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Cohabitation, Marriage And Fragile Relationships

How do we see cohabitation as Christians? I’d be interested in your thoughts. I have many Christian friends who adopt the ‘traditional’ view, but an increasing number who live together before marriage. Friends of both persuasions read this blog.

I’ve known for years that research that suggests those who cohabit are more likely to break up than those who don’t. I seem to recall figures that couples who cohabit and then marry are 60% more likely to divorce than couples who only move in together at marriage. Couples who cohabit but never marry are twice as likely to break up as couples who marry without cohabiting first. However, I’ve lost the references to that research, so my memory of it may be faulty.

I have, though, now come across some nuanced research from a Christian perspective that not only shows the greater likelihood of cohabiting couples to break up, but also goes into something I had long thought: that there are many reasons for cohabitation. While in some less bureaucratic societies a couple moving in together did constitute marriage, cohabitation in our society has a number of different reasons. Informal marriage, trial marriage, a rejection of marriage, a matter of convenience and so on. The report, ‘Cohabitation – an alternative to marriage?‘  comes from the Jubilee Centre. One of the researchers was interviewed by Cross Rhythms.

It can’t all be about statistics, of course. It must also be about what we believe to be the core principles of marriage and relationships. For example, is a sexual relationship covenantal or even sacramental?

So – over to you. How do you see this?

Sermon: Some Basic Christian Convictions About Marriage

Genesis 2:18-25

I wonder whether you know the story of the devout Methodist who refused to get married on principle? He said he didn’t believe in games of chance.

The Lectionary today presents us with readings about marriage and divorce. When these lessons came around three years ago, I preached on the Mark reading and explained that Jesus does not here completely prohibit divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the prohibition on a woman to divorce her husband is actually about not deserting him.

But today, I want to go to the reading from Genesis. In some ways, this is the most fundamental text in Scripture about marriage. Both Jesus and Paul quote this passage when they teach about relationships, especially verse 24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

And in a culture where marriage is regarded as simply one of a number of relationship options, we need to think again about our Christian beliefs regarding it. We hear that ‘marriage doesn’t work’. We hear that people should do whatever two consenting adults decide between themselves to do, provided it doesn’t harm anyone else.

Before I launch into this, I want to say one other thing. As both a minister and as someone who didn’t marry until he was forty-one, I am aware this subject may not immediately apply to everyone. We are a mixture of single, married, widowed and divorced people. However, it’s hard to look at all these in one sermon. Just as I explored divorce from the Mark reading three years ago, this time I am thinking about marriage. On other occasions (not in Chelmsford, admittedly) I have preached about singleness. Another time it would be appropriate to think about widowhood and bereavement. Nor do I have time to offer any reflections this morning about homosexuality.

So come with me back to this ancient, inspired text as we explore some basic elements of Christian marriage.

The first point I want to make is that marriage is social. This is not an argument for wife-swapping! It is to say, though, that although marriage is exclusive, it isn’t private. What do I mean?

The context of our passage is about how the man will look after the garden God has created[1]. He needs a helper, a partner. The woman is created so that she and the man may steward God’s creation together. Marriage has a social function. It is designed to bless the world. Whatever goes on in our relationships, they affect the world. This has a negative and a positive consequence.

Negatively, this is where I beg to differ with those couples who choose to live together and not marry, saying they don’t need a piece of paper to prove their commitment to each other. I don’t doubt their sincerity. However, I believe they are mistaken in thinking their exclusive relationship doesn’t have social implications. That’s why marriage is a step of social recognition.

Positively, it means a couple when they come together do not do so simply to enjoy one another and support each other. As a couple, they can have an effect for good on other people, on society and on the environment. Let me repeat something I said in a different context once. The love between the members of the Trinity had to be expressed from and beyond them, hence the creation of the universe. Likewise, the love that exists between a couple has to go from and beyond them to others. The most common way in which this happens is if they are blessed with children, but they may also share their love by serving the community. Marriage is designed to radiate the love within the home to the world.

This can involve simple acts of kindness. Opening up our homes in hospitality to those in need is one obvious way (and of course is not limited to those who are married). Just the other day, Debbie and I found ourselves talking to a friend who is Australian but married to an Englishman. A dear friend of hers back home is gravely ill with cancer. We promised to pray for her and her friend, but we also said our door was always open if she wanted a coffee. It was just a simple way of extending our love to her. It is something married couples and families should, I believe, normally aim to do as a token of God’s love.

Secondly, marriage is equal. You may find it surprising to hear such an argument from the Bible. Isn’t the woman here called a ‘helper’, and doesn’t that make her subservient to the man? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell women to submit to their husbands, and wasn’t he an ignorant single man? Let’s dismantle this.

Take the ‘helper’ description first. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God is called ‘the helper of Israel’, and it’s the same Hebrew word for ‘helper’ as here. I hope we are not going to suggest that God is subservient to men! The great Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry made this point about the woman being made from the man’s rib: She was

Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.[2]

As for the texts about submission, let it simply be said that we also need to note what Paul required of husbands: we are to love our wives as Christ loved the Church – that is, we must be ready to die for them! The equality of marriage is not so much about equal status and rights, it is an equal relationship of self-giving, sacrificial love. This is what makes for the companionship of marriage. It is not whether we have compatible personalities, it is what we are each willing to do for our spouse for their well-being. The Bible teaches an equality of helping that leads to deep companionship.

Oh, and by the way, Paul probably wasn’t single! He says in 1 Corinthians that he isn’t married, but as a Pharisee it would be unthinkable that he hadn’t married. It’s far more likely, I believe, that he was a widower. I think he did have experience of marriage when he was young.

