MARRIAGE OR COHABITATION
Is that the Question?
By James J. DeFrancisco, Ph.D.
The phone rang and I found myself in the middle of a
counseling situation. A divorced friend, describing his dating
situation with a variety of girlfriends (some living-in with him
part-time, some having sexual relationships and others without
having sexual relationships), described his frustration and lack
of happiness. He compared this with a secure relationship and
realized that he longed for the stability of marriage.
For the past 22 months I have been leading a study group
through the book of Proverbs. The class meets every Sabbath
morning for approximately two hours. Why does it take so long to
cover this book? At most class sessions we get into discussions
relative to the wisdom and truth in each proverb and apply it to
a variety of situations and life experiences. God provided this
wisdom to guide us in avoiding the problems we often encounter in
human relationships, especially those in the home.
Wisdom first found its sanctuary in the shelter of the home.
It was there that love and trust abounded and wisdom's counsels
were first offered and received. Within these sacred precincts,
it was discovered that wisdom's nurture is at its best when a man
is faithful to his wife and when their relationship of mutual
love and trust, is passed on to their children as a model to
imitate. The longer the integrity of the home prevails, the
greater is the possibility of wisdom taking deep roots.
I have another friend who is very deeply concerned about
"culture wars" currently going on in our society. One of the
agenda items in the culture war is the redefining of marriage.
Many of my brothers and sisters are concerned about marriage
being under attack by movements advocating "gay marriage";
however, that may not be what is primarily attacking marriage and
the home. Barbara Kantrowitz, Senior Editor for Newsweek,
proclaimed several years ago that marriage is under attack
primarily from another enemy. "If marriage is in trouble don't
blame gays. Straights changed the rules." ("State of Our Unions,"
Newsweek, March 1, 2004, 44).
Actually, the problem is significant considering that in the
last century the U.S. has drifted from a society with the most
marriages in the world, to the society with the most divorces and
single-parent families. (National and International Religious
Report, 9, no 9 [April 17, 1995]:8.
Also, the U.S. has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and
teenage childbirth, despite having the highest rate of teenage
abortions.(Leon eisenberg, "Is the Family Obsolete?" Key
Reporter 60, no.3 [Spring 1995]:3.
An estimated one third of American children live without
their biological father present. (Don.S. Browning, Ronnie J.
Miller-McLemore, Palela D. Couture, K.Brynoff Lyon, Robert
M.franklin, from "Culture Wars to Common Ground" 53-54).
All of these statistics are obvious symptoms that the
traditional family has been in serious trouble. That should not
be of surprise to anyone, especially those of us who are
interested in seeing the Kingdom of Cod manifested here on earth.
But it gets worse for us Christians who are to be a witness
here on earth. A Barna poll in 2001 found that cohabitation
living with a member of the opposite sex without marriage - has
been practiced at some point by 33% of all adults, including 25%
of bornagain Christians. (Ronald J. Sider, "The Scandal of the
Evangelical Conscience," Books and Culture, January/february
2005, 9 and 39).
Barna also found that during the 1990s born-again Christians
had a higher divorce rate than non-Christians. (Cited by Ronald
J. Sider, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience," Books and
Culture, January/February 2005, 9).
Obviously, something is really not right within the
Christian community. I contend that a major problem is that we
produce many converts but few disciples. Also, our society is
accustomed to instant gratification, quick fixes, and short-term
relationships, rather than long-term covenantal commitments.
Are you getting the idea? Something is very wrong. Let's
reframe the question. Take another glance at the title of this
article. Perhaps the real question is really not merely a
comparison between marriage and cohabitation. Perhaps it goes
much deeper. The real question may relate to the quality of the
relationship rather than the societal sanctions placed on the
external appearance of the relationship. The real question
relates to understanding that a truly fulfilling relationship may
be best experienced in a loving covenantal marriage. Stay with us
as we develop this idea.
While some view living together as a trial run on marriage,
40% of those cohabiting do not marry. (Cheryl Wetzstein, "Who's
Happier EverAfter?" Insight 14, no. 36 [September 28, 1998]:38,
cited in Current Thoughts and Trends, March 1999, 13).
Perhaps it would be better, in a pre-marriage trial run. for
a couple to share checkbook for six months or more, prior to
marriage, rather than the same dwelling or bedroom. I heard a
Jewish rabbi suggest this a while back and it sounds like a good
There are often economic reasons for getting married or just
living together. Also, there may be issues from a prior marriage,
child support, adoption, etc. Plus, a covenant marriage takes
commitment and balance to avoid the distractions that often
interfere with marital harmony: career, school, friends, habits,
and yes, even church.
