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 ...