I have been reading a book on Greco-Roman cultural norms. It was mentioned that in most cases the Roman government would not legally recognize the marriage of a citizen to a non-citizen. This forced many couples to "marry" outside the legal system. If a true Christian couple married under this situation, would God consider it valid? If so, then how can some people now say that only marriages sanctioned by the state today are valid in God's eyes?” —Jason Goble (Las Vegas)
Sorry, this is outside the realm of my expertise. Let me know if you would like me to forward it to someone who may be able to help you.—DJ[As Jason did ask me to forward his email… following is a response by Joseph Harris]
There are several approaches to this. Sensitivity and flexibility are required in any discussion pertaining to marriage. The case Jason mentions was a reality for early Christians. Most likely, they resolved it with a marriage sanctioned and recognized by the church.
More of a problem for early Christians were the sexual and marital issues faced by the great number of Christian slaves...especially the women. Male and female slaves (but especially the women) were freely accessible for sex by their masters (similar situation for any American slaves who were Christian... there were many slaves in the Churches of Christ and in households belonging to Churches of Christ in America... not all of the masters were "good Christians"). Sex with slaves in both Roman and American societies was legal and not usually considered to be adultery (slaves were not legal persons after all). For the same reason, it was not considered to be rape if the slave was forced to have sex unwillingly.
Marriage among slaves was not generally recognized by either society, and so whether or not the slave was married did not enter into the consideration of a master who wished to have sex with a slave. But to answer your actual question, the most likely answer is that Christians held a church-sanctioned marriage to be above human law when the law did not recognize their marriage. They could be sure that God recognized their marriage because the church recognized their marriage. Of course this became literally the case after the early church when only a church-sanctioned marriage was held to be legal (viz Henry VIII).
In our modern cases... we already have to deal with this, but not in the way you may be thinking. What are we to do with state-sanctioned homosexual "marriage"? Well, I suspect that we (and most other conservative churches) will not recognize homosexual marriages as valid in God's eyes, even though they are legal marriages. Why not? Because God was clear in Scripture about how he feels about both marriage (between a man and a woman) and homosexuality (homosexual behavior is sinful). Many "exceptions" to legal marriage are actually cases of common-law marriage, which is in fact accepted as legal marriage in many states. In other cases, the solution may be to simply get married legally.
In other cases you may be dealing with, a rebellious couple may simply wish to either be together or to justify a sexual relationship without getting married. Discernment is needed. I'm not sure what situations in our current society would necessitate a Christian marriage not sanctioned by the state. The state grants more latitude regarding marriage than does the Bible (see above for an example).
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