by Josh Bryant
Many a pastor has heard the phrase "we're married in God's eyes" as a justification for cohabitation outside of marriage - at least cohabitation prior to a wedding ceremony. The argument is that Scripture does not describe a wedding ceremony and thus it is not required. All that Scripture requires is a commitment to be married. Although it is claimed that this line of reasoning is based on Scripture, it ignores an overarching theme of the New Testament.
Marriage in the New Testament is clearly utilized to depict Christ's relationship with the church. Jesus described the Kingdom of God in the parable of the wedding feast (Mt. 22:1-14). In that parable, the King throws a wedding banquet for His Son. He sent servants to summon those who were invited, but the did not come. In fact, the invitees mistreated and killed the servants. The King instructed the servants to go into the world and invite everyone to the feast, and the banquet was filled with guests. Paul expands on the parable in a much more practical sense in demonstrating how marriage reflects Christ's relationship with the church (Eph. 5:22-33). John described the celebration after the defeat of Babylon as a vast multitude saying "Hallelujah, because our Lord God, the Almighty, reigns! Let us be glad, rejoice, and give him glory, because the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has prepared herself... Blessed are those invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb!" (Rev. 19:6b-7, 9b).
Clearly there is soteriological and eschatological significance in marriage. Couples often are forced to invite people they barely know and rarely see to their wedding. Likewise, we are commanded to go and make disciples of all nations, to invite everyone we meet to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Inasmuch as there is no salvation without a public confession of Christ as Lord (cf. Rom. 10:8-10 "If you confess with your mouth...you will be saved...one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation."), there is no marriage without a public confession of one man's and one woman's confession of their commitment to lifelong fidelity.
Additionally, the church is the original arbiter of biblical marriage. Government involvement in marriage is a relatively new creation. In 1215, the church created the "banns of marriage" which required a public proclamation of the marriage from the pulpit. It wasn't until the 14th century that the church conscripted governments to help enforce the banns of marriage by requiring governmental permission to get married - a marriage license.
Now in the 21st century, government's role in marriage and marriage-like relationships is starting to deteriorate. Most scholars agree that Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), has ended the notion that cohabitation outside of marriage is a crime. Common law marriage and "palimony" still enter into the picture when a relationship ends that does not involve a wedding ceremony. Marvin v. Marvin, 18 C.3d 660 (1976). All that remains is the different tax treatment of lawfully married couples. Some legislatures have even taken up legislation that would remove the government from the process all together after Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), which legalized same-sex marriage across the country. As such, the church is likely to be the sole arbiter of marriage; legally the institution seems to be losing favor.
All that to say, marriage without ceremony is no marriage - at least not in the biblical use of the word. Pastors should not shy away from arguments that a couple is married in the eyes of God. Without the church, that is not biblically the case.
I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I am a candidate for a Ph.D. in ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a JD from the University of Arkansas, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.