Christians and Cohabiting Couples
Christians can respond to cohabiting couples in all the wrong ways. Some Christians endorse living together. Some treat it as the unpardonable sin. Others avoid cohabiting couples like the plague because they do not know what to say.
How should Christians respond (or not respond!) to couples living together?
It is true that marriage is a Christian institution.
It was designed by God to declare the good news of Jesus Christ to the world (Ephesians 5:22-33). A husband is supposed to lay down his life in sacrificial service for his bride-just as Jesus did. A wife is supposed to submit to her husband in the same way the church submits to Christ. It is a beautiful representation of the gospel.
Therefore, cohabitation is an unchristian handshake.
It grates against the good design of God at every level. It undermines a lifetime commitment and replaces it with instability. It removes sacrifice and establishes self-serving terms of agreement. It deteriorates submission and breeds rebellion. It distorts sexual intimacy and fuels sexual immorality.
There are more ways in which cohabitation replaces the good news of Jesus with the bad news of secularism. All these reasons and more are why Christians often do not know what to do with cohabiting couples.
Here are three biblical principles for a proper response to cohabitation.
1. Compassion Not Commendation
There are many cohabiting couples who attend church. This is a great thing and we should expect it. It is a re-occurring reality for me as a pastor to have someone tell me they are visiting our church and then let me know they are living together.
When someone says they are living together with their boyfriend or girlfriend, a Christian’s heart should swell with compassion. Christ was full of tenderheartedness and longed to shepherd people towards God (Matthew 9:36). A cohabitating couple needs the compassion of a shepherd who wants to move sheep away from danger.
Shepherds care for their sheep by leading them to green pastures. Shepherds love sheep by walking them out of a dark and deadly valley to bring them to still waters. True compassion leads people to God.
True compassion will never endorse sin, but it will help people leave sin. Compassion is helpful. Commendation is harmful.
This means the first place to start with cohabiting couples is not necessarily how their actions undermine the institution of marriage. The place to start is the gospel.
Unless God softens their heart and pricks their conscience, no argument about the value of marriage will be ultimately effective.
When people tell you they are living together, compassionately explore their relationship with Christ and share the good news of Jesus with them. In sharing about the forgiveness of sins, the issue of repentance will come up and then you can address the issue of cohabitation.
2. Clarity Not Condemnation
Cohabiting couples need clarity from Christians. We are the salt and light of the world which requires us to expose the deeds of the darkness (Ephesians 5:12-21). There is a way to expose the darkness that is full of condemnation and there is a way to expose the darkness that is full of charity.
God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). Certainly, this means that we should not try to condemn the world. It is not our job to convict and condemn. It is our job to bring clarity of Scripture and ask the Holy Spirit to work.
How can you help bring clarity to a couple living together?
Not all couples live together for the same reasons. Identifying the reason for cohabitation is important.
Some people do not know that it is wrong to live together. All their friends do it. Their parents did it. There are people who have never heard the biblical teaching that it is sinful. After the gospel is shared, sometimes all it takes is opening up the Scriptures and explaining God’s plan for marriage.
Finances could be another factor in why a couple is living together. Perhaps they believe it is financially beneficial. Perhaps they are fearful of unifying their bank accounts and getting a mortgage together. Perhaps they are terrified of commitment.
Loneliness could be another reason for cohabitation. A person might not have any friends or have trouble making new friends, so cohabitation is the easy way to experience some level of security that is obtainable.
Sexual benefits are often a reason for couples to live together. It can start with just spending the night once or twice and then it can develop into something that is a convenient pleasure or byproduct of proximity.
It could also be that only one person is driving the cohabitation. Maybe the man is pushing for it or perhaps the woman is hanging on waiting for a commitment.
Regardless of the reasons, knowing the couple is important. Knowing the reasons and circumstances can help you speak clarity into the situation. You can learn about their needs, fears, lusts, and longings in order to provide solutions in Christ.
It is our job as Christians to help others detangle from the trap of deceitful sin which they have made their dwelling (Galatians 6:1-3).
3. Blessings Not Burdens
Christians are called not just to have compassion and clarity, but to provide actual care.
It is our responsibility to help facilitate practical change. We should not be hearers or speakers only, but doers of the word (James 1:22-24).
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they would not help people change. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).
Christians must bless cohabitating couples with care, not just burden them with demands.
For example, if you discover finances are a significant factor for a couple, how can you help them financially if they are willing to repent? Can you help provide housing with another church member if they are willing to move out? Can you offer rides if they only have one vehicle? If they are lonely, can you have them over for meals to give them space and time away?
Once you identify the reasons for their cohabitation, you can provide tangible care that is meaningful and helps them bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8).
Christians are people who love God and love others. Cohabiting couples must feel like church is a safe place to come learn the ways of God and find help to repent. We can provide a far better life than the cohabiting life. We can lead people away from the bad news of shallow commitments and cheap pleasures, and instead move them towards the beautiful, good news that satisfies.
This is part 5 of a blog series on Recovering Purity Culture.
Sean Perron is the Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. He is the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement and Letters to a Romantic: The First Years of Marriage.