Marriage and Parental Consent

Marriage and Parental Consent

Some people believe and teach that a father has the “final say” about the marriage of his daughter and is not accountable to anyone for his decision. But this seems to be an indefensible claim since such a position is lacking clear biblical support. While it might be said that a father’s role and responsibility are indispensable and that his word ought to carry significant weight in the decision-making process, it is not entirely clear from Scripture that he has an unappealable authority. The concept of an absolute veto power is nowhere to be found.

God-ordained authority is necessarily limited by two factors: (1) The revealed will of God in Scripture, and (2) The jurisdictional boundaries of the office in view. This means: (1) If the command or prohibition issued by an authority transgresses the Word of God, it must be disobeyed, and (2) If the command or prohibition issued lies outside the proper jurisdiction of the office in view, it may be disobeyed. These principles hold true for each of the three God-ordained governments of Family, Church, and State, and therefore to the offices of father, pastor, and magistrate alike.

What follows is but a brief study of the extent and limitation of the authority of fathers with regard to the marriage of their daughters, in particular. The goal is to identify the boundaries of parental jurisdiction when it comes to the question of whether they marry this man, that man, or no man at all. As a primary rule, we will consult the Scriptures and, whenever possible, rely upon the wisdom, insight, and experience of our Protestant forefathers.

Criteria for Lawful Marriage

Seeing that Marriage is a creation ordinance (Gen. 2:18, 24), a particular marriage cannot be automatically judged invalid or unlawful simply because the persons to be married are not Christians. However, because in general Scripture indicates that it is necessary for a man to “provide” for his wife and household (1 Tim. 5:8; Matt. 7:9), we must conclude that any man who is not in a position to fulfill this duty is ineligible for marriage. Yet when one of the persons to be married is a Christian, a new criterion arises: the other must be a Christian also. Scripture makes this rule explicit when it says: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14), and confirms it when it says, in the case of a widow: “If her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39).

Since the Scriptures are clear about what constitutes a lawful marriage, we should, first of all, conclude that it cannot be within the jurisdiction of any man to either: (1) Prohibit a lawful marriage, or (2) Consent to an unlawful marriage. This is stated in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 139), where it says that the sins forbidden in the 7th Commandment include: “the prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages.”

The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God says that without “a just cause” parents are bound to give their consent to the marriage of their children: “Parents ought not to force their children to marry without their free consent, nor deny their own consent without just cause.” To see what the Divines may have had in mind by the phrase “just cause” we can look to the Westminster Confession (24.3):

It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And, therefore, such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.

According to the Confession, it is a just cause to withhold one’s consent to any marriage that would join the “godly” to the “wicked.” This is not a prohibition against joining two Christians who are at different places in the progress of their sanctification, as can be seen by the prooftexts the Divines used to support this article. In every case, the text describes the union between those who belong to the true religion and those who do not.

Genesis 34:14, “And they said to them, We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a reproach to us.”

Exodus 34:12-16, “Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, for you shall worship no other god; for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods.”

2 Corinthians 6:14-15, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?”

Deuteronomy 7:3-4, “Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the LORD will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly.”

1 Kings 11:4, “For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David.”

Nehemiah 13:25-27, “So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, pagan women caused even him to sin. Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?”

Malachi 2:11, “Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah has profaned the LORD’s holy institution which He loves: He has married the daughter of a foreign god.”

Again, the Divines are not under the impression that the Bible prohibits marriage between one Christian and another, even if they enjoy different levels of sanctification. The most we can gather from their teaching is that a father should not give his daughter to a man who is either an unbeliever or is so “notoriously wicked” that any profession of faith he might make must be called into question. Such a man is not eligible to marry a Christian woman, and vice versa.

Extent of Parental Authority

Some people believe and teach that a father has the “final say” about the marriage of his daughter and is not accountable to anyone for his decision. But this seems to be an indefensible claim since such a position is lacking clear biblical support. While it might be said that a father’s role and responsibility are indispensable and that his word ought to carry significant weight in the decision-making process, it is not entirely clear from Scripture that he has an unappealable authority. The concept of an absolute veto power is nowhere to be found.

The most common passage that is used to support such an idea is found in Numbers 30, where it says that a father has the power to cancel his daughter’s vow if he does not approve of her decision. It is rarely acknowledged, however, that there are two points of criteria the daughter must meet in order for this passage to apply: she must be “in her father’s house” (v. 3b) and must be “in her youth” (v. 3c). Though Moses does not identify the age range for what constitutes a person’s youth, it was commonly understood among the Rabbis to begin at age twelve or thirteen. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown write: “According to Jewish writers… the age at which young people were deemed capable of vowing was thirteen for boys and twelve for girls.”

