Legal Marriage Vs. God’s Institution of Marriage

Marital union in any of the United States of America is not necessarily the same as marital union from a biblical point of view; one is merely legal in nature and the other is both spiritual and legal. When a man and a women desire to marry one another they will go to the state in which they reside and apply for a marriage license.  In order to receive this license they must meet certain criteria.  Examples would include: neither can be currently legally married to someone else, both must have identification proving their identity, they must be one male and one female (Supreme Court changed this as of June 26, 2015) and they must pay a licensing fee and then wait a short period of time while these facts are verified.  Marriage by a government agency represents the legal aspects of a marital union.

However, marriage predates civil governments.  The first covenant in the history of man is the Covenant of Creation (God’s Covenant of Redemption is the first covenant, which predates creation including humanity).  Marriage is part of the Creation Covenant. God instituted marriage when He said that Adam needed a suitable mate, so He created woman from the rib of Adam indicating that a women is suppose to come alongside of a man and be his helpmate—ideally for life.  A spiritual marriage is also legal under God’s law, which is not recognized by all men even though all men will be held accountable to God’s laws.  Therefore, it is possible to enter into a biblical marriage (legal under God’s laws and spiritual) without getting civilly married in one of the fifty states–after all people have been getting married for thousands of years without a license from the state of California.

Consider a couple of biblical examples: In Genesis chapter 29 Laban tricked Jacob into becoming married to Leah when it was actually Rachel that he intended to marry. Laban’s deception could not have worked if they would have had civil ceremonies prior to the spiritual union that takes place when a man and women become one through sexual union. A week later we learn, from verse 30, that Rachel also became Jacob’s wife, and all that was necessary to make their seven years of love a marriage was for them to join in sexual intercourse—“So Jacob went in to Rachel also…”

A generation earlier Isaac married Rebekah by having sexual relations with her the same day that he met her. Genesis 24:67 says, “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her; thus Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” These spiritual marriages were not preceded by civil ceremonies nor did these patriarchs obtain a marriage license of any kind, yet they were real marriages that lasted until the death of one of the two partners.

Let it be very clearly stated that these examples are not biblical evidence advocating sexual relations early in a relationship.  Rebekah was brought to Isaac for the express purpose of becoming his wife.  He had already agreed to the process and she had agreed to the process that God was using to bring them together as husband and wife.  They did not have physical relations on their first date; they came together in order to become husband and wife.  Their commitment to marriage preceded their sexual union, which consummated the marital covenant.  Sexual relations outside of marriage is fornication or adultery and must not be committed by the children of God.

Today in the United States of America many would likely argue that believers in Christ Jesus cannot be “Spiritually Married” without being legally married by the laws of one of the fifty states.  The reality is that a marriage in the eyes of God does not require a license from any human government.  If a man and a woman unite themselves one to another first by commitment and then by sexual relations they are in fact married in the eyes of God. Churches should welcome them into the family of God for worship, fellowship and for sharing in the work of the church.  So why would a Christian get legally married under the laws of a government?

Being legally married in the United States endows one with over 1,000 benefits not afforded to the unwed. For example, they may file joint returns on their income tax forms, they may hold property together and it automatically passes to the survivor in the event of death, they have access to one another’s health records, they may receive social security benefits from their spouses income, the state will oversee an equitable distribution of property in the event of a divorce, and on and on.

To 501(c)(3) or not to 501(c)(3) That Is the Question.

Just as individuals may obtain marriage licenses from states, in the same way, churches in America usually get what is called a 501(c)(3) that allows them to be tax-exempt religious organizations.  Sadly most church leaders seem to be ignorant of the fact that churches are automatically exempt and do not need to file an application for a 501(c)(3) with the government.  Nevertheless, most churches get a 501(c)(3) upon formation just as most Christians get a marriage license from the state of residence upon marrying.

The purpose of getting a 501(c)(3) is not so that a body of believers can be a church.  A group of believers who form a church without a 501(c)(3) are considered just as much a church.  Not only are most churches unaware that a 501(c)(3) is redundant and unnecessary, but most people seem to be ignorant to the fact that marriage licenses are not necessary in order to enter God’s institution of marriage.

FYI: The 501(c)(3) designation is necessary for charities, para-church organizations and nonprofits, to gain the same tax advantages automatically afforded to churches.

