“Spiritual” Marriage vs. The Marriage Penalty

Benjamin Marsh
13 min readNov 22, 2022

I wrote this paper as we wrestled with a couple of specific situations in my church. I figured it was salient given the current discussions around marriage.

Two situations in the church have caused more consideration of this issue which I had never considered before becoming Pastor at FACWS! The first is an older couple on disability who would like to be married but cannot absorb the financial marriage penalty for disabled people who become married. The second was a senior sister who described to me her previous desire to marry a man she met in the nursing home but never received an answer from one of the former pastors of our church on whether he would do a spiritual marriage without a license.

The Problem: The Marriage Penalty

The first question of upmost importance: is this a real problem?

Short answer: yes.

People on SSI who marry face considerable financial setbacks. According to the Social Security administration, “Benefits for a married couple, both of whom receive SSI and have no other income, amount to 25 percent less than the total they would receive if they were living together but not as husband and wife.”[1]

This financial setback creates several sinful practices. “Having a benefit rate for married couples that is lower than that for two singles can provide incentives for beneficiaries to misreport their living arrangements. To receive higher benefits, couples may say they have separated when, in fact, they are still living together. Unmarried persons who are living together may argue that they are not presenting themselves to the community as a couple. Some representatives coach their clients not to give the appearance that they are living as husband and wife.”

The setback leads the government to investigate people’s marital status regardless of state law on the issue. The Social Security Act is rather invasive in trying to determine if a couple is “holding out,” that is, “presenting themselves to the community as husband and wife,” then SSA will consider them married regardless, and seek to find out as “both individuals must complete a questionnaire gathering information about bills, mail, and housing arrangements.”

The law creates a gray area where people become roommates or dwell under one roof but are unable to become married or call themselves man and wife because of the potential financial setback. “Members of the opposite sex who cohabitate and do not marry (or are not found to be representing themselves as husband and wife) are each guaranteed an income level equal to 100 percent of the federal benefit rate and generally fare better financially than SSI married couples.”

The Scriptures are Unspecific as to the Church and State Roles in Marriage

While American Evangelicals have generally understood marriage to be the realm of the church and state, the Scriptures do not clearly explain the role of the pastor, church, family, or couple in determining when a marriage begins. Genesis reveals a man and woman united in a one-flesh relationship. The familiar “leave and cleave” has led to all sorts of interpretations of how to handle marriage, including private marriage contracts, state enforcement, church enforcement, and other means.

Almost all weddings in Scripture are familial contracts or arranged marriages. Even in the instances where someone “falls in love,” (like Isaac), the couple must still arrange the marriage contract through the parents. Few people found mates; most were given spouses (or had them forced upon them!). This practice continued well into the early church.

Most of the enforcement mechanisms of the church seem to come after the marriage is declared, regardless of how the marriage is declared. Ephesians 5 has husbands loving their wives as Christ loves the church and wives submitting to husbands as the church submits to Christ. Such advice is helpful for counseling couples before marriage and after marriage, but not in determining when a marriage has or has not begun.

The various practices of marriage throughout church history are both hard to track and seemingly innumerable. Two practicable tracks of understanding appear: marriage as contract and marriage as a spiritual ceremony. The former — contract — was the practice of most reformers, the puritans, and most “low-church” types, while the idea of a big-church wedding as spiritual performance was the domain of “High-Church” Anglicans, Catholics, and other more formal settings.

Martin Luther, notably, left the determination of the marriage entirely up to the state, with relatively weak participation by the church.[2] “Marriage is the God-appointed and legitimate union of man and woman in the hope of having children or at least for the purpose of avoiding fornication and sin and living to the glory of God. The ultimate purpose is to obey God, to find aid and counsel against sin; to call upon God; to seek, love, and educate children for the glory of God; to live with one’s wife in the fear of God and to bear the cross; but if there are no children, nevertheless, to live with one’s wife in contentment; and to avoid all lewdness with others.” Marriage, according to Luther, is recognized by the church and enforced by the state, but not determined by the church.

