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Importance of the Marriage License
Sam Crabtree, with help from Bethlehem’s Adult Ministries Team
Why is a marriage license important? Isn’t it just a piece of paper? Isn’t the real issue whether the couple is committed to each other? After all, Adam & Eve had no document from the state, so why can’t two people who love each other and are committed to each other consider themselves married and enjoy all the rights and privileges associated with marriage?
Further, doesn’t Paul teach that the act of sex is what forges the marriage anyway?
1 Corinthians 6:16 “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two will become one flesh.”
So if a couple loves each other, is committed to each other, and has entered a living arrangement that includes bedroom privileges, are they not already married, “one flesh” biblically speaking?
No. Sex, love, and commitment do not alone a marriage make. When Jesus asked the woman at the well to bring to him her husband, she replied that she had no husband, to which Jesus responded:
John 4:17 "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband;’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true."
Notice: the one she now has is not her husband. No matter that they are living together and he is “hers” implying sexual intimacy, and no matter how much they may love each other, and no matter what their commitment. Though sex is implied, love and commitment are not even mentioned because they do not by themselves comprise a marriage covenant.
If sex makes marriage, then there could be no such thing as fornication (premarital sex). The moment you have sex you would be married. But there is a biblical category called fornication.
We live simultaneously in the City of Man and the City of God with biblical responsibilities in both.
Romans 13:1-2 “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
It is one thing to commit civil disobedience when there is a clear conflict between obeying God and obeying man, such as when the Egyptians midwives refused to murder the Hebrew babies, or the three Hebrew boys refused to bow to the idol even when faced with the fiery furnace. But when the laws of man are not in clear conflict with the scriptures, then submission to the laws of human governors is good and disobedience is unscriptural. To obtain a wedding license is not intrinsically evil (and therefore something to be avoided by Christians as though it were evil). Failure to obtain a wedding license is not the same as Christian conscientious objection. Resistance to such authorities exposes the rebellion that lurks in all our hearts.
The wedding license of western cultures is a parallel expression of what has been present in all cultures: namely, a formalized and public way to authorizes marriages. Whether it be the payment of a dowry, the removal of a sandal at the gate of the city in the presence of the elders, a drum-accompanied formal dance around the campfire in wedding paint and feathers, or a letter of intent… cultures have long formalized public ratification of marriage.
In the Bible, betrothal was official and termination required a writing of divorcement. The formality of the termination implies that something was formally enacted that led to the arrangement the undoing of which calls for a public and official action.
Romans chapter seven gives us a clue about the legal aspects of marrying when it speaks of the woman’s legal relationship to her husband.
Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.
If she is bound by law, it is not at all inconsistent to also establish in the law a way to officially designate her as a spouse.
The state has a legitimate interest in the certification of marriages. Beyond tracking the demographics associated with marriage license applications, the state has an interest in preserving legal protection for a certain category of persons, namely spouses: selfdefined marriages based upon committed “love” would permit anyone at all to attempt to claim rights under marriage laws: a man and a woman, and man and a man, and man and his dog, and man and his computer. A man could marry his goldfish, buy a hefty life insurance policy on her, and when she dies sue the insurance company as a surviving spouse. Such things are not far-fetched, but have actually occurred.
Love and commitment do not make a marriage for they exist outside of marriage, too. That is, love and commitment (though certainly good elements of a marriage) do not by themselves comprise a marriage. A man can love and be committed to his children, yet is not married to them. Polygamists can and do claim to be loving and committed in their relationships, and yet we would not call such arrangements a Christian marriage, nor do most states recognize them as legal, for good reason. Also, Ruth was lovingly committed to Naomi saying the very words now recited in many weddings,
Ruth 1:16 “But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’”
Yet Ruth and Naomi’s love and commitment did not make them married to each other. The marriage license formalizes a certain kind of Christian and civil designation: spouse. It is our understanding that Joseph and Mary were betrothed (loving and committed) yet not married, and having separate living quarters as perhaps inferred by the separate appearances of the angels. Mary did not “know” Joseph until after Jesus was born. Their love and commitment did not make them married, but betrothed.
Marriage licenses provide protection for spouses who have legal grievances as a spouse under the law. Licenses formalize claims to inheritances, to insurance coverage, to name changes, emigration, adoption, income tax advantages, and other benefits that are left ambiguous without a license. In other words, marriage licenses initiate and solidify binding agreements beyond the couple. It is not just their own private business.
The marriage license provides a base line for the application of divorce law. Divorce applies to those who have a marriage license. Were a well-intended live-in arrangement to eventually dissolve, an “innocent” party would then have less recourse to satisfactory injunctions under the law including child custody claims.
Christ’s marriage covenant with the church is a written covenant (the Bible) registered in the court of heaven to be consummated at the judgment. A more clear, public, and written record of commitment could hardly be imagined, and Christ’s marriage is to be the substance that all others marriages are intended to reflect.
We should be careful about what conclusions we draw from the marriage of Adam and Eve. On one hand, Adam was not able to “leave father and mother” for he had no human parents, so it might look like no official governmental act is required. On the other hand, Eve was tailor-made for Adam from his very own rib by God himself.; she was spouse made directly by God for Adam in a special case where the only priest and civil judge available were God himself. When Jesus taught the fundamental principles of marriage, he went back to the account of Adam and Eve.
Forming one’s own “marriage” without the benefits of authorization by the state and solemnization by the church makes getting into marriage “easier” in a way that makes getting out of it also easier and perhaps more tempting. It has the effect of loosening the bonds of relationships that start out feeling very committed. It is concern for the expansion of the joy of the couple and the minimization of the potential for regret that marriage licenses are stipulated.
Living together without a marriage license removes a clear differentiation for onlookers. Who is self-married and living together and who is just shacking up? Appearances are not everything, but neither are they nothing. Especially Christians have a responsibility to preserve and display marriage in its solemn, joyful, covenantal aspects.
“Legion” are the testimonies of individuals who entered a self-made arrangement only to have it eventually deteriorate and dissolve. There is less accountability there. “I guess I don’t have with [name of partner] what I thought I had,” has been spoken through tragic and bitter tears increasingly often since the 1950’s. A personal and private commitment to one another lacks the accountability of formal, public, government-commended declaration that a license provides.
One way to show great value for a spouse (and for the institution of marriage) is to take extra measures at extra expense to protect the purity, reputation, and name of all concerned. There is a difference between doing what is minimal (and disputed at that) and doing what is best (and is not disputed).
Two partners who grant each other permission to disregard state-sanctioned and church-solemnized procedures such as the wedding license, unintentionally and unwittingly imply that they are giving each other permission to disregard the church and state at other points concerning the integrity of their marriage.
Couples who have no license but also have no conscientious objection to the marriage license, and do not wish to delay marriage because it would mean added expenses of separate places to live, etc. can solve that problem by pursuing a private civil or Christian marriage immediately and having a nice public ceremony and reception later.
In addition to the factors pertaining to the license per se, is the value of an unassailably clear conscience. Responses to the “presenting question” of the legitimacy of the marriage license, once embraced, become a basis for the appropriateness of making corresponding changes in personal behavior, repenting of that which is displeasing to God, asking the partner’s forgiveness, and setting a course of behavior consistent with protecting the sanctity of marriage, the legal aspects of cooperation with the state, and purity of the relationship.