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Ethical Discernment: Should Parents Allow Unmarried Adult Children to Stay with Their Partner in the Parent’s Home? We have enlisted proponents of both options to facilitate the process of thinking it through. Please see the following articles below that are listed alphabetically by the author’s last name and should not appear to endorse or favor one view over the other.
Open Our Homes and Our Hearts
by Michael W. Austin
Imagine you get a phone call or text from your adult child. They’ll be in town over the Christmas holidays and want to bring their partner with them. They live together — unmarried — and want to stay with you for a few days, sharing a room in your home. What would you do? As parents of infants, toddlers, and younger children, we often don’t see the need or take the time to think about future decisions we may face when those children become adults. But it’s a good idea to do so, when we can. One decision we may have to face with our adult children is what to do if they want to stay at our home with an unmarried partner.
I don’t believe that there is a hard and fast rule to follow here, some principle that we are to follow without exception. I think there are cases where it is at least permissible to welcome an unmarried couple to stay in our home, including sharing a room. In many situations, it can be a good thing to welcome them as a way of practicing radical hospitality and Christian love. I didn’t always think this way, but I do now.
I’m not arguing that parents must let their unmarried adult children share a room in their home with an unmarried partner. But I am arguing that this can be the right decision, in many circumstances. These kinds of choices are best made on a case-by-case basis. The particulars related to the people and relationships involved matter. There are cases in which allowing a shared room would be unwise or unhelpful.1 In such circumstances we should not permit it. Yet while I understand the motivation behind the conviction, I think it is a mistake to say, “I would never let my adult child and a partner they live with stay the night and share a room in my home.” This also applies to other relatives or any other guests, but I’ll focus on this issue from a parental point of view.
Why I Changed My Mind. Why might it be okay to welcome a cohabitating couple into one’s home overnight, and allow them to share a room?
First, there are no specific Scriptural commands or teachings about this issue. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt not allow unmarried persons to share a room in your home overnight.” We are therefore left to work from more general biblical values, Christian virtues, reason itself, our community of faith, and most importantly help from God’s Spirit.
Second, a general principle that my wife and I have used in parenting, both while our three daughters were growing up in our home and now that they are all adults in their twenties, is that we would rather err on the side of grace and mercy in our relationships with them. That approach has served us well over the years. It also reflects the grace and mercy God shows all of humanity from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. I believe it can be a valid Christian practice to open our home to others in this way, in part due to this grace and mercy-centered approach.
Third, American evangelicals have a particular preoccupation with sexual ethics. This is obviously an important area of human life, and Christian ethics in this domain are being challenged in many ways. But it is worth asking some questions here, if you think parents shouldn’t allow their adult children to share a room in their home with an unmarried partner. What is being accomplished by having an absolute prohibition against doing so? Why die on this hill, but not others?
Imagine your adult child has great wealth and comes to stay in your home for Christmas. They give no money to their church or any other charity but tell you they’ve purchased expensive and extravagant gifts for each of their young children. Will you bar them from giving those gifts to their kids in your home? Imagine they also just purchased a new SUV to transport their family to your home in a 2023 Rolls Royce Cullinan, which sells for approximately $355,000. Will you allow them to park it in your driveway while they stay at your home? If so, why? If not, why not? A strong case can be made from Scripture and Christian thought that such a purchase is wrong. It may even be a form of idolatry. Jesus did say, after all, that “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24 NASB).
For those who make an absolute rule against unmarried partners sharing a room, there is a problem of consistency. In addition to sexual immorality, will they prohibit their guests from engaging in other “works of the flesh,” including idolatry, jealousy, anger, quarrels, and envy (Galatians 5:19–21)? There might be a lot of empty seats at the table during the holidays if they do. Or what about gluttony? Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are therefore to honor God with them (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Numerous passages in Proverbs warn us about gluttony, including associating with gluttons (23:1–3, 20–21; 25:16; 28:7). Will we prohibit our adult children from eating in our homes if they do so in a way that reveals the sin of gluttony?
We can list other sins that we tolerate, but the point is this: why are we willing to show gracious hospitality in some areas, but not others? That’s an important question, one worth prayerfully reflecting on with God and others.
