MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
In the beginning
After the Fall - the OT
1. Laws reforming culture
a. The bill of divorce
b. A woman’s dependency
c. Rape and Covenant
2. A pure people
3. God married to His people
After the Fall - the NT
1. The Gospels
2. From Acts onwards
a. I Corinthians chapter 7
b. Other NT comments
APPENDIX - Marriage and the World
Seeing as many of our present day long-established and fervently held positions on both marriage and divorce are based upon either the traditions of centuries that have twisted Scripture to support the denomination or individual’s particular theology or upon Biblical passages that are viewed in isolation to others, it seems like the time is long overdue to readdress the subject or, perhaps better, to wipe everything away that has gone before and approach the Scriptures with truth and honesty to attempt to gain an understanding of what both marriage and divorce mean in Biblical, not cultural, terms.
In other words, as God created marriage we should define it by Him and, because sin came into the world and caused divorce to be a possibility, we should understand what God’s response is to it in a fallen world in much the same way as we’ve come to understand how God came to terms with the fall of His creature, man, through the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
It’s a sad state of affairs in the present day Church that unbelieving men and women who sleep around on a consistent basis and others who live together with different partners over the course of many years can be instantly forgiven and accepted into the ‘new society’ upon true repentance and conversion, subsequently elevated into positions of spiritual oversight and encouraged to exercise spiritual gifts while the divorced (sometimes those who have been passive bystanders in the legal process, those who have experience a marriage breakdown through no apparent fault of their own or who have divorced on the grounds of adultery) are shunned from holding similar positions.
Such a dichotomy of treatment shouldn’t be possible in the congregation of the redeemed who have very often been forgiven sins in their own life that are more offensive to God.
If I was an unbeliever considering whether in twenty or thirty years’ time I might want to convert to christianity and enter ‘the ministry’ (I’m talking from a purely natural standpoint), I would surely have to conclude that it would be more advantageous for me to have as much sex with as many partners as possible and make sure that I at no time committed myself to be officially married because the stigma of having been divorced would tar my ‘future career’.
Just recently, I met with a brother who no longer attends a local fellowship and who had divorced his wife on adulterous grounds. Although his ex-wife had repented of her sin and was accepted back into the fellowship of believers, he’d found himself ostracised from the congregation because he’d remarried. Although I agree that there are two sides to every story, my experience of Church teaching in the various places I’ve been leads me to the conclusion that situations like these are not uncommon.
As Don Francisco once said, we’ve often taken Jesus’ words on marriage and turned them into a statement that divorce is an unforgivable and unredeemable sin - one that God is unable to restore a person from and into a place where they’re useful and available to Him to bring about the purpose of His will. When YHWH speaks in the Old Testament that He positively hates divorce (Mal 2:16), we’ve translated it into a word that condemns the transgressor, exiling them away from the fellowship of the saints amongst whom they belong.
I will not be concerning myself to deal with the domestic relationships between men and women in marriage arrangements except where it’s important to explain the mechanics of the marriage relationship. I have addressed this subject in various ways in my notes on the relationship between men and women, husbands and wives, where I corrected the mistaken view that a woman is subject to a man (and, therefore, that women are under bondage to do the will of men) and the deplorable interpretation thrown on I Timothy 2:8-15 that makes women believers out to be not much more than second class citizens within the Church (see here).
Such misguided beliefs - upheld by followers of Christ who pronounce the infallibility of the Biblical record - contradict other passages and undermine the intention of God in causing men and women to become co-rulers over Creation.
There are other Scriptures that have suffered at the hands of denominations which I will probably not address that are, perhaps, too ludicrous to warrant much attention. For example, there exists the erroneous position that interprets Paul’s command concerning the appointment of elders/overseers in I Timothy 3:2 as having to be
‘...the husband of one wife’
as meaning either that a person who remarries cannot be chosen (because, it’s taught, God does not consider a divorced person as being separated from their wife so that a second ‘marriage’ is at best bigamy and, at worse, adultery) or that a prospective elder must have a wife (single or separated people need not apply). These matters are not worth wasting either my time or text on.
If Paul had meant to say that divorced or remarried men could not be elders, he would have said so plainly - he would not have written to Timothy and expected him to interpret it in the light of a Gospel that we don’t even know he had access to.
Similarly, a ban on singles or separated partners wouldn’t have escaped direct comment. But that the society in which Timothy was working for Jesus could accept a man having multiple wives is the only logical and acceptable interpretation of his comments and should be accepted as such.
To begin this brief study of marriage, therefore, we need to start with God’s institution of the relationship and what He originally meant it to be - one would have thought that most denominations would have started from a similar point without jumping ahead to the NT Scriptures and applying them to present day and cultural definitions of marriage but, unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
In the ten page detailed article in Zondervan that considers ‘Marriage’, I note that the first ‘marriage’ of Gen 2:24 isn’t used as the basis of any attempt to lay down a Scriptural foundation upon which a believer can build. Rather, it’s dealt with in the briefest of ways with the one sentence
‘The story of the creation of the first two human beings reveals monogamous marriage as the expression of the will of God’
Although the article is a valiant attempt to address marriage customs and ceremonies within the setting of Biblical times, we must understand that these are only man’s responses to the way they have understood what marriage both is and isn’t - the basis for the Ancients’ belief may be denied or severely undermined by Scripture and it’s to this that a person must come before attempting to understand not only past belief but present day practice.
If any NT Scriptures are subsequently found that relate to the marriage relationship between a man and woman (and to divorce), they need to be seen to be addressing God’s and not man’s definition of the term.
Although God will speak to a society in language that they can understand and deliver a message that conveys truth that’s easy to perceive - even with the strange and peculiar practices and beliefs we hold on to - there are absolutes about marriage that need to be accepted and these must be based upon an initial consideration of what God originally intended marriage to be.
If the reader is wanting a quick overview of what is dealt with on this web page, the title
‘The Mechanics of Marriage and Divorce’
is, perhaps, the best available to me for I only wish here to show what ‘makes’ a man and a woman be accepted in God’s eyes as being ‘married’ and what, if anything, is sufficient grounds for Him to consider them as being ‘divorced’. I have, however, digressed into a few other concepts that make their appearance in the Bible’s pages that have sparked my interest and attention.
In the beginning
As I said on the previously cited web page, mankind were created co-equal - both men and women were expected to take up the command of God (Gen 1:26) to
‘...have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’
Even though God is often misunderstood to be referring solely to the man at the beginning of that verse (for He says ‘Let Us make man in Our image...’), it’s obvious that it’s no more than a generic term for ‘mankind’ that includes each man and woman for, in Gen 1:27 (my italics), the writer concludes that
‘...God created man in His own image - in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’
noting that God went on (Gen 1:28) to give them the commission to
‘...Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’
Quite clearly, women were included in the command to rule - a subsequent consequence of sin directed towards the wife in a marriage relationship doesn’t overturn this (Gen 3:16) and, as I clearly showed in my notes, even Jewish OT society understood that a woman who was not under the guardianship of a man (that is, a widow or a divorced woman - a daughter was under the protection of her father until marriage and then her husband in marriage - see Num 30:9 in the context of v.1-15) was one who had the right to act independently of men (but not, of course, independently of the Mosaic Law).
Although relationships within marriage were ‘redefined’ after the Fall of mankind, the initial ‘institution’ of marriage was not - that is, a definition of what God intended to be the conditions and requirements of marriage remains unaltered whereas how the husband and wife were to interact after the initial union was. Therefore, when we read the clear statement in Scripture in Gen 2:24 of what marriage was considered to be, we can accept that the same definition holds true both before the Fall and after. Commenting on Adam’s statement that Eve was a part of his own flesh, the author concludes that it is for this reason that
‘...a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife - and they become one flesh’
Here we have marriage defined in a nutshell and there are two specific aspects laid down for us to consider.
Firstly, the statement is plain that the man leaves his father’s household and begins a brand new one that’s independent of the one out of which he’s just come (it isn’t a hard and fast rule that a man must leave the patriarchal household at the time of marriage for we find that Rebekah left her family and land and came to where Isaac had set up his own ‘household’ in order to become his wife - Gen 24:67).
Whatever responsibilities and obligations a son had toward both his mother and father became drastically lessened upon marriage and Genwen’s comment that his ‘first obligation’ is transferred from them to his new wife is probably worthy of acceptance. While the son still had responsibilities towards ailing parents, his independence from them meant that he could no longer consider them in the same manner as he had before when he lived under their roof and, presumably, under the father’s rule (although this is not a part of the simple statement in Gen 2:24, it would appear as if this is what transpired as the norm in Israelite society).
Secondly, sexual union takes place that causes the man and woman to become ‘one flesh’ (and not, as one preacher I heard once say, ‘they become one spirit’) - simply being together in the same house does not constitute marriage.
The impact of the description of the man ‘cleaving’ to his wife shouldn’t be lessened for some form of permanency is surely implied even at this early stage - the same Hebrew word (Strongs Hebrew number 1692) is used in Ruth 1:14 where it’s recorded that Ruth ‘clung to’ Naomi, the subsequent verses showing that such an attachment was impossible to be removed, thus denoting permanency (Ruth 1:15-17).
Indeed, in many places where the word is employed in the OT, the idea of a fusing together of two objects to be inseparably joined is present (see, for example, Gen 34:3, Num 36:9, and II Sam 23:10 for purely natural descriptions, and Deut 10:20, 11:22, 13:4, 30:20, Joshua 22:5 and 23:8 where the permanent union of YHWH and His people is both commanded and encouraged).
The implication is that divorce was clearly never intended to be a part of a marriage relationship - that divorce does now take place is a ‘fact of life’ and God has shown His opinion on the matter in various places that will be considered later.
The point that we need to accept here, though, is that no provision is made for divorce and, by the way the words are used, the implication appears to be that no dissolution of the relationship was ever expected to come about.
Becoming ‘one flesh’ appears to be something that cannot be realistically reversed - and it also traverses the idea that sex is the only area that becomes ‘shared’. To become ‘one flesh’ is surely also meant to imply even at this stage that what belongs to one is also a part of the other.
Genwen goes so far as to say that they could be considered as being as closely related as brother and sister, that they have become ‘blood related’ and, therefore, inseparable (although he uses Scriptures and reasoning taken from the testimony of the Mosaic Law, his arguments are, nevertheless, valid).
