Tuesday, April 21, 2015


The statistics of cohabitation in South Africa are staggering, more and more young people are opting for cohabitation rather than commitment to marriage. “The census of 1996 found that 1, 268,964 people described themselves as living together with a partner while the 2001 Census estimated that nearly 2.4 million individuals were living in domestic partnerships, almost doubling the figures of 1996” (Divorce and Family Law Attorney, 2011). This culture of cohabitation is on the rise and it is fast becoming a norm in the world and South Africa is no exception to the rule. Shockingly this practice is also becoming prevalent in the church, and this has become an area of crucial concern mainly because cohabitation undermines marriage as an institution from God. Although the practice is prevalent, there is little response from the church against the act of cohabitation. Pastors are getting cold feet when it comes to addressing issues like cohabitation, marriage and sex. This results in many professing believers being informed by secular thinking in issues that should be addressed from the Scriptures by the church. How does the church address such thinking and behaviour in a biblically sober manner? The purpose of this paper is to come to a biblical solution of dealing with the issue of cohabitation in the church.

Towards a working definition of cohabitation
Before we proceed with the issue it is vitally important that we define the word cohabitation in order to come to an understanding of what is meant as the word is used in the course of the paper: “This term traditionally describes the dwelling together under one roof and sharing life together of husband and wife. In recent times the word has been enlarged in scope to cover any couple...who choose to live together in one place. Thus cohabitation now has the common meaning of the act of living with, and in particular sleeping with, another person of the same sex or opposite sex in a permanent or semi-permanent relationship” (Harrison, 1992:76), the later sense of the definition would be how it is employed in this paper.
In this paper the term ‘cohabitation’ is used to refer to an unmarried man and woman who are living together in an intimate relationship; this excludes a man and woman who have been recognised by both their families as husband and wife even though the state hasn’t recognised that union yet.

Cohabitation versus Marriage
Cohabitation is an antithesis of marriage while displaying elements of marriage in and of itself. To illustrate that point, if one were walking in a shopping mall and were to see a man and a woman in their ripe age walking hand in hand with a baby, even if they are not wearing rings on their left hands, the basic assumption would be that they are married even if one does not probe to find out from the horse’s mouth. The possibilities of that man and woman being not married are surprisingly high.
Upon a perusal of statistics of people of the opposite sex who are just living together it is clear that cohabitation is seriously becoming a problem to say the least. In order to see cohabitation as an antithesis of marriage it is important to define what marriage is; by marriage I mean ‘a union of a man and a woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.’ Cohabitation lacks both ‘union’ and ‘lifetime covenant commitment.’ When we compare cohabitation with marriage we discover that they are diametrically opposed. Below is a table to demonstrate that point:

ORDAINED BY GOD: In the second chapter of Genesis God ordains marriage. After God created man and woman in His image, He commanded them to “…be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen.1:26-28). “This mandate is closely associated with the other institution which is the ordained means through which the command to procreate is brought to effect, namely, the ordinance of marriage” (Murray, 1994:45). God’s plan from the beginning for man and woman’s relationship has been marriage, and He purposefully created them differently (male and female):

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen.2:28).
A LIFESTYLE CHOICE: Cohabitation is a deviation from God’s creation “See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29), secular thinking finds it a convenient lifestyle choice to just live together without getting married. Cohabiters want to engage in a sexual relationship without the responsibility that goes with it; they want the privilege that goes with marriage but not the commitment. Some see it as a stepping stone towards marriage.
PERMANENT UNION: Marriage is a ‘lifetime covenant commitment.’ God’s plan for marriage is that it must be a permanent union, when man leaves his father and mother to be joined to his wife they become “…one flesh” (Gen.2:28). Jesus Christ refers to this in answering the Pharisees in matters of divorce, and concludes by saying “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let no man separate ” (Matthew 19:6). With this statement Jesus affirms the permanence of marriage. A marriage cannot be dissolved inasmuch flesh should not be torn apart.
TEMPORARY RELATIONSHIP: There is no commitment in cohabitation. The great fault of cohabitation is that it wants to resemble marriage without any lifetime commitment. It is a sexual relationship of a temporary nature. When problems arise in cohabitation, instead of a determined effort to deal with the problems they see it as easy to go their separate ways. They will stay in the relationship as long as they feel that their needs are fulfilled.
HUSBAND AND WIFE: When man and woman are joined together in lifetime covenant commitment they become husband and wife before God.
“True love between a man and a woman finds its ultimate expression in that man and woman coming together and dedicating themselves exclusively to one another for the rest of their lives.” (Miller, 2007:23)
SEXUAL PARTNERS: When man and woman cohabit they are nothing more than sexual partners. Individual centered values often contribute to people choosing cohabitation in place of marriage. In the eyes of God they are seen as ‘sexually immoral’ and ‘fornicators’ (1 Cor.6:9), because they engage in sex outside marriage.
WELCOMES CHILDREN: When God created man and woman in Genesis 1, He commanded them to “…be fruitful and multiply…” (v.28). The husband and the wife anticipate having children in their marriage. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” (Psalm 127:3-5). Marriage is a stable home in which children are able to grow and thrive. For a married couple that is infertile the decision to adopt is something that can be welcomed by both of them.
DOES NOT WELCOME CHILDREN: Sexual partners in most cases do not prepare for children. Children are brought in an environment that is unstable, with a mother and father who are not committed to each other and not willing to take the responsibility to care for the children. In cohabitation abortion is mostly seen as solution of escaping the responsibility of taking children. Cohabitation has no place for children.
UPHOLDS GOD’S MORAL LAW: Marriage upholds God’s moral law. God does not approve of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the Bible encourages man and woman who are matured to enter marriage to marry “…because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor.7:2). God encourages sexual relations between married man and woman “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, and a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” (Proverbs 5:18-19)
UNDERMINES GOD’S MORAL LAW: Living together outside of marriage violates biblical commands. At the beginning I gave a definition of Cohabitation as “…the act of living with, and in particular sleeping with, another person of the same sex or opposite sex in a permanent or semi-permanent relationship” (Harrison, 1992:79). Cohabiters engage in sex outside of marriage which is forbidden according to the Scriptures, the Bible refers to that as ‘sexual immorality’ and ‘fornication’ (Acts 15:29; 2 Corinthians 12:21; 1 Corinthians 6:13; Eph. 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5; 1 Peter 2:11 etc.)

