She stirred her coffee nervously and announced in a low voice, “My mother has moved in with a friend she met in her retirement community. I like him. Really. I think he’s good for her. But they’ll screw up their finances if they get married, so they didn’t really consider it. I don’t know what to say to my kids.”
“I miss church,” said the young woman who dropped into the university chaplaincy where I work. “I miss the singing. God matters to me. I want to hear someone explain the Bible to me. But I’m living with my boyfriend. He’s not a Christian, but he wants me to be happy and encourages me to go to church and even offered to go with me. I don’t want to go because I’m afraid they’d only condemn us.”
“Dear Mom,” wrote a university student, “I wanted to let you know that John and I are planning to move in together next semester. I know this will be disappointing to you, and want to reassure you that I value the principles you gave me, but we have been dating for a long time and we really love and respect each other. Sharing a single apartment would also save a lot of money. I still expect us to get married sometime, and I hope this makes sense to you. We’re not turning our backs on God, but we think this will be best for us.”
Perhaps you know of a situation like one of these. Cohabiting—living together as a sexual couple without being married—has become common in North America. Recent census data in the U.S. and Canada shows that the number of unmarried couples living together has exponentially increased in the last 20 years. And if George Barna’s research is to be believed, there is little difference between the attitudes and behavior of young adults raised in the church and their unchurched peers (to view this research, visit tinyurl.com/BarnaStudy). Moreover, Barna names “church experiences related to sexuality” as one of the top six reasons young Christians leave the church.
People don't expect relevant advice for their sexual lives from their church and can't imagine finding grace.
This should concern us. The gap between what has become cultural practice and what is taught in churches has become so vast that people don’t expect relevant advice for their sexual lives from their church and can’t imagine finding grace from the church in the midst of their choices. Even though families increasingly muddle through in a loving way in spite of disappointment—utterly casting off a daughter or son over “shacking up” with someone is largely the drama of a previous generation—few can imagine finding a church that could also lovingly muddle through.
We dream of faithful, loving, and committed partnerships—marriage—for our daughters and sons. For our friends. For ourselves. We recognize God’s blessing in and for such relationships. To an older generation of Christians, cohabitation appears as a challenge to this dream, a distorted second-best. But when I said that to a cluster of students—Christians and nonbelievers—at my university, they were all surprised.
“My parents really don’t want me to think of getting married until I’ve graduated and found a job,” explained a Christian student. “And that’s probably going to be years away. It would be weird to wait until I was 30 to have sex. But I guess I’m not likely to actually live with someone until we’re married.”
“I think my parents would be upset if I didn’t live with my boyfriend before we got married!” stated a non-Christian, somewhat bewildered by my assertion. “They’d think were just crazily throwing a party and weren’t taking the relationship and our commitments seriously.”
While Christians participate in our culture’s enthusiasm for living as we wish when it comes to money, fashion, career choices, cars, and entertainment, surely it should be no surprise that young people assume sex is part of the smorgasbord of things that they can grab as they desire. Hedging sexuality with rules—going this far is OK; that touch is too much; looking at pornography is bad but Victoria Secret’s “angels” are OK—only creates a new kind of legalism. We need to grab hold of the idea of offering up our bodies as living sacrifices in a fresh way. But cohabiting couples should not necessarily be the first people to face this challenge.
So how should we respond?
1. Remember the law of Christ—the rule of love. That rule is more important than drawing a line in the sand. Unmarried couples live together for varied reasons: seniors in a retirement community, new Christians who are in an established relationship with an unbelieving partner, a pair of recent university grads who plan to get married eventually. To respond lovingly, you need to know a person’s story. Galatians 6:2 calls for gentleness and patience as our response and goes on to talk about restoration, not condemnation, for Christians.
2. Be forthright as well as gentle. Explain your concerns. God does want his people to live within married covenants rather than merely cohabit. You can respectfully refuse to let your 20-something son share the guest room with his partner when they visit, but you should do your best to gently explain your thinking and make their visit possible.
3. Advocate for faithfulness and commitment—within cohabitation if that is the starting point. Support loving, exclusive sexual partnership—even if it lacks the legal status of marriage. This does not mean you consider marriage insignificant; it does mean you are willing to love people as they are.
4. Hold off on your judgment. What would your judgment accomplish? Ask questions: Why are you living together without getting married? What can I do to support you and love you without giving you the impression that I think this is right? In a youth culture in which hook-ups are unremarkable, cohabitation is a kind of commitment toward faithfulness, sexual exclusivity, and responsible shared life.
5. Drop the old arguments and scare tactics against cohabitation. They’ve lost credibility. Cohabitation may once have made long-term marital success less likely (a claim you can find on many Christian websites), but that is not based on reliable data. It is the casualness of the relationships rather than cohabitation itself that predicts future trouble.
6. Avoid biblical proof texts about the “abomination of fornication.” In both the Old and New Testaments, God affirms marriage as a picture of his relationship with his people, and so it is right to honor marriage and to aim for it. But consider Jesus’ response when the woman who was caught in adultery was brought to him (John 8:11).
7. Challenge people to delve into Scripture and to grow in God. Other parts of our lives fall into order when first things really are first. A friend in a large student church in Oxford, England, caught our attention when she said, “We used to have a sermon on sexual morality each term. Then we noticed that hearing a clear sermon on sexual morality was less successful in teaching sexual purity than getting the students to dig into the Bible themselves. A year of consciously trying to apply Scripture reshaped people’s lives—including their sexual lives—in ways the old sermons never did.” God himself became the center and everything else fell into place.