An increasing number of young, and not so young, people in the western world are cohabiting.[i] In some countries ‘living together’, among the younger generations, has become the norm rather than the exception. According to data from the US Census Bureau published in 2005, some 4.85 million American couples were cohabiting at that point in time.[ii] Currently, 9% of all men en women between the ages 15 and 44 cohabit.[iii] Other countries, such as Australia and Britain, report even considerably higher figures. And this is, in particular, true of, for instance, Scandinavia.[iv]
It must be noted that it is difficult for researchers to determine the exact statistics for cohabitation, as it frequently reflects a rather fluid situation. The beginning and ending of the living-together arrangements are often not as clear-cut as with regard to marriage and divorce. Also, in any discussion of this topic, it should be recognized that it concerns a rather complex phenomenon. While we see wide-spread ‘pre-marital‘ cohabitation, there is also a very considerable degree of ‘post-marital’ cohabitation. For many, cohabiting is an alternative to marriage, while for others it rather is an alternative to being single.[v] Furthermore, the legal status of cohabitating couples differs substantially from country to country. However, we discern a definite trend in the western world to treat unmarried couples who live in a stable relationship, for legal, fiscal and economic purposes, in a way that is similar to what applies to married couples.
Why do people decide to cohabit? For many seniors ‘living together’ is, for financial and other practical reasons, preferable over marriage—or, often, re-marriage. For those of a younger generation—statistics indicate that the majority of people living together are in the 25-34 year age bracket—a wide variety of reasons applies. For some, in particular for those who grew up in less than ideal family circumstances, a fear for marriage often plays a role.[vi] Others want to be sure that they are compatible with their partner and want to live together for some time before entering into a formal marriage, that (in spite of the availability of relatively easy divorce), is considered as more ‘final.’ Some move in with the partner for economic reasons. Usually the sexual availability of the partner plays a major role.
For our discussion of an Adventist perspective on cohabitation some aspects must be highlighted. It must be recognized that cohabitation differs significantly from area to area, even within the western world. In the United States it tends to be a rather short-term arrangement, usually intended as an introduction to marriage, whereas in many western-European countries long periods of cohabitation, often without any intention of ever getting married, are much more common.
One of the arguments against cohabitation that is frequently emphasized in conservative Christian circles is that the risk of divorce is much higher for couples who lived together before they got married than for couples who did not cohabit.[vii] While there are many studies which clearly point in that direction,[viii] in particular in the US, some scholars insist that the data that suggest greater marital and family instability after a period of cohabitation are not as clear-cut as many believe.[ix]
Recent research in which a number of demographic factors in fourteen western countries were compared, shows some highly significant facts. American cohabiting relationships are comparatively fragile when compared to some other countries. The percentage of children seeing a new partner enter their home after a disruption of their parent’s relationship is also significantly higher in the United States than in Europe or Australia. And, to mention another telling statistic: the percentage of American women below age 35 who have lived together with three or more different partners (in sequence) stands at almost ten percent, while countries, in the higher cohabitation bracket, like Sweden, New Zealand, and Canada, have percentages of, respectively, only 4.5, 3.9 and 2.9.[x]
The Adventist position
The Adventist Church strongly promotes marriage as the only acceptable form in which people (of the opposite sex) should live together and enjoy sexual union. In theory, the only other relationship-option is to live a single life of sexual abstinence. Official Adventist statements are adamant that marriage was divinely established and entails a ‘life-long union between a man and a woman in loving companionship.’ A ‘common faith’ is an essential ingredient. The other key characteristics of marriage are: ‘mutual love, honor, respect and responsibility’ . The marriage relationship is to reflect ‘the love, sanctity, closeness, and permanence of the relationship between Christ and His church.’[xi]
Several official Adventist statements and guidelines underline this position, although it is recognized that even among Adventists ‘some family relationships fall short of the ideal.’[xii] Sexual activities are to be restricted to married life. A 1987 statement classified ‘pre-marital sex’ with adultery and ‘obsessive sexual behavior’ and as ‘contrary to God’s expressed will.’[xiii]
