Consider two types of marriages: a marriage ceremony in a church with a certified priest/pastor (but without any government recognition) and a courthouse marriage.

What scriptures would imply that one or the other is preferable, assuming for some reason you couldn't do both?

(The other question only asks about a religious ceremony, not a courthouse marriage)

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  • In my country, it is a legal requirement for religious marriage ceremonies to be registered, so there is no possibility of a marriage ceremony in a church without any government recognition. May 16, 2015 at 0:45

3 Answers 3


There is no mention in the Bible either of clergy-officiated marriage ceremonies or of state-officiated marriage ceremonies. That's because neither of them existed in Judaeo-Christian society until relatively recently.

Marriage ceremonies officiated by a priest or minister emerged only in the 1500s, and took another two or three centuries after that to become accepted as the norm in all Western Christian countries. State involvement in marriage developed during the same time period in Europe. (Quick reference: Marriage -> History of Marriage, from Wikipedia. For an extensive history of marriage, see: Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz.)

Since the Bible itself is silent on both clergy-officiated marriages and state-officiated marriages, which one is preferable or proper is a matter of church doctrine and interpretation, and of social and legal custom, rather than of specific Biblical teaching or narrative. So aside from opinion-based answers, which are not supported on Christianity.SE, the only way the question could be answered would be to refer to the teachings of particular branches or denominations of Christianity.

However, to provide a some biblical background, in Bible times marriage took place primarily in the context of family, social, and inter-tribal or international relationships. Most commonly marriages were arranged by the families of the bride and groom in order to form alliances, solidify inter-family ties, and benefit both parties (families, tribes, or nations) economically. Money or valuables commonly changed hands at the time a marriage was contracted, usually in the form of a bride price. The marriage became legally binding at the time it was arranged, and came fully into effect at the time it was consummated—at which time there was often a feast in celebration of the union.

The most detailed account of marriage practices in the Bible occurs in the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. In line with the customs of the time, the marriage was arranged between the two families before the bride and groom even saw one another. The family of the groom gave expensive presents both to the bride herself and to the bride's family. The union was completed when Rebekah was brought back to Isaac and the marriage was consummated in the tent of Sarah, the deceased mother of the groom. (The consummation is implied rather than explicitly stated.)

Another account providing insight into ancient Hebrew marriage customs occurs in the marriage of Jacob to Leah and Rachel in Genesis 29:14–30. Since Jacob had brought no wealth with him, and was at that time cut off from his family, the arranged bride price was seven years of labor. However, there was a bit of trickery involved. Jacob had contracted to marry Rachel in return for seven years of labor. But her father Laban substituted Leah, Rachel's older sister, at the time the marriage was to be consummated. (Apparently there was plenty of good wine at the wedding feast!) Since his marriage with Leah was now consummated and could therefore not be undone according to the marriage customs of the time, Jacob was obliged to perform another seven years of labor for Laban as a bride price for Rachel.

The role of marriage in international relations can be seen in the later story of Solomon taking "700 wives, who were princesses [from the surrounding nations], and 300 concubines" (1 Kings 11:3). This built up Solomon's wealth by establishing treaty and trade relationships with the surrounding nations. But it ultimately led to the downfall of the unified kingdom of Israel under his son Rehoboam because Solomon began building shrines to the gods and goddesses of his foreign wives, contrary to the commandments of the God of Israel. For the story in its context, see 1 Kings 10–11.

The story of the wedding at Cana in John 2:1–12 offers a peek into wedding practices in New Testament times. Here there is mention of the wedding feast, which was a common practice in the ancient world. But as we would expect, there is no mention of any officiating priest, nor of any involvement of the state, since as mentioned earlier, these involvements did not develop until 1,500 years later. The Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1–14 and The Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1–12 provide additional insight into wedding practices in New Testament times and culture.

Yes, there are laws in the Bible about marriage and adultery, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. But none of these laws require or assume any clergy or state involvement in the wedding. Marriages were simply accepted as valid when they were formed according to the social customs of the day, as described briefly above.

