Do Christians need to be married by a minister or can we just commit to each other privately in God’s sight?

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.

27 comments

  1. You also fail to mention that in many states unless you are legally married you are not entitled to certain rights of a married person like getting into and ICU because you are not as legal spouse or family, In the event of someone passing things like social security and even some health insurance plans will not come your way even tho you lived together for 20-30 years. If there are children from a previous relationship, they are first entitled to health insurance benefits and SS.

    If the partner’s family doesn’t like you, they can bar you from making medical or funeral decisions or bar you from the hospital. Should a partner become disabled or unable to care for themselves or die, the family can freely enter the join residence you shared and take anything they think belonged to their family member and that includes things that may have been purchased jointly and the other is left to fight it in court. They could basically clean you out – too bad so sad.

    On the flip side with out a legal marriage or your name on a house or apartment, a partner can just evict you, no notice and pile all your belongings on the street. You are now homeless with no legal recourse.

    Children born out of legal wedlock are not considered legally the male partners until a paternity test is run and then court dates and child support etc are decided. When a couple is legally wed it is legally considered the man’s child too. no contest.

    1. Great insight and comment!

  2. Am a pastor married but not by church wedding. Is it okay ?

    1. God desires that men and women be joined in a committed union. This is the essence of a marriage. Nowadays we have a marriage ceremony to mark the occasion, during which the couple can publicly say their vows and voice their commitment in from top witnesses. Most countries oversee this as a civil procedure and require people to have a marriage license, but this is all a requirement of men, not God. Adam, and all those before modern times didn’t have a special license.

      1. wow right on. thank you. My fiance and I are planning to get married by law/court and then to go before God, me and her, just us and declare our love to Him and have Him bless us…not man. He is the one who brought us together and He is the originator of our love…we will continue to remain in Him while doing things right with the law of the land.

        1. Hi Moses, what do you mean by not man? Does that suggest you don’t need a pastor to bless you? I need to understand that

      2. Thank you! I’ve Ben looking for anything stating we must have a ceremony or a piece of paper commuting to each other. I do this is man mde just as many religion re man mde.

  3. Hello. I’ve just come across your article and would really appreciate your input on my current situation…

    I am a Canadian divorced woman with a child from that marriage. My ex-husband and I married very young and because of an unexpected pregnancy. Unfortunately we were both extremely immature (not saved at that time either) and just simply weren’t ready. After the divorce, I quickly moved on with my life and have been with the same man for 11 years now and living together for 10. 3 years ago we officially got engaged and a year and a half ago we had our beautiful little perfect baby boy. 4 months ago, I rededicated my life to Christ and now I am concerned about how my “living situation” is looking to my Heavenly Father.

    Shortly after accepting Jesus, I moved into the spare bedroom until I figure all of this out. My fiance is a strong believer in God but not born-again like me. He’s not taking this too well. I’ve literally turned our extremely happy normal life UPSIDE DOWN. I’m now trying to talk my fiance into eloping but he still wants to make it a big celebration (we both come from extremely large families). He feels that eloping just isn’t special enough for us or our families. I am extremely tormented over all of this…

    Just to give you a bit of a run-down of our life together, my fiance accepted my son from my previous marriage as his own and works his tail off for this family. I am currently a stay-at-home mom. We bought a house together almost 4 years ago and both of our names are on the title. Because of the length of time that we’ve been together, my fiance now refers to me as his wife and I refer to him as my husband. His parents refer to me as their daughter-in-law and my parents refer to him as their son-in-law. So our families are very accepting of our union. Our government has listed us as “common-law spouses”. The only reason why we haven’t had a wedding yet is because we absolutely CANNOT afford it. We wanted a celebration, weddings cost A LOT and the way things are going in our economy and the fact that we are currently a one income family, I’m afraid that it’ll be a while before we get there. This is why I’m trying to talk my fiance into eloping…

    What I would like to know is, when God looks at our situation, do you think He REALLY considers us as “living in sin” or as “fornicators”? Or is this the way society looks at us? Because my goodness, I really have a difficult time accepting that. What an absolutely AWFUL way to label our wonderful life together. We are completely in love and over the moon happy with each other (up until I decided to turn our blissful life upside down). We made a beautiful baby boy together. Both of our names are on all of our assets and our family & friends have accepted us as a normal happy loving couple with wide open arms. We exhibit all the makings of a very normal beautiful happy loving family. The ONLY thing we haven’t done is sign a piece of paper. That is it. So is it REALLY that piece of paper that is going to make a difference in God’s eyes?? Because when I look at the big picture here, that just seems a little ridiculous to me. We’ve already passed all of your “reasons to marry” without being officially married and we definitely don’t have any “problems” because we aren’t officially married. Your statement “…if they do go on to get officially married, studies show they are not as happy as couples that got married from the start.” is complete bogus in my situation. Why would our happiness suddenly turn to unhappiness after getting married?? That makes no sense to me. And there is certainly no “sexual promiscuity” in our relationship just because we haven’t signed that piece of paper yet. And if we were to ever split up, there definitely wouldn’t be an “easy out” at all as we now have a child together. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound confrontational. I’m sure your article makes sense to a lot of couples out there but I can tell you right now that it certainly doesn’t apply to us. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not making excuses. We absolutely WILL be getting married because we truly do WANT to get married. It will definitely be the cherry on top of our wonderful life together and I absolutely cannot wait for that day! My main concern is being right with the Lord, here and now. It’s just hard for me to accept that signing a piece of paper would make our life together right in God’s eyes.

    Any input into what I’ve said would be greatly appreciated as I’m not sure how much longer my relationship will last like this.

