The origin of Marriage
The first human relationship was marriage. Marriage is God’s gift to humans. Sadly, we have not done very well with God’s good gift.
Marriage is so exalted by our Creator that one day it will be celebrated at the highest possible level between Christ and His bride, the Church.
The relationship and institution of marriage have been part of human history in every culture since God instituted it (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6).
“Anthropologists tell us marriage, a permanent linking of men and women, is found in every civilized and uncivilized society throughout human history. Theologically, marriage is the first human institution. Sociologically, marriage is the glue that holds communities together, regulates sexuality, civilizes the home and provides for the proper development of the next generation. (Citizenlink).
“Marriage between a man and a woman is the central, social building block in every human society, without exception. Monogamous, lifelong marriage is the universal norm.” (Gary Chapman)
The nature of marriage
God ordained marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. But this way of understanding marriage is at risk.
An evolving definition (from Webster):
- 1913 “The act of marrying, or the state of being married; legal union of a man and a woman for life, as husband and wife; wedlock; matrimony.”
- 1992, Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary defined marriage as “the institution under which a man and a woman become legally united on a permanent basis.”
- 2003 Merriam-Webster (1) “The state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.
Marriage is God’s gift. It was given to complete what was lacking in man by providing a complimentary female companionship for the first man (“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18).
As originally designed, marriage is meant to be an exclusive (leaving) and permanent (cleaving/be united), one-flesh relationship. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24-25). We must bring marriage back under God (as the one who gave us the relationship) if ever we hope to turn the tide in support of marriage. This is where it all began. It is where we must begin.
What God did to establish marriage
- The Lord said it is not good for the man to be alone.
- The Lord brought the living creatures to the man to be named by him
- The Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep
- The Lord took one of the man’s ribs and closed up his side
- The Lord fashioned the woman and brought her to the man
The one-flesh union of marriage is more than just two bodies uniting. It is a person-to-person fusion of two lives celebrated by physical union. The physical union is the consummation of a God-formed bond. Physical union alone does not constitute a marriage nor necessitate one. Using a one-flesh description, the apostle warned believers that a casual visit to a prostitute establishes a union that is far more profound than mere physical union. It is tearing each other apart by joining each other together (I Corinthians 6:16-18). But the physical union alone does not constitute the one-flesh bond intended as marriage (Matthew 1:18-19; John 4:16-18).
Marriage as covenant
The covenant nature of marriage is clearly mentioned in the Old Testament book of Malachi: “Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith” (Mal. 2:13-16).
Unlike contracts, typically entered for personal advantage, convenience and limited time, the marriage covenant is entered for the purpose of love, mutuality of care, responsibility and permanence.
Marriage as a life-long relationship
Jesus affirmed the original teaching about marriage when he said, “Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). From Jesus words, we learn that marriage is intended as a life-long relationship (what God has joined together, let man not separate).
Honoring the teaching of our Lord in their wedding ceremony, the bridegroom and bride solemnly promise to love, honor and cherish each other, and to remain faithful to each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death separates them.
Four essentials for Marriage – God’s original plan for the marriage relationship involved four essential elements:
- Exclusivity: One man/one woman in lifelong monogamy
- Uniqueness: Leaving your home of origin and establishing a new family.
- Permanence: A man is to be united to his wife—a word that means to hold fast to with unswerving loyalty. Vows: “Till death causes us to part; As long as we both shall live.” Jesus said, “What God has joined together let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6).
- Extraordinary care: Ephesians 5:25, 28-29; John 10:11-13. Exodus 21:10 “…he must not deprive… her of food, clothing and marital rights.” Vows: “Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?”
When husbands and wives respect each one of the four essential elements: exclusivity, uniqueness, permanence, and care, they strengthen their marriages. A failure to respect any one of the essentials will weaken and harm the marriage relationship. A key reason many marital problems occur is a failure to understand, respect and live by the God-intended essence of marriage.
Marriage – equality, and roles
Equality is reflected in the first marriage as the man and woman were created in the image of God and given co-regency over the created order (Genesis 1:26-28). For believers in Christ, marriage is a covenant of companionship between two spiritually equal human beings (Galatians 3:26-28).
Yet equality does not eliminate roles in a marriage relationship. Nor do roles in marriage diminish the call to mutual love and respect. According to Scripture, the husband bears the primary responsibility to lead the home in a God-glorifying way. His leadership clearly involves authority and should be honored by his wife and family Ephesians 5:22-24, 33; 6:1-3). His authority, however, must be based on love (see: Ephesians 5:25, 33; John 10:11-13; I Corinthians 13:4-8a) and thoughtful consideration (see: Philippians 2:3-5).
Scripture warns against husbands who treat their wives with insensitivity (see I Peter 3:7). Husbands must never forget that they are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Cultural limitations or biases should not be placed on this command any more than on the command for wives to submit to and respect their husbands. Biblical requirements for male leadership in the home were not related to or conditioned on cultural factors.
