Cohabitation: Should Christians Live Together Before Marriage?

Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

September 21, 2022

Jared and Rachel admitted to me during our first pre-marital counseling appointment that they had decided to live together. They had both been raised in the church and they conceded that moving in together was probably morally wrong. “But,” they went on to explain, “it makes more sense financially – and besides, this will make sure that we are compatible.” Jared and Rachel are a composite of a majority of couples today. Research indicates that more than two thirds of couples will live together before marriage. Reasons given vary – ranging from a fear of commitment, to economic factors, or simple convenience. Many see living together as a milestone of commitment – an intermediate step between casual dating, and engagement or marriage. Is living together really a big deal?

As a pastor, let me suggest four reasons that living together before marriage is not God’s best for you.

Higher likelihood of divorce

First of all, research suggests a correlation between couples who live together and higher divorce rates after marriage. Admittedly these numbers (like most statistics) are not always clear-cut. However, data suggests that couples who move in together usually do so at a younger age, and then after marriage, run the risk of a higher divorce rate. This would make sense – living together is, by definition, a commitment with an easy out. It is a commitment that is built on the premise that one or both parties have the option of leaving without the messiness of divorce. After marriage, this mindset can linger – when difficulty arises, there is a temptation to leave the relationship. So, instead of practicing for marriage, living together can in fact, lay an unstable foundation for marriage. Why take that risk?

Marriage changes you for the better

Second of all, living together shifts a focus in marriage from sanctification to compatibility. What does that mean? One of the greatest challenges and joys (often in that order!) in marriage is the way that marriage can work to conform us more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. How? In relationship, we begin to see ourselves for who we really are. Our selfishness is exposed. Our pride. Our insecurities. All our weaknesses are, over time, drawn to the surface. As this happens, the permanency of marriage offers a secure context to confess our shortcomings, and commit to growth. We cannot know, before we are married, what these weaknesses will be, but once we are bound in covenant, we have a far greater obligation to remain committed not just to the other person, but to the process of growth. Living together can short-circuit this process because the question that defines the relationship is less “Can I remain solidly committed to this person in spite of their shortcomings and mine?” and more “Do we fit together in a way that is harmonious?”

Marriage grows intimacy at all levels

Third, living together separates sex from covenant. Sex is meant to be a reaffirmation of the covenant that has joined two people in marriage. By making a covenant before God and others, two people are pledging themselves to one another for life. Sex is the intimate echo of this covenant; it is a near-sacramental way of giving the deepest part of yourself to another person. Living together without the bonds of a covenant means that even as we are giving ourselves physically to another person, we are withholding our full commitment to that person. In effect, we are promising to give our bodies, but not our lives.

Marriage is God's design

Finally, living together in a sexually intimate relationship outside of marriage is displeasing to God. Frequently, in the Bible, God speaks to the topic of sexual immorality. “Flee from sexual immorality,” he says through the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 6:18; See also Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3, 1 Thess. 4:3). The biblical word for immorality is a broad word that includes all sexual activity outside of the bonds of marriage. Instead, the writer of Hebrews insists that “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed must be kept pure.” (Heb. 13:4). Straying from God’s design and intent for marriage not only violates the moral standards God has set, but it also grieves his heart. We cannot presume upon God to bless our relationship if we willingly defy his will.

Yet, there is much grace

God is in the practice of not only forgiving those who humble themselves, but he is pleased to restore and bless those who seek obedience to God. When Paul urges the Colossian church to avoid sexual immorality, he does so on the grounds that “we have been raised with Christ” (Col. 3:1). We have been given a new identity that is not built around anything we have done, but is graciously given to us on the basis of what Jesus has done. God doesn’t simply give us rules to live by; he invites us to live into our new identity in Christ.

What should you do next? Living into this identity can take a number of forms. First of all, if you are considering moving in with your partner, reconsider. God calls you to live not as the world defines relationships, but as He has called you. Second, consider marriage. If you are not yet married, but are living together, make your covenant before God. Admit your past mistake, be assured of the forgiveness God offers you, and live in glad obedience. If a wedding is not feasible immediately, consider a private ceremony with your pastor, and a large commitment ceremony later. Or, find alternate living arrangements until a wedding can take place. Finally, weigh whether or not you need to leave the relationship. If you have been with someone who cannot or will not commit to you, you need to give honest and prayerful consideration to whether or not this is a person with whom you can plan a life.

Jared and Rachel shared their story with me, and after honest (and sometimes painful) discussion, they agreed to remain abstinent until their wedding. It wasn’t easy for them, but in the end, they knew that what they were doing was not only a good practical help for their marriage, but it was pleasing in the sight of a gracious God. May God’s grace encourage you as you honor him by pursuing his design for relationship.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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