Till Death Do You Part: A Case for the Permanency and Indissolubility of Marriage

There may be no greater issue plaguing the church and impeding its witness today than its inconsistent and unclear teaching on the issue of divorce and remarriage. At first glance this might seem like an overstatement. However, if one considers the theological roots of this issue and how they branch out and underlie many other questions our culture is raising regarding human sexuality, one should begin to appreciate the seriousness of the claim. What is man? What is woman? What is marriage? The answers to these questions have implications for issues such as homosexuality and transgenderism for all such issues are rooted in deeper questions about anthropology and Christology. On the surface, the details giving rise to any individual’s desire for a divorce or to be remarried can be endlessly complex. Wading through the particulars as to how a couple fell in and out of love and who may have wronged whom first to establish valid grounds for divorce or remarriage is in many cases, at best, a shot in the dark. In the fractured modern church, rarely will you find two churches who would agree in any given case as to who was ultimately at fault or whether a divorce or remarriage is justified. Furthermore, evangelical polity, which operates as a kind of de facto congregationalism, makes church discipline almost impossible as many congregations do not feel compelled to enforce the decisions of other independent churches. This problem is not solved by writing a book that claims to apply biblical law as if this will eliminate the inherent subjectivity.[1] For even here the Torah provides only broad principles that are subjectively applied to a case, the details of which remain just as complex and multifaceted. Therefore, the answer for dealing with the question of divorce and remarriage does not lie so much in legal casuistry, but rather in understanding the ontological reality of human beings, male and female, and the marriage union, which is ascertained from natural law rooted in the created order, and from Scripture as articulated and taught by the church catholic, which reveals the greater reality toward which marriage points.

Any attempt to take up a highly controversial and often emotional topic like divorce and remarriage must begin with the ontological question as to what marriage is. This discussion is in turn rooted in the anthropological question about what human beings are. Biblically, this requires that any examination of the issue return to the creation account in Genesis. Understanding God’s design for humanity in creation will do much to properly frame the discussion of marriage and constrain the available options regarding divorce and remarriage.

What is Marriage? The Ontological REality in Creation

Genesis 1:27 says that “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV). The singular and the plural objective pronouns in this sentence reflect the singularity and plurality of God’s nature. Though God is not a sexual being and is “without body, parts, or passions,”[2] some aspect of God’s nature is mirrored in the sexual differences between male and female. God’s image is imprinted on every individual as an individual; however, God chose to reflect his image in two different ways: the male and the female.[3] In the Garden of Eden, Adam is in a sense both complete and incomplete. Everything that God made in the Genesis 1 was deemed good or very good, and yet God’s judgment of Adam’s isolation prior to the creation of Eve was “not good” (2:18). Creation remained incomplete without the woman. Thus, God tasked Adam with naming each of the creatures that Adam might through experience come to the same conclusion about his own need for a helpmate. As God is a relational being, existing from all eternity as three persons enjoying perfect love and harmony with one another, so does man, created in God’s image, reflect this reality in his relational nature. Though a pagan, the Greek philosopher Aristotle likewise recognized that man is by nature a social animal. However, for Aristotle, it was the rational soul in man and man’s capacity for speech that set him apart from the other species.[4] The biblical anthropology in contrast presents man as a social being due first to his desire to be loved and his capacity to love. Because God is love, man desires to love and to be loved by another. To paraphrase Augustine, God created human beings for himself, and they remain restless until they rest in the love their creator.[5]

God recognized that Adam not only needed a companion in the garden with whom he could communicate, but someone who complemented him and who would help him perpetuate his own existence. God did not create another Adam. Adam did not need a friend or a replica of himself, but someone who, while sharing his likeness as a human being, was wholly other to him. Author Mike Mason refers to this difference between man and woman as a “mysterious, compelling combination of identity and otherness.”[6] Man and woman are attracted to their opposite, though in their opposite they are made physically one. Adam’s counterpart would be formed from a part of his body and yet be not merely distinct, but different from him. It is of great significance to note that Eve was not created as just another individual who came from the dust of the earth. It was Adam who came from the dust and Eve who came from Adam. Therefore, Eve’s existence was ontologically tied to Adam’s.[7] Moreover, Eve was made not only from Adam, but for Adam. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:9 that the woman was made for man. The woman then was created with a nature and a purpose. While she, like the man, was created to honor God, “she is also made for a second purpose: to honor man.”[8] The witness of Scripture from the creation account is that both man and woman were created with a nature and a purpose, and these roles are not interchangeable.

Adam was a mere creature and not God and thus did not have the capacity within himself to generate life on his own. Neither sex can exist without the other for the distinction between male and female is “an integral and inescapable part of human reality. It denotes the broader relation of the sexes in which no male can exist without the female and no female without the male.”[9] The interdependency of the sexes to create new life that would succeed them points to the fact that God created man and woman for union with one another. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas taught that marriage is of natural law. Human beings naturally desire, as sub-creators, to produce children in their image, and this would cause them to seek mates. Furthermore, human beings desire to care for and to educate their children that they might learn to pursue virtue, and this is accomplished by parents. Likewise, man’s social nature would give rise to a natural desire to live in society where all members could work together to promote the temporal good.[10] Marriage creates the most basic society between man and wife that contributes to the creation of the political society.