While the idea of an incestuous relationship must be shunned, the fact that the two have become united as ‘one flesh’ and have produced a new ‘blood line’ from which children can come into the world as part of their union must be accepted.
We can, therefore, see why the dissolution of a marriage is understood to be an almost impossible thing to occur. While there are grounds when the union is accepted by God as being annulled following the Fall, Jesus was careful to point out (Mtw 19:8) that
‘...from the beginning it was not so’
Genkid observes that we should be careful to note the order
‘...leaving before cleaving - marriage, nothing less, before intercourse’
and his point should be accepted, although we must note that his 'leaving' is synonymous with the word 'marriage' and doesn't appear to warrant the inclusion of intercourse as part of what defines a marriage. The setting up of an independent household is a requirement into which the new experience of sexual union is to take place. While it’s true that new couples may, for a time, continue to live in the father or mother’s house (perhaps, in the present day, for financial reasons), their independence from parents is necessary if they’re to determine the outworking of their own relationship.
Genwen is worth reading at this point for, although the text is plain that the man was expected to ‘leave’ his family (by implication, of course, the woman would have to leave her family as well), he observes that
‘...Israelite marriage was usually patrilocal - that is, the man continued to live in or near his parents’ home. It was the wife who left home to join her husband’
If Moses is accepted as being the writer of this comment in Gen 2:24 (and there appears to be no good reason to assign a later date to its composition even if Mosaic authorship is not considered provable), it remains possible that, before the Exodus, such a set up was the normal cultural custom and that it was only in later years that such a situation as the one Genwen observes found itself as the more common practice. Certainly, II Sam 17:3 causes us to think that it may have been more common for the bride to leave her parents’ house and to travel to where her husband had set up their new home (although that would also imply that, perhaps, the new husband had already left his parents’ house to be able to set up the new household!).
These two aspects of ‘leaving’ and ‘cleaving’ are important and worthy both of careful consideration and as a message to challenge our own long-standing and errant views.
For example, if we were to take them at face value (which, indeed, we should), we see instantly that neither a formal agreement is necessary nor a formal ceremony required. A man and a woman become ‘married’ when they set up a family household that’s independent from the husband’s previous household run by his father, and they join together sexually.
So, according to this arrangement, a couple in our present day society who set up home together and who have sexual intercourse are ‘married’ - if a woman spends some nights at her boyfriend’s own house or flat (or vice versa), that wouldn’t be considered ‘marriage’ but ‘fornication’ or, if one of them was already in a marriage relationship as defined above (that is, they were living together with another person as a marriage partner and not that they held a ‘marriage certificate’), it would be ‘adultery’.
The implication is fairly radical and demands that we rethink our pronouncements concerning both marriage and divorce in today’s society, for a person who sets up a home with no legal agreement is just as married in God’s eyes as someone who formalises the marriage in a church building or at a Registry Office (to use UK terminology).
When that relationship breaks up regardless of whether they have a little piece of paper that announces the date on which they became legally recognised as married, they are ‘divorced’. And, a person who sets up many homes with different partners over the course of the years is in an identical position (if we ignore possible grounds for separation such as adultery or conversion to Christ) to a person who legally marries and divorces the same amount of times.
In God’s eyes, therefore, there’s no difference - even though, in the Church, we’ve decided that a legally based marriage contract is all that we will consider as being ‘marriage’.
After the Fall - the OT
In the first five books of the Bible, marriage is referred to directly (with words such as ‘marry, married, marriage and so on) 21 times, from Joshua to the end of II Chronicles 21 times, in the poetic books (Job to Song of Solomon) once only and, in the remaining prophetic books (Isaiah to Malachi) 6 times.
When we compare the subject of divorce (using words such as divorce, divorced), the word isn’t so much as mentioned until Leviticus although, when Abram sent Hagar away with Ishmael, it’s difficult to understand the separation as anything other than an official ‘divorce’ (Gen 21:8-21 - but no ‘bill of divorce’ is ever recorded as having been handed to her) although the fact that Hagar seems to have been a concubine used to produce an heir may well throw doubt on whether that society ever recognised the union as being a legitimate marriage in the first place (Gen 16:1-6).
The writer of Genesis certainly comments that Sarai gave Hagar to Abram ‘as a wife’ but the matter is complicated because neither Abram nor the slave girl left a family home to be joined to one another and the ‘union’ became sexually motivated rather than a joining together of two people to share all things in common - both Abram and Sarai still retained their authority over her as master and mistress and perhaps it’s best to understand the passage as declaring the relationship to be a marriage that was acceptable to the culture of the day rather than one that was in keeping with Gen 2:24.
But, returning to the mention of ‘divorce’ in the OT, we find only 6 references in the first five books and then a long jump to the prophetic books where the words occur a further 5 times.
In short, that’s 49 direct references to marriage and just 11 to divorce (in the NT, it’s 37 to 15). Although it’s too narrow a study to simply count words rather than to look for concepts, the ratio of occurrences does show us that the writers were more concerned to think of their society in terms of marriage than in marriage followed by an inevitable divorce.
1. Laws reforming culture
That men and women marry as a natural expression of their humanity shouldn’t shock us - but that the pre-Fall union of a single man to a single woman should have so quickly degraded into polygamy is surprising (Gen 4:19) although, if the father is guilty of murder (Gen 4:8), what can you expect the sons not to transgress?
It’s significant that nowhere do we find a man and woman entering into a marriage relationship at an officially ordained or sanctified location by the State and being presented with a piece of parchment as proof of their union.
While it certainly seems true that the setting up of a new household was greeted by each society with the need to ‘do something special’ - the day upon which it happened being a time when a change in law and cultural acceptability towards the couple became evident - it seems to have been sufficient for a group of people to accept that marriage had taken place when a single man and woman came together to co-habit from a specific date.
Different societies had their very different ceremonies - just as, today, the beginning of a marriage relationship can have various outworkings depending on the culture of the participants. The point is not that we should formalise a procedure that must be the same in each and every ‘marriage’ but that we should recognise (as we have above) what the fundamental constituents of a marriage relationship are, insist on these and allow individuals to express the time at which it began in their own unique way.
It’s also interesting that, when I looked through the OT, I could only find a few places where ‘ceremonial’ occurrences were recorded - I Sam 18:25 refers to a marriage present given by the bridegroom to the father of the bride, Ps 78:63 speaks of maidens taking part in a ‘marriage song’ (was that a song they were to sing at their own marriage or at someone else’s?), Is 62:5 talks about the bridegroom rejoicing over his bride (although whether that was what was expected to take place or purely spontaneous isn’t clear) and both Is 49:18 and 61:10 speak of the bride and bridegroom adorning themselves with garlands, ornaments and jewels.
When we approach the Scriptures, marriage seems to have been such an accepted part of the fabric of human life that ceremonies and procedures largely go unrecorded and we’re left simply with lists of who married who - and the resultant record of which children came to be their offspring. There are a few places that are significant, however, and others need clarifying because of what can often be taken incorrectly from them and applied to the believer’s life.
The strict definition we understood from Gen 2:24 that a man was to leave his parent’s household to start a new ‘family’ into which his new wife was to come seems to have been widely interpreted by Biblical societies to mean that a husband and wife began a new life together for it’s not uncommon for the inference to be drawn that a man had already begun to live on his own in the course of his own business before he ever found a woman that he arranged to marry (the example of Isaac and Rebekah being an early example, previously discussed briefly above).
Danger abounds in taking statements too literally for, although the Bible must be accepted as being an infallible record of events that took place, it doesn’t mean that it’s teaching that the events that came about are all God’s will - Scripture must be compared with other Scripture to make a quality judgment as to whether what we read is to be understood as being against or for the will of God.
It’s no different when we approach the Mosaic Law for the very real danger exists that we take the commandments and hold them up to be God’s perfect will for all men in all places at all times.
a. The bill of divorce
While it’s true that the ten commandments (Ex 20:1-17) should be accepted as ten categorical statements concerning any man’s relationship with God and his fellow man (including the need for one specific day of rest in each and every seven day period - see my notes on the ‘Sabbath’), when we approach some of the judicial decisions given to the nation, they should be taken as no more than cultural reforms that seem to have been - for lack of a better phrase - transitions from where the nation was ‘before the Exodus’ until the time when the perfect would come ‘in Christ’.
Commands that are repeated plainly and unambiguously in the NT should be fully accepted as being the will of God but the Old Covenant was made between YHWH and the Jewish nation and not with the Gentiles who were both oblivious to its requirements and who had not voluntarily offered themselves to be faithful adherents of the Law (Ex 19:8 as the conclusion and response to God’s voice in Ex 19:3-6)
Therefore, when we come to the commands concerning the right of a Jewish male to divorce his wife (Deut 24:1-4), the words mustn’t be pressed to overturn the clear cut characteristics of the creation of marriage in Gen 2:24.
To the Pharisees of Jesus’ day (Mtw 19:3-9), the passage read as if God had made the provision for each and every Jewish male to be able to annul the marriage relationship by handing his wife ‘divorce papers’. All that seemed to remain for clarification was whether the phrase translated by the RSV as ‘some indecency’ could be pressed to include any cause whatsoever (Mtw 19:3).
As Jesus pointed out, however, the provision of the Law was based upon the recognised hardness of the heart of the males of that generation (Mtw 13:8) and not on the basis of the inference from Gen 2:24 that marriage should be an unalterable union of a man and woman.
Jesus concluded (Mtw 19:9) that divorce was only allowable when, in effect, it was a declaration of what had already taken place - that is, when adultery had driven a wedge between the husband and wife. In so declaring justifiable grounds for divorce as being adultery, He also made it plain that it was quite acceptable for a divorce to be recognised when either of the two parties concerned had wronged in the matter for adultery could be committed by both individuals.
Besides this, the main offence before God that was being addressed by the Mosaic legislation was that a divorced woman, having gone away from her husband and become the wife of another man, was not allowed to return into a marriage relationship with a former husband because that was
‘...an abomination before YHWH and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which YHWH your God gives you for an inheritance’
Even in this OT passage, there’s a hint as to the impossibility of breaking the marriage bond by the ‘bill of divorce’ because, if the separation had been acceptable to God as a legitimate way to dissolve a marriage, Moses would surely not have spoken of the woman as having been ‘defiled’ when she became the husband of another (Deut 24:4 - the first man ‘...may not take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled...’ by the second husband).
