WHAT CONSTITUTES MARRIAGE?
T. PIERCE BROWN
Does a wedding ceremony make two persons married? Does being married mean the same as “becoming one flesh?” Does sexual intercourse make two persons married? Does it take both a ceremony of some sort and sexual union to make two persons married? Does God recognize the validity of a wedding ceremony, or is it merely a man-made convention for the use and convenience of man? The thrust of this articles is to set forth the Bible teaching on the subject, insofar as the Bible teaches anything, and if the Bible does not specifically deal with the subject, to set forth what we think may be logically inferred from what the Bible does teach.
We hear of a marriage being “consummated,” by which it is meant that the marriage relationship has been brought to a logical or psycho-physiological conclusion by sexual union. It is assumed by many that a man and woman are not married until the marriage has been “consummated.” Then it is assumed that it must therefore be the sexual act that makes them really married. Then it is assumed that, if there was no sexual union, they were never really married, so a divorce is scriptural on other grounds than that stated by the Lord in Matthew 19:9. We shall try to give our conclusions as to what constitutes marriage, how we came to that conclusion, as well as what we think are proper answers to some of the problems stated and implied above.
First, a marriage must be a result of a clearly defined commitment to be married on the part of both parties. Neither a desire for, nor a commitment to a short range or long range sexual relationship constitutes marriage. The fact that the government may declare (and may even have the right to declare) the existence of certain financial and other obligations upon those who decide to live together does not mean the two are married. The government might determine that a certain business partnership might demand those same financial or moral obligations, but it does not mean a man is married to his partner!
It should also be clear to a student of the Bible that neither a prostitute nor a concubine was the same as a wife. Lamech took two wives. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. So a clearly defined purpose to commit one’s self to a husband-wife relationship has always been pre-requisite to marriage. Not only is this conclusion Biblical, it is also logical. If sexual activity alone constituted marriage, there would be no way an unmarried couple could commit fornication. One or both of two things would be true. Either by the time they had finished the act they would be married, or one can enter into a sacred relationship by a sinful act. Neither appears either logical or scriptural. This is not to deny that sexual relationships ALWAYS entail obligations and responsibilities, but it does not mean that sexual relationships always make persons married.
Second, this definite commitment must be on the part of both. If a man takes a gun and forces a woman to sign a marriage license, or to have a sexual relationship with him, she is neither married, nor guilty of fornication.
Third, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:11-12 and Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 7:1-4 seem to indicate that the nature and purpose of the marriage relationship would necessitate both parties being able to function properly in that union. We would ASSUME from this that if a person unwittingly married a eunuch or any person who by nature or choice could not or would not “render due benevolence” (as Paul puts it), that person could both legally and scripturally sever that union, as it would not constitute a valid marriage. It seems a useless striving about words to use such expressions as “are they really married?” for if it is true that what is involved is not a valid marriage, then any law that God has for such a marriage or a discontinuance therefrom would not apply. The only thing necessary would be to take such legal steps as to indicate that the marriage was no longer binding.
Fourth, a valid marriage for a Christian is one in which both parties are legally and scripturally free to marry. One could raise so many questions about that point that we could not answer them all in any one issue of any publication. However, I am forced to that conclusion.
Let us try to summarize and answer some of the questions that were raised at the beginning of this article. First, a mere wedding ceremony does not make anyone married any more than mere baptism saves anyone. Two children, age three, could go through some type of wedding ceremony, but would not thereby be married. But a person is married at, by, and through the wedding ceremony, provided the other prerequisites mentioned are present. They are married before sexual relations take place. In fact, sexual relations can not properly take place unless and until they are married! Therefore, sexual activity is not what makes them married. However, my judgment is that if a deliberate intent to withhold sexual activity was involved on the part of either, then the marriage vows were fraudulent and the marriage is invalid and may be annulled or canceled legally without breaking God’s law as a result of such.
Second, does being married mean the same as “become one flesh”? No, it is the couple who is married who is to become one flesh. As John 1:11-12 shows that the one who believes on Jesus has the power to become a son of God, but are not a son of God automatically at that point, so a man who cleaves unto his wife and they shall become one flesh indicates that becoming his wife is one thing, and becoming one flesh is the subsequent thing. “Become one flesh” is a phrase that indicates the intimate and close relationship in the sexual union. Although it is the kind of intimacy which is proper only in the marriage relationship, it does not make them married (Cf. 1 Corinthians6:16). Although we may say that normally a person has not fulfilled the marriage responsibilities until the marriage has been consummated, they are, nevertheless, married before that time.
Although a specific kind of wedding ceremony is not ordained of God, any more than a specific kind of government is ordained of God, both are recognized of God as valid and proper and necessary in order for the proper functioning of society. So, whatever ceremony is recognized as proper for the society in which one operates, if it does not of itself contradict a law of God, is approved of God, and a prerequisite to a valid marriage.
The serious nature of sexual activity outside marriage has been shown from the very earliest of God’s laws in Exodus 22:16 and Deut. 22:28-29. In both cases, when a man was found who had enticed a virgin, he was required to take her for his wife (similar to what is known in Tennessee as a “shotgun wedding”) unless her father refused to give her to him, in which case he had to pay the dowry anyway. This shows that she did not automatically become his wife by the sexual act, but he was to take her to be his wife, because he had thus humbled her. And in this case, if he did marry the one with whom he had committed fornication, he was not allowed to put her away.