Oneness and marriage

I remember the first dating and sex talk I ever heard at youth group.  Once a boy and a girl decided to date the question was always “how far is too far?”  I distinctly remember one of the approaches (for boys) was the ‘bikini rule’ – you don’t touch what the bikini touches!  In retrospect, I wonder whether it was the wrong question in the first place!

The world has changed a lot since I was teenager: movies that were rated for ages 16 and older now seem to be rated for 10 to 12-year-old children, pornography is freely available on your mobile phone, and there is wide acceptance of music and dance that is overtly sexual and provocative.  Our society has become more and more permissive: the touchstone that underpins our actions is personal satisfaction, the guiding light is pleasure, and the fundamental cry is ‘freedom’.

In this article I hold two things together: in the one hand, I hold an empathetic understanding of a culture that is less and less centred on Christian morals.  Rather than sex being a taboo subject, friends-with-benefits has become the norm.  In the other hand, I hold a deep conviction that God loves us enough to give us boundaries for life.  As the creator, he designed life to work best within these boundaries.  The world in which we live may have changed but the God’s sexual ethic has not.

So to ask again…

When it comes to courtship (more serious than teenage dating), “how far it too far?”  Can you have sexual relations before you marry?  Can you live together and not have sexual relations (co-habitation)?  Can you fool around but not have sexual intercourse?

The question of sexual relations before marriage is easier to answer.  Passages like I Thessalonians 4:3, Colossians 3:5, Galatians 5:19, 2Corinthians 12:21, or Matthew 15:19 make it clear that sex before/outside of marriage is not God’s purpose for sexuality.

One of the difficulties in answering the cohabitation question is that there isn’t a straight Biblical passage that says, “thou shalt not live together even if you aren’t having sex”.  So people usually put forward arguments like this in favour of cohabitation:

  • We see ourselves as married in our heart and in the eyes of God, therefore its fine to live together and to be involved in a sexual relationship;
  • We’re soon to be married and we live together (for a whole bunch of convenient reasons) with the intention of abstaining from sex until then;
  • But the Bible is outdated in this regard. Even if the Bible indirectly speaks against cohabitation, times have changed and it is now an outdated and therefore unhelpful rule;
  • Circumstances make it totally necessary to live together, so God must understand.[1]

The fact that the Bible does not have a “no living together” verse is a matter of the context.  Two or three thousand years ago it was not necessary to have a verse like that!  Certainly, there was the need to address sex before marriage and adultery, but young people lived with their families until they got married (and sometimes even after they got married).  You only ever moved to another city if you had family staying there and then you moved in with them.  And this was especially true of young ladies.  People were not finishing school at 18, moving away from home to study at a university, staying in digs with mates, getting their first degree at 22, and paying off their student loan (hopefully) at 25 before they even thought of getting married.  In those days many women were married shortly after puberty.

Nonetheless, here are five convincing Biblical reasons:

  1. Appearances: an argument from witness

No matter what a cohabiting couple says, people will never believe that they are not having sex. Even if they truly aren’t, people will read their life as saying, “it is okay to have sex before marriage”.

  1. Temptation: an argument from wisdom

A couple who is living together is putting themselves in a position where they could easily fall.  This is not wise – we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Rom 12:3, 1Cor 10:12-13)

  1. Oneness: an argument from union

One of the strongest arguments against cohabitation is from Genesis 2:24 “For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh”.  ‘Leaving father and mother’ is a break with the previous nuclear family to start a new nuclear family.  This means the character of marriage is the two become economically, socially, legally, residentially and sexually a new entity.  Jay Adams has this to say about the verse:

