As a pastor of a Church in Chicago one of the more common questions I receive is whether or not a dating or engaged couple should cohabitate. This is an important question that every Christian should wrestle through with their Bible’s open. The Bible speaks much into the purpose and the power of marriage. I find that many Christians who ask this question have simply never really wrestled with the Biblical texts and come to meaningful conclusions based on God’s Word. I originally wrote these ideas down after counseling a number of young couples who were asking this question, or who I somehow discovered were either living together or going on vacations together and sharing a room. I needed a resource to be able to pull out around a dinner table and walk through step by step my logic and reasoning for suggesting couples not cohabitate before marriage. After spending time and prayer with many couples on this issue, I have watched repeatedly as the Holy Spirit has moved powerfully in dating couple’s lives. Time and time again I have seen couples make the hard but godly choice to move out until marriage. At times even defying their own parents and counsel of close friends. And I have seen time and time again these marriages flourish.
What I have shared below is by no means the full case to be made. There are other insights that should be added to the list. I want to encourage anybody who reads this who may be currently cohabitating, to prayerfully consider what I have shared below – and to invite your own Pastor(s) into the conversation. Your Church is the most powerful community in your life to help form godliness in you, and to help build and protect your marriage for the years to come.
1) Two Becoming One Flesh
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.Genesis 2:24 (ESV)
… and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.Mark 10:8 (ESV)
What does it mean for “two to become one?” Biblically this can mean a lot of things. In one very direct sense it is a reference to sexual intercourse which knits two people together in a deeply significant spiritual way. But it is more than just sex that is being referenced in this idea. “Two becoming one” refers to the full knitting together of two lives through the lifelong covenant of marriage. Marriage establishes a man and a woman as a new single unit. While neither of their individuality is entirely lost in the process, something entirely new is gained. The “two becoming one” includes every aspect of life: money, vision & direction, children, homes, finances, decision making, hardships, joys, worship, etc. Intimacy and romance are also part of that new oneness. The intimacy of a home and the privacy of a bedroom are major components of a person’s life. These aspects of our life are designed to be brought together in marriage when the “two become one.” We would readily acknowledge that it would highly unusual and inappropriate for one man to share these intimate space with another man’s wife. In the same way, the single Christian ought to rejoice in the potential future blessing of marriage where oneness in those intimate spaces may be experienced.
2) Jesus’ Words to the Woman at the Well
You’re right! You don’t have a husband — for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”John 4:17 (NLT)
This verse is particularly important in this conversation because Jesus directly speaks into the issue of cohabitation. Notice in this verse that when Jesus speaks to the woman, the judgment is against both her issue of serial marriages & divorces, as well as the fact that she is currently cohabitating with a man that she is not married to. We are not told in Jesus’ statement whether or not this woman is physically intimate with the man she is living with. We are only told that they are living together. This is best brought out from the text in the NLT translation which states the case clearly.
What is powerful about this passage is Jesus’ care and concern for this woman. Yes – there is conviction that comes from the Word of God speaking and declaring sin in our life. Part of the law’s intention was to condemn. But grace was intended to forgive and heal. Jesus does not leave this woman in her state of sin. Rather he speaks to her the very words of life, and she and her entire town discover the wonder and the beauty of Jesus their Messiah. If you are reading this blog and you are currently living with one whom you are not yet married to, see this woman at the well and find great hope for the joy of Jesus’ healing.
3) Forming Bad Habits
Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!Song of Solomon 2:5-6 (ESV)
Well I couldn’t write a post on marriage and sexuality without at least one quote from Song of Solomon. Yes – that right – there is an entire book of the Bible that deals explicitly with marriage and sexuality. I selected above one of the more subtle passages of the young couple’s romantic love for each other. When a couple chooses (as I have heard a number of Christian dating couples suggest) to live together, and perhaps even share a bed together, but not be physically intimate together, there is something of a bad habit that is being formed that I believe would be unhealthy for a marriage. If during the dating & engagement process you form the habit of sharing a bed but not sharing each other physically, you would be essentially forming a habit that you would need to relearn how to break once you were married. A healthy marriage does not want those walls and physical boundaries up in the bedroom. A healthy marriage wants to fully enjoy each other as we see in Song of Solomon.
