is one of the most frequently debated topics among fourth year students.

Notice how I said it is debated--meaning there is yet some diversity in the approaches they believe to be best.  I know pastors who refuse all marriages between cohabiting couples and demand separation before they will consider the wedding.  I have heard of others who do not even discuss the issue and proceed as if nothing was amiss.

Ultimately, this is an issue that doesn't have the same answer for every couple.  American Christians, have had the unfortunate habit of emphasizing sexual matters like homosexual behavior and cohabitation more heavily than the many other sins a person might also commit.  It seems a good exercise is to replace these in the scenario with a more socially-acceptable sin that a person might habitually commit, like gossip or greed, and see if the same response would seem appropriate.

Everybody who comes to us seeking to be married has sin.  Every couple even has sins which relate directly to their relationship with one another.  I would also assume that a good majority of couples who come to our congregations seeking marriage are habitually engaging in inappropriately premature intimacy, even though they do not share an address.  Since it is the premature physical relationship that is violating God's commands, and not their choice of living quarters, we would need to deal with them similarly.  

For myself, I deal with every couple individually.  I honestly discuss their circumstances with them.  I respect their desire to be married, which is the appropriate outlet for their desired relationship.  I evaluate their spiritual condition based on our conversation, and determine what course of action is the most beneficial (or perhaps the least harmful) for their particular circumstances.  In some cases, I perform the wedding.  In others, I do not.  In every case, I make clear that they ought to refrain from further sexual intimacy until their wedding (giving both spiritual and practical reasons for this).  How they accomplish this task, I leave to them.  One might move out.  They might use different bedrooms.  They may find other solutions.  I have heard reports back that couples do seek to change their behavior and don't merely put on an appearance to satisfy the pastor.  

I don't become the bedroom police.  Instead, I seek to emphasize repentance and forgiveness.  I seek to prepare them for marriage (if I accept the wedding) and help them overcome the statistical reality that their choice to become sexually intimate prior to marriage as done harm to their marriage before it begins, and that they have done themselves and one another spiritual harm by their choices.  

There definitely are wrong responses to this problem (as noted above), but really there is no right response.  Every response is unsatisfactory in the end, but that is the way of living in a sin-corrupted world.  We can only seek to use the means at our disposal (The Word, Absolution, the Lord's Supper, Prayer) to help those who desire to move their relationship from an inappropriate state to a God-pleasing state and to correct and admonish those who see no problem with their sin.  

I take a similar approach regarding communion.  The issue is not address, or even particular sins, but repentance.  Those who acknowledge their sin and desire forgiveness ought to be communed, because it offers precisely what they need.  If we demand people stop sinning, but fail to offer them the medicine which "strengthens and preserves them in the one true faith to live everlasting," how can we expect them to fight against their sin?  Matters, of course, are far different for those who deny their sin and therefore do not desire to be forgiven.  Other considerations are also in play regarding those in church leadership, who would typically need to step down at least temporarily until the issue can be thoroughly resolved.

This is such a big issue that it would take volumes to do justice to it, but I hope the response above at least helps to frame the issue or provide perspective from one "on the ground," so to speak.  If you would like clarification or further consideration of a particular point, please feel free to post a follow-up.

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Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Expertise

I welcome the opportunity to answer questions regarding the beliefs and practices Lutheran Christians, especially questions comparing Lutherans with other Christian denominations or questions which contrast between various kinds of Lutherans. I am especially familiar with the more conservative Lutheran denominations (LCMS, ELS, WELS, etc.). I also take a great interest in examining new Christian movements and popular trends in Christianity from a Lutheran perspective. In addition, I can answer most questions about the original Greek text of the New Testament and its meaning, as well as questions regarding liturgy, evangelism, and preaching. A special area of interest in my ministry is race track chaplaincy/ministry, and I would love to provide information and guidance for anyone interested in this area.

Experience

I have been a pastor in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod for the past six years at St. John's Lutheran Church in Burt, IA. I currently serve as chairman of the Commission on Ministerial Growth & Support of the Missouri Synod's Iowa District West and as Track Chaplain at Algona Raceway in Algona, IA. I also write as a religion columnist for two local newspapers.

Organizations
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Publications
Algona Upper Des Moines (newspaper) Bancroft Register (newspaper)

Education/Credentials
B.A. Concordia University - Ann Arbor, MI (Biblical Languages) M.Div. Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (Exegetical Theology, Pastoral Ministry & Missions)

Past/Present Clients
Zion Lutheran Church (Columbia City, IN) Zion Lutheran Church (Altamont, IL) St. John's Lutheran Church (Burt, IA) Zion Lutheran Church (Lu Verne, IA) Algona Raceway (IA) Fairmont Raceway (MN) Hancock County Speedway (Britt, IA) Clay County Fairgrounds Raceway (Spencer, IA)

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