In early 2019, the internet was aglow with news about Chris Pratt and his fiancée, Katherine Schwarzenegger, moving in together. Media outlets cited the couple’s evangelical Christian faith as the reason they did not cohabit until they were engaged. Few suggested there was any contradiction between Pratt’s cohabitation and his status as a “devout Christian,” a “folksy, popular evangelical” who urged “living boldly in faith.”

This may seem odd to those who recognize that Scripture forbids all sexual activity outside marriage. But the choice that Pratt and Schwarzenegger made isn’t contained to Hollywood—it’s the new norm among young, professing evangelicals across America.

While speaking to a large gathering of evangelical pastors in late 2019 in Pennsylvania, I asked how many of them regularly faced cohabitation in their churches. Most raised their hands. One told me that he had stopped conducting weddings because so many of his engaged couples were cohabiting and got angry when he addressed it. Another suffered bitter criticism from church members when he dismissed a church employee who refused to leave a cohabiting arrangement.

What I have seen for years in large national surveys and learned in interviews with a spectrum of pastors in 2019 corresponds with these anecdotes: Evangelicals, especially those under 40, increasingly see cohabitation as morally acceptable. Most young evangelicals have engaged in it or expect to.

Simply put, living together is far more common and accepted than Christians realize. American pastors are grappling with how to navigate wedding policies and premarital counseling among cohabiting congregants. But one thing is certain: If the church is to preserve and protect marriage, something about its approach has to change.

A habit of cohabiting

Evangelicals are much less likely than Americans overall to approve of cohabitation. Still, a Pew Research survey in 2019 found that 58 percent of white evangelicals and 70 percent of black Protestants believe cohabiting is acceptable if a couple plans to marry. The youngest Americans are far more liberal on cohabitation, with less than 10 percent finding it morally problematic.

This age difference is clear among evangelicals as well. In 2012, only 4 in 10 evangelicals ages 18 to 29 told the General Social Survey they disagreed with the statement: “It is alright for a couple to live together without intending to get married.”

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The idea of waiting until marriage comes across as even more antiquated in other studies. The most recent National Survey of Family Growth, done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and completed in 2019, has found that 43 percent of evangelical Protestants ages 15 to 22 said they definitely or probably would cohabit in the future.

Only 24 percent said they definitely would not. Over two-thirds of those ages 29 to 49 had cohabited at least once. And 53 percent of evangelical Protestants currently in their first marriage cohabited with each other prior to being legally wed.

Evangelicals, especially those under 40, increasingly see cohabitation as morally acceptable. Most young evangelicals have engaged in it or expect to.

The coronavirus pandemic also seems to be increasing cohabitation, according to the Population Research Institute. As more couples than ever are likely to delay marriage, many are opting to move in together rather than be physically separated under the force of COVID-19 restrictions. There is no reason to believe that these pressures are not affecting evangelical singles.

Bill Henry is senior associate rector of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, a fairly affluent congregation in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He has counseled at least 75 engaged couples, many of whom “choose to live together and/or sleep together before they are married and do not know they are sinning or choose to ignore the fact,” he said.

Henry estimated that roughly half of the teens and young adults in his church are comfortable with cohabitation and that more than a third of older adult attendees feel this way.

Pastors’ experiences confronting cohabitation vary depending on the size and location of their churches, the strictness of their church’s membership and marriage requirements, and the degree to which they conduct weddings and premarital counseling for nonmembers. But all of the pastors I’ve interviewed on the subject agree that cohabitation has become normalized among evangelicals.

In his 20 years of ministry, Rich Herbster of Mt. Pleasant Church, a congregation outside of Pittsburgh in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, has witnessed what social scientists have long seen as parallel trends: exploding cohabitation and declining marriage.

“In a time when our congregation has more than doubled in size, I receive only a quarter the wedding requests,” Herbster said. “Our millennials are simply not getting married at the same rate that was true a generation ago.”

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There is some reason for hope. The cohabiting habit is less acute among those who are theologically conservative and attend church weekly. Even with shifting cultural attitudes, the studies show that evangelicals who attend church regularly or who regard their faith as very important to their daily lives are much less likely to plan on cohabiting or to actually do so. Church attendance and personal faith commitment make a huge difference.

Nate Devlin, senior pastor of Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church near Pittsburgh, notes that those who grew up at his church and marry there are usually not living together. “However,” he said, “friends and distant relatives of those from the congregation and those loosely associated with the church who inquire about being married at Beverly Heights are more often cohabitating prior to marriage.”

But even among evangelicals who believe cohabitation is wrong, few can articulate why. Gerald Dodds, pastor of Bethel Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, believes the majority of teens in his rural congregation would not be able to explain from Scripture why living together before marriage is wrong, despite his clear, conservative biblical teaching. “It just doesn’t seem to get through sometimes,” he said.

