Sorting Out Cohabitation and Marriage

Cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States (and in Circle of Hope, too!). In the U.S. it climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. Most young adults today will, at some point, live with a romantic partner outside of marriage, and the majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married. We should consider this a new stage of development in marriage. It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.

Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not.  Since 1960, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable. But even though there are very few negative social consequences for practicing these things without being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why they do this. But I do want to respond to the reality of it.

In the past most people married for economic, political and social reasons. Today they marry for love. Postmodern people seem to think relationships save them. The love songs say it. The script of New Girl taught it in a recent sitcom episode. Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a contract, and now it is an arrangement based on mutual attraction. Once religion provided the sacrament, then the law enforced the contract, and now personal preferences define the arrangement. The cultural change that made this happen was the same one that gave us science, technology, freedom, and capitalism: the Enlightenment. It made human reason the measure of all things, throwing off ancient rules if they fell short of new scientific reasoning. The greatest accomplishment of the Enlightenment was the creation of the United States of America.

Among the many things the scientific advances of the creative era called the Enlightenment spawned were the increase of divorce and cohabitation. The capacity to marry for love and participate in infidelity provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage.

Although the purpose of marriage has changed over time, the definition has not.  Americans still define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, but many engage in infidelity and divorce. They want the connection, but they have slowly become accustomed to being totally individualistic.  They choose to marry or exclusively cohabit and then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

As a result of all this confusion, family law has lost any moral basis. It is easier to get out of a marriage than a mortgage. This change in culture is made clear when one looks at court decisions. At the end of the 1800s, the Supreme Court referred to marriage as a “holy estate” and a “sacred obligation.” (Reynolds v. U.S. 1878). By 1972 the same court described marriage as “an association of two individuals” (Eisenstadt v. Baird. 1972).  The Defense of Marriage Act (1996) attempted to remedy the Supreme Court’s philosophical direction that accelerated the change in society. But the adaptation of marriage has continued anyway and that law is being whittled away. The Obama administration selectively enforces it. As a society, people are still sorting this out.

For Christians who have not tuned their faith to the varying pitch of government, such as I am, the lack of federal protection for marriage merely serves to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith: not of sex, finances or even procreation, but of commitment. Couples do not need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But they do need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.

The question is: Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? The essence of marriage is not sex, or money, or even children: it is covenant. Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited? A new look at the spectrum of how people are changing marriage from covenant to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt.

  • Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle!
  • Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before the covenant is publicly committed – that would be something like embracing people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
  • Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant, just secretly. Why would someone get married secretly?

When someone told me recently that they were about ready to have sex with their girlfriend, I said if he was going to get married, I’d marry them immediately, if he liked. We’re still sorting that out, too.

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7 thoughts on “Sorting Out Cohabitation and Marriage

  1. Rod, Thanks for your thoughts. Very enjoyable to read.

    You make the claim that the definition of marriage is commitment and I think you are on the right track. Christians do indeed have a particular interest in commitment when it comes to the topic of marriage. But I also think we need to say a little be more.

    If marriage is defined merely as “commitment”, we will end up asking, “a commitment to what?”
    Maybe it is to sex, children and money…

    In answering that question, the exchange of vows in a traditional marriage ceremony (like something found in The Book of Common Prayer) is good place to start. In this rite we find an array of things that the married couple agrees to be committed to. Participation in the sacramental act of marriage, procreation, mutual comfort and affection, mutual respect and submission, contribution to society, and fidelity to one another and the church are just a few of the things that the couple commits to during the ceremony and it is these things that give us an answer to out question: “a commitment to what?” Each of these promises brings with them their own gift for the couple’s enjoyment and also for the continual renewal of the couple’s fidelity to one another. Participation in the sacramental act of marriage (a.k.a. sex) helps us to understand the Trinity. The procreation of children gifts society with a hope for the future and a reason for the work of the present. The commitment to fidelity in front of the church establishes and affirms the couple within their community as a committed unit. And, in so doing, it provides the couple and the community with much needed accountability. Everybody knows who is with whom and everybody is now responsible to keep it that way. (Remember: In most cases of infidelity the root problem is not about impulse control or lust. It’s about the lack of respect for a fellow member of your community and their ultimate good, not just the person you are cheating with but also the person being cheated on).

    When we consider the definitional value of the marriage ceremony, when we look at the liturgical rites as a gift, we are lead to consider the order in which we receive these gifts. And the necessity of ceremony. Order itself also becomes a gift to us. Rightly ordered relationship protects the couple from the emotion hurt, relational ambiguity, frustration and fatigue, physical disease, and practical inconveniences that often develop when the right order is lost.

    I could go on but I’m sure you already have some thoughts.

    -Patti D. (an old friend of circle of hope)

  2. For me, God’s word is clear about marriage and about cohabitation. Although culture may effect the ceremony that brings us into marriage, it can not effect the sanctity of marriage. I feel too much of this walk is “watered down” to cater to our needs. I so believe that to grow near, to really know the Father, we must walk in radical obedience to the Father’s will and not to our flesh.

    But what do we know about God’s heart when it comes to marriage? As Jose stated, the bible calls us the bride and Christ the bridegroom. Jesus never said we were His roommate, or ” Hey, Dad, guess who I am moving in with”. God’s heart seems pretty clear about this subject. He calls us into relationship with HIm and the ultimate relationship is in a covenant called marriage; in the natural and in Kingdom.


    Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4 )

    “For now your creator will be your husband, his name, the Lord God Almighty; your redeemer will be the Holy One of Israel, he is called the God of the whole earth.” (Is.54:5).

  3. You posed a question in your blog, Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? You also made a statement, The essence of marriage is not sex, or money, or even children: it is covenant. When we accepted Christ in our hearts as Savior we were spiritually baptized in him and with him (partaking in his death,burial and resurrection) The call to a physical baptism by Christ is tied to obedience not salvation and a legal marriage can be viewed in the same manner. Yes the one flesh experience is instituted by God but the root of the legal document was founded on this very truth. ( forefathers intentions) Also the way we view sex, money, and our children is deeply interconnected with the covenant and is a proponent and aspect of the covenant itself. Money- stewardship always a heart issue tied to faithfulness, Sex- the consummation of a husband and wife symbolic to the bridegroom and bride relationship.(consummation will be experienced in his second coming,) Children- Godly generations who continue to serve God and depend on him, continuing the covenant.

  4. ‘nother thought: we’re church planters- and we assume that everyone who wants to do this with us has capacity for leadership and is leading us/ working with us in our church planting mission efforts, too. Just practically speaking, I’ve witnessed numerous times that it’s very hard to keep ex-couples and their friends to be in the same church on mission together after the pain and heartache of a dating breakup where sex and cohabiting weren’t even in the mix. And it’s near impossible to keep people working on mission together in the same church when sex and cohabiting were in the mix after a break-up. Socially/ economically in the U.S. there might be perks for individuals to go with cohabiting relationships that they don’t have to commit to. But leading our church to go that way will break us apart.

  5. Thanks for being bold, Rod (as usual:)…I feel compelled, and with a new vocabulary for doing so, to be more honest about marriage and all she means for those of us following jesus with my cellmates and friends. I tend to default to the “my life is telling the story,” evangelism and confrontation, but it’s really just another ploy for me to unconsciously work out my/their avoidance.

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