Cohabitation – defined as people who live with a sexual partner of the opposite sex – has exploded in the United States. While thirty years ago the number of cohabitating couples was less than a million, census data in 2007 reported the number had reached 6.4 million. USA Today published in 2005 that two-thirds of married couples claimed to have lived together before getting married. Cohabitation is rapidly becoming not an exception, but the norm for American romantic relationships. The story of boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl live together and have children is being replaced. The new story is boy meets girl, boy hooks up with girl, boy and girl live together, boy and girl get married and have pets (maybe children after career goals are achieved).
This presents a challenge for the church which is called to a biblical standard that seems just plain weird to the culture. The Bible lays the foundation for marriage in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The marital commitment precedes the physical and spiritual union of the man and the woman; not the reverse. Both Jesus and Paul quote this verse in the New Testament. Jesus also warns in Matthew 6:28, “…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” and should be willing to tear out their eye rather than continue in sinful lust. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:18 to “flee from sexual immorality” and in Ephesians 5:3 that it “must not even be named among you.” Hebrews 13:4 tells Christians to “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.” Cohabitation breaks the biblical pattern for marriage, encourages sexual sin, and dishonors marriage.
What are churches to do? Do they embrace cohabitating couples with no questions asked or do they stand by biblical marriage and sexuality? The answer for many pastors and churches is to embrace it as normative. Others, while they may not agree with it, feel they cannot fight the cultural tide and simply give in. Still others downplay or ignore the biblical teaching so no one is offended. Complicating matters are the many Christians who are living with opposite-sex partners. Their lifestyles preach that they believe there is no contradiction between cohabitation and Christianity.
These cannot be the only options. Cohabitation is more than another lifestyle choice for Christians. It has a profound impact on the future marriages of those who do it and on the church’s ability to proclaim the gospel.
The logic for cohabitation usually sounds like this: marriage is a big commitment and trying it out first would be best to avoid a mistake. Cohabitation is a means of discovering lifestyle, economic, personal, and sexual compatibility. This seems reasonable at first; but of what other life commitments do we demand this? Do we get to attend college for a semester before paying tuition and receiving grades? Do we get to try out a new job for six months before joining and relocating? Do we get to live in a new home for a year before signing the mortgage? And with no-fault divorce laws getting out of marriage can be easier than getting out of a mortgage! Why do we demand to “fully try-out” marriage?
Not surprisingly, cohabitation fails to deliver on the promise of better marriages. The New York Times reported last year on a study by the National Center for Health Statistics. The opening line of the article says it all – “Couples who live together before they get married are less likely to stay married, a new study has found.” This is astounding. Whatever the underlying cause is, one thing is clear – against the cultural logic cohabitation does not improve one’s chances at a successful marriage and may actually hurt them. Why? Because cohabitation assumes a posture toward the other person that says in effect, “my happiness is more important than you.” Many people throw out marriage completely in favor of perpetual cohabitation so they can freely pursue many paths to personal happiness. Those cohabitating who plan on someday getting married are only a shade better. The relationship still must serve their happiness and fulfillment before they commit to the other person. If they get married and the marriage ceases to bring happiness then divorce is logical. The ultimate goal is personal happiness – not the good of my spouse or any child.
Christian cohabitation is doubly devastating because it distorts the gospel. Ephesians 5:32 says that marriage “refers to Christ and the church.” Marriage depicts Christ’s sacrificial love for His church and the church’s loving response to Christ and when Christians cohabitate they preach a false gospel to the culture. Can we imagine Christ saying to us, “I like you, but I’m not sure I want to commit to saving you just yet. How about we take a year and you come to church, serve me, and we’ll see if it works out?” Never! Christ commits to us despite our sins, failures, and foolishness, loving us sacrificially at great personal cost. We were utterly incompatible with Him yet He has chosen to love us and commit to us for eternity. That is completely lost when Christians cohabitate; each willing participant declaring to the other “you’re simply not worth the sacrifice.”
For Christians who have cohabitation in their past, repent and embrace the complete forgiveness God offers. Don’t carry guilt and shame for past decisions but experience freedom in the cross of Christ. For Christians currently cohabitating, have the courage to man up (or woman up) and commit to one another to proclaim the gospel in marriage. If economic reasons led to your cohabiting, is it really worth dishonoring Christ to save on rent? For pastors and churches, have the courage to offend some people by honoring what God has said in His Word. The beauty of Christian marriage and the glorious grace of the gospel can reach the lost. We must stand here. Nothing less than our gospel and our marriages are at stake.