The Example of Jesus. I can imagine someone alluding to 1 Thessalonians 5:22 on this issue, which the King James Version translates as “abstain from all appearance of evil.” Perhaps this gives good reason for prohibiting an unmarried couple sharing a room in your home. But at least two things are important here. First, the vast majority of English translations differ from the KJV, saying something like “abstain from” or “avoid every kind” of evil. So those concerned about mere appearances here are on shaky ground. More importantly, however one translates this verse, we must keep in mind the example of Jesus Himself.
Jesus was not concerned about the appearance of evil, and He didn’t think that having table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners violated the injunction to abstain from or avoid every kind of evil (Matthew 9:10–11; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 5:29–32). Jesus was willing to overturn cultural prohibitions for the sake of the kingdom and the good of those He came to save. He was willing to engage in this kind of fellowship with sinners. We should do the same. He was criticized for these practices by the Pharisees and scribes, who leveled the charge that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2 NIV). Not only that, when He was accused of evil because of His practice of table fellowship with sinners, Jesus replied: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:34–35 NIV).
Jesus went to the homes of tax collectors and sinners. He let a prostitute wash His feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, scandalizing many who were present (Luke 7:36–47). He was not worried about mere appearances, and He did not see this as some kind of tacit approval of the sin in their lives. He wasn’t embracing some form of evil, tacitly or explicitly. Rather, He knew it was through ongoing relationships that people are given the opportunity to know and follow Him. He called them to repentance, but He didn’t make their repentance a requirement for table fellowship.
Bringing this to our question, it is surely better to open our homes and our hearts in these ways to our adult children and others than to potentially alienate them by communicating condemnation instead of grace and mercy. The intimacy and social significance of table fellowship in the ancient Near East is similar to allowing someone to stay the night at our home in our day. It was a morally, religiously, and culturally significant practice. If Jesus can share a table with tax collectors (with food and drink purchased from their unjust earnings) and prostitutes and sinners without compromising His holiness, then perhaps we can share our home with our adult children and their partners, including allowing them to share a room in that home.
Bonhoeffer’s Insights about Love and Control. I am reminded of a passage about the nature of love and coercion from German theologian, pastor, and martyr at the hands of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his spiritual classic, Life Together (1939), Bonhoeffer reflects on the fact that, ultimately, it is only Christ who can help others, it is only Christ who has the power to bring about true change and deep transformation. One implication of this is that “I must release others from all of my attempts to control, coerce, and dominate them with my love. In their freedom from me, other persons want to be loved for who they are, as those for whom Christ became a human being, died, and rose again, as those for whom Christ won the forgiveness of sins and prepared eternal life.”2 I suspect that too often, our desire to control our adult children underlies some of our choices in how we parent them.
Jesus doesn’t coerce us to believe in Him, follow Him, or serve Him. He calls, He commands, He corrects, but He doesn’t coerce. This is because He loves us and wants us to become all we can in Him. This requires a response of love, and love requires freedom to choose not to love. Because we can trust Jesus to do this in the lives of others as He sees fit, we don’t have to try to coerce them to faith or into Christian practice. We may want others to come to faith or grow in that faith and experience life in Christ, because we love them. But we are not to coerce them. This is because they belong to Christ, not to us. In their freedom from our attempts at coercion, we recognize and respect their freedom to be Christ’s, to be formed by Him into His image. When I try to form people in Christ’s image, I usually end up trying to form them in my own image, or my image of Christ’s image. Both are mistakes.
A lesser form of love seeks to control others, based on a picture of who we think they are and who they ought to become. But what Bonhoeffer calls spiritual love, the agape love that serves others, is different. Such love will not “seek to agitate another by exerting all too personal, direct influence or by crudely interfering in one’s life.…It will be willing to release others again so that Christ may deal with them.”3 This kind of love focuses more on prayer for others than on exerting forms of control over others. None of this entails that it is wrong to prohibit cohabitating partners sharing a room in one’s home. But it does help us think through whether it is wise or not, in our own particular circumstances. We need time alone with God and in community with others to help us discern not only what is driving our approach here, but also what is the good, wise, and loving thing to do in our situation.
Radical Hospitality and Love. Why would you expect someone who is not following Christ to follow your convictions about Christian sexual ethics here? Why would you try to require them to do so when they are in your home? For the reasons stated above, and for the sake of maintaining relationship with our adult children and their partners, there are times when opening our homes in this way is a good thing to do. Your adult children know what you believe about this, don’t they? Prohibiting them from sharing a room in your home likely won’t accomplish much. It may even alienate them and their partner. But welcoming them and their partners into our homes in this way can be a practice of radical Christian hospitality and radical Christian love. —Michael W. Austin
Michael W. Austin is Foundation Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. His next book is Humility: Rediscovering the Way of Love and Life in Christ (Eerdmans, 2024).
