Common law marriage may be defined differently in different states, but, in general, a common law marriage can be thought of as a romantic relationship legally recognized as a marriage without the need to purchase a marriage license and without being “made official” with a ceremony. Usually, to be eligible for a common law marriage, a couple must have a marriage-like lifestyle: they live together, agree that they are married, and present themselves to others as husband and wife. Also, neither one of the individuals is already married to someone else. 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.”
A common misperception is that, if you live together for a certain length of time (seven years is what many people believe), then you are common-law married. This is not true anywhere in the United States.
The Bible does not speak of common law marriage. Genesis 2:21–24 shows God’s original plan for marriage and will serve as the basis for the biblical definition of marriage: “So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman,” for she was taken out of man.’ That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become 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 “teems” with them (Genesis 1:21). But when it comes to mankind, He makes just one male and one female, and those two were to become “one flesh.” The implication of Genesis 2:24 is that this “one woman for one man for one lifetime” principle was not just for Adam and Eve but for all who would ever be born. Jesus commented on this passage when the Jewish leaders brought up the topic of divorce: “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:6–9).
In order to evaluate common law marriage, we should understand that 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 today through a public vow) to forsake all others, to keep themselves only unto their 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).
In appraising common law marriage, we should also remember that 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 vows during a wedding ceremony is the vocalized commitment that was understood between biblical couples such as Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24:67.
Some of God’s purposes for marriage 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), service of Christ, the representation of the spiritual relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22–33), and the rearing of godly descendants (Malachi 2:13–16). The bond of marriage (when respected) leads to the good of the couple and their children and society as a whole, for the family unit is the building block of any society.
While marriages throughout most of biblical history involved 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 shared ingredient between common law marriage and one involving a ceremony is a publicly expressed intent to be married. Two people living together without that expressed intent are not in a common law marriage; they are just cohabiting. Isaac and Rebekah did not just begin living together; there was a clear expression of intent that their union be of a permanent nature (see Genesis 24:51, 57). Another common ingredient of common law marriage and 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 obtained. (Again, in God’s original intent for marriage, there should be no divorce.) Another trait of the model marriages in the Bible, whether or not they involved a public ceremony, is that there was no sexual activity prior to the marriage—there was no cohabiting.
From a biblical perspective, there are a few troublesome issues about 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 or government official was unable to travel on a regular basis. Common law marriage allowed a couple to legally get married without the presence of an official. There was still the component of a public declaration of their intent to marry before cohabiting. During World War II, common law marriages took place in Japanese prison camps between prisoners expressing 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 serve Christ and a witness of their salvation in Christ.
Christians are to “aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (2 Corinthians 8:21, ESV; cf. Romans 12:17). It is important that their marriages are honorable in man’s sight. Common law marriage is held to be legal marriage in a minority of states. Even then, there are strict requirements governing the recognition of such unions. In states that allow common law marriage, 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 or 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.