The Marriage Mystery
In God's eyes, do a man and a woman become married after having sex or after exchanging vows?
—Robert Schier, Orina, California
Your perceptive question takes us to the very heart of a theological riddle—two becoming one. Even the apostle Paul conceded that this is a great mystery (Eph. 5:32). It is not surprising, then, that Christians have widely differing views on this question. The Roman Catholic Church sometimes grants annulments if the couple does not sexually consummate the marriage, reasoning that without the sex act, it is not really a marriage. Protestants have generally taught that couples are married when they make their marriage vows. Many nonevangelicals assert that unmarried couples who live together are married in God's sight.
What light does Scripture shed on this complex question? Is a couple married when they have sex, when they take marriage vows, or when they have sex after their vows? My answer is no, yes, and under normal circumstances, yes.
Sexual relations alone do not constitute marriage, for marriage involves a wholesale commitment of two lives, not just a temporary coupling of two bodies. Genesis 2:24 says the marriage commitment is so radical that it involves leaving (the Hebrew word means "forsaking") one's parents to cling to one's wife. Thus, marriage involves a commitment so comprehensive that it permanently trumps all other earthly loyalties. Sex outside of this public leaving and cleaving mocks the very oneness it is designed to celebrate.
Paul applies the "one flesh" language of Genesis to joining oneself to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:16). This surely does not mean that the man who goes to a temple prostitute is in God's eyes married to her. Rather, since marriage is to be a lifelong sacred sharing of two lives, flippant copulation with a prostitute is a grievous offense. Similarly, in John 4:18 Jesus lovingly confronted the Samaritan woman and told her that the man she was having sexual relations with was not her husband. Their sexual union did not create marital union.
What is the biblical support for asserting that publicly reciting marriage vows creates marriage? After all, nowhere in Genesis 1 or 2 do Adam and Eve make marriage vows. In fact, the pages of Scripture contain no specific marriage vows. Might we infer that vows and a marriage license are irrelevant, for if two people love each other, then aren't they married in God's sight? Before we press what is not in the biblical text, let's note what is. God specifically gave Adam and Eve to each other. While no modern marriage vows are found in the Creation account, Adam's declaration in Genesis 2:23—"This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (NIV)—serves the same purpose. It is a bold public declaration of his commitment to the woman God had given him. Furthermore, when the following verses describe marriage as a permanent human institution, they use covenant language.
The Hebrew word for "cleave" at Genesis 2:24 may suggest the making of a sacred covenant, for this is the same term used of Israel's maintaining her covenant relationship with Yahweh (Deut. 4:4; 10:20). When two people make marriage vows, they are making oaths not just to each other, but also to God Almighty. This is why Malachi says God is the witness that women are made wives "by covenant" (2:14). In short, one is married when one makes marriage vows witnessed not only by the wedding guests but by God himself.
So where does sex fit into all of this? If two people are married in God's eyes when they make their marriage vows, then is sex truly necessary to create marriage? Sex is not technically necessary to create marriage—Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until after Jesus' birth, yet Matthew says they were married (Matt. 1:24-25). But apart from exceptional circumstances, Scripture simply does not picture marital union without physical union. The beautiful erotic imagery of Genesis 2:24-25 is unambiguous. Marriage is a "one flesh" relationship. Sex is not peripheral to marriage but is delicately woven into its very fabric.