Vol. 1 - No. 3 

March, 1982

Marriage (Compliance With Social Customs and Law Does It Matter?)

by Dennis C. Abernathy

Today we are hearing some new and strange sounds from Christians and I might add, gospel preachers concerning the subject of marriage. In this article we will not deal with every aspect of marriage, but with the compliance with social custom and law. Just what constitutes marriage, or simply stated, when are two people married, or at what point do they become married? It appears that many are confused and this confusion has led to problems in the area of marriage. With some, I must admit, it would be hard to define premarital sex or fornication in view of positions they take and hold . The idea of some is that the legal ceremony in keeping with social custom has nothing to do with marriage as it occurs “in the eyes of God.” They say that really all that is involved is a commitment between a man and a woman which is made binding by the sexual act., and hence, they are married “in the eyes of God.” They may, after engaging in sexual relations, say they are married “in their own hearts,” and this before they really ever comply with any social custom or legal ceremony. Hence, they are saying that as far as God is concerned, the compliance with social custom and law does not matter.

Can we determine what constitutes marriage? If two people can be "married in their own hearts” and engage in a sexual relationship before they ever have any kind of marriage ceremony, and still be biblically married, and yet another couple can go through the normal legal customs and ceremonies and also be biblically married, and yet another couple who just live together on a trial basis can be biblically married, it appears to this writer that we are living in a time when each person can do what is right in his own eyes.

God ordained marriage in the beginning. (Genesis 2:18‑25) He knew that it was not good that man should be alone, hence, the need for a help meet. That need has not changed and neither has the need for marriage. Man's sexual conduct is governed by God's laws of marriage and will continue to be. (Hebrews 13:4) It is sinful for people to engage in sex relations outside and before the marriage bond. This brings us back to our original point: “When does the marriage bond come to be?” One couple says it is when they agree in their hearts to be married and engage in sexual relations, but, another says it is when they meet societies expectations through the marriage ceremony (whatever form it may take). Now, which is right? Or can both be right?

Let us state a truth that Christians can agree upon. Marriage from the beginning was intended to be an arrangement of one man for one woman. (Genesis 1:24) It was through this relationship that children were reared. Each man was to have his own wife and she was forbidden to all other men. (Exodus 29:14) Next we notice (and there is general agreement on this point) that the couple who wished to be considered as being married had to conform to the existing laws and customs of society insofar as they did not conflict with God's law.

I know this is right for several reasons. First of all, the Bible condemns fornication and adultery. But how can one define fornication and adultery without first establishing what marriage is? Does the Bible set down explicitly what marriage is? Is there a universal custom with a ceremony to be said that is outlined in the Bible? Does the Bible have a section on marriage which outlines explicitly step by step; i.e., “this is what marriage is: this step, that step; with all the parts and steps outlined?” Hence, we go to the rules of society in which one lives. When a couple who have the right to marry; (i.e., they are marrying for the first time or their previous mate died, or they are innocent parties, having put away their first mate for fornication), when this couple conforms to the existing rules and laws, then they are married. This idea that a couple can just make a commitment and live together and be married “in their own heart before the eyes of God” is wrong and leads to all kinds of confusion.

Someone says: “What about a society that has no customs or laws governing marriage?” I ask, where is it? I am not aware of one. Throughout the Bible, there were various customs that were used in marriage. But the point is this: these customs were complied with (however varied they may have been) so that their marriages might be deemed proper by their contemporaries. It is certainly clear that the point at which marriage commenced was not left up to the whims of each couple so they may consider themselves married “in their own hearts,” but were not considered married in the eyes of their society.

Rather than specifying the procedure which was required, the Lord allowed each society to set its own customs for entrance into marriage. But this did not mean that a person could ignore the laws and rules of society, because if he did, he would be considered living in an immoral union. We know that every society will have those who will ignore and abuse laws and customs, but they are for the good of man nonetheless.

We know that marriage does not consist of the legal or ceremonial aspect only (but certainly recognize the joining together by God), but the point we are trying to make is that marriage has to include a compliance with existing laws and customs of the society which is involved. These customs may, and do, differ just as they did in the New Testament world, but two people wishing to avoid God's condemnation for the sin of fornication and adultery has to conform to what their society says they must do to be considered married.