Marriage then is a creational ordinance toward which human beings incline for their good. It is not a legal fiction nor a dictate of will but is an ontological reality that is brought into existence with the creation and union of male and female. Marriage must be understood as part of God’s creative work and not distinct from it. This means that marriage has an objective nature that cannot be toyed with. In the words of Joseph Atkinson, “Inasmuch as marriage is part of God’s creative order, it cannot be arbitrarily or subjectively defined, but rather it receives, in the very act of its creation, a constitutive nature which needs to be respected if man and society are to flourish.”[11] Eve was made specifically to be Adam’s helpmate, not to be an option that Adam could choose if he felt like making a covenant with her. Adam’s poetic statement upon seeing Eve for the first time, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”, is a statement about the nature of reality, of what is, not merely a subjective statement of Adam’s commitment to Eve. God did not present Eve to Adam to see if he approved. Of course Adam would approve! Eve was tailor-made for him as she was designed by God from his own rib. Eve was one flesh with Adam by virtue of God’s act in creation, not simply by virtue of Adam and Eve’s commitment to one another. Thus, the essence of the marriage relationship preceded its existence. They were made of one flesh. Thus, they became one flesh.

While we must go further and add that Adam and Eve’s relationship was more than a mystical union created by God and was in fact a covenant, it was certainly not less. Aquinas says that the consent of the man and woman to be married is the efficient cause of a marriage union.[12] While a covenantal oath from both parties is the means necessary to bring the marriage into effect, God is the one who acts to bind the man and woman together and make them one. It is God who creates the marriage. Because Adam and Eve did not create their marriage, they had no ability to dissolve it. Because their marriage was part of the created order and the created order was not abrogated because of sin, their marriage was not dissolved because of the Fall.[13] Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God did not change the nature of reality. The fact that Adam and Eve sinned and ruined their relationship with God did not mean their relationship with each other was dissolved, though it was certainly marred by sin. Eve was still flesh and bone of Adam. Rebellion against God does not change the status of a marriage any more than does it change one’s gender. One can rebel against the truth, but that has no effect on the truth itself. Since marriage is a natural institution, it persists regardless of the spiritual state of the spouses involved. The covenant of marriage ratifies and binds two parties to the new reality that God has created, but is not the basis of that new reality. “Covenant is not contract…It is personal union pledged by symbol and/or oath. The relationship comes first.”[14] Since the relationship comes first, the covenant should be understood in light of the nature of the underlying relationship rather than reading an interpretation of a biblical covenant gained from similarities to stipulations of ancient near east suzerainty treaties and reading them back into the relationship God created. While marriage indeed points to a greater spiritual reality, it remains a natural institution. It is not merely for Christians as Christians, but for man as man.

God’s Covenant Relationship with His People

Having established that marriage is an ontological reality and part of the natural order of creation that is neither destroyed nor recreated on account of the Fall, we can begin to deal with its covenantal nature. Marriage is employed as a metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with his people. Since God never acts on the basis of an arbitrary will, but always acts in accordance with his reason and nature, we should never interpret God’s covenantal relationship to be at odds with his created order. Indeed, this is what we see in Scripture. God’s actions in his covenant relationship with his people are consistent with his character and serve as the model that his creatures are called to follow. In the book of Hosea, God uses Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute to serve as an illustration of His covenantal relationship to His people. Though Gomer, Hosea’s wife, is unfaithful to him, God does not dissolve Hosea’s marriage. Hosea’s faithfulness to his adulterous wife parallels God’s faithfulness to his adulterous wife, Israel, who has prostituted herself before other gods. Hosea is called to redeem his wife though she has been unfaithful (Ch. 3). In Hosea 2:912, God calls for the punishment of his people. He promises to take away all those things she has enjoyed, but for them has credited other lovers.

Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand. And I will put an end to all her mirth, her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed feasts. And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, “These are my wages, which my lovers have given me.” (ESV)

Then beginning in verse 14 we see God’s purpose for imposing such harsh punishment: “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (vv.1415a). Israel must learn that it was her true husband that was the source of good things, not the false gods with whom she was acting as a harlot. Once those good things are stripped away, Israel would return to her true husband and “answer as in the days of her youth” (v.15b). In verse 16, Yahweh says, “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal’” (ESV).

Similarly, in Jeremiah 3:89, Yahweh brings charges in his covenant lawsuit against Judah: “[S]he too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree” (ESV). For Judah’s spiritual adultery Yahweh had every right to seek divorce. Yet He always leaves the door open for the repentance and return of the unfaithful spouse. Yahweh never seeks to find another spouse. Instead, he is the one who promises to heal the broken marriage covenant. “‘Return, O backsliding children,’ says the LORD; ‘for I am married to you’” (Jer. 3:14, NKJV). In his commentary on Jeremiah 3, Philip Ryken writes, “God never went through with his divorce. When you are an unfaithful wife, God is still a faithful husband.”[15] Even the Babylonian exile is brought about for the purposes of restoration of the covenantal relationship. “I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only in due measure;” (Jer. 30:11, NKJV). In the New Testament, though Jesus brings a covenant lawsuit against the Jews of his day, God does not divorce Israel for a new bride.[16] God always had just one covenant people: one bride, not two. Thus, rather than a divorce and remarriage, we see in the New Testament a fuller picture of what Israel was always meant to be, the Israel of God that is drawn from all nations, tribes, and tongues. The church is the fulfillment toward which the Old Testament always pointed. Writes Atkinson, “Marriage in the original state of man had hidden within it the deeper reality to which man is ultimately called. The primordial relationship of man to woman was always pointing toward the even greater relationship with God, which was to be fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ.”[17] The Apostle Paul speaks of a new branch being grafted into a pre-existing tree (Romans 11). The tree is not replaced by another. However one analyzes the covenantal nature of marriage, this truth must not be lost: God is always faithful to his covenant even when his people are not. It is He that walks between the burning pieces of animal flesh in Genesis 15, taking the maledictory oath upon himself for any violation of his covenant with Abraham. God’s faithfulness to his people is what each spouse is called to emulate. Each spouse is called to be faithful because of who God is and what He has done in binding them together in marriage.

