Cohabiting Senior Couples: Financial and Moral Considerations

Is it wrong for seniors to live together for financial reasons? My elderly father recently moved in with a woman he's been dating for several months. When I objected, he told me that they had discussed marriage many times but ultimately rejected the idea for financial reasons. According to my dad, it's a matter of protecting their individual assets and preserving each partner's Social Security benefits. He says they would actually lose a sizable portion of their monthly income if they were to get married. Now he's talking about having a "commitment ceremony" at church as an alternative to legal marriage. What's your take on this? Does the Bible have anything to say about a couple being married in the eyes of the church but not according to the laws of the state?

Let’s begin with a bit of background. What is God’s definition of marriage? According to Scripture, it’s a one-flesh, whole-life union between one man and one woman. It’s a union that covers every aspect of human existence: the physical, the sexual, the mental, the emotional, the moral, the spiritual, and the economic. This definition is summed up in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The act of “leaving and cleaving” involves a couple’s public commitment to build a strong and lasting relationship. This means that marriage, from a theological perspective, is anything but a purely private affair. There is a distinctly communal aspect to the institution of matrimony, because marriage has profound implications for society at large.

Different cultures have different ways of solemnizing this public commitment. In Bible times, this was almost exclusively the domain of the family. In 21st century America it also involves the state and, for serious believers, the church.

It’s worth mentioning here that while the spiritual aspect of marriage is of crucial importance for Christians, this does not mean that matrimony is valid only for believers. Marriage should not be viewed only as an ordinance of the church. Marriage is like the sunshine and the rain that fall upon “the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45). According to most theologians, it’s part of the “common grace” that God has poured out on mankind for the good of the race as a whole.

This explains why even pagan and secular societies have traditionally sought to preserve the uniqueness of the marital relationship by surrounding it with certain legal sanctions, privileges, and protections. Human societies of every kind have always had a vested interest in supporting, maintaining, and regulating the marital relationship. This is true of the state in all of its various forms: monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, socialist collectives, and democracies. Romans 13:1-7 implies that this is according to God’s design. For all these reasons, we’d suggest that, unless it should for some reason become absolutely impossible to do so, believers should continue to marry in accord with the regulations and requirements of the state .

That brings us to your father’s situation. As we see it, if the biblical and theological principles outlined above apply to anyone at all, they have to apply equally to couples of all ages and all economic circumstances. Scripturally speaking, there are no valid grounds for distinguishing between young and old or rich and poor in this regard. Senior citizens aren’t the only ones who face financial challenges. They aren’t the only ones who can list a number of practical reasons for believing that, in their particular case, cohabitation is the better option. If they can be excused from making a public and legal commitment to one another for budgetary reasons, twenty-somethings should be granted the same privilege.

Bottom line: if a man and a woman at any stage of life really love one another enough to become “one flesh” in the eyes of God, they should be willing to proclaim their mutual commitment to the world. They should do this in the presence of the governing authorities and society as a whole by entering into legal matrimony. It doesn’t matter what this commitment may cost them in terms of money or material comforts. In the end, it comes down to a simple question of doing the right thing.

If you (or your dad) would like to discuss this question at greater length, call our staff of pastoral counselors for a free consultation.

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