Mike Novotny - Living Together Before Marriage?
A few weeks ago, I started a pretty great debate among a group of local pastors. We're all sitting around a big conference table at one of our monthly meetings and I force them to vote, and I only gave them two options to choose from. Option number one, I proposed living together with someone before you're married to them is bad. It's wrong, it's sinful, it's unbiblical, and God doesn't want any of his children to do it. Option two, living together before marriage isn't necessarily wrong. It might be dangerous, and it might tempt certain people, but we can't say that it's wrong, or unbiblical, or bad, and that everyone who's doing it needs to stop and repent. "On the count of three you have to vote," I said, "Three, two, one".
And hands that were on the table flew up in the air and they were not all in agreement. I saw ones and twos. I saw ones and twos from the same church. And what followed was a rather lively, and if you can imagine, very lengthy discussion about the morality of moving in before marriage. There's something that none of us in the room could deny though that is a hugely relevant question for Christianity in the 21st century. I mean, the fact is, in the Ministry, and not just out there in the world, almost everyone that we meet who's seriously in love with other, thinking about marriage and engaged, has moved in. It's the exception and not the rule to find a couple who's living in separate places until their wedding night. It happens here. It happens, I would guess, in every church in this community, every church in this country.
And so, we are forced to wrestle with that question. "Well, what does God say about that? Good, bad, wise, unwise, smart, stupid, holy, foolish"? You know, back when I was in seminary, I probably had a black and white, pretty blunt answer to that question. But for the last 15 years as I've been doing life with real people like you, I've realized how tense and complicated that question can be to answer. Because our situations and our backgrounds, the families we grew up in, because of things that happened with sex, and relationships, and kids, and blended families, I think it deserves a little bit of time to just slow down and think deeply. If we want happy and holy homes, what does God say and what exactly should we do? Most people in America would say, "Yes".
In fact, during a 2019 survey, for every one American between the ages of 18 and 49 who said, "No, living together is bad," five to six Americans between 18 and 49 says, "No, no, that's definitely good. It's good to see if you're compatible. It's good to spend that time together. It's good to test the waters. It's good to make sure to know that you're ready for marriage". One compared to five to six. But here's the interesting thing, because we live in this time and place, we actually have a truck load of studies to prove one or the other. Now, back in our grandparents' day, they probably wouldn't have known, "Is this going to work out? Is this good for society? Bad for society"? But now, here in the 2020s, we have study after study after study after study that compares couples who live together before marriage and couples that don't.
Have you read any of these studies just yet? They are shockingly and surprisingly one sided. Let me rattle a few off for you here today. According to the latest research, couples who marry without living together first, they go right from living in separate spots to married, they trust each other more, in marriage they serve each other more, they tend to be more satisfied with the division of household chores and more satisfied with their sex lives. Those who marry without living together first are more likely to be faithful to each other in marriage, more likely to stay together in marriage, and more likely to raise healthy children. A study from UCLA said that cohabitors, people who live together before marriage, experience significantly more difficulty in their marriages with adultery, alcohol, and drugs.
A professor from Western Washington said that living together is quote, "The most robust predictor of marital disillusion a.k.a divorce". You catch that? That's not Peter and Paul. That's UCLA and Western Washington. Another survey said that if you live together before marriage, you are 50 to 80% more likely to get divorced after you get married. Is that surprising? I mean, on paper I would think, "Okay, you date, you figure out, 'Hey, this is pretty serious,'" you take it to the next step, and you live together, and you figure out, "'Yeah, like we want to be together forever.'" And you get married, and you're stronger because of that center step. But study after study, after study says if you take out that step and go from here to here, you end up happier, more faithful, more sexually satisfied, more pleased with housework, healthier kids. Wow. Kind of begs the big question, "Why would that be"?
I asked some local pastors that question and here was their theory. Because when a couple lives together before marriage, although it might seem like marriage without the official piece of paper, what it's missing is actually the very foundation of marriage. When you're living together and testing the waters, "Am I in or am I out? Do I want to marry this person or do I not"? What ends up happening is that you practice almost in your head, a way of thinking about your relationship that is the very opposite of a marriage relationship. It's almost like you're learning how to shoot a free throw with bad form and the longer you shoot, the worse the form gets and the harder it is to shoot it well once you actually get married. What do I mean?