More than a Mere Metaphor

To press the point further, marriage is more than just a metaphor to aid human understanding of the relationship between God and his people. Rather, the institution of marriage actually participates in the greater divine reality to which it points. Though it is a natural institution, as discussed above, it is an instrument by which God brings about the redemption of the world. It was through the seed produced from Adam and Eve’s marriage that the serpent’s head would finally be crushed (Gen. 3:15). Abraham’s family did not merely serve as a symbol of God’s covenant with his people, but rather were the means of conveying that covenant from generation to generation. Thus, Joseph Atkinson concludes:

The relationship of marriage and family to the divine covenant was not an artificial construction. It was precisely because of their created natures and their prior ordination towards communion that marriage and family were able to receive the mission to image forth the reality of the covenant within the created order. Precisely because of their constitutive natures, they are vibrant images of the covenant, reflecting and participating in the divine, salvific reality (italics mine).[18]

This close relationship between the symbol and the thing signified provides us with an even stronger argument for the permanency of marriage. Malachi’s condemnation of the post-exilic Jews and the breaking of their marriage covenants is grounded, Hugenberger says, “specifically in the paradigmatic marriage of Adam and Eve…the character of Adam and Eve’s marriage lent itself to being identified by Malachi as a covenant (2:14) and, as such, provided a plausible justification for Malachi’s understanding of marriage.”[19] If marriage is merely a metaphor with no intrinsic connection to the salvific reality it represents, it is reasonable to conclude that the metaphor might break down at some point and fail to accurately characterize some aspect of the deeper reality. However, if marriage and family are essential institutions that not only illustrate, but embody God’s relationship with his people, if they are in essence a participation in God’s plan of redemption for the world, one should question how they can be so easily dissolved and reconstituted by a violation of the marriage covenant. A man who hates and divorces his wife, says Malachi, is covered in violence (2:16, ESV)! Yahweh desires godly offspring (v.15). To divorce one’s spouse and break one’s covenant oath is to commit violence against the future worshippers that Yahweh desires. Thus, Yahweh’s anger against his people here is not borne out of the mere fact that it provides a faulty image to the world of His character. Rather, it is rooted in the reality that it is through the family that his covenant is passed on from one generation to the next. Divorce interferes with God’s creational design as well as his plan for redemption.

Jesus and the Law

In the New Testament, the teaching of Christ and the apostles on marriage and divorce is simplified and straightforward. When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees in Matthew 19 on the lawfulness of divorce, Jesus did not refer to Deuteronomy 24, nor to any other aspect of the Mosaic law. He did not engage with the various schools of thought on the breadth of the exceptions for divorce under the old covenant. He instead pointed his listeners back to the creation account and God’s design for marriage. Jesus was not interested in debating the fine points of the law with the Pharisees, but instead got to the heart of the issue by immediately addressing the ontological question: what is marriage? Marriage is a one-flesh union between a man and a woman whom God has joined together by their covenantal oaths. Since God has joined the male and female together, Jesus says, no man should separate. The command not to separate what God has joined together should be understood as a prohibition against the arrogant presumption that man has the ability to undo what God has done.[20] The command does not imply that man can alter or destroy what God has brought into being.[21] Aquinas testifies that since God has joined two people together in marriage, and since natural law would indicate that man should not oppose God’s action, then marriage is indissoluble and cannot be separated by man.[22] It does not follow from the fact that man’s capability to disobey or defy God’s law means that he can alter or destroy what God has done. For example, some people might sin against God by attempting to mutilate their bodies to change their gender. Though they may succeed in altering their appearance, they are not truly capable of changing their God-given biology. Others may pretend that two individuals of the same sex can enter into a marriage union and grant a certificate of marriage, but this rebellion does not in any way alter the nature of marriage. Likewise, though human beings are capable of acting as if they can separate what God has joined together into one flesh, they are only displaying their rebellion rather than ontologically dissolving the relationship.

Refusing to take Jesus’ argument from creation for an answer, the Pharisees continue to press Jesus by referencing Deuteronomy 24. Jesus then provides the proper hermeneutic for that passage and explains why it should not be the controlling text on the issue of marriage and divorce. The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy 24 was a concession, Jesus says, to the hard-hearted Israelites, not an ideal or model to follow. This was not a passage upon which the people were to build a theology of marriage and divorce. According to Aquinas, the allowance for divorce under the old covenant was “not indeed for the sake of obtaining a greater good…but for the sake of preventing a greater evil.”[23] The fact that God made concessions under the old covenant, allowing for lesser sins to prevent greater sins, should not be interpreted as God’s endorsement or approval of the lesser sin. Jesus then specifies the governing principle regarding divorce: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (19:9, ESV). The context and content of this conversation indicates that Jesus is presenting a higher standard for divorce than the Pharisees were expecting. Jesus was not lowering the bar for divorce but raising it, adding the command that what God had joined, no man was to presume to put asunder. This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on in the Sermon on the Mount in the “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” formula. Jesus’ mission during the first Advent was not to bring judgment, but to seek and to save the lost. However, this does not mean that Jesus was presenting a softer approach to the law. When Jesus discussed any matter of the Mosaic Law, he sought to go beyond the customs and traditions that had been built up around it and to expose the sinfulness of the human heart, revealing the need for a savior. Thus, lust is the root of adultery, hatred the root of murder, and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman the creational design for marriage.

