Michael and Debi Pearl—fundamentalist gurus most popular in homeschooling circles—have long urged their followers not to use state marriage licenses. Their children each “married” without any marriage license at all. Instead, Michael and Debi held a small informal ceremony at their home, and declared each child “married.”
All of my children but one were married by private contract. They did not ask the state for permission to marry. I wrote a one-page covenant for them, something like a private contract, that stated their commitment to enter into holy matrimony according to Biblical precepts, a few of which were enumerated. The contractual part of the wedding consisted of their verbal pledges of marriage and their signing the pledge in front of all present. Parents also signed the pledge, committing to the union, and then siblings and friends signed it as well. In unison, all present pronounced them man and wife by the power vested in us from God. They later took a copy of the document to the courthouse and had it notarized and filed. They have never failed to gain equal status before the law as being legally married.
In the comments section, one person writes that her daughter followed this advice, but that the officials at the courthouse laughed at the private contract they signed when they brought it in. Furthermore, she added that her husband—who officiated—was facing prosecution for doing so, although she didn’t explain why. I suspect individual state law may matter a lot here.
There have actually been many times historically when all you had to do to get married was declare yourself married. Even today, some states recognize “common law” marriages.
Under Catholicism during the medieval period, all a man and woman had to do to be married was to state privately to each other that they were married. This proved to be a bit of a problem, as predatory cads would privately promise themselves married to a girl in order to get her to have sex with him, only to swear that they made no such promise when the girl later got pregnant and pointed to him as her husband. This ultimately led the church to require that a priest be involved.
All a marriage license is is the government’s way to keep track of who is married, and to whom. If people go around saying they’re married without registering their marriage with the government (that’s what a marriage license is), things can get confusing. Taxes for one, and health insurance, and hospital visits. Remember all the reasons gay and lesbian individuals argued they should be allowed to legally marry, before Obergefell? That’s what we’re talking about.
Interestingly, the big of googling I just did suggests that courts do pay attention to things like whether a couple presented themselves as married, and whether they cohabited, when settling related disputes. It is also possible that some health insurance companies may accept a notarized affidavits stating that a couple is married, without a marriage license.
Pearl’s views on marriage aren’t new, so why am I bringing them up now? I’m bringing them up now because I came upon a blog post by patriarchal blogger Lori Alexander espousing a very, very different view. It’s curious, because Lori is the kind of person I’d expect to be fairly in line with the Pearls in general—she seems to draw on a similar crowd of followers.
Lori writes as follows:
Yesterday, I shared this on social media: “Living together used to be called living in sin. Everyone knew sex outside of marriage was wrong. Changing the name doesn’t negate this fact. Sin cheats yourself out of God’s best. FLEE fornication!” Of course, many vehemently disagreed with me. We live in a wicked generation. Some said that if a couple is living together, they are “married in God’s eyes.” Others said that marriage isn’t a document from the government but simply a couple living together and so on.
“What is the definition of marriage? People can be married without a marriage license. Two people who live together, and are committed to each other, take care of one another, and are sleeping together are already married in the eyes of God. God doesn’t recognize a marriage license, the government does!”
I’m slightly unclear as to who this pushback came from. Perhaps it was all from Pearl followers, and their like, arguing that a marriage license is not required. But the argument that anyone who lives together is already married in the eyes of God is somewhat different. And interesting.
Regardless, Lori wasn’t interested:
Many no longer understand the definition of marriage. It has been so watered down that they make up their own definition. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is God’s definition of marriage. Here’s another one: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31).
You won’t hear people living together call each other husband and wife. They will call each other boyfriend and girlfriend or their “partner.”
It’s funny, I read the two verses Lori quoted and came to a very different conclusion from hers. Neither verse mentions a ceremony or a piece of paper, after all. They only mention leaving their parents home and becoming one flesh, which is pretty much the definition of cohabitation. Lori’s entire premise is drawn from the use of the word “wife” in each sentence, and her argument that cohabitation couples don’t use the word “wife.”
Well, the joke’s on Lori, because the word γυναῖκα in Ephesians 5:31 means woman. It’s the exact same word used in Matthew 5:28, which states that “anyone who looks at γυναῖκα lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And you know what else? The word אִשָּׁה from Genesis 2:24 also means woman. It’s the same word used in Exodus 21:28, which provides instructions on what to do if a bull gores a “man or woman to death.”
Look at Deuteronomy 21:11-13, for instance. “If you notice among the captives a beautiful אֵ֖שֶׁת” the passage reads, you may take her to your home “and she shall be your לְאִשָּֽׁה.” The prefix adds “to” or “for,” and the word typically translated “your” (לְךָ֖) actually means “to you” or “designated to you,” making a better translation “and she shall be designated to you for a woman.”
Or wife, of course, but that’s rather the point—there is no word for wife in either Hebrew or Greek. English has two words—woman or wife—where Hebrew and Greek each have oinly one—אֵ֖שֶׁת in Hebrew and γυνή in Greek. When the Old Testament and New Testament are translated into English, translators generally translate the word “wife” when there is a possessive used. In other words, we’re translating “my woman” or “his woman” as “wife.”
