What is the significance of youth pastors living with their partner outside of marriage? How do young people respond to this information? Sexuality, spirituality, marriage, cohabitation and the church community all pertain to this conversation. The reality of cohabitation questions long-held views of marriage.
Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg faced this reality head-on during a panel discussion called “Cohabitation: The question of living together before marriage.” Held on Feb. 9, 2016, the event was organized as part of the university’s Face2Face discussion series. David Balzer, associate professor of communications at CMU, moderated the discussion.
Rebecca Steiner, recruitment coordinator at CMU, and Paul Peters, a program manager with the university’s Outtatown Discipleship Program, represented the young adult voices on the panel. They shared five real-life stories to reflect the diversity in the relationships of young couples today.
The stories Steiner and Peters told gave several views on living together. Cohabitation for some was seen as practical or economical. “Test driving the vehicle” before investing in a lifelong commitment just made sense. Yet even with justifiable reasons, those cohabiting expressed concern about what others thought of them. One couple expressed concern that their decision not to live together would brand them as old-fashioned or irrelevant with their friends outside the church. Another couple were in a committed relationship, received their church’s blessing to live together and had no intention of getting married.
Is it the sexual intimacy before marriage that makes cohabitation frowned upon by the church? This question was raised, but was never directly answered. If a couple is living together prior to marriage but does not have a sexual relationship, ought their living together be viewed differently?
The four panellists included John Neufeld, lead pastor at the Meeting Place, a Mennonite Brethren church in downtown Winnipeg, and Irma Fast Dueck, associate professor of practical theology at CMU.
After hearing from the panel, audience members delved further into questions of nuances and definitions. The conversation about cohabitation is not one that refers solely to young adults, Neufeld pointed out, as people in the church of all ages cohabit.
Cohabitation has many implications—cultural and perceptional being among those. Dueck has researched cohabitation and reflected on her findings. Since the 1960s, there has been an increase in the number of people cohabiting. In Dueck’s experience speaking to pastors in the United Kingdom, it is rare there for a couple to be married that has not already lived together. In many cases, young people believe it is a good idea to live with their partner before saying their vows.
When forming a Christian framework to view this information, Dueck said, “marriage has always been a moving target.” It is challenging to form a Christian response when, historically, the understanding of marriage has changed and evolved. The motives behind cohabitation and the nature of the relationships themselves all need to be considered before placing judgment or making assumptions about a couple’s intentions or beliefs.
Following up on the “moving target” comment, audience member and CMU student Moses Falco probed the question: “What is, or isn’t, the significance of marriage today?”
Neufeld responded by addressing the connection between marriage and the church community. When a couple is joined in marriage the two are supported by their church community. This support is not always available to cohabiting couples.
Neufeld stated that there is also a connection between community and restoration. “We are working towards being something that is created in the image of God,” he said. “The restoration question is: ‘How do I re-align my life with what I truly believe?’ ”
To conclude the evening, the panel members were asked where they think this conversation will go in the next 10 years. Responses varied. Dueck, in looking at trends in the United Kingdom and Europe, believes cohabitation will become the “norm.”
The advantage the church in Canada has over the church in Europe and the United Kingdom when it comes to addressing cohabitation is that “we’re learning how to talk about sex better,” Dueck said. “That’s our resource, is that we have to practise talking about this.”
In this respect all the panellists agreed that the topic of cohabitation is not only relevant, but necessary, in further understanding the relationships between community, church, sexuality and marriage.
Owning the reality that cohabitation is happening is key for the church in addressing it, Peters said. “I think if we can own it, at least we can hopefully in 10 years be a place where [the church] is the safe community now to have the conversation, [and the church] is the safe place to enter into dialogue.”
To view a recording of the discussion, visit cmu.ca/face2face.
‘Should I live with my boyfriend?’
Going all the way
As a Christian psychiatrist I am deeply disappointed to read about a discussion about behaviour in a Christian community without a single reference to biblical standards or even a single reference to fornication or sin. God gave us these standards not because he doesn't want us to have fun but because He loves us passionately and His standards are the best way for us to have a rich and satisfying life!
It's always nice to say that discussion is a good thing, people like to hear that. However not all discussions are equal. It would be reassuring to read that the discussion occurred in the context of Biblical understandings and a clear presentation of the available solid replicated findings (not the opinion sections of various academic papers) about the effects of cohabitation on individual adults, children, and society.
In that wider context, exploring one aspect of the topic, namely the difference between Christian practice and the world's expectations, is valuable in itself. Is the question whether the Biblical case is strong enough to expect Christians to act differently than society is trending? Or is the question how to do so?
That there are situations where not having lived together may "brand then as old-fashioned or irrelevant with their friends " is old news. That was true in my workplace decades ago. Maybe the discussion should also include how to manage discontinuities between a Christian life and the rest of the world. It's tempting to adopt life ways that are more difficult to live with in the medium term but that the " world" cannot use against you.
Lately I note that some women of empty nest age are asking whether, over the past decades, women have not lost power in personal relationships. That's a topic on which CMU might engage some people who do not like Christianity, and potentially find some common ground.
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