However, the question that needs to be answered is: When (if ever) does the time of a person’s youth expire? Are we to assume that a woman continues in a state of perpetual childhood so long as she remains unmarried? According to John Calvin, she does not. In his comments on 1 Corinthians 7:36, where Paul tellingly refers to a woman who is “past the flower of her youth,” Calvin indicates that the Christian theologians of his time had no such concept of “perpetual childhood.” Instead, they taught that this stage of a person’s life expires at the age of twenty. He writes: “By this clause, the flower of her youth, he means the marriageable age; this, lawyers define to be from twelve to twenty years old.” With this qualification in mind, we might argue that the law of Numbers 30 has real but limited application to the question at hand. The vow of a young woman who is (1) still in her father’s house, and (2) still in the stage of her youth, that is, anywhere between twelve and twenty years old, can still be overruled by her father.

In any case, it can be admitted that the passage itself speaks in broad generalities. But it should be emphasized that basing a doctrine or practice on the generality of a single text is unwise. Generalities are not always universal, and certainly not absolute. Thus before we decide on the application of a general rule to a particular situation, we must be sure that we: (1) have not overlooked relevant, restricting details in the rule itself (e.g., the phrase “in her youth”), and (2) will not undermine the details of further revelation on the same subject. This brings us to the point that must be reckoned with—namely: Other passages of Scripture speak to the matter of parental consent, and they do not use or presuppose such an application of Numbers 30. One of those passages is found in 1 Corinthians 7.

Apostolic Criteria for Withholding Marriage

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives instructions to fathers about giving their daughters in marriage. What seems obvious is that if Numbers 30 serves as a “blank check,” so to speak, granting fathers full and final authority in this matter, the instructions Paul provides in this chapter are out of place. All he would need to say is that, according to God’s law the marriage of any young woman depends on the will of her father. But Paul doesn’t say that. Instead, he ends up saying things that make such an application of Numbers 30 even more untenable than it already is.

There are two things about Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7 that deserve our attention. The first is the context. As we read the passage, we get the sense that, apart from rare cases of having the special gift of continency (v. 7), the only reason Paul was encouraging any individual to entertain the possibility of not pursuing a lawful marriage is that the world was in a state of upheaval and instability at that time. He writes: “Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord, yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy. I suppose therefore that this is good—because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless, such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time is short” (vv. 26-29).

Most commentators believe Paul’s reference to the present distress, the trouble in the flesh, and the fact that the time was short was about the impending Jewish-Roman war. Because he knew that war, pestilence, and famine would soon fill the land (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11), he thought it was wiser for those who were unmarried to remain in a single state. As Jesus predicted in Matthew 24:19, 21: “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” In any case, one should notice that, even during such a tumultuous time as this, Paul put clear limitations on his advice. He recognized that because there was no divine law that prohibited a virgin from marrying in such a situation, the decision was not his to make. Paul says: “I have no command from the Lord.”

The other thing we should notice is more directly related to the question of a father’s consent. We read in verses 36-38: “If any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and need so require, let him do what he wills, he does not sin: let them marry. Nevertheless, he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power of his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. So then he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better.”

In this passage, Paul is speaking to the fathers who were worried they might be sinning against their daughters by keeping them from marriage. Clearly, they were inclined to take Paul’s advice, even though he admitted that his own preference was not the final word. A father would naturally want to know: How can I know for sure that I am not sinning against my daughter? So to comfort the fathers in this predicament, Paul assures them they would not be sinning so long as a few important points of criteria were met.

Again—it may be helpful here to remember that none of these criteria has to do with the particular man that a young woman had in view. So long as she desired to marry a believer (1 Cor. 6:14), and so long as he was in a position to provide for her needs (1 Tim. 5:8; Matt. 7:9), her desire was lawful in the eyes of God. This discussion is about a unique and temporary situation that would soon bring untold hardship to the whole of their society. That particular hardship, viz., “the present distress,” would make a new marriage and a young family extremely difficult to sustain. It was this consideration only that allowed for the possibility that a father might keep his daughter from pursuing a lawful marriage. I repeat this here so that I might exhort the reader: Let us not so quickly attempt to press this text into the service of our own situation. That would be to stretch the word beyond the scope of its intended application.

That said, Paul provides fathers with two things they need to know:

  1. First, a father is not sinning by withholding his daughter from marriage only if he has power of his own will.

What does it mean for a person to have “power of his own will?” Simply put, it means that no one else’s will is opposing his decision. In this case, the reference is to the will of his daughter who desires to be married. The implication is arresting. Paul believes that even during the present distress, a father would be sinning if he simply, and on the basis of his own authority, overpowered his daughter’s will. So long as the marriage in view was lawful in the eyes of God, the father is expected to give his blessing to the marriage.