The early American puritans held the same belief: marriage was a civil matter, not a church matter but a civil matter.[3] But beliefs about what was right or wrong in marriage emanated from church teaching as early American laws were developed from the moral theology of puritan leaders. Population growth through marriage was a holy purpose but was still regulated by the state.[4] In other words, for both Luther and early American settlers, the act of being wed was accomplished by the state, but the meaning and definition of marriage came from the moral teaching of the church.

“Although they never forbade a churchman to speak at marriage ceremony, Puritan clergymen were not to conduct weddings but could honor espoused couples through dedicatory sermons. Puritan governing officials presided over the ceremonies. They maintained the distinctly municipal nature of weddings until forced to yield to Anglican influences when Massachusetts became part of the Dominion of New England in 1686.”[5]

Most of our modern marriage practices come in some shape or form from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The big wedding, the big dress, the priest/pastor, the large crowd, the liturgy, and the great expense were Victorian and Anglican practices, not the practice of most reformers or puritans. Marriage as a spiritual act seems to have come from a high church understanding of the spiritual authority of the church bleeding into and covering some of the authority of the state, taking for the church what most reformers believed belong to earthly kingdoms and families.

Scripture, then, is not at all clear on what constitutes the exact beginning of a marriage. Is it when the couple signs a document in front of the state? Is it when the couple pledges their relationship before God? Is it when the families approved and agree for the couple to wed? All of these are right answers and could be justified biblically and from historical Christian practice. Moreover, any of these could be operative when the others are unavailable: families and churches can recognize marriage when the government refuses (like with slaves), and the government can call someone wed even when the church would not. As with any situation with overlapping spheres of authority, determining the time and authority over the beginning of marriage is muddled and difficult.

Marriage and the Government

Ideally, the biblical concepts of marriage and the practice of marriage by the government would align. Practically, this has never been so. For example, black American slaves were not allowed to marry. Would a pastor sin by recognizing the marriage of slaves? Absolutely not! In such an instance the American law was shamefully wrong. In more recent history, states banned marriage across racial boundaries. Should a pastor or church deny membership or marriage to a couple who were of different ethnic backgrounds. Again, absolutely not! The sins of the state do not need to be perpetuated or effected by the church. When the state is right, the church should follow, and when it is wrong, the church should object and still practice what is right and holy. So, it falls upon the church to determine how to recognize that couple is not living in sin with their cohabitation or sexuality regardless of their legal marital status.

The church state tension is most obvious in reverse: American law allows cohabitation, homosexual marriage, no-fault divorce, and other sexual practices that are clearly not allowed in Scripture. The church is not obligated to honor the decisions of the state in these instances and must maintain their sexual and personal mores no matter what the state decides.

Functionally, pastors operate as officials of the church and state when we do weddings in North Carolina. We are able to witness the wedding both as ministers of God and (if the couple so presents papers), as officials of the state. We are not obligated to be ministers of the states but are recognized as such when signing documents.

Church as Moral Compass

With these ideas and brief histories in mind then, the church functions as a moral compass for the validity of a marriage and the right behavior of spouses in marriage. The church is not necessary for the act of marriage but is necessary for the recognition of marriages in each congregation. The state is not necessary for the act of marriage, but every Christian ought to follow the law to the extent that the law does not violate the Spirit-informed conscience and the Holy Word. If anything, the Bible indicates that the most important people in determining the beginning of a marriage are the families involved, and both the church and state ought to give significant deference to the families of the betrothed in their engagement in the marriages of their kin. All three are in constant dialogue: family, church, and state.

SSI, Marriage, and the Church

I propose the following considerations, then, for when I do a marriage as an official of church and state or just as an official of the church:

1. Do I believe the couple is prepared for marriage and has the right motivations for being together? (Mutual affection, desire to have a family, desire to honor God by being wed)

2. Are the families in approval of this marriage — why or why not? Am I dealing with unbelieving families or families of false religions? What are the marriages of those families like such that they have input into this couple before me?

