Help: Am I Married Or Not?

are we married

Dear Bronwyn,

I have been reading about marriage, sex, vows and covenants in the Bible, and my question is: am I married or not? I can’t find what defines a “biblical marriage”: Genesis says a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. I am living with my girlfriend (but my registered address is with my parents), and “cleave” seems to mean glued. Does that mean if we live together and have sex we are married?

I also read a lot about vows and covenants: I am committed to her and don’t want to fully have sex unless we are married. She wants to have sex and says “we are married”, but then when I ask her about getting a marriage license she says no. If I have promised to stay with her, is that a vow? And what does it take to make a covenant? Is that what the blood is about when women lose their virginity?

Please help: I am worried about losing my salvation over this,

Confused About the State of the Union 

 

Dear CASOTU,

There are different schools of thought on when God would consider you to be married:

  1. God views you as married if the government you live under views you as married.
  2. God views you as married if you have been through some kind of formal, societally-recognized marriage ceremony.
  3. God views you as married if you have had sex with a person.

I believe that #2 is what counts: you have been through some formal, public exchange of views, declaring your new commitment to one another as one another’s primary family. However, ideally, all three would met: you’d get legally married (in your case, get a license), your community would publicly know about it and BOTH you and your girlfriend would be intentional about the promises you are making each other and what they mean, and that marriage would then be consummated by sex.

(However, there are circumstances where perhaps #1 is not possible: for example, in South Africa under Apartheid laws the government regulated who could and could not marry. There were, however, such things as “african customary marriages” where the local chief could marry a couple. The government didn’t recognize those, but I believe God did. Also, I know of people who, for various reasons, are unable to consummate their marriage and so don’t meet requirement #3: I don’t believe—and nor do they!—this makes them any less married.)

From God’s perspective, I believe marriage (however your culture acknowledges it) makes you a family (I’ve written about this before as this being the crucial difference between “living together” or co-habiting, and being married) . You and your girl friend have not made any private or public commitment to be one another’s family. And sex doesn’t make it so. I think the Genesis statement about “leaving one’s family and being joined to their wife” is not a one time thing like going out on a date and having sex. I think it represents a far more symbolic act of leaving your parents’ household and establishing a new one, so that in answer to the question, “who is your next of kin? and who should we call in case of emergency?” the answer is no longer, “my parents”, but “my wife”.

A covenant is a formal kind of contract, binding two parties together. All contracts involve people agreeing about something or making promises/vows to one another, but covenants seem to be a special type of contract: indicating a high personal commitment to one another, usually regarded as being unbreakable (whereas a rental contract might expire naturally after a year). To establish a valid covenant, you would need a few things: two parties, both willingly in agreement as to the terms of this new relationship, there would be vows made as each party commits themselves to the covenant, and sometimes the swearing of oaths. In ancient lands, the oaths involved calling down curses on yourself if you were to break the covenant. I think that’s what the blood represents in ancient covenants: as in a “I’d rather die than break this covenant” promise, or a “if I break this promise I’m deserving of death” idea: in both cases, death is represented by spilled blood.

In God’s covenants with people, the spilled blood also represents forgiveness of sins (death, represented by blood, is paid for by a substitute. And unless there a way to deal with sin, we couldn’t be in a relationship with a holy God… so the blood of sacrifices in Israel, and now Jesus’ blood, symbolize the covenant of grace with God: our forgiveness and relationship made possible through sacrificial death (for example: see Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:20, Hebrews 9:11-15 )

I have always thought that the ancient marriage practices saw virginal blood as being a “sign” of the marriage covenant, but I don’t know that our modern understanding of covenants acknowledge or require blood in the same way. Certainly, even in my personal faith, I participate in the “blood of the new covenant” symbolically by taking communion. More than once I’ve read through Exodus and Leviticus and just been so ridiculously grateful that we no longer live in an era where a high priest splashes bulls’ blood over our foreheads.

So what are our covenant symbols these days? In faith, we take communion and participate in baptism. When it comes to marriage, it seems to me that public vows and the exchange of rings at a ceremony are often outward symbols of that internal commitment. Since you and your girlfriend haven’t (and by the sounds of it, don’t want to) do that, you are not married.

One final thought: your question got me thinking about how it is we can say that “God joins people together” in marriage (as Jesus said), and yet still believe that marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a religious and sacramental one. Because it is true: the job of marrying people in ancient Israel wasn’t a priestly task, nor was it something we see Jesus, his disciples, or any of the ministers in the early church doing. Jesus attended weddings, but they weren’t “religious business”. I think this gives us a solid ground for saying that we take our cues for what constitutes a marriage from the social norms around us. Maybe that involved the men in the family exchanging sandals at the city gate (as it did in the book of Ruth), or in customary Zulu culture, marriage requires families to agree on a bride price, followed by a ceremony and celebratory feast. For us, we needed someone with a marriage license to officiate over our vows (they could be ordained in a church or a public official… but the law said it had to happen “under a roof”… so there was a local custom we had to observe to make it legal.)

However, saying that marriage is a societal institution doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in and through our cultural norms to join people together. Maybe a helpful parallel is considering that God doesn’t tell us what kind of government we should have: He doesn’t prescribe communism or monarchy or democracy, but he DOES say that all authority is given by God, that all rulers are ultimately accountable to him, and that we all should submit to the authorities we live under (unless they are requiring us to disobey God). I find that a helpful parallel: God doesn’t say “you must have a marriage license”, but he does say sex belongs in marriage… and so depending on when and where you live, the definition of “marriage” is probably fairly clear. In your case, you’d need a marriage license. And your parents would probably need to know. And—this one is critical—both you and your girlfriend would need to be intentionally, willingly, life-long committing to each other.

May God give you grace as you work this out. You are not married, and my heart goes out to you because it sounds like you are trying so hard to figure out how to handle the sexual aspect of your relationship as best you can. We all struggle with our sexuality at one point or another, and I do believe God knows our hearts and he is our Father who has GREAT compassion and wants the best for us. I don’t believe you will lose our salvation over this: God’s invitation to you is to COME to him, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.  If you keep asking him for wisdom on what to do in this situation, James 1:1-5 promises that he will give it to you.

All the best,

Bronwyn