This is another issue which seems to be hotly debated among Christians, especially teenagers who are too young to legally marry, and especially now that various forms of “marriage alternatives” have become popular in Western society: commitment ceremonies, same-sex blessing ceremonies, secret promises exchanged by couples who do not want a legal marriage for whatever reason.
Even Sting has a song about it: The Secret Marriage, copyright 1987, about his relationship with his own wife. (For ten years, their union was not blessed by church or state: story here.)
These have been around for some years: I have read about Christians having “spiritual marriages”–secret marriages contracted with only God as witness–as far back as probably the 1980s, possibly even farther. Where did people get the idea? Probably from history.
History of informal marriages and their legal/religious validity
In the Middle Ages, at least since the twelfth century, such a marriage, called verbum or clandestine, would have been considered valid, even by the Catholic Church.
The girl had to be at least 12, and the boy at least 14. The parents didn’t have to agree, there would often be no witnesses, and the couple might even continue on living in their parents’ houses, pretending to be unmarried–basically, Romeo and Juliet’s marriage without the friar.
A couple who exchanged consents in the present tense in the back woods with only squirrels for witnesses, against the wishes of their parents, and never had sexual intercourse was just as legally and bindingly married by the law of both church and state as a couple married by the Pope himself with the proud parents looking on and a child nine months later. —Sharon L. Krossa, Historical Handfasting
The Church hated such marriages and required penance, but considered the couple to be married. The requirement of a public sacrament came much later, in the Counter-Reformation, after the Reformation caused state involvement in marriage and the issue arose of Catholics marrying Protestants.
Even now, the priest is merely a witness to a sacrament the couple carries out. My references are the Time-Life book What Life was Like: in the Age of Chivalry: Medieval Europe AD 800-1500, and other sources listed in this article.
From the early Christian era (30 to 325 CE), marriage was thought of as primarily a private matter, with no uniform religious or other ceremony being required.
However, bishop Ignatius of Antioch writing around 110 to bishop Polycarp of Smyrna exhorts, “[I]t becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.”
In the 12th century, women were obligated to take the name of their husbands and starting in the second half of the 16th century parental consent along with the church’s consent was required for marriage.
With few local exceptions, until 1545, Christian marriages in Europe were by mutual consent, declaration of intention to marry and upon the subsequent physical union of the parties.
The couple would promise verbally to each other that they would be married to each other; the presence of a priest or witnesses was not required. This promise was known as the “verbum.”
If freely given and made in the present tense (e.g., “I marry you”), it was unquestionably binding; if made in the future tense (“I will marry you”), it would constitute a betrothal.
…In England, under the Anglican Church, marriage by consent and cohabitation was valid until the passage of Lord Hardwicke’s Act in 1753. This act instituted certain requirements for marriage, including the performance of a religious ceremony observed by witnesses. —Wikipedia
According to note 17 of For God is also the God of bodies by Wanda Deifelt, quoting Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution, p. 155,
Luther accused church law of encouraging immature and unhappy marriages by its recognition of so-called ‘secret’ marriages. These were private unions entered into by youths of canonical age (at least twelve for girls and fourteen for boys) without the knowledge and consent of their parents and apart from any public witnesses.
The medieval church sanctioned such unions grudgingly in an attempt to control premarital sex and to bring marriage, at its inception, under the moral authority of the church.
According to Wikipedia,
Clandestinity is a diriment impediment in the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church. It requires the presence of witnesses to the marriage vows, one of which must be a priest or a deacon, in order for the marriage to be valid.
It was promulgated in the 16th century by the Council of Trent in the decree called Tametsi. Prior to that time, an unwitnessed exchange of marriage vows was deplored but valid. The decree was enforced only in those regions where it could be proclaimed in the vernacular. —Clandestine marriages in the Middle Ages
Catholic view on who does the actual marriage sacrament
During the Middle Ages, when European tribes overtook the Roman Empire, a conflict arose between Roman civil law and European law and custom regarding marriage. European law held that marriage was a contract; that the couple owed each other sexual rights to procreate; and that witnesses and a formal ceremony were required.
Parents who arranged marriages for their children to increase their power and property wanted marriages to be public contracts. Roman law held that only the couple’s vows to each other were important and that they could be taken in private.
A whole series of popes declared on the side of Roman law, ruling that marriage was the result of a couple’s mutual consent and nothing else. No witnesses were required, and no contract needed to be signed.
However, such privacy led to problems. Parents who arranged marriages in what they held to be the best interest of themselves and their children were still being thwarted.
