To elope is to run away secretly; in the context of marriage, elopement results in a wedding, usually performed without parental consent. Eloping is not the same as having a private wedding. Elopement usually, but not always, implies something of the forbidden as the reason for secrecy. In recent years, the term elope has evolved to mean “to plan a small destination wedding or one in which the guest list is strictly limited.” However, for the purposes of this article, we will define elopement as “the act of running away to get married secretly,” and we will consider whether the Bible has anything to say about it.
Customs have changed over the centuries and still differ from culture to culture. In man’s earliest history, a bride and groom simply chose one another and began a new household (Genesis 2:22). But, as people increased upon the earth, this formation of a new family was cause for celebration. The first hint in Scripture of a marriage custom is when Abraham sent his servant back to his home country to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:3–4). The servant asked the Lord to direct him to the right girl, and he found Rebekah (Genesis 24:5–51). Her family allowed her to make the decision, and she agreed to return with the servant and become Isaac’s wife (Genesis 24:57–58). Nothing is said of a wedding. She merely followed a stranger to a faraway land and became the wife of a man she had never met.
Another glimpse of marriage customs is when Jacob ran away from his angry brother, Esau (Genesis 27:41), to his mother’s people. Arriving at his uncle Laban’s, Jacob instantly fell in love with his cousin Rachel (Genesis 29:18). Laban required Jacob to work for seven years as the bride price for Rachel (Genesis 29:20). Jacob agreed to this—he did not elope with Rachel—but, when the wedding day came, Laban switched brides and gave his elder daughter, Leah, to Jacob instead, saying, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one.” So wedding customs were already in place at that time, meaning elopement was not the norm.
God created marriage. In the Garden of Eden, He brought Eve to Adam and joined them together as husband and wife in the first wedding (Genesis 2:21–24). Marriage has always been of extreme importance to God and is thus worthy of celebration. One reason He hates divorce is that the Lord Himself is a witness to every marriage (Malachi 2:14). In Jesus’ day, weddings were huge celebrations, often lasting for more than a week with feasting and dancing. The idea of elopement would have been foreign to such a culture.
Elopement implies a measure of disapproval on the part of the families. The usual reasons for eloping are to avoid embarrassment if the bride is already pregnant, to bypass parental disapproval, or simply to avoid all the hoopla surrounding most wedding ceremonies. However, many couples who have eloped later regret the lack of photographs and memories. They often feel they robbed their friends and families of the privilege of participating in their joyful day. Because elopement usually excludes parental involvement, it seems to violate the Bible’s repeated commands to honor father and mother (Ephesians 6:2; Exodus 20:12).
There may be situations in which a Christian couple wishes to marry, but, because their parents are part of a false religion or the parents desire to wed their child to someone else, the couple may see elopement as their only alternative. But decisions like that should only be made when all other attempts to reason and appeal to the parents have been exhausted.
Because of the emphasis on wedding celebrations throughout the Bible, elopement does not appear to be God’s choice for couples who marry. The church is compared to a bride, and Jesus is the Bridegroom (Mark 2:19–20; 2 Corinthians 11:2). Every mention of this future union is described as joyful, beautiful, and public, not secretive. All mentions of weddings throughout biblical history involved great celebration and honor for the families who were uniting. Although elopement is not sin in itself, a couple should give careful thought to the reasons they are considering eloping. If the motivation includes elements of rebellion, defiance, or shame, the elopement could make things worse. Marriage is too important to begin it that way. It deserves the honor of a celebration.