Cohabitation: Deviant or Different?
The Contemporary Scene
The young man wanted to talk to me about marriage. He had requested an appointment because of his acquaintance with my son. After a brief conversation about sports and other mutual interests he asked if I would consider performing his wedding ceremony. He and his fiancé, both professing believers, had chosen a date. As we discussed the possibly, I soon discovered that they were living together. When I shared some Biblical teachings regarding marriage and my requirement that they live separately until the wedding, he bluntly told me his living arrangements were none of my business. With that he stomped out of my office. In fact, one of his family members who had been attending the church recently, left the church in a huff.
This arrangement is referred to by a variety of names: shacking up, living together, live in, cohabitating, partners, boyfriend/girlfriend, even fiancé. Whatever, it is not a new phenomenon; but it is becoming the new normal. Even Prince William and Kate were reportedly living together before the big wedding; presumably with the approval of the Dean of Westminster Abbey. A few decades ago, it was exceptional for couples to live openly together without benefit of marriage. Even the secular American culture of that day questioned the “rightness” of the practice. However, today living together is becoming the prevailing practice. For instance, in 2008, 62.7% of households in Indianapolis, Indiana were headed by unmarried adults.1 And, a recent study shows that in 2010 among 30-44 year-olds in the U.S, 7% were cohabiting while 58% were married. However, during 2006-2008 58% of women ages 19-44 stated that they had cohabited at one time. Also, according to a 2008 survey, more than half of women aged 19-44 who marry for the first time had lived with their husbands before the wedding. And in 2010 64% of those who cohabited viewed cohabitation as a step toward marriage. However, the same poll showed that among the general public 43% believe living together is bad for society, 9% thought it was good, and 46% said it makes no difference.2 So, this is no longer an issue that is of interest to only a few. Chances are that you personally know someone who is cohabiting or who is planning on moving in without being married, or has done so. Maybe that someone is you.
The reality is that most people do not give the matter a second thought. The attitude is, “What is the big deal? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. And besides, everyone is doing it.” Of course, the deciding factor should not be what contemporary society thinks or does. Surveys have limited value. Rather it should be whether or not there is a right and a wrong that transcends community conclusions. For the Christian, the ultimate question is, “What does God think” or “Does the Bible speak to this issue?”
Common Justifications for Cohabitation
Here is a sampling of brief reasons or explanations often given for or by unmarried persons in support of living together. Perhaps you can add others.
- The Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit living together. If it was such a bad thing surely the Bible would have directly condemned the practice. I suppose we could apply the same argument to marijuana use.
- Marriage is just a tradition that varies from culture to culture. Have you noticed how we can explain away just about anything we want by appealing to culture?
- Our living together is a pre-marriage arrangement. We plan to get married but now is not a good time. If I understand this thinking correctly, future plans render present practice acceptable. And when might be a good time?
- We love each other, but it is cheaper right now for us to live together than to be married. So, love makes all the difference. And, what if it never becomes cheaper to get married?
- We don’t talk about love. It is a simple matter of economics. We enjoy companionship and sex without the hassle of marriage or pre-nuptial agreements. My parents encountered this mentality when they retired to Sun City, AZ. So money trumps everything else.
- A trial run makes perfect sense. You don’t buy a pair of shoes without first trying them on! Sounds like a defective view of sex and marriage. Courting, or dating, or engagement, all without sex, provide all the barometer that is needed.
- What’s your problem? Everyone is doing it; it can’t be all that bad. Let’s see, tons of college students binge drink so I guess it isn’t that bad.
- Hey, we love each other and are more committed to one another than most married couples we know. I commend your commitment; but please, don’t hide behind failing marriages.
- Look, we have a child together. We are not sure about marriage or a long term commitment, but we have the best interest of the child in mind. I commend your selflessness; but are there other options?
- The only difference between living together and being married is a piece of paper. Just like the only difference between drivers is having a license or not.
Biblical Principles and Passages
I freely acknowledge that many consider the Bible to be an old fashioned, bigoted, and irrelevant book appealed to by intellectual cripples. I also readily admit that if the Bible is banned from this discussion, we are left with statistical data, sociological observations, community standards, surveys, and personal opinion. Unfortunately, almost any conclusion can be supported using those criteria. Nonetheless, bearing this reality in mind, I note some Biblical teachings regarding marriage and sex that will help us answer the question of living together without being married. I intend these remarks to be primarily pastoral in nature rather than apologetic.
Fornication is sometimes framed in relationship to marital status and is always condemned. Fornication (πορνεία) is the term for general immorality in the New Testament. It includes sexual immorality of all kinds, including adultery.
- 1 Corinthians 5:1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife.3
- 1 Corinthians 7:2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.
Adultery is frequently framed in relationship to marital status and is universally condemned in the Bible. The explicit term for adultery, μοιχεύω, is nearly always tied to a person’s marital status. A simple definition is, “…tohave unlawful intercourse with another's wife….”4
- Matthew 5:32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
- Matthew 19:9 "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."