If marriage licenses are not necessary for a true marriage, then why does anyone get them?  Tax exemption for churches and legal benefits for marriages can be very valuable for numerous reasons.  It is almost unheard of to marry in the United States without first getting a marriage license because of the over 1,000 state and federal benefits enticing the utilization of state licenses.  In fact, those benefits are so coveted that homosexuals are waging very successful battles to win the right to be legally married in the United States (though the prize they most cherish is total cultural acceptance of homosexuality [including morally] as a normative lifestyle).

Note: The very same churchmen that refuse to recognize a spiritual marriage between a man and a woman if their marriage has not also been made official with a state sanctioned license will also reject a marriage between two homosexuals who have obtained the very same state license. Did you catch that?  This alone should demonstrate the obvious fact that spiritual marriage in the eyes of God and state sanctioned marriages are, in fact, two separate entities—one instituted by God and the other observed by the nations.  The fact that Christians almost always obtained these two at the same time must not cause believers to lose sight of the fact that they may also be obtained separately.  Christians should be far more reluctant to co-mingle that which is from God with that which is by man because that which is by man will eventually become profane and the admixture will ruin the gifts of God.

Just as a genuine body of believers does not need a 501(c)(3) to form a legitimate church neither does a godly man and woman need a marriage license to form a legitimate marriage partnership.  As individual states continue a rapid declension into morally corrupt entities, Christians may one day cease going to them for licenses to marry.  It is not God’s institution of marriage that is being profaned by the inclusion of homosexual marriages into their marital statutes, but it is the moral authority of the state that is being profaned.

Governments descending into socialism begin to make laws that discourage Christian morality and ethics.  The citizens of these governments begin to avoid marriage all together.  Socialists/communists hate Christianity  because Christianity and capitalism compliment one another just as atheism and socialism/communism compliment one another.

As governments slide toward socialism they begin to motivate their citizens to behave more and more irresponsibly.  The millennial generation has rejected legal marriages in numbers that far exceed previous generations.  This is because government benefits would be lost to single parents if they were to become legally married.  So millennials still live together like a nuclear family, but they bypass the institution of marriage.  Because they think that marriage via a state license is the warp and woof of marriage they consider themselves single, which means that they are not spiritually married either.

When the day comes that the states begin to drop all marital benefits or more likely extend them to everyone (effectively ending the demand for legal marriage) the very Christians who claim legal marriage is necessary will at that time make our argument and they will do so using God’s word as their source of truth (as we do now).

Legal marriages in the United States have been so expedient for believers and unbelievers alike that believers never concerned themselves with the possibility that the secular governments would someday become unrighteous in their dealings with God’s ancient institution.  It appears that is changing.

Update: The Supreme Court took the gay marriage issue out of the hands of the states by legalizing it in all 50 states on June 26, 2015.

Post Script:

Do not misunderstand our meaning in this article.  The state, like marriage, was instituted by God.  Members of the body of Christ must submit themselves to the authority of the state unless its laws encourage or demand breaking God’s law.  One of the critical functions of the state is to protect, uphold and support the institution of marriage.  This includes making laws governing marriage and its dissolution.  We believe that although the state makes laws governing marriage it is nonetheless
God who instituted it; therefore, a man and a woman may enter into the marriage covenant in accordance with God’s laws with or without the cooperation of the state.

Once married they must submit themselves to the laws of the state regarding marriage and its dissolution, but they are bound first by God’s laws regarding marriage and its dissolution.  Thus they must first have biblical grounds for divorce before they get divorced.  Merely getting a divorce under the laws of the state does not free the believer from God’s laws governing marriage and divorce.  The result of a legal divorce without biblical grounds would be a legally divorced person who is still married to their spouse in the eyes of God, which is why Jesus said those who get a divorce will be guilty of adultery.

On the other hand, a believer can be caught up in a drawn out divorce preceding while already spiritually divorced from their spouse.  Clearly in the later case the believer will be treated by the state as though they were still married, and they will need to abide by the state’s laws regarding marriage.  Therefore, believers who become spiritually divorced should pursue legal divorce as soon as it is made available for them.