Several official church documents clearly condemn cohabitation, although mostly implicitly. The Biblical Research Institute (BRI) at the denominational world headquarters has at times been more explicit in referring to cohabitation. It published a statement authored by dr. Miroslav Kiš, an ethicist at Andrews University, which strongly condemned cohabitation in all cases.’[xiv]
Angel Manuel Rodriguez, the former director of this institute, also addressed the topic in a relatively recent article. His language is pastoral and avoids harsh condemnation. Church members should, he says, show ‘love and care’ for cohabiting couples, ‘in spite of the fact that we do not approve of their lifestyle.’ Considering the biblical understanding of marriage, Rodriguez finds cohabitation seriously wanting on a number of counts and believes that cohabitation ‘simply’ does not reflect ‘the beauty of a truly Christian home.’[xv]
Unfortunately there is a lack of hard statistical data regarding the practice of cohabitation by Seventh-day Adventists around the globe.[xvi] There is abundant anecdotal evidence, however, that the practice is wide-spread, and increasingly so, in many countries in the western world (and beyond). Some interesting data are available regarding trends in cohabitation among North-American Adventists. Extensive data on Adventist family life in the United States were published in 1997,[xvii] based on data collected in 1994 from a sufficiently large sample, quite representative for Adventists in the United States. It was found that by the mid-1990’s cohabitation was a frequent reality in the Adventist population. To the question ’Did you and your spouse live together prior to being married,’ 18% percent responded with ‘yes’. Somewhat surprisingly, the percentage of those who responded positively was higher among the ‘baby boomers’ (born 1946-1964) than among those of the generation since 1964 (26 and 19 respectively). To European Adventists it comes as a further surprise that the percentage of those who at one time or another lived together prior to their marriage was lower among white Anglo-Saxons (14 %) than among American blacks (21%), Caribbean blacks (17%), Hispanics (22%) or Asians (19%).[xviii] This reflects what is found among the American population in general. Information regarding European Adventists would, however, suggests that in Europe the immigrant sectors of the church tend to be more ‘conservative’ and less tolerant (at least in theory) towards cohabitation. Recently newer data have become available. The percentage of American Adventists who lived together before getting married has remained at the same level of 18 percent.’[xix]
A biblical view
In some Christian denominations cohabitation has ceased to be an important moral dilemma and now consider cohabitation as acceptable, provided certain conditions are met, such as a sufficient level of long-term commitment. Most conservative and evangelical Christians, as well as Roman Catholics, continue, however, to stress what they consider as the only biblically defensible view, i.e. that marriage is the divinely established, and therefore the unique, format for living together as a heterosexual[xx] couple and as the only acceptable context for raising a family.
The first step in determining whether cohabitation must always be considered as inferior to marriage, or as simply morally wrong, would to a large degree depend on a definition of terms. How exactly does the Bible define marriage? No serious study of the topic argues that the Bible offers a clear defence for the contemporary outward forms of marriage, with a prescribed wedding ceremony before the civil authorities and/or in the church. In fact, the form of marriage that we are accustomed to, is rather recent. Not until the Middle Ages did the church involve itself with the performance of marriage, and the laws that govern current marriage and family statutes are also of relatively recent origin.[xxi]
Not only did the laws and customs surrounding marriage change, but so did the very nature of marriage. It changed from a mainly parentally controlled, and largely economic, arrangement to an individualized emphasis on romantic love. For a long time ‘courtly love’ was reserved for the privileged class, while for most people more mundane concerns governed the choice of a partner.[xxii]
Readers of the books of Ellen G. White will note that in her writings on the topic of marriage, a strong emphasis is placed on practical matters.[xxiii] Her counsels, in particular her reticence to speak openly about the physical side of relationships,[xxiv] must be understood against the background of the time in which she wrote.[xxv] Her strong condemnation of extra-marital sexual activity of married people is explicit in many places in her writings, while her rejection of any form of pre-marital sex is just as strong, though rather more implicit.
