I found your website full of helpful questions.
My question is when does God consider a couple married? Can a couple just promise to be faithful to each other before God and consider themselves to be husband and wife?
My fear is that when I was with my ex-girlfriend, I got carried away and may have said things like that. To be honest I don’t remember what I said, which is why it scares me. Luckily, we never had sex.
We’ve been broken up for a few years now, and I hadn’t remembered this till now, so I’ve never felt nor thought of myself as a divorced man. I’m sorry if this doesn’t make much sense, but I am just looking for some honest answers.
What creates a marriage is a covenant. "Yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant" (Malachi 2:14). Also, a covenant is what was meant by "joined" in "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). A covenant is a special type of vow which is made before God. It has numerous parts (see "What are covenants?" for details) and isn't just used for marriages, though marriages are the most common type of covenant used.
In a covenant, there are several parts:
A definition of the parties involved and their status. In a standard wedding ceremony, you will see the preacher ask each person if they desire to marry the other person. He will also ask if any knows a reason why the couple should not marry.
A history of the parties' relationship. Often here the preacher discusses the reason for marriage.
The obligations expected of the weaker party to the stronger party. Often the stipulations involved promises of loyalty to the stronger party. In a marriage ceremony, it is a union of equals, but there are still stipulations. The "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health," etc. layout the stipulation that each will be there for the other no matter what the circumstances.
An agreement where a written copy of the agreement would be retained and the provisions for periodic reminders of the covenant. This is where the state license comes in. They serve as a repository for the fact that a marriage covenant was made. In the older days, it was often kept at individual churches, but this was often awkward if the evidence needed to be located because the record could be in so many different places. Over the years, state governments in the United States took over the duty. Periodic reminders are done by our anniversary celebrations.
Who or what would be able to confirm that the covenant was made. Often these are composed of people who witness the covenant. In a standard wedding, this is the function of the best man and the bride's maid, but it is also why we typically have a wedding ceremony. All the guests are there to be witnesses that the marriage took place. Under covenant laws, a physical witness was also used since people do die. In the United States, we typically use rings to act as a witness that the person is married.
Curses and Blessings
The consequences of breaking or keeping the covenant. In a typical wedding, more emphasis is placed on the blessing of marriage, but you will find somewhere in the ceremony the statement "So help you God" which alludes to God sitting in judgment over the keeping of the covenant.
The sealing of the covenant. These are the vows made during the ceremony and are often combined with the stipulations and the exchanging of the rings.
After a covenant is completed, all parties are invited to sit down at a common meal. The meal is to represent the fact that all differences have been resolved and that the parties are at peace with each other. In a wedding, this is done by the reception where the two families sit down together for a meal.
Personal vows are just not on the same level as a covenant. Nor can you enter into a marriage covenant without knowing that you are entering into a covenant. I would hope that it is clear that sex is not to take place before you get married (Hebrews 13:4), but even the action of sex does not create a marriage.
Thank you, Jeffrey! I am so glad you answered this for me.
So if two people just promised to be faithful before God, that’s not a covenant? There must be all of those other things present?
There could be a debate about which of the elements listed above are critical to a covenant, but I think most would agree that there must be vows before God, witnesses to the vows, and a record of the covenant. Casually promising your boyfriend or girlfriend what you intend to do in the future is not a marriage.