Scriptural Marriage, Traditional Customs, and Civil Laws

by Sunday Ayandare
via Words of Life, Vol. 15, Nos. 2 and 3. April - Sept. 2007.

[This has been adapted. It does not include the many customs and traditions practiced by the Nigerian people that Sunday had included in his writings. James W. Sasser]

The subject of what constitutes Scriptural marriage has occasioned a lot of controversy among the children of God. The truth of God is being clouded by arguments based on traditional customs, personal preferences, emotions or feelings, and civil laws.

By Scriptural marriage, we are referring to marriage that is according to the Scriptures, the Word of God, particularly the New Testament Scriptures under which men (human beings in general) are living today (John 12:4-50; 1:17; Hebrews 1:1,2; 7:11-14; 8:7-13; 10:9; Galatians 3:23-25). In other words, we are alluding to that union of a male and female that is according to the Will of God; a marriage that conforms to divine principles.

Photo by Christina C on Flickr

By tradition, we mean "the handing down, transmission, giving over, conveyance of a story, beliefs, customs, laws, teachings, ordinances, instructions, doctrines, precepts, from one source to another, or from one generation to another by word of mouth, or written, and the receiving of that which is handed down orally or written" (Webster).

The Scriptures speak of various kinds of traditions. God, in whose hand is our breath (Daniel 5:23), has His own teachings, ordinances, laws, and instructions. These He handed down to us through His Son Jesus Christ, through the inspired apostles and are now codified in the New Testament Scriptures (John 17:8; 13:;20; I Corinthians 11:1,23; II Thessalonians 2:15; Ephesians 3:1-5; I Corinthians 14:37). These Scriptures are complete and final (II Timothy 3:16,17; Jude 3).

On the other hand, man, "whose foundation is in the dust" (Job 4:19), has his own traditions, beliefs, customs which have been passed from one generation to another. Many times, these traditions of men run counter to those of God (Isaiah 55:8,9). To the extent that these traditions, thoughts, and teachings of men contradict those of God, they become vain, null, and void to those who have accepted the sovereignty and Lordship of Jesus Christ (I Peter 1:18,19; Colossians 2:8; Matthew 15:7-9).

Moreover, we should be clear in our minds that our personal preferences, emotions, or feelings are not necessarily co-terminus with the Will of God (Isaiah 55:8,9). No matter how seemingly good or reasonable these are on any matter, they are subordinate to the Supreme Will of God in the New Testament, "Let God be true, but every man a liar" (Romans 3:4).

Civil authorities from one society to another have their requirements for recognition of marriages. But what these "higher powers" recognize as marriage is not what God recognizes as such. Civil laws in most lands, for instance, arrogate to themselves the power to dissolve marriages that have "broken down irretrievably." But God's Word on the other hand states, "...what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6). By stating this, we do not intend to minimize compliance with civil laws in marriage (and in other areas). The Scriptures say, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13:1). The only exception to this rule is when there is a conflict with God's Law. In that case, we "must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). What we are asserting, however, is that a union of a man and a woman which the civil law recognizes as marriage may be nothing more than an adulterous relationship in the sight of God (cf. I Corinthians 1:28).

What is a Scriptural Marriage?

Generally, marriage is defined as the union of a male and female. (Of course, there are man with what the Bible describes as "reprobate minds" (Romans 1:28) -- who are now using "marriage" to describe "same-sex" relationships). Scriptural marriage, however, goes beyond this. It is the union of ONE MALE and ONE FEMALE. A "one male and one female" relationship (Matthew 19:4). It is monogamous in nature and essentially heterosexual. God does not recognize polygamous and homosexual relationships as marriages. Some traditional institutions may recognize polygamy or polyandry as marriage, the Word of God recognizes it as adultery (Romans 7:2,3). Civil Laws and churches of men (as in the case of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Anglican Communion here) may approve of homosexuality as an "alternative choice of marriage." But God says it is a "vile affection" and that its practitioners are "worthy of death" (Romans 1:26-32).

Besides, Scriptural marriage is the union of one male -- who has never been married, or whose wife has died, or who has put away his wife for fornication and one female who also has never been married, or whose husband has died, or who has put away her husband for fornication (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Romans 7:2-3). In our male-chauvinistic culture (especially here in Nigeria) the idea is swiftly gaining ground that it is only the husband that may put away an adulterous woman, that the woman has no right to put away an adulterous man. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our God is not a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). As far as marriage and its rights are concerned, the right of the man is equally the right of the woman (I Corinthians 7:2-5). Both the husband and the wife are on equal footing here. Just as a man commits adultery when he divorces his wife and marries another woman, just so a woman commits adultery when she divorces her husband and marries another man (Mark 10:11,12). What is good for the goose is equally good for the gander!