Most authors who have written on the biblical concept of marriage refer to Genesis 2 as the ultimate basis for the marriage relationship. The Genesis story sets forth the ideal of one man, entering into a unique relationship with one woman, that supersedes all other human relationships, in full loyalty and commitment to one another, accepting their differences as complementing their oneness, and reserving their sexual expressions exclusively for each other.[xxvi] It is a ‘decisive act of both detachment and attachment.’[xxvii] Usually these authors also stress that the ‘leaving’ of the parents has a public dimension, and they usually emphasize that cohabitation, in contrast with marriage, often lacks this aspect of public announcement.
Christians will naturally look for the way in which Jesus related to marriage. According to John’s Gospel Christ began His public ministry during a wedding (John 2:1-11), which appears to underline the importance Jesus attached to marriage. When, at some later moment, asked about the permissibility of divorce, He acknowledged that the sad reality of sin resulted in the equally sad reality of divorce, but that this was not how marriage was originally intended. He underlined the creation ideal as still valid. After quoting the words from Genesis about the ‘leaving’ and ‘cleaving’ of a man and a woman when entering into a life-long union of ultimate intimacy, he adds: ‘What God has joined together, let man not separate’ (Matthew 19:6). This is not to be interpreted as if God is the One who brings people together, without any exercise of their own free will. In fact, many unions are contrary to the will of God, in particular when those involved consciously disregard their obvious mutual incompatibility (2 Corinthians 6:14), religious or otherwise.[xxviii] The main point in Christ’s statement is that marriage is not just a private affair, merely a social contract between two persons, but that God is involved—and that his involvement gives marriage its sacred character. No wonder that in the New Testament marriage becomes a metaphor for the close, permanent and exclusive relationship between the Lord and his church (Ephesians 5:22, 23).
Marriage may best be described by the biblical term covenant. The term ‘sacrament’ carries connotations that Protestants do not agree with, while the term ‘contract’ is too shallow to cover the essence of marriage.[xxix] Although there are only two places in Scripture where the word ‘covenant’ is explicitly used in connection with marriage (Maleachi 2:14; Proverbs 2:16, 17), the term expresses most succinctly what biblical marriage is. It captures the permanence, the intimacy, the mutuality and the exclusiveness of marriage as a sacred bond between a man and a woman, entered into before God (whether or not the persons involved acknowledge this).[xxx]
Marriage or cohabitation?
Cohabitation cannot be simply ruled out because of a clear biblical injunction that only marriages that have been performed in a town hall and/or in a church are biblically valid. The fact is that the Bible nowhere prescribes a particular ceremony.[xxxi] Nor can, in most western countries, opponents of cohabitation any longer claim that the laws of the land demand an official civil or religious wedding, and that, since Christians are admonished to abide by the laws of the land, they have no option but to seal their relationship by marriage. Again, the plain fact is that in most countries other options are legally available, and in an increasing number of countries different relationship forms carry the same, or almost the same, legal rights and duties as marriage. Therefore, in most places a cohabiting couple cannot be accused of breaking or ignoring the law of the land.
Yet, it should be clear that the biblical view of marriage rules out the legitimacy of many cohabiting arrangements. Whenever a cohabiting situation is entered into without the clear commitment of both partners, not only to love and support each other, but to stay together permanently in an exclusive sexual relationship, it may be a relationship that finds plenty of social support in contemporary society, but it will lack the stamp of divine approval, for such relationships do not conform to God’s intentions ‘from the beginning.’
On the other hand, if we abide by the biblical definition of marriage, there may well be instances of cohabitation that are, in fact, quite indistinguishable from biblical marriage. One might sum it up in just a few words: a relationship is not what people call it, but what it really is when measured with the biblical yard stick.