1 For example, if there are other children in the home, such as teens or young children, a parent of adult children may prohibit their sharing of a room for the sake of the siblings.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 18.
3 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 18.
Christian Love and Upholding God’s Law in the Home
by Matthew M. Kennedy
There are times when true love does not feel true to the beloved. This is a reality that every parent, however disinclined to administer discipline to a child, has at some point experienced. A toddler, for example, reaching out his or her little hand to touch the pretty glowing burner on a hot stove must be stopped. And the stopping of a toddler bent on his or her own way not infrequently comes with sound and fury signifying a tiny will that has gotten nothing it wanted. The child, in that moment, does not feel loved. She feels frustration, disappointment, and quite often, rage. The parent, nevertheless, who truly loves the toddler is willing to endure the storm for love’s sake.
The sort of love in play at such moments is sacrificial in nature. The parent sacrifices, at least temporarily, the warm comfort of a child’s affection for the child’s ultimate good. It’s an exchange that must be made over and over again until the child is old enough to know not to do the things that result in grave injury or death. Christian love always acts for the genuine good of the beloved even when the beloved does not know or agree that the good is, in fact, good. “[Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).1
But here is where the Christian parent has the greater responsibility that comes with greater knowledge. Children do not come equipped with instincts naturally inclining them toward God and away from evil. “None is righteous, no, not one,” writes the apostle Paul in Romans 3:10. The human heart is by nature hostile toward God and, until that hostility is somehow blunted and turned, sin reigns over the heart, mind, and will (Romans 8:7–10). Parents do not need to teach a child how to disobey, or lie, or to be self-centered. The inclination toward sin is inherited, not learned (Romans 5:12–19). It is present at conception and reveals itself in actual sin as soon as the child is able to understand what the word “no” means.
This knowledge about sin shapes the Christian parent’s understanding of a child’s behavior and determines the response to it. Since God has given the parent the responsibility to raise the child in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), it is of first importance to impart God’s law to the child, by which the child first learns to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and to discover that he or she is a sinner. At the same time, he or she must hear the good news that Jesus Christ came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and that all who put their trust in Him will be forgiven and have eternal life. These two gifts, the law and the gospel, by God’s grace, together turn the heart of a child from hostility against God toward faith in His Son. They also teach a child to look beyond his or her immediate desires to find what is true and good.
There is, of course, a point at which the Christian parent must relinquish many of the responsibilities of parenthood. When a young person, having reached maturity, leaves the home to make a way for himself or herself, the role of the parent becomes largely advisory. It is at this point that some of the greatest challenges of parenting come to the fore. What do you do when your son chooses unwisely or behaves immorally? What do you do when your daughter seems to repudiate the faith and the values you have raised her to embrace? Or, to finally narrow down to the question I have been asked to address, how does the Christian respond when an adult son or daughter, having decided to enter into a sexually immoral relationship, wants to bring his or her partner home for an overnight visit? The original question included close relatives as well as children, so the answer I will give applies equally to brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, and second cousins twice removed. But the anguish is felt most acutely and painfully when children are in view, so that is my focus.
Sexual Immorality and the Bible. Sexual immorality is the term many English translations of the New Testament use to translate the Greek word “πορνεία” (porneia), which, in first-century Jewish usage, referred to any kind of sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. Jesus condemned sexual immorality as one of those sins that begin in the heart and defile a person (Mark 7:21). When asked about divorce, Jesus pointed to the one flesh marriage union between a man and a woman, instituted by God at creation in Genesis 1 and 2, as the only legitimate context for sexual expression, even identifying sex within marriages after an unlawful divorce as adulterous (Matthew 19:3–9).
It is clear then that if an adult son or daughter chooses to have sex or to have a sexual relationship with someone to whom he or she is not married, this is the sin of sexual immorality. It may well be that your adult child feels him- or herself to be in love with their partner, and it may be that the relationship is monogamous, and that they care for one another, but even so, apart from the biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (Matthew 19:4–6), all sex outside of marriage is sexual immorality.
