by Rev. Kevin Bergmann
“Practice makes perfect” is a common saying that is true if you are learning to play the piano or trying to perfect your golf swing. But how about in relationships like marriage? Is a couple better off if they practice being married by living together before the wedding? While some might expect the answer to that question to be yes, it actually is a resounding “No.”
A major problem in the church
Living together in a sexual relationship without marriage, or cohabitation, is all too common in the United States today. In 1960, there were 430,000 couples living together in the U.S., but by Fall 2010, that number had soared to just over 8,000,000 couples. At the same time, there’s been a 50 percent plunge in the marriage rate. The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s gave premarital sex a social stamp of approval, new birth control methods and legalized abortions greatly reduced the number of unintended births, and better-paying jobs made women less dependent on the institution of marriage for economic survival. The National Marriage Project, located at Rutgers, focuses on research about the state of marriage in America, and reports that over 50 percent of first marriages are preceded by cohabitation.
Unfortunately, statistics concerning cohabitation among Missouri Synod members seem to mirror those of the National Marriage Project. In January 2010, as part of the research for my doctoral thesis, I conducted a detailed survey of 51 LCMS pastors, asking them to make written responses to 31 questions on cohabitation in their parishes. These Lutheran pastors reported that over 57 percent of the couples they now marry are living together prior to the wedding, and that the rate of cohabitation in their congregations is increasing.
Why couples cohabit
The reasons for cohabiting prior to marriage have been well documented in social science literature. Generally men cohabit for easy availability of sex and shared living expenses, while women tend to see living together as a step toward marriage.
In the survey of LCMS pastors, cohabiters gave a number of reasons for living together. While sharing expenses was the number one reason given, others included testing compatibility, fear of divorce, convenience, getting to know each other and escaping from difficult home situations. All these reasons are flawed. Not one study has shown that cohabitation makes a positive contribution to marriage. Regardless of the reasons given for living together, cohabitation is simply wrong for Christians.
What the Bible says
God created the institution of marriage in Genesis beginning with Adam and Eve. When God speaks of the relationship between men and women in Genesis 2, He says that “a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Jesus says that marriage is to last for a lifetime for “they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). It is not the Lord’s intention that men and women move into and out of cohabiting relationships; that is an obvious violation of the letter and the spirit of Genesis 2 and Matthew 19.
Jesus addressed the issue of cohabitation directly when He spoke to the woman at Jacob’s Well in John 4:4–26. The Lord knew that this woman had lived with five different husbands and that the man she was living with was not her husband; their relationship was not a legitimate marriage. Jesus pointed out that she was living outside the boundaries of God’s Law and that she needed to recognize her sin in order to receive forgiveness.
St. Paul warns Christians, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). It is also a sin against God, “For this is the will of God . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality . . . For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness . . . whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess. 4:3, 7-8). Jesus listed sexual immorality as one of those sins that comes out peoples’ hearts, making them unclean and disrupting their fellowship with God. Cohabitation has serious consequences for a person’s relationship with God and with other people.
While many view living together as preparation for a lifelong marriage, the average cohabiting relationship only lasts 1.3 years. Half of all couples who cohabit break up before they get to the altar. And cohabiting couples who do marry get divorced at a rate fifty percent higher than those who marry without cohabiting. The shocking result is that more than three-fourths of all cohabiting couples eventually break up.
Hardships for children
The National Marriage Project reported that in 2000, 41 percent of all unmarried-couple households included a child under eighteen, nearly double the percentage from 1987. The dangers to children in a home in which a biological parent is cohabiting are staggering. Children in these relationships often suffer psychologically when they sense that they are a source of stress between their natural parent and that parent’s cohabiting partner, or when cohabiters break up and the children suffer the loss of a biological parent or parental figure. Statistics from the U.S. National Survey of Families indicate that when cohabiting couples separate, unwed fathers are twice as likely to have no contact with their children compared to divorced fathers.
Facing the problem
Clearly there has been a change in attitude in society that is evident in the local parish as young couples often openly live together. At the same time, the church and Christian parents are often silent on the issue of cohabitation. Perhaps some are hesitant to speak because of the sexual issues involved or because the issue is deemed too private. However, not only are the spiritual and physical health of cohabiters and their families at risk but the health of the church is affected too.
What better place to find guidance on how to approach this delicate subject than to look to Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well in John 4. Jesus was not silent on the issue of cohabitation nor did He gossip to others about the woman. First, He gave the woman dignity, crossing the lines of the cultural custom of the day by speaking to her. With this woman at the well, Jesus knew there was a problem and addressed it directly with her one-on-one. Second, rather than accusing and condemning her Jesus spoke to her privately and gently. He didn’t argue with her, but merely stated the facts, leaving the door open for response and discussion. Finally, He cared for her and what was going on in her life in a way that encouraged repentance, forgiveness and change. Jesus’ model for dealing with cohabitation still applies to us today.
About the Author: Rev. Kevin Bergmann is pastor of Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Whiting, Ind.