The Narrow Path

However, at this point a potential problem emerges. If it is true that Jesus calls his followers to a higher standard, and if it is true that sin begins in the heart and consists of more than just the external action,[24] then what one might initially interpret as a very narrow allowance for divorce stated by Jesus in Matthew 19:9 actually becomes quite broad, having the opposite effect from that which was intended.[25] Given the premises, the logical conclusion of this interpretation is that the first lustful thought by either partner would justify divorce. If a man stands guilty before God for breaking the seventh commandment against adultery simply by having lustful desires in his heart for another woman, has he not broken his marriage covenant? Can sexual immorality be limited to physical intercourse? At what point between a lustful thought and a sexual union outside of marriage is the marriage covenant sufficiently violated giving grounds for divorce? In our current context, the church faces a significant problem. Since the norms of marriage and family in the broader culture have been abandoned and these institutions have been redefined to refer to any collection of people that subjectively promotes the individual’s happiness, orthodox churches have been faced with a difficult decision. They can take an unpopular, hardline stance against divorce or they can capitulate to the culture while maintaining their orthodox bona fides by interpreting Jesus’ sexual immorality exception to the prohibition against as broadly as possible to justify divorces among believers. It is no secret that the latter option is the one they have generally chosen.

Regardless of intention, Bishop Sutton’s covenantal understanding of marriage plays into this tendency. If marriage is created on the basis of a promise of covenantal faithfulness and dissolved on the basis of unfaithfulness,[26] the narrow road Jesus presented for divorce becomes a categorical highway for any spouse who has been sinned against to use to nullify their own covenant vows. When marriages become difficult, the peccadilloes of the heart will become the justification for divorce. How often, if ever, do spouses live up to their marriage vows? Author Mike Mason is profound when he writes, “To keep a vow does not mean to keep from breaking it. If that were the case, marriage vows would be broken the day they were made. Vows retain validity irrespective of conduct.”[27] The covenantal aspects of marriage and the pledges that accompany them must be understood, not as the foundation of marriage, but the fences that protect a permanent union that God creates. If marriage is seen primarily as a series of covenantal obligations between two spouses, the violation of which brings spiritual death to the marriage, legal divorce becomes a mere formality, bringing one’s civil status into conformity with what is already spiritually true. The travesty of divorce is removed when Christians see legal divorce as merely ratifying a previous pronouncement of God based on covenant unfaithfulness. What is missing from this whole analysis is a proper understanding of what marriage is: an indissoluble union created by God that reflects his relationship to his church.

Affirming the right to divorce in the case of sexual immorality, as Jesus does in Matthew 19:9, does not mean that an innocent spouse has an obligation to do so. Moreover, the right to divorce does not translate into a right to remarry, even for an innocent spouse. Regardless of how difficult it is for the reader to accept this truth today, the New Testament is clear in its teaching that a divorced person cannot remarry during the life of their former spouse. Jesus states in both in Mark 10:1112 and in Luke 16:18 anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery.[28] Likewise, a man who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery. Lest we be tempted to explain away the words of Christ as coming out of unique, Jewish, pre-resurrection context, Paul repeats Jesus’ teaching in his first epistle to the Corinthian church. “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:1011, ESV). Absent from this passage is any language that distinguishes between an innocent and a guilty party in a divorce. There are only two options presented regardless of whether the divorcee was the guilty party or not: singleness for the remainder of the life of the first spouse or reconciliation with that spouse. Augustine concurs in his interpretation of this passage when he writes in Concerning Adulterous Marriages:

No woman may take up a second husband, unless the first one had deceased, after which point she ceaseth to be the first man’s wife, and shall no longer be considered as fornicating.  While it may be allowed to separate on account of adultery, yet the bond of matrimony remaineth, despite the adulterous party;  even on account of fornication.”[29]

The Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 7:23 should be read toward his words in I Corinthians 7:10 and not away from them. In Romans 7, Paul speaks of a divorced woman as being bound to her husband for as long as he is alive and is not released from that bond until he dies. There is no reason exegetically for interpreting the death that releases her from the law as anything other than physical death.[30] Paul’s larger point in Romans 7:1 is that there is no escape from the law. The law pronounces judgment upon every single person. There is only one way to escape the condemnation of the law and that is death. The penalty for sin is death. All will die as a consequence of sin. Those who die in union with Christ who physically died will physically rise again just as he did. Paul then uses marriage as an illustration of this concept. He takes a principle he believes everyone would know to be true about the nature of marriage and applies it to man’s salvation. Just as a woman is not freed from the bond of marriage as long as her husband lives, even though she has divorced her husband, so no man is free from the condemnation of the law as long as he lives apart from the physical death of Christ. If Paul is speaking of mere covenantal death in verses 2 and 3, and by that merely claiming that remarriage is forbidden only to those spouses who are still in covenant with each other, he severely weakens his point about the inescapable condemnation that the law brings and the fundamental reality of death, physical and spiritual, facing every individual apart from a savior.

Covenants Are Not “Contracts”

Covenants are not contracts. Covenants cannot be killed or voided. While Jesus allows for separation, the divorce in cases of adultery or abandonment does not constitute the dissolution of a covenant. The promises made in marriage are not conditional. The promise to forsake all others is not conditional. Marriage vows are not promises to love as long as the partner does. The fifth commandment demands honor be shown to parents regardless of their flaws and failures for that relationship is also indissoluble. If man owes greater loyalty to his wife and a wife to her husband than either owe to their parents because they have been made one flesh (Gen 2:24), how much more are they bound to forsake all others for as long as they both shall live! Indeed, the only way a marriage between two flawed people has a chance of succeeding is if each partner commits to the other and chooses to love no matter what. If both go into the marriage thinking about what the escape hatches are, it will never work. Christ did not die and rise again to make remarriage possible, but rather to make one’s commitment to the vows of marriage possible no matter what wrong has been done.[31] Marriage is about dying to self, not asserting one’s rights. The exceptions that Jesus provides for divorce allow one to protect himself or herself from continual abuse, infidelity, or abandonment. However, they do not provide for or guarantee the injured party of having a new, happy, and fulfilling marriage to someone else. For what God has tied together in the first marriage cannot be undone. The vows made in marriage, though broken by the other party, are not nullified in the injured party. The opportunity to submit oneself to the way of Christ is the opportunity that stands before the individual at this point.