Upon examining the difference between marriage and cohabitation there remains no doubt that they are not the same. The latter is an awful distortion of the former. Even though it is clear that cohabitation is not the same as marriage there are still people who argue for cohabitations. Next I examine the reasons that people give in favour of cohabitation:

Reasons that are given in favour of cohabitation:

Trial Marriage/ Preparation for marriage
The reasoning here is that before a couple could marry they must first see whether they are compatible by living together before they get married, a case of  ‘conjoining with each other before sharing a bathroom’. An astounding number of individuals view cohabitation as a trial test for future marriage. “Individuals agree to cohabitate, enjoying personal and sexual intimacy, without making the final commitment of marriage. The period of cohabitation amounts to a test-run for marriage. The logic is simple--couples believe that living together will allow them to make an informed and reasonable decision about marriage” (Mohler, 2005). This is the thinking of most individuals concerning the whole idea of cohabitation; they see it as absurd to marry an individual that you have not lived with as a roommate to see whether you can tolerate them for life.

High Lobola Charges:
Lobola is “...an age-old African custom that is as alive today as it was 100 years ago. Both the families of the bride and groom would be scandalized if they did not adhere to this custom. On the surface, Lobola is a complex and very formal process of negotiation between the two families to come to a mutual agreement of the price that the groom has to pay in order to marry the bride” (Essortment, 2011). The modern practice of lobola is at most times incompatible with the way it was done culturally in the past, from a simple cultural practice to a money making project.

During these lobola negotiations large sums of money are demanded which in many cases the groom is unable to pay, for example the process of the lobola in the Zulu culture is one that burns a hole in the grooms pocket: First he must pay ‘Ukangazi’ meaning “now you know me” this is money that is requested at the meeting of the groom and the bride’s family as a formal way of introducing himself, and he must make sure that he has enough money else the bride’s family will not acknowledge him; then he has to buy a list of lobola items – first a cow or the money equivalent of a cow, then he must buy the mother in law a cow to show her gratitude for the bride.

Lastly he has to buy ‘Impahla’ which are items of clothing for the father and the mother in law and pay the full lobola, then they’ll be considered married. In light of this the man and the woman will often decide to defy the demands of culture by moving in together. The reason they give for their cohabitation is that they cannot afford the price.

Everyone is doing it:
This argument is a versatile one. It is used to argue for a lot of things that are morally wrong on the basis of its popularity. Because most people are involved in a particular practice, then it must be right. Cohabiters usually employ this type of reasoning, from their stand point it is not wrong to cohabitate anymore because many people are doing it. “Times have changed, we are no longer living according to primitive laws anymore” they protest. 

Biblical response on cohabitation:
I.        Cohabitation accentuates the fall of man: In Genesis 3 we see mankind’s relationship with God and each other being severely damaged by sin (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 3:23). The materialization of this fall was demonstrated in a variety of ways. “The distortion of the image of God and the resulting impact on identity of man and woman was immediate. This distortion caused their eyes to be opened to themselves and to change their view of their own self-image. They made clothes to cover their nakedness in a feeble attempt to restore the loss of relationship to God and its associated sense of inward identity. In essence, man and woman manufactured an identity on their own that was less than they were created to be” (Tillman, 1988:188). This ‘identity’ that man manufactures for himself is also be seen by his choice of cohabitation, sin has so blinded mankind that they no longer want to live according to the commands of God. The only way that mankind’s lost relationship with God can be restored is through the gospel. All mankind has sinned against a holy and righteous God (Rom.3:23), and therefore deserves the just penalty of eternal death (Rom.6:23). Before God there is no forgiveness of sin without satisfaction of His wrath, since mankind is unable to save themselves (Isa.64:6) God sent a Saviour (Jesus Christ Jn.3:16) who takes God’s wrath upon Himself and provides His righteousness to sinful man who believes in Him (2 Cor.5:21) so that we can stand justified before God (Rom.3:21-25). The gospel addresses the heart of cohabitation, which is sin.