Sexuality, Identity, and Acceptance in the Modern World. The question is especially fraught in light of our culture’s widespread acceptance of the idea that sexual desire is intrinsically tied to human identity. Who you want to have sex with or whether you feel yourself to be a man or woman (or something else) deep within determines, for many, who you are. If your desires point beyond heterosexuality and marriage, you are considered a “sexual minority.” To insist on biblical categories, for those who have adopted this way of viewing themselves, is not simply to disapprove of their sexual choices, it is to deny their personhood. This ideology is increasingly taking hold even in the church.
Some take the position that although sexuality is an important question, it is not essential to the faith. One can, they say, be both a Christian and “affirming” of various sexual identities and sexual expressions beyond heterosexual marriage. I argued against that position in a feature-length article published in the Christian Research Journal, entitled “Marriage is about the Gospel.”2 Within this inclusive group who say that the biblical norm of sexuality is not an essential teaching of the faith are those like Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Atlanta. Stanley makes a distinction between right doctrine and compassionate practice. He claims to believe that heterosexual marriage is the only legitimate context for sexual activity — so he affirms, in other words, biblical teaching regarding sexuality. But he also believes that expecting people who are same-sex attracted to live according to that doctrine places an unbearable burden on many of their shoulders.
In a sermon delivered on October 1, 2023, Stanley explained that “for many, [the biblical sexual norm] is not sustainable, and so they choose a same-sex marriage. Not because they’re convinced it’s biblical. They read the same Bible we do. They chose to marry for the same reason many of us do: love, companionship, and family.”3 The church, Stanley says in the same sermon, should love and accept the people in these relationships following the example of Jesus who “drew circles not lines.” That is, Jesus sought to include as many people as possible. Love, therefore, demands that the church accept people in such relationships without “drawing lines.”
Andy Stanley’s church recently hosted the “Unconditional Conference,” which was billed as a “two-day premier event…for parents of LGBTQ+ children and for ministry leaders looking to discover ways to support parents and LGBTQ+ children in their churches.”4 The conference was sponsored by Embracing the Journey, a ministry founded by Greg and Lynn McDonald, which purports to “build bridges between LGBTQ+ individuals, their families, and the church, not in spite of the Bible but because of the Bible. We are peacemakers committed to helping Christian families with LGBTQ+ loved ones become reconciled and restored” (emphasis in original).5 The bridges that Embracing the Journey built at the Unconditional Conference seem to have been devoid of calls to repent and embrace the biblical sexual norm. Speakers included affirming leaders such as Justin Lee, a partnered gay man, and Brian Nietzel, also a partnered gay man and co-founder of Renovus, an organization that exists to “Connect LGBTQ+ individuals to reclaim and develop their relationship with Jesus,” envisioning “a world where no one has to choose between their faith and sexual orientation or gender identity.”6 Other speakers included Dr. David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, who publicly renounced the traditional view of sexuality after his younger sister came out.7
What Is at Stake? The Consequences of Sexual Immorality. Adopting this view of love and acceptance, one would be hard pressed to deny hospitality to a son or daughter and his or her partner, be they heterosexual or LGBTQ. How can a parent draw lines that cut to the heart of a child’s identity or place moral burdens on them too heavy to bear?
In one important sense, God’s laws — His commands regarding sexuality in particular — are unbearable for everyone. Jesus demands not only that men and women abstain from sexual encounters outside of heterosexual marriage, He also identifies longings for such encounters as sinful. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28). Far from identifying selfhood with internal sexual desires, Jesus regards any desire that leads beyond heterosexual marriage as adultery; sexual immorality is not just something a person does with his or her body, it is first and foremost a sin of the mind and heart. “From within,” Jesus says, “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21–23). This reflects a standard, as most will admit, that few if any who have passed through adolescence (excepting Jesus) have ever been able to meet.
Does love, then, demand that because we do not perfectly follow the law we must not insist on the law, not proclaim the law, not identify violations of the law? Should a mother embrace her son’s pornography habit as a journey? Are love and truth opposed to one another? Does insisting on one require a parent to relinquish or deemphasize the other?
In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul writes,
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
The congregation of “saints” (as Paul calls them) in Corinth were far from saintly. People were dividing up into factions, taking each other to court, having sexual relationships with close relatives, and getting drunk at communion while refusing to share their meals with the poor. The Christians in Corinth were deeply entangled in various kinds of powerful sin. Far from drawing circles or deemphasizing the law in the name of love, Paul reminds them that the law condemns the very things that they were doing.