The main objection to this position would be the claim that it would unfairly punish the innocent spouse in a divorce by imposing a hardship of continence in disallowing the possibility of remarriage before the death of the offending spouse. Such an objection is a reasonable one and is not new and existed also in the 5th century. Augustine suggests that this objection begins with the wrong premises and refutes it in his response to Pollentius by raising a series of rhetorical questions exposing the faulty assumptions of the objection.

You profess that the incontinence of most men has a just cause for complaint. Yet, consider how many different kinds of incontinent men will follow this path to error, if we allow their complaints to be heard, and thereby permit the adulteries to take place. What if these men have a wife caught with a long and incurable sickness of the body, preventing carnal copulation? What if a captivity or some other violence separate the man from his wife, knowing she alive & yet unable to enjoy her:  shall we admit his incontinent complaint, and permit adultery then?

If we admit the complaints of the incontinent, how will we defend the Lord’s statement against divorce, and that Moses only permitted it only for the hardness of people’s hearts?  Will not his teaching on divorce displease the husbands whose wives happen to be contentious, or injurious, or proud, or prudish, women they would rather quickly dismiss?  Now because the incontinent habits of these men abhor the law of Christ, therefore Christ’s law must needs change to suit their wishes.[32]

In short, forcing a distinction between guilty and innocent parties in the case of adultery on Scripture to carve out an allowance for remarriage in the name of fairness opens the door for creating a number of additional exceptions, which would also seem “fair”. It would be just as unfortunate for a spouse to be unable to enjoy his or her partner because of a health problem or because of absence due to war. This does not mean a spouse can cheat on their partner. While one of the purposes of marriage is the prevention of fornication, marriage is neither a right, nor merely a means to satisfying sexual desire. If this were the case, homosexual marriage would also be justified as it would be unfair to deprive anyone of the happiness that such a marriage provides.

Are There Exceptions?

Considering the totality of Scripture’s teaching on the possibility of remarriage helps to address the potential problem in Jesus’ teaching mentioned above. According to Matthew 19, an offended spouse might legitimately seek a divorce for sexual immorality, but that decision would have to be weighed against the only other option available, which would be to remain single at least until the death of the divorced spouse. In some cases, it would be wise for the offended spouse to seek separation. An unrepentant, serial adulterer could continue to victimize the spouse with his or her continued unfaithfulness. The victim of abandonment or physical abuse need not remain with the victimizer. In such a situation, divorce may be the best course of action to protect the victim from financial or physical harm. However, short of such extreme situations there are many instances where remaining with an unfaithful spouse creates a great opportunity to illustrate the bond between Christ and his church. When singleness is the only other option, both spouses are pushed toward reconciliation rather than pursuing their rights to divorce, believing there are more options for a better spouse out there. The teaching of the New Testament regarding marriage is aimed at restoration rather than making concessions to the hardness of hearts for marriage takes on even greater significance in light of the arrival of the bridegroom.

Marriage is to human relations what monotheism is to theology.[33] It is putting all of one’s eggs into one basket. Christianity does not allow one to have a backup plan and neither does marriage. A marriage built on nothing but lifelong commitment regardless of the circumstances or faults of a spouse is absolutely necessary for the marriage to work. The decision to enter into marriage is not merely to enter into joy and happiness and love. It is not even just to become vulnerable to one another. Marriage is entrance into a covenant, it is an invitation to take up one’s cross and die. Though men rejected the light that Christ brought into the earth, Christ went to the cross anyway and died. Though one spouse may fail the other, the offended spouse is called to love. The marriage certificate should be thought of as a death certificate to one’s own pride. Such a sacrifice is not without rewards, however. The amazing gift received when spouses sacrifice their pride and die to self is the enjoyment of love and fellowship that cannot be earned. Just as the surrender of oneself to Christ brings eternal peace and the hope of eternal life that cannot be earned, so does the mutual surrender of pride and selfishness by man and wife to one another create an environment where both enjoy an unconditional love, peace, and security that cannot be earned.

One possible exception to the prohibition on remarriage may apply to a previously unbelieving couple where one partner has converted to Christianity and for that reason has been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. This possibility is presented in I Corinthians 7:15. Paul bids the believing spouse to stay with the unbeliever if the unbeliever consents to stay (vv. 1213), he also says that if the unbelieving spouse separates, the believing spouse is not “in bondage” (δεδούλωται).[34] If the believer is no longer in bondage, then it is reasonable to conclude that the believer could be at liberty to remarry another believer.[35] Later in the same chapter, Paul uses a related word (δέδεται),[36] saying a divorced wife is still bound to her husband as long as she lives and is only free to remarry after he dies (v.29). This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:32. Thus, verse 15 could be seen as a narrow exception to the general prohibition in verse 29. Matthew Henry’s commentary supports this reading of 7:15:

