Is it appropriate for cousins or other relatives to marry? My first cousin and I lived on opposite sides of the country during childhood and never met until we were in our late teens. Since that time we've developed strong feelings for one another and have even begun to talk about marriage. We've done this secretly, because we're aware that many people would take a very dim view of our plans. Can you give us any advice? Is it permissible for cousins to marry? How distant from the family line does a relative need to be in order to qualify as a potential spouse? Does the Bible have anything to say about this?
As you're apparently aware, you've touched upon a controversial issue. Perhaps the best way to approach it is by answering your last question first. The Bible doesn't address the subject of cousin marriage directly. According to Leviticus 18:6-18, a man is forbidden to marry the following:
- Sister or half-sister
Notably, cousins are not included in the list. As a matter of fact, if the example of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah is any indication, it would appear that cousin marriage was fairly common in the ancient world. Their story begins in Genesis 28:1, 2, where Isaac charges his son: "You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother's father, and take yourself a wife from there of the daughters of Laban your mother's brother."
So much, then, for the scriptural aspects of the subject. In the absence of any specific biblical guidance, we'd suggest that there are two pressing questions you and your cousin should be asking yourselves: 1) How might your plans affect your relationships with family, friends, and the larger community? and 2) How are these social pressures likely to impact your chances of forging a successful and lasting marriage? Whatever you decide, you can be pretty sure of one thing: your choice could entail a great deal of emotional anguish for everyone concerned – you, your cousin, and the entire extended family.
It's also important to find out whether your marriage would be legal in the state where you reside. Approximately half of the states permit first cousin marriage either without restrictions or under certain specified circumstances; in all others it is against the law. It is also prohibited for Roman Catholics: Pope Gregory I banned the practice in the 6 th century. Perhaps it's worth adding that the United States is the only nation in the world with legal restrictions against first cousin unions.
In most cases, the state laws in question were originally based upon data indicating a high incidence of birth defects in children of first cousins or closer relatives. This is a point you should bear in mind. It's true that more recent studies have demonstrated that this risk is not as high as previously thought. Nevertheless, it remains a factor that merits serious consideration.
If you feel it would be helpful to discuss your situation with a member of our staff, Focus on the Family has a team of professional counselors available who would be happy to speak with you over the phone. They can also provide you with referrals to qualified therapists practicing in your area. You may contact our Counseling department for a free consultation.
Christian Research Institute