Seven purposes for marriage
- Companionship (Genesis 2:18; Malachi 2:14)
- Completion (Genesis 2:18)
- Continuance (Genesis 1:28- of the human race)
- Cooperation (Genesis 1:28)
- Care: (Exodus 21:10-11; 1 Corinthians 7:15)
- Communication (Genesis 1:27; of God’s image and Ephesians 5- Christ’s relationship with his people)
- Constraint (I Corinthians 7:3-5)
Permission for divorce
Although divorce was permitted in some cases during Old Testament times, Jesus Christ taught that this was a mere accommodation and not God’s plan from the beginning. When pressed further as to why divorce was permitted, Jesus clarified that, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Jesus then added an exception: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9; cf. Matthew 5:31,32).
I believe that marital unfaithfulness is a divinely permitted grounds for divorce. In Old Testament Law, adultery (a clear case of marital unfaithfulness), ended the marriage because it was a capital offense.
- Deuteronomy 22:22 “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.”
- Leviticus 20:10 “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”
Adultery under Old Testament Law ends the marital relationship by death. The disciples of Jesus lived under Roman rule and could not exercise rights of capital punishment. Perhaps Jesus’ teaching is a way of honoring the original intention of the Law of God. All views on divorce and remarriage agree that if your mate dies, you are free to remarry.
Reasons for Divorce
- Adultery (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
- Neglect and abandonment (Exodus 21:10-11; affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15)
“The Ancient Near East was a cruel place for women, as many of its laws showed. King Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon around 1800 BC, is famous for his eight-foot monument carved with 282 laws. None of these helped when a husband walked out without leaving support for his wife and family, and they made things worse by allowing him to come back at any time (law 36). Imagine what this meant: your husband goes to the next town with some friends and the report comes back that he has fallen in love with a pretty young woman and won’t be coming back. You have the land but, as a single woman, no one to work it. Your children are young and an enormous responsibility, and you have no means of support. But no one will marry you. Why? Because at any moment—even after years and years—your husband could return and claim his land (which has just become useful), his kids (who have been brought up by another man) as economically-useful workers, and his wife. The law was fairer in Israel. A man who wanted to leave his wife had to write her a certificate of divorce: When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her… he writes her a certificate of divorce. (Deut 24:1)
This may not seem like much to us, but it was an enormous thing. This meant that she was free to remarry anyone whom she pleased in safety. In other words, divorce is allowed. But this verse, Deuteronomy 24:1, also became an enormous problem. While the Old Testament is clear that only the victim of broken marital responsibilities may divorce, a new school of thought began in 30 AD, right around the time of Jesus’ ministry, when Rabbi Hillel invented the causeless divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1 says literally that a man may divorce his wife for ‘a cause of sexual immorality’, and Hillel argued that since every word in Scripture is significant, this superfluous word ‘a cause’ must refer to another, different ground for divorce: that is ‘any cause’. So, according to the Hillelite school, there were two causes for divorce: sexual immorality, which you had to prove in court; or any cause, which you could simply issue a certificate for.
It’s this latter case that we see Joseph doing in Matthew 1:19 when he discovers Mary is pregnant, presumably with someone else’s child: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly”. (By the way, this puts paid to the notion that first century Jews were gullible folk who habitually believed their God impregnated virgin teenage girls.) However, Hillel was opposed by Rabbi Shammai, who argued that Deuteronomy does not mean ‘any cause’ and ‘sexual immorality’ but, in context, just sexual immorality. His disciples wanted to restrict divorce to only the causes for divorce that the Old Testament provides.
And so the debate came to be ‘any cause’ divorces versus ‘sexual immorality’ divorces, which is what the Pharisees are asking Jesus about in Matthew. They aren’t asking if divorce is lawful—since it clearly was—they were asking which side of the Hillelite/Shammaite debate he stood. And he is very clear: Deuteronomy does not allow divorce ‘for any reason’, but only for adultery. In the 1890s, twin female British scholars who had both been widowed set off on a tour of the Middle East, and discovered the sacred rubbish room of the Cairo Synagogue. In it they found a huge collection of early Jewish marriage contracts full of promises to honor, care for, keep, and cherish.
Other scholars have traced these back to Exodus 21, which deals with the case of a man who takes a second wife in a polygamous culture: If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money. (Exod 21:10-11)
Exodus 21 tells us that a woman is allowed to divorce her husband for failure to provide material support and conjugal love. She is free to ‘go out’. When we add this to Deuteronomy, we get three separate bases for divorce: when a spouse is in adultery, when they stop providing material support, and the withdrawal of physical affection and sex.” (M. Paget)
Permission for remarriage
When your spouse is deceased, you are free to remarry (Rom 7:2-3; I Corinthians 7:39). Beyond this, Jesus assumed remarriage in his teaching in Matthew 19:9 when he added the phrase “and marries another…” A divorce obtained for reasons other than marital unfaithfulness, according to Jesus, makes remarriage an adulterous relationship. Jesus’ words should be understood as a provision not a prescription or command. This is an important distinction because Scripture does prescribe forgiveness and reconciliation as the highest ethical calling for the believer. Since believers have been forgiven by God of their sins and reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Christ, they should first seek to forgive and be reconciled when sinned against. Therefore, even in cases of unfaithfulness, the prescription of forgiveness and reconciliation should be pursued first. Yet having said this, Jesus does make a clear provision for divorce and remarriage in cases of marital unfaithfulness.
