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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

What’s Wrong with Living Together Unmarried?

Christopher Ash is Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London. He is the author of Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2003), which contains fuller discussion of the issues in this article; also of Out of the Storm: Questions and Consolations from the Book of Job (Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

“So, can you show me from the Bible that it’s wrong for me to be living with my girlfriend?”

It comes to light that a Christian young man in your church is living with his girlfriend, unmarried. When you challenge him about this he responds with the question above. He is not aggressive, though perhaps a little defensive. But he really does seem to want to know the answer. He has not been a Christian long. All—or nearly all—his non-Christian peer group are living together, and really it hasn’t seriously occurred to him that it is wrong, let alone scandalous. So what is his pastor to say?

It will not do simply to show him New Testament texts forbidding ‘fornication’ (most English versions) or ‘sexual immorality’ (NIV), as he will quite reasonably ask how we know that these texts forbid faithful public living together unmarried. Actually I am sure the Greek word porneia translated ‘fornication’ or ‘sexual immorality’ does in general refer to all sexual intimacy outside marriage. But to demonstrate this is not a trivial matter.

“And after all,” our young man may say, “we are living as if man and wife, and the marriage certificate is ‘just a piece of paper.’ And there really doesn’t seem to be anything convincing in the Bible which makes a marriage ceremony essential. So what we are doing is morally responsible, and not at all like fornication or sexual immorality. I am not paying her for sex, as a man does with a prostitute. We are not breaking marriage vows by having an affair. We are not sneaking off for secret assignations in a covert and shameful way. On the contrary, we have quite openly moved in together. We love one another, and we are faithful to one another. So what’s wrong?”

It is important for we who are pastors to consider our answer. For this young man’s questions are not trivial. We are not saying he ought to marry because we are social conservatives who prefer the old way of doing things. We have no simple and convincing Bible proof text to quote. I myself doubt if there is an answer that can be condensed into a sound bite. But I want to suggest the lines along which our answer might run. Which are as follows:

1. Jesus taught clearly and forcefully that the sexual relationship of man and woman ought to be faithful and lifelong. We are not to separate what God has joined (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). Any sexual relationship between a man and a woman that is not accompanied by the intention of lifelong faithfulness is, by definition, displeasing to God and immoral. It is not possible for a sexual relationship to be moral and intentionally transient. (It is essential to the definition of marriage that both parties pledge themselves to lifelong faithfulness; the fact that, sadly, some marriages later break does not change the fact that marriage is always built upon this pledge.) So there are two kinds of sexual relationships, ones that are built upon the pledge of lifelong faithfulness, and ones that are not.

2. There is a very great difference between public pledge and private assurances. This difference is not appreciated as it ought to be. In our privatized and individualistic culture we think there is little or no difference between private assurances exchanged between lovers on the sofa and public pledges made before witnesses (which is marriage).

But, in fact, there is a very great difference. A private assurance is, as we all sadly know, terribly easy to break. After all, when it comes to it, it is my word against hers/his as to what exactly was said. My reputation suffers minimal loss if I break a private word. BUT when I make a pledge before witnesses, I place my whole integrity and public reputation on the line. This is what happens in a marriage. I pledge publicly that I will be faithful to this woman alone until death separates us. Everybody knows I have made this pledge, for marriage vows (even if made before only a few witnesses) are unboundedly public. When I tell people I am married, they know that this means (by definition) I have publicly pledged lifelong faithfulness.

This means I am agreeing with Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. By publicly pledging lifelong faithfulness I agree that I ought never to be the one who breaks the marriage. And if I do break it (that is, be the one who actually causes it to break, never mind who does the technical legal business of suing for divorce), everyone will know I have broken my clear vow. And my reputation and integrity will suffer. So the stakes are rightly high in marriage. For public vows nail my public integrity to the maintenance of our marriage.

But unmarried cohabitation never has this clarity of commitment. Whatever private understandings may have been entered into (and these vary enormously), the whole relationship is surrounded by a public haze of ambiguous commitment. When a woman introduces her ‘boyfriend’ or ‘partner’ (horrible word), we are left to guess the nature of their relationship. When a cohabitation breaks, we do not know what private understandings or assurances have been broken and by whom.

3. Furthermore, in marriage there is public clarity that the vows have been made equally by man and wife. Whereas all too often in cohabitations there is a disparity of expectation. Typically (though not always) the woman expects the relationship to last (and persuades herself that her man has committed himself to her) while the man regards the whole business as much more of a “let’s see how it goes” relationship.

4. To the unmarried couple we may therefore say, “Either your relationship is committed for life or it is immoral. If it is not immoral, you must be committed for life. In which case, you ought to be willing to stand up and say so. For what reason might there be for keeping your commitment private? Answer: none. On the contrary, if you really love one another, you will make the public commitment, since this commitment aligns the resources of wider families and society behind you, holds you to it by our expectations that you will be a man and a woman of your word. Public commitment therefore buttresses your relationship and makes it more likely to last (much more likely, as the statistics indicate). And if you are not willing to make this public commitment, the only possible reason is that you are not really committed like this at all and do not really love one another. In which case your relationship is immoral.”

That sounds a touch harsh, and it will need to be said in the context of a pastor who loves and cares; but it does need to be said to any professing Christian couple who really think it is moral to live together unmarried. For although they think they love one another, actually they do not love one another very much—and certainly not enough to make sex moral.