There were abuses as well. Jealous or greedy people could prevent someone’s marrying by claiming they had already wed someone else in private, and no one could dispute these false charges. —The Marriage Vows by Helen Keeler and Susan Grimbly
But also note that the modern Catholic Church also does not recognize civil marriages unless later blessed by a priest, or marriages between Catholics and Protestants which do not take place in the presence of a priest, unless they have special dispensation. Yet these marriages are recognized as valid by both law and society.
We begin to see so much variation in who considers a marriage valid and when, that we may wonder, Who gets to decide in the eyes of God? Or if you don’t believe in God, Who gets to decide when a marriage is truly valid for a couple? Is it a religious group, or the law, or society, or the couple?
(Or triple, or quadruple, etc. in polygamous marriages, which also are considered invalid by law in America, but valid among certain religious groups.)
Catholic Encyclopedia article on mixed and clandestine marriage
Theology of marriage and the problems of mixed marriage
mixed marriages in Catholic church
As written by Jeff Favre in “I Do, I Do,” the Catholic Church did not always have so much influence on what defined a marriage among its members. In the beginning of the Church, except for the rules defined in Scripture, Christians took their marriage rules from the society, not the other way around.
Then in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, he writes, theologians “specified the church’s beliefs regarding Christian marriage,” and “held that marriage was part of the created order and subject to the laws of nature, a societal contract entered into freely by the parties involved and a sacrament that was subject to church laws.”
Though St. Augustine had already called it a sacrament centuries before this, this was just
to emphasize its permanence and stability. When it became a sacrament in the practical sense, everything that had to do with marriage became the church’s responsibility and under the church’s authority.
This represented a significant shift from the church’s previous policy, which was simply to add a layer of blessing to whatever local marriage customs prevailed.
Favre continues that when Martin Luther came along and sparked the Reformation, he said the “church’s laws on marriage were arrogant. He believed marriage existed since the first humans, long before the formation of the church.” He wanted the state to regulate marriage, not the church. “In fact, to Luther a marriage existed even if it only was an agreement between a couple, without either a civil recognition or church blessing.” Eventually, marriage became a legal arrangement. –(“I do, I do” by Jeff Favre)
Here is a paper showing how marriage customs changed since Roman times, and how different Christian thinkers had different ideas on what constituted a proper marriage.
During a period of time in Ireland, Presbyterian marriages were not legally recognized.
For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.
In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illictly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.
Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.
The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry. —New York Times article, Taking Marriage Private
The Orthodox church also does not permit its members to be married in non-Orthodox ceremonies. But Protestant churches usually recognize any marriage, whether it’s contracted by a judge or a preacher, and even if it involves the mixing of two Christian denominations.
Would clandestine marriages be recognized as valid among Protestants? It probably depends on the preacher, on how liberal or conservative the congregation is, and on how much of a role the church insists on having in a wedding.
For example, the Nazarene church probably would not recognize a clandestine marriage as valid, while preachers from the UCC and other liberal denominations sometimes consider a non-legal blessing ceremony between a gay couple to be valid.
I also read about a secret marriage (no witnesses/clergy) in a Washington Irving story, “The Adventure of the German Student.” In my own desert island novel Jerisland, which I’ve never published but worked on in high school and college, the castaway teenagers eventually began performing their own ceremonies, because they couldn’t possibly find a minister or follow U.S. marriage laws.
Popularity of such marriages
This practice of non-legal, sometimes secret marriage is common, even among Christian couples, long after the demise of medieval verbum marriages; opinions of its validity vary greatly.
It has even made it onto TV: I saw it on the vampire soap opera Port Charles: Allison and Rafe had a secret ceremony in a barn and called themselves married (“Secrets” book), even though there were no witnesses, and they didn’t live together or tell everyone they were married.
Spiritual marriages have been depicted on other soap operas and TV shows as well. In 1993 on an episode of Picket Fences, set in Wisconsin, a judge dissolved a Mormon’s second marriage, but said there was nothing stopping them from a common-law marriage.
And now we have reality shows depicting polygamous marriages, not legal but considered valid among certain religious groups, such as Sister Wives and My Five Wives.
Retirees sometimes go into a “spiritual” marriage so they don’t lose pension benefits. I occasionally read about couples who consider their true wedding anniversary to be some time before the anniversary of the public ceremony, though there were no witnesses or licenses. Another thing couples do is to get legally married, then keep it secret, having a public wedding later.
