Chapter 5: Permanence of Marriage
THE PERMANENCE OF MARRIAGE: Till Death us do Part
So God instituted the holy state of marriage. How long did He intend marriage to last? Was it His intent that marriage should or could be short term, with the married couple having the option to step out of marriage after some months or years, and perhaps try again?
The material of the previous chapter would argue against that understanding. The Lord God had created the man and placed him in the Garden, then concluded that “it is not good for the man to be alone,” and so God created “a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). We understand that it would not be acceptable for Adam to desert his wife or send her away on grounds that he could manage quite alright on his own – for God had analyzed the situation differently. Similarly, it would not be acceptable for Eve to desert her husband on grounds that she couldn’t stand him or wanted more freedom – for God had created her for the man. The words of the Holy Spirit in Genesis 2:24 –“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife…”– leave no place for the termination of marriage. God’s intent was that man and wife shall cling to each other, without end.
The fall into sin had a profoundly devastating effect on the holy state of marriage. Adam, though head, was quick to point an accusing finger at Eve when God inquired as to whether they had eaten of the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:12). That was certainly not the posture of Paradise – and was symptomatic of the selfishness that came to characterize the fallen human race. It ought no longer therefore to be possible that two sinners, each corrupt and equally self-seeking, should now cling to each other and be one; those who try marriage should obviously have at their disposal an emergency exit out of a bad experience.
It is surprising, then, to read that the great Prophet and Teacher of the Church should insist that the norm of God as revealed in Genesis 2 is still in force in this fallen world. The Pharisees questioned Jesus as to whether it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife”? (Mark 10:1-9). The long and short of Jesus’ reply was this: “at the beginning of creation, God ‘made them male and female.’” Jesus continued: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” We recognize Jesus’ quote as coming from Genesis 2; Jesus insists that God’s norm as revealed in Genesis 2 holds true even after the fall into sin! Despite inherent selfishness, husband and wife are to cling to each other, without the possibility of stepping out of a bad relationship. The Form for the Solemnization of Marriage catches the point well: “He teaches us that marriage is an institution of God and should not be broken, when He says, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” More: “Since God has made marriage such a strong bond, He hates divorce, as also our Lord Jesus Christ shows in these words, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Given all that was said in the previous chapter about Genesis 2, this ought to be sufficient to demonstrate that the Lord would have marriage be permanent. When God created marriage, He simply did not intend an exit strategy.
However, the circumstances of our modern western culture dictate that more attention be given to the matter of permanency in marriage. With the liberalization of divorce laws some 3 or 4 decades ago, divorce has become so common place in the western world that those who marry could be forgiven for thinking that they need not stick with their marriage vow. What, then, does the Scripture actually say about the permanence of marriage?
To answer the question, I propose first to take a brief walk through church history, then consider the analogy of God as portrayed in Scripture, and finally pay some attention to specific texts relating to divorce (and remarriage).
The Permanence of Marriage in Church History
From the earliest days of the Christian church there was a distinct consensus that marriage was permanent. One voiced a vow of devotion to the spouse, one was bound to stand by that vow irrespective of the challenges one might face. The only exception granted within the early church revolved around the allowance that Jesus Christ expressed in Matthew 19, namely, that divorce was possible in the context of adultery. In fact, several church fathers insisted that in the event of adultery the faithful party ought to sue for divorce – and then remain unmarried.
During the thirteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church made marriage a sacrament. In so doing, the church also made divorce effectively impossible even in situations of adultery. During the fifteenth century the Dutch Humanist Desiderius Erasmus argued that it is simply too hard on people in a bad marriage to be obliged to remain married. Reason and empathy with the burdened dictate that allowance ought to be made for divorce. Similarly, because being restricted to a life of singleness after divorce is too hard, the divorced should be permitted to marry again.
The way in which Erasmus reasoned about marriage, ie, from the perspective of people’s human and pastoral needs, became the way that the majority of the reformers worked with marriage. Luther believed that divorce was wrong except in cases where there was adultery, desertion, or a withholding of conjugal rights. Other reformers came up with a longer list of reasons that made divorce lawful. In the course of years, just two grounds for dissolving a marriage were retained as Scriptural. The one was based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The other was based on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:15: “But if a believer leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” These two reasons have found their way into Article 24 of the Westminster Confession:
V. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
VI. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.