So, although there was a provision in the Mosaic Law that allowed divorce, it was purely a recognition of a practice that was probably already taking place in Jewish society but which needed to be limited so that the husband who divorced would have to think carefully about whether he should remove his wife from his household knowing that it would be impossible for him to take her back to himself if she married another.
This provision was also a purely temporary measure until the perfect was to come in Christ for the Law made nothing perfect (Heb 7:19). In Christ, therefore, we can not only uphold the legislation that forbade a wife to return to a former husband but we can state that there is power available through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to make it possible that a husband and wife will never need to separate.
That divorce may still take place amongst the people of God is not a contradiction of the provision of the Father through the cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ but a recognition that men and women still choose to be weak in God and strong in themselves. Even so, there are clear guidelines in the NT to clarify when grounds for divorce are justifiable and permitted, matters that we’ll turn to consider later on.
Deutthom uses Deut 24:1-4 to explain the situation in which Hosea found himself (Hosea chapters 1-3) noting that the prophet was
‘...a man who refused to divorce his wife, despite her unfaithfulness. He was thus in a position to take her back when he had found her’
but one has to remember that the Law not only allowed Hosea to do just as Deutthom says (by part silence, I must add, and part proposed theory) but it also condemned Hosea’s wife to the death of an adulteress (Lev 20:10). If the Mosaic Law is to be appealed to in order to justify Hosea’s freedom to take his wife back following her adultery, it surely should be used, rather, to point out that the wife deserved death.
What the Mosaic Law rectified through the execution of the transgressor, Hosea discovered was not the final word of God on the matter, for mercy shown was able to overcome judgment, paralleling God’s own mercy directed toward His people if they turned from their sin and back towards Him.
The point of Hosea’s experience, therefore, is not that the prophet found a way to be able to take back his wife but that he discovered God would operate apart from the rigidity of the Law in order to reconcile people together - He was in the business of mercy through individual repentance and the bestowal of forgiveness rather than to view every transgression as reaping an inevitable consequence.
b. A woman’s dependency
Ex 22:16-17, Deut 22:28-29
In OT Jewish society where a woman was dependent upon either her father or husband to be maintained, it’s not surprising that God introduced certain laws to safeguard the destruction of her attraction to a man who would want to be her husband.
In Ex 22:16-17, provision was made for the situation in which a virgin may find herself sexually violated (presumably the idea is that there’s been some degree of coercion for the parallel passage speaks of the man ‘seizing’ the virgin - Deut 22:28-29) so that one of two things could happen.
First and foremost, the man who violated her was bound to take her as his wife with the explicit condition (Deut 22:29) that
‘...he may not put her away all his days’
In other words, it wasn’t sufficient that he could find some ‘indecency’ in her (Deut 24:1-4) because such a discovery wouldn’t be accepted. In other words, his sexual union with her was a waiver of his right to cease providing for her - for a man was expected to be responsible for the consequences of his own actions.
If, however, the father of the woman took one look at the man in question and thought to himself
‘No way! My daughter isn’t going to be wed to that weirdo!’
(and well he might, judging by the type of the transgression it was) then he could refuse to let the marriage be recognised (Ex 22:17) and she would return, presumably, into the family home where the father would provide for her the rest of her days (unless someone decided that they wanted to marry her in spite of her not being a virgin).
In this case, a man didn’t leave his mother and father to set up his own home and, afterwards, cleave to the wife of his choice (Gen 2:24) but sexual union took place first and only subsequently was the co-habitation issue decided upon.
It can be seen, therefore, that another provision was made in the Law to safeguard the vulnerable in society from a situation being forced upon them that they were unwilling to protect themselves from. The order of the original institution of marriage is reversed through sin (leave-cleave becomes cleave-leave) but the provision of God’s Law makes sure that provision is made to reverse the consequences of a man’s transgression as much as is possible.
The Law was different when it came to forced sexual relations between a betrothed virgin (that is, one who was already technically married to a husband although sexual intercourse had not yet taken place) and such cases seem to have always been considered to have been of an adulterous nature (Deut 22:23-25). If the woman could have been heard shouting for help, she was assumed to have consented if no cry was ever made while, when there was no person present, she was declared innocent - either way, the man paid for such a violation of marriage with his life.
In this way, an innocent woman was protected and a man who committed such a transgression was condemned to death no matter whether the woman consented or was raped.
These laws must be seen as a specific provision to not only protect the sanctity of marriage but to safeguard the welfare of the women within Israelite society who, generally, had come to depend upon men for their provision and protection.
In the West today women are not, culturally, dependent upon men to find provision. Indeed, it’s very possible that in some situations not only can a woman support herself but may support a husband who is either unable or incapable of finding adequate employment. In our current society, therefore, the provision and intention of the Mosaic Law should only be upheld in the area of maintaining and sustaining marriage relationships that have been violated by a third party.
The case of an ‘unmarried’ woman (defined as indicated in our discussion of Gen 2:24 above) is another matter and never should the woman be obligated to undertake full marriage with her attacker.
Although the victim must be provided for by the aggressor (and not by the State), the need for a never-to-be-annulled union is removed by the structure of our society - the need for a never-to-be-annulled provision isn’t, however, and the implication would be that anything that comes about as a direct consequence of the attack (such as children) should be provided for by the attacker until there no longer remains the need.
c. Rape and Covenant
Although we have already dealt with the subject of rape and marriage in the previous section and seen how the marriage formula of ‘leave-cleave’ is reversed, it seemed best to briefly discuss the matter of whether an agreement or ‘covenant’ was necessary for a union to be recognised at this early stage in the Biblical record - that is, if a man and woman co-habited without a formal legal agreement, would they have been considered to have been ‘living in sin’ (to use today‘s language)?
The teaching of the law on rape (Ex 22:16-17, Deut 22:28-29) was that, once sexual union had taken place between an unbetrothed girl (that is, a virgin who had not already been ‘allocated’ for a particular man in marriage) and a man, the only matter that needed resolving was that of the marriage gift and, subsequently, permission to be granted him by the father of the girl in question.
Notice that in neither place do we read of a covenant or ‘marriage ceremony’ taking place that’s considered necessary for the marriage to be recognised. Rather, the completion of the marriage union is simply confirmed by the payment of the marriage present (although this is a purely cultural addition recognised by the Law as to continue) - with the safeguard that the father of the girl had every right to refuse to allow the cohabitation, presumably because it would be far too easy for men to take whoever they wanted in marriage when the father would never have allowed his own daughter to enter into such a bad relationship (either way, the marriage present had to be paid - Ex 22:17).
That the marriage present is obligatory shows us that a marriage has taken place through the sexual act - but a pronouncement of divorce can be made by the father if he deems it in his daughter's best interests.
Even within the Law, it’s difficult to be ‘absolute’ about marriage and divorce when the Bible records legal decisions that are a reforming of the culture already in existence (therefore, although the above points towards a confirmation of the ‘leave-cleave’ principle of Gen 2:24, it stops short of restating it in clear, unambiguous language).
Likewise, when events take place before the Law and there’s no specific comment by God on the matter, we can only observe how another culture understood what constituted ‘marriage’ and draw some tentative conclusions. In the case below, we can see what the patriarchs thought about the matter of marriage by the way in which it was dealt with.
What constituted such an arrangement to Isaac seems simply to have been the two words ‘leave’ and ‘cleave’. Once Rebekah had departed her father’s house (Gen 24:61 - the aspect of ‘leaving’), the servant’s returning home is dealt with clearly in Gen 24:62-67 where no marriage ceremony is gone through but, simply (Gen 24:67),
‘...Isaac brought [Rebekah] into the tent and took [her] and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death’
That the patriarchs understood marriage to be possible, devoid of any ceremonial necessity is plain enough but, as I’ve said above, to base such an interpretation as being the mind of God isn’t sound simply because we don‘t have the direct Word from God in the Scriptures accompanying it.
It is, however, totally in keeping with the twin aspects of marriage that we’ve observed previously in Genesis 2:24 - but we should also note in passing that, for example, in Gen 29:22 in Haran, many miles away from Canaan, a feast was laid out for all the men of the place in which the marriage occurred (Gen 29:23).
Many things can happen at the time of sexual union but a covenant or agreement isn’t associated with it in the early Biblical record.
There are at least a couple of Scriptures that are used to support a
Marriage = Covenant
formula and we must spend a short time dealing with them (I have taken them from Derek Prince's short book on the matter, listed in the references section at the end of these notes. I have also felt it necessary to offer a short critique of his work here).
The first, minor one, is Prov 2:16-17 (my italics) where we read that the acquisition of Wisdom will result in the consequence that
‘You will be saved from the loose woman, from the adventuress with her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God’
The italicised words are very often taken to be proof that marriage is being referred to as a covenant because of the clause before it that speaks of the woman forsaking ‘the companion of her youth’.
While that phrase may be sufficient in itself to assume that the writer is referring to a marriage relationship (it does have other interpretations but marriage seems to be the most likely meaning), if the second phrase was a reiteration of the first, it would have spoken of forgetting ‘the covenant between them’ and not refer to the covenant that had been made with God.
As it stands, the phrase can only be referring to the Mosaic Covenant which each and every Israelite was committed to observe - and, specifically, we may be right in thinking of Ex 20:14, the seventh of the ten commandments, that states
‘You shall not commit adultery’
as being the specific violation that's in mind.
Secondly, Mal 2:13-16, quotes YHWH answering an objection that had been raised by the Israelites as to why the fulfilment of the Mosaic Covenant wasn’t being performed by Him (Mal 2:13-14a). YHWH answers the people (Mal 2:14b - my italics) by explaining that He
‘...was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant’
Some commentators have refused to accept the literal interpretation of this passage as being a reference to marriage and, instead, have pointed out that the cultic phraseology is indicative of a denial of the Mosaic Covenant. I must admit that the words are just about able to be forced into this meaning but I still believe that the most obvious interpretation of the passage is to see YHWH arguing against the Israelites’ griping by saying
‘Look! Why are you moaning about Me not keeping to My side of the covenant when you don’t even keep to the covenant you made with your wife? Your faithfulness in this matter will reap My own’
It’s also been argued that there’s no proof that any covenant was ever made between a husband and wife in Israel at this time but, again, it should be said that no evidence exists to the contrary, either (as far as I know) - and the passage in Ezekiel Chapter 16 shows us that the Mosaic Covenant could be thought of in terms of marriage (Ezek 16:8) so that it’s not an unusual association to make.