About Josiah Portermaine

By the abundant lovingkindness and grace of God I have been in Christ for over 45 years. I live to love and serve God in whatever capacity He has in mind. And can do no other but to follow my conscience as scripture and reason guide me threw the shadow lands. I raised 5 children one of whom now sees clearly as he walks on streets of gold. I have a Masters of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I own a business in Nebraska, but I live to serve God. I have preached in three different churches for a period of 10 years. I love preaching God's word. Because of my divorce I am not currently serving in any official capacity, but I know that the Lord has a ministry for me. My goal is to write a book on the topic of divorce when unequally yoked, and this blog is a step in that direction. No brother or sister in Christ should divorce their spouse solely upon the advice they find here or anywhere else for that matter. Immerse yourself in God's word, and go before the Lord--wait upon Him and He will make it clear when the time comes that you are called to repent of your unequally yoked marriage. Christ's continued blessings, Joe View all posts by Josiah Portermaine

12 responses to “Legal Marriage Vs. God’s Institution of Marriage

  • JB

    I’m a woman who “married” another woman years ago. In 2020, she went missing and I still don’t know where she is. I found Jesus Christ at the end of 2020, and now in November 2022, I found a man who desperately wants to marry me. I know what I had with that woman wasn’t marriage in the eyes of God. Since I don’t want to sin, and keep my virginity until marriage, but getting a “divorce” will take time and money and is just a piece of paper and nothing recognized by God, could I have a marriage ceremony with this man and live a married life, while I work on the “divorce”? I’d prefer to marry him now, without the government involved, and work on the “divorce” in the meantime, and then get legally married to him once the “divorce” is through. Do you think God would have a problem with that? Please, I need to know.

    • Josiah Portermaine

      Joy fills my heart that the Lord saved you through His mercy and by His grace. It is very appropriate that you want to please the Lord Jesus Christ. I cannot speak to whether or not God would have a problem with your plan. It is best for you to discover His plan for you, and that may take a little more time, but you will never be sorry for taking more time to be certain what God has in mind for you. I am able to provide some thoughts of my own, and the first one is that you be patient and wait on the Lord to tell you what His will for you is at this juncture in your life. All of us will make really poor decisions whenever we get out ahead of our heavenly Father.

      The article you read should not say that God does not recognize state marriages, but that they are not mentioned in God’s word as necessary for marriage. I believe I said that for most “Christian” marriages, the state sanctioned marriage is both valid and legal in the eyes of God and the state in which they get married. I do believe that a Christian couple may marry without government involvement and God recognizes their marriage as valid, but know that the state governs these marriages too after the fact whether a license was obtained or not.

      You provided very little detail that would be necessary to offer you an opinion. How long have you known this man? JB, you are yet a baby Christian yourself, so you likely are not very practiced at knowing the difference between a true believer and those who claim Christ for other reasons such as being born into a religious family or tradition, cultural respect, finding “a good girl”, networking, etc. Are you attending a strong Bible preaching church? Have you consulted a pastor of such a church? Are you and Mr. Desperate willing to participate in serious “Christian” premarital counselling? Are your parents willing to give their blessing for the marriage-believers or not? Why am I asking you all of this you may be wondering? I am doing so because I do not want you to enter into another unequally yoked marriage. It takes some time to be certain about entering into a genuinely Christian marriage. If you take the time and go through the right steps you will soon be able to marry the man God has for you, but if you rush into marriage before you have developed as a believer in Christ and someone who is content being single, then you will likely be creating for yourself some very serious pain in the future. Also, to follow the traditional sequence (Marriage, divorce, sufficient time to find God’s best for you, remarriage) will make life so much easier on you if it is at all possible. To take the shortcut you have in mind will complicate your life and relationships especially in explaining to others that you care about why you did things the way you did them. Seeking God’s will, either way, is your necessary task right now. You are in a place where it is easy to fail to find God’s will because we have too strong of a will of our own and we manipulate ourselves into thinking that God’s will is exactly the same as our will. I am asking you to slow down just a bit and make sure you care more about what God wants because He knows best…He knows the beginning to the end.

      Finally, Martyn Lloyd-Jones taught me that we must be unanimous in every decision we make. If any part of you whatsoever is unsure about your getting married to this man, then it will be a sin against the God you love and serve. This means that your heart, mind, conscience, wisdom and the Holy Spirit, are all on the same page. To get as many people from a support group (parents, pastor, mentors, wise Christian friends) on board is also critical. If they do not get on board you will feel a strong sense of abandonment from this group after you make your decision contrary to their council. So if you honestly cannot say I am unanimous with God as my witness, then God’s plan for you is to wait and work on dating this man, going to premarital counselling together if ready, while starting the arduous process of divorcing the woman who ghosted you. It may be easier because she has dropped off the face of the earth. I understand, believe me, from personal experience how difficult it is to wait when you feel you are in love, but failure to wait for God is to guarantee future pain that will far exceed the pain you are presently experiencing. If you desire to provide me more details and get more my thoughts on your current situation then respond asking for me to contact you at your email, which I have available to me. We will converse privately after you request as much. I so strongly want long lasting joy and happiness for you JB.