4) Do Not Awaken Love Until It Pleases
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.Song of Solomon 2:7
“Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.””Song of Solomon 2:15 (ESV)
While we are in the book of Song of Solomon we must deal with one of the more common refrains in that book. We see it in verse 2:7 above, “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” What is the meaning of this phrase – it is simply the consistent wisdom of the Scriptures that we must not engage in sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage. It is worth noting that this verse comes in the midst of quite an erotic scene in Song of Solomon. It is as if the writer warning the reader “Don’t ruin how sweet sexuality can be within the covenant of marriage, by chasing after it before you’re married. Save it for marriage.“
In that same chapter, only a few verses later we come across this little advice to “catch the foxes” lest they “spoil the vineyard.” Waiting for marriage is like guarding a vineyard. When the vineyard is beginning to blossom and the beginnings of fruit are showing, we are told that a wise vine-dresser guards the vineyard and protects it from long term harm by not letting little foxes enter in. This idea is so vital. God is not a cosmic killjoy, rather He is good and wise and knows what is best for us and what is most honoring to Him. God has made us as sexual beings, not as our root identity but as part of the human experience. Sexuality can, if practiced outside of God’s design, cause serious long term harm. Psychologists are regularly discovering the consequences of the false promises of the sexual revolution (see my article related to this here). Entire generations have thought that casual sex with no lasting meaning might give life. But psychology is overwhelmed with men and women now with scar upon scar as a result of straying from God’s commands. The Bible’s advice is sweet to the soul and avoids the very real long term scars of straying from God’s command.
5) For the Sake of Non-Believers
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.Matthew 5:13–16 (ESV)
Abstain from every form (or appearance) of evil.1 Thessalonians 5:22 (ESV)
The point of these verses is that the Christian life is both an upward and an outward life. It is an upward life because the Christian is aiming first and foremost to live for the glory of God. Our hidden motivations of our heart are postured upwards towards the God who is worthy of an obedient life. But secondly – our lives are to be lived outwardly amidst a watching world. There is something salty and contagious about life so dead set on honoring God. This is exactly what Jesus is intends when he says to “let your light shine” and to be the “salt of the Earth.” The non-believing world is watching to see if we have something better to offer. And when it comes to marriage, Christians do have something better to offer. Christian marriages that abide by biblical structures have far far far better rates of success, happiness, and intimacy within the marriage. Why? Because God’s design works. When Christians choose to blur the lines by sleeping at each other’s house, we must ask what our witness is saying to our non-believing neighbors. Does their understanding of your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend paint a picture in their mind that this is a couple who has a very high view of the covenant of marriage and is peculiarly living for Jesus?
6) For the Sake of the Less Mature Christian
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?1 Corinthians 3:1–4 (ESV)
…for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.Hebrews 5:13–14 (ESV)
In much the same vein as number five above, the Christian should also be concerned for other believers and what their lifestyle and witness is communicating to them. The follower of Christ should always be concerned about those in their local church. His own life should be increasingly reflecting the work of Christ in his life, and serving as an example to those less mature in the faith that God has put around him. Any Church may have any number of brand new followers of Christ who are not yet learned in the doctrine of marriage and the commands to “keep the marriage bed pure.” Or perhaps, they are immature believers who deeply struggle with past sins of sexuality and are experiencing temptation in their life. As a brother and a sister in Christ we want to come alongside struggling Christians and provide counsel and care and most importantly a vivid witness the work of the Holy Spirit in our own life in order to give the less mature Christian an example to follow. If the less mature Christian were see a member of their their church sharing a home, or sharing a hotel room, or sharing a bed with someone they are not married to yet, this could sow seeds in their life that could cause them to stumble in many different ways. God forbid our actions cause another brother to stumble. As a Christian we make it our aim to not to put any stumbling block before another brother or sister in Christ.
