The Bible nowhere explicitly states at what point God considers a man and a woman to be married. Due to the Bible’s silence on this matter, identifying the precise moment a man and woman are married in God’s eyes is a complex undertaking. Here are the three most common viewpoints: 1) God only considers a man and a woman married when they are legally married—that is, when they become husband and wife in the eyes of the law. 2) A man and a woman are married in God’s eyes when they have completed some kind of formal wedding ceremony involving covenantal vows. 3) God considers a man and a woman to be married at the moment they engage in sexual intercourse. Let’s look at each of the three views and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each.
1) God only considers a man and a woman married when they are legally married. The scriptural support typically given for this view is the command to obey the government’s laws (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:17). The argument is that, if the government requires certain procedures and paperwork to be completed before a marriage is recognized, then a couple should submit themselves to that process. It is definitely biblical for a couple to submit to the government as long as the requirements do not contradict God’s Word and are reasonable. Romans 13:1–2 tells us, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
However, there are some weaknesses and potential problems with this view. First, marriage existed before any government was organized. For thousands of years, people were getting married with no such thing as a marriage license. Second, even today, there are some countries that have no governmental recognition of marriage, and/or no legal requirements for marriage. Third, there are some governments that place unbiblical requirements on a marriage before it is legally recognized. As an example, some countries require weddings to be held in a Catholic church, according to Catholic teachings, and overseen by a Catholic priest. Obviously, for those who have strong disagreements with the Catholic Church and the Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament, it would be unbiblical to submit to being married in the Catholic Church. Fourth, to make the legitimacy of the marriage union solely dependent on government statutes is to indirectly sanction the statutory definition of marriage, which may fluctuate.
2) A man and a woman are married in God’s eyes when they have completed some kind of formal wedding ceremony. Some interpreters understand God’s bringing Eve to Adam (Genesis 2:22) as God’s overseeing the first wedding “ceremony”—the modern practice of a father giving away his daughter at a wedding reflects God’s action in Eden. In John chapter 2, Jesus attended a wedding ceremony. Jesus would not have attended such an event if He did not approve of what was occurring. Jesus’ presence at a wedding ceremony by no means indicates that God requires a wedding ceremony, but it does indicate that a wedding ceremony is acceptable in God’s sight. Nearly every culture in the history of humanity has observed some kind of formal wedding ceremony. In every culture there is an event, action, covenant, vow, or proclamation that is recognized as declaring a man and woman to be married.
3) God considers a man and a woman to be married at the moment they engage in sexual intercourse. There are some who take this to mean that a married couple is not truly “married” in God’s eyes until they have consummated the marriage physically. Others argue that, if any man and woman have sex, God considers the two of them to be married. The basis for this view is the fact that sexual intercourse between a husband and wife is the ultimate fulfillment of the “one flesh” principle (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31). In this sense, sexual intercourse is the final “seal” on a marriage covenant. However, the view that intercourse constitutes marriage is not biblically sound. If a couple is legally and ceremonially married, but for some reason is unable to engage in sexual intercourse, that couple is still considered married.
We know that God does not equate sexual intercourse with marriage based on the fact that the Old Testament often distinguishes a wife from a concubine. For example, 2 Chronicles 11:21 describes one king’s family life: “Rehoboam loved Maakah daughter of Absalom more than any of his other wives and concubines. In all, he had eighteen wives and sixty concubines.” In this verse, concubines who had sexual intercourse with King Rehoboam are not considered wives and are mentioned as a separate category.
Also, 1 Corinthians 7:2 indicates that sex before marriage is immorality. If sexual intercourse causes a couple to become married, it could not be considered immoral, as the couple would be considered married the moment they engaged in sexual intercourse. There is absolutely no biblical basis for an unmarried couple to have sex and then declare themselves to be married, thereby declaring all future sexual relations to be moral and God-honoring.
Some point to Genesis 24 and the story of Isaac and Rebekah as an example of a couple being married solely by sexual intercourse, without any type of ceremony. But the details that lead up the marriage reveal that a formal process was followed. Isaac’s father, Abraham, gave his servant a list of things to do to find Isaac a wife (Genesis 24:1–10). The servant did all his master asked, plus he prayed to God for guidance and confirmation (verses 12–14). God did guide him, and He also confirmed all of the servant’s “tests” to show that the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah was indeed God-approved (verses 15–27). So convinced was the servant of God’s will that he immediately related to Rebekah’s brother, Laban, all of the details confirming God’s choice (verses 32–49). By the time dinner was served, everyone knew that this was of God, that both Isaac and Rebekah should be married (verses 50–51). Then a dowry was paid, and verbal contracts were pledged between them (verses 52–59). Thus, the marriage mentioned in verse 67 was hardly based on a mere sexual act. Cultural procedures and dowry traditions were fulfilled, conditions were met, answers to prayer were seen, and the obvious blessing by God was upon the entire scenario.
So, what constitutes marriage in God’s eyes? It would seem that the following principles should be followed: 1) As long as the requirements are reasonable and not against the Bible, a man and a woman should seek whatever formal governmental recognition is available. 2) A man and a woman should follow whatever cultural, familial, and covenantal practices are typically employed to recognize a couple as “officially married.” 3) If possible, a man and a woman should consummate the marriage sexually, fulfilling the physical aspect of the “one flesh” principle.