Erie First Assembly of God senior pastor Nichole Schreiber has counseled four evangelical couples in the past year alone who were engaged and cohabiting. Many no longer see cohabitation as being at odds with their faith, which she believes is due to a “lack of understanding” about why it’s a poor decision in light of biblical principles.

Robert Hall recently retired as co-pastor of The Bronx Household of Faith, a small Conservative Congregational church in New York City. He said that while few of the church’s young people would publicly break with its traditional stance on sex within the bounds of marriage, those who feel differently simply opt out of membership. In the South Bronx, cohabitation has long been the norm, and liberal beliefs about it regularly arise in the church’s outreach.

The church’s newest pastor, Jordan Roberts, grew up in the tight-knit congregation. “I would say that cohabitation among young adults actively participating in the life of the church has either been nil or kept very quiet,” he said. Yet for his peers who were raised in the church and made a break with it, cohabitation is fairly common, particularly when childrearing is involved.

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Jay Slocum has ministered in Episcopalian and Anglican churches over the past 20 years, most recently at Jonah’s Call Anglican Church of Pittsburgh but also in Northern Virginia. Among teens and young adults, he’s observed that the majority of new Christians and “cultural” Christians—those he says were raised in the church but may attend infrequently—believe cohabitation is acceptable.

In his experience, even perhaps a third of Christians he would consider “committed” are cohabiting. Many of “these believers have a strong sense of the sinfulness of cohabitation but may be tempted to give in to the practical benefits of living together, especially in urban settings or when they are in entry-level jobs, since economics is a definite factor in all of this,” Slocum said.

For richer, for poorer

Practical considerations, expedience, and economic factors consistently arise as justifications for cohabitation. Henry, the pastor in Sewickley, interviewed eight premarital couples—three of whom were cohabiting—as part of research for his Doctor of Ministry degree. When he asked them why young people in their generation choose to live together, the term “convenience” was used seven times. But finances was by far the most common rationale, mentioned twice as much.

Churches must be sensitive that economic and practical pressures can make it genuinely difficult for cohabiting couples to separate until marriage. When I was an elder, my church encountered a situation where a repentant cohabiting couple were not only poor, but were raising children together. While willing to marry, they did not see how they could live apart until their premarital counseling and wedding were completed.

And such pressures aren’t limited to young couples. Dodds pointed out that many widowed and elderly people today want to be married but are afraid that “getting married would hurt their government benefits.” They see living together as their only alternative to being alone.

Jack Roberts also pastors at The Bronx House of Faith and has witnessed the threats that poorly designed social policies and high costs of living pose for older believers wishing to marry. A new attendee was interested in joining the church, but she had been living with a man for 15 years—even helping raise his grandchildren.

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“Everyone considered them married,” Roberts said. The church told them they would need to be legally married to join the church. She was willing; her partner was not. “They were both receiving disability, and if they told Social Security they were now married, he feared their disability checks would decrease. Consequently, they did not get married, she did not become a member of the church, and in fact, stopped coming.”

To be sure, practical pressures can also push couples away from moving in together, rather than toward it. Some of Henry’s interviewees noted that they did not want to give up their independence, or that convenience and financial incentives led them to remain in separate domiciles. Family disapproval also mattered.

But for believers, issues of doctrine and commitment appear to take center stage. As one of Henry’s interviewees said about young people today who refrain from cohabitation, “I think the biggest reason why people would wait is because of their faith and their belief that that’s the right thing to do.”

Premarital preoccupations

What approach should churches take when cohabiting couples seek premarital counseling or want to book the sanctuary for their wedding ceremony? It’s a quandary for many pastors made messier by the fact that most cohabitation among evangelicals is not even “premarital” in the strict sense of the word.

Among evangelicals who had ever cohabited, only 47 percent of first cohabitations had resulted in marriage at the time surveys were conducted. Among evangelicals who were currently cohabiting, only 14 percent were engaged, and another 21 percent had definite plans to marry when they moved in together.

Of the 12 pastors I interviewed, only four were willing to proceed with premarital counseling and officiation for cohabiting couples who did not separate prior to marriage.

Henry’s church, while open to marrying non–church members, will not conduct weddings for cohabiting couples who, following counsel and instruction, do not separate and cease sexual activity until they are wed.

Their position on cohabitation is clearly stated. “We ask the question at the opening of the pre-marriage process, so unless they lie (which has happened), we know who lives together,” Henry said. He is comfortable with refusing marriage services when necessary even though this means that some choose to walk away from his church or from having him officiate at the wedding.

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“I present the idea of ‘leave, cleave, one flesh’ as a guideline and God’s best,” he said. “That means move out, if they live together, until marriage, and stop sleeping together, if they’ve started to, until marriage.”

Devlin’s Pittsburgh-area church also insists that those living together must separate and stop having sex until they are married. He offers to help the couple manage their temporary separation and often encourages them to “greatly expedite the wedding date.”

Slocum recounts that one church he was involved with developed a premarital course and premarital covenant where the couple would agree to either move into separate rooms and not have sex, or to move into different housing.

