A podcast listener named Nora writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I am originally from Ghana, and currently living in Dubai, and I listen to APJ. In most parts of Africa, and even in Ghana, the traditional marriage rite (where the family formally acknowledges the marriage) is held above the legal or church rites. Is it okay for a Christian couple to decide to not also have a Church ceremony? Does God recognize this as a marriage if we don’t?”
I don’t know the cultural tradition she is talking about, so it is dangerous for me to comment with any specificity, but there are principles that might help. The same question has arisen here in the states. When I was in school forty years ago there were people who said, “Oh, who needs a piece of paper, a marriage license? Who needs a ring? Who needs a ceremony? God is the only one that matters, not man.” And I suppose in every culture there are forms, and customs, and traditions that have been developed to signify publicly who is married and who is not.
In the Public Eye
So in virtually all cultures it seems to me there may be some exceptions that I don’t know about. Virtually all cultures have thought it important for the functioning of the family life, and the protection of women and children, and the civic order, and the social stability that there be public ways of confirming the difference between marriage and serial sexual liaisons that some people have.
“The Bible that there is a public recognition of who is married and who is not.”
The Bible doesn’t dictate what those cultural forms, and customs, and traditions are that establish public recognition that two people have entered a lifelong marriage covenant with each other before God. But it is assumed in the Bible that there is a public recognition of who is married and who is not. And it is not a merely private act. It is not private to the government. It is not private to the Church. It is public.
And if a couple is indifferent to the customs of a culture that make plain that they are married, this shows that they don’t mind giving people the wrong impression that they may be living together and not married. They ought to care about that, really care about it, because it is biblical. That would be a sinful and selfish attitude to say, “I don’t care about these cultural norms that tell everybody we are married or not married.” Well you should care about them even though they are not dictated in the Bible, because the reality of marriage matters.
Going to the Chapel?
In other words, Christians will want to use whatever cultural means there are to make plain that they have entered a lifelong marriage covenant. And the cultural means may vary, but the principle is the same. Be open. Be public about the importance of your marriage relationship being recognized as such culturally and legally. That means that God looks upon marriage, not merely as a cultural form, like, “Got to go to a judge, or got to go to a pastor, or got to go to a chief, or a priest.” That is not of the essence. What God looks upon is the covenant established by the man and the woman who make solemn promises to each other.
So the bottom line is: No, you don’t have to be married in a church ceremony in order to be truly married. That decision could be made on the basis of how best to testify to your friends and family what you really believe about marriage. But you do need to care about adapting whatever cultural forms are necessary to make sure that publicly in church, in society, people know you have entered into that kind of covenant.