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Where are marriage ceremonies in the Bible?

10.11. 2014 Written By: Ryan Ahlgrim 187,506 Times read
I have often been puzzled by something missing from the Bible: marriage ceremonies.

Although lots of people are married in the Bible, there are no descriptions of any ceremonies. Adam and Eve are “married” simply by the fact that they are made for each other and they procreate. Jacob marries Leah by mistake, which happens not because of a disguised bride at a wedding ceremony, but because he consummates the marriage in the darkness of a tent. Jesus attends a wedding in Cana which consists of a family party, but no ceremony is described.

The only “ceremony” I can find in the Bible is Tobit 7:12-14 in which a father places the hand of his daughter in the hand of the husband, and then writes a contract.

The reason why there are no marriage ceremonies in the Bible is because marriage did not involve a ceremony. Marriage in the Bible simply consists of a man and woman, with the consent of the woman’s father or guardian, living together and attempting procreation.

No vows, no priest, no ritual, no prayer, no pronouncement, no license, no registration.

This is quite different from how we define and enact marriage today.

Today, for a marriage to be “real” it must be legal; in other words, it must be recognized by the laws of the state and registered with the state.

Also, for many Christians, a marriage is not a “Christian marriage” unless it is officiated by a credentialed minister who makes a verbal pronouncement, preferably in the presence of the congregation.

But these are all recent innovations. For most of human history, marriage has simply been an agreement, recognized or arranged by the immediate families, for a man and woman to live together.

Marriage as a legal institution, and as a religious ceremony, began as a result of the Reformation.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, churches kept records of who was married to whom. But Luther viewed marriage as a “worldly matter,” and so he turned over the recording of marriages to the state.

Calvin believed that for a marriage to be valid it needed to be both recorded by the state and officiated by the church.

The Catholic Church did not require marriages to be officiated by a priest until 1563, and the Anglican Church did not get around to making this requirement until 1753.

So for the past five hundred years there have been, in the European tradition, three kinds of marriage: legal, religious, and social. But social marriage, strictly speaking, is the most biblical.

What would happen if the church today were to once again recognize social marriage?

It would mean that couples living together, particularly those raising children, could be treated as married even if they are not legally married or have not undergone any kind of religious ritual.

Indeed, during most of history, society as well as the church would have regarded such couples as married. Since a growing number of couples today are choosing to live together and raise children without a ceremony or legal license, it may be advantageous for the church to look more kindly and inclusively upon them.

Otherwise, we will alienate these couples and they will not benefit from the guidance and support of the church.

This does not mean the church should stop advocating for religious ceremonies and legalized marriages. These innovations have important purposes.

A public ceremony that includes vows and prayers makes the couple’s commitment to each other clear, links the couple’s love to the sacred story of God’s love, and gives the community and congregation an explicitly supportive role in helping to maintain the marriage.

A legally recognized marriage gives the couple various rights and benefits, provides additional stability to the relationship, and protects both spouses and children in case of divorce.

The church supports marriage and family the best, I think, when it recognizes that couples who intend to share their lives together represent a type of marriage.

I do not know why an increasing number of couples in our society are choosing not to legally marry, but we are doing them no good by rejecting them.

Let us instead welcome them, treat them as if they were married, and advocate for the benefits of public religious ritual and legal status.

Ryan Ahlgrim is the pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va.

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16 Responses to “Where are marriage ceremonies in the Bible?”

  1. Debra Bender says:

    I’m really a little baffled by what appears to be the intrusion of yet another
    “what if” aspect into the ongoing discussion regarding LGBT rights and privileges, including membership and leadership, presently tearing the church apart. Unmarried couples accepted on the basis of “social marriage?”

