Christians sometimes find it difficult to make a specifically Christian assessment of the various circumstances of life. This is particularly so in regard to the three fundamental forms of life: marriage, work, and society. Martin Luther recognized and stressed these spheres of community as being the natural forms of human life intended by the Creator within which it was possible to serve and glorify God. In The Divine Imperative Brunner points out that these forms of community or orders of creation are all “independent of faith, and of the love which flows from faith.… Their nature and their existence are recognized by means of reason, not by faith” (Lutterworth, 1953, p. 335).

Luther himself was particularly sensitive to the medieval notion that by renouncing the normal patterns and following a religious vocation one could graduate from works of “obligation” to works of “supererogation,” from the “precepts,” to be fulfilled by all, to the “counsels,” to be fulfilled by only a privileged few. On the contrary, Luther insisted, within the orders of creation we find our vocation and glorify God. Marriage, as one of these fundamental forms of community, is not just a concession to human weakness but a proper and honorable vocation within which the imitation of Christ is both possible and necessary. As one modern writer has said,

Our Lord had but one vocation—to be the agent of God’s saving work for men. It was a vocation universal in its significance which precluded any private vocation. We have our private vocations, our husbands, it may be, and fathers, and have our professional or business responsibilities. We have to seek to be faithful in our callings as he was faithful to his, but we may not copy his acts as if our vocation were identical with his [S. Cave, The Christian Way, Nisbet, 1955, p. 153].

Before we leave this general topic of the orders of creation, we need to hear the important reminder of Brunner that human sin has affected both our understanding of these orders and also their historic form:

They are created by the natural psychophysical powers of men; but this does not mean that they have been created aright, in accordance with the Divine Will.… Marriage, family life, and the education of children exist outside the range of the influence of the Christian revelation. But the clear knowledge of “right” marriage, of the “right” estimate of the value of children, the “right” aim of education is not a universal possession of human reason.… The most important task of a Christian ethic of society is that of throwing light upon the relation between the natural existence and understanding of the existing forms of community, and the Divine Will, perceived by faith [The Divine Imperative, pp. 335, 336].

In other words, as Christians enlightened by the biblical word we recognize the presence of a distortion passing right through creation, not least through those very forms within which we are called to live. In their present form, as Brunner again reminds us, “they witness quite as much to human sin … as to the divine creation.”

The Bible makes no apology for the fact that our existence is a bodily one. It does not share either the Greek philosophic contempt for the body or the same society’s obvious fascination with the human form. The body is neither despised as an encumbrance nor gloried in as though it were the vehicle and sphere of ultimate experience. Therefore, within the biblical perspective, the extremes of asceticism or indulgence will never express the proper use of our bodies. We are created a psychophysical unity, and throughout the Bible the dissolution of this unity is not contemplated. Our bodies, says St. Paul, are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), and “the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead … shall also quicken your mortal bodies … (Rom. 8:11). Although we cannot foresee the character of our ultimate futures, we are assured by the resurrection of Jesus that we shall enjoy an embodied mode of existence appropriate to the final purposes of God (1 Cor. 15:35–38, 42–44).

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We exist also in a state of sexual polarity. “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). Here again the Bible preserves the balance between fear and fixation—between self-denial and self-gratification.

Sexual polarity in the Bible has a twofold purpose. First, it is unitive. This fact is illustrated in Genesis 2:18–25. Man is made not for isolation but for companionship and fellowship. The woman fulfills this role. The man and the woman complement and fulfill each other, and the unity of the two finds its perfect physical expression in the act of coition. The Bible indicates that the sexual union consummated in this physical way is a primary expression of God’s will for creatures made in his image, and it must not be subject to interference from outside (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5, 6). No finer expression of this unitive desire between the sexes can be found within the Bible than the memorable lyrics of the Song of Songs. It is always a mistake to allegorize this part of the Old Testament. The Song of Songs witnesses to the possibility of an intense and pure union between two lovers (cf. Gen. 2:23, 24) and stands as a permanent rebuke to those who would distort human affections and responses in an attempt to achieve a purer religion.

