What is the Church's Position on
NCW 4, May 1993
Q. What is the New Covenant's position on "Common-Law" marriages? Is this considered by you to be fornication? What is your position on the old custom of handfasting?
New Covenant Christians regard common-law marriages as no more or less valid than marriages consecrated by the state. There are three essential requirements of a marriage that is binding in the eyes of God:
The doctrine that a couple must be married by the state for a marriage to be valid in the eyes of God is of recent invention. The underlying thought is that since God is the author of states and governments, then the marriage laws of states and governments are the laws of God. Thus many Christian churches today would maintain that a couple not married according to the laws of the state are living in fornication.
(1) That the parties concerned enter into a covenant to be true and faithful to each other for the rest of their lives,
(2) That there are one or more witnesses to this agreement; and
(3) That the agreement is sexually cosummated.
Such a position is undefendable. Firstly, we must understand that the marriage laws of the Bible belonged to a theocratic state, that is, a state where the government and church were one. Moreover, this government and "church" were divinely instituted by God.
Today we live in secular states where state and church are more or less two seperate institutions (depending on which country you are in). Marriages are validated by the state. Thus the state licences churches and other religious organisations to perform marriage ceremonies. It is the state that authorises marriages, not the church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever.
But the state has not always insisted on this authority to "legally" marry people, and neither does it do so today in many countries. In the British Isles, "handfasting" was the old pagan ritual of marriage. It remained legal in Scotland all the way up to 1939! And this even after Lord Harwicke's Act of 1753 declared marriages in England valid only when performed by a clergyman. Previous to that act, common-law marriages had been quite acceptably validated by the couple themselves joining their hands in the presence of witnesses. After Lord Harwicke's Act, the Scottish border town of Greta Green became a mecca for eloping couples who fled there to handfast themselves in legal wedlock.
The handfasting gesture, so long the norm of European tokens of marriage, seems to have been derived from one of the ancient Indian Indo-European images of male-female conjunction, the infinity sign, whose twin circles represent the sun (male) and moon (female) cycles, one right-handed and the other left-handed as when the figure 8 is drawn with one clockwise and one anticlockwise circle. The right hand of either sex was always considered the solar or male side, while the left side was lunar or female. Marriage, then, consisted of uniting the two right hands like an ordinary handshake, and then the two left hands, so that the partners' arms formed the graphic cycles of "infinity" or completeness.
It is interesting that modern society has retained only the right-hand handshake in token of agreement, friendliness, or greeting. The use of "female" left hands was "dropped", except for one purpose: to formalise the Monogamic marriage, which was known as "marriage of the left hand", by joining left hands only. This type of marriage was invented by the German nobility to allow men of rank to live openly with their lower-class concubines, having legally secured the marriage against any rights of claims on the part of the wife or children to inheritance, property, or family name.
Two-handed handfasting still constituted a fully legal marriage in Europe, however, whether the blessing of the church (Roman Catholic as a rule) was sought or not. Clergymen, of course, recommended the newlyweds attend church as soon as possible after the signing of the contract and the handfasting; but marriage had been for so many years ignored by the church, left under the jurisdiction of common law rather than canon law, that ecclesiastical rules on marriage were difficult to enforce. In Switzerland from the 16th to the 18th centuries, a couple could marry each other legally just by publically drinking together. The now-popular secular gesture of drinking through one another's linked elbows was once another way of forming the infinity sign of marrital union.
Like many other relics of paganism, the handfasting gesture was retained in children's games and traditional folk dances. Continental versions of the swing-your-partner movement call for couple to join their hands in this manner and whirl around each other.
What is here important to note that traditions have changed and will continue to change. In many western countries common-law marriage is now officially recognised by the state. All that is required is that a couple live together. In the eyes of these states, therefore, common-law marriages and state-law marriages are as equally binding. And couples living in both estates have the same or similar rights to property, etc..
The New Covenant does, of course, have its own ceremonies and covenants which we regard as binding and authoritative in the eyes of God. The heart of marriage is, and always will be, covenant. We recognise all marriages, whether state, church, or common law as binding on couples. If a country requires a couple to be registered then we council couples to obey this law where it does not compromise their religious beliefs. States and their laws come and go, but God's laws -- which are spiritual -- are eternal. If, for example, a common-law couple comes to the New Covenant, we expect them to enter into covenants with each other before witnesses but it is up to them whether or not they register with the state. Marriage, by its very nature, is a spiritual condition, not a couple of signatures on a piece of paper. Thus we leave this as a matter of individual conscience.
We would not take the position of some churches that those not marriaged according to the laws of the land are living in a state of fornication. Nor would we automatically assume that those who, for example, "marry" for economic or some other convenience are really "married" in the Christian sense. Nevertheless, irrespective of the spiritual condition of their union, we would still respect the integrity of such "marriages" and treat them as true marriages for righteousness' sake. For we believe it is God who must judge whether or not their marriages are true or (as they are in so many cases) just licenced fornication. Thus whether a marriage is a state marriage in a communist country, a religious marriage in a church, mosque, synagogue, or hindu temple, or a polygamous marriage in Africa, the U.S.A., or an Arabic country -- all these we would recognise and uphold, however imperfect or removed from God's true marriage laws they may be, for they are all sustainable according to the standards laid down in the Bible. (We would not, of course, sustain so-called "homosexual" or "lesbian" marriages which are condemned outright in the Scriptures).
And so, in our view, this ought to be the position of all Christians who far too often judge not according to the Spirit but according to outer norms and traditions which as we have seen are constantly changing.
We do not live in God's theocratic kindgom today. That will come. In the meantime we live in a most unsatisfactory world where God's marriage laws are almost universally spurned. But we can identify certain minimum standards upheld by the Bible. Whether a couple, therefore, marry by handfasting, consecration by a priest in a church, or simply live together, so long as there is mutual love and committment and it is not simply sexual promiscuity, then New Covenant Christians will respect and honour these marriages. And if such come to our fellowship we will encourage the couples to deepen their relationship and enter into covenants before the people. We fight to preserve and build-up marriages, for this is the way of God.
This page was created on 18 April 1998
Last updated on 18 April 1998
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