God’s Plan for Marriage: How to Respond to Cohabitation in the Church

Many of us would like to think that the church is immune to the growing trend of cohabitation prior to, or instead of, marriage. Unfortunately, this cultural trend has crept into the pews as fewer church members recognize cohabitation as a violation of biblical sexual ethics.

Scripture is clear in its condemnation of fornication (a KJV-style word for a pre-marital sexual relationship). Fornication and fornicators (as well as adulterers) are described as evil, subject to judgment, and not heirs of the kingdom of God (Matt 15:19; Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Cor 6:9; Heb 13:4).

Beyond the clear scriptural statements regarding fornication, cohabitation also presents another breach of biblical ethics. God established the sexual relationship between a man and a woman in Genesis 2 as a sign of the covenant of marriage. Just like the rainbow serves as a tangible reminder of God’s covenant with Noah that He will not destroy the earth by flood again, the sexual relationship between a husband and wife demonstrates the exclusive, permanent union of marriage. It is so intimate that Gen 2:24 says the man and woman “shall become one flesh.” 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 that he established in Genesis 2 prior to the Fall.

So how do we address the issue of cohabitation in the church? First, remember that cohabitation is not the unpardonable sin. After Paul gives a vice list in 1 Cor 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 Cor 6:11).

We need to work with cohabiting Christian couples to help them confess and repent of this sin. Ideally, this confession and repentance should have a public element to it within the church. This does not necessarily mean that they air their dirty laundry before the church on Sunday morning, but it should at least include their families and those in their circle of influence who are aware of the situation. Depending on the church, it may also include the entire church body.

Second, we need to help these couples separate from their sinful lifestyle. Many couples use cohabitation as a “test drive” for marriage, but it is actually a recipe for disaster. 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 for the remainder of the time leading up to the marriage, then they are not interested in honoring God with their marriage.

We simply cannot turn a blind eye to the issue of cohabitation. The biblical covenant of marriage is too important to God’s design for mankind to adopt the world’s preferences for pleasure without commitment.

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This article was originally published in The Alabama Baptist, August 8, 2013, as part of their Faith & Family series. You can find the original article here.

9 comments

  1. I wonder how we send this message to our church families and to those who are attending church and seek to know the Lord. What forums would present themselves for exploring this topic? I have seen pastors in small churches counseling “visitors” about their path to church membership and the roadblock of co-habitation. Unfortunately some of these living arrangements are of mature couples, or are economically-inspired and have deep roots.
    Perhaps the more important “cultural” question is: Is this an issue that can be reduced to a church membership issue with people choosing to be “in the church” through attendance and participation but not “of the church?” I think not, but I wonder how a pragmatic pastor would choose to respond to his church community…

    1. Will, that is a very good question. In some respects, the best forum for addressing this issue may be the counseling time with a pastor related to church membership. However, I believe that it goes beyond a church membership issue. Much of the research on cohabitation gives evidence that any subsequent marriages are much more likely to fail. With the demise of marriage already evident in our culture, we certainly don’t need to endorse anything that causes further harm.

      As for participation in church but not membership, I think we can welcome visitors and attendees who do not seek membership, but we still need to call them to holiness. Cohabitation in most forms involves a sexual relationship and would amount to fornication. It is also a violation of the marriage analogy used by God to describe his relationship with his people (God/Israel or Christ/church). You do not see God informally attaching himself to a people with no real, covenantal commitment.

      I actually brought up the issue of cohabitation while teaching my Sunday school class a couple of weeks ago (we were in 1 Thes 4). During that time, I actually had someone confess to having been in a cohabiting relationship and how God drew her out of it through the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of our church.

      As with many things, I think we want to ignore it so as not to offend anyone, but this is a serious issue that we need to confront in the church.

  2. Thanks, Evan. This is a very hot issue where we live now, among church-attending people in our community. It is a “given” that this is the arrangement of both non-believing and believing young adults, with no difference between the two. We have been dismayed at the lack of commitment to holiness on this issue on the part of Bible-believing individuals in the churches here. Humility but faithfulness to Scripture are so important, and as you said, must be confronted with the truths of God’s Word.

  3. The issue of younger couples is obvious to address the pressure point is our senior saints that are cohabitating because of the potential loss of a pension check. Many pastors leave this issue alone, but it is just as bad as the younger couples.

  4. The more challenging scenario (as if), which will continue to become more prevalent, is cohabitation plus children. That complicates matters a bit.

  5. I’d like to say that this doesn’t go on in the church my wife and I are at but chances are, there is a percentage that are dealing with this. Taking into account I help lead youth, what do you think is the best way for me to lead a conversation with a student, or students, should this kind of discussion ever arise?

    1. Logan, you might be surprised by your own church. Unless your church is small enough to know everyone and their actual marital arrangements (as in you have seen their marriage licenses), I would guess that you actually have cohabiting couples in your church. I have seen new couples come to the church and pass themselves off as married–giving the same last name, etc. However, over time it comes out.

      With youth, give teach them the biblical understanding and importance of marriage and give them the facts about how unsuccessful cohabitation is. Many will likely not grasp it at a young age, but most will understand the devastating aspects of divorce. When they know that cohabitation significantly increases the rate of divorce, they might think twice.

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