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ss nucleus - summer 2005,  Cohabitation


Becky Payne addresses an increasingly accepted phenomenon

On 5 February 2005, cohabitation hit the British headlines with an article on the front page of the Times. ‘Unmarried families are more likely to fall apart’, it proclaimed, before analysing the recent trends in cohabitation, marriage and childbearing. Research from the Office for National Statistics shows that at least 75% of women cohabit before a first marriage,[1] and many people are choosing to cohabit instead of marrying. According to Harry Benson from the Bristol Community Family Trust quoted in the Times article, ‘The findings show that it is no longer plausible to argue that all relationship types are equal.’

Cohabitation is an accepted norm in 21st century Britain. An online dictionary described it this way: ‘If two people, especially a man and woman who are not married, cohabit, they live together and have a sexual relationship.’ To some it is seen as a trial of marriage, for some it is an efficient way to save money, and for yet others it is a deliberate alternative to marriage. Almost all of my non-Christian friends in long-term relationships have cohabited at some stage, and many are firmly convinced that it is a necessary prelude to marriage. ‘How can you marry someone you haven’t lived with,’ one of them asked me. ‘Marriage is such a big commitment; it seems you’re just not taking it seriously enough!’

So how do we respond to this issue as cHristians? It’s easy to quote a few texts out of context to back up whatever position we want to defend. But I want to set out a framework for evaluating the issue and what our response might be in various practical situations. We’ll look at three big biblical themes – the reality of the fall, the gift of marriage and how God’s chosen people should live. Although these may at first seem irrelevant, stick with it, as they provide an essential context for thinking about cohabitation.

The reality of the fall

We live in a screwed up world. The mess and tragedy we see around us isn’t how it was meant to be. When all mankind chose to rebel against God then sin, suffering and pain entered the world. Even our purest emotions and most selfless deeds are tainted by the fall. In our closest love relationships, selfishness co-exists with love. The fall has corrupted our definition of love – the Bible portrays love as sacrificial commitment (read the whole of 1 John), but the media tells us it is about satisfaction and personal fulfilment. As people rejected God and his standards, he let them live as they wanted (see Romans 1), and they began to reap the consequences.

So part of the reason that cohabitation is an issue is because we live in a fallen world. However, our friend’s biggest need isn’t to reform their sex lives, but to come to know God and to have a relationship with him. It is only his Spirit at work in us who can give us the power to live in a way that pleases him. Without his help I can’t even control my tongue, let alone my hormones!

The gift of marriage

God designed human marriage to be a visual illustration of his relationship with his people. Scripture is full of references to this.[2] Because of this, it’s impossible to understand marriage completely without understanding the character of God. Ultimately it reflects the impending greatest marriage of all time between Christ and his church, which will be everlasting and completely faithful. As God is faithful, compassionate, loving and committed, so our greatest love relationship should reflect these principles. So let’s descend from these lofty heights to look a bit more closely at Christian marriage.

Marriage is an exclusive, committed relationship between a man and a woman. It is characterised by the couple leaving their parents, being united together as they form a new family unit, and becoming ‘one flesh’ through sexual union.[3] It has been described as ‘the ultimate human connection in which two people commit themselves fully and trothfully to each other in a life-long journey of deep sharing, mutual respect and growing intimacy.’[4] The old English word troth means fidelity, truth, trust, love and commitment.

Marriage is recognised by the community and provides a strong and stable bond within which children can be nurtured and brought up. Commitment is right at the very heart of marriage, and this committed and faithful relationship is also the only context in which the Bible allows sexual intercourse. As one minister put it, ‘sex is the body language of life-long commitment.’ God created us as sexual beings – and marriage is an institution that allows sexual expression in the right context rather than in a wrong one.

In the ancient wedding vows, two people promise in front of family and friends to love and honour each other. They declare that they will forsake all others. They state that no matter what happens, they will be faithful to each other as long as they live (see below). These vows are made before God and with a recognition of their need for his help. It’s a truly awesome commitment and takes a lot of guts!

question of intent
______, will you take ______ to be your wife, Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

wedding vows
I ______ do take thee, ______, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,* until we are parted by death and to this end I give you my word.

exchange of rings
I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you within the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

* or for the bride, ‘love, cherish and obey’

Of course sin has touched marriage as it has every part of life, and sadly too often reality doesn’t match these standards, but this is God’s standard, and it is to this that we must compare cohabitation.

In the definition of cohabitation described above, does it match up to this picture of marriage? A couple who sometimes sleep together at each other’s places aren’t cohabiting by definition, but this is another example of non-marital sexual union. Equally, it would be difficult to pigeon-hole the very wide spectrum of cohabitation into a small space. Every relationship is different, some more closely resemble God’s ideal than others. There is a whole spectrum from a young couple who rent the same house and have sex, to people who share a mortgage, children and bank account.

