We are living in a society where the government has redefined the traditional (biblical) definition of marriage – that being only between a man and a woman. As a result of the pandemic a question has emerged from the thinking of many Christians which has been waiting for the right occasion to be verbalized. Since in many states county clerk offices have been closed, which prevents couples who desire to be married from obtaining a marriage license, coupled with the government’s ever weakening definition of what constitutes a legal marriage, the question being posed concerns whether or not it is really necessary for a Christian couple to obtain a marriage license from the state? Seeing that marriage in essence is a covenant between the couple and God, is it important or even  necessary for a Christian couple to obtain a marriage license to have their marriage affirmed by the state?

In seeking to address this issue, it would prove beneficial to examine it from four perspectives: theological, historical, practical, and rational.

When was the first marriage? The first wedding is found in Genesis when God, who was not only the best Man who presented Eve to Adam, He presided over the first ceremony. Being pronounced man and wife, our first parents became one flesh. Marriage is presented as a relationship ordained by God, not a relationship instituted by man. The Bible declares marriage to be honorable among all relationships and since “God is the founder of marriage,” as John Calvin states, it is a holy covenant.
The word “covenant” is a word that is interwoven throughout the Bible. “Covenant” (Heb. berith) appears 286 times in the OT and 24 times in the NT (Gk. diatheke). The origin of the OT word “covenant” has been debated by scholars. Some contend it comes from a custom of eating together, while others have stressed the meaning has reference to the cutting or dividing of animals into two parts, and the contracting parties passing between them in making a covenant. The generally accepted meaning of the word indicates a bond or a binding, referring to two or more parties bound together. Covenant is used frequently to describe the divine-human relationship between Yahweh and Israel and God and His chosen people. Throughout the OT, Yahweh’s unique covenantal relationship with Israel is used as analogous to the special relationship that is to exist between husband and wife.

The corresponding word in the New Testament the Greek word διαθήκη (diatheke). Generally rendered “testament” in the Authorized Version, it has the same meaning as the word berith of the Old Testament, “covenant.”

Solomon and Malachi both state marriage is a “covenant” (Proverbs 2:17; Malachi 2:13-16), and is superior to all other human covenants or contracts. Marriage is a covenant because (1) it is ordained by God, and (2) it requires a mutual pledge from both the man and the woman in the presence of God. Malachi states that God is a “witness” when a man and woman enter into a marriage covenant and God expects the couple to honor the covenant between each other and the Lord. Malachi writes:
You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering and accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. “For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and covering one’s garments with violence, says the Lord, the God of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (Mal. 2:13-16).

In the NT Jesus confirmed that marriage is a holy covenant relationship between a man and a woman. The Master stated, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).

Paul in describing the relationship between Christ and His Bride, paints the ideal picture of how the bond of marriage should be. He writes: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph. 5:25-31).

It is abundantly clear from Scripture, God created marriage and it is a holy covenant designed between a man and a woman. Any “partnering” other than the uniting of a man or woman is a perversion of God’s original design. A scriptural marriage is a covenant made by a man and a woman before God, a permanent commitment being vowed. Since God ordained marriage, it is much more than just a cultural idea. Since marriage was instituted by God and established apart from any governmental or state entity, there are those who say since God is the one who binds a man and woman together, and not the state, there is no reason that a state issued marriage license or state affirmation is necessary.

While Scripture is clear marriage was ordained by God, and marriage existed even before “governmental entities,” they, too, were ordained by God. But historically have societal entities generally sought to affirm marriages? A look at marriage from a historical perspective will prove beneficial in answering our original question, is it important or even necessary for a Christian couple to obtain a marriage license to have their marriage affirmed by the state?

