What Is the Biblical Definition of Marriage?

What Constitutes a Marriage According to the Bible

Biblical Definition of Marriage
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I often receive questions about the biblical definition of marriage:

  • "Is a marriage ceremony required?"
  • "Do I have to be legally married to be married in the eyes of God?"
  • "Isn't a marriage ceremony just a man-made tradition?"

The Bible does not give specific details or directions about a marriage ceremony, yet it does mention weddings in several places. Jesus attended a wedding in John 2. Wedding ceremonies were a well-established tradition in Jewish history and in Bible times.

Scripture is clear about marriage being a holy and divinely established covenant. It is equally clear about our obligation to honor and obey the laws of our earthly governments, which are also divinely established authorities.

3 Positions on Biblical Marriage

There are three commonly held beliefs about what constitutes a marriage in the eyes of God:

  1. The couple is married in the eyes of God when the physical union is consummated through sexual intercourse.
  2. The couple is married in the eyes of God when the couple is legally married.
  3. The couple is married in the eyes of God after they have participated in a formal religious wedding ceremony.

Let's break this down and see what the Bible says about the marriage covenant.

The Bible Defines Marriage as a Covenant

God sketched his original plan for marriage in Genesis 2:24 when one man (Adam) and one woman (Eve) united together to become one flesh:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

(Genesis 2:24, ESV)

In Malachi 2:14, marriage is described as is a holy covenant before God. In the Jewish custom, God's people signed a written agreement at the time of the marriage to seal the covenant. The marriage ceremony, therefore, is meant to be a public demonstration of a couple's commitment to a covenant relationship.

It's not the "ceremony" that's important; it's the couple's covenant commitment before God and men.

It's interesting to carefully consider the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony and the "Ketubah" or marriage contract, which is read in the original Aramaic language. The husband accepts certain marital responsibilities, such as the provision of food, shelter, and clothing for his wife, and promises to care for her emotional needs as well.

This contract is so important that the marriage ceremony is not complete until the groom signs it and presents it to the bride. This demonstrates that both husband and wife see marriage as more than just a physical and emotional union, but also as a moral and legal commitment.

The Ketubah is also signed by two witnesses and considered a legally binding agreement. It is forbidden for Jewish couples to live together without this document. For Jews, the marriage covenant symbolically represents the covenant between God and his people, Israel.

For Christians, marriage goes beyond the earthly covenant also, as a divine picture of the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the Church. It is a spiritual representation of our relationship with God. To learn more about the biblical purpose of marriage, read What Does the Bible Say About Marriage?

Common Law Marriage Is Not in the Bible

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, he revealed something very important, something we often miss in this passage. In verses 17-18, Jesus said to the woman, "You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly." The woman had been hiding the fact that the man she was living with was not her husband. According to the New Bible Commentary notes on this passage of Scripture, Common Law Marriage had no religious support in the Jewish faith. Living with a person in sexual union did not constitute a "husband and wife" relationship. Jesus made that plain here.

Therefore, position number one (the couple is married in the eyes of God when the physical union is consummated through sexual intercourse) does not have a foundation in Scripture.

Romans 13:1-2 is one of several passages in Scripture that refers to the importance of believers honoring governmental authority in general: "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." (NIV)

These verses give position number two (the couple is married in the eyes of God when the couple is legally married) stronger biblical support.

The problem, however, with a legal process only is that some governments require couples to go against the laws of God to be legally married. Also, there were many marriages that took place in history before governmental laws were established for marriage. Even today, some countries have no legal requirements for marriage.

Therefore, the strongest biblical position for a Christian couple would be to submit to governmental authority and recognize the laws of the land, as long as that authority does not require them to break one of the laws of God.

The Blessing of Obedience

Here are some excuses I've heard about why a legal marriage should not be required:

  • "If we marry, we'll lose certain financial benefits."
  • "I have bad credit. It will ruin my spouse's credit if we get married."
  • "A piece of paper won't make any difference. It's our love and private commitment to each other that matters."

You can fill in the rest, as I'm sure you've heard some too. The bottom line: we can come up with hundreds of excuses not to obey God, but a life of faith and surrender require a heart of obedience to our Lord. But (and here's the beautiful part), the Lord always blesses obedience:

"You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 28:2, NLT)

Stepping out in faith requires us to trust the Master as we follow his will. Nothing we give up for the sake of obedience will compare to the blessing and joy of obeying.

You never know, though, until you take the plunge and give it a try.

Christian Marriage Honors God Above All Else

As Christians, it is important to focus on the true purpose of marriage when considering the wedding ceremony. Although the details are ultimately between the couple and God, the scriptural example encourages believers to enter into marriage in a way that honors God's covenant relationship, submits to the laws of God first and then the laws of the land, and gives a public demonstration of the holy commitment that is being made.

A biblical ceremony can be carried out in a simple, private service with only a few witnesses, or a large traditional wedding. The details are unimportant; it's the couple's covenant commitment before God and men that matters.