Marriage is an important institution to the Church. It figures centrally into the definition of keeping the Law of Chastity, and healthy, strong family relationships figure centrally into God’s plan for His children. But the exigencies of complying with legal standards and bureaucratic qualifications can make this difficult, even for those who wish to marry. This is particularly the case for Church members and prospective Church members in many parts of the world outside of the US.
Missionaries often face the problems associated with teaching the gospel to receptive, humble people who turn out, for any number of reasons, not to be legally married. Many of them have been living together in committed, monogamous relationships for years, raising children, and functioning like normal, married couples, but did not technically ever marry. Depending on the laws of the country in question, and (sometimes) depending on the disposition of the Mission President and/or Area Presidency, a variety of policies are implemented to deal with the problems raised by such situations. I have a friend with two sons who both served in South American missions with similar demographic and legal circumstances, but where the Mission Presidents pursued very different policies. In one mission (where the usual reason for the non-marriages was the lack of legal documentation — birth certificates or citizenship papers — required to get a marriage license), the policy was that cohabitating couples could not be baptized until they legally married. In another, if official marriage was not realistic for bureaucratic reasons but the couple had been together for an extended period, the MP recognized the “common-law” status of their marriage and allowed them to be baptized.
Thus, while it appears that the technical policy of the Church is no baptisms, period, for cohabitating couples, interpretation of that rule and how the concept of common-law marriage does or does not apply to its implementation seems to be the purview of leaders at a more local level.
The policy in my mission was to go ahead and baptize couples who had been cohabitating long enough (5 years, I think) for it to be considered common law marriage. This was a very, very common problem. The first question we asked was, “are you legally married?”. If no, we were then to ask, “how long have you been living together in a monogamous relationship?”.
One particular situation from my mission stands out to this very day. The missionaries had not been long in the city (one of my duties was to work with government agencies to acquire official state recognition of the Church in the Oblast, so that we could legally proselyte and rent property for conducting Sunday services), but we had found some success working with the friends of the few members already there.
Working with Ivan and Katya was one of the highlights of my mission. This was one of those dynamite couples, fresh-faced, bright, committed — everyone (including the MP) knew he was going to be the first local Branch President. They enthusiastically listened to the discussions and accepted the commitments they entailed — including the commitment to be baptized. After they had been members for about 3 1/2 months, the senior companion of the other companionship in the city (he was the current Branch President) made the sucker-punch realization that Ivan and Katya were not legally married — that Ivan had never bothered to finalize the divorce with his first wife. Ivan and Katya had been living together — unlawfully cohabitating — for nearly 3 years. A long time, to be sure, but not long enough to be covered under the “common-law” loophole. We were devastated that this newly baptized couple (still living together) were living in sin, jeopardizing their temple plans, our BP-calling plans, and possibly their membership. Elder W. and I tortured ourselves over the question for days, fasting and praying, seeking advice from the MP and even the Area President.
We realized that we just needed to suck it up and talk to Ivan like a man, no punches pulled. He needed to take care of his divorce and make an honest woman out of Katya. And they had to put, ahem, certain things on absolute hold until these matters were in order. Elder W. and I went on a split together and went to Ivan and Katya’s house for dinner. After the meal, we asked to speak to Ivan in private (we were too embarassed to talk about it with Katya in the room). It was a very nervous and awkward conversation. At some point, Ivan could see where we were going and got very indignant.
Not that we were suggesting that his relationship with Katya was sinful or that we expected them to stop, ahem, cohabitating. He was offended at the suggestion that they were sleeping together at all.
Turns out, from the time we taught them the LoC in the discussions, Ivan and Katya had begun to sleep in different bedrooms and Ivan had begun the process of finalizing his divorce. He had even proposed and purchased her a ring. They had never mentioned the change in their living circumstances because they were ashamed that they had previously been breaking God’s law. None of us were the wiser, because they were technically still living together. But stopping sleeping together had been treated as a given, without the slightest question. “You guys think I’m an adulterer?!?” was his indignant response. “How stupid do you think I am?”
I was transfered out of the city about a month later, a week after the Church got it’s registration and official state recognition (which Ivan and Katya’s relationship still, alas, did not have). After about another 2 months, the missionaries, branch members, and MP attended Ivan and Katya’s wedding. That was nearly 8 months after they first got the LoC lesson. A month later, I translated as Elder Hancock (the Area President) confered upon Ivan the Melchizedek Priesthood and ordained him and Elder. About 6 months after I returned home, the ZL from the city in question got the MP’s permission to call me at home. He called me to tell me that they had named and blessed Ivan (recently set apart as the Branch President) and Katya’s baby girl that morning at Church.
10 months after the wedding.