At what point does marriage begin?

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At what point does marriage begin?

Jan 24, 2011 |Candice Watters
Question

I recently moved to a new area and met a new friend. She is a Christian and has been living with her non-Christian boyfriend for about three years now. We have slowly become better friends, and at one point she told me that she knew her living situation was wrong, but she just didn't have the strength to leave him. We talked about it for quite a while, and I told her that I would be praying for her to have the strength to leave him.

About three weeks later, we talked again, and she told me that she had prayed and told God that she would leave the boyfriend if God would make their relationship sour a little and if God would provide an opportunity that she could use to “disagree” with the boyfriend enough to use as an excuse for why she was leaving. (She prayed that because she did not want to turn him against God even more than he is [he's an atheist and has been hurt by Christians in the past]). She then shared that since that time, their relationship has gotten only better, and she has had no excuse to give him to leave.

She also shared a little more about their past with me. She said that as they moved in together, she knew that she, as a Christian, was making the wrong choice, but she also knew that this was her choice for life — she viewed it as a life-long choice. She would have married him at the time, I believe, but he does not believe in marriage and says that if you love each other and live together, it is just as meaningful as the piece of paper that says you are married, although he has agreed to make it official and marry her when they someday decide to have children.

Later, as I was thinking and praying about her situation again, I began to wonder if she really should leave him. When they moved in together, she said she had made a life-long choice (as I did when I married). They are living completely as husband and wife, and have been for three years. She prayed for God's intervention which did not come. (I do realize that we should be strong enough on our own to do what we know is right, but I also know that God is gracious and helps us to do His will.)

My husband and I began to search the Scriptures (without letting my friend know any of my new questions) to find out at what point marriage begins. Is it with sex or with the state ceremony or the church ceremony? We eventually concluded it is a combination of sex and whatever your culture recognizes as a marriage ceremony. In our culture today, many people never get married. They just live together, have a family together, etc. and conclude that it is the same.

I am leaning toward the side that she still needs to leave him, but my husband and I both wanted a wiser, more mature opinion on it before we break apart something we shouldn't. Should we counsel her to leave him ASAP or rather to just make it official and marry him ASAP?

Answer

Thank you for writing out of concern for your friend as well as your desire for wisdom and understanding. With so many unmarried men and women living together as if they are married, these are timely questions: What about the conventions of marriage? Is it true that all you need is love? And what makes a marriage? Is it sex? Tradition?

Your friend’s boyfriend says, “If you love each other and live together, it is just as meaningful as the piece of paper that says you are married.” For Christians, though, love and common residence are not as meaningful as marriage because marriage is infinitely more than “the piece of paper.” It is not the wedding certificate that makes a marriage; it’s the covenant.

I’ve been reading John Piper’s This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence, and I believe it would be most helpful for your friend to read it, too. In it Piper writes,

Marriage is designed to be a unique display of God’s covenant grace because, unlike all other human relationships, the husband and wife are bound by covenant into the closest possible relationship for a lifetime.

He also writes,

Marriage exists to display the merciful covenant-keeping love of Christ and the faithfulness of his bride.

When a relationship exists between a man and a woman that is absent the covenant of marriage, regardless of whether they share a home and even a bed, they are not, by definition, married. What’s worse, they are pretending to be married and in doing so, lying to themselves and to everyone watching them about the nature of Christ’s faithfulness to us, His bride.

Of course this would make no sense to a man who denies God’s existence, which is why your friend was right at the beginning: This living situation is wrong. The man she is living with denies that which should be most important to her: her belief in and relationship with God and His Son, Jesus Christ. I believe she still knows this but is ignoring it. That would explain her prayer for signs that she should leave.

Her request, while understandable given her emotional attachment to this man, isn’t biblical. God has already revealed His will to her in the Bible. It’s His will that she obey Him. And that includes sexual purity and abstinence before marriage, not being yoked with an unbeliever and not putting God to the test. The fact that God didn’t “sour” her relationship and give her another reason to leave this man is no evidence that He wants her to stay. She already has every reason to leave but is choosing not to.