    All I can say is, “We’ll have to agree to disagree.” Here’s why. My husband and I had a taste of what happens to unmarried couples, straight or gay, every single day in this country when he became very ill before we were married. A wise and kind nurse pulled me aside during an early but very serious hospital admission saying, “Come with me and we’ll do paperwork.” We went into a room and she closed the door. “You’re his wife?” No, I explained, we’re not married, just together for several years. “You’re his wife,” she declared. I tried again. She then said, “I’m putting you down as his wife,” explaining that without that indication, legally I had no rights. None. “If some nurse gets prickly, she could bar you from even visiting him, let alone being included in care discussions or making any decisions at all.” I’ll never forget her wise words. We were just beginning a long journey through the medical and legal world of organ transplantation, but we quickly learned that things needed to be done in order to protect each other. We were soon married by an amazing judge who also “bent the rules,” waived the 24-hour waiting period and helped us get things in order when she understood our situation. We spent our honeymoon at the benefits office of a major city, my husband’s employer, making sure the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed. It will be 21 years in January that he had his transplant and 22 years in May that we were married.

    Were there times our experience was a nightmare? Oh, yes. But knowing that I could care for Cliff, that the doctors knew we loved and trusted each other enough to do the legal things that were necessary to make their job easier, not having to worry about some relatives who absolutely did not have our best interests at heart . . . all those worries gone, in a 5-minute ceremony that cost us $20. Just one aspect – the legal “right” to care for the one you love more than life itself – overcame our hesitation to “ruin a good thing” and do the right thing! We loved and cared for each other without being married, but that little piece of paper has implications and ramifications beyond imagination when the one you love best becomes ill or dies.

    • Prosper says:

      Marriage is the legally or formally recognized intimate and complementing union of two people as spousal partners in a personal relationship (historically and in most jurisdictions specifically a union between a man and a woman).

      The basic elements of a marriage are: (1) the parties’ legal ability to marry each other, (2) mutual consent of the parties, and (3) a marriage contract as required by law.

      In Christian marriage, the union between a man and a woman is instituted and ordained by God as the lifelong relationship between one man as husband, and one woman as wife. The Apostle Paul gave a similar directive when he wrote, “Let marriage be held in honour among all”.[Heb. 13:4] Conservative Christians consider marriage as the most intimate of human relationships, a gift from God, and a sacred institution.[1] Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and central to the community of faith. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians consider marriage a Sacrament.

  2. Kate Slater says:

    The author argues that because biblical marriages lack some of the forms that are in place today (vows, priest, ritual, prayer, pronouncement, license, registration), that biblical marriages should not be regarded as legal marriages or religious marriages. I am not convinced.

    Marriages in the Bible were celebrated and sanctioned by the community at a wedding feast, which was practiced according to the customs of that time–customs frequently alluded to in scripture. (Isaiah 61:10, Jeremiah 2:32, Matthew 25:1-10, Matthew 22:11-12, John 3:29, Revelation 21:2, Revelation 19:8-9). These marriages carried both religious and legal weight. The Bible considers marriage a covenant before God (Malachi 2:14, Proverbs 2:17, Ezekiel 16:8). Marriage relationships were recognized and honored in the legal code (Exodus 21:1-3, Numbers 30:12-14). Marriage was lifelong (Romans 7:2, 1 Corinthians 7:39) except in cases of divorce, which was restricted (Matthew 19:8).

    Biblical marriages were both religious (covenants before God and the community of faith) and legally recognized.

    Couples today who share long-term relationships and raise kids together but do not choose to marry are not married in the biblical sense. For whatever reason, they have chosen not to make a covenant before God and the community and have chosen not to have their relationship legally recognized. I agree with the author that this is a widespread social phenomenon and that as congregations we are now faced with the practical question of how to nurture these families in the faith community. But I don’t believe we serve them well by telling them or ourselves that they really are married in the biblical sense. Doing so not only reflects a shallow understanding of marriage in scripture, it also refuses to recognize, understand, and honor the choice that these couples have made not to marry.

    I am disappointed in The Mennonite for choosing to publish this article. It reflects a good-hearted desire to love our neighbor, but it is not grounded in a sound understanding of scripture.

