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When is a relationship a marriage?

Submitted: 10/2/2004
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Question: In reading a Bible study given to me concerning divorce and remarriage, I’ve found it difficult to establish exactly when a couple is married in the eyes of God. Is it when a vow is made to God? Is it when a ceremony takes place? Is a minister needed? Is it when the two come together? Does it depend on what the surrounding culture considers to be a marriage? Can you offer insight into this perplexing issue?

Answer: Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage is therefore the joining together of one man with one women into a lifelong union. For believers, it is an unconditional covenant established and supported by God that is ended only by the death of either the husband or the wife. In general, the elements necessary to make a marriage lawful are the exchanging of marital vows before witnesses and compliance with all applicable civil regulations. Normally a marriage is consummated by sexual union—the two becoming one. In rare circumstances sexual union may not occur due to physical or emotional disabilities. The fact that no sexual union has occurred does not nullify the vows which have been exchanged.

For believers, marriage is both a spiritual and a lawful union. In some localities, however, a man and woman are considered to be married if they have lived together and/or borne children together over a designated period of time. We believe that God may also look upon such couples as being married, although we admonish any couple coming to God in this state to immediately comply with the elements listed above. This is not to say that a man and woman may simply declare themselves to be married and start living together. Marriage is based on mutual commitments which are supported by the laws of society. To fail to make the commitments and comply with the law violates God’s instruction that His people submit to “every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13).

Both the kingdom of God and society in general have a vested interest in supporting the institution of marriage. First, it has always been God’s ideal that children be raised by both their mother and father; and second, nearly every study on the subject has demonstrated the benefits to society of children being raised in a two-parent family. Moreover, as the child-bearers and the “weaker vessels,” it is vital for women to have assurances that the man they join with sexually will support and care for them and for the fruit of their union. Marital vows combined with paternity and support laws are designed to provide such assurances.

Couples who are living together should get married immediately, especially if they have children. If one partner is unwilling, the couple must stop living together, even when children are involved, and terminate all sexual relations. The failure to do things God’s way inevitably brings heartache and difficulties to everyone involved, but the desire to take the easy path must never override the necessity of doing what is right.