Q: My girlfriend and I are totally in love and are committed to be together the rest of our lives. My family thinks that we should “officially” get married. Do we have to get married by a minister or a justice of the peace, or is it okay if two Christians just commit themselves privately to each other in God’s sight?
A: The short answer to that question is that a person should get “legally married,” not just make a private commitment, and there are several reasons for that answer. Marriage is what is known as a “creation ordinance,” meaning a rule that God designed for every living person, in contrast to a “Christian ordinance,” or a rule applying only to Christians. When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they recognized that before Him they were to be committed to each other. Adam had been naming animals all day (the sixth day), but did not find a suitable companion for himself. He took a nap (and slept deeply) and when he woke up, to his surprise and delight, God had made a companion for him that was so suitable that he gave her a very revealing name: “She shall be called ishshah [female man] for she was taken out of ish [man]” (Gen. 2:23b).
God made Adam and Eve (and men and women) to be pair companions, and He brought them together to be “one flesh.” Adam and Eve had no ceremony or witnesses, but for a good reason: there was no one else around. The special relationship between the woman and the man was immediately recognized, and Eve is called “wife” (or “his woman”) and Adam is called “husband” (or “her man”) while the two of them were still in the Garden (Gen. 2:24 and 25; 3:6,8,16,17,21).
Because it was clear that God brought the first man and woman together in a permanent relationship, the occasion of a couples pairing up (marriage) has always had a very special significance. It did not take long before there was a “marriage ceremony,” complete with accepted cultural customs. Knowing mankind’s penchant for pomp and ceremony, my guess would be that even when Cain took a wife, there was probably some kind of ceremony (Gen. 4:17). In any case, marriage ceremonies complete with gifts for the bride, dowry for the bride’s family, and wedding feasts are all mentioned in Genesis. Weddings, both simple and elaborate, are also mentioned in the ancient records from Egypt, Babylon, Sumer, and other ancient cultures.
It also did not take long before the concepts of fornication, adultery, and divorce were clearly formed. These are mentioned early in the biblical text, and also in the ancient texts from other cultures. It is significant that the common point of all these definitions is the marriage. Fornication is sex before marriage, adultery is illicit sex while married, and divorce is the dissolution of the marriage. The fact that the marriage is the defining point of all these activities reveals the importance of the formally recognized marriage. If who is married and who is not married is not clear, then neither are the commandments that are defined by the marriage relationship. Although our modern society recognizes a “common law marriage,” that does not occur in the Bible. At the very least, the bride and her parents wanted some recognition that the girl was married.
The wedding ceremony served many purposes, including letting people know who was married to whom, avoiding appearances of evil and accusations of adultery (2 Sam. 3:7 and 8), maintaining proper order and behavior in society, providing a time for the relatives to get to know each other (which was very important since many marriages were really about power and economics–1 Kings 3:1), and providing memories that would be a blessing throughout the marriage, especially for the bride (Jer. 2:32). These things are still important in our modern society, and so we will examine them.
In order to maintain the proper order in a society, it is best that people obey the just laws of their land. The laws of the United States (and most countries) recognize marriage, and also recognize a “common law” marriage if a couple has lived together for a long time. God’s Word instructs Christians to obey the laws of the land (Rom. 13:1-8; 1 Pet. 2:13), and although living together without being officially married is not breaking the law, neither is it honoring the covenantal relationship God desires when a man and woman come together.
Christians are to “be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody” (Rom. 12:17b) and also to conduct themselves in a manner that honors God. If a Christian couple starts living together after making a personal but not a public commitment, that is not going to appear right in the eyes of everyone. In fact, it looks like fornication and is a very poor witness to both other Christians and non-Christians. Many people reject Christianity because they think Christians are hypocrites, but the marriage ceremony lets everyone know of the couple’s intent to live together as husband and wife, and that they are also honoring God’s instructions on the sanctity of the union of man and wife.
Anyone desiring to be married without a formal legal recognition of the marriage should carefully consider the reasons for this decision. Couples who live together without a formal marriage are much more likely to have serious trouble than couples who are married, and, adding insult to injury, if they do go on to get officially married, studies show they are not as happy as couples that got married from the start. Surely a Christian couple should want to give their relationship every possible chance to succeed. A couple not formally married has an “easy out” to walk away from the relationship, and many people take it. There is usually confusion and even embarrassment among friends and family about the relationship. There are also more difficult legal issues. Having an official marriage can be especially important with in-law relationships. Having solid relationships with in-laws contributes greatly to the richness of any marriage.
Perhaps the word “why” is at the core of the entire question about having a marriage ceremony. If the couple intends to stay together, why not get legally married? Yes, there are a few exceptional cases in which some legal or social entanglement keeps people from formally marrying. In those cases it may be best to work out those difficulties first and then get legally married.
The official marriage ceremony is also a source of wonderful memories that help to anchor the relationship and build the bond that exists between the couple. It also provides a forum for family and Christian brethren to witness the vows the couple makes to one another, and obligates them to help the couple stay faithful to these vows. The bottom line is that God ordained marriage as a covenantal union between a man and woman celebrated by the one flesh bond that is sacred between them alone. As a creation ordinance, marriage is ultimately not dependent man’s approval or social and cultural changes. Nevertheless, there are clear and distinct advantages for the couple, and their children, to being legally married by obeying the laws of the land.
So, why get formally married? Because it honors God and is the best witness before man.