Poole confirms this when he explains that a father having “power of his own will” (v. 37) means that “his will is not contradicted by his daughter’s fondness of a married life; for in such a case the father, though he would not willingly dispose of his daughter in marriage, yet he ought to be overruled by the will of the daughter.” He then says: “For though the parent hath a great power over his child, and ought to consent to the marriage of his child, yet he hath no power as to wholly hinder them from marriage.”

This is not the only place where Poole speaks to this issue. In his comments on Jeremiah 35:19 he raises the question about parental consent and asks whether parents have the final say in the marriage of their children. He argues that they do not. For Poole, marriage is a “natural liberty” that belongs to the individual by virtue of his or her creation. In other words, marriage is a creation ordinance that precedes the authority of the family. It is not a privilege that originates with the family, and therefore it cannot be taken away by the family apart from clear direction of the Creator. God alone has given this gift to mankind, and he alone has the right to determine its lawful and unlawful uses. As long as individuals are pursuing that which is lawful according to the word of God, fathers are expected to give these individuals their blessing and support. Poole writes:

This brings in another question: Whether parents have a power to oblige their children in matters which God hath left at liberty. Unquestionably, parents do not have a power to determine children in all things as to which God hath left them at liberty, for then they have a power to make their children slaves and to take away all their natural liberty. To marry or not, and to this or that person, is a matter of liberty. Therefore, parents cannot in this case determine their children. Parents being set over children, and instead of God to them, as it is their duty to advise their children to the best of their ability for their good; so it is the duty of children to receive their advice, and not to depart from it, unless they see circumstances so mistaken by their parents, or so altered by the providence of God, that they can reasonably conclude that, had their parents known or foreseen it, they would not have so advised. But that parents have an absolute power to determine children in all things as to which God hath not forbidden them, and that children by the law of God are obliged to an obedience to all such commands, even when they may see that their parents are mistaken, or that God by his providence has altered circumstances, I see no reason to conclude.

  1. Second, a father is not sinning by withholding his daughter from marriage only if there is no necessity that requires it.

There is an interesting phrase in verse 37 that describes a situation where there is no “necessity” for marriage. It would seem that this implies the opposite—namely, that sometimes there is a necessity for marriage. The question becomes: What might that necessity be?

Some commentators think this is the father’s necessity, referring to his need to give his daughter away to alleviate the financial burden connected with her care. Others say the necessity belongs to the daughter and refers to the limited time of her child-bearing capacity. While the second explanation has a bit more support than the first, viz., the phrase “needs so require” appears next to the statement about her“passing of the flower of her youth,” there is a third explanation that seems preferable: The necessity Paul is talking about belongs to the whole situation: First, to the daughter because of her need for intimate relations, and then to the father because of his responsibility to protect his daughter from the sin of fornication. Concerning the phrase, “needs so require,” Calvin writes: “In this clause, I understand him as referring to the girl’s infirmity—in the event of her not having the gift of continency; for in that case, necessity constrains her to marry.”

This interpretation has the benefit of keeping one of the major themes of the context in view. In this reading, Paul is reminding us that every individual person has a different measure of resistibility when it comes to sexual temptation. His warning to the father, then, is that he needs to consider whether his daughter has a propensity to run incautiously into relationships with the opposite sex. If she does, then according to Paul, marriage is a necessity.

Again, this is a theme that pervades the previous context, and Paul addresses it with great boldness and pastoral wisdom. In verses 8-9, he speaks to unmarried individuals about their desire for sexual intimacy: “I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” The same instruction was given in the opening section (vv 1-3). To ensure that those with an unmanageable desire for such relations were provided for—and to ensure that those who were weak would avoid sin—Paul prescribes marriage. From his perspective, marriage is the best way to prevent a needy individual from engaging in sexual immorality: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (v. 1).

What are the implications here? One implication is that every father has to face the real possibility that by pulling his daughter back from marriage he might end up sling-shooting her right into an unlawful relationship. Like the snapping of a rubber band, he can end up causing her to shoot forward and fall headlong into sin. So this requires a man to know his daughter extremely well. He needs to ask himself: Does my daughter have a propensity in this direction? Does she demonstrate a lack of self-control in this area? Paul says that he has to consider all of these things before he can conclude—even in view of her outward submission to his will—that he is doing the right thing. “For if power be wanting on the part of the daughter,” writes Calvin, “the father acts an exceedingly bad part by endeavoring to keep her back from marriage, and would be no longer a father to her, but a cruel tyrant.”

