What Pre-Marital Relationships are Considered Fornication and Why? Responses of Pastors

Pravmir.com team | 06 June 2020

Increasingly, we hear couples say, who are living together without legally registering their relationships and even more so without having a church wedding, “We have a common law marriage” (For some reason common law relationships are called “civil marriages” in Russian, even though there has been no civil ceremony and the “marriage” has never been registered in a court of law – translator’s note). And if such a couple is reproached for fornication, they will be very surprised and offended. “After all, we are married!!!” Parents turn a blind eye to such “marriages” and believe that this is “trying out family life,” teaching their children that because they now have experience they can now consider entering into a real marriage. Is this marriage or fornication? After all, we are used to considering fornication to be when there is a random change of sexual partners, but in this case the couple live together for years. Is it really possible to consider such “marriages” as lawful marriages? In general, what is a “common law marriage,” and how does the Church regard such a marriage? Why does the Church unequivocally condemn such cohabitation as fornication and in what way is this considered to be sinful and dangerous?

Fornication is not marriage, but the opposite of marriage

Igumen Luke (Stepanov):
“Fornication is not a preparation for marriage, but its opposite”, determined the luminary St. John Chrysostom. What is good and what is bad in this world is not explained by man, but is established and revealed to us by God. Grave sins can seem attractive only if one does not yet acknowledge that we are free-sentient creatures made by God who exist under the moral law established by our Creator. From this it clearly follows that there are two physical states for those who are aspiring to inherit Eternal Life: innocence-chastity-widowhood or the married conjugal state. Discussions about this with our contemporaries are inevitable, but every position which opposes the revealed moral teaching of God will be an attempt to screen one’s “right to debauchery.”

Archpriest Oleg Stenyaev:
We call the relationship between a man and a woman the sin of fornication, if for some reason such relationships are entered into by the faithful without the proper church formalities. But! If at the moment of entering into such relationships both partners were non-believers, but later one partner becomes a believer and the other partner does not, then the relationship remains, but in a slightly different way. We read: “To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him” (I Cor 7:12-13). It is completely obvious that in the given union with a non-believer there can be no talk of a church wedding. At the same time, in this quote from the epistle of the Apostle Paul, the man and woman are referred to as “husband” and “wife”!

In the event that the second marital partner becomes a believer, they can formalize their church relationship according to church rules. We read: “Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior” (I Pet 3:1-2). It turns out that such a relationship is not a challenge to the purity and God fearing life of the one who is a believer.

Not keeping the laws established by God leads to serious consequences

Archpriest Paul Gumerov:
The Church defines as the sin of fornication pre-marital physical relationships (cohabitation). Why? Firstly, in order to answer this question, let us define sin. Sin — this is the breaking of the law given by God. The Lord — the Universal Creator, is the Creator of the laws of physics, the laws of chemistry, and the Creator of spiritual laws as well. We know that we can never break the laws of physics. You can believe or not believe in them. You can study these laws and know them, and you can also not know them, but all the same they will govern what takes place and affect you. For example, the law of Archimedes. If you take a tub filled to the edge with water and sit in this tub, you will displace water on the floor, and you will have to wipe up this water with a towel so that it will not leak to your neighbors. Believe or don’t believe in the law of Archimedes but it objectively happens. Or, for example, the law of gravity. If you break this law, if you don’t take into account gravity, if you exit through a third floor window you will fall down and break your bones — that’s the best scenario, but in the worst case — you will smash yourself to death. In this example the result of your ignorance and lack of faith would be tragic.

The laws of the spiritual world “work” the same way. They are expounded in Holy Scripture. What are the laws about the family? Don’t be unfaithful to your family, do not commit adultery. And also — honor your father and your mother. But if you break these laws, without fail it is guaranteed 100 percent that you will pay for your mistakes.

