To answer this question properly, it should be turned back in the direction of the couple. “Why would a couple that is living together out of wedlock want to be married in the church?” Or perhaps not even “in the church” is the whole question. Even if it’s held outdoors, but conducted by the pastor or including God’s Word in some way, “why would they want God involved?” The outcome of the conversation between the pastor and a couple regarding these questions varies widely from couple to couple. And so, the possibility of the pastor and church’s involvement in a public marriage ceremony also varies from situation to situation.
First of all, why is living together outside of marriage wrong? Because it violates Scripture and God’s stated will for marriage. Modern society, government, friends and even family may often condone or at least overlook the breaking of the will of God for marriage. But God’s believing people would never want to do that, would they? We fall into sin in all kinds of ways, true enough. But to willfully and publicly make a statement that declares: “We know what God’s Word says, but we are going to reject that in our lives and we don’t care who sees it or knows it” is a statement that’s incompatible with Christian faith. All kinds of excuses and rationale can be put forward as a reason for this sin. But sin is sin, and Christians want to penitently turn from it, not wholeheartedly embrace it.
Consider these words of God: “Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Hebrews 13) … “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity.” (Ephesians 5) Many more such passages could be added. Open the Catechism to the 6th Commandment, and you’ll find them. To be sure, Christians fall into sins against the 6th Commandment all the time. And repentantly looking for God’s forgiveness, they know they have it. Making the public decision to persistently and openly defy God’s will is a different story, however. That’s what makes living together outside of marriage such a danger for the souls who are caught up in it. It causes a dangerous tension between faith and life that can’t go on forever. Sooner or later either faith or lifestyle wins out – hopefully faith!
Remember the account of the woman caught in adultery, who penitently stands before Jesus after no one – knowing that they too were sinners – was willing to cast the first stone? Jesus says to her: “Then neither do I condemn you … Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8)
Back to the question for the couple who is living together: “Why would they want to get married in the church?” For some, it is a realization that what they are doing is against God’s will, and with penitent hearts they want God’s forgiveness and God’s blessings and they want to “go now and leave their life of sin”. They want to seize the teachable moment for their friends and family and future children and take their current bad example and turn it into a good example. They want the Word of God to be involved. They want the Lord to be the daily foundation and pattern of their love for each other, not an on-call visitor from time to time in their marriage whenever they feel they need him.
Would the pastor and church be glad to help such couples walk down that God-pleasing path by conducting their marriage ceremony? Of course! Often there are some steps to be taken to minimize any mixed messages or cause for misunderstanding in the eyes of others, so that no one might mistakenly think that the church is putting its stamp of approval on sinful lifestyles. Christians are always concerned about the witness they give. Perhaps a couple separates until marriage, or perhaps they move up their wedding date so as to avoid any mixed message or stumbling block to the faith of others. All of this varies from situation to situation, and these are always real concerns and serious conversations between pastors and couples. But, of course, for penitent couples wanting to do right before the Lord and before their loved ones, the pastors and church are glad to help, as God promises his blessing on that path!
Perhaps there are situations in which the pastors are kept in the dark. They might be the last to know what everyone else knows, and they unwittingly carry out a public ceremony for those who without repentance are living together. That’s between the couple and the Lord.
Sadly, there are times when couples are defiant and impenitent when it comes to God’s will, yet they want a church ceremony because that’s always been their childhood dream, or it’s the desire of parents or grandparents, or they assume because they were raised in a particular church they have a right to demand a church wedding. In such cases, the question of “why do they want God involved?” is much harder for them to answer. And in such cases, the pastors might have to say “God doesn’t want to be involved in condoning or even in the appearance of condoning sin” and a church wedding is denied.
So, the answer to the questioner’s original question is: “maybe, or maybe not.”
There is one more point to stress, however. Many a Christian makes many a mistake. In fact, we all do. And many a Christian has made mistakes in this area too, and previously walked the dangerous fine line in trifling with God’s will and God’s grace. But then they look back on the past and say, “We didn’t do it right back then. God forgive us!” If there’s anyone reading this who is in that category, take heart! No matter where our sins and misdeeds lie in the past, to every repentant sinner Jesus says, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9) Go forward in peace and trust God for his blessings on your marriage! And to anyone reading who is currently in the midst of this sin, don’t be on the wrong side of the Lord! Repent, and turn to the Savior for forgiveness. And then, you too, go forward in peace with a life that honors the Lord. It’s only in Christ and his grace that any of us have the promise of blessing. And that’s exactly what we have!
Blessings in Christ,