When Is a Couple Considered Married?

Robby Lashua

“When is a couple considered married? After the ceremony? When they sign the license? After sex? What verses support this?” High school students ask tough questions. This was one that came up recently during a Q&A with a local youth group.

According to Scripture, what constitutes a marriage? Do people have to get married legally, or can they just be “married in their hearts”? Thankfully, God’s Word has a lot to say about marriage, what it is, and when it starts.

Jesus gives great insight on marriage when talking with the Samaritan woman in John 4:16–18. “Go, call your husband and come here,” he says. “I have no husband,” she answers. Jesus responds, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”

Notice how Jesus distinguishes between marriage and sex. A mere sexual relationship with someone doesn’t make a marriage.

As further evidence of this, fornication—sexual intercourse between people who aren’t married to each other—is condemned throughout the Bible (e.g., Mark 7:21, 1 Cor. 6:9). If sex is all that’s necessary to make a marriage, then Scripture wouldn’t condemn fornication. Sex between two unmarried people wouldn’t be sin; it would be the beginning of a marriage.

If sex isn’t what kicks off a marriage, what is? Thankfully, Jesus tells us. In Matthew 19:4–6, Jesus is asked about legitimate reasons for divorce. Here’s what he says:

Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.

Here Jesus teaches four important facts about marriage. First, marriage is between one man and one woman—i.e., a heterosexual couple. Second, marriage means leaving one’s family of origin and establishing a new family with one’s spouse. Third, the man and the woman are joined in a “one-flesh” sexual union. Finally, marriage is a binding covenant no one should dissolve.

While all four of these points are important, it’s the last one that indicates when marriage begins. Marriage begins when a man and woman covenant before God to spend the rest of their life together.

The Old Testament is full of covenants. Most of them are covenants God made with mankind. The Abrahamic, Noahic, and Mosaic covenants all have something interesting in common. They involve a public pronouncement and certification of the pledge.

God made a covenant with Noah, his sons, and all living creatures not to flood the entire earth ever again. The declaration God made of this covenant is recorded in Genesis 9:1–17, and the certification of the covenant is the rainbow. Public pronouncement and covenant certification.

God covenanted with Abraham in Genesis 12 to make him into a great nation, to give his descendants a specific land, and to bless all the nations of the earth in him. God also certified the covenant with a ceremony recorded in Genesis 15:8–21 that made this a binding covenant. Public pronouncement and covenant certification.

God made a covenant with Moses and all the Israelites at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19–20). Moses went up to Mt. Sinai and received covenant instructions from the Lord written on two stone tablets to document the covenant for the people. Public pronouncement and covenant certification.

In each covenant, there is a public declaration with a certification of the promises. The same is true for marriage. What makes a marriage isn’t sex. It isn’t even love. It’s commitment. Marriage begins with a man and woman creating a covenant with a public vow of lifelong faithfulness accompanied by certification of their promise. This covenant isn’t principally before a state or a country, but before God.

God wants marriage to be a covenant between a man and a woman who legally and publicly promise to be joined together as one for the rest of their lives, and there should be covenant certification. But we must also recognize that we’re making these vows before our Maker. What God has joined together, let no man separate.