General Synod Statements: Marriage and Cohabitation

The Reformed Church in America believes it is important to strike a balance between accepting people as they are and encouraging them to live by Christian standards of fidelity, forgiveness, and growth. We are committed to encourage the holding together of what God has joined—love, permanent commitment, and the sexual expression of unity. (MGS 1975: 170-171)

The 1986 General Synod adopted a position regarding couples who are cohabitating:

Persons who have been living together while unmarried have violated our perceptions of the rules of chastity which are required by the Church of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, some of the violations have become acceptable within the current mores of some of our communities and churches.

Particularly difficult is our response to the couple which comes seeking a church wedding after a significantly long period of known cohabitation without ecclesiastical blessing or legal sanction. Practical wisdom says, “When that time comes, let us praise the Lord and get on with the arrangements.” This response is legitimate, if (a) the couple is seeking the blessing of God on their common law marriage, and (b) the couple realizes that the integrity of their relationship requires that it be redirected in the light of the Gospel and celebrated by the community of faith.

The elders and minister(s) of the church must not take lightly any infraction of any code of behavior which the church accepts and promotes. But this community of forgiven sinners knows that broader than the code is the grace that forgives and restores the penitent. Let the church be a reconciled community. (MGS 1986: 322)

The 1989 General Synod offered further clarification on the issue of cohabitating couples seeking a church wedding:

In biblical perspective the essential thing is not the ceremony, but the covenant between the man and woman to live together in “holy wedlock,” i.e., with and before God as Scripture understands and describes that relationship.

Therefore, after consultation with a couple living together who enjoy a private relationship with the commitment and intent for permanence which is at the heart of Christian marriage, a Christian minister appropriately performs a public wedding ceremony which witnesses to and affirms their marriage. If, after consultation with the couple it is not clear whether their private relationship is accompanied by a Christian understanding of the nature of marriage, then they should be encouraged to turn toward a covenant way of living together in keeping with the teachings of Scripture. It would not be responsible to approve of performing a Christian wedding ceremony for them until it was clear that they were ready to enter into marriage with the covenant fidelity which it demands. In some situations pastoral help in repentance is appropriate. When parents or other family members have been hurt, the couple should be encouraged to pursue reconciliation prior to the ceremony. (MGS 1989: 342)