    • Ryan Ahlgrim says:

      Thanks, Kate, for pointing out the OT references to marriage as a covenant before God. That certainly gives added thickness to at least one strand of biblical thinking about marriage–one that the church needs to promote. On the other hand, the scenario described in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 hardly promotes a sense of covenant or permanence about marriage. I think there are differing understandings of marriage in the Bible–some more elevated than others.

      You are certainly right that marriage in the Bible has a legal status. I probably should have used more precise language throughout my article. Instead of “legal” as a category for marriage, my point might have been more clear if I had said “registered and recognized by the state.” That is, I think, a fairly modern innovation.

      For instance, I have been told that in places such as Germany a church wedding is not recognized by the state. Religious weddings and legal weddings are entirely separate categories. That certainly would not have been the case in the pre-Reformation.

      What I find odd is that the church in the US has no problem recognizing a couple as married who simply went to a justice of the peace to sign a paper, but has great difficulty recognizing a couple as married who have lived together for many years and raised children together but never registered with the state.

      What, after all, is marriage at its most essential level? Is it a sacred/religious covenant made before the community? If so, a lot of legally married people who have lived together and raised children are not really married. Is it a legal document kept on record by the state? If so, no one in the Bible was married. Or is marriage, at its most essential, the psychic unity that results when two people share their lives together by building a home together? (Or is there another option?) In my opinion, couples who are building their lives together are psychically married, whether they want to admit it, or legalize it, or not.

      For all of the present arguing in the Mennonite Church about marriage, I find it shocking how little careful and consistent thinking we have done on the subject–at least that I have seen. But you, Kate, obviously have good and careful things to say on this subject.

      • Kate Slater says:

        You’re kind and gracious, Ryan. Thank you.

        Yes, you’re right that there is not one consistent picture of marriage throughout the Bible.

        You ask “What, after all, is marriage at its most essential level?” It seems to me that if we look at marriage across time and across cultures (not exclusively at biblical marriage), we see several common threads:

        1) At the outset, it is intended to be a ’til-death-do-us-part commitment, not a temporary arrangement.

        2) It is recognized and sanctioned in some way by the community–the ways of making it official change from one culture to another and one time to another, but there’s always some established way of doing this.

        3) It’s the relationship where copulation and child-bearing is sanctioned. (But not, in any culture or time, the only place where these things occur.)

        4) If we look at biblical marriage, there’s also the element of covenant before God. This isn’t a cross-time, cross-cultural essential. You take this one away and keep the other three, you still have a marriage. But in a Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage, covenant is essential.

        Philip Friesen’s comments don’t deal with how marriage is culturally practiced and defined, but on marriage as a spiritual reality. Looking at it from that angle, his contention that marriage begins with copulation rings true, as the two do become ‘one flesh’ and and are bonded spiritually as well–whether they understand these realities or not. (This is perhaps why Christian parents have been quick to ‘make it official’ when it is discovered that their unmarried children have had sex. There’s a sense that the real marriage has already begun and the community needs to get behind this relationship and support it–particularly if there’s a child on the way.)

        In light of all this, how does the church love our neighbors who have made homes together, but have not made their marriage official?

        If they are not Christians, I don’t see much point in addressing the marriage issue. Just love them and welcome them.

        But if they are already Christians, or become Christians, the church needs to teach them about these realities that we are discussing. That before God they are ‘one flesh’ and also joined in spirit. That biblical marriage is a ’til-death-do-us-part covenant before God and the community, and this is what we want for them. We urge them to make it official.

        I think it would be a mistake to take the attitude that “they don’t consider themselves married, but we know they really are” and just treat their unions as another flavor of biblical marriage. If they don’t consider themselves married, it reflects some disconnect between what God teaches about marriage and what they understand. The church wouldn’t be loving them best by ignoring the disconnect. The teaching about biblical marriage, about sexual bonding, about covenant, about the significance of marriage within the context of community all needs to happen.

  3. Ryan Ahlgrim says:


    I have no disagreement with you. As I state in the article, legal marriage has clear benefits that the church ought to promote. We should encourage all couples who are intending to create a life together to make the arrangement legal. But we should also be accepting of couples who live together and are raising families, even though they have not gone through a legal registration. From a strictly biblical standpoint, they are “married.” I am talking here of heterosexual couples. Whether this should also apply to same-gender couples is another question and beyond what I could discuss in this very short piece.