It is not living in sin, it is not playing house, it is not practicing for the real thing. It is a legitimate option for people who cannot, or are unwilling to, get legally married. It is the practice of taking private marriage vows.
It’s not a common practice by any stretch of the imagination. Very few people do it, but is that simply because it is very much an unknown option? Is it because society pressures us to tell the government and any church we are affiliated with that we are in love and committed to building a life with another person?
Taking private marriage vows is a personal commitment, and it is true that some couples may find it easier to dissolve a marriage that has been finalized in this way.
However, for those couples who are truly dedicated to having a married life but cannot do it for one reason or another, the marriage may be just as strong as, if not stronger than, a marriage that has been governmentally sanctioned. –Suiiki, Private Marriage Vows: When Legal Marriage is Not an Option
The pop singer Brandy is said to have had a spiritual marriage: see here and here.
This has also occurred between two famous actors, two famous singers, and various other parties, who have tried to get it legally recognized after a breakup, with varying success: see Common Law Marriages, which describes those legal cases and how “informal” marriage has been dealt with for centuries.
While “common-law” no longer simply means an agreement to be married, and is no longer recognized in many states, it used to be just that agreement, and legal.
Nowadays, in certain states (which ones, depends on which website you read), such couples would be considered common-law married on their vows and agreement alone, and would have to get legally divorced. In other states, the best you can get is “spiritually” married.
For much of American history, informal marriages with no clergy or witnesses were legally binding. This helped the pioneers get married, since they did not always have a clergyman or official nearby. Only in the past century have common-law marriages lost their legal status in such states as Indiana (1958) and Wisconsin (1917).
Throughout history, you can find stories of people marrying “spiritually” but not civilly because their marriages were legally banned, such as between slaves or homosexuals. In the Early Church, marriages between people of different social classes were not legal, so the church “affirmed lifelong, monogamous relationships whether couples were officially married or not” (p. 90, The Unauthorized Guide to Sex and the Church, Carmen Renee Berry).
The novel Clotel portrays a secret, spiritual marriage between a mixed-race woman and a white man in the days when the law did not allow such a marriage. Though the novelist considers their marriage to be real, the man eventually decides to take a white wife, and abandons his slave wife (pages 80 and 108).
A series of popular novels by Diana Gabaldon includes a young woman and her boyfriend (Brianna and Roger) who secretly take vows, which they call “handfasting.” This allows them to be considered truly married until they can find a preacher to make it permanent, even though nobody witnesses it. They tell no one until her parents discover it.
Of course, whether handfasting in this form actually occurred is up for some debate. In modern times, neopagans have taken up handfasting, themselves, complete with a public ceremony, deciding whether to make it temporary (with a permanent ceremony later) or permanent. It may or may not become a legal marriage. (Another source.)
But is it valid in modern times?
Okay, we’ve established that these “marriages” happen a lot. But is a marriage binding in the eyes of God (or in the eyes of two people, if they don’t believe in God) if the law or the church does not recognize it? It is an oath, so it could be valid spiritually. This website has a relevant section on oaths.
It’s easy to find links to websites of people who believe there must be a public, religious and/or legal declaration for a marriage to be real. Go ahead and get that side of the issue. But also check out these links, which either describe or promote different beliefs (not necessarily the views of this writer, but examples to show how societal values are changing):
Libertarians are likely to disagree with the notion of government-sanctioned marriage itself. Specifically, they would deny that the government deserves any role in marriage other than enforcing whatever legal contract people choose to enter, and to oppose the various additional rights currently granted to married people. —Libertarian Party
[Libertarian View]: The government has no authority to recognize any marriage. The over 1,000 legal rights granted to heterosexual couples should not be granted.
For example, the tax code should not treat married couples differently than unmarried couples. The government should not compel hospitals to allow any individual access to patients or medical records, except in accordance with that hospital’s policy.
Individuals can choose to cohabitate, and can declare themselves married, or perform a ceremony. It is up to individuals to choose, according to their own beliefs, whether to recognize any such marriage. —Wikipedia article on Same-Sex Marriage issue
The Libertarians have an unlikely ally in this one issue in abortion extremist Pastor Matt Trewhella of Mercy Seat Christian Church of Milwaukee, who refuses to marry couples with state marriage licenses, and here’s why. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying his arguments are right, just that he makes them.)