Will telling her all this, arguing ardently for the sanctity of Christian marriage and the reality of her sin compel her to leave? I pray it will, but I’m not naïve. She knew going in all the reasons not to but did so anyway. And up till now, she’s shown that she’s unwilling to leave. Merely arguing the wrongness of what she’s doing won’t be enough. But it’s essential for you (and your husband) to be persuaded of it so that when you pray for her and talk with her, you have the courage of your convictions underlying all you say. Both of you need to be thinking rightly about this situation, in light of God’s Word.

Her choice to move in with him is not the same as what you did when you got married. You made a covenant, before God, in the presence of witnesses and attested to by the state. She simply decided to share rent. I know it seems to her like she is doing this for life, and in her heart of hearts, she probably really believes it. But without the covenant, it’s not a marriage. There’s no expectation, or requirement, that it be permanent.

Marriage was God’s idea. It’s not a cultural construct. Sure, we have cultural traditions that we’ve attached to the making of marriages, namely elaborate wedding ceremonies. But fancy parties weren’t always the norm for the forming of a new marriage. People used to show up in church in their nicest clothes, and somewhere between the opening hymn and the closing prayer, they stood up when called upon and exchanged commitment vows from where they stood in their pew. Everything we do to celebrate and commemorate a marriage is still in addition to the covenant. You can have a marriage without a fancy wedding, but you can’t have a marriage without a covenant. Even sex can be had without making a marriage.

So where does this leave you? You asked, “Should we counsel her to leave him ASAP or rather to just make it official and marry him ASAP?” It sounds from what you’ve told me that if he had been willing to marry her, they would have done that long ago. Still, counseling her to give him an ultimatum would shake things up. It would create the opportunity and possibility of change.

Till now, he’s obviously not interested in getting married (why would he be? He’s getting all the benefits without the responsibilities the commitment requires!). But this issue of living together unmarried is central. And it’s what’s closest to her heart. If she’s willing to give him that ultimatum, we marry, or we part, then she will be able to build on his response. If he says, “Yes, let’s marry,” then she is in a position to start asking and working through the essential questions that come with matrimony: Where will we be married? Will the church and pastor that marries us require premarital counseling? How will we rear our children, in what faith?

You can see from these, and all the other questions that logically follow, that by side-stepping marriage, they’ve side-stepped many issues that are central to married life. To go into marriage not knowing where or if you’ll go to church and how you’ll bring up your children (or not) in the faith would be foolish. By living together, all these things are simply neglected. They’ve avoided the opportunity for scrutiny. While that’s the easier path on the front end, it’s likely to be much more painful in the future. Rather than letting the rigor of an engagement and wedding process shape and mature their relationship, they’ve spent these past several years sliding into a life together with little if any intentionality. (Scott Stanley calls it “sliding versus deciding.”)

Because it’s late — they’re far down the path of setting up life together — she needs something to interrupt the inertia of their relationship. Backing up and working through these issues, if he’s willing, would provide the clarity that’s missing. And if he’s not willing to go there, I pray the scales will fall from her eyes, and she’ll see the truth of her situation and the harvest she can anticipate (Galatians 6:1–10).

This realization, of course, requires something neither you nor I, nor any human friend can provide, and that’s the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8–9).

Ultimately, her reason to leave has to be obedience, the sort of obedience that flows from her love of God. Likely her boyfriend won’t understand it or like it. If she thinks she’s protecting God from a bad reputation by staying with him, she’s confused. Not only does God not need our protection, we’re incapable of providing it. He’s the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise one. We’re the ones in need of salvation. It’s our obedience motivated by love that speaks loudly, and testifies powerfully, to our faith and the truth of our convictions. If there’s any hope of this man coming to faith, it will begin with her actions. If she doesn’t believe in God enough to do what He requires, why should he?

I fear that if she doesn’t leave him, her belief will continue to fade. It may seem impossible to consider breaking up a three-year relationship, but consider her prospects for the future. This isn’t just about the rest of her life; it’s about eternity. By requiring marriage, she risks losing her life mate, but by staying in this relationship as it is, she risks losing her life (Ephesians 4:17–24).

May God spare her the fate of willful disobedience and call her to repentance, and may she seek Him while He may be found.

Sincerely,
CANDICE WATTERS

Copyright 2011 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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