There was an interesting link to an article from another blog that I read, which was talking about the now common phenomenon of couple cohabitation. While I frequently do not agree with what I read which comes out of the Southern Baptist Convention, the article does bring up an interesting point. I started to write a comment on the blog that linked to this link, and I think I will continue it here because it really is too long a post for a blog comment.
As an engaged person to be married in the next few months, I think I can speak to this issue with some relevance. I was always brought up in a family (and largely a local community) which still openly frown (to put it politely) on cohabitation. I think that has always formed my opinion on the matter. In small towns in the South, that is just the way it is, on the surface at least.
I still believe that, but sometimes I wonder if I was brought up as an anachronism. That is certainly not the belief or understanding of the culture at large. Even when I was in seminary, that was largely not the understanding from most of my classmates (many of whom were my age or younger). Many a lampooning joke was made about so-and-so “living in sin” but the majority view was that this was fine. In fact, a direct quote from a good friend of mine who was quite serious when he said it, "Who doesn't live together before marriage?"
As far as I could understand it, the doctrinal basis for this belief was something akin to either “Well, if they are in love then it must be okay...” or “We have to be relevant to culture, and that’s just the way it is so we have to tolerate it because we don’t want to be judgmental.” The first logic (or lack thereof) irritated me to no end, especially coming from the next batch of clergy. Of course, I have never bought this mantra that as long as love is involved, then it must be from God because God is love (as if Love is God's only attribute, therefore making the two perfect and undifferentiated synonyms).
The second option I found a little more palatable as it was at least trying to make church teaching quasi-applicable to post-Beaver Cleaver society. I will acknowledge that perhaps the ethical and moral condition of an engaged couple’s cohabitation is higher than two people “shacking up” with no real intention of being permanent. But I was still somewhat heartbroken over the lack of respect for the sacrament of marriage. If people can just live together and “it’s OK” then exactly what purpose is there of marriage (does it make it somehow magically more OK?) other than civic benefits like joint filing of taxes.
I do not find either argument theologically sustainable. Frankly, I find it as yet another example of church teaching selling out to the culture if rampant individualism. I say this because I think the idea that marriage is a community event and also a blending of family communities into one. Many studies have shown that couples who cohabit before marriage have a higher risk of divorce. I believe this is the case because the cohabitation thing is lacking in both communal elements that form the solid basic of a marriage. It is the short term joining of "I"s not the blending into a "We." In short, cohabitation as the foundation for marriage is "all about me(s)" and not about the community.
I remember a discussion in a seminary class around the topic of which is the better metaphor for the church: family or community. Everyone in the class, except myself (as usual), was adamant that it was community because so many people come from broken families and therefore to say the "church is family" steps them off on the wrong foot because they have a warped view of family. I was not then, nor am I now, convinced that most Americans under 40 have any frame of reference for what "community" is, so therefore family is the more operative metaphor. At least a frame of reference, no matter how distorted or broken, is better than an esoteric concept that no one really can relate to.
I think this pays out in relationship ethics as well. Couples cohabiting seem to be "testing the waters" so to speak as to whether a subsequent marriage would work. They are not willing to take the step towards marriage which creates family, so they fall back into cohabitation which would seem to have some sort of project of trying to create or see if a community could be established. Without a frame of reference as to what a "community" is, the foundation is flawed and community is never established. Without the foundation of the outside communities nor a true establishment of internal community due to lack of reference, I can see why marriages that began on cohabitation have a higher tendency for divorce because they was never undergirded by any sense of permanence. Thus, the cult of "it's all about me" takes over as soon as rough waters hit. If the first, lasting impression of the "permanent" relationship is that it is temporary and subject to repudiation by either party, then a subsequent marriage will be permanently haunted by the spectre of transitory impermanence. This would seem to be especially the case if the church has fostered the impression that cohabitation was morally and ethically okay to begin with.
I have no idea if that is coherent. I could go on at some length about this, but I will stop.