By J. C. Wenger


The Permanence of Marriage 

How tragically does the modem world violate the clear teaching of the New Testament on the permanence of marriage! We have already noted that the purpose of the Christian hone is to add to human happiness by fulfilling the human need for security, love, and companionship; and also to provide a godly environment in which to rear those children with which God normally blesses a home. Certainly we may also say that the Christian home should be a unit of love, peace, and godly faith in the midst of a wicked society. In only one way can these purposes of the Christian home be realized: that is by a faithful keeping of one's marriage vows until death. And that is precisely the teaching of Christ and the apostles. In Matthew 5 we read: "It was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery" [Matt, 5:31, 32]. Jesus repeats In Matthew 19: "Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it hath not been so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery" [Matt. 19:8, 9]. In this case the great uncial manuscripts vary slightly, particularly on the inclusion of the last clause: 'and he that marrieth, her when she is put away committeth adultery," possibly a paraphrase of Matt. 5:32b. This phrase is found in Manuscript Vaticanus and others but is omitted in several other codice, including Sinaiticus.] This is also repeated in Mark's Gospel: "Jesus said unto them, For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. Hut from the beginning of the creation, Male and female made he them. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh: so that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God bath joined together, let not man put asunder . Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her: and if she herself shall put away her husband, and marry another, she committeth adultery"[Mark 10:5-12]. It is also repeated in Luke 16: "Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth one that is put away from a husband committeth adultery" [Luke 6:18].

Romans 7 teaches the same doctrine: "For the woman that hath a husband is bound by law to the husband while he liveth; but if the husband die, she is discharged from the law of the husband. So then if, while the husband liveth, she be joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if the husband die, she is free from the law, so that she is no adulteress, though she be joined to another man" [Rom. 7:2, 3].

It is absolutely clear in the above passages that only two factors can sever the marriage bond: (1) death, which confers the right of remarriage, and (2) adultery, which clearly entitles the innocent one to abandon the sinner (the except clause occurs only in the Jewish Gospel of Matthew, and applies to breaking of the engagement, i.e. 1:18, 19): although it should be added that the general teaching of the Scripture of forgiveness would certainly not force the innocent companion to separate from the one who had fallen if the transgressor would be penitent and would desire to return and be faithful to the one wronged.

The official position of a number of Protestant churches, a view which was apparently shared by the Swiss Brethren of the sixteenth century, [See the Swiss Brethren tract, "Concerning Divorce," The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Goshen, Indiana, xx, 1, 2 (April, 1947), 114-119.] and by some Mennonites of the nineteenth century, [John Umble: "Early Conditions Leading to General Conference," The Mennonite Quarterly Review, III, 1 (January, 1929).] was that the innocent party in the case of a broken union due to adultery, was entitled to remarry. Indeed, considerable plausibility can be made out for this point of view by arguing from the exception given in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19. But the fact remains that nowhere in the New Testament is it explicitly stated that anyone with a companion still living is freely entitled to remarry. On the contrary a number of Scriptures suggest the opposite. We have already noted a number of these, for example. Mark 10, Luke 16, and Romans 7. In I Corinthians we read also: "A wife is bound for so long time as her husband liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is free to be married to whom she will; only In the Lord" [I Cor. 7:39].


It should also be noted that although the Law of Moses granted a man the right to divorce a woman without any clear limitation of grounds for such action, and although the Lord Jesus justified a man in putting away his unfaithful wife, it is no longer the prerogative of an individual Christian man to grant his wife a formal writing of divorcement. Today, in most countries at least an individual can secure a divorce only from the courts of the land and by suing at the law. In view of the New Testament prohibition of litigation [I Cor. 6:1-8] it would therefore appear ethically impossible possible for a nonresistant Christian to secure a divorce. It does not follow however that he would be obligated to live with a wicked and impenitent sinner against the wishes of the unsaved person. This point is also clearly set forth in I Corinthians [I Cor. 7:12-15]. The apostle permits, even encourages, the Christian to continue dwelling with an unbelieving companion unless the unbeliever insists on terminating the marriage union. Paul also seems to allow an unhappy wife to leave her husband, but specifically proscribes remarriage as long as he lives [I Cor. 7:10-11]. It should also be noted that the New Testament prohibits absolutely a Christian marrying a non-Christian." [I Cor. 7:39].

The question is entirely apropos (appropriate), What disposition should be made of unscriptural marriages? It is admitted on all hands that this is an unpleasant question to face, and not all Christian churches are able to agree in detail. Following is the line of thought which has convinced many earnest Christians that it is a sin to maintain a union when either partner has a former companion still living.

The question may fairly be asked, How can the Christian Church maintain its witness on the permanence of monogamy while allowing the continuance of unscriptural unions? While it is true that one can always be forgiven upon repentance, is it not also the case that true penitence involves ceasing from sin? If we take into account the teaching of Jesus that the woman who has sinfully separated from her husband and married another is guilty of adultery in her second union, and that the man who has married her is also guilty of adultery, how would it be possible for those who are penitent for their sin, to persist in their sinful union? The adulteress would be guilty of continually breaking the seventh commandment, because in the eyes of God she is still the wife of her first companion. And the man who married the adulteress would also be living in sin with her who in the sight of God is the wile of another man. If it be objected at this point that it seems cruel for the law of God to demand the breaking up of the home of those who are happily married, it should be remembered that the sin of rejecting God's law is great, and also that in this life one reaps what one sows. There is no way to escape this reaping. And no price is too great to pay to be in the will of God. Again we must remind ourselves that the Bible nowhere explicitly grants the right to continue an unscriptural union. On the contrary two cases point the other way, that of Herod, and that of the Samaritan woman.

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great by Marianne. Herod Antipas first married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Arabia. After becoming infatuated with Herodias, wife of his half brother Herod Philip, he dismissed the daughter of Axetas and took his sister-in-law to be his wife. According to Mark, John the Baptist repeatedly protested [This is the force of the Greek tense employed for "said."] to Herod saying, "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife" [Mark 6:18]. Herodias there upon incited her second husband to imprison John, which he did, placing 1dm in a fortress at Machaerus, near the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea. [30] The account in Mark 6 explains how Herodias finally found an opportunity to do away with the holy prophet who had been brave enough to insist that the wicked Antipas put away the woman with whom he was sinfully living. It should be noted that John did not merely ask Antipas to repent of his sin, and then to continue living with her. It is also true, however, that Tiered's sin was not altogether parallel with that of many modern persons who are legally divorced and legally remarried.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she had been married to five men and that the one with whom she was now living was not her husband. [Josephus: Antiq., xviii, 5, 2. Cited in Davis-Gehman: The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible. (1944), 319]. This case is not as clear as that of Herod Antipas and Herodias. It is possible that Jesus means that the Samaritan woman was living with man in a common-law union without ever having formally been married to him. It may also mean that the Samaritan woman was married to a man whose former wife was still living. We cannot be certain. In any case Jesus is saying that the woman had no right in the sight of God to be living with the man whose consort she then was the man whose she then was.

It is the responsibility of the Christian Church to hold before society will of God that marriage is a union of one man and one woman for life, and that a what God hath joined together let not man put asunder." But that is not all. In humility and love the church must seek to help those whose lives are blighted and broken by sin. The New Testament is not a legal code providing an easy solution to every sin men may commit. It does offer a way of salvation to all sinners, however. The church must earnestly seek to minister to the penitent in every area of life. _________________________

From Separated unto God by John C. Wenger, published by Herald Press, Copyright 1951, renewed 1979 now available from:

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June 22, 2000