[T]hough a believing wife or husband should not separate from an unbelieving mate, yet if the unbelieving relative desert the believer, and no means can reconcile to a cohabitation, in such a case a brother or sister is not in bondage (v. 15), not tied up to the unreasonable humour, and bound servilely to follow or cleave to the malicious deserter, or not bound to live unmarried after all proper means for reconciliation have been tried….In such a case the deserted person must be free to marry again, and it is granted on all hands. And some think that such a malicious desertion is as much a dissolution of the marriage-covenant as death itself.[37]

Furthermore, John Calvin says that this verse “sets at liberty” a believing spouse who has been rejected by an unbelieving spouse “for in that case the unbelieving party makes a divorce with God rather than with his or her partner.”[38] Though Calvin here speaks of a “divorce with God,” perhaps the better argument for a possible exception to the absolute prohibition of remarriage during the life of the divorced spouse is that this constitutes a case for a valid annulment. While marriage is a natural institution as previously discussed and thus is binding upon unbelievers as well as believers, it is theoretically possible that a marriage between unbelievers was never valid. In other words, while God joins man and wife in one union regardless of their faith, at what point does this union occur? In an increasingly secular society such as ours, it is possible to separate legal marriage from a true union. For example, does God unite a couple who have a ceremony before a false god or officiated by one who is not an ordained minister? Does God bind together a drunken couple at a Las Vegas wedding chapel? Is a couple who is deemed husband and wife by common law though never having made vows to each other inseparably united by God? One can imagine a situation in which an unbelieving couple were “married” in a ceremony without a priest, without a mention of God, and without any proper vows. The state might recognize this as a marriage but is it? Should one individual become a believer and be abandoned by the unbeliever as per I Corinthians 7:15, it would then be reasonable to allow the believer to remarry in the Lord, after having the first “marriage” annulled. In any case, the language of not being in bondage to the unbeliever who abandons the believer should be interpreted narrowly as an exception to the general rule of prohibition rather than interpreting the physical death of the spouse as mere covenantal death, which is not warranted by the text.

Advice for Practical Shepherding

Having established the indissolubility of marriage, the narrow exception allowed biblically for divorce, and the prohibition against remarriage during the life of the divorced spouse, there remains the practical question as to how to shepherd the souls of those who, for whatever reason, have been divorced and remarried. If the argument presented above is correct, then those who have divorced and remarried are at least guilty of adultery. There is no question that sin can always be forgiven. However, how can such couples truly repent for such a sin when the act of marriage itself is the sin in question? If repentance involves both an acknowledgment of sin and a turning away from sin, what are the implications for those who are not in their first marriage? Furthermore, if marriage is indissoluble, is a second marriage even legitimate? In a more biblical society where the institution of marriage was honored and its laws served to protect it, such questions would not warrant much consideration. Living amidst the depravity of our own time, they warrant a practical, pastoral response consistent with the teaching of Scripture.

While marriage is indissoluble, this does not mean that more than one marriage at a time is impossible. Many Old Testament saints had more than one wife and though it was not something that God desired or blessed, such unions were marriages, nonetheless. Jacob’s marriage to Rachel was as legitimate as his marriage to Leah. David’s marriage to Bathsheba was also a real marriage and Solomon was legitimate son and heir to the throne. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he said that she had five husbands and the man that she currently with was not her husband. Jesus does not say that she had one husband and all the men after the first were merely adulterous affairs. Moreover, he makes a distinction between the five previous husbands and her current relationship, which did not constitute a marriage. In God’s eyes, this woman’s marital unions with five previous men remained in existence. John Piper insightfully points out that Jesus’ prohibition against marrying a divorced person in Matthew 5:32 and Mark 10:1112 still uses the verb “marry.”[39] This would seem to indicate that it is possible for one to marry someone they should not. Piper also uses the example provided by Joshua and the Gibeonites as an example of a covenant into which Israel should not have entered, yet God required to keep the promises that they had made and punished those who violated that covenant. Thus, Piper concludes, “if Jesus is willing to call wrongfully entered relationships marriages, then it seems to me that we should hold people to the expectations of holiness and permanence implied in the word marriage, till death do us part.”[40] In other words, the sin of adultery, which undoubtedly has been committed in remarriage during the life of the divorced spouse, should be treated as punctiliar in nature. Repentance for that sin is required and forgiveness is offered in Christ. In keeping with repentance, the man or woman who has committed adultery through remarriage should stay in their current marriage, honoring their marriage vow and observing their duties to their spouse. Beyond this, the divorced and remarried spouse may still be required to support the previous spouse given the indissoluble nature of marriage and the obligations it creates. Staying with the second spouse and honoring the commitments that have been made, even if wrongfully made, is consistent with Paul’s approach to the issue in I Corinthians 7. All things being equal, one should stay where they are. Just as an unbeliever who has come to the faith should not divorce his unbelieving spouse, but be content to stay as they are, so should a believer who has been brought to repentance for their adulterous marriage should stay as they as are rather than create more victims by breaking up another family.

The teaching of natural law, Scripture, and the church have been consistent on the permanency of marriage. The issue is not an overly complex one. The problem is that we live in a culture where marriage and family are arbitrary creations of convenience for the purpose of promoting self-fulfillment. Long before our culture began popularizing and mainstreaming perversions, the church began rejecting ontology and in its place substituting a shallow biblicism. The church swallowed the governing assumptions of the culture in regard to marriage, only putting up a few gates in the form of proof texts against more perverse behaviors. The result was a situation in which the church largely forgot the natural and theological principles upon which their practices were based. Abhorring a vacuum, the ontological assumptions were replaced by an individualist philosophy where the words of Scripture could be pitted against each other so as to carve out large exceptions for divorce and remarriage within the church. Today we continue to experience the ripple effects of a generation that has torn down the walls defending marriage and left it open to be redefined by the most perverted notions. Until the church does the difficult work of recovering a biblical and historic doctrine of marriage, it will continue to be hamstrung in its effort to resist the cultural revolution in which we find ourselves.

