As a pastor in New York City, I address any number of cultural issues and concerns on a weekly basis. One of the most frequent arenas of conflict between Christian teaching and dominant cultural practices surrounds sex and relationships.
The city is full of young, single men and women pursuing their dreams and chasing after the spotlight. But the light of fame and success is often cold, and they were made for more—so they chase after an even more elusive goal, “love.”
Our culture has a whole set of rules for meaningful relationships. On the path to marriage—if that’s your goal—the rules are simple: Swipe left, swipe right, date a while, then move in together.
A new Barna study found that cohabitation is the primary compatibility test prior to marriage. And fully two-thirds of American adults approve.
That number increases to 72 percent among millennials. Surprisingly, even among professing Christians, some 40 percent are proponents of moving in before marriage. In our practical utilitarian culture, there are several reasons for this trend to justify the experience. Some will cite the convenience, the need to save on rent, etc. But the predominant reason given, at least in this study, for cohabiting is this: to test compatibility, 84 percent agrees.
This generation has emerged under a dark cloud of divorce and broken homes. As such, they appear unwilling to enter into “lifelong” marriage contracts unsure of their relational compatibility.
The easy thing to do when we see this kind of data is immediately decry a culture increasingly at odds with Christian sexual ethics. But we really need a more nuanced response.
The quest for compatibility is natural and even commendable. It’s nothing more than the desire to be known. We were created to be known by our creator and to know Him. Since we are made in His image, we were also fearfully and wonderfully made to experience the joy of knowing each other in marriage.
So, looking at this cohabitation trend, if we are to understand it and respond in love, we should ask three questions: What are you seeking? What will you find? What are you meant for?
What are you seeking?
The majority of men and women cohabiting are seeking one thing: certainty. They want to know for certain that they love and are meant to be with their partner for life.
This desire for certainty is not bad. The Bible reminds us that, “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” (Proverbs 19:2) This generation’s hesitancy to commit in marriage has been born from a previous generation’s eagerness to abandon discretion and throw caution to the wind.
The resulting surge in divorce and divided homes has, ironically, raised this generation with an intuitive respect for the institution that should not be entered into lightly. The solution, most of Americans seem to think, is to “test” their relationships with all the trappings of marriage, save one—a commitment of vows.
But can this test deliver what we desire?
What will you find?
If you are seeking certainty, if your desire is to see if you are a good fit with your partner, then will you find those things in merely living together? I believe that the short and biblical answer is: no.
Let me explain.
It’s no accident that the most frequent euphemism in the Bible for sex is the word “know.” In the very beginning, the very first marriage is described this way: “Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived and bore a son.” Sex is meant to be a physical representation of an emotional reality, the opportunity to know someone physically as well as intellectually. In the act of sex, we are not only physically naked and vulnerable, we’re emotionally naked and vulnerable, too.
This dual vulnerability can only exist fully under the covenant of marriage. The covenant is a witnessed promise, an agreement between a husband and a wife, witnessed by God.
This promise is immune to changing times, attitudes and circumstances. This means regardless of what happens—“for better or worse”—you are bound together. Whatever we learn about our partners, whatever we discover; we are bound to love them, and they you. This is drastically different from merely cohabiting.
Absent the covenant of marriage, it’s very difficult truly to know your partner. Both of you are always tempted to hold something back, fearful that if they really got to know the real you, they might leave or that you might leave them. This kind of relationship is inherently imbalanced. You can be physically naked, but emotionally you hold back, fearful of losing someone whose only real tie to you is mutual affection. If the affection fades, or the circumstances change, what is to call you both to remain?
This condition can leave you enslaved to fear and performance, working to earn the affection of one who loves you and may leave. This is not how it was meant to be.
What are you meant for?
The longing of our hearts is to be known. The psalmist cries, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” (Psalm 139:23) We were created to be known by God, and to find supreme significance in that. God in His grace has given us the desire to know each other and created an institution that reflects His glory and purpose.
In marriage we mirror His grace: We love without condition and are willing to give our all to maintain the union. There is a freedom that only comes in a covenant relationship. When God is your witness, and when He joins you together, your love is not merely secured in your preferences but in His patient love.
The only path to true knowledge of each other must wind through the truth of the Gospel. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Free to explore, free to disagree, free to fight, free to find forgiveness, free to stay in sickness and in health.