The concept of a common law marriage is not directly addressed in the Bible. However, there are some principles and teachings from Scripture that can provide guidance for Christians thinking about this type of marital arrangement.
A common law marriage is generally defined as a relationship between two people who live together, hold themselves out as husband and wife, and meet certain state legal requirements. It allows a couple to receive marital rights without undergoing a legal marriage ceremony.
While the Bible does not forbid common law marriage, neither does it endorse it. The Bible places great emphasis on the sanctity of marriage and outlines principles for how it should be entered into and conducted.
Marriage is Ordained by God
The Bible makes it clear that marriage was ordained by God from the beginning. Genesis 2:24 states, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This first marriage was between Adam and Eve. Jesus later affirmed this in Matthew 19:4-6, teaching that God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman from the creation.
Throughout Scripture, marriage is seen as a covenant relationship established by God for companionship, procreation, and mutual support (Genesis 2:18, Malachi 2:14). It serves as an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). The solemnity of marriage as designed by God implies that it should be entered into with forethought, commitment, and sincerity.
Marriage Involves a Public Covenant
In the Bible, marriage usually involved some kind of public ceremony or celebration as a way to mark the initiation of the covenant. For example, there were festivities when Isaac married Rebekah (Genesis 24:60) and when Jacob married Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29:22-28). Wedding feasts or banquets were a custom throughout Scripture (Judges 14:10, John 2:1-11). A public ceremony helped give societal recognition and accountability to the marriage covenant.
The Bible also portrays marriage as involving legal, contractual agreements. The parents of the bridegroom would pay the bride-price to the parents of the bride as part of the marriage negotiations (Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:16-17). There were legal ramifications if a woman was seduced or raped (Exodus 22:16-17, Deuteronomy 22:28-29). All of this implies a formalized process for entering into marriage, beyond just living together.
Sexual Relations Are Restricted to Marriage
The Bible reserves sexual relations exclusively for marriage. Passages like Hebrews 13:4 make it clear that the marriage bed should be kept undefiled and that God will judge sexually immoral people. Sex outside of marriage is consistently condemned in Scripture (1 Corinthians 6:13-18, Galatians 5:19).
The boundaries that Scripture places around sexuality imply a commitment and accountability in marriage that goes beyond simply cohabiting. While a common law marriage seeks to confer legitimacy and rights to a cohabiting couple, the Bible would counsel sexual restraint until a lawful marriage, as defined by God, has occurred.
Marriage Roles Are Prescribed
Within marriage, the Bible assigns the husband and wife specific roles and responsibilities. The husband is called to sacrificially love his wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25-30). The wife is instructed to submit to her husband’s leadership, though the husband is to exercise it sensitively and with care (Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18-19). God also gives clear directions about marriage and divorce (Matthew 5:31-32, 1 Corinthians 7:10-16).
These defined marriage roles imply a purposeful commitment to obey God’s guidelines for marriage. While common law marriage seeks to confer rights while avoiding the duties of marriage, the Bible views marriage as a responsibility and stewardship.
Examples of Informal Marriages in Scripture
There are a few examples of informal marriage arrangements in the Bible that some point to as evidence that common law marriages have biblical precedent:
- Isaac and Rebekah – There is no wedding ceremony described, but they were considered married after Isaac brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent (Genesis 24:67).
- Ruth and Boaz – They had a private meeting at night where Ruth asked Boaz to perform his duty as kinsman-redeemer, essentially proposing marriage to him. They became married soon after (Ruth 3-4).
- Mary and Joseph – They were pledged to be married when Mary was found to be pregnant. The angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:18-25).
However, these marriages all appeared to follow proper customs and legal proceedings. Additionally, just because these scenarios were permitted in Scripture does not automatically make them normative for all time. They took place in distinctive cultural contexts and historical eras.
Principles for Modern Application
So what general principles can we take from Scripture when considering common law marriage today? Here are a few key points:
- Marriage is ordained by God and should be entered into thoughtfully and solemnly.
- Some kind of public recognition or ceremony to initiate the covenant seems most consistent with biblical precedent.
- Sexual relations should be kept within biblical marriage boundaries.
- Marriage roles and responsibilities prescribed in the Bible still apply today.
- Informal marriage arrangements may be permissible in some cases but special circumstances and cultural contexts should be considered.
- If common law marriage is recognized by the state, Christian couples should ensure they meet all legal requirements.
- Couples should seek wisdom from Scripture, prayer, godly counselors, and church leaders about their specific situation.
In summary, the Bible does not directly address common law marriage, but it does emphasize God’s design for marriage and provide governing principles. Marriage is a solemn covenant before God, and couples should enter into it thoughtfully and legally. Sexual relations should be kept within biblical marriage bounds. Cultural context is also important when considering informal arrangements. Christians should seek wisdom from Scripture, godly counsel, and the Holy Spirit for application in their specific relationship.