To those who take relationships seriously, there is the
issue of sexual purity. The Christian ideal is no sex except
within the confines of marriage. This avoids many problems beyond
the obvious ones, such as, unwarranted pregnancy, abortion, and
sexually transmitted diseases. There is deep emotional and
spiritual scarring and bondage that often results from sexual
activity outside of the marriage covenant.
As Christians, we are called to holiness - to be set apart
from the world's ways. Marriage separates us for a special
relationship with our spouse and our family. The relationship is
bonded together by love that is initiated by God Himself.
Condemnatory judgment and fear may lead us to focus on
issues that relate to God's ideal but may also detract us from
the goal of a disciple. For example, if our focus is on marriage
legislation, particularly targeting homosexuals, dealing with
this issue is understandable, but it may actually place our focus
on the wrong object. The same would be true in the area of merely
comparing "common law" marriages which have become very common
today with the more socially acceptable traditional marriage
arrangement that involves 1) a marriage license and 2) a wedding
ceremony. But one might argue or ask, "How did people get married
during biblical times?"
The social customs did not include a priest, rabbi, or
minister. Basically, the couple (often committed to each other by
parents and married at an early age by mid-to-late teen years)
got together to consummate a physical relationship after a period
of engagement and had a party to joyfully celebrate and announce
the union to their family and friends. The key is that they
proclaimed their commitment before witnesses, entered into a
covenant, and provided for one another, as well as any children
that resulted from their union.
In these biblical marriages, the witnesses were part of a
social system that held married couples accountable to their
covenantal relationship. The marriage took place at a relatively
early age before the couple had too much opportunity to give in
to sexual temptations. The father of the husband ensured that his
son had a trade and built a home to support his wife. The father
of the wife ensured that his daughter was pure and prepared for
her husband. Both sets of parents honored these priorities:
1. Serve God and know His will (study the Torah).
2. Have a means to provide for your family (learn a trade).
3. Honor your marriage covenant (husband loves the wife and the
wife respects the husband).
The above priorities are virtually forgotten today. Modern
priorities are typically to prepare for a career, seek
self-fulfillment, and spend a couple of hours a week in church
Children are a vitally important consideration. In ancient
times children were considered a blessing and childlessness a
curse. Today, career usually comes before children. The first
command to humankind was to be fruitful. "God blessed them and
said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth
and subdue it ...' " (Genesis 1:28 NIV).
Every human egg that is impregnated with a human seed begins
the process for a soul to come into being. Human sexual activity,
whether it occurs in the context of love or in lust, whether in a
temporary or lifelong relationship, brings the possibility of new
In the Near Eastern mind set (the psychology of the Bible),
it takes three entities to make a human being: a man, a woman,
and God. Every child is made in the image of God. Will these
children be born and nurtured in the security of covenant or will
they take root in the soil of insecurity, lack of commitment, and
broken relationships? I once heard a wise teacher comment to his
students of the Bible that "There are no illegitimate children,
but there are illegitimate parents." There is wisdom in a
marriage built on faithfulness and trust. Can anyone truly say
that cohabitation (without a covenantal lifelong commitment)
involves the same level of wisdom?
Our culture is saturated with immoral images that distort
sexuality and promote illicit relationships and disrespect. We
are fed these images on prime time TV, in music, in magazines,
newspapers, billboards, and sometimes even in church. It hasn't
been of much value to judge others with alternative or
promiscuous lifestyles. We would be far better off modeling a
home of wisdom, love, compassion, strength, and security. It
would be much better to focus on developing rich relationships
that are meaningful and long lasting. The challenge for us is to
move away from that which is temporary, to that which is eternal.
This does not mean putting down the present and merely looking
forward to the world to come. What we do today echoes throughout
eternity. What we do today matters to God as well as our fellow
What if you already messed up? What if you have lived
together with someone or are cohabiting together as you read
this? What if you have a long history of sexual sin? What if you
were unfaithful and then covered up your sins with lies and
deception? Or, perhaps you were on the receiving end of betrayed
trust. What if you were abused? What if you don't trust anyone
enough to enter into covenant commitment? Well, that is what
faith, repentance, and forgiveness are for. That is why our Lord
saves. Innocence cannot be restored, but purity can; including
sexual purity. The Bible is full of examples of restoration,
grace, repentance, and forgiveness.
A Christian couple should reach for the ideal. The church
should seek to bless and restore, not to blame and condemn. All
of this is based on trust.
"Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed
kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the
sexually immoral" (Hebrews 13:4 NIV).