- John 8:3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, 4 they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.
God’s wish for believers is not vague regarding immoral behavior. Sexual immorality never pleases God.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality (πορνεία); 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor.... 6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you… 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
- Hebrews 13:4 Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge
- 1 Corinthians 6:9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God
Whenever possible, genuine believers will refrain from giving the appearance of immoral conduct even though there is no immoral conduct in reality. Living in the same house together but not sleeping together is unwise. It is of the same ilk as engaging in intense sexual stimulation but stopping short of intercourse.
- Ephesians 5:3 But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. The NIV’s free rendering, “…there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality…” captures the intended notion.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:22 abstain from every form of evil. “Form” (εἶδος) isuniversally understood to mean as in external appearance or that which is seen. Thus the KJV translates “appearance.”
The Bible introduces marriage at the dawn of human history. The first Biblical reference to a man and a woman living together as a single unit is at the beginning of human history when God created the man and woman.
Man and woman are introduced in the creation narrative: NAU Genesis 1:26 Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
The actual account of the creation of Eve confirms the concept of the family unit: NAU Genesis 2:24 For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
Jesus’ reference to these texts settles the question of the Godhead’s original intent that a man and a woman live together under the umbrella of marriage. The gospels record the occasion when some Pharisee’s questioned him regarding the appropriateness of dissolving marriage by divorce. Jesus answered by citing the Genesis passages as examples of those who are married and thus can divorce only upon the condition of adultery (Mark 10:4-12; Matthew 19:3-9). Thus, marriage is coexistent with and a product of the creative work of God! Furthermore, though Jesus never married, his approval of marriage is evident by his attendance at the wedding ceremony in Cana recorded in John 2.
Marriage and living together without marriage must be distinguished. The account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well recorded in John 4:5-26 makes this apparent. What started out as a simple request for a drink of water by a Samaritan woman turned into a significant conversation about true spirituality and genuine worship. The exchange between Jesus and the woman about her husband is subtlety instructive. ESV John 4:16 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here." 17 The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true." The woman’s response makes it clear that Jesus had exposed her immoral relationship with her current live-in, not merely that he possessed supernatural knowledge of her living circumstances. ESV 19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet…ESV 29 "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”… ESV 39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me all that I ever did.” Clearly, marriage and cohabitation are not equally acceptable choices in Jesus’ mind. Marriage is approved and living together outside of marriage is condemned.
I find it fascinating that normally when a possessive pronoun is attached to the OT word for woman (אִשָּׁה), it is invariably translated wife. Thus, it is “his wife” or “their wives” or “your wife” rather than “his woman” or “their women” or “your women.” Thus, the translators understood that marriage was the normal state when a man and a woman lived together. Living together or being married are not merely equal options.
God chooses the imagery of marriage to picture his relationship with his people. He could have simply used the sexual union between a man and a woman as the basis for his relationship with his people. Instead, he chose marriage, perhaps signifying both the sacredness of the institution as well as that marriage was the commonly accepted norm. NAU Isaiah 62:4 It will no longer be said to you, "Forsaken," Nor to your land will it any longer be said, "Desolate"; But you will be called, "My delight is in her," And your land, "Married"; For the LORD delights in you, And to Him your land will be married. 5 For as a young man marries a virgin, So your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you.
Marriage and Weddings
At first look, the Old Testament does not record a marriage ceremony for Adam and Eve. However, God’s presentation of Eve to Adam described in Genesis 2:22 certainly hints of some sort of official commencement of their lives together; “…And the Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken form the man, and brought her to the man”. This is underscored by God’s expectation for their progeny in 2:24, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh”. But generally, the OT does not bother to record the details of how a marriage begins; rather it simply states, for example, that Isaac “…took Rebekah, and she became his wife…” (Genesis 24:67) or that “…Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife…” (Ruth 4:13).
The New Testament gives some details regarding Jewish wedding customs in the first century. Matthew 1:18-25 describes Mary and Joseph as “betrothed”. It is safe to assume they were observing the common Jewish betrothal custom leading up to the official wedding. Also, the setting of John 2 is the very public wedding celebration to which Jesus was “invited”. And, Paul used the Jewish wedding custom of the bride being presented to the groom as the basis of his admonition to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:27-28).
The basic assumption is that marriage is accompanied by some sort of official procedure. To be sure, the particular wedding custom of any one given culture is not the issue. The Bible does not advocate the wedding customs of one culture over another; rather it merely describes the practices of the Jewish culture in Biblical times. The larger trans-cultural observation is that there was a method used to officially recognize that the man and the woman had made a commitment to one another along the lines of Matthew 19:4-6. This may look different from culture to culture and from era to era. However, unless there is some sort of public official procedure, which may or may not be a “ceremony”, as dictated by a local governing authority, then there is no marriage and thus the couple is living in an immoral relationship. In short, the Bible prescribes what marriage should be; but it does not prescribe the specific custom for the commencement of marriage.
