Question & Answer Forum: Common-Law Marriage

Does God recognize common-law marriage? Some have used Adam and Eve, Boaz and Ruth, and Isaac and Rebekah as examples where there was no ceremony.

As the gospel moves into new areas and outreach work is blessed with new contacts and souls saved, this may well become an issue. The morality of our society is that many people live together for years and, in their minds, are husband and wife, even though never legally joined together. Workers and elders may need to address issues such as this in the future. The need to be clear on this is heightened by the fact that I have been told that some of the evangelical leaders in supposed conservative churches were telling couples they did not need to marry. That as long as there was love and a “commitment” that they were “married” in the sight of God.

I am hard pressed to know how this couple could use the example of Boaz and Ruth as he made a public declaration in the gate before the ruling government of the city (the elders) that he was taking Ruth to be his wife.

To start at the beginning:

The moral standard for believers should not be lower than that of the law. It should be above the level of the law. “Submitting to the powers that be” includes following their guidelines for marriage as well as how fast we drive. So there should be no question that the standard for marriage in most states is a license and vows exchanged before a legal representative of the government. Some will argue that in some states of the USA and other places in the world, common-law marriage is recognized. But there are other weightier considerations, as well.

Point number two is that for the sake of testimony, everyone should be clear about the relationship of two individuals. According to Scripture, moral standards are given by God and they are very high. In view of this, there should be no question that a couple should be legally joined together and not simply living according to the amoral standards of the society around. With the sole exception of Adam and Eve, every instance we have in Scripture shows a clear awareness of the marriage or intention to marry. Everyone knew that Joseph and Mary were going to be legally joined together. It was a known fact that they were engaged. I do not think you can find refuge in the illustrations of Isaac and Rebekah or anyone else. When a man took a woman to be his wife it was with public awareness of their union.

Lastly, and most importantly, marriage is to be a reflection of Christ and His Church. This is its ultimate purpose. This relationship is a covenant relationship, not a convenience or a private exchange of interest one in the other. Even saying vows to each other is not a marriage ceremony and is not legally binding in the absence of an official. The Lord Jesus publicly displayed His love in giving Himself for His bride. Notice the words of Romans 3 which stress the public nature of His death: manifested, set forth, declare; in chapter 5 we read that God commended, and in the Acts we are reminded that this thing was not done in a corner. The Lord publicly declared the covenant in the upper room: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20).

Every covenant relationship involves a public witness and ratification (if it was a covenant given by God, it involved a blood sacrifice.) But even covenants between men had witnesses; every covenant required witnesses. In Malachi, God rebukes men for divorcing the wife of their covenant. So the ultimate wrong with a couple living together and assuming they are married is that it mars the picture God intended in marriage – the relationship of Christ and His Church

These truths should be brought before any couple involved in a common-law relationship. It needs to be done in a kind manner and not a judgmental nature. Once this is brought to the attention of the couple involved, it might be questioned why they would be reluctant or refuse to actually go through a legal ceremony. Possibly they do not really want the lifelong commitment that the covenant entails and demands. Like many who live together without marriage, they recognize that there is something unique and significant about the ceremony; they don’t want the accountability and permanence.

So successful has Satan been in marring the picture God intended in marriage, that the standard of our society is now that those who should marry are simply living together, and those whom God intended never to marry are demanding the right to marry! Believers must uphold God’s standard.