The Truth About Living Together Before Marriage

Surely God doesn't mind if we live together without a marriage certificate. After all, it doesn't hurt anything. Or does it? Is there a reason why Christians should be objecting to this new morality?

The moral slide in our culture is seen in many ways, one of which is related to the number of people who are living together without the commitment of marriage. We live in a self-centered and pleasure-oriented society. Bible standards related to righteousness and morality are falling by the wayside. More and more couples are living together apart from the marriage bond. The trend is alarming. The flippant attitudes of some who “shack up together” are startling.

There is no effort in our day for many couples to even bother trying to conceal their unmarried status. They rent apartments, check in at motels, purchase houses (with their different names signed on the contracts), and visit their parents (expecting to be accepted and given the use of the guest bedroom). Since their idea is that they will live together if they “love” each other, and will stop living together if they stop “loving” each other, they prefer not to complicate the arrangement with a marriage commitment. Many pastors and churches have given approval to the “new morality.” The end result is the proliferation of all kinds of strange living arrangements. The mindset of a permanent marriage is not in their immediate plans.

A letter written by a young woman (addressed to one of her college teachers) says she is considering a live-in relationship with a man, and states the issues very well. She writes:

My boyfriend and I are contemplating living together for one or two years before getting married. We are intelligent, moral, law-abiding citizens. We love each other deeply. We want to live together, work together—to share, to trust, and to love one another. We want to test marriage before moving blindly into it. We do not have financial means for marriage; and if we decide marriage isn’t for us, we will just separate and avoid the heavy expense of divorce. Of what value is a piece of paper—the so-called marriage license—anyway? We are religious people, church members, and do not see any moral problems. Most broad-minded people think this will be the standard life-style for the future. Some people, who refuse to accept social change, including our parents, object to our plans. Why?

Because of the kind of thinking described in the letter above, cohabitation is more and more made to seem normal, and is becoming a substitute for marriage. Yet most sources indicate that nearly half of all cohabiting couples break up before the wedding, and those live-in couples who do marry are fifty percent more likely to divorce than those who did not first live together. In addition, those who lived-in before marriage are more likely to be unfaithful to their marriage vows, and generally experience more domestic violence than those who did not cohabit earlier.

Many people believe it is wrong to even question the morality and value of living together before marriage. It is becoming more and more acceptable in our society for young men and women to “try it out” before committing themselves to a life-long relationship. What are the moral implications involved in “live-in” relationships?

Living together really is not a good preparation for marriage. One secular book on marriage states that couples who lived together before marriage have significantly lower marital satisfaction than those who did not cohabit before the wedding. It is important to note that during the same time period in which living together before marriage has become acceptable, the rate of divorce has skyrocketed. Living together apparently has not helped to cement relationships.

Craig Alan Myers has said, “Couples engaged in fornication, and wanting to be married in the church or by the minister, should be asked to repent of their sin and refrain from those practices before a church wedding takes place … . Further, Christians ought to be taught the Scriptural truth that their bodies (and their sexuality) do not belong to themselves but to God. Fornication and other sexual sins are acts that God roundly condemns and will judge. The Bible flatly says, ‘Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [male prostitutes], nor abusers of themselves with mankind [sodomites], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). However, the good news is that God will forgive those sins and heal them, when the sinner is penitent. The very next sentence in the Scripture above says, ‘And such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6:11). There is forgiveness and cleansing in the blood of Christ for the repentant sinner!” (Myers, Craig Alan, “On Living Together Before Marriage,” BRF Witness, Volume 30, Number 5, September/October 1995.)

There are a number of social reasons for the rising practice of pre-marital cohabitation:

  • 1) A general breakdown of personal morality.
  • 2) The changing sexual values in society.
  • 3) Extended adolescence and later marriages.
  • 4) The availability of more effective methods of contraception.
  • 5) Tax laws which sometimes make marriage a disadvantage financially.

The primary factor, however, is related to the general human rebellion against the laws of God.

Committed Christians believe that sharing bed, breakfast, and bills (apart from a marriage bond) is a violation of the will of God. To the hundreds who are asking, “What’s wrong with living together before marriage, anyway?”—we offer the following paragraphs as a Christian response.