3. Does the marriage comport with biblical guidelines on sexuality and/or divorce?

4. Is the couple violating the law in getting married? If no, are the laws themselves just? If they are unjust, do I feel compelled to intentionally violate these laws as an act of civil disobedience?

In the case of the couples being married without getting a marriage certificate, provided all four of these questions are answered well, I would not hesitate to do the marriage itself. However, I would need to ask follow-up questions which would reveal further areas of discipline outside of the marriage:

a. What is your intention in not getting a marriage certificate?

b. How would you handle the legal structure of marriage without a certificate?

c. Would the law require you to be deceitful about your marriage or hide it in some way? Is that hiding biblically acceptable? How would you confront the laws against your marriage?

Here is the rub: while marriages in North Carolina do not require the state, and while each couple can determine how and when they want the marriage to be recognized officially, Social Security law specifically rules against hiding.[6]

The question, then, is whether the Social Security law on hiding or the SSI marriage penalty rules are unjust laws worthy of running afoul. Do they rise to the level of a prohibition against bi-racial marriage, for example, or a prohibition on slaves being married?

I think that they could be. Let us investigate this further by way of analogy:

Bi-Racial Couples before Loving v. Virginia

Anti-miscegenation laws existed from colonial times to 1967 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Loving v. Virginia that such laws were contrary to the Constitution. Such laws blanketed the entire country at times and persisted in the South until the case overturned each of the laws.

Such laws were clearly against Scripture — they were evil.[7] The Virginia law “classified miscegenation as a felony, punishable by a prison sentence of between one and five years.”[8] I would say, in hindsight, that any biblical marriages done contrary to those laws would have been good and just, and that couples would have been right in hiding such marriages from the authorities. There are complex layers to my thinking that involve some nuance:

1. God’s law transcends man’s law, and God does not only allow for interracial marriage, He punishes Miriam for her racist response to Moses’ marriage.

2. “Bearing false witness,” the 9th commandment, does not forbid disobedience or deceit against an unjust government, for the government is not the “neighbor” referenced in the law.[9]

3. The intent behind the marriage is right: to honor God, leave and cleave, etc. Man does not have the right to stop those pursuing what God has given by common grace except for good reason.

You might not agree with all my thinking here, but consider: what if the punishment for the wedding were a financial penalty were a fee instead of a criminal punishment?

If the fee were small, the couple might pay it. If they could not, the families might. If they could not, the church should. The only reason for not paying the fee would be to intentionally disobey for the purpose of challenging the law in the court or if the cost of following the law was prohibitive. The greatest example of this in ethical studies with the 9th commandment comes from Nazi Germany. Would you lie to protect Jews in your basement? Some scholars say “yes… God will fix the situation.” I argue that deceiving the enemy or an unjust government is acceptable under the 9th. In the same way that married slaves ought to have hidden their marriages and would be completely justified in doing so, we can say that deception vis-à-vis marriage and the government is not necessarily sinful.

This analogy helps clarify a response to unjust laws:

A Simple Framework for Following the Law

Christians ought to follow the law unless the law is:

- Unjust, and impossible or too difficult to challenge, in which case hiding is acceptable.

- Unjust, and therefore intentionally disobeyed to spark a change.

The Framework for Evaluating a Just or Unjust Law; Evaluating SSA Marriage Penalty

Two layers exist for evaluating a law: intent and effect.

The intent of a law is the reason why a law is passed. For example, Roe v. Wade was determined specifically to deal with freedoms around abortion, regardless of however it was pitched with respect to “privacy.” The law surrounding it is thus unjust.

The effect of the law is just that: what results from the law. Sometimes laws with good intentions, such as prohibition, have such a terrible effect, such as the rise of organized crime, that the law must be overturned to prevent further bad effects.