When I was Pastoring a church and I received calls from
strangers wanting to know if I would perform their wedding, I
would ask, "Are you interested in a Christian marriage or just a
church wedding?" Unfortunately, many were only interested in the
latter, so I advised them to call someone else if they were not
interested in discipleship and fellowship with us. They needed a
I recommend that those seriously interested in the marriage
covenant do some study, comparing the marriage covenant with a
marriage contract, prenuptial agreements, etc. There is a good
amount of information available on these subjects. For starters,
a covenant is based on trust while a contract covers areas in
case of distrust, a covenant is based on unlimited responsibility
while a contract involves limited liability, and a covenant
cannot be broken if new circumstances occur while a contract can
be voided by mutual consent.
The question is really not marriage or cohabitation. The
question is, do you want to have a fulfilling relationship that
can be best experienced in a loving covenantal marriage? Anything
less is missing the mark. And missing the mark is sin. Let me
illustrate it this way:
THE MARRIAGE/ RELATIONSHIP QUADRANT
1- MARRIAGE COVENANT: Includes commitment for a lifetime, trust,
love, communication, sharing, etc.
Living together after a wedding ceremony.
3- LIVING TOGETHER: No wedding.
4- SERIAL RELATIONSHIPS.
EXPLANATION OF THE MARRIAGE/RELATIONSHIP QUADRANT
Quadrant 1: is the Christian ideal. Why? Objective, it provides
security, growth, protection, provision, love, respect, and
mutual fulfillment. The driving force (and drawing force) is
faith (trust) coupled by love and hope (I Corinthians 13). It is
a spiritual as well as physical union. Those who experience this
form of union are truly blessed.
(Yes, indeed this is what two Christian people should desire. But
it does take two to tango. Both have to work at keeping this
covenant. I have sadly seen marriages that started here but did
not continue, or one of the partners went into deep sin, or
walked away from Christ, or decided the grass was greener on the
other side. Whatever the many reasons, many marriages that
started good, have ended in seperation and divorce - Keith Hunt).
Quadrant 2: is predominant because it is socially acceptable and
provides a level of security. Unfortunately, many marriages in
Quadrant 2 are shallow and some are a living hell. This form of
marriage is worldly rather than spiritual in its orientation.
Quadrant 3: represents 25% of Christian couples (most of who are
short on faith and trust, and lack real discipleship).
Quadrant 4: has no real future but it provides short term
Note in the 4 Quadrants that as the level of faith as well
as the level of physical and emotional attachment increase, a
couple moves toward Quadrant 1.
(Maybe, but Quadrant 1 takes work from both people to make it
last a lifetime - a good pleasant lifetime that is, some keep an
outward appearance of a "Christian Marriage" but behind closed
doors they are two strangers in the same house, held together for
a number of reasons that have only to do with the physical
lifestyle - Keith Hunt)
So when it comes to marriage, let's not judge others, but
rather aspire to get into Quadrant 1 and use it as a living
witness to others, while we enjoy the fulfillment of marriage
through a covenant relationship.
A conclusion that my troubled friend and I came to during
our phone conversation is that living together in a casual
relationship is for convenience but has no future. The major
difference among covenantal marriage, mediocre or poor marriage,
living together, and serial relationships, is trust. Remember
that trust is one side of a two sided coin. The other side is
trustworthiness. Faith rests on the foundation of faithfulness.
Jesus ministers through both grace and truth. The source of trust
is God. If you are blessed with a happy marriage and family
relationships, thank God. If not, pray.
Study the Word of God on this whole area. Beware of the
influence of culture. I know some of you are reading this from
other countries, so you will need to adopt the principles and
laws of God to your own culture. Each of us must deal with the
challenges in our own situation. The objective of a disciple of
Christ is to overcome the challenge and live a life dedicated to
fulfilling God's will. Seek His wisdom and guidance in all your
relationships and all of this will become clear.
Jim DeFrancisco has served as President of Mill Ministries and
Institute of Christian Principles since 1992. He has presented
many articles and studies on scriptural topics. He has a Ph.D. in
Biblical Studies (University of Biblical Studies) and a Doctor of
Ministry degree in Christian Counseling (American Christian
College and Seminary). He is a professor at Maranatha College and
has courses on the Gospel of John and Christian College for
Church of God (7th Day) seminary students. He lives in Mishawaka,
Indiana with his wife, Sandy. Together they have 3 sons and 6
grandchildren. He has been a member of the Church of God (Seventh
Day) for the past 25 years.
Taken from ACTS Magazine - March/April 2007 - a publication of
the General Council of the Churches of God, Meridian, ID, USA