  1. Living together as husband and wife without being legally married is fornication.

Fornication is defined narrowly as “sexual intercourse between unmarried persons,” but sometimes it broadens to include all forms of sexual immorality. It is a sin which God will judge. The Bible states clearly (as quoted above) that fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers—will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). And again, God’s Word says that marriage is to be held in honor by all, and the marriage bed be kept undefiled—for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Hebrews 13:4). It is a sobering thought that “every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).

  1. God designed sex to be enjoyed by one man and one woman within the permanent shelter of total commitment to each other in marriage.

Any deviation from this model is a violation of God’s Law with some serious consequences. Jesus speaks of a woman who was living with a man who was not her husband (John 4:17-18) as a case of unmarried cohabitation. When Jesus spoke of her private life she quickly changed the subject. Jesus did not regard cohabitation and marriage as being equivalent in meaning. The lesson of history is that any civilization that turns from the commandments of God, and lavishly devotes itself to carnal pleasure, cannot long endure.

  1. The bodies of Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are not to grieve Him by wrong conduct.

Because of this principle, Christians cannot do exactly as they please. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 speaks clearly about what that means. We are to know that our bodies are dwelling places of the Holy Spirit who lives within, and that we are not our own, for we were bought with a price—and therefore believers are to glorify God in their bodies. God says that the proper place for the sexual relationship is within the bonds of honorable marriage. To engage in fornication is immoral; it is a sin against the Holy Spirit who dwells in the believer’s body.

  1. Sex without the binding commitment of marriage cheapens oneself and the other person involved.

Love without commitment is not really love at all, but rather it is lust. Marriage alone provides the security from the fear of being used, and seduced, and then abandoned.

Why is marriage so important? Why do we need to receive the church’s blessing and be registered by the state? Why do we encourage couples to save the sexual relationship for marriage? In order for a relationship between a man and woman to continue over the years, both partners must give each other their word completely. That is one of the reasons for a public wedding. Both need the support of the community.

Walter Trobisch in his little book entitled, I Married You, describes the three aspects of a normal marriage:

  • 1) The legal or public ceremony.
  • 2) The personal act of consent and commitment.
  • 3) The physical sexual union. (The sex act alone does not constitute marriage, for if that were true, there would be no such thing as fornication, because as soon as individuals engaged in the act, they would be married.)

Marriage is a public vow which makes the commitment more difficult to break. We treat marriage as a public contract, so that we will be reminded in our darker days, and during our times of temptation, of the importance of our obligation to love and cherish and nurture our chosen spouse with genuine care, even if there are difficult days.

Out of fear of losing her boyfriend, a young girl may decide to give in and have sex with him. In the end, she often loses him anyway—and then she feels used and humiliated. Many teenagers fall into the trap of “sex or else.” The boy says, “if you loved me, you would become intimate with me.” But when the girl gives in and consents to having sex, she often ends up getting dumped and is badly hurt. The fact is that if he really loved and cared for her, he wouldn’t ask her to yield to his sensual feelings.

  1. Violations of God’s standards of morality carry consequences which follow later in life.

Some of the many consequences of cohabitation and fornication are misplaced trust, unplanned pregnancy, venereal disease, and the negative Christian witness which the cohabiting lifestyle presents to the world. The few moments of ecstasy experienced in an illicit affair will be greatly outweighed by the hours of remorse that come from disobeying God.

Sex outside of marriage always does some kind of damage. It leaves some people grieving because they can no longer claim virginity. Others carry dark secrets about things they did in the past. Some are afraid of getting pregnant, or getting a venereal disease, including AIDS.

Another consequence of cohabitation is the greater likelihood of divorce if the couple later decides to marry. The National Survey of Families and Households found that couples who cohabit before marriage are 50% more likely to divorce. The same survey also found that unmarried couples living together are twice as likely to be unhappy later on in their relationship, than are those who are duly married. One writer says that cohabitation is not preparation for marriage; instead, it is training for divorce. One study found that “cohabiting couples show higher levels of aggression than either daters or married people” (Time magazine, September 5, 1988).

People who move in before making a marriage commitment are people who have not learned to practice delayed gratification. They want the benefits of a solid relationship before investing the time and effort to build a solid relationship. Later, when the road gets rocky, these folks won’t invest the time and effort to sustain the relationship either. One writer says, “Having sex too soon, moving in without commitment …, are the behaviors of basically immature, let-me-feel-good-now . . . people” (from “Ten Stupid Things Women do to Mess up their Lives” by Laura C. Schlessinger ©1994).