Notice that when the Westminster Confession permits divorce on the two possible grounds of adultery and willful desertion, this Confession also opens the door to remarriage for the ‘innocent’ party.
For four centuries since the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, the western Christian world has consistently frowned upon divorce. Only on the rare occasion did divorce occur, and when it happened a stigma attached to the family concerned.
Society’s embrace of secularization after World War 2 has changed the public’s estimation of divorce and of the need for permanency in marriage. In the recent three or four decades divorces have become so common that one marriage in three now ends in divorce. This decay in relation to marriage in the world at large had a predictable spillover effect in the churches, so that amongst Christians too there are noticeably more divorces today than three decades ago.
The increasing number of divorces (also amongst Christians) has of late prompted a rethink on what the Lord God actually teaches about the permanence of marriage. Consider the following two scenarios:
- Tensions have driven a particular husband and wife apart, yet neither have committed adultery. On the historic understanding, divorce was not a Scripturally permissible – and hence remarriage was not either. The two were doomed to a life of singleness, or reconciliation.
- Tensions have driven another wife into the arms of a third party. On the historic understanding, the ‘innocent’ husband could because of her adultery sue for divorce and marry again – and now live happily ever after. Through his sin of pestering, he opened the door to legal remarriage.
One appreciates that something here is wrong. Consequently, in 1993 the Synod of our sister churches in the Netherlands received a request to study what Scripture really said about divorce and remarriage. After a number of study committees had reported to subsequent synods, the recent Synod of 2005 came with a number of conclusions. They read as follows:
- The Lord instituted marriage. This strong bond between a man and a woman may not be severed by men (Gen 2:24; Mal 2:14-16; Mt 19:3-0; 1 Corinthians 7:10,11).
Divorce is a serious evil which must be prevented and resisted as much as possible. Living according to the style of the kingdom of Christ means that in all cases of marriage difficulty we strive for reconciliation and restoration of the relationship.
- If a marriage is damaged as a result of sin or the fall into sin, it is proper in following Christ, to pursue restoration of the marriage bond through repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation and/or maintain the marriage bond as much as possible through self-denial. In so doing, it may become evident that one needs to acquiesce to divorce.
- In a circumstance where the marriage bond has in fact come to an end, it is most in accord with the style of the kingdom of Christ still to maintain the marriage formally, and to choose for a solution wherein the spouses (officially) make an agreement together or decide to separate.
- Even in the above mentioned circumstances, the oath of marriage remains in force, as long as both spouses remain alive. That is why remarriage after divorce in principle does not fit in the style of the kingdom of Christ.
- As a rule, ecclesiastical sanction of a subsequent marriage is not possible if a previous marriage was terminated through divorce.
I for one welcome this development as put to paper by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Whereas society had opened the door wide to divorce and gave ample opportunity for second marriages, this Synod greatly discouraged divorce and effectively closed the door on remarriage in church. This does far more justice to the revelation of God in Scripture, as the following pages will attempt to show.
The Permanence of Marriage in the Analogy of God
The Lord God created man “in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). As image of God mankind (in distinction from all other creatures) was entrusted with the privileged task of reflecting what God was like. In the holy state of marriage too the man and his wife could reflect something of God’s characteristics.
What is the Lord God like? He promised to Abram that He would make Abram “into a great nation” and would bless him. Indeed, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2,3). But Abram was so undeserving! A famine drove him to Egypt, and in fear of his life he instructed his wife Sarai to lie; “Say you are my sister” (Genesis 12:13). Despite Abram’s deceit, the Lord God made a covenant with Abram (Genesis 15), and repeated the promise of children. When the children God promised did not eventuate in the timeframe Abram considered reasonable, he impregnated Sarai’s servant (Genesis 16). Despite Abram’s adultery, the Lord God did not renege on His promises to Abram, but told him again that He established His covenant with Abram so that He would be Abram’s God (Genesis 17). The point is this: despite Abram’s unworthiness and sinfulness, the Lord God stood by His promises to Abram. He revealed Himself as a merciful and faithful God, unchanging in respect of His promises, reliable.