Genesis 2:24, then, actually reads: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his woman, and they shall become one flesh.” Ephesians 5:31 reads similarly: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his woman, and they two shall be one flesh.”Lori’s argument, hinged as it is on whether or not cohabitating couples use a very specific and particular word—“wife”—falls apart when one remembers that the verses she is basing it on were written in languages that did not have a separate word for wife. Plenty of cohabitating men would call their girlfriend “their woman.” Does this, then, mean they are actually married?
Maybe Lori should think twice before basing an entire argument on a single word in a Bible passage, without first double checking the original Greek or Hebrew.
In addition to objecting to what amounts to common law marriage, Lori also objects to the claim that a marriage can be entered into outside of a government-issued marriage license:
A marriage is a covenant with God before witnesses (remember, Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding) and proclaiming to those around you that you are committing your lives together until death do you part. We are also commanded to obey the governing authorities and their definition of marriage requires a marriage certificate before witnesses.
This is actually one of the better readings of the “governing authorities” passage I’ve seen lately. Of course, that may be because the last reading of it I saw was by a Christian homeschool legal group that argued that filling out a government form was going against the command that Christians obey the governing authorities, because the law stated that parents must provide the child’s age and the form asked not for the child’s age but for the child’s date of birth.
But Lori wasn’t done writing about marriage. In a blog post written the day after this one, she offered advice to a reader currently living with her boyfriend and their two children.
A woman asked me for counsel. Here is her situation: “I became saved after already living in sin with the father of my now two children. We are still not married. Since becoming saved, I have seen and learned why God wants us to be married before having children and living together. My partner, however, is not a believer and doesn’t see the need to ‘rush into’ getting married even though I want to honor God and do so. How do I handle this? He is a great father and I don’t see leading him to Christ by breaking apart our family?”
Amazingly, Lori tells this woman not to leave her boyfriend. In fact, she doesn’t even tell her to withhold sex until a marriage license is signed. Lori’s interest in the woman’s children having both a mother and a father seems to sort of take over, and she almost seems to give a nod to common-law marriage after all:
The Bible makes it clear that fornication is sin but a man and woman living together and having children become a family. God also hates divorce. It’s devastating to children so I am going to answer with the children in mind.
…does that mean Lori considers them actually married? This would seem to completely contradict her previous post, but then maybe that’s the point—she’s been trying to apply one-dimensional answers to a more complicated problem, and she’s coming face to face with the tensions in play, so she’s getting a bit creative.
God said it’s better to have a milestone wrapped around one’s neck and drowned in the deepest sea rather than cause a little one to stumble (Matthew 18:6). Parents separating causes little ones to stumble. Divorce/separation causes so much devastation upon them and effects them even into adulthood.
Having parents who are unhappy or abusive or engaged in unhealthy relationship dynamics also causes devastation, but that’s rather beside the point—I wasn’t exactly expecting to approve of Lori’s views on divorce. What I find most interesting here is that she’s talking about a situation where there was no “marriage” by her definition to begin with.
This is fascinating. Lori is using her belief that divorce is harmful to justify a woman continuing to live in sin. I honestly didn’t think she had this much flexibility in her.
Of course, Lori’s justification is rather gross. She argues that if this woman tells her boyfriend that she’ll move out if he doesn’t marry her, she risks the relationship ending and the children losing their father. But then she responds to the idea that the woman could go on living with her boyfriend, and simply refuse to have sex with him (as sex outside of marriage is sin):
Children need their mother and father under the same roof. I would counsel this woman to live a godly, holy life in front of this man. She needs to win him without a word by her godly behavior even though he isn’t her husband. Some suggest she do this but not have sex with him. I can see the logic in this, but I don’t see it in practical application. I doubt most unbelieving men would agree to continue to live with a woman who wasn’t giving him regular sex.
…giving him regular sex…
What is marriage, really? I’ve been pondering these questions as I’ve read these posts. Obviously, it’s a construct—something we make up and give value to. The more interesting question is whether the meaning we imbue to marriage—and its form—are changing today.
I think that Lori is correct that cohabitation is not of necessity marriage, because marriage typically denotes a more permanent commitment, and many people use cohabitation as a sort of in-between step, to try out marriage and see if they are ready for it. At the same time, there are also those who have chosen to eschew marriage in favor of cohabitation more permanently.
Of course, there always were various different steps to relationships. Consider the importance, at one time, of stating that one was “going steady” with a boy. Or consider that engagement was once treated as a period when a couple could begin having sex, because a commitment had been made. Betrothal once worked similarly. In the end, I don’t think the distinction between marriage and not-marriage is quite as black and white as people like Lori or the Pearls seem to think it.
Either way, they’re all spending entirely too much time thinking about (and judging) people’s individual personal choices, so there’s that.
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