“We sometimes think that we are autonomous free-floating individuals who make decisions for ourselves. The reality is that we are influenced in many ways in every decision we make. And in the area of sex, above all, we are open to manipulation and exploitation, even unwittingly, by passions that rage and desires that can overwhelm us.”
Though Christians continue to affirm the uniqueness, the goodness, and the necessity of marriage, our society continues to legitimize cohabitation as either a common precursor to marriage or a complete alternative. This slide is troubling, for marriage offers a number of important benefits that are absent from cohabitation—benefits that extend to couples, to their children, to their families, and to society as a whole. Christopher Ash helpfully outlines these in his book Married for God.
1. MARRIAGE IS UNAMBIGUOUS
Unlike cohabitation, marriage is unambiguous. In fact, in most cases cohabitation is deliberately in its ambiguity. “When a man and woman begin sleeping together and perhaps move in together, the rest of us are left guessing as to what exactly is the basis of their relationship. Clearly they have agreed to sleep together, as otherwise it would be rape. But what have they promised one another, if anything? On what basis or shared understanding are they together?” The answers will vary from couple to couple and may range from a very minimal level of commitment to a very significant one. But there always remains a measure of uncertainty. Often each of the partners will have different levels of commitment or expectation—one thinking that moving in together marks the beginning of something permanent while the other regards it as a mere trial period. All the while the rest of us are uncertain how to relate to them as they live together and if and when they dissolve their relationship. The relational ambiguity is especially apparent when one of them dies. “Who is the next of kin? With whom should we grieve most deeply? The parents, or the live-in partner?” Marriage helpfully resolves this lack of clarity.
2. MARRIAGE IS A UNION OF FAMILIES; COHABITATION IS FREE-FLOATING
Marriage is a union of families rather than just of two free-floating individuals. Cohabitation is an attempt to keep a relationship private, not in the sense of secret, but “in the sense of an arrangement agreed to and confined to the two of them, with families only rather awkwardly and ambiguously involved.” But marriage joins together two families in a connection that is meant to be a responsibility and blessing to both. “It is better to be connected than to float ‘free’ but disconnected from wider family and society,” for biblically this kind of scattered freedom is regarded as a curse while gathering into a people and family is regarded as a blessing. “This is because God wants his world governed in an ordered way by connected people.” Marriage serves as a small but foundational expression of bringing order through connection.
3. MARRIAGE PROVIDES PROTECTION FOR THE VULNERABLE AT THE START
The public nature of marriage provides an important protection for the vulnerable at the start of the sexual relationship.