hy would a veritable Christian magazine feature an article on living together? Is that really an issue in God’s end-time church? Should we talk (or write) about this? Let’s look at some of the facts and figures.
Cohabitation may be defined as “a living arrangement of any unmarried heterosexual couple who share common residence and sexual intimacy.”1 In 1960 fewer than a half million American couples were cohabiting; but by the year 2000, the number had increased more than 1,000 percent, to more than 4.9 million people living with a different-sex unmarried partner.2 More than two thirds of married couples in the U.S. now say that they lived together before getting married.3 Cohabitation is even more prevalent in places such as Canada, Scandinavian countries, and France. Once almost universally condemned, cohabitation has largely lost its stigma and has become a common practice in most Westernized countries.
When cohabitation became more popular in the early 1970s, social scientists predicted that the practice would strengthen marriage by providing experience in intimacy. However, numerous scientific studies since the late 1970s have yielded consistent and substantive evidence for the opposite effect: premarital cohabitation is correlated with increased marital instability, higher risk of future divorce, and lower marital adjustment. In the following I will not delve too much into scientific research about cohabitation. Rather, I am interested in the Bible’s perspective about this practice, which—unfortunately—has also become a reality in our church.
For a Bible-believing Christian all practices related to sexuality and marriage must be assessed with reference to God’s original design for sexual relationships, recorded in Genesis 1–2, which constitutes the foundation for the rest of the biblical witness on human sexuality.
Genesis 2:24 provides a profound summary of God’s will for sexual relationships: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”* This passage sets forth three essential steps when a man and a woman want to join their lives together, all of which are generally disregarded in the practice of cohabitation.
1. Publically recognized exclusivity. According to Genesis 2:24, both man and woman4 are to “leave” (Hebrew ‘azab)—
to make a public break from those ties that would encroach upon the independence and freedom of the relationship,
and to form an exclusive family unit publicly recognized and respected by the couple’s families, the community of faith, and the society at large.
In contrast, those who cohabit are primarily concerned with their own private desires, and disregard the divine mandate to publically “leave” in a way recognized and respected by their families, church, and society. The directive of exclusivity is often compromised by cohabitation: cohabitants are statistically less sexually exclusive than married persons, and the married who cohabited before marriage are less sexually faithful to their partner both before and after marriage.
2. Permanent, public, covenant commitment. According to Genesis 2:24, the man is to be “joined” (Hebrew dabaq) to his wife. In the Old Testament this verb is regularly used as a technical covenant term for the permanent bond of Israel to the Lord.5 In Genesis 2 it clearly indicates a covenant context, i.e., a mutual commitment of the couple expressed as marriage vows in a formal covenant ceremony. Through-out the rest of Scripture many passages refer to marriage as a permanent covenant bond between husband and wife, ratified in the context of a public wedding ceremony and marriage vows.6
By contrast, cohabitation is only provisional and for the present, lacking the essential element of a public, permanent, covenant commitment between partners. Thus it is not surprising that premarital cohabitation is statistically correlated with increased marital instability and higher risk of future divorce.
3. Sexual intercourse only within the marriage relationship. According to Genesis 2:24, after the public wedding ceremony and marriage vows the man and woman are to “become one flesh.” This “one flesh” union, referring primarily to sexual intercourse (see 1 Cor. 6:16), by itself does not constitute marriage (see Ex. 22:16, 17), but is the means of consummating the marriage after the legal “joining” (the marriage covenant ceremony). Throughout Scripture the Edenic design of legitimate sexual intercourse only within marriage is upheld as the divine norm.7
In stark contrast, at the heart of cohabitation is the premise that the unmarried couple is free to engage in sexual intercourse outside the boundaries of the marriage covenant relationship. “Cohabitation engages a life-uniting act without a life-uniting intent. Such a lifestyle proves to be destructive of inner integrity of human personality.”8
Besides the three basic steps in divinely ordained sexual relationships as set forth in Genesis 2:24, other facets of the divine blueprint for sexuality relevant to the issue of cohabitation are found in Genesis 1–2. Let’s summarize and contrast them with the practice of cohabitation and its negative effects:
1. Equality and dignity of the marriage partners. God provided Adam an ‘ezer kenegdo—an “equal counterpart” or “equal partner” (2:18). Throughout Scripture this equal partnership in marriage, and the elevated status of women, is upheld as God’s ideal (e.g., Eph. 5:21-33).
Given the availability of convenient sex for cohabiting males, without lasting commitment or legal protection of their female partner in the cohabitation, it is not surprising that cohabiting women are at greater risk of abandonment and physical abuse than in marriage.
2. Wholesome and secure relationship without shame or fear. Within the boundaries of marriage Adam and Eve were free to be vulnerable before each other without shame or fear: “They were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed [before each other]” (Gen 2:25).9 The implication is of a secure relationship in which husband and wife can be safe in each other’s unconditional love and acceptance.
Cohabitation does not usually provide that safe and secure environment in which the partners can be vulnerable to each other without fear or shame. Lacking a permanent commitment, there is instability in the cohabiting relationship that often engenders insecurity and anxiety.