The same divine characteristic comes out in God’s approach to Jacob. In his infancy the Lord God established His covenant of love with Jacob; on the eighth day of his life the lad was circumcised as a sign and seal of God’s claim upon him. Yet Jacob swindled the rights to the first-born blessing from his brother Esau in his moment of desperation (Genesis 25:29-34), and later deceived his father to receive the first-born blessing (Genesis 27). Despite his ungodly actions, the Lord God did not renege on His promises to Jacob, but continued to enfold him with His care and blessing. The people of Israel in Egypt were God’s children by covenant, but in their oppression they served other gods (Joshua 24:14). Yet the Lord did not reject this sinful people, nor go back on His promises to them. Instead, in boundless mercy He stood by His word, delivered this people from their slavery, reestablished His covenant with Israel, and gave them the Promised Land – just as He’d promised.
This theme of God’s faithfulness and His standing by His promises comes into sharper focus when we observe how God Himself relates it to marriage. When Israel was “old enough for love, I spread the corner of My garment over you…. I gave you My solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became Mine” (Ezekiel 16:8). To spread the corner of ones garment over another was symbolic of entering a marriage relationship (see Ruth 3:9). The covenant God established with Israel was effectively His marriage bond with this people. So the Lord could say in Jeremiah 3:14 (and in 31:32) that “I am your husband.”
It’s the reality of this marital relation between God and Israel that prompts the Holy Spirit’s choice of language when He describes Israel’s sins. Already at Mt Sinai, shortly after He ‘married’ Israel, the Lord gave this warning to His people through Moses, “Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death…. If the people of the community close their eyes when that man gives one of his children to Molech and they fail to put him to death, I will set My face against that man and his family and will cut off from their people both him and all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech” (Leviticus 20:2-5). Notice God’s use of the word ‘prostituting’ here (or, as other translations have it, ‘harlotry’ or ‘whoring’). To sacrifice a child to the god of the Ammonites amounts to spiritual adultery, says the Lord, for Israel already has a God to whom she is bound by a covenant of marriage.
Before Moses died, the Lord God told him what His people’s future conduct would be like. “These people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake Me and break the covenant I made with them” (Deuteronomy 31:16). This in fact is how it turned out. “Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them…. Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them” (Judges 2:11-17). God’s use of the word ‘prostituted’ in this context describes both the heart of their sin as well as the hurt of Israel’s Husband. Yet the horror of Israel’s sin did not prompt her Husband to discard her, or to strike up a relation with a new partner (say, the Moabites or Tutsis or a tribe amongst the Chinese), but He stayed faithful to His partner-by-covenant and kept sending judges to save His people. In the course of the years He sent so many prophets to warn and to admonish, and He sent so many plagues and crises too in an effort to draw His people to repentance. Talk about standing by the promise once made!
Yet even He stood by His promises, the Lord took some extreme measures to generate a change. He commanded the prophet Hosea “to take to yourself an adulterous wife” –why?– “because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD” (Hosea 1:2). Through her Hosea received children, and the names of the children prophetically announced what God intended to do to His unfaithful wife. One child received the name Lo-Ruhamah, a Hebrew phrase meaning “Not Loved”. Another child received the name Lo-Ammi, Hebrew for “Not My People”. The names expressed God’s feelings about His deceitful bride, and indicated what God was about to divorce His people through the exile.
Yet here is the marvel of who God is. Though He “will expose her lewdness” and “will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals,” yet –He says– “I will … speak tenderly to her…. She will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” In fact, declares the LORD, “in that day … you will call me ‘my husband’…” (Hosea 2:10-16). How remarkable: God does not give up on unfaithful Israel, and does not renege on the promises He swore to her when He established His covenant with this people!
The prophet Jeremiah put the matter into sharper terms still. Concerning Israel’s past the Lord said, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, and the firstfruits of His harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them.” Hence the Lord’s puzzlement: “What fault did your fathers find in Me, that they strayed so far from Me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves…. Indeed, on every high hill and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute” (Jeremiah 2:2-5, 20). So God finally gave the northern ten tribes a “certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries” (Jeremiah 3:8); God sent the northern tribes into exile. Yet even then the Lord God did not wash His hands of His faithless bride! Instead, he instructed Jeremiah to proclaim this message from God: “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt – you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed Me,’ declares the LORD” (3:11-13). How remarkable: God did not intend this divorce as a termination of His relationship with Israel, but as a means to impress on His bride how desperately she needed to repent and change her behavior. “‘Return, faithless people,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I am you husband” (3:14).