About the most we can conclude from the Bible's descriptions of and laws concerning marriage, then, is that marriage is generally to be done according to the social, legal, and religious customs of the time, and that once the marriage is so formed, recognized, and accepted, the laws relating to it become binding upon the couple, and upon society in relation to them as a married couple.


Scriptures indicating the authority of government and the importance of obedience to it would, in the absence of other scriptures, indicate the courthouse marriage ceremony as more preferable. Scriptures indicating the importance of the ministerial priesthood in the life of the laity and scriptures relating to the conferral of the other various sacraments would imply, in the absence of other scripture, that the church marriage ceremony is more preferable.


“Preferable” using what as a standard? It is difficult to judge unless we know what yardstick to use. Are you asking which one God would look more favorably on? Or which one would bring you greater benefit? If the latter, it depends on what you count as more important.

The consequences of having the first type of marriage is that you would be denied certain financial or legal benefits that married couples enjoy. The consequences of the second are...what? Without God to seal the union there is no marriage and any sex which occurs as a result of the relationship is fornication. At least, according to the New Testament. How that sort of thing applied to concubines (was a man considered to be “married” to his concubines?) and such…I’m not even going to try to guess.

So…can one be married in the eyes of God if no religious ceremony occurs? Many branches of Christianity would say no. The ceremony is required to create the union. Certainly it would be the case with the more “orthodox” branches, but it might be that there are some who believe you can declare your marriage before God without the presence of a religious representative.

I don't remember coming across anything about what constitutes a marriage ceremony in the eyes of God. There is no doubt that God recognizes marriage, but it largely seems the consequence of intent and acquiescence on the part of whoever the woman in question "belongs" to (usually involving a monetary transaction). Did Jacob have a priest join him to Rachel (or Leah) after he had worked out his years? There is no reason to assume that he didn’t, but nothing was specifically mentioned. What that means for us in our more enlightened age where women most often are allowed to belong to themselves...who can say? Marriage has always been defined by the customs of the particular culture; God has never set a requirement for how it is accomplished, only that it must be accomplished before sexual relations can be considered non-sinful.

Marriage as a sacrament and marriage as a legal condition really are two different things, although it is unfortunate (IMHO) that our society has always stacked the two together so closely that many people can't see the distinction. Once

The Old Testament seems to treat marriage as a contract, with all that implies. A contract that has some pretty steep penalties if either of the parties breaks the contract. There were also prohibitions about who could marry (a man can’t marry his father’s wife, no Canaanites, etc). In the New Testament, scriptures distinguish between three different kinds of marriage: 1. Between two believers 2. Between a believer and an unbeliever 3. Between two unbelievers

The first and second marriages would seem to be dissolvable in cases of infidelity, and the second if, for any reason, the unbeliever wants out. Nothing is specifically said about the third, I think it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the Bible would consider a “marriage” between two unbelievers as a legal arrangement, like any other contract.

If you make the assumption that a marriage can be a marriage in God’s eyes without anything but intent on the part of the man and woman who “marry”, then you might consider the passages that advise us to follow the customs/laws of the land so that we do not “offend”. (Matthew 17:25-27) Other than for religious reasons people are seldom offended by people living together without marriage. But then we read in Romans 14:20-22 that we should not do anything to make our brothers stumble. Even if you truly believe that the ceremony is not required in order for marriage, there are many who believe that it is required and in their eyes a marriage without a church ceremony is just "living together".

  • 1
    When you say "Without God to seal the union there is no marriage and any sex which occurs as a result of the relationship is fornication" you seem to be assuming that God doesn't honor a legal marriage as such. I don't think the New Testament supports this, as you claim. Can you make some mention about the "many" who believe that a marriage license is null if the ceremony wasn't performed in a church? I don't mean to be rude, but I find this statement ludicrous.
    – Andrew
    May 16, 2015 at 0:53
  • um. The question was about scriptural support for both positions. What is this? May 16, 2015 at 1:09
  • Also the Orthodox church, like the Catholic church, teaches that marriage is a sacrament conferred by the spouses upon each other. The ceremony is important for other reasons, but it certainly isn't necessary for a marriage to be formed (according to these churches). Did you mean some other orthodox church? May 16, 2015 at 1:12

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