Men and women were designed to become “one flesh” (Gen. 2: 24)… This “oneness” is not to be thought of merely as sexual union (though it certainly includes that). Rather, in Hebrew thought, the term “flesh” referred not only to the physical body, but also to the whole person.  When Moses described the destruction of the entire human race (Noah and his family excepted), he described this catastrophe as “the end of all flesh” (Gen. 6: 13).  Surely, he had reference to more than bodies when using this phrase.  Rather, in a manner similar to our use of the word “everybody” (by which we refer to more than flesh and bones), he used the Hebrew word “flesh” to mean “person.”  To become “one flesh,” then, is to become “one person.”  Male and female marriage partners not only make an exact “fit” sexually, but their maleness and femaleness “fill out” or “complete” one another in every respect.  The two constitute a “whole.”[2]

In a similar way, Tim Keller says:

That word ‘flesh’ is not what you think. It’s not talking about the bodies. When God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” he’s not saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all bodies.” He’s saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all persons.”  What it is saying is marriage puts you into the same space.  You literally occupy the same space.  You hold things in common.  You’re raising your family together.[3]

God designed marriage to be an all-inclusive oneness.  The idea of a partial oneness is foreign to (and not condoned by) the Bible.   Cohabitation is having is a partial commitment to oneness – economic and residential, but not legal and sexual (for some). It is a half-hearted commitment to what is meant to be all complete.

  1. Covenant: an argument from relationship

The Bible considers marriage a covenant.  This covenant is patterned on the relationship between Jesus and the Church (Eph 5:22-33).  Just as our relationship in Christ is secure and unbreakable (!), so the marriage covenant is unbreakable (Mark 10:7-9).  When you enter – it is for life.  Cohabitation by nature is different.  The back door is always open and either person can pull out at any stage.   There is no public commitment or abiding expectation to “for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” etc.  The unbreakable covenant of marriage is the place where you can be completely vulnerable, honest, and truthful without the fear of rejection and shame.  Cohabitation robs the couple of this unique and beautify depth of intimacy.

  1. Holiness: an argument from purpose

Cohabitation also robs marriage of one of its highest purposes: the formation of the individuals in the marriage.  Marriage is meant to grow us in holiness.  Most of the growth I experience in my marriage is in the rub of the closeness of shared life.  This is where I am challenged about my selfishness, love, service, patience, and forgiveness.  But this will always be compromised in cohabitation because, when things get tough (i.e. I am really challenged to change), I can just walk out because it is uncomfortable.  And in a consumeristic, value proposition orientated society too many people just say, “This is not what I sign up for…” and walk out.  The marriage covenant is the key.

Still the wrong question

“How far is too far” will always be the wrong question.  God has given us a gift in our sexuality.  He has given us the proper place to express it.  But in doing that he has also given us a share in the greatest relationship mankind will ever know.  The blueprint for the covenant of marriage is the covenant between God and man.  The love, acceptance, sacrifice, service and forgiveness that we experience from God is the same love, acceptance, sacrifice, service and forgiveness we are to give to our spouses.  There is no higher honour and no great empowerment that could be given to marriage!

Searching the heart

Let me suggest a couple of different responses:

  • If you claim Christ as your Lord and Saviour (i.e. if you have confessed your sin and are trusting in his death on the cross to forgive you and make you acceptable before God) then you should be striving to live like a Christian.
    • If you are married/not married engaged in sexual activity that is unbiblical then you need to repent and seek help;
    • If you are in a committed cohabitation relationship you should consider getting married;
  • If you are not a Christian then I would not expect you to live like a Christian (although I still believe it would be best for you if you did). Christianity is not a moral code by which you live in order to earn God’s favour, it is a relationship that transforms your heart and therefore your actions.
  • Although sex outside of marriage and/or cohabitation are against God’s plan for mankind, it is not an unforgivable sin! If you have messed up there is forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  There is no sin, when we come in repentance, that God does not forgive.
  • If you have been hurt by a relationship (marriage or dating) that has left you feeling angry, upset, depressed, traumatised, or with a battered self esteem then please contact Grant Peers or Pat Scott for support.

[1] Is God okay with unmarried Christians living together.pdf – Terran Williams

[2] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/one-flesh/

[3] http://verticallivingministries.com/2014/01/12/tim-keller-sermon-the-first-wedding-day-genesis-218-25/

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