by Al Maxey

Issue #95 ------- December 31, 2003
There is no more lovely, friendly and
charming relationship, communion or
company than a good marriage.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)
"Table Talk"

Marital Motives: Covenant or Con?
A Question Involving Questionable Intent

On the 16th of December I sent a special request to the readers of these Reflections. A brother from Texas had written me seeking advice on a situation he was facing regarding marriage and the law of the land. A man and woman had both previously lost their spouses. This couple desired to marry, but by doing so they would lose "a goodly portion of their retirement pensions." May this couple simply make a vow to each other, with God as witness, to be married to one another and it be regarded by God and man as legal, or must they secure a marriage license before they are regarded by God and man as truly married? If they live together as husband and wife, having sexual relations with one another, without the benefit of a public ceremony and a certificate of marriage, are they just "shacking up" and committing fornication? If they profess to be married to one another to their friends and family, for the enjoyment of certain privileges, but deny being married to each other in the presence of others for the sake of some financial gain, does this constitute intent to defraud? These are essentially the questions that were posed to you two weeks ago.

I would like to commend you for your overwhelming response to this ethical and moral dilemma. Over 70 of you shared your reflections with me, and almost all of your emails showed that a lot of thought and study of Scripture had been put into your evaluation and conclusions. Some of you stated that you also have faced similar situations in your own ministries. This is apparently more than an isolated circumstance, but an increasing challenge to some in their later years who face financial setbacks when seeking to comply with the laws and customs of our society.

A retired judge from Texas offered some advice that needs to be shared early on in this discussion. He wrote, "While we ponder this matter, I would offer you a suggestion. You might want to include a disclaimer such as: 'The following are simply observations from a number of concerned people and do not constitute legal or financial advice.'" I happen to think this is sound advice. Thus, I want to make it very clear: I am not an attorney, thus nothing I write in this issue of Reflections should be regarded as legal advice. My comments will fall under the umbrella of moral, ethical and spiritual advice, based upon my study and understanding of the Word of God. They are personal convictions; they do not constitute binding legal or financial advice. Any remarks made by the readers, and quoted herein, are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the thinking of others associated with this publication.

A highly respected leader in the church, also from Texas, shared another concern with me. He cautioned, "Be careful that this is not a ploy of Satan seeking to neutralize your awesome effectiveness in your Reflections ministry. I'm sure that on a case by case examination you would lean toward God's amazing grace, as I would, but be careful when someone tries to get you to paint with too broad a brush concerning a question such as this. The one thing which makes your ministry so powerful is that to thinking people (liberal or conservative) your appeal simply to the Scriptures, regardless of traditions or traditional interpretations, makes us really think. I fear this question is so loaded with permissiveness that it's going to be hard for anyone to draw the line anywhere once you start down that road. Don't take the bait! I can just hear some of the 'conservative' brethren, with their 'See where this is all heading!' mentality, using this against you. I love and appreciate you more than you can possibly know!"

Let me assure this dear brother that I do indeed appreciate his concern. My critics and detractors have tried many times to "lay traps" for me, and I am confident some will continue their efforts to undermine and destroy my ministry. In this case, I happen to know the person asking the question, and I believe his intentions are honorable. Even then, however, some could twist my responses to serve their own ends. Thus, I shall seek to make my statements clear and shall seek to make them biblical and rational. If we rest solidly upon the foundation of His Word and sound reasoning we can't go too far astray!

What Constitutes A Marriage?

One of the readers made the following astute observation: "It is my belief that we do a good job of confusing 'weddings' and 'marriages.' They are not, in my judgment, identical." I couldn't agree more! Is a marriage ONLY a marriage when a duly signed and witnessed license is on record with the state? Some of the readers believe this to be the case. One reader wrote, "It is clearly wrong to live as husband and wife without the presence of a legal marriage license." Another reader responded, "For a marriage to be considered 'legal' in the U.S. there must be a marriage license." Another reader expressed an opposing view in this manner: "A marriage license does not create a marriage any more than a death certificate kills someone!"

