Biblical, Theological, and Social Scientific Reflections on Cohabitation

May 2, 2017
A few weeks ago, Christianity Today publicized recent research on the effects of cohabitation on children. The research, conducted by scholars at major secular universities in the United States, argued that as cohabitation rates rise, the lives of children became more unstable. And this is true, according to the researchers, regardless of whether cohabitation is socially accepted within a given cultural context and regardless of the level of education attained by those who participate in the practice.

The article got us thinking. Christians often trumpet research that supports their views while ignoring research that does not. So how valuable is this research? More to the point, is there biblical support for the conservative Christian view that cohabitation is wrong, and how does instability negatively affect the lives of children?

A Theological Question: How Should Christians Think About Research That Deals with Sensitive Moral Issues?

Let’s begin with a basic theological question. If the research publicized by Christianity Today had demonstrated no effect on children (or perhaps even a positive effect), would that change how Christians view the topic? It is a question worth pondering. Too often, Christians use research selectively, picking out the studies that confirm what they already believe and ignoring those that call their beliefs into question.

This practice suggests a certain lack of intellectual integrity, but perhaps it also says something important about our basic instincts when it comes to issues of moral importance. We know—or at least we should know—that Scripture must be our final authority for what is right and wrong. Human endeavors to understand our world and ourselves are very important, but they cannot replace the knowledge that only God can give us.

Instead of using research like this as a part of our apologetic for the Christian worldview without regard for its context within the larger body of scientific research, we need to see this kind of research for what it is. It may (and, in this case, we think that it does) explain some of the consequences of sinful behavior. It may give us some encouragement to do the right thing. But it cannot replace a genuine commitment to obey Jesus, a thorough knowledge of Scripture, and an unwavering commitment to put the needs of others ahead of our own.

A Biblical Question: Is Cohabitation Permissible?

With these considerations in mind, we now turn our attention to what we think is the fundamental question. Is cohabitation permissible? It is a question that could be asked with particular urgency, not only given the proliferation of the practice in modern, Western societies but also given the existence of what some might see as a similar practice in the ancient world. Concubinage is seen throughout the Hebrew Bible, and it is not explicitly condemned by Mosaic legislation. So, could these facts indicate that cohabitation is permissible in certain circumstances?

There are at least four points that we need to consider as we think about these issues.

  1. Information is limited about the circumstances under which concubinage was allowed and about how it was practiced. The very fact that Moses does not explicitly permit or forbid the practice limits the amount of information that we have about it. This being the case, it is unwise to use the institution of concubinage as a precedent for any modern social practice.
  2. Concubinage seems to have been a formal, legal arrangement. From what we can gather from Scripture, concubinage was a formal arrangement with social (and perhaps even legal) implications. In this way, it is somewhat similar to cohabitation. Cohabitating couples have (usually) committed to be uniquely and exclusively related to one another (although it should be noted that this commitment is by no means permanent). In this way, it exceeds the commitment implied on concubinage, for men could have more than one concubine, and they could also have a wife or wives. But the cohabitation usually is not as formal as concubinage. It is a decision by two people to live together—nothing more, nothing less. Moreover, it should be noted that they may have been having sex for some time before they decide to live together.
  3. Concubinage seems to have existed to meet the needs of men. We are not saying that women did not derive anything from the relationship, but we are saying that the relationship was by no means an equal one. Indeed, it was likely even more unequal than the institution of marriage (which itself was an unequal relationship). This is not the kind of institution that we want to use as a model for modern relationships. Instead, we need to be calling one another—and calling our world—to relationships that are mutually beneficial because of their mutual focus on self-giving love.
  4. Concubinage stands outside of the social framework articulated in Genesis 2 and affirmed by Jesus. Ultimately, concubinage runs into the same problem as polygamy, promiscuity, and same-sex relationships. All of them stand outside of the framework for human sexual relations established in Genesis and affirmed by Jesus. The only socio-sexual arrangement that can be acceptable for the Christian is that of one man to be bound to one woman for the entirety of their lives. As we discussed last week, there are exceptions to this rule, but these exceptions come into play only when a socio-sexual arrangement (marriage) has been so profoundly violated that its integrity has been irreparably undermined (unfaithfulness, abuse) or has ceased to exist (abandonment, death).