The independent think tank, Civitas, produced a report called, ‘Does marriage matter?’ that examined evidence arising from the social sciences for both marriage and cohabitation. It established that more than half of children born into a cohabiting relationship would see their parents split up before they reached the age of two, compared to only 8% of children born to married parents. It said that married mothers had rates of depression three times lower than mothers who were cohabiting and that cohabitees were three times more likely to report that arguments had become physical over the past year.[5]

The differences aren’t really surprising. In marriage two people have made a lifelong commitment and have pledged to see things through ‘until we are parted by death’. The ring on their fourth finger is a constant reminder of the promises they have made. Without that determined commitment, it’s easy for people to drift apart gradually, or to meet someone more exciting. In cohabitation, there are no public vows; and promises made in private can never carry the same weight as declarations before witnesses, in the presence of God.

For all these reasons, cohabitation falls short of God’s best for mankind. His model of relationship involves binding commitment, and this is manifested in the death of Jesus on the cross, which can never be reversed, changed or erased.

Living as God’s people

As God’s chosen people, we are called to live holy lives,[6] distinctively different from those around us,[7] showing that we now have fundamentally different identities and outlooks. We are told not only to avoid sin, but even its appearance. We are to flee from temptation. We are called to show God’s love and compassion to a hurting world. We are not called to judge those outside the church,[8] or to condemn others, but to bring every area of our own lives before the scrutiny of God’s word, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit.[9] We have a responsibility to look out for others in the community of believers, to support, encourage and challenge them, and to point them towards God and to living in his ways. We also have a responsibility not to place a stumbling block in their way – ie by acting in a way that would cause them to sin.[10]

To those in the world, we are to be a witness to God through our words and our lives,[11] remembering that their greatest need is for salvation. It is God who will one day judge them (and us), and we don’t need to do that for them.

Practical outworking of principles

I want to illustrate them by a few common examples. I don’t have all the answers, and these issues aren’t straightforward; you may come to some very different conclusions. However, here goes:

Scenario one

Dawn and Tom are both non-Christians and have been friends of yours for several years. They’re madly in love, sexually active, and wanting to make a deeper commitment to each other. They decide to move in together. They tell you at a restaurant full of friends. Everyone else is congratulating them, but you feel strongly that cohabitation is second best, and wish they’d get married. How should you respond?

I’ve been in this very situation, and still don’t know what the right answer is! These three principles apply:

a) Fallen world
They aren’t Christians, and their greatest need is to know God. They have already been sinning by sleeping together, and that’s only to be expected from people who have rejected God himself and his way of doing things. However perhaps by moving in together they are recognising that a casual relationship isn’t what they want, and we should applaud the fact that their relationship is moving more towards a biblical model of marriage, even though it’s not there yet.

b) Marriage
Both their current relationship and a cohabiting one fall short of the ideal of marriage, but they’re moving in the right direction. However something I have often seen in the lives of my friends is that the girl is very keen to get married and sees cohabiting as the first step in that direction, whereas when the boy has sex and clean shirts on tap (sorry about the stereotyping) he’s content to leave things as they are. This makes us ask, ‘Is their relationship really moving towards committed marriage?’ Only they can answer that.

c) Living as God’s holy people
God will judge the world, we don’t need to. Are we conducting our relationships in a way that will point towards him and to the benefits of following his commands? I think we really need God’s wisdom to respond to this situation in an appropriate way – it would be tragic if we gave them the impression that what God really wants from them is a wedding, not a relationship with him.

Scenario two

Your friends Jo and Dave have been living together for three years. Jo becomes a Christian. She comes to you and asks if she should leave him as he isn’t a Christian.

This is such a tricky situation and one that comes up frequently. Many people have been hurt and relationships destroyed through unwise advice. Often a young and vulnerable Christian is pelted with verses such as ‘do not be unequally yoked with an unbeliever’[12] and rushed into a decision that they later regret.

In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul addresses a similar situation. He says that if you are married to a non-believer, you should not leave them just because you have become a Christian. However if they choose to leave because of your faith, you should let them go. What is the difference here? The couple Paul speaks of are married, and I think the answer to Jo and Dave’s problem may well depend on how similar their relationship is to a marriage. As previously stated, all cohabiting relationships are different and some more resemble marriage than others. Casual dating with sex is different to sharing a home and a life together, especially where there are children involved. There’s no need for Jo to rush to a decision, I suggest she takes time to think and pray about it, and perhaps an appropriate response would be to talk to him about getting married. If he is not interested in this commitment, she is free to leave and the church should support her in whatever way she may need help.