Although I am not a lawyer, nor am I even remotely any kind of legal expert, nevertheless it doesn't take a great deal of research to discover that in many places within our great nation a marriage license and a public ceremony are NOT legally required for a couple to be recognized as husband and wife. This is often called a Common Law marriage, which in legal terms is characterized a "non-ceremonial" relationship requiring "a positive mutual agreement, permanent and exclusive of all others, to enter into a marriage relationship, cohabitation sufficient to warrant a fulfillment of necessary relationship of man and wife, and an assumption of marital duties and obligations" (Black's Law Dictionary). Currently, about a fifth of the states recognize such an arrangement, and Texas is one of them. An attorney from Texas wrote, "Texas does recognize common law marriage, but one required element of common law marriage is that the pair hold themselves out to others as being married -- which might trigger the same financial consequences these couples wish to avoid." Texas refers to this union as "informal marriage," and, according to the Texas Family Code, it must meet the following criteria: (1) the parties must agree to being in a state of marriage, (2) they must cohabit within the borders of Texas, and (3) they must represent themselves to others as married. It is this last requirement to which the attorney alluded.

Thus, it seems to me that one cannot declare, as some readers have, that a marriage is "clearly wrong" or "illegal" if no marriage license exists. In point of fact, it most certainly can be a legitimate, recognized marriage. This only addresses half the question, however. What constitutes a genuine marriage in the eyes of GOD? There is great variety in the eyes of various human societies; laws and customs vary from place to place and from people to people. The real issue, however, is what our God considers imperative to the uniting of a man and woman in marriage.

In my opinion, marriage is far more than a contract (as evidenced in some legal document), but is a covenant (and is evidenced in the heart). It is a covenant between the man, the woman and their GOD. Thus, both adultery and divorce are nothing less than Breaking Covenant with one's spouse and with one's God. When a man and woman commit themselves to one another for life as husband and wife, they have vowed a covenant, and the witness is the Creator Himself. Marriage transcends ink on paper; it is a commitment of every aspect of one's being exclusively to another for life. To confuse a "wedding" with a "marriage" is to unduly elevate the former, and unnecessarily devalue the latter.

Another reader responded with the following thoughts: "Since the Scriptures do not legislate the marriage ceremony, I believe that marriage is a male and female making a covenant with each other to be married, until death separates them. As a Christian couple they should consider that God is listening to their vows to one another." In Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus holds up the IDEAL of the Lord God for marriage. It is male and female coming together as one flesh for life. "What therefore GOD has joined together, let no man separate" (vs. 6). As a reader in Florida correctly observes, "God does the joining together, not man!"

A reader in Germany summed it up this way: "I would say the major point to be worked out is the understanding of what a 'marriage' is, and one will find that there are two distinct sets of ideas -- the biblical one and the state/legal one." I think this distinction is valid ... and critical. In the eyes of states and societies (primitive and modern) the requirements of a marital contract vary widely. One should seek to determine the laws under which he or she lives, and seek to comply to the best of his/her ability, as I believe the Lord would have one to do. After all, Paul declared we are to be "in subjection to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1) and we are to "render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom" (vs. 7). True marriage, however, goes well beyond contractual customs of society. True marriage is a covenant, and it is of the HEART. Some may very well go through a legal ceremony and sign a license, and yet never have made a covenant within their hearts to the other person before their God. This is why so many unions fail ... and fail quickly; there was no real covenant. On the other hand, a couple may enter into a covenant with one another, before their God, and yet never have secured an "official" document declaring such. Yet, their union is "on record" in Heaven, if not at the courthouse. It is my conviction that a marriage is recognized by God if two people have truly entered into a covenant with one another. Must they get a marriage license also? If the law where they live requires it, then I believe they should. Our witness to those about us as faithful servants of God and good citizens of the land in which we dwell will cause us to do no less.