7) Asking What Motivation Is Driving This Decision
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”1 Peter 1:14–16 (ESV)
At the end of the day, in choosing to cohabitate, what is the root desire of the heart? We are very good at giving any number of misleading excuses as to why a particular choice is the right choice to make – all while avoiding the very real deeper issues of the heart. It takes a prayer filled and reflective person to actually be able to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the deeper motivations of the heart. But I do find as I counsel many couples that for most (not all – but most), the initial reasons given for choosing to live together before marriage are not the honest basis for their decision. Often the initial reasons are around saving money, or saving time, or something practical like that. But upon intentional reflection there typically is a deeper worship issue at play. The desire to live together and enjoy the comforts of money and minutes saved is greater than the desire to honor Jesus Christ. Oh Christian – whenever you do the hard reflective work and this kind of discovery is made in your own heart, resolve then and there to elevate Jesus as King once again. As the great Puritan teacher John Owen once said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
8) Fleeing Temptation
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.1 Corinthians 6:18 (ESV)
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.2 Timothy 2:22 (ESV)
It is difficult for modern Western Christians to appreciate how sexualized our culture has become. Just by waking up in the morning and turning on the news, or driving down the highway and seeing billboards, or walking into a store and being exposed to the advertisement – we are bombarded by the normalization of what the Bible considers lust and adultery. It is helpful to recognize this because often we make decisions around dating and even decisions that extend into our marriages that by a cultural standard seem appropriate, but by a Biblical standard are unbelievably tempting.
Being in a dating relationship is already a “tempting” situation. When dating and engaged you are increasingly finding the person you are getting to know more and more attractive and spending more and more time together. It is for this reasons that every Christian dating/engaged couple should have firm physical boundaries that are shared with accountability partners in their life who are going to help them “keep their marriage bed pure.” The passages above reveal what Christians are to do with temptation – we are to flee! The goal is not to cuddle up next to sin (pun intended), but rather the goal is to flee from temptation in order to honor Christ and live the “life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19).”
9) Abiding in the Wisdom of Your Elders
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”1 Peter 5:5 (ESV)
As a Pastor at a Church – the plurality of the Elders (meaning the gathered wisdom of the elders) has a particular place of authority in member of that Church’s life. In a world like ours that detests all authority, this concept seems outrageous. Yet – Biblically every member is to not only seek the wisdom of their Pastors but also to choose to abide by the wisdom of their Pastors. I cannot speak for any other Church other than the one I pastor at. But for our Church – our elders have agreed that living together or sleeping together (even when not sexually active) outside of the covenant of marriage is dishonoring to God. Therefore, to be in a position where all of the elders of the local church are in agreement on an issue and to stand on the outside and take a different position, especially over something as central to the Christian faith as marriage, is a dangerous place to be. The conversations on this should always be filled with grace and patience – Lord willing these are exemplary characteristics of your own Pastor. Yet they should also be filled with the clarity of God’s Word and the support of a local Church to bring about godly reform in a person’s life.
10) The Beauty of Biblical Marriage
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.Ephesians 5:31–33 (ESV)
Finally, I arrive at what perhaps is the most significant point, the power and beauty of Biblical marriage. We live in a world that is utterly confused on the purpose and the reason for marriage. We live in a world that is attempting (falsely as they may try) to redefine marriage as something other than God’s definition through His Word. This “redefinition” like all sin – will only lead to more and more pain in individual’s live as well as in society as a whole. God’s plan is beautiful and good. And more importantly God’s plan for marriage points us to the greater marriage of Christ to His Church. Ephesians 5 explicitly states this divine mystery, namely that every Christian marriage is designed point everybody upwards to the greater marriage of Christ to His Church. Christ is the greater groom and the Church is His bride. Because of the Bible’s powerful and poignant way of understanding marriage, we must hold marriage up in the highest regard. If my own marriage is in some way a reflection of Christ’s love of His Church, then I make it my aim to serve my bride the way Christ served His Church. This idea fundamentally flips on its end our culture’s understanding of marriage. Marriage is ultimately not about personal satisfaction and temporary pleasure. As Pastor John Piper has said, “Marriage is not mainly about being or staying in love. It’s mainly about telling the truth with our lives. It’s about portraying something true about Jesus Christ and the way he relates to his people. It is about showing in real life the glory of the gospel.”
May everything about our marriages, including the process that leads up to our marriage, live up to this incredible standard – to enjoy Christ forever and to show Him to the world.