II.      Cohabitation undermines the sanctity of marriage: God’s design for male and female relationships was clear when He created the first man and woman “Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.  So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen.2:18-24). These verses elucidate clearly what God’s plan is for male and female relationships. Jeffrey S. Miller comments on the passage saying “The first institution God gave mankind, the first model of any earthly relationship, was established with Adam and Eve in marriage” (Miller, 2007:11). On the other hand, it is not so with cohabitation. Cohabiters are not joined together as husband and wife, and they are not one flesh. Christians who engage in cohabitation trivialize marriage and tarnish the testimony of Christ to the watching world. William Barclay rightly points out that “There is something tragic in making that which is sacred commonplace, and that which is unique ordinary. There are things – and these the greatest things – whose value only fully comes when we do not take them until the time to take them has fully come” (1971:211).

III.   Cohabitation undermines the lordship of christ: There are people who insist that they are saved but their lives sing a different tune than the one they voice out, undermining Christ as Lord. One cannot claim to love Christ and not submit to Him “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). The life of a true believer is demonstrated by his/her submission to Christ, by seeking God’s will above their own. Cohabitation is inherently sexual promiscuity, and the Bible calls believers to sexual purity “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God…For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thes. 3:3-5, 7-8). Believers do not live their lives according to popular opinion (Rom.12:2), although the world says “everyone is doing it” their response must always be “But God’s word is authority.” When believers submit to the authority of God’s word they are invariably submitting to Christ.

The church’s response:

How should the church address the issue of cohabitation?

                    I.           A call to repentance: Since we have discussed the fact that cohabitation is essentially sexual promiscuity. The church must call those who are involved in such types of relationship to repentance. Pastors must boldly preach the whole counsel of God and that includes preaching against sexual immorality in the church, calling God’s people to submission to God’s word “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tim.2:19). If a call to repentance is not heeded by people who claim to be Christians they must be held under church discipline: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him and alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two other along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
The purpose of church discipline is not to remove people from the church but to restore them to fruitful relationship with Christ “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

                  II.            Teach on the sanctity of marriage: The Bible says “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrew 13:4). Marriage is God’s ideal for man and woman relationships, anything that deviates from that violates the sanctity of marriage. The church needs to encourage and teach young people about marriage to prepare wisely. Marriage is not license to legal sexual gratification, although sexual relation is part of marriage it is not all that marriage is. God ordained marriage as an essential institution of the society when He created Adam and Eve. In marriage, the man and the woman leave the families of their origins to and become united as “…one flesh…” (Gen. 2:24). “Marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman and between the participants and God (Malachi 2:14-16).  It is therefore more than a temporary agreement of convenience, a contract or a well-intentioned promise.  As a binding relationship established by promises, the marriage covenant is solemnly sealed by a ceremony witnessed by family and friends and regulated by the state” (EPC, 2004). God has created marriage for the purpose of His glory, companionship, mutual assistance, the bearing and raising and teaching of children, to promote the stability of the community and establishing the proper context of human sexuality.

                III.            Teach on lobola: Christian parents must not be a stumbling block to their children when they want to get married by demanding unreasonable lobola prices. This will lead to delayed marriages. “Delaying marriage for such reasons often leads to long engagements. In such cases the engaged couple may be tempted to have sex (or cohabit) with each other before marriage because their desires are so strong” (O’Donovan, 2000:81).

                IV.            Provide counselling to cohabiters and those who are considering cohabitation: Usually in the church people who are in cohabitation relationships are new believers, the pastor must bring the truth of the Bible to their attention. That God’s word is against cohabitation. And the church must come along these believers by encouraging them to get married, and in the mean time to live in separate places as they go through premarital counselling, not engaging in a sexual relationship. To young people who are thinking of cohabitation, the church should come along side them to warn them of the consequences of their decision, and above all dishonouring God. If they persist after much pleading with them, church discipline must be implemented.

We need to recognise that cohabitation is not a functional equivalent of marriage; it is in contrast with God’s plan for marriage from the beginning.  Albert Mohler points of that “We know that cohabitation is injurious to marriage precisely because it violates God's command that sex and marriage are never to be separated” (Mohler, 2005). Cohabitation exalts one facet of marriage (sexual intercourse) while undermining or neglecting the whole aspect of marriage. “The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union” (Lewis, 2009:1191-1192).

Article By

Karabo Samuel Msiza

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