Notes

  1. Ray R. Sutton, Second Chance: Biblical Blueprints for Divorce and Remarriage (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1988). Here Bishop Sutton and the series editor, Gary North, propose that marriage should be understood through the lens of the legal stipulations of God’s covenant with Israel in the Old Testament. However, this skips over the reality of marriage as a created institution and God’s unwavering commitment to his people.
  2. Thirty-Nine Articles: Article I.
  3. John Frame, “Men and Women in the Image of God”, in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, ed. John Piper & Wayne Grudem, (Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 2006), 228-9. It is important to emphasize that sexual difference in itself is not the essence of God’s image nor do man or woman alone somehow only reflect half of the image of God. Every individual has God’s image equally stamped upon him or her regardless of whether they marry and are united with the opposite sex or not.
  4. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Thomson J A K. and Hugh Tredennick (Penguin Books, 2004), 15-16.
  5. Augustine, Confessions, trans. F.J. Sheed (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993), 3.
  6. Mike Mason, The Mystery of Marriage: Meditations on the Miracle (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah Books, 2005), 34.
  7. Atkinson, 60.
  8. Frame, 228.
  9. Geoffrey W. Bromily, God and Marriage, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 2.
  10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Q 41; Art. 1: https://www.newadvent.org/summa/5041.htm. Aquinas carefully defines natural here as that “to which nature inclines although it comes to pass through the intervention of the free-will; thus acts of virtue and the virtues themselves are called natural; and in this way matrimony is natural, because natural reason inclines thereto.”
  11. Joseph C. Atkinson, Biblical & Theological Foundations of the Family: The Domestic Church (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014).
  12. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Q 45; Art. 1.
  13. Sutton, Second Chance, 110. Sutton argues that since Eve received her name after the Fall and thus renamed. This renaming indicates, according to Sutton, that Adam and Eve’s marriage was destroyed and the two had to be remarried after the fall. The problematic assumption here is that sin abrogates nature. This provides the groundwork for claiming that sin violates the marriage covenant and ends the marriage. Neither sin nor grace destroys nature or natural law. Sin corrupts nature and grace restores it, but the essence of things does not change.
  14. D.J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (1981), 297, quoted in Gordon P. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi (Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR: 2014), 179.
  15. Philip Graham Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 57.
  16. Sutton, Second Chance, 112-113. Here Bishop Sutton argues that God divorces his first bride and chooses another. He sees the cutting off of the old branch and the grafting in of the new in Romans 11 to constitute divorce. In my view, the pruning and grafting of branches assumes one organic tree. Since God is the faithful husband, and his relationship with his people is the ultimate reality to which marriage points, it is not at all helpful in my view to speak of God repeatedly divorcing his people as Sutton does.
  17. Atkinson, 76
  18. Atkinson, 134.
  19. Hugenberger, 125.
  20. Mason, 61-62. “If life is full of vicissitudes, then the same is even more true of marriage, for marriage embraces two lives at once, to lives so extraordinarily interconnected that only God, as Jesus tells us in Mark 10:9, could never untangle or sunder them.”
  21. Sutton, 23. Bishop Sutton claims that a command implies the possibility of breaking the command. Such a statement, however, fails to deal with the ontological reality of marriage.
  22. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Q 67; Art 1.
  23. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Q 67; Art. 3: https://www.newadvent.org/summa/5067.htm#article3. Accessed March 6th, 2024.
  24. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” in verse 9 is πορνεία, which is a broad term encompassing all sexual activity outside the sanctity of marriage.
  25. Bishop Sutton goes even further, including idolatry and blasphemy as divorceable offenses (Second Chance, 57). If this is true, cursing, false doctrine, and unbelief become grounds for divorce. If one is married to an unbeliever, the unbeliever is by definition worshipping someone or something other than God and is thus guilty of idolatry. This broad list of divorceable offenses would seem to stand at odds with Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians 7:12 that the believer should be content to stay married to an unbelieving spouse. This logical conclusion of Sutton’s teaching is, unfortunately, consistent with his statement that “unbeliever marriages, although they are valid covenants, are virtually headed for divorce from the moment they marry” (62).
  26. Sutton, 23.
  27. Mason, 105
  28. The exception for adultery mentioned above appears only in Matthew 19. Augustine writes that this exception in Matthew does not allow an innocent party in the case of adultery to remarry either but does make a distinction between a greater sin and a lesser sin. An innocent party that remarries is still guilty of adultery, but their guilt is not as great as the adulterous party who remarries. Furthermore, John Piper writes that the exception clause in Matthew should be interpreted for an adultery committed during the betrothal period prior to marriage such as was thought to be the case in Matthew 1 when Joseph was called just for seeking to put Mary away quietly when she was found to be with child before their marriage. (John Piper, “Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper” 1986. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper. Accessed March 10th, 2024)
  29. Augustine, Concerning Adulterous Marriages, Book II; Ch. 4-6.
  30. Contrary to Bishop Sutton who writes, “Covenantal death in marriage definitely encompasses physical death. But, it also means that if the spouse breaks the moral terms of the covenant, he will die to the relationship, and the marriage would be dissolved.” (41) Augustine refers to this argument in Concerning Adulterous Marriages as nothing less than “absurdity” and “idiocy” (Book II; Ch. 4-6). Bishop Sutton bases this claim on the premise that the context of Romans 7:2-3 is speaking of covenantal death beginning in Romans 6:23 and continuing through Romans 7:4. However, this is a mere interpretation that is not warranted from an exegesis of the text and is assumed in order to make the “covenantal death” argument. The reader does not need to interpret “The wages of sin is death” as covenantal death because Adam and Eve did not physically die on the day that they sinned as Sutton suggests. The fact that God extended grace to them such that they lived long lives did not nullify the consequence of sin, which was physical death. While Romans 7:4 speaks of dying to the law through Christ and can be interpreted as a covenantal death, this should not be read back into Romans verses 2 and 3 which is stating a basic principle to serve as an illustration that the reader might more easily understand the nature of the spiritual reality of crossing from covenantal death to life through union with Christ. Just as Jesus used parables about common events to illustrate spiritual truths, so St. Paul is doing here. We do not read the spiritual truth back into Jesus’ parables to say that mustard seeds do not grow physical trees or that seed thrown on the road is not actually eaten by birds but is taken away by Satan. On the contrary, the parables speak of physical realities that are generally understood by the hearer in order to illustrate the greater spiritual truth. In summary, we could say grace does not destroy nature.
  31. Bishop Sutton claims that “Biblical remarriage is possible because a new covenant with God is possible!” (Second Chance, 109). On the contrary, the new covenant did not come to overturn the created order. Jesus did not institute the new covenant so that people could enjoy a satisfying marriage with a second spouse.
  32. Augustine, Concerning Adulterous Marriages Book II: Ch. 10
  33. Mason, 91.
  34. https://biblehub.com/greek/1402.htm “to enslave, bring under subjection.”
  35. However, Augustine is contra on this point, allowing no exception to the prohibition against remarriage for even an unbeliever (Concerning Adulterous Marriages, Book I; Ch. 22-23).
  36. https://biblehub.com/greek/1210.htm “bind, tie, fasten; I impel, compel; I declare to be prohibited and unlawful.”
  37. Matthew Henry, Verses 10–16 – Matthew Henry’s commentary – Bible Gateway, accessed March 13, 2024, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/matthew-henry/1Cor.7.10-1Cor.7.16.
  38. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians – Volume I, trans. Rev. John Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL), 199. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/c/calvin/calcom39/cache/calcom39.pdf
  39. John Piper, “Divorce, Remarriage, and Honoring God.” Desiring God, Accessed March 13, 2024. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/divorce-remarriage-and-honoring-god.
  40. Ibid.

