Is a civil marriage ceremony valid in the eyes of God? My spouse and I were wed in this way. At first I had no problem with it, but recently I've begun wondering: are we really "spiritually" married? I felt strongly that the Lord was present when we repeated our vows before the judge in the courtroom. But a devout Christian relative has been telling me that we can't be truly married unless we have a church wedding. What do you think? Is a marriage performed by a Justice of the Peace as valid in the eyes of God as a marriage consecrated in the church?
The short and simple answer is yes. But perhaps it would be a good idea to expand with a few words of explanation and qualification.
What is God's definition of marriage? According to Scripture, it's a one-flesh, whole-life union between one man and one woman. This union covers every aspect of human existence: the physical, the sexual, the mental, the emotional, the moral, the spiritual, and the economic. This definition is summed up in the words of Genesis 2:24: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."
Modern culture may treat sex as a toy, but it is actually a terribly powerful thing. It cements a bond between two people which is not easily broken. While that physical bond, in and of itself, may not be exactly the same thing as the "one flesh" relationship described in Genesis 2:24, it is meant to function as a major element in the development of that relationship. It's a central and vital part of the process of in-othering. As such, it's basic to the meaning of marriage. This is consistent with the apostle Paul's warning in I Corinthians 6:16: "Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, 'The two will become one flesh'" (I Corinthians 6:16). Sex, then, is an extremely important part of the equation. There is every reason to suppose that a man and a woman who have made a conscious, intentional, permanent, and public commitment to one another and sealed it by way of the sexual act can and should be considered married in the eyes of God.
This is a crucial point. Marriage is not valid only for believers, nor should it be viewed exclusively as an ordinance of the church. On the contrary, marriage is part of the "common grace" that God has poured out on all mankind for the good of the race as a whole. It's like the sunshine and the rain that fall upon "the just and the unjust alike" (Matthew 5:45). The Bible tells us that He established it "from the beginning of creation." He did this before giving of the Law, before establishing the Jewish nation, and before founding the church.
Naturally, it is only in Christ that marriage can reach its full potential. Nevertheless, it is still basic to the human condition. For this reason, it can be meaningful and beneficial for non-believers in many ways. This is why governments have a strong vested interest in preserving the institution of marriage as it has traditionally been understood. With or without its spiritual component, marriage is vital to the survival of healthy families. Because of this, it is important to human society as a whole.
Different cultures have different ways of solemnizing marriage. In Bible times, this was almost exclusively the domain of the family. In 21st century America it also involves the state. For most serious believers, the church is also an important part of the process. But there is no verse of Scripture that requires Christian couples to marry in the church. Nor is there any biblical law that makes it a "sin" to get married in the office of the Justice of the Peace. Such a distinction would have been meaningless in the first-century Roman world, where "the church" was not an established social institution. At that time, the church was a loosely connected network of small groups of believers, and marriage was overseen and administered almost purely by local custom and tradition.
But that isn't necessarily the last word on the subject. We think it's worth adding that, for the Christian, there is a richness of meaning associated with the wedding ceremony and the estate of marriage that can only be fully understood, appreciated, and enjoyed within the context of the Body of Christ. Those of us who know Jesus as the coming Bridegroom have something to celebrate in marriage that non-believers can't even begin to grasp. Under normal circumstances, then, we would assume that a Christian couple would be highly motivated to solemnize their union in the presence of God and His people. That's the best way to make the most of this joyous and spiritually significant occasion. A Christian wedding in a Christian setting is a great opportunity for a man and a woman to confess their faith in Christ and seal their commitment to one another before the eyes of the watching world.
What's the conclusion? We can state it for you in two sentences. First, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that your marriage is valid in the eyes of God. Second, there is every reason ( if you so desire) to re-affirm your vows in a church-sanctioned or otherwise specifically Christian wedding ceremony. We're not saying this to lay a legalistic burden on you. We just want to help you experience the joys of Christian marriage to the fullest extent.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these concepts at greater length, Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone. They are available at this number.
Marriage Alive - The Web site of Dave and Claudia Arp, a husband and wife team who strive to help couples build better marriages and families.
Marriage Mentors - This organization helps churches support the ministry of family by training mentor couples who help prepare other couples for marriage, as well as enrich or restore existing marriages.
Love and Respect - This ministry offers materials, articles, and conferences designed to help those already married to enrich their relationship and for those considering marriage to prepare for the journey together.
God's Design for Marriage