Intent To Defraud?

I think the real question posed by the brother in Texas, however, goes much deeper than the nature of marriage. It goes to motive and intent. If one is seeking to circumvent the laws or customs of the land in which they dwell, and they seek to do so with the intent to defraud, then whether married or not in the eyes of God or the state, one is engaging in SIN. Paul condemned some in Corinth for defrauding others (1 Corinthians 6:7-8). He actually stated one would be better off suffering some personal wrong or loss, than to engage in actions that would wrong others. Herein lies a valid and applicable principle, it seems to me, to our present scenario suggested by the brother from Texas. As Christians, we should be willing, if necessary, to suffer a loss, rather than be guilty of defrauding others for some personal gain. If the laws are unfair to some element of society, seek to change them, don't seek to circumvent them or place yourself above them via fraudulent means.

One legal analyst admitted this was a danger with the common law system. He wrote, "People who look at common law marriage as merely 'shacking up' are not necessarily wrong in their view. Whenever 'The People' have a right secured to them that the government cannot control or interfere with, there will always be people who will misuse that right. That's just human nature. Common law marriage is not immune to that human foible, and may very well, by its nature, be more prone to misuse than some other rights." Those who are looking for some avenue to defraud others, whether persons or institutions, may feel a non-ceremonial, unregistered marriage is their answer. In most cases, however, it is not. As the attorney from Texas correctly observed: "One required element of common law marriage is that the pair hold themselves out to others as being married -- which might trigger the same financial consequences these couples wish to avoid." If the couple genuinely desires to be regarded as married, not just "shacking up," they must meet the requirements of the common law statutes, which includes presenting themselves AS MARRIED to the public view. If they DENY being husband and wife IN ANY WAY, while otherwise seeking the privileges of marriage, they may very well become perpetrators of FRAUD. That is not only SIN in the eyes of God, but a CRIME in the eyes of the state. This is not behavior becoming of a child of God.

At some point in their interaction with those administering their pensions they will likely be placed in a position where they must either present themselves as married ... or LIE. It may be something as simple as checking a box on a form, but it will be a misrepresentation nonetheless. To engage in such behavior for the sake of some financial gain is unacceptable, in my view. One reader phrased it this way: "To call down God's grace to mitigate a financial problem seems to me to be a case of prostituting a Holy blessing." To enter into a covenant of marriage with God as one's witness, and then misrepresent that blessing for the sake of some material gain, makes a mockery of the marriage covenant. One reader was very upset that a child of God would even consider such a tactic. "I find it disturbing that God's law and civil law can be rationalized away in order to accommodate a self-serving human nature."

A minister in Hawaii wrote, "The couple desires to be together (married and intimate) AND keep their income sources. While this is understandable, there is a fundamental issue of virtue that must be addressed." A minister in Tennessee worded it this way: "Integrity is often costly!" What price will a person place on virtue? On integrity? On honesty? On godliness? These are questions that such a couple must ask themselves. A seventy year old widow perhaps summed it up best when she wrote, "My suggestion to this couple would be that they prayerfully discern how each decision will affect their relationship with their God." Marriage is a covenant between a man and woman, made in the presence of their God. Denying that covenant, in any way, for the sake of some material gain, can only do harm, it seems to me, to one's relationship with one's God, and can only do harm to one's integrity and influence.

As Christians we are to hold our light high for all to see. We must walk in such a way that we declare by our very lives the joys and blessings of being Spirit-filled. Our actions and attitudes should draw people TO the Lord Jesus Christ, not drive them away. If we are engaged in fraudulent activities, how does that affect our witness for Christ? Our influence upon others? Either we walk in the light, or we participate in the deeds of darkness. Which path will we choose? This whole issue is about far more than what constitutes "marriage" ... it is about what constitutes godliness. Yes, living a life of virtue and integrity may mean we have to make some sacrifices. But, in the final analysis, losing a few perishable things here on earth will hardly matter when we receive the imperishable treasures reserved for us in Heaven. If we live daily for our God, He has promised never to forsake us. Do we believe that? If so, then let's live like it. My advice to the couple in Texas is this: Enter into a covenant with one another, comply with the laws of your local area, present yourselves to everyone about you as servants of the Father and heirs together of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7), and trust in your God to provide for you and see you through whatever challenges lie before you, financial or otherwise. He will never fail you!!