In Holy Scripture the sin of fornication is repeatedly condemned. The Apostle Paul says: fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of God if you don’t repent and you don’t change your way of life. It also says that the man who fornicates becomes one body with the prostitute, that is to say, taking part in this sin defiles your body. Why is this sin so serious, that it is called one of the mortal sins? The fact is that intimate relationships between a man and a woman are permitted and blessed by God in only one case: when they take place in a lawful — I emphasize! — marriage. Why do these relationships exist? Primarily in order to have children. Secondly, as an expression of love — in order for the husband and wife to unite as one, spiritually and physically. This reciprocal bodily attraction helps the couple to cope with the problems which arise in family life. But all this takes place only in a lawful marital union. All other “unions”— are only for sinful pleasure.

Pre-marital cohabitation does not lead to the birth of children, because couples flee from having children within these types of relationships as if fleeing from the plague. This results in a woman becoming barren, because she has had several abortions and has ingested the strongest contraceptives for several years. Women flee from pregnancy within these types of relationships because they understand very well: the child will be illegitimate, and in case there are some dramatic changes in the relationship or if the “father” rejects the child, try to prove paternity.

I would like to offer only one example (there are many) in order to illustrate how the sin of fornication does not permit someone to later have a family and destroys one’s life. One of my acquaintances was very proud because he didn’t take drugs, smoke or drink, but he had one serious vice: he was very addicted to making love, so with one girl he was in “love,” then with another, then with a third. And so, from one of his cohabitations he decided to have a lawful marriage: his wife became pregnant. But after a while this woman got rid of him — she didn’t need “strong bonds”. Now this man suffers much, because his former wife won’t allow him to see the child and he cannot create a normal family. Why? Because a man does not change miraculously by entering into marriage. If he is accustomed to fornicating, by not denying himself anything, he will have an affect on his wife. All these previous connections have a very serious effect. Why does the Apostle Paul say that he who fornicates becomes one body with the prostitute? Because this sinful connection will always remain with him, it will be difficult for him to remain faithful if there has formerly been a negative experience — the experience of unfaithfulness. It is not without reason that the Church speaks about the sin of fornication!

The pre-marital period is given to the person as a period of chastity. That is why the bride to be is called “nevesta” in Russian [невеста], because it means “not knowing (having experience) with a man. People must find their happiness in a lawful (according to God’s law, translator’s note) family.

Why else is pre-marital cohabitation considered a serious sin? In the first place, because such relationships are extremely irresponsible. Entering into such relationships, people don’t think about the consequences of these relationships. This is like someone, not having the right, not having documents for a car, takes an automobile and drives it, breaking the rules, in doing this he knows that it is impossible to catch him, and if, for example, he has an accident, he will just abandon the car and run away. It is the same with pre-marital cohabitation, although, it seems to me, the consequences here are much graver. Yes, here the irresponsible flight goes unpunished, but in my opinion, it is no less a crime than to have an accident, even if as a result another person was injured. To abandon a faithful woman who has given birth to your baby, to reject your baby — is a greater crime. Someone will say that with married couples husbands also leave and abandon their wives and children. However, in a marriage this occurs much less frequently, and a man will think a hundred times before deliberately destroying his family. Yes, it is true that in a marriage the law is on the side of the woman with a baby. According to the court a negligent father can be brought to have great responsibility. I repeat, cohabitation is very irresponsible. Its consequences, including spiritual ones, are very destructive.

Intimate relationships without marriage — this is always mistrust of one another

Priest Valery Duhanin:
Fornication — this is not only a disorderly union in which one finds oneself, but the allowance of intimate relations before legal marriage. This is the same as coming to some kind of a dinner, and beginning to eat, not waiting for the other guests to arrive, led only by the fact that you are hungry. This is a temporary tasting ahead of time of that which is permitted only at the proper time and in the proper place. However, it is hard enough to explain this if people are used to living this way.