The bottom line is this: why would a godly Christian couple not want to be married rather than live together? I cannot think of an acceptable justification for living together in our current culture.
And further why would they not want a Christian wedding ceremony? Regardless of the popular or cultural custom, it seems to me that a Christian couple ought to design a wedding ceremony that shows clearly that marriage is God’s idea rather than man’s. This would include a straightforward declaration of the great expectation that “what therefore God has joined together let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6). The ceremony should also incorporate promises the couple are making to one another in the presence of God.
You might note that I have not trotted out statistics indicating that those married have a stronger commitment to one another than those living together; or that married parents normally provide a more stable life for children than those who live together; or that marriage breeds a greater degree of responsibility and accountably. Statistics can easily be manipulated and can change from time period to time period. It is far more important that we grasp Biblical principles that are relevant for all generations in all cultures. At the end to the day, what society says finishes a distant second to what God says.
I have been asked several tangential questions to which I offer a very brief word.
- What constitutes a valid wedding ceremony? I have preferences, but at the end of the day almost any reasonable format is acceptable.
- Can a person be married in our culture without a church wedding ceremony? Certainly, but as I mentioned above, I am perplexed as to why Christian couples would not want a Christian ceremony. For me, as a Christian, the church ceremony has far more significance than a license or other recognition by the state.
- Can you be married in God’s eyes without a license or official recognition from the state? Not in our culture currently.
- Are those who are recognized by the state to be in a “common law” marriage actually married in God’s eyes? Yes, in that even though they did not secure a marriage license they none-the-less meet the requirement for marriage as dictated by a local governing authority and thus are publically and officially recognized as married. The conditions slightly vary among the sixteen states that recognize common law marriages. Common law states are Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, as well as Washington, DC. Generally, the collective conditions in these states are that the couple must present themselves as married; merely living together does not constitute common law marriage; the couple need not live together for a certain time period in order to be considered common law; common law marriages carry all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities as licensed marriages; and common law marriages must be dissolved by divorce.7
- Is the commitment between a man and a woman less if they are not married?
Often couples do not get married because they don’t want the burden of the commitment they think marriage entails. However, it would be prejudicial to conclude that, per se, couples living together are less committed to one another
1 According to the pro-cohabitation Alternatives to Marriage Project at www.unmarried.org accessed January 11, 2011.
2 According to a Pew Research Center study “Living Together: the Economics of Cohabitation”, Richard Fry and D’Vera Cohn, published 6/27/11 (www.Pewsocialtrends.org) accessed 7/6/11.
3 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New American Standard Updated Version (Anaheim, Foundations Publications 1995).
4 Thayer’s Greek Lexicon (Norfolk, Bible Works for Windows Version 8.0 2008) entry 3521.
5 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Norfolk, Bible Works for Windows Version 8.0 2008) entry 295b.
6 Louw-Nida Lexicon (Norfolk, Bible Works for Windows Version 8.0 2008) entry 4625-26.
7 See “Common Law Marriage” discussions at www.findlaw.com accessed June 28, 2011. This site states that “in times past, particularly the frontier days, it was common for states to consider a woman and man to be married if they lived together for a certain length of time, had sexual intercourse, and held themselves out as husband and wife, even though they never went through a marriage ceremony. Such a marriage was often called a common-law marriage.”
Further that “…Merely living together is not enough to create a common law marriage…If a common-law marriage is valid, the partners have the same rights and duties as if there had been a ceremonial marriage… A common-law marriage that is legal may end only with a formal divorce.”
It also cites documents that can be used to prove a common law marriage such as:“
- “A personal affidavit stating when and where you and your common law spouse mutually agreed to become husband and wife; whether you were ever married, ceremonially or otherwise, to anyone else, and the details surrounding the end of any previous marriages (how they were ended, where, and when); and any other details that will help to establish the existence of a husband and wife relationship.
- Affidavits from other persons who know you and are familiar with your relationship, setting forth particulars such as the length of time you lived together; your address(es); whether there was any public announcement of your marriage; and whether your friends, neighbors, and relatives regard you as married.
- Deeds showing title to property held jointly by both parties to the common law marriage.
- Bank statements and checks showing joint ownership of the accounts.
- Insurance policies naming the other party as beneficiary.
- Birth certificates naming you and your common law spouse as parents of your child(ren).
- Employment records listing your common law spouse as an immediate family member.
- School records listing the names of both common law spouses as parents
- Credit card accounts in the names of both common law spouses
- Loan documents, mortgages, and promissory notes evidencing joint financial obligations of the parties.
- Mail addressed to you and your common law spouse as “Mr. and Mrs.”
- Any documents showing that the wife has assumed the surname of her common law husband.
- Church records indicating familial status, including membership information, baptismal certificates of the parties’ child(ren), Sunday School registration forms, etc.”
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.