Poole takes the same approach. In his comments on verse 36, he argues that the necessity for marriage arises from a situation where the father “sees reason to fear that, if he does not give her in marriage, she will so dispose of herself without asking her father’s advice, or be exposed, possibly, to worse temptations.” Then, picking up on Paul’s remedy for this situation, which is to simply “Let them marry,” he says:

The apostle, in his former discourse, had nowhere condemned a married estate during the present distress, as being sinful or unlawful, but only as inexpedient, or not so expedient as a single life during the present distress. He had before determined in verse 9 that it was “better to marry than to burn.” Therefore, no inexpediency of a thing can balance what is plainly sinful. If therefore the case be such that a man or woman must marry, or sin, though marriage brings with it more care and trouble, yet it is to be preferred before plain sinning.

From all this, it becomes clear that there are several determining factors in the marriage of a young woman and they cannot be reduced to a single thing. There are many considerations and each has its own place. While the element of parental consent is a blessing and certainly ideal, it is not left to parents to act according to their own preferences. Even fathers have limited authority over the decisions of their daughters, and according to Scripture, one of those decisions is about whether they marry this man, that man, or no man at all. As we’ve seen, this is especially true in situations where the young woman either “cannot exercise self-control” (1 Cor. 7:9) or is “passing the flower of her age” (v. 36) and strongly desires to marry. When a young Christian woman wants to marry another Christian man, and that man is qualified in every biblical way, there is no argument her father can put forth against it that carries the force of the law. It may have the ring of wisdom, but not the force of law.

Martin Luther sums it up well when he writes:

It is quite certain therefore that parental authority is strictly limited; it does not extend to the point where it should wreak damage and destruction to the child, especially to its soul. If then a father forces his child into a marriage without love, he oversteps and exceeds his authority. He ceases to be a father and becomes a tyrant who uses his authority not for building up—which is why God gave it to him—but for destroying. He is taking authority into his own hands without God, indeed, against God. The same principle holds good when a father hinders his child’s marriage, or lets the child go ahead on his own, without any intention of helping him in the matter. In such a case the child is truly free and may act as if his parent or guardian were dead; mindful of what is best for himself, he may become engaged in God’s name, and look after himself as best he can.1

In one of his letters of spiritual counsel, Luther writes to a man who was refusing to give his blessing to his daughter. But because he could see no biblical basis for denying the lawfulness of the marriage, he set out to correct the man, even threatening him with the power of his pastoral office. In his mind, the family is not a sovereign, independent government, but is ever coexisting with other God-ordained governments (the state and the church), and that for its own good. In God’s wisdom, he knows that the family needs accountability. Moreover, this implies that the individual members of each government have the right to appeal to the officers of the other two when they believe they are being treated unjustly. Equally important—it is always the responsibility of the officers of any government to hear concerns and complaints that are being brought to their attention. As officers under Christ, it is their duty to intercede and act with a righteous use of their own power if necessary. Luther writes:

As I have written before, children should not become engaged without parental consent. But at the same time, I also wrote that parents should not and cannot rightly compel or prevent their children to please themselves. In short, I pray you not to delay your consent any longer. Let the good fellow have peace of mind. And I cannot wait much longer. I shall have to act as my office requires.2  

Paul Liberati is the Senior Pastor of Church of the King in Sacramento, Calif. This article is used with permission.

  1. Martin Luther, That Parents Should Neither Compel Nor Hinder the Marriage of Their Children, And That Children Should Not Become Engaged Without Their Parents’ Consent (1524)
  2. Martin Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel—Letter dated June 4, 1539

This idea of governmental intervention deserves a fuller treatment than I can give here. For now, I will leave the reader with a few resources for further consideration:

On page 73 of The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of CalvinPhilip Edgecombe Hughes writes: 

In the case of children who marry without the consent of father or mother at the age when they are permitted to do so (stated as being ages 20 for a man and 18 for a woman on the previous page), as above, if it is known to the court that they have acted lawfully while their fathers have been negligent or excessively strict, the fathers shall be compelled to assign them a dowry or to grant them such a portion and position as would have been the case had they consented to the marriage.

On pages 366-367 of his History of the Church of Scotland (1655), John Spottiswood writes:

Public inhibitions should be made, that no persons under the power and obedience of fathers, tutors, and curators, either men or women, contract marriage privately, and without the knowledge of those to whom they live subject, under the power of church censure; for if any son or daughter be moved towards a match, they are obliged to ask the counsel and assistance of their parents for performing the same. And though the father, notwithstanding their desires, has no other cause than the common sort men have, to wit, lack of money, or because they are not perhaps of a lineage and birth as they require; yet must not the parties make any covenant till the ministry or civil magistrate be acquainted therewith, and interpone their request for the parent’s consent; which if they cannot obtain, finding no just cause why their marriage ought not to proceed, in that case, they, sustaining the place of the parent, may consent to the parties, and admit them to marry, for the work of God ought not to be hindered by the corrupt affections of worldly men. 

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