Navigating the currents of ethical judgment

May 22, 2013 | Viewpoints
Melissa Miller |

I cohabited with my husband before we got married. Not in the current form of lovers sharing a home together as a preamble—or alternative—to marriage. Our cohabitation involved sharing a residence, but not a bedroom, with a dozen others. At the time, we were exploring communal living and were influenced by Acts 2:44 and by our Anabaptist cousins in the Bruderhof.

Looking back now, I can’t imagine that our parents or grandparents were happy with our arrangement. In their worldview, decent Christian people avoided the appearance of sexual impropriety. Living together, even in a kind of semi-family household, certainly toyed with the boundary they had been taught and passed on to us. Still, they were gracious as we found and tested our wings as young adults, supporting our relationship and happily doing their part when we married.

Since I wrote a column on cohabitation a year ago, I’ve continued to engage others in conversation. I’ve listened to people who are cohabiting now, and people who cohabited decades ago. I see parallels between my experience of trying out a new form of living together and that of those who cohabit. As young adults do, I stepped away from my elders’ teachings, metaphorically throwing myself off a cliff to test my capacity to navigate the currents of ethical judgment.

Questions marked my flight. How will my life be different from my parents? What from previous generations fits into today? What will I claim and what will I reject? I see the same kinds of exploring and questioning today.

I believe that the individualism of my time led naturally to the choices of today. I didn’t ask my parents’ permission, nor did I discuss it with my fluid church community. If I’d been called to defend my actions, I likely would have replied from an individualistic perspective that my fiancé and I were responsibly choosing arrangements fitting for us. Ironically, this response was made when I was exploring models of Christian community that call for the community to have quite a bit to say about one’s ethical choices.

Many people today do not feel bound by community traditions. They are exploring new ways of forming commitments, of attaching and bonding. This dramatic shift away from marriage towards cohabitation is startling and destabilizing.

I am not convinced that the choice to cohabit is a wise one, or that it will serve the partners well in the long-run. I think that living together without the exchange of committed vows made before God and witnesses weakens a couple’s relationship, and makes it more difficult to build an enduring, sturdy union.

At the same time, I acknowledge that my generation has made quite a mess of marriage. Many of us have been unable to keep our marriage promises, or we live in relationships that fall short of abundant, fruitful life in Christ. While I continue to believe that the deepest sexual intimacies are reserved for marriage, it is also difficult to find substantial biblical teaching to support that. Biblical marriages, with their patriarchy, polygamy and concubines, have little in common with the marriages I’ve witnessed. Further study has led me to conclude that the Bible has much more to say about poverty, wealth and justice than it does about sexual ethics.

Let’s remember that the job of the elders is to set the boundaries, to lay down markers to guide the young. It’s the task of the young to question and test those same boundaries. May God be with us as we set markers and as we explore the lines beyond the markers.

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg. She is wrapped in the family ties of daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend and pastor.

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