In this column, Beliefnet's Bible scholar answers questions from users "Tina" and "Jed." Have a scriptural question? Write to witheringtonb@staff.Beliefnet.com.

My boyfriend and I live together. I have been married before and due to all the laws man has put on marriage I do not want to be married again (legally). I believe as long as I love the person I am with and plan on spending the rest of my life with him I can be married to him in my heart. As far as I have seen in the Bible it states people take a person as their husband/wife. I think if I vow myself to God to the person I am living with and in my heart I am married to them then it's OK. ...I guess my question is why is it that everyone seems to think I have to pay money and get a piece of paper to not be "living in sin"? Thanks, Tina

I need to know where in the Bible it explains what classifies a man and a woman (who love each other and are fully committed to one another)as "married"? From what I have read in the NIV (I am not quoting it), it just takes full love and commitment to one another. What does the Lord say about what marriage is? And how to get married (biblically)? I really need an answer for this A.S.A.P. for I do not want to commit fornication! Sincerely, Jed

Marriage customs in Bible times were very different than they are now. For one thing, almost all ancient marriages were arranged marriages. They were primarily property transfers arranged by the father of the bride and the father of the groom.

The modern customs of getting married in a religious building with benefit of some sort of clergy and with a legal document from the government are just that--modern customs. There were no churches in the New Testament era, and for that matter there is no evidence that 'ordained' clergy were required to perform the ceremony. Rabbis, for example, were not ordained prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

There are, however, several important features of Bible passages about marriage that need to be stressed:

  • Genesis 2.24 makes very clear that marriage requires both leaving one's birth family and cleaving to one's spouse. In other words, there is supposed to be the beginning of a couple at some definite point in time. One of the major problems with co-habitation prior to marriage is that no covenant has been made between the couple in the presence of God and of godly witnesses. This is something that needs to happen.
  • As texts like Ephesians 5.21-33 show, marriage is not a private matter between a couple, but an act of the Body of Christ which is to be supported by the congregation and nurtured by the church. The form or locale of the ceremony is not the main issue. Making a public commitment to a marriage covenant in the presence of supporting witnesses is the issue. This is the biblical practice and it needs to be followed.
  • Reading Mark 10.6-9 carefully, we see that the central aspect of marriage is that God joins two people together in the presence of the witnesses.
    Human beings can, of course, couple themselves together, but if God has not joined them together they are not married in God's eyes. Marriage is meant to be consummated in a "one flesh" union which is not to precede the marriage.
  • With regard to Tina's question, there is also the matter of being a good witness to the church and to the world. In the eyes of many in the church and in the world, those who are not legally married are living in an immoral condition. Since we are called in texts like 1 Thessalonians 4.3-8 to be a good witness to the world in terms of sexual matters, it is important that our conduct be distinguishable from immoral conduct. In any case, avoiding legal penalties is not a good reason to avoid one's duty to God and others when it comes to holy matrimony and being a good witness.
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