The attitude of the church
Should the Adventist Church continue to oppose all forms of cohabitation? Should church members who choose to live together without a formal marriage certificate be disciplined, or at the very least be excluded from any church office? Should pastors do their utmost to convince cohabiting couples that they should either break up their ‘sinful’ relationship or get married? Let me offer of few suggestions that may point to a more fruitful approach than we have often seen in the recent past.
- The church must continue to recognize and strongly proclaim the biblical ideal of monogamous, life-long, committed, exclusive, heterosexual relationships, in spite of the fact that the reality in this sinful world—even among church members –is often far removed from this ideal.
- While upholding the ideal, the church must treat those who are falling short of the ideal, with loving care. Rather than condemning people who live together, such couples should be encouraged in whatever possibly way to more fully reflect the biblical ideal. Cohabitation may be, or may become, ‘for many people, a step along the way towards that fuller and more complete commitment’ that characterizes the ideal for marriage.[xxxii]
- Many cohabiting situations do indeed fall far short of the biblical ideal. But the relationship of many couples who have been formally married is likewise far removed from the biblical ideal. Rather than harping constantly on the desirability that cohabiting people seal their relationship with a formal wedding ceremony,[xxxiii] the church might do better in using its energy in emphasizing, in convincing and creative ways, how commitment, loyalty, exclusivity and permanence will enrich relationships—both for married and cohabiting people.
- Whether or not people cohabit or are formally married should not be the main criterion as to whether they can or cannot hold a church office. Some married people may have the kind of relationship with their partner that makes it undesirable that they should be elected to any office, while in some cases cohabiting persons live in a relationship that may reflect more fully the biblical ideal, and might be more suitable for a leadership role in the church.
- When discussing issues around marriage and cohabitation an awareness of differing situations in different countries and in different cultures is necessary if one wants to arrive at a balanced judgment.
There remains one other factor that demands attention. There still is a majority in society—and certainly in the Adventist Church (and most definitely in America)—that favours marriage over cohabitation. Western society in general has become quite tolerant for those who choose to live together with their partner and even raise children, without getting formally married. But should not the wish of parents and majority opinion in the church count for something? While there are Adventist parents who do not overly worry about whether their children marry or live together (‘as long as they are happy’), and while many church members will tolerate cohabitation under certain conditions, there is a majority in the Adventist Church that does not feel comfortable with it. Should cohabiting people not take the feelings of family and fellow-church members into account? If you intend to stay together, why not conform to what so many would prefer? After all, the apostle Paul reminds us that things that may be permissible are not always ‘beneficial’ (1 Corinthians 6:12) or ‘constructive (1 Corinthians 10:23). Moreover, when cohabiting people, whose relationships correspond to what the Bible demands, know that some of their fellow believers consider their choice for cohabitation as a morally wrong—why not take that into account? It is, once again, the apostle Paul who reminded us that those who are ‘strong’ must be considerate with regard to those who are ‘weak’ in the faith (1 Corinthians 8). Would that principle not also apply here?
Nonetheless, whatever else might be said, a relationship that merits divine approval is not identified by just looking at the label that human beings may attach to it. It is rather the relationship that truly represents a covenant between two people who have joined their lives together, with God as their witness.
[i] The word is derives from the Latin prefix co (together) and the Latin verb habitare (to live).
[ii] Rhonda Johnson, ‘An Analysis of Factors Affecting Adolescent Attitudes Toward Cohabitation before Marriage,’ Journal of Youth Ministry, vol. 4, no. 1 (Fall 2004), p. 75.
[iii] See http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_028.pdf
[iv] See http://marriage.rutgers.edu/Publications/NMP2008CohabitationReport.pdf
[v] Judith K. Balswick and Jack O. Balswick, Authentic Human Sexualilty (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, 2nd ed), p. 164.
[vi] Rhonda Johnson , pp. 75-84.
