It now falls to me to summarize the work. If you found this location by scanning the Table of Contents and were tempted to get a jump on things by coming here first, resist that temptation. In some instances the positions stated here may not even be understandable without detailed explanation. At least one scholarly reviewer admitted that he substituted summary sections for reading the whole book (including footnotes) and his review was loaded with misunderstandings. If a scholar can’t understand it by reading summaries, probably no one else will either. Many if not most of the things present here will sound odd to the modern ear.
They may seem indefensible. The substantive criticisms I have received were all anticipated in the book. It is discouraging to any author to read published objections that were already answered in the book. The person who reads only the criticisms is given to believe that the criticism were both unanticipated and unanswerable. I say this not to slap at my critics, but to warn you the reader that if you have not taken the time to prepare yourself for what follows, it may not be a helpful as you suppose. So be forewarned: this is not a place to start, this is a place to finish.
One of the things I won’t be doing is applying the findings of this work to practical situations. My reason for that omission is simply length. That task must be left to another book. And that is a shame. I anticipate that many people who jump to this point will do so hoping to find readily applicable teachings, if not truths, that they can apply to their own tragic situations. It may be possible to do that to some extent, but then again, a person may misapply what they think they understand and end up in even more tragic circumstances. It is also every ethics writer’s nightmare to have someone misunderstand you, misapply your teachings, fall into sinful action, and then attribute what they have done to the author’s counsel. Mistakes made in this area can be devastating to numerous people’s futures. Which is not to say that what is found in the book can’t be applied, even by non-scholars. It is just to say that there are so many pitfalls in doing so, and great care must be taken.
What must especially be avoided is that tendency to go looking for justification for preconceived notions. Many people go to books on divorce anticipating finding justification for opinions they already hold. That is not the way I entered into writing this book and I strongly warn people from reading it that way. The purpose of this book is to help a person think through the issues and understand the different options—to be aware of pro’s and con’s regarding historical positions.
I encourage my readers to read prayerfully and with an open mind. When I was a teacher I told my students that they would not receive a good grade for agreeing with me. I consistently gave better grades to those who disagreed with me. I could tell that they were thinking. Of course I warned them that below the good grade they would find a sea of red ink responding to their objections … but that’s how good scholarship works. As the Scriptures say, “Steel sharpens steel.” In that vein, I welcome communication with my readers. My email is email@example.com.
The first chapter centered upon the question of the nature of marriage. After an analysis of the crucial terms of union (“cleave”, “one flesh”, and “join”) in Genesis 2 passage, I concluded that marriage is an organic union, but not a mystical, permanent one. Marriage ought to continue “till death parts the partners”, but nothing implies that it will do so. Intention is one thing, fact is another. Genesis (and the rest of he Bible) does not teach that marriage is an indissoluble union, it teaches that it ought to be. Sin changes things. People break commitments. Marriages are ended before they should.
In the second chapter I argued that marriage is a covenant: an agreement between two people that involves certain stated or implied obligations of each party to the other. Marriage isn’t a fuzzy, amorphous relationship. As far as the relationships go, people can pledge all kinds of things to each other, but according to God’s revealed morality, certain essentials must be pledged. For the man, these are primarily necessary physical provisions. He must not physically abuse his wife, actively (beatings) or passively (denial of the essentials: food, clothing, and the sex that give opportunity for the security provided by children). She, on the other hand, has to pledge sexual loyalty to her husband (monogamy). There is also an implied promise to be with each other. Leaving implies rejection of the vows. Marriage is a relationship where the partners pledge these things with the intention of living together with unbroken vows till death parts them.
The third chapter considered the sad facts of a fallen and finite world: marriage relationships are sometimes ended before the death of one of the partners. This sundering occurs when one of the partners intentionally breaks one the essential vows. God gave instructions regarding the treatment of covenant- breakers. Breach of the wife’s vow of faithfulness was treated with capital punishment for the offending woman and her lover. Breach of the husband’s vow of providing either by active or passive physical abuse led to the freedom of the offended wife from the marriage. One form of the latter was treacherous divorce. It was determined to be permitted by God’s law for the sake of the woman, who, doubtless, would otherwise be mistreated by her hard-hearted husband. Such divorce carried with it no approbation (moral acceptance) of the husband’s action as such, though the Law was understood to do so by later generations of Israelite interpreters, specifically the Pharisees. They turned a permission for the protection of abused wives into a right for men to end their marriages, almost at will.
