Q&A: Common Law Marriage

Q&A: Common Law Marriage

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In each issue, a forum of pastors, laity, theologians, and church leaders respond to your questions on subjects such as doctrine, theology, Christian living, and the church. Send your questions to Holiness Today, Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center, 17001 Prairie Star Parkway, Lenexa, KS 66220| E-mail: holinesstoday@nazarene.org. The editor regrets that all questions cannot be printed, acknowledged, or answered.

Q: Is common law marriage, or marriage "in God's sight alone," ever permissible for Christians?

A seminary graduate had recently assumed his first assignment as pastor of a congregation. He quickly encountered a question of ethics.

An elderly couple in his congregation had "fallen in love" and wanted him to conduct their wedding. The catch was that if the marriage were recognized by the state, the woman would lose most of her monthly Social Security assistance from the U.S. government. They would not be able to live on the balance and the man's meager income. So they wanted their minister to perform a wedding "in God's sight alone"-without filing a marriage license with the county.

In another instance, an elderly couple, one divorced and one widowed, wanted to marry. But the man would lose his military medical benefits because their combined incomes would exceed the acceptable limit. To avoid the loss they wanted to be "married in the sight of God alone." Family members supported the proposal.

As life expectancies expand, these situations will probably increase. So Christians need to address the questions. While we're glad these couples desire marriage, to perform marriages "in God's sight only" harbors prohibitive roadblocks.

First, in the U.S. there is no such thing as "marriage in God's sight alone." Apart from common law marriage (recognized in 10 states), a marriage is a legal contract legitimized by the state "in due form of law." So far as the state is concerned, the "Christian" part of a marriage is a religious addition that does not interest the state and adds nothing of legal substance. The Church cannot "create" a marriage in the absence of "due form of law." Doing so would involve the Church in illegality and fiction. It would also implicate God in deception. Furthermore, the Christian ritual of marriage should never be associated with common law marriage.

Second, the requests rest on a faulty understanding of ethics. They assume that "ethics" can be reduced to privacy. The Bible knows of no such arrangement. As the last six points in the Ten Commandments make clear, ethics is a testimony to the character of God and His people. Ethics involves a person's neighbor and the broader community. We cannot reduce ethics to private considerations. Instead, ethics are inseparable from a commitment to integrity that shoulders responsibility for communal well-being. Morally responsible actions cultivate social health and a climate that nurtures human wholeness, mutual confidence, and instruction of the young. Any act of deception, even one supposedly approved by God, attacks social wholeness and shreds the meaning of ethics.

Third, the New Testament epistles call upon Christians to demonstrate their faith openly through lives that are so pure they can be examined and found faultless in the public arena. By their scrupulous integrity Christians glorify the God who called them out of darkness. The Apostle Paul said we should renounce shameful things that need to be hidden, and refuse to act deceptively. We should act so as to "commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God" (2 Corinthians 4:2).

Finally, we should look at the "supportive" family members. They probably meant well by encouraging "marriage in God's sight." But those family members probably hadn't carefully considered the moral and legal implications. Nor had they contemplated the emotional and spiritual toll upon those who would be living dishonestly.Those of us who encourage courses of action for others should first examine the possible consequences of our recommendations. When our recommendations for risky action prove erroneous and disruptive, we had better be there to help pick up the pieces.

Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.