Married in God's Eyes
Couples living in common–law relationships have frequently and flippantly derided marriage licenses as "just a piece of paper" and asserted that "in God's eyes, we are married."
Really? Not according to the Bible. In John 4, Jesus was talking to a woman at a well in Sychar, a town in the area of Samaria, and He told her to go call her husband to come and speak with Him. The woman replied that she had no husband. Jesus told her, "You have well said, 'I have no husband:' for you have had five husbands; and he whom you now have is not your husband: in that said you truly."
This simple statement blows out of the water the retort to challenges about the purity of a live–in relationship, that God considers the couple to be married.
In the Book of Judges, it records that Israel, in its degenerate state, was largely populated by people who did what was right in their own eyes. God does not condone sex outside of marriage, and the Bible has made that clear in both the Old and the New Testaments. If we are not living up to its standard, we need to admit it, not excuse it, or twist Scripture to justify it.
Having said that, let's take a look at what constitutes a legitimate marriage. In the Old Testament, in Israel, a couple was considered married when a man took a woman, who was not betrothed to another, into his home and they lived together. They did not even need to have a marriage feast, but most people probably had a feast to celebrate the event. The woman's father was also normally involved in giving his consent, or if he was dead, some other close male relative. There was no government involvement, no offical record.
Our government used to require a couple to obtain a marriage license to have their marriage recognized as legal. It gave each person legal rights, if the marriage ran into trouble. Eventually, common law marriages were given equal status, if the couple was still living together after a year. Common law was what used to govern peasant marriages in feudal systems. A man and woman of low income could simply decide to be married and then live together, or try it out for a year, such as was practiced in Scotland. They did not have to get married in a church.
This was actually a good thing in some cases. At various times, the Catholic church was the only church that was considered legal. If a truly born–again couple did not want to put themselves under the spiritual bondage of that church, they could take advantage of common law to wed.
In Scotland, if witnesses heard a man and a woman say that they were married to each other, it was considered a legal marriage. If the couple did not want to be irrevocably bound right away, they "hand–fasted." They lived together for a year and, if a male child was born within that year, the marriage was rendered permanent. Otherwise, the couple could part after a year, if they did not think they suited each other.
So, in the past, there were various practices that God would have recognized as legitimate marriage, though they did not involve clergy or the government.
Not the handfasting, though. Real marriage does not engage in trial marriage. Both parties should come together as virgins (ideally), if they have not been married before. They aren't supposed to throw away their virginity on a situation where there is not life–long commitment. Handfasting allowed couples to abandon the relationship without putting adequate work into reconciling their differences, and then they went on to another marriage defiled, having wasted their precious virginity on someone who was not worthy of it.
Legal marriage is not always honourable, and sometimes a marriage that is considered common–law could actually be the real marriage. It depends on what makes a marriage. Commitment to the relationship is the first step. Commitment to be be faithful in regards to sex, to stay together until death parts, and commitment to seeking what is best for the other person, which does not mean giving in to their every desire or being intimidated by demands.
Some legal marriages are fiascos and some common–law relationships look like real marriage. Case in point; I have a friend who got married three times and each of her legal husbands was a nightmare. She is a really good–hearted person and did not deserve how she was treated, but she had poor judgment when it came to men.
Except in the case of her common–law husband. He actually was a good man, in spite of the fact that he believed he was still legally married. His wife was a horror and he had to get away from her. The Bible says that one of the things the earth cannot bear is an odious woman when she is married. [Proverbs 30:23] An application was made for divorce, but he never received any word that it came through. It did come through and his wife knew it, but she did not tell him when she had the opportunity to do so. As far as he knew, he could not legally marry the woman he loved.
Another complication was that, if he did legally marry my friend, her wages would have been garnisheed to pay alimony and child support to his previous wife. He had two children from that marriage. The man was ill and could not work. He stayed home and took care of the housekeeping and the children. My friend was the only wage earner and she had him, two daughters from her first marriage, and a son from this man to support.
