Since seminary I’ve been researching the history of the marriage liturgy and Christian approaches to marriage (I’ve written two essays here: Love That Has Ends Will Have an End & History of the Marriage Liturgy), especially the ways in which Christians have dealt with existing relational patterns and have either baptized them or critiqued them. Many people fail to realize that much of the structure of marriage promoted for so long by the Church was not a means for the social control of women–far from it–it was a means of protecting women and providing protections for them in societies where they had little to no recourse (the double consent formula of “I will” and “I do” in the marriage rite of the Book of Common Prayer is just one example of this, as is the prohibition against clandestine marriage).
One thing is quite obvious: in our society there is no way that Christians can avoid the question of cohabitation. I attempt to approach the topic as a missionary would. The difficulty, however, is the number of people who would self-identify as Christian, yet still cohabitate with no clear expectation or plan for marriage. The consequences of this way of organizing family life are far reaching. Marriage is indeed, much more than a “piece of paper.”
To the article below, i would simply add the observation that the Church did indeed recognize some concubinage as equivalent to marriage–namely those relationships that were committed and monogamous and blessed by by the Church but, because of the difference in social status of the partners, could not be contracted as a legal marriage. This allowance, it should be noted, was one which encouraged commitment and recognized the sacramental nature of the unions in a manner that called into question the legal limitations imposed upon them by the Roman state.
The piece from Salvo below discusses many of the problems with the current trend toward cohabitation. It is but one example of the ways our society encourages transitory and unstable relationships.
In ancient times, there was an option for a man who desired a regular sex partner but did not wish to marry her. He could take a low-status woman as a concubine. He could enjoy her company as long as it pleased him, and he could dismiss her at any time. The man made no promises and signed no contract; consequently, the concubine had few legal protections. Any children that she bore would have an inferior legal status.
The early Church fought long and hard against concubinage. It insisted that such a sexual relationship, without the permanent and total commitment expressed in marriage vows, was immoral and unjust. Over the course of a thousand years, concubinage retreated into the shadows of social disapproval.
In the past 40 years, it seems, concubinage has come to light again under a different name. Like ancient concubinage, contemporary cohabitation is a deliberately ambiguous relationship. The partners make no promises and have no legal obligations to one another. The arrangement has no specified duration and can be terminated at a moment’s notice. Those who cohabit tend to be of lower social status. Their children, on average, do not fare as well as children born to married couples.
Read it all via Salvo Magazine – Cohabitation by Alan F. H. Wisdom.