Why do Christians need a church wedding and a piece of paper from the state to make their marriage "official"? My girlfriend and I are both dedicated believers and we intend to spend the rest of our lives together. We've been wondering why we should bother applying for a marriage license. Isn't marriage a private, personal covenant? And isn't the spiritual aspect of that covenant more important than anything else? If we move in together and start having sex, doesn't that make us married in the eyes of God?
You've brought up an interesting point. Does the Bible give us grounds for defining marriage in terms of anything other than the act of "becoming one flesh?" To put it another way, does Scripture recognize the validity of civil marriage contracts? And does the state have any business granting them?
On one level we would have to answer no. There is no verse in the Bible that says, "Thou shalt not consider thyself married or engage in sexual relations until thou holdest a piece of paper from the state authorities in thy hand." But there's another sense in which we can't deny the legitimacy of the state's involvement in the business of marriage.
Theologically speaking, marriage is not just "a private, personal covenant." As we see it, there's a distinctly communal aspect to genuine marriage. Marriage involves a couple's public commitment to build a strong and lasting relationship. This is implied in their decision to "leave" their parents and "cleave" to one another (Genesis 2:24). By "leaving" and "cleaving" they are actually initiating a new family unit as a part of the larger community. Marriage, then (and this includes the sexual act that results in "becoming one flesh"), is anything but a purely private affair.
It's absolutely true, of course, that the spiritual aspect of marriage is of vital importance to the believer. But this does not mean that matrimony is valid only for believers or that it should be viewed only as an ordinance of the church. According to most theologians, marriage is part of the "common grace" that God has poured out on 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).
This explains why even pagan and secular societies attach a special importance to marriage. Traditionally, all human cultures have sought to preserve the uniqueness of the marital relationship. They do this by surrounding it with certain legal sanctions, privileges, and protections. This is true of societies of every kind and the state in all of its various forms: monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, socialist collectives, and democracies. Governments have always had a vested interest in supporting, maintaining, and regulating the marital relationship. Romans 13:1-7 implies that this is according to God's design. For all these reasons, we'd suggest that, unless it should for some reason become absolutely impossible to do so, believers should continue to marry in accord with the regulations and requirements of the state.
All of this begs an important question: do you have some personal reason for questioning the validity of the marriage license and the wedding ceremony? If you and your girlfriend are serious about spending the rest of your lives together, why not proclaim your intentions to the world in an open ceremony? Why not make it "official" with "a piece of paper from the state"? As we see it, these are just ways in which a couple goes public with their vow of lifelong fidelity. This, in turn, is part of asking other people to hold them accountable. Do you have a problem with that? Is there some reason why you would prefer to be secretive about your commitment to one another?
If you don't find this answer convincing, or if you need additional help understanding these concepts, 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