Unlicensed Marriages and the Church

Is it possible for a Christian to contract a marriage without a marriage licence, the reading of banns, or other officially recognised forms of wedding?

Couples refuse to marry in the manner preferred by the state for a number of reasons. Sometimes they have principled objections to the interference of state and church in their lives. Sometimes they want to avoid the excesses and expense of the modern marriage rite. Sometimes they are not allowed to marry by the state, whether this be due to Nazi limitations on inter-racial marriage, or due to excessive legislation preventing marriage within certain degrees of consanguinity (as where the law prevents marriage of a former sister-in-law when the Old Testament required it). Sometimes it is done because otherwise the state would intervene on the basis of bigamy or polygamy. But the fact remains that it is done. It is done for these reasons and is morally different from casual and temporary unions based on cohabitation. Informal marriage is often done from a basis of good reasons, and is not a cover for fornication. The question however, is whether the Church, by which is meant the people of God, should view it as at all possible.

Those who deny the moral possibility of informal marriages do so on the grounds that a marriage must be recognised by the state or, at a push, by society, for it to be legitimate. However there are a number of reasons for believing this to be untrue.

  • Firstly there is the fact that Adam and Eve married, and their sons after them, when there was nothing recognisable as a state or society to validate the marriage.
  • Secondly, if it is said that the family was then the state for early man, and along with Aristotle that the power of the state flows from the family, then it must be recognised that marriage precedes the state, and therefore cannot be defined by it.
  • Thirdly, the Church is ill-disposed to recognise the validity of many modern divorces, yet these are decreed by the state. If the state ceases to recognise a marriage, what is it that the Church recognises after divorce, if it is not a marriage whose validity does not depend on the state?
  • Fourthly, the marriage ceremonies performed throughout many religions regard marriages as performed during a service, often when a man and woman express their consent at taking the other to be their spouse. Often a minister will pronounce a couple man and wife before any legal documents have been signed. Occasionally the service is done after the legal process has been completed. However, the common thread is that the times when Christians view the marriage as having happened are different from when the state views the marriage as having happened. Therefore, the validity of the marriage in the eyes of the Christian does not rest in its state-recognition.
  • Fifthly, the making of marriage has stretched from Adam to at least the 18th century, over 5,500 years without marriage licences being required. It would be odd indeed if we recognise a marriage for a couple married in the 17th Century and yet refuse recognition to a couple who perform exactly the same acts, with the same intent, but 300 years later.
  • Sixthly, it is admitted by Christians that the lack of a birth certificate cannot invalidate a birth, and the lack of a death certificate cannot invalidate a death. Why then the requirement of a marriage certificate to validate a marriage?
  • Finally, the laws of nations differ widely on this issue. An act of marriage recognised in Pakistan may not be recognised in Israel. A marriage contracted in Yemen may be unrecognised in Britain. Indeed, even within a country, a change of law can change what was ignored into what was officially accepted. However, if marriage creates moral obligations and rules, it cannot depend on where in the world one happens to be at the time, or on the caprice of legislators, for moral obligations define the limits of sin. The Church cannot countenance behaviour in one place and condemn the same behaviour as a gross sexual sin in another. The Church cannot condemn sexual relationships one day and then praise them the next, simply because a parliament of the ungodly has changed its mind. Put simply, marriage has never belonged to Caesar, but to God. So, when states such as Hawaii, Denmark or France recognise “gay marriage” – they make a mistake. They may call it “marriage” but God soes not and calls it sin. If the church refuses to recognise the legal definition of marriage for same-sex couples, how can they possibly insist on the legal definition when a man wants more than one wife? You can’t have it both ways – either you accept gay marriage or you allow people to marry without requiring them to register with the state.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the covenant of marriage may happen at the same or a different time as a state-contracted marriage, but they are not the same thing. The state makes and breaks the contracts of man. It is a convenient, and not necessarily bad, form of contract, but a marriage as meant by the Bible exists regardless of the state, and may not exist even if the state pretends it does. That is why the Church can see certain second marriages as producing adultery, even when the state believes them to be valid. In short, the people of God have never equated marriage before God with marriage according to the state. In practice they still don’t, and therefore there is no authority for believing that state-recognition is a necessary part of marriage today.

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