Question:

Good evening Jeff.

I have some questions that I need Bible facts to support, so I need your help.

  • It is whether a man can prevent his daughter from getting married?
  • If a girl's father doesn't agree to her marriage, can she still be scripturally married?
  • Does I Corintians 7:37 mean that the above question is possible?
  • Is it talking of a father or a potential husband?
  • Does a woman have to be "given" in marriage?

I would like answers in the light of the Scriptures.

Thanks.

Answer:

"But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better" (I Corinthians 7:36-38).

Terms in the Text

In I Corinthians 7:36-38, the word "daughter" does not appear in the Greek text. This has led to two main views:

  1. We are talking about a father deciding whether to allow his daughter to marry.
  2. We are talking about a man engaged to a woman deciding whether to continue with the wedding.

The problem with the idea of an engaged man deciding is that in verse 38, talks about giving the woman in marriage. An engaged man does not give his bride in marriage, he marries his bride. Therefore, it is the first view that more closely matches what Paul is stating.

I suspect the reason Paul doesn't use the word "father" is that in Roman society slavery was prevalent. A master had the choice of who his female slave married.

The use of the word "virgin" would limit this to a young woman, never married before, and still under the responsibility of someone else.

We should also not forget that the discussion arises because of the present distress (I Corinthians 7:26). Paul has been arguing that it is better to postpone marriage during times of persecution. Which then leads to the question: What does a man do who is responsible for deciding whether someone else gets married? Is it wrong to permit a marriage?

Guidelines for Deciding Whether to Allow a Marriage

In the days in which Paul is writing, the oldest living male in a family (generally the father), had absolute authority over his descendants [Bruce W. Frier, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, p. 20, 2004]. It was common for parents to arrange marriages. Fathers had the right to decide if or when a daughter might marry. Distressing times could likely put a father’s desire and a daughter’s desire at odds with one another.

If a father has a daughter who really should marry because she is passing the usual age of marriage or because he doesn’t really have a choice, then the father isn’t sinning if he allows his daughter to marry. An engagement might have already been arranged and the marriage should take place in order for the father and the daughter to keep their word. The daughter might strongly desire marriage and delaying marriage might put her in a situation where she is too greatly tempted to sin sexually. Even though the father might not think it is the best choice at the moment, it isn’t wrong to allow a marriage to take place.

But if there is no urgency or need for a marriage to take place, and the father has a choice and is firmly convinced that it would be best for his daughter to wait, then he is doing well in holding off marriage until a better time.

There is no requirement regarding when a marriage takes place. A father who decides it is best to allow a marriage is causing no harm and does well by his daughter. But a father who decides to delay any marriage while severe times are taking place is picking a better option.

But notice that the guidelines are for situations of persecution. Paul did not give guidance regarding when to allow or forbid marriage in general.

Does This Apply to Every Society?

We next need to determine if these guidelines apply in other situations. After all, once a girl is past her majority, she can move out of her home and is no longer answerable to her parents in our current society. Paul's advice applied to his audience because the current laws placed the decision about marriages on the head of the household. He did not state who ought to make the decision about marriage. He merely dealt with the current situation as it existed under Roman law.

When we look through the Bible we find:

  • Abraham had his servant pick out a wife for his son Isaac. The servant asked Rebekah's father and brother for permission to bring her back to Isaac, but they stated that it should be Rebekah's decision (Genesis 24:49-51).
  • Hagar arranged a marriage for her son, Ishmael (Genesis 21:21).
  • Isaac's two sons, Esau and Jacob, found their own wives. Jacob bargained with Laban for permission to marry his daughter (Genesis 29:15-30). In his daughters' view, Laban had sold them into marriage (Genesis 31:14-15).
  • Samson picked a Philistine woman for his wife and then insisted that his parents arrange the marriage for him despite their reluctance (Judges 14:1-7).
  • When Boaz was being dense, it was Ruth who suggested that they marry (Ruth 3:9).
  • Saul offered David his daughter Michal in marriage if David killed 100 Philistines and brought proof (Saul was hoping David would get killed). David killed 200 Philistines, so he married Michal (I Samuel 18:20-29).
  • The tribe of Benjamin was decimated down to only 600 surviving men. The rest of Israel had vowed not to allow their children to marry a Benjaminite. To allow the tribe to survive, the men were allowed to raid a gathering of virgin women and the rest of the tribes turned a blind eye to the event so they could say they had not "allowed" the marriages.

The Mosaical law did not require that a father be asked to give permission to a man to marry his daughter, but it did give a father the right to halt a marriage that was forced because a man had raped or otherwise had sex with an un-engaged woman (Exodus 22:16-17; Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

What we find is a variety of ways that marriages took place. There is not a set pattern and societal customs played a major role, though these were set aside at times. With that understanding, in our current society, parents decide whether their minor children can marry before their age of majority. After that, adult children are responsible for their own decisions.

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