      Christ’s Continued Blessings Beloved Sister,

    • Josiah Portermaine

      I suspect my first answer will depress you a bit or much. Know that I am the author of this blog, which means that I am not trying to discourage you. You have perfect grounds for divorce…no problem there from virtually any Christian. Yours is not so much a divorce and remarriage issue as it is a making the wisest decision to marry issue. You need to be REALLY sure about this relationship because once you enter a Christian marriage (one man, one woman, both in Christ) you will find it MUCH harder to divorce and remarry the next time. Most people will not approve. It is only God’s approval that should matter, but the body of Christ must not be overlooked. I merely want you to be fully sure about this love you seek and know that the heart can be very deceptive, which is why the mind, will, word of God, conscience and Holy Spirit all need to overpower your no doubt BIG and lovely heart. Be unanimous, take the time to get this right. If Mr. Desperate really loves you, then he will wait for you. And if you and Mr. Desperate truly love God you both can refrain from fornication while God continues showing you His timing for marriage.
      Christ’s Gracious Blessings,

  • Theodora

    “Does he love people (not you or your kids, but everyone else)”

    Joe, I understand that a saved husband will also have an agape love for those outside his family, however I have witnessed husbands who sacrifice their wives to please their children, and even more sinful, are people pleasers to those outside their priority to their wives first then children. This I’ve also seen with men who profess Christ.
    They fail the test of masculinity.

    These bad fruits, when brought to their attention is discarded, which could indicate that they are not truly saved.

  • Theodora

    Joe, my divorce is required in my home country and with the lock down implications, it seems almost impossible for this to happen. Nevertheless, I am confident in my faith that God has already made a way, as He always has done in my life when in His will, for this restitution of repentance to take effect.

    I was hoping virtual divorce might become an alternative.

    • Joe Porter

      If by virtual you mean without either spouse’s presence necessary than that will be determined country by country. But I think that a divorce can take place without legal paperwork. The paperwork would have to be completed prior to another government sanctioned remarriage in order to abide by the laws of the governing authorities. Being unequally yoked and equally yoked in marriage does not require governments’ permission. God instituted marriage. It is being bound together with an unbeliever that causes all kinds of difficulties for the believer ending in diminished sanctification and the loss of peace. Therefore, becoming unbound constitutes repentance and obedience. If any government allows separation without going through the paperwork, then that is preferred over remaining unequally yoked until circumstances allow for paperwork to be completed and confirmed. Getting remarried in the Lord to a believer prior to the legal system catching up to your divorced status places one in a position where the appearance of evil is possible; however, as your own case shows it is not always an option to take steps as we would like to take them or in the usual order. Getting remarried in the Lord with the cooperation of a government prior to getting the dissolution of the prior marriage from a different government is breaking the law and must not be done by the children of God. An actual divorce not yet ratified by a government and then an actual remarriage to a child of God also not ratified by a government are possible when necessary. Every effort to get government ratifications should be made for the sake of all involved.

  • Carly Massimiani

    Hi Joe, your above read was most interesting. I’m currently going through a divorce. I have been separated from my husband for over 2 years, the divorce proceeding is just taking so long because of the paper trail, maintenance issues (my husband doesn’t want to support the kids) and I’m sure ‘other’ priorities of the lawyers.I am saved, and unfortunately married my husband when I was a little off the rails. I am so frustrated at the length of time that this whole legal process takes and seem to be in an endless battle with my folks around their opinion on me ‘moving on’ with my life and still being married in the eyes of the law. At the end of the day I know God knows my heart and I am ultimately responsible to him. And in my heart I know and have known my marriage was over even before I separated. My argument is that my parents expect me to remain single until the paper work has gone through. I have met an amazing christian man who loves and adores my kids, who I would like to pursue a relationship with. But my parents are judging me and holding me accountable to the legalities of paper work. of course I’m not going to run off and marry this man, and together we are praying and seeking Gods advice and wisdom, but it makes me mad that I as a christian covered by Gods grace need to be held to the legalities of this sick world. I’d value your thoughts…