    Thanks for your feedback!

  4. Forrest Moyer says:

    Excellent article. Thanks, Ryan, for writing and to the Mennonite for publishing it.

  5. What Pastor Ahlgrim appears correctly to be saying is that marriage begins with the act of copulation. Marriage does not begin with a ceremony or with the filing of papers, but rather at the moment of consummation, whenever that event happens. What God sees as marriage, the church needs to recognize as marriage. Debra Bender’s comments deal with legalities only, and not with spiritual matters.

    Biblical marriage is not only a physical relationship, but also a spiritual one that affects the entire community. It is not and cannot be a private affair to be successful. That is why ceremonies and papers are necessary. It is no accident that ceremony and paperwork began after the Reformation when signs began to appear that marriage was no longer seen to be primarily a matter of male property rights. New symbols and new protections needed to be in place that recognized the marriage increasingly as a partnership than had been the case before. No doubt the opening of scripture to a wider readership had something to do with this.

    In the 60’s Donald Joy published his research on both sexual and friendship bonding, beginning with BONDING, RELATIONSHIPS IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. His work reveals just how deeply marriage is a spiritual relationship. As a spiritual bond, the act of sex creates a new identity for participants that transcends the original identity given by parents. (“A man leaves father and mother…” was a radical idea when first written in Genesis 2, and still is in our time.)

    Joy’s writing on bonding is being confirmed today by neurological research. Sexual activity is addictive, and when a person has multiple partners the sexual/emotional bond becomes an addiction to an activity rather than a permanent affectional bond with a person. Having more than one partner before choosing a permanent mate means that one has experienced divorce one or more times, and at least one heart has inevitably has been broken in each separation. Bonding with the activity rather than the person promotes further promiscuity, and destroys trust progressively with each succeeding sexual encounter. In this situation the devil takes over, and the entire community suffers the consequences of the instability. Premarital counseling needs to deal with this reality, as so many people entering marriage have already been divorced in their hearts, even though never married on paper.

    Unmarried couples need to know that the church considers them to be married. If the church will teach the realities of sexual bonding in conjunction with the Biblical command it may yet save the next generation from the malaise of disorientation in which we find ourselves at present.

  6. Leonard Gross says:

    Ryan: Dietrich Bonhoeffer undergirds the sentiment of your important observations, speaking to some of the realities of marriage as follows: “[T]he Church’s action in the marriage ceremony is perhaps the most questionable of all the Church’s official actions. The community of love [pre-fall] has been torn to pieces [as a result of the fall] by sexuality and become passion,” whereby man “snatch[es] for himself the strength and the glory of the Creator – the ascent of man to unconscious awareness of his own ego, to begetting and giving birth out of his own power, in the waking of drunkenness.” Bonhoeffer does note that the original, pre-fall relationship of man to woman, as a community of mutuality, is the “Church in its original form.” But the fall destroyed this mutuality. Bonhoeffer concludes on a hopeful note: “Of course, this abysmal destruction of the original state does not abolish the fact that, in the truest sense, the community of man and woman is intended to be the Church (Eph. 5:30-32)” (Creation and Fall (1959 edition, 62, 63). – Leonard Gross

  7. Amy says:

    My spouse and I are not legally married by the government. We do believe we are married by God. We feel the marriage by the state is just a piece of paper. God has bonded us as one. I challenge anyone to show me where in the bible it says I’m NOT married. My current church (I maybe looking for a new one soon) says we aren’t married and has recently ostracized us for living together. They refuse to marry us unless we move out for 6 months and live separately. We’ve lived together for over 8 years now. I think we are beyond that. We joined our homes because we were struggling to raise our children alone. We both have full custody of our children. We are blended in every way other than that government paper. Really the only reason our church wasn’t told we were already married is because we wanted them to be a part of the “legal” government process. Now that dream is gone. If we want a religious ceremony we have to find another church to do so. It saddens me and hurts because I’ve been a leader, volunteer and heavily involved member of this church for 10 years. We would have loved to make it legal with the government a long time ago but our kids always came first and were always in need of something. We haven’t had any legal issues because we aren’t legally married. I was almost killed in a wreck and spent a week unconscious in the ICU (a month in the hospital) and not once did anyone question my spouse and his standing to make choices for me. Frankly, the only thing the government paper does for us is allows the government to take more taxes from our checks.