Let me show you one Bible passage from the Book of Ephesians 5. Here's what marriage looks like from a Christian context. Verse 33 says, "However, each one of you must also love his wife as he loves himself," That's what a good husband should do. "And the wife must respect her husband". Right, not shocking. Husbands love, wives respect. That's Christian marriage. But do you notice a word that is not in this verse? "If". "I will love you if you're making me happy. I'm going to be here forever and ever and ever if you're showing me enough respect". In Christian marriage, there are no ifs and asterisks. There are reasons a Christian can leave a marriage, that's a sermon for another day. But God's very definition is not, "I might be in, I might be out. I'm going to leave the door unlocked if this isn't working out for me".
The Christian vow, the very essence of it is, "I will," period. "You're filling up my love cup today, I'm going to love you. You're not doing what you should as a spouse, I'm still going to love you. I have vowed before God a husband must love his wife, and a wife must respect her husband". That is the very essence of marriage, but it is not the essence of living together. Come on, living together comes with a dozen ifs and zero vows. "If you don't do enough, if you don't love me enough, if you don't serve enough, if I'm not happy enough, if this isn't working... the door is always unlocked". And so, what are you always thinking? You're not actually practicing marriage, you're practicing a contract instead of a covenant. A contract that says, "I will if," instead of, "I will". And so, you put all this together and what do you learn?
Now, grab a pen and write this down. It would seem based on scriptural guidance and on the statistics that are almost all one sided, that if you want to be happy, wait. It might seem illogical to you, it might seem like it's missing a big step, but we have enough data. Don't think you're the exception. If you want to be happier, wait... I've told some of you this story. When I was a brand-new pastor, I was teaching the middle school Bible class late, I think on a Wednesday night. And we had our group of maybe eight kids who would come and of course on the day that I'm teaching about marriage, and living together, and sex, one of the kids brings his buddy for the very first time. I remember the buddy's name was D'Angelo. And D'Angelo's sitting there and I'm, you know, I'm talking about sex and marriage, this really kind of narrow, biblical, traditional definition. And the whole time in the back of my head I'm thinking, "I wonder what that kid is thinking".
And of course, I get to the end and with trepidation I ask, "Anyone have any questions"? And guess who had a question, D'Angelo. Actually, he didn't have a question, he just made a comment. The first thing the kid says during the whole class is, "Pastor Mike, if everyone did that, the world would be a better place". Now, I didn't know anything about his family background, about his parent's relationship. He wasn't even talking about morality, or holiness, or right or wrong. He was just thinking about life, "What would happen if people didn't mess around, didn't violate God's laws? What if they had the patience and self control to do this? Would the world be better or worse"?
And his 13 year old reaction, "Pastor, the world would be a better place if people followed that". And he was not a fool and UCLA study proves it. And survey after survey supports it. You think by taking the step you're going to be happier, but the evidence says, "No, you will not". But if I were you, I'd be arguing in my head right now, and here's what I would be saying, "But is it wrong? Okay, statistics suggest most couples will end up with greater problems, but don't dodge the question, 'Pastor, is it wrong?' The Bible says you shouldn't add rules, so are you adding rules? Can you prove to me this is not a holy choice for someone to make? Yeah, maybe there are dangers and pitfalls, maybe it's a narrow road that we need to be aware of, but in some case, in complicated situations, it is always wrong? All the time wrong? For everyone wrong? Or could this be something we could do? Could we avoid the sadness and end up happiness? Could be walk this road of holiness? Is it wrong"? And I would say to you, "Good question".
If we open up the Bible, can we find any proof that God says, "Living together before marriage is an unholy choice"? Ahh, here's the tricky part and it's why the debate happened in that room of pastors. In the 1st century, apparently living together before marriage was not a very common thing, and so phrases like, "cohabitation" or "living together" never appear in the Bible. It doesn't say one way or the other. So, is there any guidance that God has for us? And I would say one passage speaks very directly to this issue. Let me show it to you. Hebrews 13:4 says this, "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral".
