Does Biblical law require you to get civil government permission, or a license, before getting married?

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Answered Questions

In Biblical law, no one is required to get permission from the civil government in order to form a marriage covenant. The permission of the father is required for a daughter who is living with her parents (cf. Numbers 30:3-5, Exod. 22:17). The covenant oath should be witnessed by at least two people (Deut. 19:15), to enable a judge to enforce a charge of adultery (Lev. 20:10), if necessary.

Enforcing the crime of adultery is the main role of the civil government with respect to the marriage covenant. It is not authorized by God's law to interpose itself in the marriage formation process; only to punish adultery and incestuous unions (after the fact).

The practice of requiring permission from a civil government before marriage is modern, and I can find no examples (in the West) prior to the Massachusetts Puritans, who created a statute in 1639 requiring:

That no person whatsoever in this jurisdiction shall join any persons together in marriage, but the magistrate, or such other as the general court, or court of assistants, shall authorize in such place, where no magistrate is near. Nor shall any join themselves in marriage but before some magistrate or person authorized as aforesaid.[1]

This Puritan statute was the beginning of the usurpation of authority over marriage by civil government in America.[2] The statutes in Massachusetts strongly influenced the other New England colonies (e.g. New Haven, New Plymouth). Eventually, the idea that civil government could control who got married was used by anti-miscegenists and eugenicists to extend the power of civil government over marriage even further (mostly during the early 20th century, which was the peak of the eugenics movement).

You can thus trace a direct line from the Puritan law to the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision (by the U.S. Supreme Court) "authorizing" (so-called) same-sex marriage in the United States. The injustice and sin of the Puritans taught everyone else that they could disregard God's limits on the power of civil government over marriage.

Civil government-licensed "marriage" has nothing to do with true Christian covenant marriage.

  1. The Charters and General Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay, p. 152
  2. There were documents called marriage "licenses" prior to the Puritan statutes, but these were not issued by the civil government, but by the Catholic Church. I'll deal with the sinful interference with marriage by the church in a separate question.