Reflections from Readers

From an Elder in Missouri:

Al, Over the years I have attempted to prepare myself for any possible question that might arise, especially in the subject of marriage (and, of course, divorce and remarriage). I appreciate your recent article on 1 Corinthians 7, and have been studying, and will continue to study and pray about, your thoughts on that matter. It presents some new thoughts I need to process and look into. As for the matter regarding the couple who wish to marry, but would lose significant retirement pension moneys should they do so, this truly is a dilemma faced by many more than the couple your reader spoke of, I am sure. I look forward to your response and/or article on this subject.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Hey Al, Happy New Year! I just read your Reflections article on Judging With Righteous Judgment. I'm not attempting to engage in a "can you top this" exercise, but if you have only had brethren compile a notebook on you, that's small potatoes. About thirty years ago I was on a business trip to California. Having consulted one of our "sound" papers for a list of "approved" congregations I found one near my hotel and dropped in on the church for the evening assembly on Sunday. The preacher and his wife invited me to their home after the assembly. As I settled in for cookies and milk, I mentioned that I was, at that time, from Texas. The preacher became excited and asked me if I knew a certain preacher. "Yes, I did," I responded. Excitement turned into euphoria as the man shouted, "I have an entire filing cabinet on him, would you like to look through it?" At the risk of having the cookies and milk offer rescinded, I respectfully declined.

A "Plug" for a Reader in Mississippi

One of the faithful readers of these Reflections has committed himself to seeking to reach others for the Lord through the Internet. He is a former officer in the Navy, has a wonderful family, is a good writer, and, most importantly, is a devoted disciple of the Lord. I have corresponded with this young man for many months, and am truly impressed with his sincere love for the cause of Christ. I hope you will visit the below sites (which he gave me permission to "plug") and get to know him better. He will enrich your lives, as he has mine. --- Al Maxey

From an Elder in Pennsylvania:

I have been reading your Reflections for some time, and I really look forward to each and every issue. I appreciate your well-reasoned thoughts and have learned much from your writings and the readers' reflections. I have also read and learned much from your published debates. I have been a "lurker" in the past, but wanted to comment on issue #94 -- Judging With Righteous Judgment. It seems to me that brotherly love demands that we give the benefit of the doubt to a brother's actions. Some even read evil motives into essentially good acts because they just can't believe any good thing could come from that brother. This tells us more about the mindset of the critic than anyone else.

I agree, caustic criticism must go. We need to be able to discuss with brothers honest disagreements over our understandings of Scripture with a Christian spirit while trying to reach a correct understanding. If we can't agree, then the disagreement should at least be friendly. I believe one of the Campbells said (I'll loosely paraphrase), "You can't bind on a brother an interpretation of Scripture that he can't see for himself." However, I don't think you will get many converts from among "those who engage in harsh criticism over petty party preferences." You and I tend to easily accept those who are more "conservative" than we are, but the one engaging in harsh criticism seems to have trouble accepting those who are more "liberal" on an issue. The problem is that they tend to see the more "liberal" brother as "having left the faith," and regard him as no longer a brother, but a wolf in sheep's clothing leading the brethren astray. I think you dealt with that most effectively in issue #91 -- Salvation By Perfect Perception. When these brethren learn that lesson, maybe the harsh tone will die down. As it is, such brethren go around with bad spectacles on, looking for wolves in sheep disguises, and only end up maiming a lot more sheep than wolves! Keep up the good work!

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