The fourth chapter considered the apparent plan of God for dealing with adultery when the biblical admonitions to execute adulterers fell into disuse and later when the subjugated Israelites lost their right to execute. We found that in the divine economy divorce took on a larger disciplinary role. This expansion of role did not actually alter the earlier function of divorce in the Law, namely as a protection for abused women. In the prophets it took on a disciplinary function. But this disciplinary function was to be discharge with an aim of restoring legitimate marriages. Additionally, we noted that the act of unjust divorce was identified as treachery. This reveals that unwarranted (though) legal repudiation of the covenant is itself adulterous. If God doesn’t justify a divorce, having a legal writ won’t help you avoid God’s condemnation.
The fifth chapter considered the first part of the formal teachings of Jesus on divorce. We found in his teaching nothing really new, that He sought to clarify the old. He identified the sin of treacherous divorce as adultery. While the Pharisees considered the ending of a marriage a man’s privilege, Jesus taught that unless men had a moral ground, it was adultery. Because the term adultery had not been used to identify such ill-treatment of wives, it fell foreign on the ears of Jesus’ disciples. Nonetheless, this idea was actually well established in the writings of the prophets, especially Malachi. Jesus was simply trying to bring out the ignored and misunderstood implications of the previously revealed standard concerning marriage relations.
The sixth chapter dealt with part two of Jesus’ formal teaching, emphasizing the wickedness of a third party alienating marriage partners in order to take one of them into a new covenant. Such meddling was also pictured as a form of adultery. We did not find that all remarriage was considered adulterous, but only the kind that involved treachery, and in that case, the moral onus was construed as primarily relating to the divorce of the legitimate partner, not the remarriage as such, at least for the male Israelite. This chapter also considered informal teaching by Jesus on the subject—in a confrontation with the Pharisees over the subject of their poor stewardship of God’s law, highlighting their failure to hold Herod Antipas responsible for his abuse of his own wife (by divorcing her without grounds) and of his brother Philip (for taking her away from him and marrying her). The thrust of His teaching was, again, that anyone who sunders (that is breaks up a valid marriage) is guilty before God of having committed a form of adultery.
Chapter 7 concluded the study of the teachings of Jesus by considering another confrontation of Jesus and the Pharisees. This time instigated by them. They pushed to see if Jesus would affirm any right of a man to put his wife away, but Jesus responded by telling them that God would not support any marriage breakup. The only divorces that God allowed were those where the wife had previously broken her marriage vows. Hearing that men could not in any way unilaterally end their marriages, but were dependent on the wife ending it by her sin, even Jesus’ disciples were surprised and wondered if getting married in the first place was wise. Jesus’ response was to tell them, sarcastically, that they didn’t need to worry about the moral requirements of marriage if they didn’t plan on getting married. Of course if not, then they weren’t going to enjoy the positive values of marriage either.
Paul’s writings were analyzed beginning in chapter 8. His agreement with Jesus’ teaching was observed, but we also noted that in application Paul went “beyond” what Jesus had expressly taught to speak to issues facing the Corinthian church: what should be the relation of a convert to an unsaved spouse? Yet, the advice given did not differ from the principles of the oracles previously given, either by Jesus or in the Old Testament. The Apostle taught that desertion (most likely involving divorce) of a believer by their unconverted partner, ended the marriage obligations of the castoff Christian.
Continuing our study of Paul in the ninth chapter, we evaluated his words to the “unmarried.” We concluded that Paul advised singleness for the times, but allowed single people to marry. This included the remarriage of those single as a result of a justifiable divorce. Paul not only spoke to the singles themselves, he also gave advice to those controlling singles, specifically wavering guardians (of young women—that being the custom of the day), reminding them that marriage is intended to be permanent—warning them not first to give permission then to withdraw it. This chapter not only considered the remainder of Paul’s teachings to the Corinthian church, we also looked at his references to marriage in his letter to the church at Rome. Though often used to prove that Paul considered marriage permanent, it was determined that the use to which Paul puts marriage in Chapter 7, made it irrelevant to establishing that point. We saw that Paul was actually telling his reader how to get out of a valid marriage (to the Law) in order to marry someone else (Christ).
The tenth chapter weighed allegations that certain Pauline and Petrine texts indirectly stand against all divorce and remarriage. Harmonizations were offered to show how prior conclusion fit such concepts as love and submission in marriage. That chapter also analyzed the biblical texts dealing with qualifications for Church leadership. Against the interpretation that all divorced and/or remarried persons are excluded from office by such texts, we found no impediment to them per se, but only where unrepentant immorality existed.
