Over the years, I’ve often been presented with the question, “I had sex with someone, so are we now married in God’s eyes?” Similarly, I’ve also been asked, “Aren’t marriage ceremonies and marriage certificates simply man-made ideas? Can’t two people just commit themselves before God and be married in God’s eyes?”
So according to Scripture, how do a man and woman actually become a husband and wife in the eyes of God? Here are 5 points to consider.
1. According to the Bible, Sex Does Not Constitute Marriage Because Then There Would Be No Such Thing as Fornication and Sexual Sin in Singleness
The first reason I don’t believe sex makes two people married in the eyes of God is because there is no direct statement in the Bible that communicates this message. (I’ll talk about what it means to be “one flesh” at the end of this point.) While there is certainly biblical freedom in how cultures decide to publicly perform marriage ceremonies (as we will discuss in the points ahead), it’s clear that whenever God creates a narrow way to one objective, he makes that way clear.
For example, there is one way to be saved and thus God has made that very clear in Scripture (Ephesians 2:8-10). When you read the Ten Commandments, God’s expectations are very clear. Anything that God requires of us, he will make very clear through Scripture. Thus, it would be biblically inconsistent for God to authenticate marriages through sex without making that explicitly clear in the Bible.
Of course sex is one part of marriage. Sex is only to be experienced in marriage. But the fact that there is such a thing as sexual sin in the Bible for unmarried people makes it clear that sex doesn’t make you married to someone. Otherwise, if you had sex with someone and then became husband and wife, you would no longer be sinning by having had sex since you would then be married.
If sex did make you married to someone, verses like Exodus 22:16 would make no sense, “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.” This clearly states a man can have sex with a woman and afterwards they are still unmarried. In John 4:16-19 it states:
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Apparently this woman had either been divorced multiple times or her spouses died multiple times, or some combination of both had occurred. Notice, however, that she was with a man now who was not her real husband. This seems to indicate she was living with a man and having sex but Jesus did not consider her married.
When you have sex with someone, there is a type of “oneness” being experienced. But the reason this type of oneness is sin is precisely because it’s occurring outside of marriage. In 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, Paul rebukes Christians for becoming “one” with a prostitute not because they are marrying a prostitute but because they are becoming one flesh with someone who is not their spouse – which is sexual sin.
So according to the Bible, sex does not make you married in the eyes of God.
2. According to the Bible, a Public Vow Is Needed to Be Married in God’s Eyes Because Marriage Is a Public Institution Created By God, Thus the Community Has the Right and the Need to Know When it Occurs
In our modern culture, we so easily forget the relationship roles that God has fixed into human existence. Roles like husband, wife, father, and mother are not simply social constructs created by people and practiced merely out of tradition. No, God actually made these roles to be public pillars that actually exist in human relationships. For as Genesis 2:24 states:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
In Genesis 1:27, we see that God made two genders, male and female. And then within the scope of these two genders, he’s given at least two roles to each gender that only they can fulfill. Only a man can be a husband and a father and only a woman can be a wife and a mother. These are not random titles or identities someone gets to put on and take off whenever their feelings change. These are binding roles by God; and a just society will also recognize these roles because God has instituted them and they are real.
This means that a private marriage is not a real marriage. If no one knows about this marriage except the couple, it’s not authenticated in the eyes of God. There has to be witnesses to their vow. Whether it be your church or a government official, God requires this vow to be public for it to be truly created. Again, this must be public because the roles of husband and wife are public roles held within a society, not just the individual relationship.
Becoming a husband and wife in private with no one else knowing about it would be like declaring yourself the mayor of your town. You don’t get to be the mayor just because you declare yourself to be the mayor. There is a process that needs to be followed and then the public will recognize you as the mayor. In a similar way, a husband and wife are actually taking a public position within the society when they become a husband and wife. Thus, it being a private union that only they know about would be illogical.
So, because being a husband and wife are public positions held within a society and not just personal titles held between two people with affection for each other, God requires some sort of public vow and public recognition to be performed so that the couple is publicly declaring their choice to become husband and wife and so the community has the opportunity to become aware of this newly formed public institution (i.e. this new marriage).
Biblical examples of this include Genesis 2:24 where the man and woman publicly leave their parent’s house and live together. In Song of Solomon 3:11 it states, “Go out, O daughters of Zion, and look upon King Solomon, with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, on the day of the gladness of his heart.” This is a public event. And in John 2:1-12, we see that Jesus participated in the wedding affairs at Cana, thus recognizing this process of a public ceremony as being good.
3. According to the Bible, a Marriage Must Be Formed in Public Because God Uses the Community to Keep the Marriage Accountable
While there will be a heavenly judgement on all of us for the sins we commit, there is also a societal arm for God’s justice when wrongs are committed on earth (Romans 13:1-7). Throughout Scriptures, there are laws meant to protect abuses that occur within marriage. But how could the community rightly execute justice on someone who violates the marriage vow if the community had no chance to become aware of this marriage being formed in the first place?
For example, since a husband and wife tie their finances together, it often happens that finances become a source of huge contentions when a divorce occurs. God has put governing officials in place to execute justice in matters of dispute that are irreconcilable. Without marriages being public institutions, disputes would always escalate and be won by whoever has the most power or cunning to win the dispute regardless of what is truly just or unjust.