He does that because he knows that God uses the law to convict and bring people to repentance. “Through the law,” he writes in Romans 3:20, “comes knowledge of sin.” Christians are new men and new women who have been given new hearts and transformed minds, but they are still sinners whose lives must be marked by repentance. The alcoholic, for example, who becomes a Christian may not immediately stop drinking, and he may struggle (and fall) throughout the remainder of his life with the sin of substance abuse. The chief mark of his new life, however, is not his sinlessness, but his penitence. That is, while he sins, he hates his sin and confesses his sin and prays for help and forgiveness and longs for the day when he will be rid of it forever. The law is not his enemy. The law is good. The law reveals his inability to keep the law and thus leads him to Christ who forgives him and cleanses him from all unrighteousness (Romans 3:20, 7:12–25; 1 John 1:8–9).
Those who walk in sin without repentance or confession, who embrace their sin and identify themselves with it and refuse to turn from it, these, Paul says, have no place in the kingdom of heaven. If a pastor, teacher, or parent chooses to weaken or deemphasize the law in the name of love, what hope is there for a person caught up in a sin to see his or her true condition? Since God uses the law to give “knowledge of sin” and to bring people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, what happens when the law is hidden? It is important to understand what it means to “not inherit the kingdom of God.” Those who inherit the kingdom of God belong to Christ and are covered by His blood and forgiven, and when they die their spirits will go to be with Him; and when He comes again, He will raise them from the dead and they will live with Him forever in the City of God. None of that will be true for those who do not inherit the kingdom. They will die and their spirits will go, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), to the place of torment, and at the resurrection they will be judged and spend eternity in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:11–15).
Christian Love Requires Upholding God’s Law in the Home. Not inheriting the kingdom is the worst possible end for any human being, infinitely worse than touching a hot stovetop. How then should a Christian parent respond to a son or a daughter who comes home and wants to spend the night with an unmarried partner? What does Christian love demand? Can love embrace the child’s journey? Can love, in the name of maintaining the affection of the beloved, let it happen? Can love acquiesce to the request to keep avenues of communication open? Can love obscure, weaken, or fail to uphold the law? To all of these, Christian love can say only no because love always does what is good for the beloved, and the good is revealed in the law of God. Love will refuse to obscure the law or lighten it or let it be openly broken and defied under a Christian roof.
The Christian parent must say, “I love you too much to let you use this house to continue to defy God and to destroy yourself and your friend.” Such a refusal will often, for reasons described above, be heard as rejection and hatred. A parent can expect disappointment, frustration, and anger in response to the no. But the instrument God uses to convict sinners of their sin is the law. The instrument God uses to persuade sinners to seek salvation is the law. It is the law that God uses to open hearts to the gospel and the cross and the free offer of forgiveness and transformation. What other course is there for love to take but to articulate and uphold the law and the gospel in the Christian home? —Mattthew M. Kennedy
The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy (MDiv, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.
- Bible quotations are from the ESV.
- Matthew M. Kennedy, “Marriage Is about the Gospel: Clarifying the Boundaries of Christian Orthodoxy,” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 45, No. 2/3 (2022): 16–23, https://www.equip.org/articles/marriage-is-about-the-gospel-clarifying-the-boundaries-of-christian-orthodoxy/.
- A full recording of the sermon can be found here: “Andy Stanley Unpublished Sermon Addresses His Gay-Affirming Conference+ We Have the Audio,” Protestia, October 1, 2023, https://protestia.com/2023/10/01/andy-stanley-unpublished-sermon-adresses-his-gay-affirming-conference-we-have-the-audio/.
- “Unconditional Conference 2023,” Embracing the Journey, accessed October 30, 2023, https://www.embracingthejourney.org/unconditional-conference.html.
- “Unconditional Conference 2023,” https://www.embracingthejourney.org/unconditional-conference.html.
- “Renovus (Latin): to renew, to renovate, to restore and make things right.” Renovus, accessed October 30, 2023, https://www.renovus.org/about.
- Jonathan Merritt, “Leading Evangelical Ethicist David Gushee Is Now Pro-LGBT. Here’s Why It Matters,” Religion News Service, October 24, 2014, https://religionnews.com/2014/10/24/david-gushee-lgbt-homosexuality-matters/.