The term “cohabitation” is usually defined as a short- or long-term heterosexual relationship out-side of marriage. Since the term itself carries a negative or pejorative connotation in our society, there is a tendency to replace it with the more technical one: “partnering.”
The topic itself is complex and difficult to address. The practice of cohabitation has usually been understood to be an indication of moral or social decadence, but that is no longer the case. Western society is accepting it as a type of marriage that society itself encourages by tax laws with “marriage penalties” and by reducing the Social Security benefits of widows or widowers who remarry. Besides, cohabitation is promoted by the communication systems of Western society as a valid alternative to traditional marriages.
In order to properly evaluate the subject we have to examine the biblical understanding of marriage and then determine whether cohabitation is or is not compatible with it.
1. Instituted by God: It is the common Christian belief that marriage was instituted by God Himself and that it was very good (Gen. 1:31; 2:22-24). He regulated the operation of everything He created in order to ensure its proper function and interaction with the rest of the created world (e.g., Gen. 1:4, 12, 17, 18). After creating Adam and Eve, God brought them together and defined the way they would relate to each other (Gen. 2:24). Therefore, marriage should be a reflection of the original relationship that God established between woman and man. Any claim for independence from the divine intention for marriage is seriously suspect.
2. Communal Witness: Marriage is not an arrangement made between two individuals in isolation from God and other humans. A biblical marriage takes place in the sight of other persons in order to introduce into the relationship the element of mutual responsibility. Originally, Adam and Eve were united in the presence of God Himself. Since then the union of two persons in matrimony has been a community event (e.g., John 2:1). Establishing a family was not to be a matter of individual discretion but an event that had an impact on society at large. This understanding is not popular in a culture that praises individualism, but it is important in a society that seeks to preserve its values and integrity.
3. Permanent Commitment: The union effected in marriage establishes a relationship of ultimacy and permanency. In the Bible marriage is not an experiment by which it is to be determined whether or not the couple will remain fully committed to each other. It is the expression of a love that is so pure and so deep that it is willing to express itself in a lifelong commitment. In this new relationship the spouse leaves mother and father in order to be united to the object of that love (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:6). There is a separation that leads into a new type of permanent unity grounded in love. It is within that unity of mutual self-respect, commitment, and permanency that sexual activity takes place as a “sacramental” expression of the existential unity of the couple. That act unites lives and not simply bodies.
4. Evaluation: Cohabitation is a union of two persons without seeking the blessing of God and the formal approval of the community. Hence, it is fundamentally a relationship for the present with little concern for the future of the relationship. The element of mutual commitment is significantly less than in a Christian marriage and often becomes an occasion for fear on the part of at least one of the partners. There is also in this type of relationship a significant risk for emotional hurt that leaves indelible scars. No one should pretend that she or he can live only for the present without taking into consideration the future and God’s intentions for our social and spiritual well-being.
Church members should do all they can to help cohabiting couples to be united in Christian marriage. We should love and care for them in spite of the fact that we do not approve of their lifestyle. They simply do not yet know the beauty of a truly Christian home.