Believers, non-believers, sex, marriage, cohabiting, and how we engage with the world

January 1, 0001

I do not write for controversy, but I can see this could be a controversial post.

(And I should probably say my thoughts are my own, and not those of the agency I’m with!)This past month, our church has been going through a series on the Song of Solomon.

That’s been interesting.

Yesterday, we covered the idea that marriage involves forgiveness–an important point, clearly.

In the sermon and in the small group, we discussed the idea people getting engaged really had no idea what marriage was all about.

They had unrealistic expectations.

This is true of some, yes, and it is probably more likely for those raised in evangelical circles.

However, it got me thinking about all of the research that indicates the marriage rate is down, and cohabitation is up.

A few examples:

  • Millennials navigate the ups and downs of cohabitation,” NPR: ‘if you went to a wedding this summer, there is a better-than-even chance that the happy couple was already living together. Today, more than 65% of first marriages start out that way. Fifty years ago, it was closer to 10 percent.’

  • The downside of cohabiting before marriage,” New York Times. 1960, 0.4 million cohabited; 2012, 7.5 million. “More than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation.” One research conclusion: cohabiting is a trial and a good way to avoid divorce. But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect."

  • More couples living together outside of marriage,” Statistics in brief from CDC report.

  • Twenty-five years of change in cohabitation in the United States, 1987-2013,” National Center for Family & Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University.

  • To shack up or shackle down, that is the question,” the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (which I know little about) has links to more research and studies.

  • The science of cohabitation: a step toward marriage, not a rebellion,” Atlantic. Questions the cohabitation effect.

People who cohabit probably have a pretty good idea of the expectations of living together.

Now, I am not writing this to excuse cohabitation or to endorse it. I certainly do not. However, I do think we ought to consider this: …

the marriage norms *within *an evangelical church (dating/courtship, marriage, and then the “reality check” of married life and dealing with unrealistic expectations) …

are likely not the marriage norms outside the evangelical church.

And, if the church is to reach unbelievers, then we have to expect to engage with some things that are not the ‘norm.’ Let’s say a church forms with the intentionality of reaching the unsaved - people who are not in a church at all.

Let’s say it’s a successful church plant, and unsaved people start attending the church (or coming to Bible studies).

If you encounter a solid couple, research suggests the odds are pretty good that couple are either physically intimate and/or cohabiting.

How will the church respond? The Biblical response, of course, is no sex outside of marriage.

So–break it up! Back to your corners! Out of the house! But, hold on–who does that Biblical response apply to? These are non-believers we’re talking about.

The rules that apply to believers aren’t expected of them.

What I’m walking us through right now is not how should believers act in regards to marriage, sex, love and commitment but should we demand unbelievers act as believers in order to come to church? Now, the maybe controversial part: Marriage revolves around concepts of love, commitment, and sex.

Much of the talk in church about these ideas, in my experience, tends to be stop-bad-behavior and encourage-right-behavior.

And that’s good–for believers.

And I don’t think we should condone sex outside of marriage for all nonbelievers.

Clearly, that’s not leading us anywhere good.

But: what to do with non-believers who are coming regularly to church and still cohabiting? (Yes, this does happen, especially in churches geared to reach nonbelievers.

This is not an airy hypothetical.) So, to figure out what to do, let’s just stop and ask ourselves - where, precisely, does marriage begin? The instant response of any ‘Good Christian’ is ‘at the wedding ceremony.’ Ok, yes, true, but in what sense? Spiritual? Legal? Financial? Religious? Social? Other? Really controversial: Where did it begin for Adam? Where for Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob? We don’t have a lot of wedding ceremonies recorded in Biblical history.

Yes, the wedding ceremony is incredibly important. But it is only one ‘beginning point.’ Marriage also ‘begins’ in another sense at the point of the sexual union.

Where does the spiritual bond between two people get forged? Paul was pretty clear on the issue: “And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, ‘The two are united into one.'” (1 Corinthians 6:16). Do you think this is true? If it is, then first sexual contact is incredibly important, because at that point you are married to the other person.

A spiritual and physical bond has been forged. This is not something to take lightly. Sex is not just the reward of marriage–it is both the beginning and regular renewal of it, the bonding force.

In this understanding, the insidious and destructive nature of fornication and adultery become even clearer. The two are flip sides of the same coin.

Fornication is a kind of intentional adultery, and more the premeditated murder of a relationship.

You bond and then break the bond in order to bond with someone else, and you do it purposefully.

It’s as if you glue two boards together with superglue, and then break the boards apart. The result is always damage.

Likewise, fornication–sex outside of marriage–has no intention of commitment.

It makes a spiritual, emotional and physical victim of two people, damaging them for all eternity. 

Adultery does much the same thing: it takes two people, one or both of which are bound to someone else, and adds more bindings that cause the first bindings to break.

Horrific damage is the result. I read “After a first time, many second thoughts” (New York Times, Arla Knudsen) with something like horrified fascination, as it exhibited many of these dark shadows.

But–is cohabiting the same thing? Isn’t it sex outside of marriage? Yes–yes, it is.


I have a little more grace in me for people who cohabit.

Why? The behavior is wrong, isn’t it? Yes, it’s wrong.


In this day and age, it’s not hard (or even, to our shame, shameful) to have sex outside of marriage.

You don’t need to move in together.

If people have moved in together, and are living together, this can indicate a spiritual hunger in its willingness to take a step of commitment. Yes, not full commitment–cohabiting demonstrates a lack of self control, or maybe fear, or maybe other issues.

Still, these are unbelievers we’re talking about–and when people aren’t Christians, you can’t expect Christian behavior out of them, so when they are *closer to Christlike behavior *(and cohabiting is closer than fornication, because at least there’s some semblance of commitment), then…

we shouldn’t give the a “pass,” excusing the behavior, but I think we should be slow to “bring the hammer down.”

Since sex is so easily available, the reasons for getting married–and for not getting married–in most instances probably have very little to do with sex, and everything to deal with commitment issues.

In order to address these, the right response might not be insisting on their breakup.

Instead of demanding less commitment, let’s disciple to more commitment (Christlike behavior).

This may demand that we endure some cohabiting folks attending church, while gently and lovingly asking–why have you not taken the step toward marriage? It may demand that we consider and model the value of marriage as a commitment, not just a license to have sex.

What is it about marriage that is important? How do we communicate that? Truly listening and considering the answer and the discussion might be enlightening.

Perhaps in engaging with cohabiting couples, we need to be reminded of the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, and its command: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Or, the NLT version I like even better: “Love is patient and kind…

not boastful, proud, rude, demanding its own way…

Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

Can we love cohabiting unbelievers among us in this way, encouraging them to come “higher up and further in” on the Way of Christ?