Is this not why the Lord sent His Son into the world and rejected Him? Israel’s sins, including their spiritual adultery, were placed onto Jesus Christ and then the judgment those sins deserved was poured out onto Him. On the cross the Lord God divorced Israel’s replacement, so that Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). Because He was rejected, Israel could be accepted – despite her transgressions! For Jesus’ sake God remained faithful and merciful to His unfaithful bride.
In the New Testament dispensation God still uses the imagery of marriage to describe His relation with His people. Jesus called Himself the ‘bridegroom’ (Matthew 9:15). Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him” (2 Corinthians 11:2). Elsewhere he wrote that marriage was “a profound mystery”, for it refers to “Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). John heard an enormous heavenly multitude jubilate about the finished work of the Lord, “Hallelujah! … For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7; see also 21:2,9). Yet it’s not so that the bride has within herself something that attracts the divine Bridegroom to her, for the New Testament church is no more faithful than was the Old Testament church. But the Bridegroom Himself gives her “fine linen, bright and clean …, to wear” (19:8).
How were the husbands and wives of Israel, now, to image this God? How are the husbands and wives of the New Testament dispensation to image God? Can a Christian claim to image God when he (or she) is unfaithful to the spouse? And if the other party enters a relation with a third party, is the ‘innocent’ party free to wash his hands of the marriage? Inasmuch as God did not wash His hands of Israel but instead continued to carry out His responsibilities as husband to Israel, the husbands (and wives) of Israel were also not free to wash their hands of an erring spouse.
The same is true today. The Lord does not deal with His bride, the church, as she deserves – for who would dare to claim that the church is today free of spiritual adultery, of putting her trust in gods of Reason or Money or Public Esteem, etc? As the Lord is so patient with His bride today and in mercy remains so faithful to His covenant promises, so husbands and wives are to be patient with the spouse and maintain the vows once voiced on the wedding day. David’s word in Psalm 15 is instructive: “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He who … keeps his oath even when it hurts….” And the wonderful thing is that the people of God are made able to keep that oath. For the Holy Spirit has been poured out abundantly, and “the fruit of the Spirit is love …, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…” (Galatians 5:22).
How permanent did God intend marriage to be? God intended marriage to be permanent, ‘for as long as we both shall live’. Paul puts it like this, “by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man” (Romans 7:2,3). Malachi says the same thing in a most pointed manner: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the LORD God of Israel” (2:16).
The Permanence of Marriage in Bible Texts
Do the separate Scripture texts that speak of marriage and divorce confirm or undermine the paradigm set by God Himself? It’s to this topic we need to turn next.
The Old Testament
It needs to be noted first that the Lord’s Word nowhere commands divorce. The most one can say is that the Lord recognized that in this broken life divorce happens. He says, for example, that a priest “must not marry … a divorced woman” (Leviticus 21:14; see also Leviticus 22:13; Numbers 30:9).
There is one text, however, where the Lord gave particular instruction in relation to divorce. He gave this command: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she become the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The Pharisees of Jesus’ day read this passage to say that “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4), and even “commanded” a certificate of divorce (Matthew 19:7). Yet that’s to read more into the passage than the passage permits. The Lord God did nothing more than regulate what is to happen in the event a divorce has occurred. Notice that the passage describes two conditions:
1. If husband A divorces his wife, and
2. If this woman marries again and husband B also divorces her (or dies),
then –and this is now the law caught in this passage– husband A is not permitted to take this woman as wife again.
Moses (and the Lord God who inspired him) does not approve of divorce, but regulates an aspect of what can happen when one ends up in a situation of divorce. So Jesus could explain the command of Deuteronomy 24 with these words, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:8,9).
Another passage of the Old Testament that needs attention in relation to the topic of marriage permanency is Ezra 9 and 10. After a number of the exiles returned from their captivity, many “married foreign woman” (10:2,10,44). So Ezra mobilized the people to “make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children” (10:3). Since Ezra’s action is described on the pages of Scripture as reformation and is done with God’s approval, does this passage not exonerate divorce? In answer, note the following points:
- The Hebrew language has various ways of saying that persons were married in the sense of, say, Abraham and Sarah, but we don’t find that sort of language in Ezra 9 and 10. Instead, we find in these two chapters a term (in 10:2,10,14,17,18) never used elsewhere in the bible in the context of marriage (with the exception of Nehemiah 13:23,27, where the context is the same as in Ezra 9 & 10). The term used means literally “cause to dwell”. We understand that one can “cause” a woman “to dwell” in one’s home without tying the knot of marriage.
