Question:

Is it a sin to marry without getting a license or having a witness? Can you marry someone in God's eyes and a couple years later, when I have the money saved up to actually have a wedding, and then get the license? My girlfriend and I don't want to wait anymore, we don't have the money for a wedding, and we also don't want to tell anyone (including the government) that we are getting married.


Answer:

The problem is that there isn't a marriage covenant without witnesses and records. Covenants are a very old form of contracts that are to last a lifetime. In a true covenant:

  • The parties involved are listed out and a brief history of their relationship is stated. The typical marriage license covers these two requirements because it lists not only who is getting married, but also their parents and addresses so everyone knows exactly who entering this covenant. In a wedding, the person doing the ceremony typically asks if the two people, by full name agree to marry and asks if the parents agree.
  • The obligations are listed out. This is the typical wedding vow:  "I, (name), take you (name), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish ..." Along with this, a covenant lists the blessings for keeping it and the consequences for breaking it. In most weddings, people focus on the blessings, but the Bible also speaks of the breaking (Hebrews 13:4).
    • The vows are made to a higher power -- God (Matthew 19:4-6). God is the ultimate witness and enforcer of the covenant.
    • The vows are witnessed by at least two people, which is the primary duty of the best man and the bride's maid. But typically weddings are held in front of members of both families, where everyone becomes a witness.
  • Provisions are made for remembering the covenant and reminders that the parties are in fellowship. Commonly rings testify to the existence of the covenant. The marriage license is signed and recorded for a permanent record (in older days it was recorded at the church where the wedding took place). A reception serves as the fellowship meal between family and friends. Anniversaries serve as the periodic reminders that the covenant continues.

If you don't want anyone to know you are married, then you don't love each other nearly enough. Marriages don't require government involvement, but if a government wants to provide the recording of marriages for legal matters, there is nothing wrong with it and Christians are required to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). Pretense of marriage appears to work for a while -- until you need legal proof for something later. Not long ago I had a woman who pretended to get married and is now upset because she has no say in her husband's terminal illness because there is no evidence that they were married. That also means that if he dies, she won't have anything that was purchased by him.

The reason covenants are public is because its common knowledge blocks anyone from easily breaking the covenant. If you pretend to marry and then five years from now she leaves and marries another man, what claim would you have that it would be wrong? There would only be your word and that is insufficient evidence.

Almost everywhere in the world, a marriage license costs very little money. In the United States it varies from $10 to $115. Even if you live in an expensive state, you can travel to a cheaper state and get the license and be married there. A civil marriage by a justice of the peace in the United States costs anywhere from $50 to $100. A little research and you are likely to find preachers, like myself, who are willing to do weddings for no cost. A ring doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. In other words, the argument that you can't afford to get married is most likely false. If you can't afford even this little, how are the two of you going to set up your own household?

Just because you two want to jump into bed together, it doesn't mean you can skip the important step of actually getting married. "But if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (I Corinthians 7:9).

Therefore, if you do try pretend to get married without witnesses or record of the marriage, then you two will not really be married and when you have sex you will be committing fornication, which is a sin. "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4).