Historically, practically every culture has had an event, action, covenant, or proclamation that has been recognized as affirming a couple as married. Yes, marriage is a covenant before God between a man and a woman, but through history marriage has also been a public declaration to society that a new relationship has been established. American jurist Joseph Story once wrote: “Marriage is treated by all civilized societies as a peculiar and favored contract. It is in its origin a contract of natural law. … [Marriage] is the parent, and not the child of society; the source of civility and a sort of seminary of the republic. In civil society it becomes a civil contract, regulated and prescribed by law, and endowed with civil consequences. In most civilized countries, acting under a sense of the force of sacred obligations, it has had the sanctions of religion superadded. It then becomes a religious, as well as a natural and civil contract; . . . it is a great mistake to suppose that because it is the one, therefore it may not be the other.” (Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Conflict of Laws, Foreign and Domestic, in regard to Contracts, Rights sand Remedies 100, at § 108 (1834)).

Historically, Jewish and Christian tradition have viewed the covenant of marriage as an integral part of the mosaic of society. The entering into the covenant relationship of marriage has historically been viewed by society as the positive intertwining of the commitment between a man a woman within social and community life. While marriage is a personal commitment before God, in Jewish and Christian tradition marriage has been both private and public, personally celebratory and community celebrated, and temporal and transcendent in quality.

Even going back to the time of Abraham, we find an agreement between families as a testimony to the particulars of the marriage. When Isaac married Rebekah, Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, presented a dowry, which was integral in the recognition of the marriage as being formally established in community life (Gen. 24:1-67). When Boaz desired to marry Ruth (Ruth 4), he publicly assembled ten elders of the city to declare his intentions. While Boaz didn’t obtain a marriage license from the elders, he sealed his intentions to marry Ruth by publicly taking off his sandal! (Ruth 4:9) When one reads the Song of Solomon, one can’t help but notice the interactions between the bride, groom, and the community. Joseph and Mary registered as a couple in their participation in the mandatory census, and in so doing they submitted themselves to the legal authorities and the community at large.

From Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we find Jewish law requiring a certificate of divorce to dissolve a marriage. The very fact that it was necessary to provide a certificate of divorce, indicates that marriage was a relationship under Jewish law which was more than a private matter but also had public ramifications.

Even before the time of Christ, Jewish Rabbis created the ketubah, or a marriage contract. The ketubah, derived from the Aramaic and Hebrew root “katav,” means “to write.” According to the Babylonian Talmud, the ketubah was enacted “in which the husband and the wife spelled out the terms and conditions of their relationship before, during, and after the marriage, and the rights and duties of husband, wife, and child in the event of marital dissolution or death of one of the parties” (Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage, (New York: Jonathan David Co., 2008), 197-206). In a male oriented society, the ketubah was viewed as essential in the protection of wives and children in the event of divorce or death. While it is God who binds the man and woman together, the Rabbis contended that a ketubah was necessary for the integrity of the marriage. To not have a ketubah was the same as the woman being a concubine, as the difference between a wife a concubine is that the wife had a ketubah and a concubine did not. The rabbis considered not having a ketubah placed the woman at an unfair disadvantage, and put the woman on the level of a concubine. Though the terms of the ketubah were often privately contracted between the man and the woman and the two families, both families and the rabbinic authorities were usually actively involved in the creation of the contract and in the execution of the terms. The ketubah revealed that while marriage was a private affair it also had, as well, societal consequences which needed to be addressed before tying of the knot.  Again, not having a ketubah even reflected on how the woman was perceived in society, as a concubine and not a wife. According to Maurice Lamm, the Jewish rabbis thought the ketubah of such importance that “when the Jews of France were robbed of all their possessions and expelled by Philip the Fair in 1306, they moved en masse to Provence. Rashba, who was one of the most brilliant Talmudists of medieval Spain, ordered that no married life be resumed there until every man give his wife a replacement ketubah.” (Lamm, Love and Marriage, 197-206)

In John 2, Jesus’ first miracle was performed at a wedding in Cana. It is of significant interest that Jesus chose his attendance at a wedding to perform his first miracle. His attendance at the wedding celebration in Cana, where no doubt a ketubah had been agreed upon beforehand, indicates He approved of what was transpiring. Jesus’ presence at the wedding indicates His affirming of the wedding ceremony and its impact on community life.