However - and this is where the argument is open to question - when YHWH uses something that was taking place within Israelite society in order to explain His failure to observe the Covenant, it does not mean that what they’re doing was an outworking of a direct command (indeed, as we know, there isn't a direct command that a covenant had to be made before marriage could be considered to have been brought about). If a covenant was being made between a husband and wife during marriage, it does not follow that God either agrees or disagrees with it - He’s using it solely as a subject that gives an answer to their question.
The same is true in the NT in I Cor 15:29 where Paul, reasoning with the Corinthians about the Resurrection from the Dead, appeals to them by saying that, if the dead are not raised
‘...what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?’
where he’s not agreeing with the practice of immersing the living on behalf of the dead (as it’s been taken by some sects) but saying that, if the pagans believe it takes place, why can’t the followers of Christ?
There are many other passages where concepts of both ‘covenant’ and ‘marriage’ are used side by side (Prince cites Jer 31:31-32 amongst others) but this only shows us that both concepts were fundamentally important to the Israelites in understanding their relationship to YHWH. It doesn't show us that marriage was considered to be a covenant or, as could also be concluded, that a covenant was considered to be marriage (which is obviously incorrect).
The statement of Scripture still stands in Gen 2:24 that gives us the simple definition of what constitutes a marriage - leave and cleave. If a man and woman wish to do anything else at the time of marriage then let it happen (that believers would want to commit the relationship to Jesus in front of witnesses is not a bad thing and certainly shouldn’t be forbidden) but that it’s not a part of what it means to be ‘married’ is also important to be clear about.
Although Prince brings out some interesting teaching in his book, the basis of his teaching is somewhat incorrect on a few points that underpin his assertion that marriage was always intended to be a covenant.
He (page 34) speaks about a time when he went through his Bible and underlined each place where the concepts of covenant, sacrifice and the shedding of blood took place. He states that
‘...wherever there is a covenant, there must be a sacrifice; and wherever there is a sacrifice, there must be the shedding of blood’
Although he seems to have either overlooked or ignored Lev 5:11-13 where a cereal (non-blood) sacrifice is accepted as making atonement for sin under the Old Covenant, we need to try to understand how this would apply to marriage (in passing, let me also note that Prince’s absolutes are very often said for effect rather than with accuracy. For example, on page 63, he notes that ‘Wherever a man came together with a woman in a covenant union which had the seal of God’s approval, Scripture says that he knew her. But where it was an illicit relationship, one which God had not endorsed and did not approve, Scripture says that he lay with her’ - but Judges 19:25 is clear evidence against the assertion, which could quite easily have been checked out with a concordance as I did).
In answering his own statement about sacrifice quoted above, Prince states (page 47)
‘The sacrifice upon which the covenant of Christian marriage is based is the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf’
and it begs the question
‘So what death is non-christian marriage based on?’
Or, to put it more provocatively,
‘How can two non-believers ever be married if they don’t have faith in Christ’s death?’
(and even ‘What death was the marriage of Adam and Eve based on?’ when death didn’t exist!)
Instead of simplifying the matter, Prince has actually consigned all unbelievers to a lifestyle that can’t be considered ‘marriage’ by the Church rather than to solve the problem of common law marriage based upon Gen 2:24! But, then (page 48), still talking about Christian marriage, he goes on to state that the sacrifice is actually that
‘Each lays down his life for the other’
That is, each person dies to their own will in preference to the will of their partner. This causes almost insurmountable problems because Paul stated in Gal 2:20
‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’
Prince seems to want us to think of marriage as another death to self and that (page 48)
‘...out of that death comes a new life. Each now lives out that new life in and through the other’
Although it’s quite true that each marriage partner must consider themselves committed to one another rather than to please themselves, there can be no other death to self when death to self in Christ has already taken place.
As Paul wrote in I Cor 7:32-35, the unmarried man is concerned about serving Christ but the married man thinks about their partner
‘...and his interests are divided’
Indeed, when he moves on to consider the wife, it’s clear that the marriage can pull her away from a pure devotion to Christ (I Cor 7:34). What Paul is concerned about is
‘...to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord’
and not to secure commitment to one another. To serve Christ is man’s calling, therefore, not to serve a marriage partner and this new ‘death to self’ (although understandable) is surely misleading, for both partners should already have died to self in order to serve Christ, not die to self in order to serve one another.
More disturbing is Prince’s statement (page 44 as a conclusion to Heb 9:16-17) that
‘The one who enters into a covenant enters into it by death. As long as a person remains alive, he is not in covenant’
but Rom 7:2 looks at marriage in a different perspective (in truth, Heb 9:16-17 shouldn’t have been pressed into service under a discussion of marriage) for Paul writes not that a ‘marriage covenant’ (to use Prince’s phrase and not Paul’s) is only in force after death but that it’s in force ‘until death’. Therefore, he comments that
‘...a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband’
I must also note Prince’s statement (page 49) that
‘...the covenant is consummated by physical union’
We have already seen that he has upheld the equation
Covenant = Sacrifice = Shedding of Blood
in all circumstances (and have also seen that this isn’t entirely correct). In my notes on ‘Covenant’, I noted that the classic Biblical covenant is comprised of five elements:
a. The agreement of the terms
b. The swearing of an oath
c. The offering of a sacrifice
d. The witness
e. The feast
Apart from point c (that Prince presses home incorrectly), all of these could be used as part and parcel of a marriage ‘ceremony’ so that a couple who decide to ‘leave and cleave’ could also covenant together at the start of their marriage (as my wife and I also did) but ‘physical union’ (and leaving a parental home to set up house together) simply can’t be placed under any of these headers.
While it is good that a couple should think carefully about what it will mean to them to commit themselves to a partner in marriage - and, perhaps, go on to covenant together before both God and His people - a covenant is not what institutes marriage and is not necessary for God to consider a man and woman as a husband and wife.
Prince also comments (page 80) both about a man’s relationship with God and a marriage relationship that
‘...without covenant there can be no union...’
but Paul asks the rhetorical question in I Cor 6:16
‘Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her?’
because even sexual gratification with a harlot has the effect of joining the man with her, they become one flesh. Generally, one couldn’t imagine a man committing himself by covenant to a prostitute to have sex with her (except in only a very minor number of cases) and yet the two still become one flesh.
Paul seems to be in no doubt that sex brings about a union of two bodies as one whether it’s with a partner to whom one is committed or whether it’s done simply for self-gratification in sex.
Prince does, however, bring out some interesting points - the problem is that there are some areas that are generally misleading and not wholly true to Scripture.
2. A pure people
Marriage is meant to be something that affects both the husband and the wife radically. This seems obvious even from a brief overview of Gen 2:24 for two people to ‘become one flesh’ must mean, at the very least, that all the two individuals own become commonly shared.
But there’s an inference here, too, that we wouldn’t be going too far astray in accepting. That is, that character defects, oppressions and possessions may begin to seek to exert their control over the other’s life because of the single blood line created through sexual intercourse - and it also points towards the explanation as to why sex - whether consented or forced - can radically change a sexual partner if the other person has problems that impinge themselves upon the other (more especially noticeable in cases of rape, no doubt).
Because marriage means becoming one flesh, one new blood line, in which internal and external possessions are inextricably bound together and shared, it seems obvious that for a believer or follower of YHWH in the OT to have married themselves to someone who was spiritually joined to a false or foreign god was simply opening themselves up to be influenced by their partner’s spiritual participation in the life of their god.
It isn’t simply that the ‘external’ burning of incense may tempt the partner to participate in false worship but that there’s an influence exerted through having become one flesh that enforces what is witnessed with the eyes.
Therefore, the commands are particularly stringent that forbid the Israelites from marrying the daughters of the nations who worshipped foreign gods - one might also add to this a warning not to marry the daughters of their own people who had turned aside from the covenant and were setting up idols in the land for it would have had the same effect but, as this was never meant to happen, it was never legislated against.
When the nation went out to war, however, it was allowable for the Israelites to take the virgins of the conquered nations as their wives because there could be no influence from past sexual union (Num 31:18). Presumably, there was minimal risk from spiritual contamination and the wife would have been expected to convert to follow YHWH (a woman who was taken from a defeated city or area would have left her people with minimal - if any - possessions, while a woman from an established nation or tribal group would bring her gods with her).
Although there may have been other reasons for such commands concerning marriage in these circumstances, the explanations above fit into our understanding of the consequences of marriage in Gen 2:24.
Deut 7:1-5 is the plainest passage that deals with the need for marital separation but the warning was repeated by Joshua shortly before his death (Joshua 23:12-13) in which he observed that to be unfaithful in this matter would have the effect of YHWH refusing to continue to drive out the nations that dwelt upon the land that had yet to be conquered.
Such marital relationships would turn the hearts of the people away from a pure devotion to YHWH with the consequence that He would turn against them
‘...till you perish from off this good land which YHWH your God has given you’
It was a lesson that king Solomon also failed to learn for, in marrying many foreign women, he also brought into the United Kingdom of Israel the worship and service of the gods that they brought with them (I Kings 11:1-8), it being recorded that
‘...his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to YHWH his God...For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites...Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem’
Similarly, even though king Jehoshaphat succeeded in drawing back the southern kingdom of Judah to YHWH many years later, his mindless marriage alliance with Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel, in which his son became the husband of the daughter of Jezebel, very nearly annihilated the Davidic line of succession (II Chron 18:1, 21:6 - see my notes on this subject under section 2 ‘The Events of Jehoshaphat’s Reign’).
As if this hadn’t been enough warning to the children of Israel, the returning exiles (having been banished from the land through a similar type of spiritual sin to that of Solomon that their fathers had committed - along with a whole host of other rebellions against the covenant) also transgressed in the matter both in the days of Ezra (Ezra 10:2-3 - see also v.10) and Nehemiah (Neh 13:23-27).