What remains to be emphasized is that Scriptural marriage is a life-long relationship. "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by law to her husband so long as he liveth...So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man" (Romans 7:2,3). "And unto the married I command...Let not the wife depart from her husband. But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband; and let not the husband put away his wife" (I Corinthians 7:10,11). The only exception that the Lord allows is fornication (Matthew 19:9). For anybody to put away his (her) spouse for any other cause than fornication is to cause her (him) to commit adultery (Matthew 5:32). And to cause anybody to err is to sin against Christ (I Corinthians 8:12); and this is very grievous in the sight of God (Matthew 18:6,7).

Scriptural Marriage Is a Covenant

According to Malachi 2:10-15, we learn that marriage is a covenant. Particularly in vs. 14, we read, "Yet ye say, wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth ... yet is she they companion, and the wife of thy covenant." The etymology of the word "covenant," according to Bible scholars, is somewhat unclear. However, there are very clear ideas about its meaning and this goes a long way in sharpening our understanding of what marriage is according to the Will of God. A covenant rests on a tripod. These are:

  1. Terms of the agreement.
  2. An oath or a promise.
  3. A seal of ratification.

Let us briefly examine these essential components of a covenant:

Terms of the Agreement

A covenant is basically an agreement between two or more parties. We cannot conceive the idea of a covenant without an agreement. The terms of the agreement between two or more parties may be settled by negotiation or by the imposition of the will of a stronger party upon the weaker party. A good illustration of the latter was the various treaties signed between the British imperialists and the various Nigerian ethnic groups in the 1800's and the early 1900's. The Old Covenant, for example, was an agreement arranged by God to which the nation of Israel acquiesced (Exodus 19:1-8). In the making of a covenant, terms of the agreement are rule number one.

Oath, Vow, or Promise

The second component of a covenant is an oath or a promise by the two parties to fulfill the terms of the contract. God promised the nation of Israel that "if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar (special) treasure unto Me above all people..." (Exodus 19:5). To this divine promise, the nation of Israel responded, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" (Exodus 19:8). This is an oath, vow or promise. God also swore to Abraham at another time to confirm His promise (Hebrews 6:16-18). So, a vow or promise is rule number two in the making of a covenant.

Seal of Ratification

The third and final component of a covenant is a formal seal of ratification to authenticate it. The Old Testament was ratified by the sprinkling of the blood of sacrifices upon the people, the altar, and the book of the law (Exodus 24:1-8). Today, covenants are ratified by signatures and, or, seal.

A marriage covenant, like every other covenant, is also tripodal in nature. It has its terms of the agreement. It has its oath or vow and its seal of ratification.

The terms of agreement of marriage are stated by God Himself Who designed it: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). That it was God Who made this proclamation is evidenced by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 19:4,5. According to the Designer of marriage, the two parties involved are the man and his wife.


The agreement between the two is: to leave father and mother. L.A. Stauffer states this so beautifully: "Leaving one's original family is a decisive action...Jesus used an intensive form of the word "leave." the word (kataleipo) means "to forsake completely," or "to abandon." Abandonment of father and mother in no way annuls the responsibility to honor one's parents but does underscore the need to renounce totally the rule and place of subjection once occupied in that family. A definite and final break is to be made between the new family of the two families from which the couple came. Fathers and mothers must not be permitted to interfere, regulate, dominate, or control the marriages of their children." This is rule number one.


A male and female must cleave to one another. The idea here is "to glue or weld together" and this emphasizes the marriage vow or promise. This implies acceptance of the oneness in marriage and a commitment to that union. This is rule number two in the marriage covenant.

Unite in One Flesh

The final action of marriage, "they shall be one flesh." L. A. Stauffer notes: "the uniting of the two bodies as 'one flesh' is a fitting expression of the intimacy, boundless sharing, and total merging that marriage demands of a male and a female." This is the point where the marriage covenant is ratified. That is the seal of ratification.

Another point that calls for emphasis here is the fact that it is God Himself, the Author of marriage, that does the joining of a male and a female together. When parents or the officers of a State, or preachers or Chairmen of marriage ceremonies (or marriage receptions) proclaim that newly wedded couples are joined together, it should be understood that joining at that level is merely ceremonial. The true, real, and authentic joining together is done by God when all of the commitments of marriage are fulfilled. "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6).

This is marriage according to the Will of God. Every traditional custom of man or civil law is subordinate to this divine law.

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