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What Is the Biblical Definition of Marriage?

What Constitutes Marriage According to the Bible


Biblical Marriage
Eric Larrayadieu / Getty Images

I often receive questions about the biblical definition of marriage:

  • "Is a marriage ceremony required?"
  • "Do I have to be legally married to be married in the eyes of God?"
  • "Isn't a marriage ceremony just a man-made tradition?"
The Bible does not give specific details or directions about a marriage ceremony, yet it does mention weddings in several places. Jesus attended a wedding in John 2. Wedding ceremonies were a well-established tradition in Jewish history and in Bible times. Scripture is clear about marriage being a holy and divinely established covenant. It is equally clear about our obligation to honor and obey the laws of our earthly governments, which are also divinely established authorities. But, before we go any further, let's stop and examine the issue.

3 Positions

There are three commonly held beliefs about what constitutes a marriage in the eyes of God:
  1. The couple is married in the eyes of God when the physical union is consummated through sexual intercourse.
  2. The couple is married in the eyes of God when the couple is legally married.
  3. The couple is married in the eyes of God after they have participated in a formal religious wedding ceremony.
Let's break this down and see what the Bible says about the marriage covenant.

In Malachi 2:14 we see that marriage is a holy covenant before God. In the Jewish custom, God's people signed a written agreement at the time of the marriage to seal the covenant. The marriage ceremony, therefore, is meant to be a public demonstration of a couple's commitment to a covenant relationship. It's not the "ceremony" that's important in a marriage, it's the couple's covenant commitment before God and men.

It's interesting to carefully consider the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony and the "Ketubah" or marriage contract, which is read in the original Aramaic language. The husband accepts certain marital responsibilities, such as the provision of food, shelter and clothing for his wife, and promises to care for her emotional needs as well. This contract is so important that the marriage ceremony is not complete until it is signed by the groom and presented to the bride. This demonstrates that both husband and wife see marriage as more than just a physical and emotional union, but also as a moral and legal commitment. The Ketubah is also signed by two witnesses, and considered a legally binding agreement. It is forbidden for Jewish couples to live together without this document. For Jews, the marriage covenant symbolically represents the covenant between God and his people, Israel.

For Christians, marriage goes beyond the earthly covenant also, as a divine picture of the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the Church. It is a spiritual representation of our relationship with God. To learn more about the biblical purpose of marriage, you may read What Does the Bible Say About Marriage?

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, he revealed something very important, something we often miss in this passage. In verses 17-18, Jesus said to the woman, "You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly." The woman had been hiding the fact that the man she was living with was not her husband. According to the New Bible Commentary notes on this passage of Scripture, Common Law Marriage had no religious support in the Jewish faith. Living with a person in sexual union did not constitute a "husband and wife" relationship. Jesus made that plain here.

Therefore, position number 1 (the couple is married in the eyes of God when the physical union is consummated through sexual intercourse) does not have a foundation in Scripture.

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