While tolerating some false worship in the land was one thing, joining together as one flesh with the participants of such abhorrent practices before God was only opening their own lives up to a spiritual influence that would draw them away from YHWH and obedience to the Mosaic Covenant.
It’s this spiritual influence which also seems to have been at the heart of the legislation that forbade both Aaron the high priest and his sons to marry any woman who had previously had a sexual relationship (Lev 21:7,14 - see also the commands regarding the priests in Ezekiel’s temple in Ezek 44:22) although, if we take the two verses at face value, Aaron’s sons were allowed to marry a widow whereas the high priest was forbidden to marry anyone other than a woman who was known to be a virgin.
Levhar seems to miss the point here for he speaks about the priests being prevented from being
‘...unequally yoked in marriage...’
by the restrictions placed upon them. But his phrase - borrowed from II Cor 6:14 - infers that the women forbidden were unbelievers when they would have been fellow Israelites. He must mean, therefore, for his words to be understood as meaning that these banned marriage partners were ‘unworthy’ in the sense of being of an inferior spiritual, social, material - or any other - status. I feel sure that Levhar doesn’t mean to demean divorced women by calling them inferior to a potential suitor in the form of a priest but, if he’s on email, I’m sure his in-box would have been bulging with letters of complaint following the book’s publication.
The point is, surely, that the commandment was careful to safeguard the consecration of the priests, to cause them to remain pure and unstained before God and to guarantee that there were no influences that came upon them that could have been prevented. His observations regarding the legislation for the marriage partner of a high priest, however, is much more in keeping with the intention that to marry anyone who had had previous sexual relations would
‘...defile his own sanctity...’
through the ‘baggage’ that would have been carried from that previous relationship. Commentators observe that the command for the high priest not to marry anyone who has had a previous sexual experience is designed to ensure that the first child born is guaranteed to be from the impregnation of the high priest himself, but this doesn’t appear to me to be a valid point.
After all, a woman who had been widowed two years previous and who hadn’t had any sexual relationships after that time would never have been expected to have borne a child that wasn’t the high priest’s. The reason, therefore, must have to do with the influence of previous sexual intercourse upon the new marriage relationship (unless sex is taken to be a ‘sinful’ act that automatically degrades the woman’s spiritual cleanliness - something that I don’t subscribe to).
The explanation for needing to marry a virgin is given immediately after the command and says nothing about ensuring that the first child born to the high priest is his own. Rather, it speaks about all his offspring. YHWH states that the debarring of women with certain types of sexual experience is so that
‘...[the high priest] may not profane his children among his people...’
This is taken by Levwen to normally be interpreted to mean that
‘...his wife should be suitable for a man of his standing’
and agrees with our observation above that not an ‘unequal yoking’ is in mind but an ‘unsuitability’ where a woman who has previous sexual experience is deemed unsuitable because of the influence she would unwittingly bring into the life of the high priest. TWOTOT comments concerning the word translated ‘profane’ (Strongs Hebrew number 2490, M661) that
‘The Levitical laws had as one aim to safeguard the priests against defilement in character, body or ritual’
so that, applied to the context, the instruction is clearly seen to be protecting the high priest against losing his purity in the sight of God. The phrase is somewhat vague, however, for it doesn’t say specifically why profanation would take place (and commentators are equally vague as would be expected) - the only possible explanation, it seems to me, is that it had to do with the woman’s previous sexual relationships and that ‘impurity’ would be imparted should the high priest’s wife have been sexually united to a man prior to the consummation of the marriage.
When ‘two become one flesh’, therefore, we shouldn’t think of it solely in terms of an enjoyable experience, but that influence is exerted by each partner upon the other because they become joined, creating a new blood line, a partnership in the flesh, that cannot be broken.
3. God married to His people
Although much is made in the present day Church about the parallels between natural marriage and the union of God and His people, it isn’t one of the major themes of the Bible. It is, however, firmly rooted in OT Scriptures where it seems to have first been stated in the days of the prophet Isaiah (although such statements seem to presuppose that the concept was already accepted and understood within Israelite society).
The prophet states the relationship plainly in Is 54:5 where it’s recorded that
‘...your Maker is your husband, YHWH of hosts is His name...’
If YHWH can be considered to be His people’s husband, Gen 2:24 points towards the inescapable conclusion that the relationship is meant to be eternal in nature. The only grounds God could possibly have for ‘putting His wife away’ would be through sin and transgression, not through a choice that He’d grown tired of dealing with them.
The earlier passage of Is 50:1 is an important passage here for it points out not that God had put them away as a husband puts away his wife (that is, through a very small and seemingly unjustifiable reason) but that He had good grounds for such a separation of Himself from His people because it was based upon sin and transgression rather than a fanciful decision of the will.
The security of God’s people is seen to be dependent upon their continued obedience to the demands of the covenant and, in the context of the OT, this means the observance of the Mosaic Law, outworked in righteous living towards both Himself and their fellow Israelite.
If the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had taken this Scripture and allowed it to define the word ‘indecency’ as it occurs in Deut 24:1, they would have realised that a bill of divorce could only be given to a wife where ‘sin’ was attributable - that is, a ‘sin’ or offence that fell short of adultery, the latter carrying with it the inevitable sentence of death (Lev 20:10).
Deut 24:1-4, therefore, should have been taken to be a reference to a serious marital faux pas (perhaps something akin to the first stage in the pursuance of an extra-marital relationship where sexual intercourse has not taken place) and not something as trivial as vegetables being incorrectly cooked (I jest not - see Gittin 9:10 in the Mishnah, a tractate that is given over to an extensive consideration of ‘bills of divorce’ which is what the transliterated word ‘Gittin’ means).
I don’t intend to discuss the present day position of the Jewish people before God for that’s fairly complicated and needs separate treatment (if, indeed, I ever feel led to study the subject) but Jer 3:1 is plain that there came a time when the legislation of Deut 24:1-4 was applied directly to the southern kingdom of Judah. Here, the prophet records the words of YHWH as saying, in effect, that God had put the nation away from Him through sin and that, even though they could have repented and returned to their One true Husband, they had played the (spiritual) harlot by marrying (joining with) foreign and strange gods.
Therefore, asks YHWH
‘...would you return to Me?’
a question that is more an appeal to His people to be ashamed of their conduct than it is to condemn them to a life in which there’s no prospect of ever finding God willing to accept them back. As I noted above concerning Hosea chapters 1-3, a rigid application of Deut 24:1-4 to God’s people was never meant to be made for God seems to have consistently held out His hands towards His disobedient and wayward people - the adulterous nation - who, if they returned to Him sincerely, would find forgiveness, healing and a restoration of the marriage relationship.
The description of God’s people being married to YHWH as their husband occurs more often when He has a charge against them than it does when He’s trying to reassure them that His faithfulness is beyond question - that is, the marriage relationship seems to be more especially in view when spiritual adultery has taken place (Jer 3:1,8,20, 31:32, Ezek 16:32,45, Hosea 2:2, Mal 2:11).
However, for all the nation’s sin against their Husband, the prophet Hosea was still able to record the words of YHWH (Hosea 2:16) declaring that there would come a day when the nation would
‘...call Me “My husband”...’
For all the ‘rights’ of God to apply Deut 24:1-4 to His people and to wash His hands of them, the OT is clear that God’s great mercy - dependent upon a correct response from His people - would triumph over the requirements of the Mosaic Law.
After the Fall - the NT
We’ve already seen above that marriage has nothing to do with the handing over of a piece of paper on which is included the names of the two people who have been ceremoniously joined together in a church building, Registry office or any other place deemed suitable by the State or Religious authorities.
Rather, marriage takes place when a man and a woman set up home together and begin sexual relations for, in so doing, they become ‘one flesh’, their blood is ‘joined’ (to use a phrase which isn’t meant to be taken literally), so that what they have becomes shared including parts of their own character that begin to influence the other partner.
Nowhere in the Bible do we read that God created the possibility that same sex marriages could come about - that is, the word ‘marriage’ and the Biblical definition of what it is must be exclusively used for a heterosexual relationship for it’s only through the sexual union of a man and woman that a joining together can take place.
It’s important to realise that cultural additions are all well and good - so long as they don’t deny the truth of what marriage is - but that they aren’t part and parcel of what marriage achieves. It’s only when we strip away all the trappings and misunderstandings that have attached themselves to this subject over the years that we will be able to make sound judgments.
As I noted above, the divorcee has often been consigned to being a second class believer - sometimes even being ostracised from the local fellowship because of their plans to remarry - while those who have set up home with many and various partners are welcomed with open arms into the Church because they had the ‘good sense’ not to formalise their marriage in the eyes of the State so that, when they left successive partners, it would never be understood as ‘divorce’.
Co-habitation, however, is as much ‘marriage’ as is getting the partnership recognised by law and it would be more advantageous for us to get a grip on how God views the matter if we would simply begin to assert that, for example, the person who has lived together with seven partners has been married and divorced seven times.
It would make us realise that the person who has officially been legally married and divorced once is more likely to be morally responsible in sexual matters than someone who has drifted in and out of many partnerships.
What I’m also saying is that a person who comes to know Jesus and who is in an unformalised marriage relationship (that is, they’re cohabiting) should be recognised as being ‘married’ and, if they separate, the guidelines laid down in the NT concerning marriage should be applied to the situation. They should not under any circumstances be pressurised into formalising the relationship by having it recognised by the State.
In times past, the Church has often seen the marriage ceremony as being a victory for the advance of the Gospel but it is neither a victory if they get their piece of paper or a defeat if they continue living together as husband and wife. Either way, they’re still acknowledged by God as being ‘married’ in His eyes.
When we consider the statements concerning marriage in the NT, therefore, we must realise that when the authors and speakers address the subject, they will be covering a wide variety of situations that culturally we don’t accept as being ‘marriage’.
Until we can make ourselves accept what God acknowledges as being a valid marriage, we’ll continue to misunderstand and misapply those Scriptures that will serve to alienate and condemn faithful followers of Christ while, at the same time, accept men and women into our midst who have shown themselves to be morally reprehensible.
I make no excuses for such a strong series of statements for I know a few people who have been the ‘sinned against’ and yet have become the alienated and rejected upon re-marriage while those who have ‘sinned’ have merely needed to say that they were sorry for what they’d done to find acceptance not only back into the flock but into positions of leadership.