Second, sexual polarity is procreative. The very act that is the physical expression of union and is also, therefore, a means of improving and deepening this union is the act that makes possible the bearing of children. Thus coition is not only unitive but also procreative in its divine intention (Gen. 1:27, 28). This does not mean that every act of coition must have conception as a goal or that the possibility of conception should always be allowed to exist; it does mean that the generative aspect is an irrevocable part of the character of coition, and it strongly underlines the biblical teaching that coition belongs only to that context within which the bearing and rearing of children is possible—that is, a union of a man and a woman that is intended to be permanent. As this is also the logical requirement of the unitive character of sexual polarity, the inappropriateness of sexual consummation outside a permanent union is doubly clear.

At least five aspects of marriage call for comment. The first is the centrality of consent. The essence of the marriage contract is the consent of the two parties to unify their lives. Stuart Barton Babbage writes clearly on this:

There has been frequent debate as to whether consent or consummation constitutes the “essence” of marriage. According to the dictum of Ulpian it is consent, not cohabitation, that makes a marriage. This view was incorporated into the canon law of the Church and is reflected in the Church’s marriage service. The intention of the parties to live together in lifelong fidelity and love is expressed by the public exchange of vows: “Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?” And the simple, affirmative answer is “I will.” An identical question is then addressed to the bride with the additional requirement of obedience [Sex and Sanity, Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, p. 41].
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“Consummation,” he adds, “is the proper consequence of consent: it is the secret ratification and confirmation by the man and the woman of the public vow and covenant between them made.” This means that where there is this consent, the essence of the marriage of the two people has been fulfilled. Society may, of course, prohibit certain unions by law, and it may ask all who exchange their consents to declare their intentions publicly and have their marriages registered (both for the clarification of social administration and for the safeguarding of the lives and union of the couples concerned and any children they may have), but this public affirmation is not itself part of the essence of marriage. Neither religion nor priest nor ceremony of any kind (religious or otherwise) belongs to the essence of marriage. This means that where there is a legitimate union of two lives lacking the sanction of society (“de facto marriages”) the essence of marriage is present. The only “sin” of this “living in sin” is the deliberate forfeiting of safeguards and advantages that society provides and that true love and concern would, or should, certainly want.

We turn now to motives. Marriage, approved by the state, is that form of association between a man and a woman within which it is possible and right to pursue a full union of persons and within which it is both possible and right (normally) to bear children and raise a family. The Bible also indicates that it is the proper sphere within which to find sexual release and fulfillment (1 Cor. 7:9). In St. Paul’s discussion of this motive for marriage, he takes for granted the readiness for family responsibilities that this obviously entails, and he stresses the need for mutual consideration between marriage partners before he recommends matrimony as a haven for unruly sexual drives (1 Cor. 7:1–9). (John Calvin’s remark, “It is one thing to burn, it is another to feel heat,” is worth noting.)

A third aspect of this many-sided topic of marriage is monogamy. It is plain in the light of biblical teaching that God’s ideal for marriage is monogamy. This is the clear implication of Genesis 2, and it is of the very nature of love between the sexes that it excludes a third person. “Genuine love,” says Brunner, “is single-minded—indeed that is its power. Genuine love … always feels: ‘it is with this particular person that I wish to live alone and for always’ ” (The Divine Imperative, p. 347). The monogamous logic of love is further strengthened by the structural relationships brought about by childbearing. Brunner speaks of this as a “trinity of being.” He says, “The seeing eyes of all three, our mutual knowledge of one another and of this relation, holds us firmly to one another.” Where, of course, as in parts of the Old Testament, we come across instances of polygamy, we recognize the tendency of the procreative motive in marriage to dominate at the expense of the unitive motive. But whether this was always the case or not, the Old Testament record of polygamy is rarely without its tensions and sorrows.

