Marriage in America is changing into a two-stage process, and whether we like it or not the church will have to react or respond to this significant social change. The engagement of Prince Edward and Kate Middleton only highlighted the change that a Pew research study presented in a quieter way: Marriage is becoming a two-stage process. 1) Betrothal: including falling in love, moving in together, then when surety arrives that “this is the one” (and the couple wants to have children) they move to stage two; 2) Full legal marriage: celebrated by a public wedding, a legal contract recorded with the state, full legal rights, legal co-ownership, and often children.
Generally Christians have been opposed to living together before marriage because they have seen it as the last stage of dating and not as the first stage of marriage. It is not uncommon for evangelical pastors to insist that a betrothed couple split up and one move out while in pre-marital counseling. We generally do not consider “living together” as real marriage—we see it as “shacking up.” What of moving in were considered the marriage in God’s sight?
Betrothal stage might be thought of as marriage without the legal bindings that cause divorces to be so messy. Evangelicals railed against divorce in the 1960s and 1970s and in a curious way we won—the divorce rate has plummeted since the 1970s. So has the marriage rate. Younger generations are so fearful of divorce that they have invented the betrothal stage of marriage as a hedge against it. They (wrongly) believe that living together will help them be sure “this is the right one.” Whether right or wrong about it, they so fear the legal mess of divorce that they have decided to have the non-legal and non-children advantages of marriage without the legal problems associated with divorce.
Modern betrothal is a lot like marriage. There is the day when they “pop the question” and decide together to move in together. The moving is sometimes a public ceremony with friends and family pitching in to help. The couple keeps house together, shares the work and burden, cooperates financially, and curiously expects absolute sexual fidelity—cheating is considered absolutely wrong as if they have a total claim on fidelity. This sounds a lot like marriage. Modern betrothal has most of the expectations of marriage without the legal elements: inheritance rights, common ownership, hospital rights and visitation rights to the children. But there usually are no children in this stage. Once the couple decides to have children they go on to the second stage: full legal marriage.
This emerging two-stage model of marriage is not a fad. I think it is a cultural shift. It may be rare in the church, but I think it is less rare than most think. So we ought to think about this cultural trend. We may have beaten divorce back since the 1970s, but we now have a new thing on our hands—two stage marriage. What will we do with modern betrothal?
So here’s what I’m asking: Is modern betrothal the “real” marriage? If a couple decides to live together, have sexual intercourse, demands absolute fidelity expecting their partner to “forsake all others,” have they already crossed the line into marriage in God’s sight? Is there such a thing as marriage in God’s sight that is not marriage in the state’s sight? Can there be marriage without the state issuing a license and establishing a legal contract only lawyers and courtrooms can dissolve? I wonder how evangelicals will respond to two-stage marriage. Will we reject modern betrothal as merely sexual shacking up, expecting repentance from all couples living together? Or will we compromise and “look the other way” like we now do with the divorced parents of the kids living together? Will some churches and pastors establish some sort of new marriage-in-God’s-sight ritual that binds a couple in betrothal yet doesn’t tie the legal knot for the state and the lawyers?
The Christian church was slow to get into the marriage business. Marriages were matters left to families and fathers, not the church. It took a thousand years for weddings to move inside the church and for the church to finally become legal agents of the state. I wonder if in the coming years churches will figure out a new way of sanctifying the betrothal stage of marriage as a marriage-in-God’s-sight? What are the dangers if they do? What do you think?
(copyright 2011, Keith Drury, www.drurywriting.com/keith)
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.