Ordinarily in the world similar relationships are called “common law marriage.” Young people, in some sense, reassure themselves, that they are living this way “for the time being”, and in which case they “are in no way bound to each other.” This “not being bound to each other” already shows that there is nothing serious in these relationships: this is not marriage and it is not a family. They themselves know that if they don’t like it, they can run away someplace else.

Intimate relations without marriage — this is always mistrust of one another. The partners have beforehand prepared themselves for the possibility of retreat, but at the same time they are already in a hurry for carnal intimacy. This is also a manifestation of doubt. Doubt is a clear sign of ignorance, and its fair expression is the phrase: “What if it doesn’t work out? If suddenly he (she) gets rid of me?” This type of doubt signifies that “their” spirits have not yet become one, although “they” already want to merge into a single body. Doubt — an expression of interior confused feelings and insecurities. It’s as if you are in a thick fog and cannot see anything at arm’s length, and that is why you can’t see for sure whether or not your future bride is near you. All of this is about one thing — young men and women do not yet have internal unity (and harmony, translator). The heart suggests self deception and therefore “they” do not sign. Genuine marriage involves mutual responsibility and commitment. In intimate relationships outside of marriage mutual responsibility is reduced to the minimum, and the knowledge they have of each other is almost measured by only one measurement, the size of one’s bed. Ultimately, all of this means that a young man and a young woman have not achieved a true unity of souls, which is why they are not sure of each other and are afraid to enter into a legal marriage, but at the same time they already want to enjoy their mutual bodily virtues and then “maybe it will turn out”. What you get is cohabitation based on external sympathy with the complete absence of internal kinship. Along with this are statistics which show that the majority of men living in such relationships consider themselves to be single, but the women, quite the opposite, consider themselves to be married. That is to say, men see the situation soberly and believe that it will do, and women naively pursue the dream of a good family and see the family where it does not exist.

It’s sad to see how people spend many years in such relationships, and eventually they end up with nothing. In time, they themselves understand that they made a mistake, but often this conclusion comes too late.

Fornication — insurrection against God

Priest Dimitri Shishkin:
Many, in general, do not understand what is “mortality”, the weight of the sin of fornication. They say: “What is this all about? We don’t hurt anyone, everything is done with mutual agreement, peacefully…” Therefore, in order to recognize the weight of this sin, it is necessary to remember the words of the Apostle Paul that we are all “the temple of the Holy Spirit,” that is to say, we are called to live in a manner which permits God to dwell within us, like in a temple. Whoever seduces the temple of God — continues the apostle — the Lord will destroy the life of such a person. Why? Think about it: to defile the temple — is this a small matter or not? Of course, this is a great sin. Similarly, to seduce your own body or the body of another — this “little temple” — is a sin against God’s statutes concerning us, insurrection against God. What would not be insurrection, what would be agreement with His will? In the first place this would be to fulfill the commandments concerning legal marriage. The beginning of a lawful marriage, surprisingly, is necessary in human law, but also in agreement with the law of God, that is to say, marriage is a legal union between a man and a woman, tied with responsibility before society and each other. The responsibility suggests the priority of duties over transient feelings, desires and moods. It is very important to understand this. Responsibility!

Sometimes they say: “Yes, why does this stamp need to be on the passport? What’s the difference if it’s there or not?” I always answer with the question: “There’s no difference?” “No, of course not”, — they answer. “None at all?” — I ask one more time. — “At all”. — “Then go and get the stamp!” Then, in the blink of an eye, it turns out that there is a difference, because some kind of a hitch begins, then self-justification and explanations…But why? Because this very “stamp” signifies a huge step of responsibility, and thus, namely, responsibility, distinguishes legally binding marriage from fornication in pre-marital cohabitation.

However, in order to keep the law, the civil authorities must also practice responsibility. This is a very important topic, because about 150 years ago, if the husband, without the wife being guilty of adultery, left his wife and children, he was heavily beaten with the rod, and if he didn’t change his mind — he was exiled to Siberia. Or, he must at least pay “compensation” for his sin, so that he will think it over a hundred times, whether or not he will leave. Yes, public opinion was very strict about such behavior, so much so that often whoever tore apart his family became a social outcast.