Alright, let's break that down for one second. "Marriage should be honored by all". Raise your hand if God wants you to honor marriage. I'll wait. Right. "Honored by all". Okay, some people today because we've seen a lot of broken marriages, say, "Well, it's just a piece of paper or..." No, no, no, no. God says, "All people..." Maybe you've seen amazing marriages, maybe you've seen total, dysfunctional marriage but marriage isn't a manmade institution, it's God's invention, and he wants you to honor it. He doesn't want you to replace it with some other form of relationship. Marriage is the sacred commitment, "Until death do us part". God wants you to honor that. Maybe you came from a great family, maybe you didn't.
Now, I've met a lot of older couples who are living off of social security and getting married is going to cost them a lot of money. Marriage should be honored by all. Doesn't matter how much money you have, who you are, where you're from, God wants you today to honor and love the marriage that he made. Second, this passage says, "And the marriage bed should be kept pure". Some of you never heard this growing up in church, but sex was God's idea. He invented marriage. He invented sex. He said to Adam and Eve, "You're welcome," and he gave them this great blessing. Now, I wish I had more time to take this tangent because a lot of you grew up with a very negative, religious view of sex that is not true. Sex is good. It's from God. Before the fallen to sin, there was the gift of sex and the Bible praises it. If you are kind of new to this concept, find a little book called, "Sexpectations," in our church lobby, track it down online.
Sex is such a great gift from God and it is a holy, sacred gift. And that's why on every bedroom door, God has put this sign, "Reserved for marriage". The marriage bed, the gift of sexual intimacy and pleasure is a great gift not a shameful thing, an embarrassing thing, a guilty thing. It's a great gift from God, but it is reserved for not just any bed, but the marriage bed. And God apparently is so serious about the limits of that gift, he says this at the end of the verse, "For God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral". Like, if you're living together right now, or you're thinking about taking that step to move in together, I just need you to meditate on those words, "For God will judge". Not, "He might," or "Maybe in some situations..." No, God, will judge not just the unfaithful adulterers, he will judge all the sexually immoral.
Not a few of them, not the most depraved of them. This passage is saying, "God loves marriage. He loves the purity of the marriage bed and he will judge all the sexually immoral". Apparently, sex outside of marriage is as serious to God as racism and abuse are to you. And my simple question would be, "Do you believe that"? Do you believe that? Or has our culture just so changed your view of sexual morality that you think, "Pshh, it's fine. Everyone, of course, everyone does it. We love each other". Doesn't even matter if you love each other. It's your body, it's your right, it's your... Do you believe that? Because God will judge all the sexually immoral. You see, this is my deep concern for you. It's not that you would share the same address. I can't prove that wrong biblically.
My fear is that if you share the same bed and bathroom, you will be sexually immoral. You love each other afterwards. I would expect the attraction to be... Listen, Kim and I did not live with each other before we were marriage and we remained virgins until our wedding night but barely. There are other ways to be sexually immoral and we were. I can't imagine being in the same house with... Maybe you're a thousand times better Christian than me, but I could not have done it and just want to ask you candidly, can you? Can you? Can you keep the marriage bed pure as you're changing together, showering next to each other, being with that person you're physically attracted to? I bet you can't. And if you actually took these words seriously sex is a sacred gift but it is not for me, not yet, not until the safety of the marriage bed has been protected by a sacred vow, "Until death do us part".
If you really believe that, I wonder what you would do? Would you put your toes over the line? Would you tempt yourself? Or would you flee from that temptation? And I know some of you are, now you're mad right now because you know, right, you're going to get in the car after church and she's going to be quiet, and you're going to be angry, and she's going to want to talk, and you're going to say, "That stupid Pastor and that stupid church. We just should have stayed home and watched the pregame". Right? And I get it. Living together is no small thing. It's financially weighty, it's relationally weighty, and what I'm saying to you can blow up this foundation of your relationship. But listen, if this passage is true and it is, I would rather mess with your sex life than have you miss out on eternal life, for God will judge all the sexually immoral.
Please write this down. You need it as much as I do. If you want to be holier, then the answer is, wait. You remember D'Angelo? His hand went up again, except this time he didn't have a comment about my teaching, he had a question for me, the teacher. He listened to me talk about self control, and patience, and purity, say no to pornography, say yes to fidelity, love your wife as much as Jesus loved her, and D'Angelo raised his hand with an honest, curious, and very direct question. He said, "Pastor Mike, did you"? There is some things I didn't do, but a lot of you know my story that there were other things that I did. And if God doesn't just judge some of the sexually immoral, but all of the sexually immoral, I had to answer a question that some of you are trying to answer right now, "What do we do"?