 


Jared Lovell

Jared Lovell is a deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church serving Grace RE Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jared is a classical educator, teaching European and American history at Memoria Press Online Academy, and is a teaching fellow at the Wayside School.


'Till Death Do You Part: A Case for the Permanency and Indissolubility of Marriage' have 7 comments

  1. May 22, 2024 @ 4:32 am Reepicheep

    Natural law seems to be doing some pretty heavy lifting here. But, I’ll bite. What does natural law say about the civil penalty for adultery? Hopefully it says the same thing that the bible does.

    Reply

  2. May 22, 2024 @ 5:27 am Reepicheep

    The problem with classifying the adultery involved in a remarriage as a punctiliar sin is that the bible classifies its punishment as rather the opposite of punctiliar. Quite terminal in fact.

    Reply

  3. May 23, 2024 @ 5:44 am JT

    I appreciate the effort to refute the casual spirit of the age regarding marriage, and I see a few good points made. Yet, I find the arguments against Bp. Sutton’s book largely unconvincing.

    Reply

  4. May 28, 2024 @ 2:12 am River Devereux

    An absolutely brilliant essay, thank you and well done! Even though I differ with you on 1 Cor 7:15, which I do not believe allows for remarriage even if one’s spouse is an unbeliever. I’ll be submitting an essay of my own on this very subject soon. Amazingly, it seems that we were writing essays on this at the same time without realising it.

    Reply

  5. May 28, 2024 @ 2:20 pm Bruce

    Great essay. I do think the Biblical argument against remarriage after divorce while the first spouse is alive is more compelling than the argument for remarriage, but the case for what to do with those who have gotten remarried when they shouldn\’t have is a vexing one. The case you make for allowing them to remain married seems reasonable, but I don\’t think it is the traditional view. As Anglicans, don\’t we defer to tradition when the Bible could be read in a few different ways? Traditionally it is my understanding that the church regarded second marriages as invalid. If a person was with a new spouse while the old one was alive, then they would be counseled to end the second marriage, and if they didn\’t they would be seen as continuing to live in adultery and possibly barred from communion. I get that the pastoral implications of this view are enormous in the 21st century, but that shouldn\’t be what guides our judgment. How do you reconcile your view with the traditional practices of the church?

    Reply

    • June 6, 2024 @ 5:16 pm Jared Lovell

      This is a good question, but would highlight the phrase you used: “traditional practices”. While we should have a bias toward tradition, I think we should also recognize that “practices” became such in response to real circumstances and challenges in the life of the church. They did not come about as a result of pronouncements from heaven or by the declaration of infallible popes. I would argue we have to apply the wisdom and principles that the tradition offers in an appropriate way to the current context. In the process of reforming back to the old standard, I am not inclined to tear families apart or create more households without fathers in the home, especially given the social challenges were are currently facing.

      Reply

  6. June 8, 2024 @ 10:39 pm Mack

    No, Hosea did not re-marry Gomer. He married a different woman, overlooking the new wife’s difficult past history because he truly loved her and had mellowed by the life-lessons learned by his first experience. The vicissitudes of the prophet’s life mirror the rejection of the Jews and replacement by the Church (see also, Esther 2:4 (Vashti)).

    Reply


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