- Beside the phrase “cause to dwell” these two chapters also use the word “take” to describe what the men of Israel had done with these foreign women (9:2; 10:44). This second word is used various times in Scripture to describe the act of bringing multiple women into one’s home (cf 2 Chronicles 11:21; 13:21; 24:3) or to take a woman without any reference to love (Judges 21:23). The word has something negative in it.
- Again, the Hebrew language has a particular word for divorce (cf Deuteronomy 24:1-4). But that word is not used in Ezra 10; instead, we find a word that means “cause to go out”. And we understand that one can also cause an unmarried woman to go out of one’s house.
- Once more, our translation speaks of these chapters of “wives” (9:2; 10:2,3,10,11,14,18, 19), and that prompts us to think of marriage. However, in Hebrew the word for “wife” is equally the word for “woman”; the term does not necessarily refer to marriage.
- Finally, 9:1 mentions that Israel acted according to “the detestable practices” of “the neighboring peoples” (the Canaanites, the Hittites, etc). If we are to assume that the exiles had established true marriages, the reference to the “the detestable practices” of “the neighboring peoples” becomes difficult to explain. For marrying cannot be considered a detestable practice, and marrying a pagan cannot be considered an a detestable practice of the Canaanites, the Hittites, etc. What is detestable before God, though, is practices as adultery, sexual licentiousness, marital unfaithfulness – habits common amongst the Canaanites, the Hittites, etc.
- Where the text in English speaks of marriage, the term has been laid into the text by the translators. In 9:2 the NKJV places the words “as wives” in cursive script (the NIV and ESV simply incorporate the words into the English text). The cursive script indicate that those two words “as wives” is not present in the original Hebrew, and have been added by the translators in an effort to give greater clarity to the text. The text itself simply says that the people of Israel “have taken some of their daughters for themselves and their sons.” The reference to marriage in 9:14 is part of Ezra’s summary of God’s law, and not necessarily descriptive of what was specifically happening in Israel at the time.
These observations lead to the conclusion that the last two chapters of Ezra do not tell us about men of Israel who had married women of the surrounding nations in the formal sense of the term. These last two chapters tell us instead that some men of Israel, maybe already married and maybe not, took foreign women into the homes and beds. Let us say: these women are concubines. So Ezra’s reforming work was understandable: send these women away. The passage, then, cannot be used to separate the notion that marriage is somehow not ‘till death us do part’.
The New Testament
The Pharisees once asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3). This question was borne out of a dispute between two rabbis, Shammai and Hillel, over what were to be regarded as lawful reasons for divorce. The one permitted limited grounds for divorce, while the other tolerated divorce even on such frivolous grounds as burning the beans. In His reply, Jesus appealed to Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24: “Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). With this reply Jesus found fault with both schools of thought. God, He insists, did not create an emergency exit for marriage.
The Pharisees countered with a further question: “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” To this question Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:7,8). Notice how Jesus drives His point home with a reference to God’s creating work: from the beginning God intended marriage to be permanent.
Must all who marry, then, forever remain married ‘till death us do part’, irrespective of the sins and tribulations that can plague that marriage? Jesus was well aware of the pain that unfaithfulness can generate. Said He, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9; see also Matthew 5:31,32). Mark and Luke record similar words from Jesus’ mouth, be it without the phrase ‘except for marital unfaithfulness’ (see Mark 10:11,12; Luke 16:18). Their lack of the words ‘except for marital unfaithfulness’ makes clear that the arrival of a third party into a marriage relation (even after divorce!) constitutes adultery. Terminating one’s marriage and starting again with another spouse is as certainly adultery as bringing the third party into the relation before divorce. Similarly, divorcing a woman drives her into adultery, for in Jesus’ day there was no such thing as ‘social security’ as we know it. The divorced woman, though so far innocent of adultery, was by divorce driven to another man to survive – and having a third party in the (broken) relation was still adultery. How great the responsibility of the divorcing husband!
What, then, are we to make of the exceptive clause as found in Matthew 19:9 (and 5:31,32)? Does that exceptive clause not leave room for divorce? Indeed, it does. As the Lord God divorced Israel in Jeremiah 3 on account of her adultery, so the people of Israel could divorce an unfaithful spouse. For centuries the church has understood from Jesus’ words that adultery is a lawful ground for divorce.