If we talk about the Church approach, St. Basil the Great has a rule according to which a person who caused the destruction of his own family should no longer marry as a corrective penance as someone who did not preserve what God had entrusted to him.

St. Basil furthermore says the wonderful words that fornication in pre-marital cohabitation is “not marriage and not even the beginning of marriage,” namely because it is unlawful. So no matter how much one would like to interpret, marriage is precisely the legal cohabitation of a man and a woman, consistent with the rules of the Church structure of life.

The next necessary step of the “churching” of the marital relationship is their blessing in the Mystery of the crowning (translator’s note: the Mystery {Sacrament} of marriage in the Orthodox Church is often referred to as “Crowning” because the couple are blessed with crowns that they wear {or are held over their heads} during the wedding ceremony). Just as a person’s life – mental and physical – needs spiritual replenishment, so married life needs spiritual replenishment, when the aim of marriage becomes the attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven, for the couple themselves and for their children, if the Lord blesses them with children. Marriage is a cross which must be carried, following the example of Christ, and whose “rejection” truly means disaster. It is unfortunate that only a few understand this.

Pre-marital cohabitation — this is flight from the struggles of salvation

Priest Igor Silchenkov:
The meaning of the word “fornication” is similar to the word “wandering”. Wandering is having lost the way, using one’s time not in order to achieve a goal, but on a path to nowhere. Wandering — this is always a waste of time and effort. Fornication — this is spiritual wandering.

The only “gain” from fornication, if one can use such an expression, — is the understanding that one should never do this, the understanding that pre-marital cohabitation does not bring happiness and love but devastates the soul.

The All-Merciful Lord created us for love, happiness and salvation in Eternal Life and shows us the most direct route to them. The paths may be different for each individual, but the goals of the paths are the same for everyone. The commandments of the Lord indicate how to make the paths easier for us and what — more specifically Who — and how He helps us, as well as how to increase this help.

The family — this is one of the paths to salvation. Along this path are signs which guide us and show the way: what to take with you on your journey, at what speed you should travel, where to make a stop, where to turn, and where there is a dead end. Pre-marital cohabitation is a dead end. This is because of many reasons. We attain love through enduring tribulation. “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Pre-marital cohabitation — this is just an attempt to find the most convenient road for oneself with the least tribulation. “Try it out” For the time being don’t get married, and if it becomes difficult, flee quickly and run to “try it out” with a different partner: perhaps there it will be easier. With pre-marital cohabitation everything is arranged for fleeing from tribulation. Favorable, comfortable — let us cohabitate. If it becomes uncomfortable, run away.

At the same time, of course, this is an attempt to avoid the struggle with the passion of lust, satisfying it with fornicating in pre-marital cohabitation. However, in satisfying the lusts of the flesh we don’t abolish them. but cause them to become even stronger and increase. The more we satisfy passion and indulge in sin, the more they enslave us. The result of satisfying the passion of lust outside of marriage is the creation not of a loving couple of husband and wife, but fornicators, who are always looking for thrills and experiences urged by their passion, taking it for love. And of course, not finding what they need for the soul, find only suffering and depression. They wander outside of their paths in spiritual darkness.

Not able to see beyond the end of one’s nose, they don’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, which already has begun here on earth. They find neither love nor happiness. Those who are truly married fully understand that they would never abandon their relationship: they are husband and wife. They also know and understand that after tribulations, temptations, sufferings, or offending each other comes the grace of God and comfort, if there is forgiveness and they don’t run away from difficulties. The more one is forgiven, the more one loves, as our Lord said in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke, at dinner in the house of Simon the Pharisee. In a marriage you forgive many, many times, and you are forgiven.

