What about common-law marriage?

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Is a religious service or legal certificate necessary for a couple to be truly married in God’s sight? What about common-law marriage?

Marriage is not the invention of men, nor is it under the authority of human governments. The Bible lays down the essential elements of marriage, declaring it an institution of God from the start. True marriage is mutual and heterosexual, monogamous and permanent, according to Scripture (Genesis 2:18-25; Matthew 19:1-9).

Common-law marriage is a legal status recognized by about a dozen of the fifty United States. It affirms that a man and woman who live together for a specified time (usually seven years) are considered legally married even if they never obtained a license to marry or were never married by a minister or other qualified official. This may serve a useful purpose for some couples’ standing before the state, but it is not approved in Scripture. Nor do we find in the Bible a clear and simple answer to the question of what constitutes a marriage.

Some say that when two persons, male and female, engage in sexual intercourse, they are considered married in God’s sight. This simplistic view does not harmonize with many Bible texts (1 Corinthians 7:1-5, for example) and is hopelessly inadequate to cover all cases.

A more helpful answer — and a more nearly biblical one — is this: Any mature man and woman who mutually decide to be married according to His plan, and who publicly (in the presence of witnesses) express their commitment to such a marriage, may then be considered married in God’s sight. This is the standard doorway to marriage, one that has long been upheld by the laws of nation-states founded mainly on Judeo-Christian ethics.

The provision for common-law marriage recognizes an exception to the prevailing laws referenced in the previous paragraph. Common-law marriage should be seen for what it is: a back door to legal marriage for those who bypassed the common door to holy matrimony as it has been widely affirmed by Christian practice.

Christians should resist the trend of the world and hold high the gold standard of marriage as God taught in the beginning and as Jesus Christ and His apostles confirmed and clarified in the New Testament writings.

If doubts remain about the importance of being rightly married before God and others, recall the biblical counsel to obey the laws of the land, that whatever is not of faith is sin, and that to those who know what’s right and do it not, to them it is sin (Romans 13:1, 2; 14:23; James 4:17).

— Elder Calvin Burrell

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    Calvin Burrell
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    Calvin Burrell is former editor of the Bible Advocate and former director of G. C. Missions. He retired in 2015 and lives with his wife, Barb, in Stayton, OR. They attend church in Marion, OR.