“Christian think-tank raises radical questions about marriage,” a source on marriage views
A website with marriage laws for Texas, run by a Texas State Justice of the Peace who served for twelve years. See “Must we have a marriage license to get married?” section. It states that laws do not prohibit personal commitment ceremonies, or prohibit people from calling themselves married if they want to. What they do prohibit is legal protection/rights/recognition for such marriages, which are the basic reasons for getting a licensed marriage. So no, having a non-legal marriage is hardly “breaking the law” or “illegal.” (It used to be illegal in Utah, but thanks to a case brought by the Browns of Sister Wives, this is no longer the case.)
On this page, they discuss whether or not marriage requires a “piece of paper.” The answer seems to be that no, it doesn’t, since marriage is a lifelong commitment, but in the US, why wouldn’t you want legal backing?
A debate on a Christian forum about whether or not spiritual marriages with no witnesses or clergy–and even secret ones–are valid in God’s eyes. Opinions vary greatly in this thread. [Update 11/30/14: Link no longer works.] And this is not the only such thread I found!
Here’s yet another which just popped up. [Update 11/30/14: The thread shows that I wrote or completed this page around July 2007.]
And here’s a huge thread in a non-religious forum. [Update 11/30/14: This used to link to a Wisconsin forum called Moms Like Me. However, the forum no longer exists. But Googling will bring up all sorts of more recent discussions on the validity of spiritual marriages.]
These websites and others show that attitudes are changing, especially now that the debate over same-sex marriage has been thrown into the mix.
Though many people still consider a marriage to be real only if it’s legal and public, and accuse those with non-legal or secret marriages of lacking commitment or maturity, there are a lot of people who feel the law has no bearing on what two people commit to with each other.
They know the law won’t recognize their marriage, but they do it anyway, and call it a marriage in the eyes of God. Many people also have religious ceremonies without licenses, for various reasons.
According to one post in a forum, which may or may not be trustworthy, many Christians accept lifelong spiritual bonds as valid even if there’s no legal marriage. [11/30/14: Unfortunately, I did not link to this, and after 7 years, doubt I can find it again.]
I found debates all over the Internet–between adults, not teenagers debating the meaning of abstinence–on what constitutes a “real” marriage in God’s eyes. I found plenty of accounts of adult, mature couples privately committing to each other and considering it binding, even without a legal backing; it’s not just kids who need to “grow up” or “accept adult responsibility.”
Even in college, a Pentecostal friend once told me that spiritual marriages could often be more real than ones with a “piece of paper,” though for various reasons the bride would be better off getting that “piece of paper.”
If local customs are what makes a marriage a marriage–well, those “local customs” are changing in Western society. Still, unless it’s legally valid, you won’t have legal protections, whether the marriage fits “local customs” or not.
Of course, having a marriage not recognized by others can happen even with legal marriages. For examples: Two people marry legally, but secretly because their parents won’t allow it, something that happens now at the courthouse and often happened in the Middle Ages with verbum marriages; what about the common argument that a marriage is a public declaration?
If gay marriage is legalized, many groups (especially conservative religious ones) will still not recognize the marriages as valid. And the Catholic church considered my ex-boyfriend Peter’s parents, though legally married, to be “living in sin” and Peter as illegitimate, because his mother was Catholic and his father was Lutheran. (I don’t know why they didn’t have it at least blessed by a priest. I’m not privy to so many details.)
Here is an online advice column: Two divorced people came together and decided they would be spiritually married. The counselor, taking a Christian perspective, says that our word should be just as bonding as God’s word, whether we back it up legally or not. She supports the idea that a spiritual marriage is valid. Of course, she also advises caution in such matters:
So, in God’s eyes, whether there is a ‘spiritual marriage’ with a promise or commitment, or a cultural civil ceremony with a piece of signed paper, it is one in the same [sic].
However, throughout history man has chosen to define the spiritual commitment with the civil act by emulating solemn ceremonies witnessed by others out of necessity for many reasons, chief among them being that man is deceitful and will want to break a vow!
So one point she makes is that we should be careful what vows we make–not just in public, but in private–because God will hold us to them.
Also see this [original news link no longer works] article. Nicole Hastings, an Ohio girl dying of cancer, needed to stay on her parents’ insurance policy because the treatments cost far too much. But she also wanted to marry her boyfriend. So, on September 16, 2006, Make A Wish Foundation paid for a commitment ceremony held in her church, Mentor United Methodist Church. Quote:
And despite some murmuring in the family about moral issues regarding the non-wedding and honeymoon to follow, Nicole is confident about her ethical standing after talking with the minister who will perform the ceremony.