Therefore one shouldn’t enter into a pre-marriage cohabitation. Otherwise you will not see true love and happiness and the Kingdom of Heaven. There will be roaming around in one’s own sins and passions and a meaningless waste of one’s precious, only earthly life to escape from this same Life into one’s own fears, cowardice and emptiness.

Don’t confuse civil marriage with cohabitation

Priest Maxim Gorozhankin:
For some reason we call relationships that are not registered a civil marriage. This is a confusion of concepts. What is a civil marriage? Civil marriage is a marriage registered in a state body – the registry office (ЗАГС [ZAGS} in Russian, an acronym for “Acts of Civil Status” – translator’s note). However, people deceive themselves and cohabiting without registration call themselves husband and wife. At the same time they are not husband and wife from the spiritual point of view. This problem also has a juridical aspect. From the point of view of the law they are roommates, and the legal norms and laws regulating relations within the family, for example, concerning children and joint property, do not apply to them. In criminal law we clearly read: if a crime is committed, the husband is not named as a husband, the relationship with which is not registered in the registry office (ZAGS), but is called a roommate.

If you love someone, and you want to be with him or her, If everything suits you in this person, then why not register your relationship, at least in the registry office (ZAGS)? But today not many register in the registry office (ZAGS). Yet children are born in such cohabitation … and how do you solve the legal issues arising in this case, how do you protect these children? Who will then fulfill the obligations of raising and taking care of the children if the couple “scatters”?

Thus, civil marriage — this is a marriage registered by the civil authorities. If this marriage is not Crowned (blessed in the Mystery of marriage by the Church), the Church does not consider such relationships fornication. This is especially emphasized. Therefore, does this marriage need to be Crowned? Absolutely yes!

What is a Crowning? Crowning is a Holy Mystery (Sacrament), in which God bestows His blessing. The same as in any other Mystery (Sacrament). If they live without being Crowned, then it turns out that the couple, entering into marriage and taking such a crucial step, has forgotten about the most important thing – to ask God for His blessing. The couple has forgotten about the grace of God. It is therefore not surprising that we have so many divorces and conflicts that arise. How can family life be arranged without the blessing of God?

The sin of cohabitation consists of the fact that one does not want to be responsible for someone else. Marriage — this is a witness before society of the responsibility for each other. If someone wants to be responsible for someone else out of love, then he must declare before society: “Here is my wife, here is my husband — in sorrow and in joy. For our entire lives. And all of you — relatives, acquaintances, the state — understand: we are ready to take this step.”

Cohabitation is dangerous, most of all, for the woman. After all, the woman is always the victim when the couple breaks up. As soon as she becomes pregnant, her so-called husband is saddened by this fact and, if she does not want to have an abortion, he leaves. The woman, having considered him to be her husband, is now left alone with the baby. Therefore, the Church always insists that when a man and a woman meet and become soul mates, when a man loves a woman and when a woman loves a man, they must tell society and the Church about their responsibility for each other, register their marriage in the registry office (ZAGS) and sanctify their marriage in the Church of God in the Holy Mystery of matrimony.

Prepared by the novice Nikita (Popov) May 25, 2016

Translated from the Russian by Archpriest Peter Olsen

Translator’s note: For further study, see Marriage An Orthodox Perspective by John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press, Crestwood, NY, The Mystery of Marriage in the Orthodox Church by Philip Mamalakis and Charles Joanides, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Center for Family Care, Garrison, NY, On Marriage and Family Life: St. John Chrysostom (Popular Pastristics Series), SVS Press, Crestwood, NY, Mixed Marriage, An Orthodox History by Anthony Roeber, SVS Press, Crestwood, NY, Marriage, the Mystery of Love. An Eastern Orthodox Perspective by Fr. Dr. George Koshy, SVS Press, Crestwood, NY, Building An Orthodox Marriage, A Practical Commentary on the Eastern Orthodox Marriage Rite by Bishop John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey

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