Should the Church Recognize a Marriage Not Recognized by the Government?

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If a couple takes issue with state marriage and decides to privately commit to each other forever with the Lord as their witness, should the church recognize their marriage?

The Christian Reformed Church’s official position on marriage is that it is “an institution created by God. It is a covenant relationship established by mutual vows between a man and a woman united by God. Permanent unity in marriage is possible in Christ and is demanded of Christ’s disciples who are married.” This definition provides clues to an answer to our question.

To begin with, there seem to be only three persons absolutely necessary to make a marriage a Christian marriage: the man, the woman, and God, who recognizes the marriage or not. This suggests that the state, parents, and the church are nonessential to a marriage becoming a Christian marriage.

I say this, however, with a word of caution: Some may confuse what is “good” with what is “better”—that is, while a young couple pledging themselves to each other forever under God may be married in a minimal sense, the goodness obtained by the blessing of the church is far from nothing.

What is the value of the church’s recognition of marriage? People in love naturally want to bind themselves to each other with promises of “forever.” But this is where the church comes in. It tries to make sure the couple in love really understand what they are doing. The church advises the couple on the nature of marriage and promise-making, and it helps to hold the couple accountable. This is partly why marriage in the church is a very good thing, even if not necessary in all cases of marriage (e.g., Adam and Eve, Isaac and Rebekah, and others). The church will help the couple, when their emotions cool, to remember the seriousness of their promises. 

Should the church recognize individual promises of marriage between a mature man and woman under God even if they didn’t seek state recognition? Probably yes, provided the church is convinced that the couple understood what they were doing.

About the Author

Adam Barkman is a professor of philosophy at Redeemer University College.

See comments (1)


Remarkable! The state is involved in the institution of marriage because the state is responsible to uphold the law. It is the law that protects marriage on both ends. It is not a good idea for the church to start sanctioning 'common law' marriage. Doing so undermines the very institution God established for its protection and success.