The legal nature of earthly marriage, while dissoluble due to sin, is meant to exist until death parts a couple. Legality also implies consequences for failure, such as we find in the Old Testament where Hosea’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer was a warning to Israel not to play the harlot with the Lord and instead return to him and be faithful. If Christ were not faithful to his bride, the church, he would be liable to judgment, which is impossible (Heb. 6:13; 2 Tim. 2:13). The union between Christ and the church is indissoluble—believers are beloved by Christ and forever belong to him.
We have received a lot of questions on the Beautiful Christian Life Facebook page regarding what constitutes a legitimate marriage in God’s sight. Here are seven questions and answers on the topic of the nature of marriage according to the Bible:
1. Can people be married in their hearts?
Nowhere in the Bible does it state that a true marriage exists where people agree in their hearts that they are husband and wife. In the Bible there is always a legal aspect to marriage. This is why a certificate of divorce had to be issued if the marriage was dissolved under the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 24:1-4; Matt. 19:7-8) and why Joseph was going to quietly divorce Mary after he learned she was pregnant, as there was a marriage contract in force even though their marriage had not been consummated yet:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matt. 1:18-19)
Waiting for a period of time between the signing of the marriage contract and the actual consummation of the marriage was common practice during the time of Joseph and Mary’s betrothal. In his book Backgrounds in Early Christianity, church historian Everett Ferguson writes the following about Jewish marriage in the first century:
The marriage was a contract between families. It was effected in two stages: the betrothal (or ‘acquisition’ of the bride) and the wedding proper (taking the bride into the husband’s home). The betrothal had the legal force of marriage and could be broken only by divorce (cf. Matt 1:18-19).” It was accomplished by the bridegroom paying the bride-price (or part of it) or delivering a deed. The customary written contract (ketubah) included the husband’s duties to his wife and the sum due her in the event of a divorce or his death” (p. 74).
The bride in all her special adornments was joyfully escorted to the groom’s house for the wedding ceremony. Along with the pronouncement of seven blessings, the marriage contract was read at the ceremony, which took place under a canopy (huppah). The wedding was then celebrated for seven days (Ferguson, p. 74).
2. Why do we have to sign a piece of paper to make a marriage legal?
People wonder why a man and woman have to sign a document in order to be married. In the Ancient Near East, in which biblical history took place, a written document was commonly associated with covenants. According to Ligonier Ministries,
The signing of a piece of paper is not a matter of affixing one’s signature in ink to a meaningless document. The signing of a marriage certificate is an integral part of what the Bible calls a covenant. Biblically, there is no such thing as a private marriage contract between two people. A covenant is done publicly before witnesses and with formal legal commitments that are taken seriously by the community. The protection of both partners is at stake; there is legal recourse should one of the partners act in a way that is destructive to the other. (“God’s Will and Your Marriage,” part 1)
Christians are called to obey governing authorities. If there are laws regarding marriage in the country where a Christian man and woman reside who are seeking to marry, they need to obey them as long as they are not disobeying God in doing so:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom. 13:1-2)
3. Does having sex with someone equal marriage (the “two become one flesh” passages)?
Some people think that two people are married if they have had sexual intercourse with each other based on the two-become-one flesh passages:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24)