I Corinthians 7:13-16 — When a believer is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.
“And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (NASB–a better translation I Corinthians 7:13-16) While it appears that the text makes provision for divorce and remarriage, I do not believe it is the primary purpose of it.
A key question focuses on the meaning of the phrases “not bound in such circumstances” and “God has called us to live in peace.” Although many jump quickly to a provision for divorce in this text, the emphasis is on staying together not divorcing (see: vv. 12-13). The key to this interpretation is the “But….For” construction from verses 15 to 16. Unfortunately, the NIV does not retain the exactness of the Greek structure as the NASB does.
In verse 15,– “But” –that is, “in contrast with leaving” —- “God has called us to peace”-– that is, ”seeking to stay together.” This way of interpreting the text is strengthened by the “For” of v. 16 which focuses on potential spiritual influence through ongoing contact and relationship.
The NIV gives the impression that “God has called us to peace” means “you don’t have to live in the bondage of a marriage to an unbeliever.” But, while the text makes a provision for separation, one should not use it as a blank check for divorce and remarriage. Instead, the emphasis is on the believing spouse seeking to reach the unbelieving spouse with the gospel: Verse 16 —“For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”
“Not under bondage” does indicate an allowance for marital separation, which in the text, is the choice of the unbeliever to abandon the marriage. But, based on the rest of the text, it would not be right to stretch this to a “just let him go” attitude without some kind of effort to preserve and protect the union—with the aim of Christian witness.
The text simply does not go on to explain where the marriage itself “ends up.” This is where pastoral counseling must do a case by case evaluation and include application of other biblical principles. It could be the case that a believer is abandoned by an unbeliever and the believer has done all he/she can to preserve the marriage. We (the Church) must not jump to superficial judgments when hearing of a separation.
Many who endure the unhappiness of a failing marriage see divorce as their only option. Yet while obtaining a divorce is relatively easy, it almost always results in an emotional bombshell. No matter how much anticipated and planned, divorce is more difficult and painful than imagined. On a personal level, it rouses guilt, anger and insecurity while shattering self-confidence.
Socially, it complicates interpersonal relationships — especially when children are involved. Financially, it is usually a lose-lose arrangement. Don’t be fooled. Divorce is never an easy solution to a troubled marriage.
Yet if divorce is difficult for marriage partners, it’s far worse for children caught in the middle. In some cases marital separation is a necessary first step in saving a marriage. This is especially true where a clear pattern of abuse exists including substance abuse, severe financial irresponsibility, unending emotional and/or verbal abuse, psychological breakdown and abrogation of marital commitments.
Each case must be weighed based on its own set of circumstances and level of severity. For church leaders, it is often tedious and time consuming to discern the whole truth about the condition of a marriage. In most cases, meetings with both parties separately and together are essential for complete assessment. This takes time—something those in crisis don’t feel they have. But marital demise usually involves extended patterns of neglect and alienation intertwined with self-deception and selfish behavior. This fact, along with the high levels of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, makes the road to reconciliation difficult.
Leaders must be aware of patterns of deceit and selfishness that often color individual perspectives on failing marriages. Seeking the truth requires time, patience and wisdom. When Couples are in crisis mode, they often expect help and answers immediately. Sometimes crisis intervention must come first. But leaders must not be drawn into hasty reactions or conclusions based on the desperate state of the marriage.
Marital failure will sometimes occur within churches and people often turn to a Church for help regarding their maritial problems. When marriages fail in a Church, pastors must resist the temptation of reacting in a way that is more concerned with their image in the eyes of the congregation. Church members must be encouraged to respect the thoughtful process pastors apply when trying to handle matters wisely. They must be encouraged to pray for their leaders and avoid jumping to conclusions about circumstances in the at-risk marriage.
Hard and fast conclusions are not always immediately available and judgments based on appearance or Church talk should be avoided. The Church must also realize that while pastors help troubled marriages, they carry many other responsibilities that cannot be neglected. Pastors are also limited on what they can ethically share with other members of the congregation.
Sometimes when marriages reach a crisis level, structured separation becomes necessary. This type of separation should involve seven components.
- A specific purpose statement for separation related to the problems in the marriage. This could also include a signed covenant.
- A set of specific and measurable goals for husbands and wives.
- A projected time frame that does not allow for indefinite separation.
- A study on biblical themes of forgiveness and reconciliation (see my booklet).
- Reading “Hope for the Separated” by Gary Chapman
- A built in accountability with Church leaders and/or a counselor/mentor.
- A small support team to pray for the marriage and offer tangible help.
Divorce – not the unforgivable sin
Divorce for wrong reasons is serious but not the unforgivable sin. It can be forgiven through our Savior’s sacrificial death for our sins. Repentance will involve not only seeking forgiveness from God but also seeking reconcilation with an ex-spouse and, if possible restoring a marriage.
If a divorced person becomes a member of the church, he or she must understand that remarriage will only be blessed by the church when the circumstances prior to the divorce, or following the divorce, align with biblical provisions for divorce and remarriage.