3. Blessing and responsibility of children. Within the stability and commitment of marriage Adam and Eve were blessed to bring forth children (Gen. 1:28; 4:1). The special added blessing of children was a sacred responsibility in which children were to be cared and provided for in a committed and stable environment (Eph. 6:1-4).
By contrast, children born to cohabiting parents are often at a great disadvantage: “Commitment and stability are at the core of children’s needs; yet, in a great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent.”10
4. A sacred marriage relationship hallowed by God. God Himself sanctified marriage by His presence as the divine officiant at the first wedding (Gen. 2:22-24). Marriage and the Sabbath come down to us as the two sacred institutions established by God in Eden.
By contrast, the practice of cohabitation has totally secularized the sexual-emotional relationship, stripping it of any sacred safeguarding by the sanctifying presence of God. The foundations of the sacred institution of marriage are steadily eroded as cohabitation replaces the “sacred ties that bind” with secular unions devoid of God’s special blessing.
Viewed in light of biblical standards for sexual ethics, the practice of cohabitation either rejects or misses the mark in all major dimensions of the divine plan for sexual relationships.
How Should the Church Act (React)?
While Pentateuchal legislation does not directly address the practice of cohabitation, it does deal with the foundational premise upon which cohabitation is based—the right for men and women to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Although premarital sexual intercourse did not carry the same severe punishment as many other sexual offenses, it nonetheless was taken seriously. The penalty included (1) a heavy fine that the man (who presumably initiated the sexual relationship and deprived the woman of her virginity) must pay to the woman’s father, and (2) the requirement that the couple face the consequences of their action by marrying, with no possibility of future divorce (Deut. 22:28, 29)—unless the father of the woman considered that such marriage was unwise, in which case they did not marry but the man paid the dowry to the woman’s father as if they had married (Ex. 22:16, 17).
The force of this legislation was to discourage premarital sex and to transition those who engaged in premarital sexual relations into marriage (if advisable), with stipulations to ensure the stability and permanence of their married relationship.
The only possible Old Testament cases of actual cohabitation similar to current practice are the unions formed by Israelite leaders with pagan women upon Israel’s return from the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 9–10 and Neh. 13:23-30). These unions were probably not regular, legal marriages, but a kind of “live-in arrangement” or “cohabitation which may eventuate in formal marriage.”11 The swift and severe reactions of Ezra and Nehemiah against these sexual unions probably stem from the fact that they not only constituted cohabitation, but also involved divorce of previous wives without due cause and (especially) involved uniting with women who were practicing idolaters (in blatant disregard of Deut. 7:1-5).
One possible New Testament example of cohabitation is found in 1 Corinthians 5:1, but the relationship referred to was also incestuous.
The church today can learn lessons from the biblical perspective on sexuality and marriage and from the biblical examples of sexual practice that possibly involved cohabitation. We need to uphold the biblical mandate that disapproves of any emotional-sexual relationship other than within the institution of marriage.
At the same time, in the spirit of the Pentateuchal legislation (and the gospel of Jesus Christ!) we need to act redemptively, encouraging cohabiting couples to accept the divine plan for sexual unions and move into a marriage relationship if such seems prudent, or to refrain from cohabiting (and from its attendant sexual activity outside of marriage). Scripture calls for a balanced approach by the church: maintain the biblical standards, and at the same time minister with grace to the offenders.
*All Scripture quotations (unless otherwise noted) have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
4The text explicitly mentions only the man leaving, but the implication is that both are to “leave,” because in the culture of biblical times it was already assumed that the woman left her father’s house (Gen. 24:58, 67; Ps. 45:13-15; S. of Sol. 3:6-11; Matt. 25:1-13).
5See, for example, Deut. 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; Joshua 22:5; 23:8.
6Compare Gen. 24:67; 29:22-25; Ps. 45; Prov. 2:17; S. of Sol. 4:1–5:1; Isa. 54:5, 10; Jer. 7:34; 16:9; Eze. 16:8, 59, 60, 62; Hosea 2:2, 16-20; Mal. 2:14; Matt. 25:1-13.
7For example, Gen. 29:23-25; S. of Sol. 4:12; 6:9; Deut. 22:13-21, 28, 29.
8Kiš, p. 2.
9The Hebrew original is in the reflexive form: “Not ashamed before one another.”
10Anne-Marie Ambert, “Cohabitation and Marriage: How Are They Related?” Contemporary Family Trends, Virtual Library (The Vanier Institute of the Family, September 2005), p. 16 (cited May 5, 2009). Online: www.vifamily.ca/library/cft/cohabitation.html. Italics in original.
11Allen Guenther, “A Typology of Israelite Marriage: Kinship, Socio-Economic, and Religious Factors,” JSOT 29 (2005): 402, 405. Compare Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007), p. 322, note 64.
Richard M. Davidson, Th.D., is the J.N. Andrews professor of Old Testament interpretation and chair of the Old Testament department of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.