If we would accept ‘marriage’ as being what God accepts it to be, we would resolve most of the problems that have been created by our erroneously based judgments.
In the following articles, I have decided not to deal with the witness of the Scriptures as to the ceremonies that were an integral part of first century weddings. As I said above, the importance of this study is not to present a history of cultural interpretations but to attempt a clear reassessment of the ‘mechanics’ of marriage and divorce, one that also sets apart our own present day interpretations to lay down a foundation which defines what God means by both of the words ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’.
1. The Gospels
Speaking to His disciples (Mtw 5:1-2), Jesus brought to attention the legislation of Deut 24:1-4 by noting that it was said (Mtw 5:31) that
‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’
The time had come, however, for the Mosaic ‘allowance’ (for want of a better word) to be reassessed so that that which was from the beginning was to be upheld (Mtw 19:8), the perfection in which the Creation had been structured now being expected to be lived out by His followers.
Although Jesus doesn’t explain the correct meaning of Gen 2:24, His subsequent words make it plain that He considered marriage to be unable to be annulled except on the grounds of unfaithfulness. He told His followers (Mtw 5:32) that
‘...every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery’
If different grounds than adultery were used to annul the marriage, the woman would have been compelled to seek a remarriage to someone else (because, normally, the woman was dependent upon the provision of the first husband), condemning her to be considered to be an adulteress because the marriage union would not be considered as annulled by God Himself.
Likewise, if a man married a divorced woman (the qualifying concept being that the divorce was arranged regardless of any grounds of adultery), he, too, committed adultery for God didn’t recognise the pronouncements of men upon the matter that the first marriage union was dissolved (see also my exposition of Mtw 5:31-32 under the section ‘Divorce’).
Jesus stops short of definitively holding the first husband responsible for the necessary sin of his wife but the implication is there that by one’s own actions it’s possible to stumble another and incur guilt before God.
There are no qualifying conditions for this situation but Jesus’ words are both forthright and authoritative - grounds for divorce are only acceptable to God when adultery has taken place (of course, the definition of both ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’ must be taken as previously defined and seen to have nothing whatsoever to do with the recognition by the State in our present society of which two people are ‘legally’ married or separated permanently).
Jesus repeated His teaching on the matter in Mtw 19:9 but phrased it slightly differently. He declared that
‘...whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery’
Here he develops the theme of the man who’s divorced his wife and remarried - in the previous passage He’s looked at the initial act of divorce and then turned His attention to the divorced woman. But the application in Mtw 19:9 is important because He’s talking to the Pharisees who practised the legislation of Deut 24:1-4 (they seem to only have been uncertain as to what grounds for divorce were justifiable - Mtw 19:3. I’ve dealt with this matter above in the section on the OT).
Jesus also explained Himself by referring back to the first marriage of Adam and Eve (Mtw 19:4-6), quoting Gen 2:24 and explaining that a marriage means that the husband and wife
‘...are no longer two but one flesh...’
and, this being the institution of God Himself, no man should take it upon himself to separate the unity. Jesus isn’t saying that every man who marries a woman has chosen the right partner because it’s that one who’s been selected for him by God but that, through sexual union in marriage, God joins the two together as one flesh - something that has been integrally sown into the fabric of life on earth (see also my notes on this incident).
In the parallel passage in Mark 10:2-12, it’s recorded that Jesus also addressed the issue of a woman taking the initiative in divorce proceedings and noted the same principle that
‘...if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’
In summary, then, unless adultery can be shown to be the reason for the break up of the marriage, divorce isn’t accepted by God as having taken place with the consequence that either party will commit adultery against the other if they remarry.
In the society in which Jesus lived, it was also important to note that a woman divorced by her husband was pushed into an adulterous relationship because she needed to find a husband who would support her. Although the Scriptures stop short of attributing the woman’s guilt to that of the first husband, there’s definitely the implication there that he’s morally responsible.
We should also point out that these words were directed towards either Jesus’ own disciples or to the OT Church of whom the Pharisees were some of its leaders. They are specifically applicable, therefore, to believers in and followers of Jesus Christ but, because He cited the institution of marriage as the reason why sexual union cannot be broken except by sexual unfaithfulness, the comments must equally apply to the Gentiles or ‘unbelievers’ (although they usually care nothing about whether they’re serving the will of God in their own lives).
Because marriage was the gift of God to all men and women at the start of the world, the same ‘rules’ must apply to everyone.
Before we move on to consider Paul’s teaching on the subject of marriage (and, fortunately, he recorded a fairly extensive and detailed explanation of the mechanics of marriage and divorce in I Corinthians chapter 7), there are a few other passages of Scripture in the Gospels that are worth noting.
Firstly, Mark 6:17-18 tells us the fact that John the Baptist had been imprisoned by Herod because John had pronounced the condemning verdict on the king’s marriage with his brother’s wife by saying
‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’
We could use Jesus’ clear teaching on the subject and join with John in condemning the remarriage on the grounds that, because no adultery had taken place that had annulled the first relationship, the second was purely adulterous.
However, this probably wasn’t what John had in mind when he attacked the marriage for he speaks about it being ‘not lawful’ and it’s plain in the Mosaic legislation (Lev 18:16, 20:21) that to marry your brother’s wife while he was still alive was offensive to God, YHWH even going so far as to pronounce the second marriage as producing no offspring (Lev 20:21).
Secondly, Jesus noted that, in the resurrection from the dead, marriage is no longer something that will be practised (Mtw 22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:34-35). His observation is so tantalising that many believers have gone on to suppose all manner of characteristics of the new world but Jesus decided not to clarify the matter except to say (Mtw 22:30) that those who are resurrected
‘...are like angels in heaven’
a phrase which is as enigmatic as they come and impossible to interpret.
Thirdly, for a discussion of the options open to Joseph in the Jewish society of his day as he thought how he might divorce Mary ‘quietly’ when she was discovered to be pregnant (Mtw 1:19), see my notes under the header ‘He was a just man’.
2. From Acts onwards
Jesus, as we saw above, taught that there was but one reason why a marriage relationship could be considered annulled - adultery. We also saw that His words, although directed to disciples or ‘nominal’ believers, should be taken to be a comment upon all marriages because His reasoning was founded upon the very first marriage - that is, it’s expected to form the basis for all marriages that come after it and subsequent ones only exist because God made the possibility for such an arrangement to occur.
However, as with all subjects, it’s important not to take what appears to be a categorical statement on a matter and hold fast to it when there are other Scriptures that shade the meaning or add to an interpretation that widens an application into something that can be seen to be necessarily different in a variety of situations.
While Paul would have upheld Jesus’ teaching that adultery was the only condition by which a marriage could be considered as being annulled between a husband and wife (and, it would seem, the only possible condition for divorce between two believers - but why would one believer commit adultery in the first place if they wanted to serve Christ?), there were believer/unbeliever marriages that seem to have been under some considerable strain and, in these circumstances, the issue had to be addressed whether the believing partner was bound to honour the marriage even when the unbeliever wanted the marriage ending (in other words, when adultery had not taken place).
So, to take it to an extreme, should a believer be bound by another’s sin and be restricted in the things that they were allowed to do before God?
We’ll get to that situation in good time but it seems best for us to go through Paul’s extensive teaching on the mechanics of marriage in I Corinthians chapter 7 in the order in which it was written as it contains a wealth of information that needs to be carefully examined. After this, we’ll consider a couple of other places in the NT that are of interest to this present study.
a. I Corinthians chapter 7
We need to first observe that there appears to be a division in Paul’s teaching on the subject of ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’ for, while his words would be naturally taken to be instruction that he believed was given to him directly from God (and he says as much in 7:10), he complicates the issue for many people by admitting that on particular issues he has no direct instruction from God.
In three specific places it’s as if he takes a step back, lifts his hands up and says
‘I have nothing definitive from God on this matter but here’s a suggestion’
He begins, though, by passing on certain instruction (7:10 - my italics) that’s been received by Him from God Himself. He begins
‘To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord...’
but, once having addressed the matter, goes on (7:12 - my italics) to begin a new section with
‘To the rest I say, not the Lord...’
and, again, later on (7:25 - my italics)
‘Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy’
It would be very convenient for those who don’t want to accept Paul’s teaching on the matter to say, simply, that, because the apostle is expressing his opinion, no believer is bound by it because it’s not a direct command from God.
This indeed has a semblance of wisdom to it, but if the Bible is accepted as being infallible in matters of faith and conduct (I’m borrowing that phrase from a denomination’s statement of fundamental belief), there can be no good reason why Paul’s opinion shouldn’t be accepted as God’s as well.
Besides this, Paul ends the passage with a short observation about the remarriage of widows and then throws in for good measure the statement
‘...And I think that I have the Spirit of God’
a phrase that reinforces his position and teaching as being more likely to be God’s mind on the matter than simply convenient ideas dreamed up in his own head. Therefore, although the apostle clearly says that he’s expressing an opinion at certain points, I accept that the teaching he laid down here is worthy of full acceptance.
I Corinthians chapter 7 seems to have been a passage that Paul put together because he’d been written to by the fellowship asking for guidance. Just what their questions were, we can only hazard a guess (it hardly seems plausible that they said generally ‘Tell us about marriage’ but are more likely to have outlined specific problems they had encountered) but it remains possible that the fellowship had been troubled by teaching that forbade marriage for the people of God (as Paul observed would happen in the ‘latter days’ - I Tim 4:3). His opening statement that
‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman’
certainly appears to answer whatever specific question had been raised in a way that gets their immediate attention before he goes on to lay down a foundation for an understanding of marriage relationships.
The sentence is poorly translated, however, for the English word ‘touch’ (Strongs Greek number 680) means something a bit stronger in the original language than physical contact.
If we were to take the sentence at face value as it appears in many English translations, we’d have to conclude that there was something inherently wicked in touching a woman - and it would compel us to build buildings where male and female believers could be separated in their service for God, never coming into contact with the other (hang on! That’s been done before...).
The Greek word more especially means ‘to fasten to’, ‘to take hold of’ or, to use the English word from Gen 2:24, ‘to cleave to’. So, when Jesus is reported as ‘touching’ the leper in Mtw 8:3, instead of a light brushing of the hand over him to impart healing, we should understand that Jesus ‘laid hold’ of the man in a very definite way that showed close association.