‘He told me that when Adam and Eve were married in the Garden of Eden, that God was the one who performed the ceremony–and they didn’t need a marriage license either,’ Nicole said. ‘I already have the approval I need.’
Many people do marry secretly with a license, not just without, then let their families think that the later, public ceremony is the legal marriage. But the problem with an unlicensed, secret marriage is that one spouse can claim that marriage never existed–as happened to the singer Brandy and also to me.
These days, when Americans are of various religions and many are not religious, it’s simple enough for a couple to decide to be married without either a public ceremony or a license.
If they draw up legal contracts, they can even get many of the rights lacking to unmarried couples.
The lack of a legal wedding or church wedding will not phase them if they do not wish to be legally married and do not go to church. To them, all that matters is that they have committed to be together for life.
Is this a valid marriage in God’s eyes? Only God can judge.
But should a Christian do this?
But what is a Christian to make of this? He has to be careful, because he answers to God, not to himself. He also has to answer to his church. (I use “he” generically, because “he or she” or “they” are awkward.)
An atheist or Wiccan couple could indeed consider themselves married without a license or a ceremony: They only have the law and themselves to answer to, and as long as they don’t try to claim the legal rights of a legally married couple, the government probably won’t care.
But members of less permissive religious communities should follow the rules of their community. A Catholic or Orthodox believer could get excommunicated (prohibited from taking the Eucharist) for marrying without a legal license combined with a church wedding.
So whether a nonlegal marriage is valid in God’s eyes is moot for a Catholic or Orthodox believer, because anything less than a wedding performed or witnessed by a priest, is not allowed anyway.
Many Protestant churches recognize civil marriages as just as valid as a church wedding, but probably would frown on a clandestine marriage. But some liberal Protestant churches allow individuals to make up their own minds about how or whether to get married.
If sex outside of marriage is allowed in a church, if living together is allowed in a church, then a nonlegal, private wedding will probably be allowed. And some Christians do not attend a church.
A combination of the Protestant belief that you decide for yourself what the Bible says, and living in a pluralistic society, can easily make a person believe that he can marry even without the okay of one church or another.
Whether this is correct or not, I suppose that’s up to the individual to decide. Even in conservative churches, you can often find the belief that only the Bible and your conscience is your ultimate authority, rather than the preacher.
My own belief is that a nonlegal, even secret marriage is spiritually valid because of the oath and the commitment. My own belief is that breaking up that marriage to be with another is akin to adultery.
But I advise caution. I advise holding off on that commitment ceremony, vow exchange, consummation, and/or setting up house until you have thought things through and spoken with your priest or preacher.
First of all, what if the relationship goes sour? You will have no legal recourse. You will not have the help of society which you would have if you were legally married. Instead, you will be left trying to sort out whether you can marry someone else without committing adultery.
If your nonlegal “spouse” leaves you, he will be able to remarry–in the church, no less–without trouble. But you will be left thinking, “Isn’t he committing adultery? Yet he gets a church wedding!” If the church does not consider his remarriage to be adultery, then you will have no means to contest it.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches also teach that marriage is a sacrament, and without that church-ordered sacrament, you don’t get the grace you otherwise would receive in your marriage.
I’m not going to tell you your marriage isn’t “valid” because it wasn’t done publicly, or in front of the right priest, or with a license. I’m not going to tell you it isn’t “valid” because it was a handfasting ceremony with no license or justice of the peace, or because it was done in front of a justice of the peace instead of a preacher.
But your religious community and secular society are different matters which you’ll have to contend with.
I do not recommend secret marriages, because many people won’t accept a spiritual marriage as real and could even accuse you of all sorts of base motivations.
Literature and drama is full of the problems of secret marriages (legal and non-legal), such as Romeo and Juliet and Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage. Or you can break up and your “spouse” will claim that you were never actually married in the first place, making you look like a fool to many.
There are good reasons for those marriage laws and customs in the first place. You’re much better off following your church’s guidelines/rules for marriage, and having a public ceremony, not even eloping.
–Written probably between 2006 and July 2007
Index to my Life Opinion pages:
Topics on Page 1:
—Technical Virginity–i.e., how far should a Christian single go?
—Are Spiritual Marriages “real”?
—Am I supposed to spend all of my free time at home with my spouse/kids now that I’m married? Will that strengthen my marriage–or weaken it?
Topics on Page 2:
—Is it okay to be jealous of the opposite-sex friends of my spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend?
Topics on Page 3:
—Abuse in all its forms: Links to help
—My Personal Stories