There is nothing wrong with recognizing that at least some cohabiting couples are trying to be honest about where their relationship is and where they think it is going. These couples may not be intentionally “living in sin;” they may simply be acknowledging the needs for companionship that they have, and they may be unaware of the proper ways to go about meeting those needs. Churches need to acknowledge the commitment that such couples have made to one another while also calling them to live in accordance with Christ’s vision for human sexuality.

A Social Scientific Question: Why Is Stability within the Family Unit So Important for the Overall Well-Being of Children?

One of the reasons that churches need to be clear about their position on cohabitation is because the practice has important consequences for the wellbeing of children. While it is true that children are remarkably resilient, it is not true that adults can simply behave however they want with no regard for the impact that their actions may have on the spiritual, social, and emotional health of their children.

It all comes down to stability. If children have a healthy, stable home environment, they are better able to focus on other areas of their lives—including the development of healthy relationships outside the home, school work and other cognitive tasks, and the development of physical skills (sports, music, etc.). When children face instability at home, however, their focus is directed towards managing the stress that is created by that instability. They have to develop coping mechanisms to address that stress, and the mechanisms that they generate are not always healthy.

Furthermore, the practice of cohabitation itself can be problematic. It can negatively alter how children understand romantic love (as well as other kinds of relationships). These understandings are formed at a relatively early age, and it is hard to undo any damage that is done if they are formed in an unhealthy way. Since cohabiting relationships can change without much warning, children can be left with the impression that romantic relationships are inherently unsafe. That is, they can be left with the idea that a relationship with another person (romantic or otherwise) is only valuable as long as both parties feel that it meets their needs, which, in turn, reduces the likelihood that these parties will display the honesty and vulnerability that is necessary for the relationship to thrive.

In fairness, marriage can have the same impact on children if it is practiced in the way that it is often practiced today. The solution to the problem, however, is not to institutionalize instability. Rather, it is to consistently and lovingly call all people to an understanding of human relationships that emphasizes commitment, forgiveness, and accountability.

What the Church Can Do to Help

We have argued in this post that the church needs to stand by its commitment to marriage, even as society moves more and more towards acceptance of cohabitation. But we believe that there is a lot more that the church needs to do in order to address this social trend. We would like to present the following suggestions, and we hope that you will add yours in the “Comments” section below.

  • Make healthy and holy marriages a part of the discipleship process. There is no reason for single adults to embrace the Christian view of marriage if they never see it lived out in our lives. We need to make faithful love for our spouses an indispensable part of the discipleship process. That means that we not only should teach people how to have healthy marriages but also that we should not allow them to lead (if they are married) unless their marriage is healthy.
  • Promote a congregational culture that is oriented towards producing familial relationships and that promotes intergenerational mentoring. There is a reason why most New Testament writers use the language of fictive kinship when they talk about the church. In the first century, this was a necessary social construct, for people often lost their family network when they became followers of Jesus. We would argue, though, that it is no less important today. In our postmodern world, where people are separated from their extended family by geography, ideology, and other factors, the church has an opportunity to be a surrogate family for its members. As we grow towards one another in love, we have opportunities to mentor one another. For example, children in broken homes have an opportunity to see what a home can be like as they are exposed to family units in the church.
  • Develop a more comprehensive understanding of children’s ministry. Churches can help children by coming to a more holistic understanding of children’s ministry. Evangelism and basic discipleship are great; we need to keep doing these things. But we also need to watch out for the social and emotional health of the children that God has entrusted to our care. We need to offer their parents support in raising their children, and we need to do so without shaming those who, for whatever reason, are not a part of the typical two-parent household. We need to offer children tools for dealing with the difficulties in their lives in a healthy way. Most importantly, we need to do everything that we can to ensure that children are safe when they are at church. Obviously, that means protecting them from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, but it also means providing them with space to share their feelings and their questions without fear of being ridiculed or condemned.
  • Remember that children have a remarkable capacity for blaming themselves. When a relationships breaks up, children often feel as though it was their fault. We need to be aware of this fact and help children see the breakup for what it is. Doing so will help them cope with the breakup more effectively, and it will build a good foundation for later conversations about God’s will for romantic love.

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