Those who urge a period of unmarried cohabitation in order to test the sincerity and durability of their love overlook a common characteristic of human nature. It is the sense of being bound that helps love to become stabilized. The couple that is firmly committed to the principle of lifelong togetherness, has a much greater chance of experiencing a genuine lasting relationship, than the couple who regards their domestic habitation as being subject to termination.

  1. Living together before marriage is an offense against God’s Law and is an injustice to one’s partner.

God’s original command in creation was that male and female should “cleave” (or “cling”) to one another in covenantal partnership, that is, in marriage (Genesis 2:24). A man shall leave father and mother, and become united to his wife, and they two shall become one flesh.

Our objection to living together before marriage is based upon the Biblical teaching that sexual activity outside of marriage is an offense against God’s Law. We are told in Ephesians 5:3 that there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality among God’s people.

The Bible has no direct teaching on what should be involved in a marriage ceremony, nor does it tell how the ceremony should be conducted to make it a valid transaction. However, marriage has always been a public event. There has always been a specific point at which persons were recognized as being married. The Bible has specific regulations about the sins of adultery and fornication. It is assumed that the community will know who is married and who is not married. Marriage is not a private affair. It takes place within the community. And the Christian is a member of a special community—the Body of Christ. Our entire life (including our role in marriage) is lived out as a member of this special community. In the wedding ceremony, the couple makes pledges in the presence of family, friends, the church, the state, and God. When this commitment has been expressed, then the man and woman are ready for physical consummation. This pattern is in harmony with the teaching found in God’s Word.

A public marriage ceremony demonstrates that we are to take seriously our responsibility to a larger society—including our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow Christians. We do not live to ourselves. We live as members of a community whose approval is important, whose love is desired, and whose reputation is esteemed. A marriage which occurs under God, before an audience, and ratified by the laws of the state is a strong statement of intention. It says that the couple intends to worship God, to contribute to the welfare of the community, and to put the commitment to persevere in the marriage on public record.

The marriage bond bestows meaning upon the couple’s sexual activity as expressed in the phrase “one flesh.” It highlights the complete interchange of the two selves, as in the bride’s delightful statement in the Song of Solomon, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song of Solomon 2:16). Marriage confirms the mutual commitment and bonding of a man and woman by specifying and guarding certain expectations and responsibilities. In cohabitation, by way of contrast, there is mutual exploitation within the possibility of potential flight. And that does not tend to promote strong and lasting relationships.

A Hallmark card says, “I can’t promise you forever, but I can promise you today.” This is one of the newest love cards for the current generation—no commitment—just warm fuzzy feelings. And then when the mood changes and the fuzzies are gone, the earlier “love” and “respect” begin to fade. Living together before marriage is not an effective way to test the compatibility of potential marriage partners. Living together without marriage usually does more emotional harm than good. Total commitment is what makes a lasting and good marriage. Yet commitment is what cohabiting couples are purposely avoiding. Couples who mate before they are mates, tend to rely on sexual intimacy to keep them together. Strong human relationships require more than that. Couples who share the same roof before the public marriage ceremony often build a shaky foundation for their life together.

Our churches need to call for a renewed commitment to chastity and to the sacredness of sex within marriage. Kevin Ray, in Disciple Renewal, says, “There is a powerful movement today to ignore the clear teaching of Scripture regarding human sexuality. This problem is pervasive. In our society, living together outside of marriage is now acceptable. Divorce is viewed as an easy alternative to the struggle of making a marriage work. Children are being taught in our public schools that sexual activity is acceptable as long as it is done ‘safely.’ Homosexual behavior is being promoted as normal human sexual expression. The perversion of biblical teaching regarding human sexuality threatens to undermine society and is bringing great division to the church of Jesus Christ. On the issue of human sexuality, we have abandoned the God-given standard, and are therefore in danger of incurring God’s wrath. This is a point where the church must be called to faithfulness.”

The church needs to reach out to those who are suffering the devastating effects of venereal diseases, and make their days as pain-free as possible by offering the peace which Christ brings to those who embrace Him—but we must also teach abstinence from sexual encounters outside of the true and honorable marriage bond. Christians must repudiate the “new morality.”

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