This is a question I am getting more and more because of the increase of pastors facing this situation in their churches. This is especially common among the elderly who meet someone, desire to get married and share their life with this person, but may lose benefits and financial compensation from their first marriage or the government if they remarry. As a result, many couples are choosing to share their life together, live together, declare they are married before God, but are bypassing the state’s recognition of their marriage to keep their benefits.
This becomes a very difficult, highly sensitive situation for pastors dealing with Christian widows and widowers in their churches who are tempted to do the same. How is a pastor wisely to shepherd his people in a biblical way without coming across cold or insensitive to their elderly member’s circumstances?
1) Beware of the temptation to justify cohabitation without being married? Playing married with all the benefits of marriage without actually being married, regardless who you are or your situation is sinful. There is a reason Scripture lists not just adulterers, but also fornicators as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9). It is not right to dress up immorality for the purpose of financial benefit for the elderly any more than allowing two sixteen year old teenagers to live together and be sexually active just because they say they are in love, but are too young to get married. Beware of the temptation to justify. It is a slippery slope.
2) Remind them of the hypocrisy of disregarding the state. There may be some who read this blog who would defend marriage as only before God and the state’s recognition is unnecessary. I do not wish to enter that debate at all (please do not enter it here). What I would highlight in this particular situation is the hypocrisy of claiming to be married before God without need for the government’s recognition for the purpose of keeping what is often times government health and financial benefits. Hypocrisy is deceiving. Watch for it.
3) Hold before them a high, biblical view of marriage. The best way to convince Christians (old and young) to be faithful in the face of compromise in regard to marriage is to remind them that marriage is a display of the gospel to a watching world (1 Pet. 3:1-7, Eph. 5:22-33). Wanting to have our cake and eat it too is not worth damaging our credible profession of faith and defaming the name of Christ and should move all Christians to conduct themselves in a manner that is above reproach, regardless the issue.
4) Challenge your church to get involved. The burden of care should not be placed upon these elderly widows to carry alone. If there are two church members who have found each other after losing spouses and want to marry, but there is question whether they can financially survive without their benefits, pastors, get involved. Get your church involved. Get your church members who are lawyers, accountants, and government employees involved. Help them look at all the options they have. Consider whether your church should help with some provision if they would marry and lose more than they can to survive. Marriage is a good and glorious thing and should be encouraged between two Christians who desire to glorify Christ as they love and share the remainder of their life with the other.
Pastors, although this issue is biblically cut and dry, it also remains a sensitive topic. Gently shepherd your people through it. Be understanding to the unique situations of those involved. But, do not lose sight of what God has clearly outlined for us in his word about marriage. Remind old and young who are tempted to compromise in these areas the joy Christ promises when we abide in Him and walk in obedience (John 15:10-11).