Thirdly, marriage is a priority. When verse 24 says, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother’, that is a rather curious statement for a Jewish text. Usually it was the other way around: the bride left her parents to move in with her husband, who stayed close to his parents.

But ‘leaves’ may be translated ‘forsakes’, and this is a relative term. Marriage establishes new priorities. It is not that we stop caring about our parents, but they are no longer our first concern: our spouse is.

And I might suggest that this reordering of priorities applies not only to our parents. It applies to the rest of our lives. Which comes first, work or family? Some large companies think their employees can just uproot their families and follow the latest economic whim.

But before we get too self-righteous, we should remember how the Church has sometimes expected members and ministers to show commitment to meetings and programmes at the expense of family life. There was once a church where mysteriously a banner appeared one week across the notice board. It said, ‘All meetings cancelled.’ The stewards set up an investigation to find out who the vandal was. They discovered it was the minister’s teenage son, who felt he wasn’t seeing much of Dad.

It’s why, although I technically work a six-day week, one of the first things Debbie asked me to do when we married was to block one night a week just for us. We can’t get by as a couple simply on one day off a week. So when I look at weeknight meetings from Monday to Thursday (allowing for Friday as my usual day off), once three of those four nights are filled with appointments, I refuse any more. I don’t always get my priorities right as a husband, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing that myself, but it’s what my wife needs and it’s right to do it. After all, those who want their pound of ministerial flesh would soon express disapproval if we drifted apart and separated.

This area of priorities is one where Christians could go against the flow of society. We might not all get the promotions in our jobs that we want, but marriage makes for new priorities.

Fourthly, marriage is a covenant. In verse 24, the man ‘leaves’ or ‘forsakes’ his parents and ‘clings to his wife’ – the old word for ‘clings’ is ‘cleaves’. He leaves and cleaves. It has the sense of sticking to his wife. It is about ‘both passion and permanence’[3]. And that raises the idea of covenant: a permanent commitment that is not simply a legal contract (marriage is more than a piece of paper), but backed with passion, with love.

This, then, is the ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death’ element of the marriage vows. The man sticks to his wife and sticks with his wife, if you like.

Sometimes people say their marriage just died. I suggest that’s based on a false understanding of marriage. I once read some wise words on the subject. The writer said, it’s not love that will keep your marriage alive: rather, marriage will keep your love alive. In other words, it’s that decision by the grace of God to stick with your spouse in bad times as well as good that makes the difference. It’s the covenant love that loves even when we don’t feel like it. We stick to one another.

And that, I know, can be enormously difficult. A musician friend of mine, Bryn Haworth, once wrote a song called ‘Working for love’, which sums up what the covenant nature of marriage sometimes requires of us. It requires work and effort to maintain that ‘stickability’. But the good news is that the God who calls us to such effort in order to maintain and grow our marriages offers us grace and power all the time and especially at our time of need. For where God guides, he provides.

Finally, marriage is a unity. In marriage, man and woman ‘become one flesh’, says verse 24. In an age of individualism, the unity of two people in marriage reminds us we are not isolated and separate people who make our own decisions regardless of anyone else. The partners in a marriage may be very different, and that may cause tension and conflict, but they act as one. Marriage is not about ‘me’: it’s about ‘us’.

But note the unity isn’t simply that the man and woman ‘become one’, Genesis says they ‘become one flesh’. This is, I believe, a poetic allusion to the act of love. For Christians, sexual intercourse is not simply a pleasure to be pursued, like buying an ice cream (although God does intend it to be pleasurable, as the Song of Songs attests). Rather, it is, as the great spiritual writer Richard Foster says, ‘a life uniting act with life uniting intent’[4]. The sexual act is virtually sacramental for Christians in marriage. No wonder we talk about it as the ‘consummation’ of a marriage.

This means, though, that we find ourselves vastly differing with the beliefs and practices of millions today, who believe in mutual consent but not necessarily in union. It’s another reason why I don’t believe Christian faith can agree with living together, however sincere many cohabiting couples are. If they live together as trial marriage, that makes little sense. Marriage is about total commitment, so you can no more have trial marriage than you can have trial death[5]. Besides, all the research I have ever read shows that couples who live together are much more likely to break up than those who marry without living together first. Sexual relationships without the abandonment to unity are houses built on sand.

In conclusion, then, I cannot state an entire Christian view of marriage from this one passage, but we can find some fundamental building blocks. And what we have here makes for a distinctive witness in our society, if not a thoroughly counter-cultural approach. We take marriage to have social implications rather than being entirely private. We agree with today’s view that it is between two equals, but we say that is about mutual service and sacrificial love, not inflicting my rights over and above another person. We see the marriage relationship as a high priority above the allure of money and career. Furthermore, it is not merely a piece of paper or a legal contract, it is a covenant requiring total commitment and love. Finally, the one-flesh unity cemented in the sexual relationship distinguishes us from the tentative approaches to commitment today and the disposable attitudes to sex found in some people.

This lines us up to be distinctive in today’s world, even to the point of being mocked. May God grant us the grace to hold to our witness, and to hold to it winsomely.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p51, calls this ‘the far agenda’ as opposed to ‘the near agenda’ of sexuality and sin.

[2] Cited in Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p69.

[3] Op. cit., p71.

[4] I’m sure this quote is in his book Money, Sex and Power but I can’t find the page number.

[5] I owe this insight to Doug Barnett in a seminar at Spring Harvest some time in the 1980s.