Until the Middle Ages marriages, though they had communal ramifications, were usually private contracts between two families and the individuals involved. Beginning in the Middle Ages churches began keeping records of who was married to whom. Marriage licenses began to be issued during this period, for the purpose of permitting a marriage which would otherwise be deemed illegal.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther sought to turn over the recording of marriages to the state instead of the church. John Calvin, who has had much influence on Western thought, believed that for a marriage to be valid it needed to be both recorded by the state and officiated by the church. Calvin taught that God participates in the formation of the covenant of marriage through his chosen agents on earth. Calvin saw marriage as having four prongs. (1) The couple’s parents who instructed the young couple in the morals of Christian marriage and give their consent to the union; (2) at least two witnesses who testify to the sincerity and solemnity of the couple’s promises and attest to the marriage event; (3) the minister, holding “God’s spiritual power of the Word,” blesses the union and admonishes the couple and the community of their respective biblical duties and rights; and (4) the magistrate, holding “God’s temporal power of the sword,” registers the parties, ensures the legality of their union, and protects them in their conjoined persons and properties. This involvement of parents, witnesses, ministers, and magistrates in the formation of marriage was not an idle or dispensable ceremony. These four parties represented different dimensions of God’s involvement in the marriage covenant, and they were thus essential to the legitimacy of the marriage itself. To omit any of the four parties in the formation of the marriage, Calvin taught, was to omit God from the marriage covenant. For Calvin marriage was both a religious union as well as legal union (Herman J. Selderhuis, ed., The Calvin Handbook, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 455-465).

Calvin’s influence on theology, law and ethics cannot be denied upon the New World. Marriage licenses began being required in Massachusetts in 1639 and gradually expanded across colonial America. By the 19th century marriage licenses were available in most every state for couples to obtain. (Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, (Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006), 87-103).

Having briefly examined historically Jewish and Christian marriage traditions in regard to the intertwining of the civil and religious, it has been seen that cultures have through the centuries sanctioned events, contracts, covenants, declarations and licenses that affirm that a man and woman are married. Historically speaking, marriage has not been just a private and personal covenant, but has always been at least a three-prong covenant between God, the couple and the community. As has been seen, there is clearly a communal aspect to genuine marriage. While a marriage is foremost a vow before God, He has used these various public actions as a binding declaration or document made between a man and a woman that a new relationship has begun and is an integral part of community of life. One could surmise from Jewish and Christian traditions that marriage is necessarily both a spiritual and societal declaration, and in some way be affirmed by both for the marriage to be considered “legal.”

Having examined the historical aspect of marriage, a look at the practical needs to be considered.

While marriage is ordained by God and is a covenant between a man and a woman before God who unites the couple, the Bible teaches that governmental authorities are also ordained by God (Romans 13:1-2), and Christians should respect and be submissive in matters of the state, unless it violates the teaching of Scripture.

It is contended there are practical reasons for a Christian couple to obtain a state issued marriage license. Like the Jewish ketubah, a marriage license ensures protection for the couple and the assurance of benefits that are not available to those who are not “legally” married in the eyes of the state. Some of the practical benefits and protections are: Joint parental rights of children, Joint adoption, Status as “next of kin” for hospital and medical decisions, Right to make decisions about the disposal of loved one’s remains, Immigration and residence for partners from other countries, Crime victims recovery benefits, Domestic violence protection orders, Judicial protections and immunity, Automatic inheritance in the absence of a will, Public safety officers death benefits, Spousal veteran’s benefits, Social Security, Medicare, Joint filing of tax returns, Wrongful death benefits for surviving partner and children, Bereavement or sick leave to care for partner and children, Child support, Joint insurance plans, Tax credits including child tax credit, Deferred compensation for pensions and IRA’s, Estate and gift tax benefits, Welfare and public assistance, Joint housing for the elderly, Credit protection, Medical care for survivors and dependents of certain veterans, and there are many more such benefits and protections afforded to those married.