[vii] Balswick and Balswick, pp. 170-173.
[viii] Johnson, p. 75.
[ix] Michael G. Lawler, ‘Questio Disputata: Cohabitation, Past and Present,” in: Theological Studies, vol. 65 (2004), pp 623-629.
[x] Ibid, pp. 205-211.
[xi] Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, no. 23 ‘Marriage and Family’. The document is to be found in many official and semi-official publications of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. E.g. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, ed. 2005 (Silver Spring, MD: Secretariat of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), pp. 19-29; see also: ‘An Affirmation of Marriage,‘ 1996, in: Statements, Guidelines and Other Documents (Silver Spring, MD: Communication Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), p. 71-72.
[xii] ‘Statement on Home and Family,’ 1985, in: Statements, Guidelines and Other Documents, p. 55.
[xiii] ‘A Statement of Concern on Sexual Behavior,’ Statements, Guidelines and Other Documents, p. 94-95;
[xiv] See: http://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/documents/CohabitationandSDA.htm.
[xv] Angel Manuel Rodriquez, ‘Living Together’, see: http://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/Biblequestions/livingtogether.htm.
[xvi] In 2007 the Valuegenesis survey was conducted among young European Adventists. The survey contained several questions that are relevant to this chapter. However, to date, the results have not yet been published in a form that enables us to draw sound conclusions. Also, it should be recognized that this survey was restricted to a limited age group (14-25).
[xvii] Monte and Norma Sahlin, A New Generation of Adventist Families (Portland, OR: Center for Creative Ministry, 1997), pp. 120, 121.
[xviii] Monte and Norma Sahlin, p. 227.
[xix] Monte Sahlin, Adventist Families in North America, p. 24.
[xx] In this article the issue of same-gender relationships is not discussed. That does imply that the reality of the attraction that many feel towards the same sex is not recognized, nor does it suggest that Christian theologians and ethicists should not try to do full justice to all relevant factors.
[xxi] Stephanie Coontz has provided a fascinating and very readable history of the marriage institution in her book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York, Penguin Books, 2005).
[xxii] Balswick and Balswick, pp 166-168.
[xxiii] E.G. White, The Adventist Home (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1952), pp. , 25ff, 43-128; E. G. White, Messages to Young people (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1864 ed.), pp. 452-5, 461-3.
[xxiv] In Solemn Appeal (1980), in a chapter about ‘female modesty’ Ellen White describes a person who gives a young lady ‘a kiss at an improper time or place’ as an ‘emissary of Satan.’
[xxv] Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (Bloomington, IN; Indiana University Press, 1986) and Thomas J. Schlereth, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991) are very useful resources if one wants to understand the milieu of nineteenth century America.
[xxvi] Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Marriage Covenant: A Biblical Study on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage (Berrien Springs: Biblical Perspectives, 1991), pp. 20-31.
[xxvii] Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005 ed.), pp. 331-2
[xxviii] Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, pp. 876-7
[xxix] Andreas J. Köstenberger, God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), pp. 81-89.
[xxx] Köstenberger, pp. 89-91; A useful overview of the biblical concept of marriage from an Adventist perspective is found in the chapter ‘Marriage and Family’ in the Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology The chapter (pp. 724-750) is written by Calvin Rock. The volume is edited by R. Dederen and published by the Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000. See, in particular pp. 726-729
[xxxi] Calvin Rock, p. 725.
[xxxii] Church of England, General Synod Board for Social Responsibility, Something to Celebrate: Valuing Families in Church and Society (London: Church House Publishing, 1995), p. 115.
[xxxiii] Contemporary weddings are often outrageously expensive and hardly evidence of careful Christian stewardship. Wedding ceremonies have, in fact, changed dramatically in their symbolic meaning. Rather than signifying in a public manner that two people are beginning their life together, the wedding is meant to announce that the couple has made such a success of their relationship that they are now ready to ‘go to the altar’. See Andrew J. Cherlin, pp. 139-141.