“The benefit of this was that we had a concentrated number of couples go through a discipleship process where I literally taught them a pattern that included: chastity, then marriage, then buy a house, then make babies while loving the city through your vocational calling,” he said. “The average age of our church kept going down because couples kept getting married and having babies!”

Image: Illustration by Matt Chinworth

Other pastors I interviewed ministered to couples and addressed cohabitation without requiring that they cease cohabiting.

Herbster, for example, recognizes that, despite the common preference among couples to “test” a relationship by living together before committing to marriage, there is no research suggesting premarital cohabitation reduces the risk of divorce. He tells couples there are plenty of “secular studies” that suggest the opposite. National Survey of Family Growth data, for one, shows that when evangelicals were interviewed, 45 percent of marriages that resulted from first cohabitations had already dissolved. But for evangelicals who had never cohabited, 79 percent of first marriages were still intact.

“If I decide to proceed with the marriage,” he told me, “I try to establish a relationship with the couple, guide them toward the best path toward their marriage, and hope to prayerfully work with them toward embracing a biblical vision for their life together.”

Churches that require cohabiting congregants to separate until marriage should consider the financial hardship that may ensue in such cases, especially if children are involved, or where elderly people would lose necessary income by legally marrying. This may mean speeding up the wedding date or helping one of the partners with temporary housing.

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In situations that call for it, some evangelical pastors have even suggested offering a church wedding and vows but forgoing a legal marriage certificate. In the future, I am certain many evangelical churches will begin seriously looking at church marriages and wedding vows as solemnly binding as any, without any expectation of a state marriage license.

Pastors can also approach these dilemmas proactively. First, congregations cannot take for granted that worshipers—young or old—know and understand biblical teaching on sex outside of wedlock. Christians often hold to myths that help justify cohabitation, such as the need for a couple to “practice” living together to be successful.

Churches need to equip and train people not only regarding Christian doctrine, but also by passing on real experience and practical wisdom. This could look as simple as This is what God teaches about cohabitation and sex outside marriage morally and theologically, and here is the evidence that his way really is the best path to a happy, stable, vibrant marriage.

Real compassion lies in the path of empathetic truthfulness, not sympathetic lies.

Many of the pastors I interviewed practiced this by preaching through Scripture and not avoiding culturally difficult texts on sexuality. Others may use topical sermons, Sunday school classes, youth groups, or guest speakers.

Second, we need to approach each other with humility and integrity. Far more people in the pews have cohabited or engaged in premarital sex than we realize or care to admit. Maybe it’s time to be honest about it and help younger believers learn from our failures.

Younger generations are not more sinful than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations; they are simply facing different opportunities and pressures to self-gratify and self-justify. We should approach discipleship on sexuality laterally—coming alongside our brothers and sisters with encouragement and empathy, sinners helping other sinners to love and serve the Lord.

Third, as the data and my pastor interviewees made clear, believers who regularly join in worship and fellowship with the visible church do a lot better than casual attenders. Nutrients don’t reach organs that are cut off from the body’s blood supply. Similarly, when Christians by God’s grace choose to be deeply committed to their faith, they are more likely to “hear … and obey” God’s truth (Luke 11:28).

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Most pastors and other church leaders already encourage daily exercise of the Christian faith and weekly church attendance, but many others are negligent to follow up with church members who become sporadic in their involvement. In cohabitation, as with every other area of sinful temptation, the basic disciplines of the Christian faith are necessary for growth.

Fourth, couples heading toward marriage often cohabit while saving money for a large wedding. I have seen this in my own extended family. This prioritizes a wedding celebration over the sanctity of marriage and obedience to God. There is no reason that couples cannot simply marry before moving in together and then save up for a larger marriage celebration later.

In a time in which same-sex marriage and gender identity have become the dominant sexuality issues dividing professing believers, it might seem like cohabitation is something evangelical pastors could afford to downplay, if not ignore, as at least one of my pastor interviewees suggested.

However, our God is not only merciful, long-suffering, and compassionate, but he is a just and holy God whose Word is perfect. We do not honor him by setting aside what we may view as “lesser sins.”

And for those experiencing gender confusion or same-sex attraction, ignoring certain sexual sins or temptations from the pulpit does not appear wise or kind; it appears hypocritical. If we ignore one, we have no grounds to denounce the other. If we call one to holiness, we must call the other. Real compassion lies in the path of empathetic truthfulness, not sympathetic lies.

How we approach cohabitation among believers in our pews can be a matter of healthy difference among those who agree on what the Bible teaches about sex and marriage. But we must address it. With compassion and wisdom, we can teach and apply God’s truth that only marriage is a legitimate ground for sexual union between a man and a woman, whether they live together or not.

David J. Ayers is professor of sociology at Grove City College. He is the author of the upcoming book Beyond the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical (Lexham Press, 2021) and Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (2019).

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