In 2016, approximately 18 million adults in the U.S. were in cohabiting relationships. This represents a 27 percent increase since 2007. While more than half of cohabiters are under 35 years old, the increase is more significant among those older than 50. This demographic has seen a 75 percent increase in cohabitation over the last decade. When the rising rates of cohabitation are coupled with declining marriage rates, the visibility of cohabitation in American culture has seen a marked increase.
The church is also seeing an increase in cohabitation. In recent months, one particular article has struck a chord among many believers by declaring that moving in together before marriage may be acceptable. The author tells the story of how she and her boyfriend have bought a house and moved in together. She’s received a fair amount of criticism, but she explains it away.
Her arguments are no different than those we might hear from other Christians who are contemplating the idea of cohabitation. So let me dispel some of the myths about cohabitation and its connection to biblical teaching.
Myth #1: The Bible doesn’t say anything about cohabitation.
Some people try to justify cohabitation by claiming the Bible gives no clear instruction on this type of relationship. If the Bible doesn’t prohibit this living arrangement, then those making this claim assert that it must be permissible. Let’s examine what God’s Word says.
Scripture is clear in its condemnation of fornication. Fornication and fornicators (as well as adulterers) are described as evil, subject to judgment, and not heirs of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 15:19; Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Hebrews 13:4).
While admonitions against cohabitation, fornication, or pre-marital sex may not be as abundantly clear as the seventh commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”), the category of sin remains the same. Jesus used the seventh commandment to draw His listeners’ attention to the broader scope of sexual ethics.
Myth #2: We prayed about it, and God said it was fine.
This myth is common among both those who cohabit and believers in general seeking to justify all sorts of choices. This myth implies that Christianity is a completely privatized faith. The privatization of faith implies that I can proclaim the answer I received from the Lord and no one can question it because it is my answer.
When Paul found himself in Berea, we see the people there sought to confirm what he said with Scripture. We read, “For they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11b, emphasis added).
The people are commended as noble-minded (v. 11a) for evaluating what Paul said and seeking Scripture to confirm Paul’s teaching. When someone proclaims he has received an answer from the Lord in prayer that does not align with Scripture, then we are right to question that answer and challenge it with God’s Word.
Myth #3: Just because we’re living together, doesn’t mean we’re having sex.
In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus references a command against committing adultery and then expands it further against lust. He states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If Scripture forbids even lustful looks, then surely the prohibition would include an illicit sexual relationship between unmarried individuals and even the appearance thereof (1 Thessalonians 5:22). We should never willingly place ourselves in situations to trust our flesh.
Myth #4: Cohabitation is a great way to “test-drive” marriage before settling down.
In the article noted above, the author states, “You see, I’ve always thought it was smart to live together before marriage. I can speak from experience now, and I can say that I have learned so much more about my boyfriend from living with him than I ever did before.” On one level, there is no disputing her claim. Living with another individual will teach you more about that person than you ever thought you could know. However, cohabitation is a recipe for disaster in marriage.
First, cohabitation does not lead to more successful marriages. Cohabitation does not provide any benefit compared to waiting until marriage. Time even goes so far as to report that “cohabitation doesn’t seem to be able to produce that feeling of security [as marriage does]. And so far, cohabitation hasn’t been shown to inoculate couples from divorce.”
Second, cohabitation often leads to children. According to the National Marriage Project, “By the time [women] turn 30, about two-thirds of American women have had a baby, typically out of wedlock.” Having children out of wedlock, even in a cohabiting relationship, puts strain on the relationship and can lead to major disadvantages for these children as they grow older.
Finally, most cohabiting couples are not simply living together to save money or learn each other’s quirks. A sexual relationship is almost always at the center of the arrangement. According to a biblical sexual ethic, God established the sexual relationship in covenant marriage between a man and a woman in Genesis 2. The sexual relationship between a husband and wife demonstrates the exclusive, permanent union of marriage. This intimacy is described in Genesis 2:24 as a “one flesh” union. Those who cohabit participate in the “pleasures” of the relationship without the covenantal commitment. This stands in direct violation of God’s plan for marriage.
How Should the Church Respond?
First, remember that cohabitation is not the unpardonable sin. After Paul gives a vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that says certain people, including fornicators and adulterers, will not inherit the Kingdom of God, he states, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). We need to work with cohabiting Christian couples to help them confess and repent of this sin.
Second, we need to help these couples separate from their sinful lifestyle. If a cohabiting couple is heading toward marriage, then we need to encourage them to change their living arrangements. If it means a woman moves back home with her parents, or a man moves in with some friends for a period of a few months, then so be it. If the couple is not willing to do this, then it’s hard to believe they will seek to honor God within their marriage.
Renee Stepler, “Number of U.S. adults cohabiting with a partner continues to rise, especially among those 50 and older,” Pew Research Center, 6 April, 2017.
Sydney Lind Moore, “He Gave Me a House Before a Ring and That’s OK,” The Odyssey Online, 1 May 2017.
A KJV-style word for a pre-marital sexual relationship.
“The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2012,” The National Marriage Project (2012), 76.
Belinda Luscombe, “How Shacking Up Before Marriage Affects a Relationship,” Time, 12 March 2014.
Kay Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Kelleen Kaye, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” The National Marriage Project (2013), 3.