A couple who foregoes obtaining a marriage license may not “feel” any less married than someone who has a marriage license, but it will not meet governmental legal requirements as a state affirmed  marriage union. Some would consider such a decision to forego obtaining a license as without adequate rationale.

Rationally examining such a decision is not without merit.

Questions deserving honest answers are:
As long as the state does not blatantly violate God’s Scriptural tenants, is there good rationale for not obtaining a marriage license?
Can one be a good witness to the lost if one’s marriage union does not meet the legal requirements of the state?
Can one meet the standard of “living above reproach” if one neglects the legal requirements as to what constitutes a legal marriage?
If one doesn’t obtain a marriage license because one may be penalized financially, is that not showing a lack of trust in God to provide for one’s needs?
If one decides to live together without meeting the legal requirements of the land, will the world scoff at one being hypocritical?
If one decides to live without benefit of a marriage license, is that the kind of decision one would like their children to someday make?
If one foregoes obtaining a marriage license, will that make it easier for one of the parties to walk away when tough times come (and they will), since they are not “legally married? There is no doubt many marriages which have been saved as the “marriage license” held the couple together as they worked through the tough situation.
Is there good reason to not obtain a marriage license when the state has not taken specific measures to violate the law of God in regard to the union between a man and a woman?

These are just a few questions that those contemplating forgoing a marriage license should rationally and honestly think through.

However, there is a possible exception that needs to be very prayerfully considered before taking action. What if because of circumstances like the current pandemic, state offices are closed making it impossible to obtain a marriage license? There are two options: (1) The couple can wait until offices open again, whereby they can obtain one. For this writer that would be the preferred option. (2) The couple must prayerfully decide with a preacher who agrees to perform the ceremony, to go ahead and vow before a holy God their covenant of love, with the promise to obtain a marriage license as soon as possible, thereby in a celebratory ceremony affirming the final step in the three-prong covenant: the couple, God, and community (state). This is not the ideal option, and all avenues to obtain a license should be exhausted before proceeding. As well, not all pastors would agree to officiate a service without a license.  But this option is permissible under the law of liberty as Paul discusses in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 & 10.

Having looked at marriage from a theological, historical, practical, and rational perspective, is there an answer to our original question: Seeing that marriage in essence is a covenant between the couple and God, is it important or even necessary for a Christian couple to obtain a marriage license to have their marriage affirmed by the state?

On the strictest level, obtaining a state approved marriage license doesn’t mean a man and a woman who have sincerely vowed before God to covenant together in marriage, are any less married in the eyes of God because they didn’t obtain a “sheet of paper.” While there is no verse in the Bible that says one is not married in God’s eyes unless they have a license from governmental authorities; however, it has been seen theologically and historically that marriage is more than a private and personal covenant, but is clearly communal in nature and is an integral part of societal and community life. Marriage is not a purely private affair. Marriage has always been at least a three-prong covenant between God, the couple, and the community. The marriage license doesn’t determine whether the marriage is “legal” or not in the sight of God, but it affirms the marriage in the eyes of society.

Yes, marriage was/is ordained by God, and was the first institution established, but government entities have also been ordained by God. While it is admitted that our governmental laws are always in flux and the marriage relationship has been expanded by law to include relationships other than that which is between a man and a woman, unless our governmental laws specifically violate God’s laws in regard to the union of a man and a woman and it becomes impossible to no longer comply, a couple would not be wrong in obtaining a state affirming  license. For a couple to be “legally” married in the eyes of the state carries with it benefits and protections of the marriage covenant. Other than the possible exception stated above, unless the laws of the land specifically lead a couple to violate their obedience to the Word of God, believers should be encouraged to marry in accordance with the regulations and requirements of governmental authorities.

While technically a couple’s vows don’t need approval from the state to be married in God’s eyes, affirmation by the state is both encouraged in order to be a good witness for Christ and is advantageous for the protection of the marriage. It behooves Christian couples not to isolate themselves, but be before society the communal example which reflects the loving relationship of Jesus Christ for His Bride, the Church.

Dr. Dan.