Does the Lord in this text also give permission for the person who divorces on grounds of adultery to marry another? It has been so said. However, a number of grounds argue against this understanding:
- This is the only text conceivably supporting remarriage (to a third party) after divorce based on adultery.
- The Greek construction of the so-called exceptive clause in Matthew 19:9 is literally ‘not for marital unfaithfulness’; the translation “except for marital unfaithfulness” is forced. This makes suspect whether the phrase actually ought to be translated as an exception clause. To be clear, it should be noted that the Greek of Matthew 5:32 is substantially different than the Greek of Matthew 19:9 (a fact which does not come through in the English translations).
- The paradigm of God’s example (see above) points in the opposite direction.
From such considerations it would follow that one ought not to build on this single text the conclusion that a person divorced on grounds of adultery is free before God to marry again. Though such a conclusion certainly runs contrary to the wishes and hopes we may have for each other, we need to let Scripture interpret itself, and so read the more difficult passages in light of the easier passages.
The vow one voiced at the wedding, then, to remain faithful till death us to part, remains valid even after a legitimate divorce. Though the two have fallen out and come to a parting of ways, God’s example for His people is that they continue to pray for each other, and, as opportunity presents itself, still reach out to the other with the ultimate goal of reconciliation. Paul’s words drives the point home: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10,11). This is Paul’s inspired understanding of the Lord Jesus’ instruction as caught in the four gospel texts discussed above. Our conclusions may not differ from Paul’s inspired conclusion.
The Case of the Unbelieving Spouse
The other Scripture passage used to argue that marriage is not by definition permanent is 1 Corinthians 7:15. When the apostle came to Corinth with the gospel, the city was distinctly pagan. Some people responded to the call of the gospel with faith and repentance, while others did not. In some families only the one spouse was converted. Understandably, this put tensions on the marriage, for the believing partner was no longer the person he used to be; his conversion changed him. What, now, were those believers to do when the spouse wished to walk out of the marriage? Paul’s advice was this:
“To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (I Corinthians 7:12-16).
Paul made clear to his readers that the Lord Jesus, during His time on earth, had given no command specific to the Corinthian situation. The advice Paul gives is what he understood God’s will to be in light of Jesus’ general instruction plus what God had revealed in Old Testament Scripture concerning marriage. He had already made clear in verses 10 and 11 (quoted above) that marriage is permanent, with no emergency exit. With that in mind, Paul now goes on to say that if your unbelieving spouse is willing to live with you, leave it that way; do not divorce. However, if the unbelieving spouse wishes to leave the Christian spouse, let him go; after all, all you gain by attempting to force him to stay is friction – and “God has called us to live in peace” (verse 15). Paul’s point is not that now you are free to divorce (that would be contrary to his instruction in verses 10 and 11); his point is instead that “a believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances” to force the unbelieving spouse to stay home or even move in with the unbelieving spouse at his new address. Nor is the believer compelled to resist tooth and nail any divorce attempt on the part of the unbelieving spouse. You may need to acquiesce to life’s brokenness. Acquiescing to divorce, of course, is a totally different thing than pursuing divorce yourself. The apostle has simply forbidden that.
Does that mean that the divorced person no longer has an obligation to the ex-spouse? Granted, legally a divorce may terminate a marriage in the sense that no responsibilities remain to the previous spouse. But the indications of Scripture are that the divorced person retains moral obligations towards the ex-spouse. God established the bond of marriage for life. God’s example was to call even His divorced people to repentance. The unity of marriage may be broken by a divorce, but the need to pray for the ex-spouse’s repentance (and conversion) remains. In short, the vow once uttered at the marriage ceremony continues to bind the divorced person to his ex-spouse.
Scripture teaches that God created marriage for life and so He did not create it with an ‘exit.’ Jesus came to earth to repair all that had been broken by the fall into sin, including the broken institution of marriage. The blood of Christ washes away all sins of marriage and His redeeming work makes the restoration of marriage possible. He poured out His Holy Spirit Who gives the necessary grace for husband and wife to live together in unity. In the style of the kingdom the child of God submits to the suffering the Lord puts on our path, convinced that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3,4). In the school of suffering we shall continue to learn to image our Maker better and better, till the Savior returns to wipe away every tear and make all things new.