    The other thing that frustrates me about this whole issue is my church is requiring a piece of paper (they will not help us get) that they won’t accept as proof of marriage from a same-sex couple. Why is this paper good for me and not them? Don’t get me wrong I know my bible and don’t believe God intended marriage for same-sex. If he did why would he even bother to make eve? However you can’t require this piece of paper for one couple and deny it for the next.


    Father God in the name of Jesus Christ, we pray for everyone that has contributed input in this dialogue, whether founded or unfounded. Open our eyes that we may see your glory through the word of God that became flesh and tabernacled amongst us.

    Father God, in the name of Jesus, your ways are not our ways and your thoughts ascend beyond our thoughts at a distance more distant than the heavens are to the earth.

    Father God, in the name of Jesus, your word says that man will err not knowing the scriptures, so I ask you right now for forgiveness for our tresspasses as we forgive those that tresspass against us.

    Father God, thank you for not leading us, me into temptation to attempt to defend your word, for your word is forever settled in heaven. In Jesus’ Name, Amen and Amen.

  9. Nellatl says:

    Recently, I watched a religious debate about the Bible on Youtube.

    There were a group of preachers speaking strictly from the Bible. One of the things they pointed out was the fact that marriage as we have it today is not in the Bible.

    Because marriage is a contract with the state, it’s no wonder why most marriages are likely to end in divorce and divorce is easier to get than a happy meal at Mcdonald’s.

    Needless to say, there’s a huge disconnect from “worldly religious beliefs” and godly scriptural beliefs.

    Today in America I beleive we worship what I would call “Gallup Poll Christianity”. What I mean by this is the majority rules; not God.

    According to our Gallup Poll Christianity, God is a sexist, racist, socialist dictator.

    No! Marriage as we see it today is not in the Bible, therefore it’s not biblical.

    As Jesus said, we need to stop worshiping man made laws.

    Mark 7:7-8

    7They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’b
    8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions

  10. Loyce says:

    Marriage is a sacrament and so honourable to respect. Legal, official, or not, if the two hearts are not into it, its a waste of time. I also believe that modernity has cost us our beliefs and so we dont know what to believe anymore. Its at this point that everyone wants to be seen in the white gown and pretty suit only for community to see and later divorce over petty issues. I believe if my parents bless me and my spouse and dowry is paid. We are good to go.

    God Bless you.

  11. Bob Spender says:

    I would join the disappointed column in Ahlgrim’s article. Without adding lots more to the above discussion let me say that his position represents a slippery hermeneutic where we are free to pick and choose from the Old Testament without blending in the contextual context. If Ahlgrim seeks to endorse the living together position would he also endorse arranged marriages (Rebekah and Isaac) or other OT sexual laws? The lack of a specific marriage ceremony in the Bible stems from a modern perspective and his arguments from silence. True no ceremony was outlined but the lack of evidence is not alway and argument for the evidence of lack. Ancient Near Eastern culture attests to many marriage contracts and the OT law attests to a formal established relationship that has a beginning in time (joined .. become one flesh, Gen 2). For sure Israel did not separate religious or spiritual matters from the law so what they understood from the law had spiritual and lasting implications. So, we should be careful about making greater applications for the church today based upon a pick and choose hermeneutic.

  12. Lucas says:

    Interesting and thought provoking…
    Scripturally speaking though, if we take Jesus’ response to the woman at the well in John ch 4, it’s pretty obvious that He didn’t consider cohabitation and marriage to be one in the same.

    ” You have had 5 husbands and the one that you now have is not your husband”

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