“We feel like we are already married in God’s eyes.”
I’ve heard that sentence a handful of times in my short tenure as a pastor. It typically comes from the mouths of an engaged couple, already living together and subsequently engaged in the physical benefits that such an arrangement entails.
On some level it sounds right. The couple has committed to each other, albeit informally. But is sincere commitment synonymous with marriage and does it justify what would otherwise be deemed premarital sex? Is a heartfelt resolution to be faithful all that is needed to consider yourself married?
Here are four reasons why I believe such reasoning is unconvincing and ultimately unbiblical:
1. Legal Matters: Submission to Governmental Authority
This point is the weakest in some ways as laws tend to be fickle, but the Bible clearly states that all believers are to submit to their government in all things (Rom. 13:1-7). The only exception is in cases that submission to authority requires us to disobey the greater law of God (Acts 4:19-20, 5:27-29).
In any and all areas where the laws of the land do not conflict with a biblical mandate, believers are expected to obey. If the government says, “You must do A to be considered legally married,” and A does not conflict with God’s Word, we must submit.
While God’s laws are primary, this does not mean that Caesar’s are dispensable. This is only the case when the two are in explicit conflict, which is not the case in marriage.
What realities are we reflecting when we commend the glories of marriage and protect its borders while refusing to submit to them ourselves?
2. Party Portraits: The Importance of Ceremony
No one can read the Bible and conclude that ceremonies are inconsequential. They are far from it, as feasts and festivities saturate the Old Testament. The Lord consistently called His people to celebrate His goodness with ceremonies. From firstfruits to tabernacles, Yom Kippur to Passover, the Jewish calendar was cluttered with ceremony. These feasts and festivities were neither optional nor unnecessary.
Moving from the general theme of celebration to the particular celebration of marriage, we see abundant biblical evidence of ceremony and festivity. From the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) to the images of Christ’s various parables (such as Matt. 22:1-14) to the ultimate feast in glory, the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6-8), the Lord has revealed a pattern and picture of marriage, and it consistently involves a celebratory and ceremonial element.
Aside: I don’t know what, if any, ceremony Adam and Eve’s marriage involved, but we should note two points. First, the text does not rule out a ceremony taking place, and arguments from silence in either direction are weak. Second, no one else was alive at that time, so let’s not build our theology on this unique situation. If you are stranded on a desert island with the opposite gender and want to get married with no formal ceremony or license, I have no problem with that as long as you view that marriage as permanently binding even if you get rescued and then go through the proper legal and ecclesiological channels.
If ceremonies are inconsequential, then what are we to make of the fact that God seems to love and prescribe them?
3. Signs and Symbols: The Nature of a Covenant
“I’m committed to God in my heart, so I don’t need to be baptized.”
Something is deeply and obviously wrong with this statement. It miscommunicates the nature of commitment, the meaning of baptism and the ways in which God intends for His people to demonstrate their fidelity.
Marriage is more than just a commitment. It involves a covenant, and covenants are always accompanied by signs and ceremonies. Rainbows, circumcision, the law, baptism and communion were all signs given by God for His people at distinct times to represent the realities of His covenants.
In the time of the patriarch, men would put their hands under the thigh of another to affirm a commitment (Gen. 24:9). In the time of the judges, a man would remove his sandal and give it to another as a sign of an oath (Ruth 4:7). Each time and place has distinct means of signifying agreements, and it would be a mistake to label these customs “inconsequential” or “dispensable.”
Unfortunately, as our culture has grown more and more accustomed to casualness and apprehensive of formality, we have lost sight of the richness of pomp and circumstance. Formality for the sake of formality is dead and empty religion, but custom and ceremony to communicate transcendent beauty is a good and right thing. And what relationship represents greater realities than marriage?
Though the distinct signs of marriage change from culture to culture and age to age, each time and place has some picture, some symbol or custom, to represent the realities of the marriage relationship and some ceremony by which that relationship is recognized. In some cultures, this portrait involves elaborate ornamentation; in others it is simpler. Some give rings; others give cows. Some are more serious and somber, while others are less so. While some customs and ceremonies better communicate gospel realities than others, the important element to note is that there is always at least some symbol. I am not arguing for the validity of one particular custom over the other but, rather, the importance of covenantal custom and ceremony itself.
All covenants are marked by signs. One may not partake of communion before entering the baptismal waters. Likewise, one who has not entered into marriage through the appropriate means cannot rightly enjoy the blessings and gifts attached to the relationship.
4. Mary and Joseph: A Pattern for Reflection
Last, let us consider Mary and Joseph. They were betrothed to be married. Jewish betrothal was somewhat like modern engagement but much more legally binding. Mary and Joseph were legally, spiritually and emotionally committed to each other. They even traveled to be registered for the census together (Luke 2:1-5). Their bond was so strong that it would have been considered “divorce” to break it (Matt. 1:19).
But they were not sexually active (Matt. 1:18, 25; Luke 1:34). Here was a righteous couple legally pledged and formally bound to be married. They were registering and traveling together for a census. Yet they were clearly refraining from sexual activity. Why? Because although in some sense they were married (we might even say “in God’s eyes” since separation at this point would be considered divorce), in another sense they were not. Since they were not yet fundamentally married, they were not fully engaging in all the benefits of a marital relationship.
If ceremonies are mere formalities, what are we to make of Mary and Joseph? While biblical descriptions of narrative are not universally and absolutely prescriptive, there is always some element in the storyline that is implicitly commended or condoned. The author of Matthew explicitly commends Joseph in his actions as “just” (Matt. 1:19), and such righteousness was demonstrated in his love and concern toward his beloved.
Marriage is a glorious and good gift given for God’s glory and man’s joy. It is far more than a ceremony, but that doesn’t mean that the ceremony is dispensable. Instead, the ceremony and accompanying signs are actually part of the way we portray the glory and beauty of marriage, not only for itself, but as a portrait of the greater reality of the gospel.
If you are not yet married in the eyes of your church, family or state, then do you really think that you are married in the eyes of God?
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Hebrews 13:4
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