What is a Christian definition of when marriage begins?

Marriage cover photo

Courtesy Salt Shakers (Christian ministry)

By Spencer D Gear

 A person wrote to me with a pertinent and relevant question about the nature of Christian marriage:

If my significant other and I treat our relationship as a marriage (following the guidelines found in the Bible for a marriage) are we not “married” in God’s eyes? I just fail to see where the Bible says you MUST get a marriage license or have a ceremony in order to be “married” in God’s eyes.

This article by Mary Fairchild, ‘What is the biblical definition of marriage?‘ provides a brief overview of a biblical approach to marriage. See also, ‘What constitutes marriage according to the Bible?‘ I consider that the ‘covenant of marriage‘ is the biblical way of explaining the foundation of marriage.

So what are the elements in a New Testament understanding of the requirements for Christian marriage? L I Granberg provides this definition:

When is a couple married? Of what does marriage ultimately consist? Some, arguing from I Cor. 6:16, maintain that marriage is effected through sexual intercourse. A person is considered in the eyes of God to be married to that member of the opposite sex with whom he or she first had sex relations. The sex act is viewed as the agent through which God effects marriage in a manner apparently analogous to the way in which adherents of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration see him make the sacrament of baptism the agent in effecting regeneration.

Others consider marriage to be brought about as the result of a declaration of desire to be married, accompanied by the expression of mutual intentions of sole and enduring fidelity and responsibility toward the other, preferably undergirded by self-giving love, in the presence of accredited witnesses. This view does not undercut the validity of marriages in which the couple cannot bring about physical consummation. It underscores the fact that marriage never has been regarded as solely the concern of the individual couple. This may be seen, for example, in the prevalence of community laws forbidding incest and regulating the degree of consanguinity permissible for marriage. Since the home is the proper medium for the procreation and nurturing of children, church and community have an important stake in the stability and success of the marriages taking place among their constituents.

Marriage relegates other human ties to a secondary role.  Spiritual and emotional satisfactions formerly drawn from the parental relationship the marriage partners are now to find in one another.  To sunder one’s parental relationships and join oneself in intimate, lifelong union with a person who hitherto has been a stranger demands a considerable degree of maturity – as expressed in a capacity for self-giving love, emotional stability, and the capacity to understand what is involved in committing one’s life to another in marriage.  Marriage is for those who have grown up.  This appears to exclude children, the mentally impaired, and those who are psychotic or psychopathic at the time of entering into marriage (Granberg 1984:694).

Granberg provides these dimensions of understanding ‘marriage and the NT’:

The chief contributions of the NT to the biblical view of marriage were to underscore the original principles of the indissolubility of marriage and the equal dignity of women (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 7:4; 11:11-12).  By raising women to a position of equal personal dignity with men, marriage was made truly, “one flesh,” for the unity implied in this expression necessarily presupposes that each person be given opportunity to develop his or her full potentialities.  This is not possible in a social system in which either men or women are not accorded full human dignity.

Does not this raise difficulties with the biblical doctrine of subordination of married women (Eph. 5:22-23)?  Not at all, for this doctrine refers to a hierarchy of function, not of dignity or value.  There is no inferiority of person implicit in the doctrine.  God has designated a hierarchy of responsibility, hence authority, within the family, and He has done so according to the order of creation. But woman’s dignity is preserved not only in the fact that she has equal standing in Christ, but also in that the command to submit to her husband’s headship is addressed to her. She is told to do this willingly as an act of spiritual devotion (Eph. 5:22) and not in response to external coercion. She is to do this because God rests primary responsibility upon her husband for the welfare of the marriage relationship and for the family as a whole. He, in fact, qualifies for leadership in the church in part through the skill he demonstrates in “pastoring” his family (1 Tim. 3:4-5) [Granberg 1984:694-695].

We do know that Jesus attended a wedding (was it a ceremony or feast?) in Cana in Galilee (John 2:1-11). So wedding ceremonies were part of Jewish culture in Jesus’ day.


Granberg, L I 1984. Marriage, Theology of. In  W A Elwell (ed), Evangelical dictionary of theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 693-695.


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.

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