He was making sure that the leper understood that He wasn’t frightened by his uncleanness but was willing to ‘join together’ with him in his problem to remove it.
In the same manner, the ‘touch’ of I Cor 7:1 is more than a brief physical encounter of the hand in passing but refers to sexual union, the fastening of a man to a woman in marriage through sexual intercourse. The impact of the words shouldn’t be lessened and a better translation is crying out to be made (I note, however, that the NRSV translates the sentence the same way - perhaps it will be corrected in the NNRSV?).
Paul is saying, therefore, that it’s best for marriage not to take place. He doesn’t give his reasons immediately but, later in the chapter, observes that his statement is based, firstly, upon the consideration that there will be increasing trouble as the Day of Jesus’ return draws near and that a marriage relationship will be something that would prove to be a hindrance (7:26,29).
Secondly, marriage is a good way to take your mind off what’s important to Jesus and onto the worldly affairs of trying to please the other partner (7:32-34). Therefore, Paul says, if it’s possible, remain single as he does (7:7-8) - where to be married is no sin but to remain single is better (7:38) - in total contrast to much of the teaching in the Church today where to raise children is pronounced as God’s will and to remain single is to be disobedient to God (I dealt with this matter on my web page dealing with the ‘Restoration of Creation’ in Part Two under section 2ciii entitled ‘The Church and the family ideal’).
Paul concludes his opening remarks about marriage (7:2-6) with some warnings and obligations.
Although Paul would have believers remain single and be more committed to serving Christ, he acknowledges that such a position places people in the temptation to commit sexual immorality (7:2).
It’s much better, therefore, that believers who don’t have the mastery over those feelings (or, perhaps better, those who don’t have that gift from God that causes them to be ‘untouched’ by the desire to have sexual intercourse - Paul says as much in 7:7) go ahead and marry, each one remembering the reason for them having come together and being careful to give to each partner what they need at the appropriate time (7:3).
Paul’s explanation reinforces the statement of Gen 2:24 that the two individuals who are married have become one flesh for he explains why one partner should not refuse sexual intercourse with the other, commenting that
‘…the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does’
something that cuts wholly across the much flaunted doctrine in churches that the husband is the head of the marriage to the extent that it’s he alone who decides the direction of family life, the wife being not much more than subservient to the will of her husband.
What the apostle does here is to show that the wife can expect the husband to do something specific for her and that he does not have the right to refuse her. His statement should also be allowed to cover other aspects of life for, if the husband’s body belongs to the wife, she has every right to expect that what takes place in that body be something that doesn’t undermine her own welfare and interest.
Of course, this position is the same both ways round and the marriage relationship is shown to be - in Christ - a marriage partnership where each have their roles to play in leading the union to be more a reflection of God.
Although the curse of the Fall upon the wife isn’t revoked (Gen 3:16), the definition of what that rule is becomes defined and is shown to be something that’s not absolute.
I must point out here that, because the husband should still be expected to ‘rule’ in the marriage relationship because of Gen 3:16, I would expect him, for example, to make the decision as to which course of action to choose when there was a difference of opinion - a decision that was based upon the will of God and not according to what he wanted to do.
If the decision is going to influence his wife (whose body is also his), the husband will be very careful not to cause self-injury (see also Eph 5:28-30). This ‘rule’ is also something that should be understood as being an example of the type of leadership given by those who have oversight over God’s people, for decisions made that affect the life of the fellowship must also be considered from the viewpoint of what God’s will and not their will is on the matter.
Both partners may cease having sexual intercourse by mutual agreement (7:5) so that they can devote themselves to prayer (or, for that matter, anything that needs their strength and undivided attention) but a total abstinence is not wise if either of them need to have their sexual desires satisfied.
Paul moves on to the unmarried and widowed (7:8-9) and offers the same sort of advice as he will to the unmarried later on (that is, the never married - 7:25-38) although there he’ll expand his teaching. Those words will be equally applicable to these two types of people in the sense that they’re all ‘unmarried’ or ‘single’ but in the present two verses he notes that
‘…it is well for them to remain single as I do’
but that not everyone can exercise self-control in sexual matters (note that he doesn’t rebuke them for not having the power of Christ to overcome their desires and neither does he say that they should pray for a similar type of gift as he perceived he had been given by God) so that, for those people, it’s best to marry to satisfy their desire.
The marriage partner, however, should be one (7:39) who’s
‘…in the Lord’
but, even so, when Paul speaks about a widow, he notes that she has the right to marry
‘…whom she wishes…’
a word that lays down the principal that the woman has the right to choose her own marriage partner (Paul doesn’t speak against arranged marriages per se or he would surely have been careful to include those who were single in this instruction - the least he says, however, is that the widow is not under the rule of man but obligated to serve the will of God).
Paul’s next concern is to deal with marriages in which both partners are believers (7:10-11) although the text doesn’t say as much. It seems to be the correct inference, however, for from 7:12 Paul will speak to ‘the rest’ and go on to speak of marriage relationships in which one of the partners isn’t a follower of Christ. Therefore, Paul’s words should be taken to refer specifically to marriages in which both the husband and wife are believers (real believers, that is, and not simply ‘church-goers’). In such a situation
‘…the wife should not separate from her husband…and…the husband should not divorce his wife’
yet, even here, Paul (although his words are claimed as being from the Lord) makes the allowance for the wife that she may choose a separation but make sure that she either remains single (that is, no sexual relationships) or be reconciled back to her husband (who, I assume, is also meant to remain ‘single’).
I take the instructions to be equally applicable in certain circumstances in this present day to the husband who may separate if he chooses and either remain celibate or return to the wife - but the reason why Paul seems to have chosen not to cover that possibility is that, in the first century, the wife was normally (but not always) dependent upon the husband for her welfare and provision. For the man to leave the wife would be to put her into an impossible situation - if the wife left the husband, however, it would show that she expected to be able to have the means to support herself.
Whether the husband or the wife leaves the relationship, though, it’s important that it’s remembered that the one ‘staying behind’ is not the one who’s left destitute.
The basis for this instruction is that the marriage relationship cannot be broken except on the grounds of adultery - as no such thing has taken place, the only way the two can achieve their own independence is for a separation to take place which recognises that the marital union is still a reality. In this way, believers who don’t get on in marriage have the opportunity to amicably end the relationship but are not allowed to seek another until the other partner has died and they become widowed (7:39 - taken to be applicable the other way round, too).
Two believers who are deciding whether to marry or not should therefore be warned that what they’re about to do cannot be annulled.
Moving on, Paul turns his attention to marriages in which one of the partners isn’t a believer (7:12-24), a fairly long passage because he uses it to go on to lay down some principles about accepting the state in which God called a person to Himself (that is, when the person was converted to Christ).
Because Paul’s teaching included the instruction that a believer should not marry an unbeliever (II Cor 6:14-18), the situations here being dealt with should be taken to be the consequence of either the husband or wife having been converted after the marriage had been made.
The believer should not separate from the unbeliever, says Paul (7:12-13), even though many may have thought that such a union was problematical and in need of rectification. Paul allays their fears that the relationship is unacceptable to God by using the first fruit principle from the OT (7:14) where the offering given to God makes the rest of the lump of dough holy (see my notes under the heading ‘The offering that makes holy’).
However, should the unbeliever decide that they want to separate, the believer is to allow it and, in such a case (7:15)
‘…the brother or sister is not bound’
that is, they’re liberated from the marriage union. Otherwise, if the believer was still bound to the marriage after the unbeliever had divorced them - or, to put it in another way, if God still regarded the two as being married - when the unbeliever remarried, they would be committing adultery.
To simplify matters, Paul says that, at the point the unbeliever leaves, the believer is no longer bound into the marriage and, therefore, is free to consider themselves ‘single’ and free to remarry (providing that the believer is careful not to cause unnecessary cultural offence by their conduct for, although they might regard themselves as single, the society in which they live may expect a period of time to elapse before such a situation is accepted).
Paul’s lengthy ‘aside’ (7:17-24) goes on to lay down the principle that
‘Every one should remain in the state in which he was called [and] in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God’
and, although he doesn’t immediately apply it to marriage, the application is obvious and certain (made more so when he takes the teaching and uses it in 7:27) - if it’s at all possible, and as far as it’s in each man or woman, the unmarried, widow or married should remain in the marital state in which they were called.
Before a few final comments, Paul turns his attention to deal extensively with the subject of the unmarried or single believer (7:25-38), beginning with the observation noted above that it’s best
‘…for a person to remain as he is’
But he continues by noting that
‘…if you [male or female] marry, you do not sin - and if a girl marries she does not sin’
while observing that marriage produces worldly cares and anxieties that deflect believers from following after God wholeheartedly (7:32-35). As I read his instruction, I couldn’t help but think that Paul was concerned that he might have gone too far in his exhortations to remain unmarried - it’s almost as if he’s saying
‘Hang on a minute! It really isn’t a problem to get married although you should be warned that it has its own unique set of problems’
This, of course, in contrast to many present day churches whose voice is more akin to
‘You want to remain single? Are you nuts? Why would you want to disobey the will of God for your life?’
To Paul, marriage is about sexual need (7:36-7). If there’s no necessity for betrothed couples to have to come together then it’s best for them to continue as they are but, if their feelings and desires are strong, they shouldn’t think that by marrying they’re letting the Lord down.
He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that marrying would be advantageous for the spread of the Gospel which leads me to think that, in the first century, such a scenario would have been unusual. It does make sense, however, for a man and woman to marry in order to move into a new area for the sake of the Gospel so that the reduction of monetary outlay in having only the one place in which to live means that more resources can be invested in the advance of the Kingdom.
In the early Church, however, two betrothed people would likely have found the local fellowship willing to give them board and lodging. All this is speculation, I know, but in the present day, there are occasions when marriage is a positive advantage when it comes to the promotion of the Gospel and the service of God. Even so, it’s likely that Paul’s statement that
‘…he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better’
was more applicable to first century situations in which the believers found themselves.
Finally, Paul notes the permanence of marriage by observing that only upon death is a wife released from her marriage to her husband and, when that happens (7:39 - my italics - see also Rom 7:2-3)
‘…she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord’
concluding by noting (7:40) that, in his own judgment
‘…she is happier if she remains as she is’
Throughout this chapter, Paul has upheld Jesus’ teaching on marriage even though he hasn’t come out and stated unequivocally that adultery is the only grounds for divorce.
