Question: "What does the Bible say about the concept of a common law marriage?"
Answer: One online encyclopedia defines common-law marriage as follows: "Common-law marriage, sometimes referred to as informal marriage, is a form of interpersonal status in which a man and a woman are legally married. The common-law marriage is a verbal or written contract between a man and a woman to be married, usually without a ceremony or license. A common-law marriage can only be dissolved by petitioning a court for a divorce. Common-law marriage is very similar, but distinguishable from civil unions or non-marital relationship contracts." Webster’s New College Dictionary defines common-law marriage as follows: "A marriage existing by mutual agreement and cohabitation between a man and a woman without a civil or religious ceremony."
For most states and countries that recognize common-law marriage, the requirements vary some but usually consist of (1) capacity to marry (not being involved in any other marriage) (2) mutually expressed desire (either verbal or written) to marry (3) a public expressing to others of that desire by referring to themselves as “Mr. and Mrs. ...,” etc., and (4) continually cohabiting. There is a common misperception that if you live together for a certain length of time (seven years is what many people believe), you are common-law married. This is not true anywhere in the United States.
Genesis 2:21-24 speaks of God's original plan for marriage and will serve as the basis for the biblical definition of marriage: “And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
In the first few chapters of Genesis, God fills the earth with large numbers of different kinds of life. He doesn't just put a few fish in the ocean; it "abounds" with them. But when it comes to mankind, He makes just one male and one female, and those two were to become "one flesh." The implication from Genesis 2:24 is that this "one woman for one man for one lifetime" was a principle not just for Adam and Eve but for all who would be born to a father and mother. Jesus commented on this Genesis passage when the Jewish leaders brought up the topic of divorce: "But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘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 then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate”" (Mark 10:6-9).
Marriage is the union of a man and a woman, creating a new entity, a new “whole” (one flesh). This union is brought about by a mutual commitment before God (expressed through a public vow today) to forsake all others, to keep themselves only unto their new partner, and to act in the best interest of the other (to love), and to seek to fulfill God’s purposes for their lives as a new unit. This commitment is to last as long as they both shall live (1 Corinthians 7:39).
Marriage is not merely a “friendship.” Although it is not the “consummation” that begins the actual marriage (or Joseph and Mary would not have been “married” until after Christ was born - Matthew 1:25), sexual activity is understood to be a natural part of marriage (Exodus 21:10; Hebrews 13:4). Today, the exchanging of the vows during a wedding ceremony is the vocalization of the commitment that was understood between biblical couples such as Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24:67.
Some of God’s purposes for marriage as stated in the Bible are companionship (Genesis 2:18), procreation (Genesis 1:28), mutual and undefiled pleasure (1 Corinthians 7:4-5; Proverbs 5:18-19; Song of Solomon; Hebrews 13:4), prevention of immorality (1 Corinthians 7:2,5), the serving of Christ as a whole and properly representing the spiritual relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33), and the raising of godly descendants (Malachi 2:13-16). The bond of marriage (when respected) leads to the good of not only the couple and their children, but also to the good of the society as a whole, for the family unit is the building block of any society.
While marriages throughout most of biblical history involve some type of public ceremony (and celebration), such a ceremony is not required for a biblical marriage to have taken place. In the case of Isaac and Rebekah and others, no ceremony is recorded (Genesis 24:67). But a common ingredient between common-law marriage and the one involving a ceremony is a publicly expressed intent to be married. Two people living together without that expressed intent does not constitute a common-law marriage, just cohabitation. Isaac and Rebekah did not just begin living together, there was a clear expression of intent that their union be of a permanent nature (marriage). Another common ingredient between common-law marriage and the one involving a ceremony and license is its legal standing. In order for a common-law marriage to be dissolved, a legal divorce must be pursued. (Again, in God’s original intent for marriage, there should be no divorce.) Another ingredient in these biblical marriages that did not involve a public ceremony as compared to those that did is that there was no sexual activity prior to their marriage, no cohabiting.
From a biblical perspective, there are a few troublesome issues about a common-law marriage. Two of the biblical purposes of marriage are (1) to use the union to serve Christ as a new unit and (2) to represent the greater reality of the union between Christ and His church. Historically, common-law marriage came into being because there were small villages in England to which a church official or a government official was unable to travel on a regular basis. Therefore, if a couple desired to get married, they could legally do so without the presence of either a church official or government official. But still there would be the component of a public declaration of their intent to marry before cohabiting. During World War II, there were common-law marriages that took place in Japanese prison camps between prisoners by a similar public declaration of intent. But for Christians under normal circumstances a public ceremony in a church enables them to begin their union before family and friends with a testimony of their intent to use their marriage to serve Christ and with a public witness of salvation from sin that is available through Christ.
As the Bible states that Christians are to “provide things honest in the sight of all men” (2 Corinthians 8:21; Romans 12:17), it is important that their marriage do the same. Common-law marriage is held to be legal marriage in only a few states. Even then, there are strict requirements governing the recognition of such unions. In those states, as long as the law is followed, a common-law marriage is not sinful. At the same time, every Christian should desire to live above reproach so that Christ can be honored in all that he/she does (1 Corinthians 10:31). A Christian couple should carefully weigh the options, consider their public testimony, and evaluate their own motives for dispensing with a public ceremony.