This study led to the following conclusions: First, marriage is a covenant that should not be broken. It should be a relationship that continues until one of the partners dies. However it is not ontologically permanent. That means that though it should not be broken (a moral issue), it may be broken (a matter of fact). Marriage by believers is to be with partners who are also believers. It is a covenant that should be entered into not only with seriousness regarding the partners per se, but also with regard to the matter of serving the Lord. Singleness is preferable, but if the parties understand themselves and know that they will net more service for God by being married, then that is preferable. Marriages between believers and unbelievers are of questionable validity. The determining factor is the knowledge and willfulness of the union at its outset. Such marriages covenanted when the believing party knew both that their partner was an unbeliever and that God rejected such union, is itself invalid in the eyes of God, though it may be valid according to prevailing law. It should be ended. However, if the believing party had no say in the marriage (e.g., where the prevailing law allowed an arranged marriage), or if the believe was unaware of God’s law or the true beliefs of their pledged partner, then the marriage should not be ended insofar as it was not an rejection of God’s moral principles when contracted. Homosexual/lesbian marriages and marriages within the prescribed limits of incest are not recognized by God on the moral level and any legal fiction involving them must be ended if God is to be honored.
Second, since marriage is a covenant, it involves certain terms or obligations. The Scripture itself sets out those that God requires: for the husband, he must provide for the wife’s essential needs (food, clothing, and security) and must not physically abuse her (e.g., strike her). While monogamy was not required of men in biblical times, living in a world of STDs and AIDS makes philandering a life-threatening matter as well as a sin against God. Exclusiveness by the make should also be considered an essential promise by him. For the wife, she must remain physically exclusive to him and must not physically abuse him. Neither has a right to leave the marriage relationship—desertion. While monogamy was not required of husbands in biblical times, it is a part of the prevailing laws of many lands and should be respected.
Third, if these minimal vows are broken, the covenant is broken, by definition as in fact. To be specific, if the husband life-enabling obligations are replaced by life-threatening ones, such as physical harm (e.g., blows that leave sustained damage) or intentional neglect of her essential life-sustaining needs (provision of food, clothing or security) he has breached the covenant with her. Likewise he threatens her health or life by sexual relations with others. That too is breach. If the wife has sexual relations with others, or if she physically abuses her husband (e.g., striking him such that sustained damage occurs) she has broken the covenant with him. If either leaves the marriage relationship (passively by desertion or actively by divorce) without grounds, they have broken covenant. Such breach ends the moral responsibilities of the innocent partner to continue fulfilling his or her vows, though the “legal fiction” of marriage may remain.
Fourth, when breach has occurred, the innocent party may exercise their right to end the legal fiction by divorce according to the prevailing laws of the land. This act is seen as defensive, as well as a disciplinary. It is defensive insofar as the innocent party is no longer held responsible before law for the actions of the guilty. Nor is the innocent party required to remain in such a state where the guilty can cause further danger to them. It is disciplinary in the sense that it serves notice to the guilty party that they have committed a serious sin and need to confess their wrong, repent of it, and seek restoration.
Fifth, the innocent party has the moral obligation to forgive, if they discern that the confession and repentance is sincere. They should also make some effort toward restoration, but they do not necessarily have a moral obligation to reestablish the legal relationship. Unlike God, who has complete knowledge of all people’s future actions as well as their hearts, humans only know with probability and on the basis of evidence. The innocent party has a right to make an evaluation of the situation and decide what is the likely outcome of restoration, and the likely condition the forgiven party’s heart. That decision should remain a matter between the innocent party and God. In the case of believers divorced unjustly by unbelievers, restoration is not required. On the other hand, the guilty party has the moral obligation to repent, seek forgiveness and restoration.
Sixth, the innocent party has the right to establish a new legal covenant with someone else where reconciliation is either unlikely or impossible. The guilty party likewise has the option of a new relationship if the restoration of the prior legal relationship is now out of the question (by the remarriage of the innocent party to someone else, if the innocent party refuses to be remarried, or has died).
Seventh, the innocently divorced should not be treated as sinners but should have full respect as brothers and sisters in Christ, including in matters of church leadership. The guilty as well, when their moral business of confession, repentance and restoration has been finished, should be treated like all forgiven sinners, including in matters of church leadership.