Biblically, what constitutes a marriage?

A woman got a call from her new accountant. "I don't know how to file your taxes because you aren't married."

"What? We are married. We got married twenty-two years ago in California."

"Apparently the officiant never filed the proper paperwork. You were never legally married."

She'd been with him for over twenty years and had three sons. Were they married?

Slaves in the American south were often married in a short ceremony officiated by the owner and culminating in jumping over a broom. If the master(s) didn't approve of the marriage, some slaves would meet secretly at night and promise to be faithful to each other while standing under the stars. Were such couples biblically joined?

Groin injuries are common during war. If a soldier comes home impotent and marries his sweetheart, is he really married?

In Colorado, a couple can fill out a marriage license, turn it in, and be legally married. The state does not require a marriage to be solemnized by a third party. But can you be married with no ceremony or witnesses?

What constitutes marriage? Government validation? A ceremony? Sex?

We know that the simple act of having sex does not constitute a marriage. Jesus was very specific when speaking to the Samaritan woman in John 4: "…For you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband" (verse 18). In addition, Exodus 22:16-17 clearly distinguishes between sex and marriage. If sex was equal to marriage, there would be no fornication to speak of in the New Testament. The first time someone had sex, it would be marriage; sex with every subsequent partner would constitute adultery or polygamy.

Government validation is usually necessary for certain benefits, but the Bible does not say official recognition constitutes marriage. In much of the early history of mankind, there was no centralized government to oversee marriages. Even today, some governments have no authority over marriages, and others add requirements which are contrary to the Bible.

Although Jesus attended the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) and Jacob had a ceremony when he married Leah (Genesis 29:21-25), the Bible does not say that a social function constitutes marriage. In some cases, as with slaves and during times of war, it may not even be possible. Although weddings should be times of joy and celebration, God does not require that joy to be public.

There are many things that the Bible does not specifically, precisely describe, but can be determined by considering the intent and spirit of God's commands, as well as His character. This means that the Christian should take culture into consideration. For instance, we are not to dress as the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5), but cultures have different clothing norms—dresses are universal for women in some ages, while jeans are appropriate in others; men may wear kilts, but it is inappropriate for them to wear a woman's skirt. The point is that no one in a particular place and time should be confused about a believer's gender.

Similarly, there should be little ambiguity as to whether a couple is married. The initiation of marriage should follow societal norms as much as possible. If government validation is required, it should be sought. If a ceremony and witnesses of some sort are expected, they should be provided. Then again, if the situation is such that a ceremony is forbidden or sex impossible, they are not scripturally required as long as it is clear that the couple is married. The only strict biblical requirement for marriage is that the couple should leave their parents and cleave to each other. Other cultural norms that do not go against any specific biblical instructions should be followed as closely as possible.

Related Truth:

What does the Bible teach about marriage?

In marriage how do the two become one flesh?

When is the right time for marriage?

Why did God allow polygamy in the Bible?

Does the Bible say anything about interracial marriage?

Return to:
Truth about Marriage

Subscribe to the Newsletter:

Preferred Bible Version: is part of Got Questions Ministries

For answers to your Bible questions, please visit