If God will judge those he looks at and see sexual immorality, what do we do? And that is the easiest answer of all. We run to Jesus. We run to the Savior who has a insanely beautiful track record of loving sexual sinners. We run to the redeemer who is famous for being the friend of prostitutes and adulterers. The one who looked at a woman who was caught in her own adultery and sexually immorality and he said, "I don't condemn you. Now, go and sin no more". You and I with all of our baggage, living together, adultery, pornography, whatever it is, we run and cling to that cross. We confess to Jesus, "I sinned. I sinned against you. I sinned against Heaven. Have mercy on me," and He does. He does. Your sexual sins might be many, but brothers and sisters, his mercy is even more. Your regret and shame might be stacked up to your chin, but the patience and forgiveness of God goes above your head. God might have a 1,015 reasons to be mad at you but Jesus has given him a 1,016 to delight in you.
I love this passage from the Book of Hebrews. This is just four verses after that tough marriage passage, it says this, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever". He's the same. Alright, he didn't change in the last 2,000 years. So, in the Bible where Jesus loved the sexually broken, he is the same Jesus and he loves us today too. People who came with a past that they could not change or undo, he loved them, redeemed them, wiped them clean in the eyes of the Father, and he does the same for you too. Said if you come to Jesus in repentance and cling to his cross, you don't have to live with guilt, or shame, or hang your head as you walk out those doors, you can say, "I'm loved, forgiven, and redeemed because Jesus did everything for me".
So, maybe you get married soon and we'll have the big bash, a year, two years down the road. Maybe you need some time to think and there's kids involved and it's complicated, we get it. We're not forcing you to move out before you walk out those doors. We are saying, if you know the truth about God, if you want to be happy and holy then take a step, trust him, he's a good God, and those who are obedient never regret it. And the pastors who were sitting around that table that day I asked the question, together we had done thousands of weddings. Church weddings, barn weddings, beach weddings, we've done it. We've had ring bearers, flower girls. I had a dog bring the rings up the aisle once. I wasn't expecting that. We've had amazing families, crazy families, bridezillas, everything in between. We have eaten more fried chicken than you can ever imagine in your entire life. We've seen designer dresses, huge rings, incredible rocks.
But I tell you what, do you know the weddings that the pastors love the most? It's when we're standing with a couple that we know loves God more. They could have taken an easier route, but they love God more. And they could have just made it all about them, but no, that wasn't the service because they loved God more. And there was a worldly path that they could have taken but they didn't. They picked up their cross, denied themselves, were willing to wait because they loved God more. Brothers and sisters, I guarantee you, when Jesus is at the center, when you love him more, you look back without regret and instead know that he was absolutely worth following. So, if you want the happiest and holiest home, keep Jesus in the middle, wait. He's worth it. Let's pray:
Dear God, for some people this message is just an affirmation of what they already believed and it's easy, but for some people it's making them wonder and question which is difficult and for some people, it's confronting a here and now situation and it is so hard. And so, I pray that you would fill this church with what we've always wanted it to be filled with, grace and truth. A message that is both tough and tender with unchanging standards from your word, and yet unconditional love from your Son. We really need both right now to do this right. God, we live in a world where marriage is trampled upon, where people think it's not your idea, and so I pray that we could restore that sacred... This is your idea for the flourishing of humanity. Help us to believe that and build our lives according to it. Heavenly Father, a lot of us know people who are living together and to approach them, to find the words, to know what to say, or when to say it, or how to say it, that feels so challenging right now, and so we're asking for wisdom, for timing, for patience, and for love. Some of us are going to click share and send this message a son, or a daughter, a grandchild, a best friend, a brother. I pray that you would give them ears to hear it as they trust you that you are a God who's always worth following. Help us to lean not own understanding but to trust in you with all of our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength. We pray all of this, God, for the holiness of your name, and happiness of our homes. Rescued in Jesus name. And all God's people said, "Amen".