Non-Legal Wedding

"Married in the Eyes of God" — but not the State

By Kersley Fitzgerald

When Dev retired from the Air Force, part of the out-processing ordeal was to meet with a very nice man who explained to us the advantages of the Survivor Benefit Plan. Because he served for twenty years, Dev will receive retirement from the moment he came off active duty until he dies. As far as I can tell through the confusion, if Dev dies first, I will receive a percentage of his retirement pay unless and until I remarry before the age of 55. I will also be eligible for Tricare (the military health insurance program) unless I remarry. So, if Dev dies in some (heroic, naturally) manner and I find someone else to spend the rest of my life with who will keep me out of JT's basement apartment, I lose a lot of money if we marry.

There is an alternative, which is becoming more and more common. A friend in her 70s depends on her late husband's military retirement medical care. She's had at least one emergency heart surgery and her joints just aren't what they used to be. She met an absolutely wonderful man who willingly goes with her on missions trips to China and actually doesn't mind that the dear woman can out-talk an 8-year-old girl on Mt. Dew. They travel, her kids adore him, and seeing them together is just delightful.

But as far as we can tell, although they had a wedding in a church, they didn't file the marriage certificate. If they had, there might be no more traveling, as a substantial amount of money would have to be spent on health care. Their reasoning is their quality of life and independence require not having a marriage license. And since they said their vows in a church in front of God and everyone, they're married in God's eyes, so the government needn't worry about it.

This isn't unusual — in fact, it's a growing trend among older Americans. Beyond the concerns about children's inheritances and loss of widow/widower benefits, married couples may be pushed into a higher tax bracket, lose scholarship money for their kids, and be responsible for the debts of a new spouse who may not live that long. Just living together, perhaps with a stack of powers of attorney, simplifies things.

What does the Bible say? Nothing direct. The Bible describes marriage rites and living arrangements as were practiced at that time, but it doesn't specifically define marriage. In Colorado, you can certify your own marriage certificate. Turn it in and you are married. If you're two slaves working at two different plantations, unable to have a ceremony, you can recite your vows to God and the stars, and you are married. If you discover that after 28 years of wedded bliss and joint tax returns your best beloved forgot to file the license all those long years ago (my poor neighbor!) you're still married — depending on the state.

If you're two teenagers who gaze into each other's eyes and promise devotion forever, you're not married. You're just filled with raging hormones.

So, what constitutes marriage, anyway?

We have a pretty lengthy article on the subject. Is it the ceremony? Government endorsement? Sex? Or a combination? From the article:
So, what constitutes marriage in God's eyes? It would seem that the following principles should be followed: 1) As long as the requirements are reasonable and not against the Bible, a couple should seek whatever formal governmental recognition is available. 2) A couple should follow whatever cultural and familial practices are typically employed to recognize a couple as "officially married." 3) If possible, a couple should consummate the marriage sexually, fulfilling the physical aspect of the "one flesh" principle.

What if one or more of these principles are not fulfilled? Is such a couple still considered married in God's eyes? Ultimately, that is between the couple and God. God knows our hearts (1 John 3:20). God knows the difference between a true marriage covenant and an attempt to justify sexual immorality.
Or, in this case, financial shenanigans.

I think the idea of a common law marriage can be informative, here. If you've done the ceremony and live like you're married, are you "married" under the law?

In some states, having a church wedding without filing a license could be considered a common law marriage. In Colorado, for instance, a relationship is a common law marriage if the two parties affirm they are married, present themselves to the public as married, file joint tax returns, have joint finances, and possibly went through a particular ritual, such as a ceremony or the exchange of rings. Does that mean my 70-something friend is legally wed? Not necessarily. From Colorado Family Law Guide:
A person cannot pick and choose to call himself/herself married only when it's convenient, and then single at other times. So a party asserting a common law marriage claim likely needs something close to unanimity of evidence, and have not claimed to the contrary, to have a decent chance of success. Two documents claiming to be married, and one claiming to be single, probably means you're single!
My friend wears a ring, had a ceremony, and presents herself to the public as married, but as far as Tricare is concerned, she's single. That means she's single and cohabitating, which she is adamantly against.

"But she's married in the eyes of God!" you might say. "God ordained marriage, not the government!" You can't pick and choose, though. Her first marriage was legal. Because it was recognized by the government, she received certain benefits. To this particular branch of the government, she is choosing to present herself as attached to her late husband, but to the rest of the world, to this new man.

That's not God or the government defining marriage — that's my friend defining marriage for her own financial benefit.

If we are to accept the government's benefits as given to married couples, we must accept the government's definition of marriage. In the US, there are procedures to be considered married, which usually includes turning in paperwork and definitely includes relinquishing financial benefits of a late military spouse as directed. If the government does not allow a marriage that God does (as in the case of the star-crossed slaves), you'd have an argument for an independent marriage in front of God — but you would not be able to take advantage of any government-ordained marriage benefits such as family health insurance plans or joint tax filing.

And the ironic thing is, Christians should celebrate the fact that the government does withhold benefits from remarried spouses. It shows that at some level, the government does understand the sanctity and importance of marriage. They understand, at least, the joining together of two people at a particular time in a peculiarly sacred union. It's kind of amazing this is still a thing.

My friend made her choice because of the benefits she receives by virtue of her late husband's military service. But I could see how point 1 of the Got Questions article could be turned around for those who would be financially impaired by marriage without any concern about lying to the government. Is it "reasonable" if marriage would result in a significant increase in taxes? Or require a $10,000 prenuptial agreement to protect the inheritance of the children? Or if one spouse would be required to take on medical costs of the other?

There is another option, of course. It's don't get married at all. Don't have the ceremony or the rings. Don't present yourselves as married. Don't have sex. Don't live together. Being married isn't required.

We complain about how the government has warped the institution of marriage, but we're often willing to look the other way when our friends and family do the same.* It is glorious to find love later in life. It is wonderful to have another who will care for you willingly, easing the burden on family members. Is it worth it to disrespect God's concept of marriage to do so? How much do we really value marriage when it comes to financial security?

Marriage may result in comfort, support, the end of loneliness. But that's not what marriage is. What it is, is a metaphor for the relationship of Christ and the church. The church came with a lot more baggage than a higher tax bracket. And Jesus had to sacrifice a lot more than covering medical bills. If a Christian couple is honestly concerned about how the culture understands marriage, they should be willing to honestly represent a biblical marriage:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. Ephesians 5:25-27
That is the state of things now. That is the effect of the current law on marriages now. It doesn't mean it has to stay that way. There's nothing wrong with making inheritance and property laws fairer. But until those laws are changed, that's what we have. That and the question: "How big a priority is following Christ?"

*Not to say my friend's kids do so. They have expressed their concerns and let it be.

Published 9-14-2015