My friend was not involved in the breakdown of his marriage. It was over and he left his wife before he met my friend.
She was reeling from her disastrous second marriage. The man she married presented himself as an evangelist and she thought they were going to be in ministry together. He wrecked her car two weeks after the wedding, refused to get a job, wanting to just stay home and play video games all day. When he got a part–time job because of her nagging, he kept all the money, contributing nothing for groceries or household expenses, maxed out all her credit cards, ran up a huge phone bill that she had to pay because it was in her name, and she was in debt thousands of dollars when she kicked him out four months after the wedding. He tried to poison her and her daughters in revenge.
My friend was due for a break. That came in the form of the man who was boarding with her parents and concerned about her situation. He pitched in and did her housework, making himself useful, and it was his real personality, not a pseudo personality like her legal husbands adopted until they couldn't keep up the pretense any longer. He continued to help her in as many ways as possible until his death five years later.
This man and woman were totally committed to each other. The man spoke to my friend's parents of his commitment and her Christian parents approved of him and recognized him as her husband, regardless that no marriage license had been procured, no ceremony performed. It was not until after his death that my friend learned that he had been legally divorced the whole time he was with her. He never knew it.
Besides being in hiding from a shrewish, domineering woman, I think that this man stayed hidden in fear of political enemies. His father developed a housing project for the poor in their home country, but it was not approved under its totalitarian regime. These apartments were affordable to the poor; greedy politicians could not profit from the project. His father was put in prison for two years. During that time, his family did not know where he was or what had happened to him. After he was released, they came to Canada as political refugees. This man did not want to draw attention to his current address and put his new family in danger, so he avoided going to court and getting his name and address recorded in documents. There may or may not have been a real danger, but it was real in this man's mind and his fear probably affected his health.
This couple was faithful to each other. They were committed to their relationship until death parted them. They treated each other with honour and tender consideration for the other's needs. Their living arrangements were not a matter of trying it out to see if it worked. They did the best that they could in a messy legal situation. From my point of view, it looked like it was a real marriage, one that God probably recognized, and the son would not be considered illegitimate as far as Heaven is concerned.
The only one who is really capable of judging that this situation wasn't a real marriage is God. He is the only one who knows the depths of the heart and if the legal situation and the possible danger to the family could have been resolved. As Jesus said, when His disciples questioned Him about legal separation and remarriage, what is possible depends on how much grace is given. Some can receive it and some cannot.
But this situation, though there was genuine commitment, does not let anyone off the hook who is professing to be a Christian and living common–law when they are able to legalize the union. If a man and woman truly love each other, they will do their best to protect each other's reputation as Christians by making their marriage legal before they move in together or have sex.
Times have changed and unsaved people might not think less of other unsaved people for living common–law, but they will always hold Christians to a higher standard. Our witness as Christians is negated, if we are engaged in "playing house." Marriage is a solemn and serious matter, a covenant, not a game of pretend that we can walk away from without repurcussions.
Think of it this way. When a couple is shacked up, they really are regarded as only boyfriend and girlfriend. A man or a woman might balk at going after someone else's wife or husband, but girlfriends and boyfriends might be considered fair game to them. They might reason that, if the couple were truly committed to each other, they would have sealed their relationship in a church, or at least before a Justice of the Peace.
If a man lures away a woman who is living common–law, there are no serious legalities to contend with. She just packs up her stuff and leaves. If there are no children involved, the only real issue is how much of that stuff is hers, or if she can collect palimony. Probably not, if there was no abuse from her partner and she is the one who left the relationship.
In this regard, common–law marriage is like a rickety fence that can be pushed over with one finger. There is no legal protection on the relationship, but more importantly, no legal protection in the courts of Heaven. Marriage is like a fortress. It can be breached, but not as easily. The couple has legal rights in the courts of Heaven that give our prayers for the relationship more impact.
Your word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you.