    1. Leena, Thank you for writing and explaining your situation. Your “husband” sounds like a wonderful man and I have no doubt that the many years the two of you have been faithfully together has been pleasing to God, especially since you have made a commitment to the union and your children. I am also sure that in God’s eyes you are married and I do agree that a “piece of paper” is not what is important but the commitment you have made and shown in your union.

      You say you are living in separate bedrooms, which I assume is because of your conscience bothering you. this is not the way to live. So why not just go have a simple ceremony and make it fully legal, and then have a large celebration later someday when you can afford it? I am not sure of the laws in Canada or the marriage process, but in the States a marriage license is very easy and inexpensive, in fact something that can be done at any court house.

      I hope your situation is resolved for your and your husbands sake.

  4. “Helping you understand the Word of God, free from the traditions of men.”

    Unbelievable! I ask you a question regarding the topic of marriage and you refuse to provide an answer. Where is your attempt to help me be “free from the traditions of men?” Please don’t tell me you are just another hypocritical Christian website that declares one thing and does the opposite; saying they are about the truth and yet disregard it.

    1. Hi Lee, Sorry that you are so upset that someone here did not answer your question. The reality is that we are a very small staff here. We post what we believe to be true for people to read, consider, and learn as they may. We never intended to set this website up as the “Answer Shop” for everyone’s questions. We are being visited from people all around the world and we receive an overwhelming number of emails. Not answering your particular question is not an intentional slight or desire to avoid. Instead we don’t have the time and resources to answer everyone and we answer according to the time we have available. In reality, because we get so many emails, I have no idea what you initially asked since it is probably buried somewhere in the cue. You can also email us at our ministry website at http://www.stfonline.org and then we will definitely see it.

  5. My question is again is it mandatory for you to be legally married. Is marriage a legal matter for God…..or man.

    1. Is it mandatory? No, as we said, 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.

  6. Am a young Christian and but I have a boyfriend but I really want to make my relationship right with God but we afford to get married right now I church, can I still commit my relationship to God without getting married in church and still ok to have sex without it been a sin?

    1. It is God’s desire that sexual intimacy be reserved for a couple in the Covenant of Marriage. If you want your relationship to be right with God,a nd you want to have sex, then get married.

  7. Hi! Me and my boyfriend are getting married soon this year. We are talking if where we should get married. I want us to get married by the Pastor but him, he want us to get married by the judge.
    Does it really matters if we want civil wedding or church wedding? If we get married in civil wedding is it right in the eyes of God? Thanks

    1. Ultimately marriage is a covenant (a sacred promise) that you and your husband will enter, and it can be officiated over by a minister or a judge. The beauty to it being officiated by a minister is that it elevates the ceremony from being merely a civil act, to one that honors God and the community of the Body of Christ. IF you and your fiancé are truly committed believers then consider using your wedding as a way to demonstrate to others Jesus and what he stands for and has done for you.

  8. My boyfriend and I have been dating for six years. We both come from two previous divorces. we are now Christians. But my boyfriend says that Adam and Eve were married by God and not by a justice of peace or minister. I really want to do things right in Gods eyes. I don’t know what other research should I do to make this man understand that we need to be officially married.

    1. Hi Alicia, Thank you for your reply and question> I know this is a very important matter for you. Your boyfriend is correct that Adam and Eve were joined (married) by God, but you and your boyfriend are not Adam and Eve and things have drastically changed since they lived. God established marriage as a covenantal union between a man and a woman, but He has also directed mankind since the time of Naoh to administer justice and establish societal rules and laws. It is our obligation as Christians to follow those laws that do not interfere with our allegiance to God and His Son. In the article we attempted to make it clear how the civil aspect of marriage protects the woman and her children, and the family unit, and also how marriage before a minister honors the holy aspects of your union nd includes the rest of the Body of Christ in supporting your marriage. Is it possible that your boyfriends objection to properly being marrieds based on a fear because of his previously failed marriage? The fact is, that if I really wanted to marry a woman, and she wanted to do it right in the eyes of God and man, then I would climb any hill and break any barrier I could to marry the one I loved. I wonder, why won’t he? IF he doesn’t want to do it right then you need to consider that he isn’t the right man.

  9. My fiancee and i have been dating for a year now, and we want to legalize our union but he is insisting that it must be regisery that pastor has no authority to join man and woman as husband and wife that it is not biblical. And he said if i can give him where it is written in the Bible, he will concur to the church wedding. Please can i get the place where it is written i really want to Wed in the church.

  10. I haven’t seen anyone talk about a widow and remarriage. I am 71 and am a widow of a retired military man and receive tricare for life and prescription medications at no cost. This is a huge economic necessity for me as at my age I take some costly meds and require frequent doctor’s visits due to an autoimmune disease. I was married 45 years.
    I have met someone and been blessed to fall in love again. This man would marry me but if I do I lose my health coverage and prescription plan. I don’t think it would be wise to relinguish this benefit especially because my new love has no retirement other than social security and could not afford to help pay private insurance. He is from Canada and has only been a citizen for a few years. We are both Christians, and have been living together after making a committment to God to remain faithful to each other and care for each other. I don’t know how to handle this at church when people ask how we met, how long have you been married, etc. I don’t want to lie or go into a lengthy explanation.

    1. I would love to know the answer to your question also. I am in the same situation.

  11. Hello my fiance and I are very sound Christians, but am compelling due accommodation problem to live with him we really love God and each otherour both parents know about us, can we just do court marriage only so we can have sex and later do our church wedding because of finance.
    Please reply as soon as possible.

  12. I’m yet to see married ceremony scriptures in Genesis or anywhere in the Bible.
    if you know anyone, please help me with the scriptures.

  13. I divorcedmy husband because of unfaithfulness but I find myself still sleeping with him is this sinful?

    1. I’m very sorry he was unfaithful. That is so painful. I believe he is still your husband. Has he repented for his adultery? Does he desire forgiveness?

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