    • Joe Porter

      My heart is with you as you go through your legal divorce. Failure at being prudent at this stage of your life will reap years of difficulty. Prudence disposes us to make right choices about what we should and should not do at any given moment. Being at a crossroads in your life means that you are setting in motion decisions that will affect the rest of your life. My advice is as follows: First, if you have informed your husband that you are divorcing him, you have served him a paper to that effect (writ of divorce), and finally you have taken up two separate residences, then you are divorced. The paperwork to divide the property and settle children related decisions not withstanding you are divorced. Having said that you cannot legally marry until your state laws permit it. You are merely lying to yourself if you claim to be a believer and you have physical relations with a man to whom you are not married (Fornicators begins the list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God [I Cor. 6:9-10]). However, you can get married in the Lord (a biblical marriage) and later get a legal marriage when your state allows, but if God and your circumstances allow you to wait, then you should wait. When you get spiritually married you have to tell some people (your kids, parents, best friends) while you must tell others you are not married (lawyers, judge, government agencies, church people who know you are still going through your legal divorce). As you can see it can be a bit complicated and your reputation is at stake. We live for God’s glory and not our own, but we must not even have the appearance of evil. Some people will be forced to believe that you are living in sin and they will believe that about you until the day you or they die even after your legal marriage. Last point here: Romans 13:1 instructs us to submit to our governing authorities. Give unto Cesar what belongs to Cesar and to God what belongs to God. Secondly, now is a great time to work on your relationship with God. Examine yourself and make certain His calling you. Most people who claim to be saved in America today are not remotely saved. If you have not yet become a real student of God’s word, then you are not a child of God. God’s children hunger and thirst for the word of God. Start listening to R. C. Sproul on the internet. If you are intelligent and at all mature begin listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermons at as well. Get Don Whitney’s Book titled “How can I be sure I’m a Christian” and make certain of your own relationship to Christ Jesus. Then apply it to your children and finally to your new love interest. It is a sin to be unequally yoked, so you don’t want another phony Christian as husband number two–it will end just as badly for you. And you don’t want to marry a godly man when you are a phony Christian–it will end just as badly for you. Christians do not mix with non-Christians, and it does not matter how convinced the non-Christian is at their own faith (merely self-deceived and arrogant). Third, honor your father and your mother–it is the fifth commandment. Perhaps if you think it is time to marry this man of God you could get your parents blessing. Have them read one or more of my articles that may persuade them. Be open to God changing their hearts and minds. They would be great allies to have on your side if you decided to get spiritually married before the state allowed a legal marriage. Having your parents at a small spiritual ceremony would be great for you and your children and your new husband. Perhaps if they were able to spend more time with your potential new husband they would encourage a spiritual marriage. Ask God to change their minds. Finally, our judgments are never more clouded then when we are “in love”. How you and this new man feel about each other may knock you “off the rails” again, and you will look back some day and see it when you cannot see it now. I do not necessary hold to the concept that a rebound relationship is always wrong, but you had better find any way possible to take a good look at this man and ask yourself whether or not he is a perfect partner with whom a real, God honoring lifetime can be built upon. Or does he just make you feel good at a time when you aren’t feeling very good–thanks to the great difficulty brought into our lives by divorce. It is actually very easy to fall in love with a member of the opposite sex. That should not be the reason to marry anyone. The decision to marry should always be based on two things: First, is it God’s will, which may be hard to discern. So you make sure the second point is covered first. And secondly, is this person a perfect partner to work alongside for the rest of my life. Does he love God more than anything else (he would have to be a huge student of God’s word if this were true), does he work hard always, does he love people (not you or your kids, but everyone else), is he prudent, is he honest (not a tax cheat, does not tell little white lies, does not take short cuts, tithes to the Lord), does he have a good reputation, is he smart, is he successful, is he disciplined, does he drink too much, is he a carousing man, is he a dissolute man (addicted to video games or any habitual use of his time for foolishness), etc. Carly, I hope you will take these things to heart. If you are truly God’s child he will never leave you and the sooner you grow in your faith to maturity the greater will be your rewards in this lifetime and in the life to come. Christ’s continued blessings, Joe

  • Kari

    Very well written. I had not thought of the comparison between a church obtaining a 501c3 and a believing couple obtaining a marriage license.

    Let the world operate on it’s terms and let true believers operate on God’s.

    The recent country wide flood of gay marriage acceptance has only served to further establish me in my biblical conviction that only God is able to say what marriage is and who is married in reality.

    Not everyone with a marriage license is married in God’s eyes.

    It is my understanding that a church still has ALL the benefits of tax exemption that a church with a 501c3 status has.

    The church without the government status cannot be controlled or manipulated by the government.

    That is the ultimate benefit.

  • Joe

    Please go to the bottom of this blog and click on comment as I would love to hear from you. Joe Porter

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