The same is true when it comes to matters of custody of children. Perhaps one of the spouses becomes physically abusive towards the children. If there was no governing authority to execute justice, the abuse would continue.
Because humans are sinful, there will always be a need for authorities with the power to execute justice between disputing parties. The public acceptance of a marriage is a needed prerequisite for the community to execute justice between disputing spouses. When a man and woman publicly declare their union, this then allows the community to intervene if someone is abusing their marriage and not honoring the marriage vows and contract that both the husband and wife agreed to. Otherwise, there can be no justice or public accountability for the institution of marriage when crimes and sins occur.
Now, as a side note, I know there is a large community of men who have felt very wronged by the government because they feel that women get treated much better than them by the government when disputes occur in marriages and custody over children. This article is not about that subject. I’m not saying all governments always get it right in matters of justice. In fact, at times, Christians should completely break off from unjust governments if they are leading the believers into sin. In matters like this, however, the church itself is still required to hold onto the moral law and execute justice between disputing spouses. All that to say, I’m not advocating that our current justice system is actually perfectly just towards men and women.
4. According to the Bible, a Marriage Must Be Public Because God Will Judge Those Who Abuse a Couple’s Marriage Union
Not only does God use the community to keep the couple accountable, but the couple also has the right to be treated fairly as a married couple by the community. A husband and wife are supposed to be seen as one household by the community and afforded the rights marriage is meant to incur.
For example, it’s immoral for someone to know that someone else is married but to then try to seduce that person away from their spouse. In Genesis 20, Abraham wrongs the community he was in by hiding his marriage to Sarah. Abimelech then took Sarah to be his wife because he didn’t know that she was already married to Abraham. God then revealed this to Abimelech to spare him from sin (Genesis 20:3-7). God did not judge him because he didn’t know they were married. But God would then have judged him if he did not respect Abraham and Sarah’s marriage since he did now know.
The point is, the community needs to know about a marriage because they have the right to know they will be judged by God if they do not respect this marriage (Hebrews 13:4). You are actually sinning against the community if you are secretly married and not telling people because they may inadvertently disrespect your marriage.
5. According to the Bible, Christians Should Submit to the Community Guidelines to Have Their Marriage Authenticated Unless Those Guidelines Are Sinful
Now, I think this is where we need to also accept that the Bible does not give one explicit path for marriage. Throughout human history and cultures, there have been varying ways in which couples and their communities have authenticated marriages. There’s almost always a ceremony. There’s oftentimes some sort of legal documentation, like a contract meant to authenticate the vows. And then there is often some sort of public display worn by the man and woman to mark that they are married, such as wedding rings.
Again, these are not biblical requirements. But they are also not biblically forbidden. I believe the Bible leaves room for cultural expressions of spiritual laws. For example, churches don’t need to use the same instruments as they did in the Old Testament. They are free to have buildings that look like modern buildings. We don’t all need to dress like people did during the time periods the Scriptures were written. Rather, through our cultural expressions, we are to proclaim the same biblical truths as saints from other time periods because God’s word never changes. Our expressions of obedience will just look slightly different depending on the time period and culture, but the heart behind our actions and customs must always be biblical.
Thus, I believe for a marriage to take place, the couple should submit to their culture’s tradition and way of authenticating a marriage so long as it’s not sinful and does not violate their conscience. Obviously we are not to submit to governing officials if they tell us to do something sinful. But, when there is a law that is not sinful, we are to follow that law. Thus, since modern governments require a marriage license for their marriage to be recognized by the community, I believe Christians should follow this order since it is not unbiblical (Romans 13:1). The point of marriage is to publicly declare your commitment to your spouse as a representative of how Christ loves the church and how the church loves Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33). Thus, if you seek to be a light to the community you are in, it makes sense to express your belief in God through the process of marriage that your community would most clearly understand (Matthew 5:14-16).
In such a case where Christians did live in a society that was so unjust that their requirements for marriage were unbiblical or simply non-existent, these Christians would still then be responsible to submit to the authority vested by God into the local church community in which the Christian participates in as a member (Matthew 18:15-20, Hebrews 13:7, Hebrews 13:17).
*Note: If you disagree, that’s fine. This is just my best personal application of the relevant biblical principles. We all need to obey our conscience in the Lord when something is not explicitly clear in the Bible. For whatever is not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
So does sex make a man and woman married in the eyes of God? No.
Is a wedding ceremony and public vows needed for God to recognize a marriage? Yes, but the particulars of how the couple decides to publicly declare their marriage union is not legalistically outlined in the Bible. Thus, the couple should make their marriage public in the most clear and biblical way they feel led to do.
Do you need the government to authenticate your marriage with a license? No, your local church community should ultimately be the one holding you accountable and authenticating your public commitment to your spouse. However, since you are seeking to be a light to the world for the glory of God (Matthew 5:14-16) through your marriage and since you participate in a secular community that does have authority in your life to some degree as outlined in Romans 13:1-7, Christians should still seek to go through their culture’s means of getting married unless those means are sinful or go against one’s Christian conscience.
Is singleness better than marriage according to the Bible? I answer that question in this article called So God Wants You Single? (1 Corinthians 7:38 Explained).