What constitutes marriage according to the Bible?
Question: "What constitutes marriage according to the Bible?"
Answer: This is a difficult question to answer because the Bible nowhere explicitly states at what point God considers a couple to be married. There are three common viewpoints. (1) God only considers a couple married when the couple is legally married. (2) A couple is married in God’s eyes when they have completed some kind of formal wedding ceremony. (3) God considers a couple to be married at the moment the marriage is consummated (sexual intercourse). Let’s look at each of the three views and see what strengths and weaknesses each have.
(1) God only considers a couple married when the couple is legally married. The scriptural support typically given to this view are the verses that advocate submission to the government (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17). The argument is that if the government requires certain “paperwork” to be completed before a marriage is recognized, a couple should submit itself to whatever process the government requires. It is definitely biblical for a couple to submit to the government as long as the requirements do not contradict God’s Word and are reasonable. Romans 13:1-2 tells us, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” Here we see that submitting to the governing authorities that require a marriage license is biblically mandated.
There are some weaknesses and potential problems with this view. First, there were marriages before any government was organized. For thousands of years, people were getting married with no such thing as a marriage license. Second, even today, there are some countries that have no governmental recognition of marriage, and/or no legal requirements for marriage. Third, there are some governments that place unbiblical requirements on a marriage before it is legally recognized. As an example, there are countries that require a wedding to be held in a Catholic church, according to Catholic teachings, and overseen by a Catholic priest. Obviously, for those who have strong disagreements with the Catholic Church, including the Catholic sacramental understanding of marriage, it would be unbiblical to submit to being married in the Catholic Church.
(2) A couple is married in God’s eyes when they have completed some kind of formal wedding ceremony. Similar to the way in many cultures a father gives away his daughter at the wedding, some interpreters understand God bringing Eve to Adam (Genesis 2:22) as God overseeing the first wedding “ceremony.” In John chapter 2, Jesus attended a wedding ceremony. Jesus would not have attended such an event if He did not approve of what was occurring. Jesus attending a wedding ceremony by no means indicates that God requires a wedding ceremony, but it most definitely does indicate that a wedding ceremony is acceptable in God’s sight. Nearly every culture in the history of humanity has had some kind of formal wedding ceremony. Throughout world history, and in nearly every major human civilization, there is something that occurs, such as an event, action, covenant, or proclamation, that is culturally recognized in declaring a man and woman to be married.
(3) God considers a couple to be married at the moment the marriage is consummated (sexual intercourse). There are some who argue that if any man and woman have sex, God considers the two of them to be married. Such a viewpoint is not biblically sound. This issue is covered in depth at: http://elhijodedios.com/bible/sex-equal-marriage.html. The basis for this argument is the fact that sexual intercourse between a husband and wife is the ultimate fulfillment of the “one flesh” principle (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31). In this sense, sexual intercourse is the final “seal” on a marriage covenant. However, if a couple is legally and ceremonially married, but for some reason are unable to engage in sexual intercourse, that does not mean they are not considered married.
It is not biblical to declare a couple that has had sexual intercourse, but has not observed any of the other aspects of a marriage covenant, as being married. Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 7:2 indicate that sex before marriage is immorality. If sexual intercourse causes a couple to become married, it could not be considered immoral, as the couple would be considered married the moment they engaged in sexual intercourse. There is absolutely no biblical basis for an unmarried couple having sex to then declare themselves to be married, and thereby declaring future sexual relations to be moral and God-honoring.
So, what constitutes marriage in God’s eyes? It would seem that the following principles should be followed. (1) As long as the requirements are reasonable and not against the Bible, a couple should seek whatever formal governmental recognition that is available. (2) A couple should follow whatever cultural and familial practices are typically employed to recognize a couple as “officially married.” (3) If possible, a couple should consummate the marriage, fulfilling the physical aspect of the “one flesh” principle.
What if one or more of these principles are not fulfilled? Is such a couple still considered married in God’s eyes? Ultimately, that is between the couple and God. God knows our hearts (1 John 3:20). God knows the difference between a true marriage covenant and an attempt to explain away, or justify, sexual immorality.
Recommended Resource: Why True Love Waits by Josh McDowell.
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