In the case of the SSA Marriage Penalty, the intent of the law was fine: it recognizes the cost savings of marriage for recipients of SSI.

The effect of the law, however, has been very bad. The law not only disincentivizes marriage and incentivizes cohabitation. “Having a benefit rate for married couples that is lower than that for two singles can provide incentives for beneficiaries to misreport their living arrangements. To receive higher benefits, couples may say they have separated when, in fact, they are still living together. Unmarried persons who are living together may argue that they are not presenting themselves to the community as a couple. Some representatives coach their clients not to give the appearance that they are living as husband and wife. In fiscal year 2000, an estimated $26 million in overpayments was attributed to issues of reporting of marital status, confirming the difficulty in determining the marital status of two persons living together.”[10]

The law is deeply unfair: SSI specifically benefits unmarried cohabitants by not reducing their benefits, allowing them to live a much higher standard of life than married couples. The law rewards people who cohabitate and refuse to marry while punishing people who follow the call of the Lord and of love to marry. I argue that this law should be changed and is fundamentally unfair as it runs afoul of God’s design for marriage.

It is unfair, but is it UNJUST? This is a very difficult determination. The law deals with a benefit given by the government. We might say that “no one deserves SSI, that it is a benefit and therefore we should accept unfair restrictions on a benefit.” But we would not say the same about other government benefits! We would not say, “it is OK that a married couple cannot use a certain part of the road because they are married instead of being cohabitant.” We would not say, “married couples cannot have less medical care because they are married,” or so on. An unfair law is often, but not always, also unjust. In this case, I believe the SSA marriage penalty is unjust because it financially incentivizes sin while punishing the most sacred foundation of human society. Marriage is not only a blessing: marriage is the fundamental basis of human societies. It is divinely-given as the way the world ought to work.

Personally, I would not hold someone liable to sin for hiding their marriage from the government as they seek to enforce an unjust law. At the same time, I would counsel a couple that their decision could come with considerable personal costs and that their marriage-without-certification would significantly harm their ability to make medical decisions, receive benefits, or make other legal decisions for their spouse. I would advise they speak with a lawyer before proceeding. I would not do a marriage until they received such counsel.


The decision ultimately resides with the Elders. I operate under constituted authority, and therefore would never run ahead of the Elders on this issue. I wrote this so that we can discuss the matter. Any marriages I perform reflect on the will of the Elders and of the church informed by the Spirit. I am very comfortable with being wrong!

I ask that any consideration of this matter begin with the question of whether the law itself is just, before we ask someone to obey it. If it is a just law, of course we should recommend respecting the law. If it is an unjust law, then we should discuss either accommodating the couple, working with the couple to live under the unjust law, or consider how we should challenge the law.

Final words from Martin Luther:

“Here I want to close and leave this matter for now, and, as I did above, advise my dear brothers, the pastors and clergy, to refuse to deal with marriage matters as worldly affairs covered by temporal laws and to divest themselves of them as much as they can. Let the authorities and officials deal with them, except where their pastoral advice is needed in matters of conscience, as for example when some marriage matters should come up in which the officials and jurists had entangled and confused the consciences, or else perhaps a marriage had been consummated contrary to law, so that the clergy should exercise their office in such a case and comfort consciences and not leave them stuck fast in doubt and error.”[11]

[1] https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/issuepapers/ip2003-01.html

[2] http://www.lutherquest.org/walther/articles/700/719.htm

[3] https://amybeldingbrown.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/love-and-marriage-among-the-puritans/

[4] https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1188&context=honors p 8

[5] https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1188&context=honors p. 32

[6] https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/0500501152

[7] https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-we-encourage-interracial-marriage ; https://www.ligonier.org/learn/qas/does-god-frown-upon-interracial-marriages/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loving_v._Virginia

[9] https://www.tenth.org/resource-library/articles/is-lying-always-a-sin/

[10] https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/issuepapers/ip2003-01.html

[11] http://www.lutherquest.org/walther/articles/700/719.htm