I know this is controversial; it’s a tricky situation that is a result of a fallen world. If the relationship isn’t so deep (ie just dating), I think the instructions not to marry become more relevant and the correct thing to do is more likely to be to end the relationship. Please write into Nucleus with your thoughts and experiences.

Scenario three

Pete and Claire are both Christian doctors. They’re engaged and are getting married in six months’ time.They’re busy saving for the wedding and are buying a house together. If they move in together as soon as the house comes through, they’ll save money, and after all they’ve already made a commitment to each other.

I suggest you use the three principles again to think through this scenario (see box below). I’d like to add the following thoughts: private promises are not the same as public vows. If Pete and Claire really think it’s OK to live together because of the private commitment they have already made, then why are they bothering to get married at all? Also what significance does the wedding ceremony actually have if it is nothing beyond a formal ratification of what has already happened and a licence for sex? Many people find that the closer it gets to marriage, the more their lives become intertwined and the harder it is to resist anyway; rather than fleeing temptation, spending each night in the same house seems to be inviting it. It runs the risk that the wedding day will reek of hypocrisy.

Principle: fallen world
Application: as sinners we're prone to temptation, which we're urged to flee

Principle: marriage
Application: we're told to marry fellow believers so it's great that two Christians have fallen in love

Principle: living as God's holy people
Application: what is appropriate for God's people in this situation?
What effect will their living in the same house have on:

  • younger Christians
  • non-believers: does it make 'living together' look acceptable?

How will their close proximity affect the dynamics of the relationship?
What can we do as friends of this couple to help them?...

  • perhaps swapping rooms with one of them would be a practical help
  • we need to act in a loving and compassionate manner - too often Christians in this position feel condemned by the church which leads to them drifting out of fellowship and often away from God

We also need to be prepared to challenge them, within the context of an accountable Christian friendship

The following two scenarios have more to do with general issues of temptation:

Scenario four

Two Christian students living in a mixed household want to start dating. They have six months on their housing contract, and can’t afford to break the contract and move out. What should they do?

Have a think about how the three principles apply – the box (above) may help.

Using these three principles to think it through, what conclusion do you reach? In the overall context, it might be best to avoid dating until they have found new separate houses, and in the meantime, to be separately accountable to other Christians. It would be a cop-out to say, ‘we can’t control our feelings’, which is not true! We should flee from temptation, not try to tackle it head-on.

Scenario five

Ben and Maria are second year students. They live in different cities but spend most weekends with each other. They both live in student houses, and the accommodation options seem to be staying in the same room or on the living room floor. What should they do?

Again use the grid to think through the issues. This is common, and one that my husband and I experienced for over a year. I think it’s never appropriate to stay in the same room, and whenever possible it’s good to avoid staying in the same house, although sometimes that will be inevitable when other arrangements don’t work out. When that happens, try to make sure there are other people around who will keep you accountable and try not to make it a habit. We’ve been very grateful for friends who let one of us stay in a spare room or sofa. Doing the right thing costs (especially if you’re staying with someone whose kids scream all night!), but in the end it’s worth it!


God wants what’s best for us. The world constantly encourages us to gratify our desires, but if we simply follow these, we rapidly become their slave. Jesus didn’t come to give us a set of rules, but life in all its fullness. He’s not a cosmic kill-joy, but knows what’s best for us because he made us. Living with a person we love is a very attractive proposition, but Jesus challenges us to take a more long-term view of what will advance his kingdom. By cohabiting, who are you serving: your bank balance, another person or your own desires? It’s a constant challenge to all of us, married or single, cohabiting or not to examine our lives in the light of God’s Word and to choose to put him first in every area of our lives:

And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.[13]


Special thanks to Gareth Payne, Daniel Papworth and Hugh Thomson for their thoughts on the issue of cohabitation, and for reading and commenting on the drafts of this article.

  2. Is 54:5; Je 3; Rev 19:7,21:9
  3. Gn 2:24
  4. Atkinson D, Field D (eds). New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. Leicester: IVP, 1995:565
  5. O’Neill R. Does Marriage Matter? London: Civitas, 2002:4,5,22
  6. 1 Thes 4:17; 1 Pet 4:16
  7. Rom 12:2
  8. 1 Cor 5:12,13
  9. 1 Cor 2:12; Heb 4:12
  10. Rom 14:13, 15:1
  11. 1 Pet 3:15; Col 4:5,6
  12. 2 Cor 6:14
  13. 2 Cor 5:15
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