How the apostle has interpreted Jesus’ words seems to be that a believer is bound permanently into a marriage relationship except if the partner either commits adultery (which he doesn’t mention - this is Jesus’ teaching on the matter which he doesn’t contradict. He does note the scenario of adultery in a different context in Rom 7:3) or if the partner isn’t a follower of Christ and they - not the believer - choose to separate.
In either of these two circumstances, the believing partner is not to be forbidden remarriage or pronounced ‘adulterous’ if they do so.
While Paul maintains that two believers can separate but not remarry, he doesn’t envisage any scenario where they can divorce and remarry.
I should offer one word of advice here for it seems to me that the marital state (according to a Scriptural consideration and not according to our cultural or legal definitions) in which a person converts to Christ is the state in which they should be accepted as being married or single.
As many have had multitudes of marriages (although no legal recognition of the union has existed), it seems too laboured to insist that a new believer should return to the first ‘wife’ or else remain celibate when, for example, he could be in a current marriage relationship in which he’s the bread winner and has children to support by that wife.
This purely fictitious but totally likely scenario described above is but one of many possibilities and, short of a specific Word from God in the situation, it makes more sense to deal with the person on the basis of the marital state he’s in than to turn up old relationships (and marriages) which will complicate his or her new life in Christ.
There are also situations in which people find themselves that go undealt with by both Jesus and Paul - indeed, by the totality of Scripture. Some may care to assert that these situations never occurred in Ancient life but that I'd doubt - others may feel that they need no further guidance than the instructions already given.
The case, for example, of a man or woman who comes to know Jesus and who are in a marriage relationship in which they suffer constant or serious abuse is one that's difficult to definitively address by the instructions above.
For example, all we have at our disposal is the command of Paul that, if an unbelieving partner consents to live with the believer, they should continue to do so (7:12-13) but that gives no licence for the believer to remove themselves from the very real danger.
In my opinion, the believer should be at liberty to leave the situation (and will probably need the intervention of the local church to do so as the violent partner may well try to seek out the new residence of their other half) and remain celibate unless it can be shown that adultery has also taken place in the marriage prior to the separation.
However, even this interpretation is not without its problems because Jesus said (Mark 10:11-12) that a divorcing partner (that is, one who brings an end to the co-habitation) causes the other partner to commit adultery when they next marry (again, that's 'marry' according to the Biblical definition of the term). Perhaps, because of the nature of the relationship, one might even be as bold as to accept that the 'marriage' is already annulled because, if the two were one flesh, the violent partner would be caring for the other rather than abusing them (that is, it denies the second characteristic of marriage that states that the two live as one).
I have no definitive instructions to give on these - and a multitude of other - situations. Each of the cases shouldn't be pre-judged and must be dealt with in sympathy and with the realisation that there are two sides to each and every marital problem that needs to be heard and considered.
b. Other NT comments
Marriage is not dealt with in many other places by Paul but, when he does, he speaks mainly about marital conduct between husbands and wives, something that’s outside the scope of this study. There’s one specific place where the ‘mechanics’ of marriage can be seen (Rom 7:2-3) and another which shows that a doctrine of the OT is echoed in the new.
Both deserve a short comment before we conclude this study.
Firstly, I noted above that Paul upholds Jesus’ teaching concerning the need for marriage to continue until death and that the only grounds for a divorce is the adultery of one of the partners. Although the apostle never comes out and says this with clarity in I Corinthians chapter 7, a lot of his teaching pre-supposes this standard.
However, Rom 7:2-3 shows us that Paul understood that extra-marital sexual relations were considered to be adultery. While he’s concerned to show his readers that they’re set free from the requirements of the Law, the example he uses of a natural marriage relationship between a husband and wife would have been acceptable as a fait accompli.
The death of the husband is the over-riding consideration which changes a woman’s new sexual relationship from being ‘adultery’ to ‘marriage’ for it releases her from the obligation to continue the marriage. Paul’s statement that
‘...a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives’
is equally true the other way round, of course, and the inseparability of the two partners becomes an accepted fact upon which the doctrine of a believer’s relationship to law can be built. If it wasn’t an established fact, Paul couldn’t have argued in this manner.
And, secondly, we noted above that the OT contained pronouncements concerning God and His people being husband and wife. This isn’t carried through into the NT in its entirety as we would suppose but the Church is regarded as ‘betrothed’ rather than ‘joined’ (II Cor 11:2), looking forward to the day when a full and complete union between her and Jesus will take place (Rev 19:7, 21:9), the Holy Spirit being the ‘engagement ring’ until the consummation of the marriage takes place (Eph 1:13-14, II Cor 1:22).
As such, NT believers might feel a little aggrieved (I’m speaking in natural terms) for the regression from ‘married’ as a believer under the Old Covenant to ‘betrothed’ under the New. But, as I pointed out above, the former concept was normally employed when God had something to say against His people rather than, in the New, when God observes something that has been prophesied will take place as an outworking of the work of Christ.
According to Gen 2:24, a ‘marriage’ is made between one man and one woman who set up a household together and who become united together as ‘one flesh’ or ‘one bloodline’ through sexual intercourse.
God’s original intention for marriage was to provide a union of two human beings that would never be broken but, because sin came into the world, God recognises that adultery (the sexual union of one of the married people to another of the opposite sex) is the only grounds for a person to be considered ‘divorced’.
However, in Christ, an unbeliever is to be granted a divorce if they wish to separate from a believer and the latter is to be released from that marriage, free to marry whosoever they choose (only the partner must be ‘in the Lord’ - that is, a believer).
Again, while marriage is impossible to be annulled between two believers, they can separate by mutual consent but shouldn’t be thought of as being divorced and should certainly not seek a new marriage while the other partner is alive.
There’s nothing wrong with a ceremonial beginning to a marriage relationship (whether done ‘properly’ within a church building or in a Registry office) or with the legal recognition of that marriage by local or national Government - but neither of these constitutes a marriage in the eyes of God.
While there’s much more that could have been said about marriage, this study has been concerned to show the ‘mechanics’ of marriage and divorce as they’re defined in the Bible.
Deutthom - Deuteronomy, J A Thompson, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, IVP
Genkid - Genesis, Derek Kidner, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, IVP
Genwen - Genesis 1-15, Gordon J Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Word Books
Levhar - Leviticus, R K Harrison, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, IVP
Levwen - Leviticus, G J Wenham, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans
Prince - The Marriage Covenant, Derek Prince, Whitaker House
TWOTOT - ‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament’ (2 volumes), R Laird Harris (Editor), The Moody Press. An ‘M’ number refers to the numbered Hebrew word.
Zondervan - ‘The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible’, The Zondervan Corporation, First Edition.
APPENDIX - Marriage and the World
When a local house fellowship that we were regularly attending decided to reject the Scriptural and Biblical definition of marriage by accepting only a marriage that was recognised by a State-ordained ceremony (although they never fully understood what they really believed - like a lot of believers), they handed over the definition of marriage into the hands of the unsaved.
I wonder how appalled they've become at the recent events that have seen the current Government attempt to redefine marriage or, rather, to extend its inclusion to encompass both homosexual and lesbian relationships?
Many years ago, the Government took the bold step to categorise those who were living together on a regular basis as being 'Living Together As Husband And Wife' (a mouthful, I admit, but you couldn't spell it out any plainer) - abbreviated to 'LTAHAW' - used for the calculation of entitlement to State Benefit.
There was no moral or ethical basis for such a move, I'm sure, but a simple practicality that arose from the time of the Sixties onwards when men and women would cohabit on an increasingly regular basis, claim single rates of benefit for themselves on a legitimate legal footing and, therefore, be receiving in to the household a higher amount of money than if they were accepted as having a legitimate marriage relationship.
It would have been better at that time had the Church reassessed its model of marriage and abandoned its worldly acceptance of a State definition. Indeed, in my own personal opinion, I believe that such a step by the UK Government was a clear wake up call given by God to His people to abandon dependence on the World and to strike out with an accurate reassessment that was both Scriptural and faithful to His character.
But the Church opted not to do as much and continued with their erroneous belief that only State-recognised marriages were 'marriages' in the eyes of God. Many of them probably never realised that the LTAHAW definition even existed and, because they were able to sit as judges and condemn those who didn't have a Marriage Certificate, they were able to write people off as 'Living in sin' and, therefore, living against the will of God.
Having now moved on to the recent signal of intent that homosexual and lesbian relationships can be solemnised by a legal recognition, the Government is doing nothing that the Church hasn't already allowed it to do.
In short, it's another clear new challenge by God to His Church to wake up and to redefine marriage by recourse to His Scripture and His character.
But is that what's happened?
Or is it likely to happen in the near future?
No, not at all.
All that has happened is that Church leaders and people claiming faith in Christ have objected to the Government's proposals on the ground that marriage is only acceptable when it occurs between a single male and female.
Again, the Church has failed to provide a clear definition of marriage as contained within Scripture. As we've already seen, the twin aspects of 'leave' and 'cleave' must both be present for a marriage to be brought in to being and this between one man and one woman.
By leaving out the full definition, the Church has retreated once more into a sound byte that's both misleading and dangerous because it's trying to rule the World without the authority of Christ.
Until the Church takes back 'marriage', defines it accurately and applies it correctly, it will never have influence to oppose that which is wrong in this world. More, because the Church has sold out a correct definition by giving it over to the national Government to write into legislature, it can't complain when the gods that it has raised over itself start to kick against what it wants to do.
Selling out is not a way of rule - neither is compromise.
As I've said on more numerous occasions recently than I ever did do in my early days as a follower of Christ:
'Let the World go the way they want to, we don't have to follow'
What we should, rather, do is state clearly what is both right and wrong, hold fast to that which is a reflection of the character of God and shun what undermines our relationship with Him.
Until the Church takes it upon itself to define marriage Biblically and to apply it righteously it will never have the support of God when it attempts to stand against wrong ideas and beliefs that seem to come against it from outside.
The Church must take it upon itself to announce what it recognises as a God-defined marriage on the basis of Scripture and not as defined in the legislation of any worldly Government, a definition that depends upon Christ and not upon compromise.