A further consideration arising from our biblical understanding of marriage is the importance of fidelity. It is clearly intertwined with love and inseparable from it in a properly fulfilled union. Love in the vigor of its initial enthusiasm readily pledges its fidelity, but it is this pledge of fidelity that generally makes possible the continuation and maturation of love. Again, Brunner’s words are good:

Through the marriage vows the feeling of love is absorbed into the personal will; this alone provides the guarantee to the other party which justifies the venture of such a life companionship. Marriage which is based only upon love is inevitably accompanied by the fear that love may fade, and thus by fear of the dissolution of the marriage; it may even be accompanied by something still worse (which owing to the imperfect nature of natural love, is not infrequent)—a secret reckoning on the possibility of freedom to contract another union, should this one prove unsatisfying. “Companionate marriage” or “experimental marriage” is never true marriage, because it lacks the most essential element, that is, the obligation to be faithful [The Divine Imperative, pp. 357, 358].
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He continues:

It is a mistake to say: “If the love is genuine, it will be permanent!” That is simply bad psychology. Of course love, as a fact of nature, means, “intends,” to last forever, but it cannot guarantee its permanence … The spiritual, personal sense of being bound causes natural love, which is in itself unstable, to become stable; it is this, and not the rare exception of a naturally permanent inexhaustible energy of love, which is the secret of a “happy” marriage [p. 360].

Fidelity is one of the great characteristics of God. He is the “faithful one” who “keeps covenant with his people,” and this characteristic God expects in his people also (Num. 30:2; cf. Mal. 2:14–16).

Our last subject within this discussion of the marriage bond is that of order within the family. Paul’s pronouncement about our unity in Christ (Gal. 3:28) is not intended to exclude the various roles and functions that we fulfill within life. The man and the woman differ in physical strength and in psychological approach and in generative function. The husband is intended to protect and provide for his wife. There is, according to the New Testament, an order within marriage. “The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). This is spoken of more fully in Ephesians 5:23–25: “The husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.”

This then is the pattern. The lordship of the husband is to be patterned on the lordship of Christ (cf. John 13:13–15). Lordship within marriage, says Babbage, means “not aggressive domination but humble service. It means eager and solicitous concern for the happiness and welfare of the other. The wife, for her part, is to respond to her husband’s loving concern with cheerful obedience” (Sex and Sanity, p. 41).

The marriage bond, as St. Paul recognizes, is the human earthly symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:25–33). Christ, the Last Adam, awaits his Eve in the Paradise of God (Rev. 2:7). It is not God’s will that his Son should stand alone! The heavenly future prospect of the unified people of God gathered around Christ, the Head and Saviour of his body and bride, the Church, does not envisage the continuation of the earthly marriage relationship (Matt. 22:30). Like many other gifts and privileges in this life, marriage belongs to those things that are “in part” and will be “done away” when “that which is perfect is come” (1 Cor. 13:10).

Despite the blueprint for marriage in the Bible, marriages do, in fact, break down. The Law of Moses recognized this in the Old Testament (Deut. 24:1–4). The provision for divorce was limited in at least two ways: A man could not divorce a wife whom he had accused falsely of unchastity before her marriage (Deut. 22:13–19), nor a wife whom he had been forced to marry after ravishing her (Deut. 22:28, 29; cf. Exod. 22:16, 17). The divorced wife could remarry, but she could not marry a priest (Lev. 21:7, 14), nor could she remarry her former husband if she had consummated a union with another man in the meantime.

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In the Old Testament God reveals himself as the faithful husband of Israel (e.g., Ezek. 16, Hosea) whose fidelity to the covenant agreement brings salvation and renewal to his people. God, who hates the betrayal of oaths (Num. 30:2), is particularly severe in his complaint against those who betray their wives (Mal. 2:14–16). Against the background of this fact, the permission of Deuteronomy 24 notwithstanding, it is somewhat incongruous that by the time of the New Testament era the influential rabbinical school of Hillel was condoning divorce for almost any reason a man might care to nominate. The school of Shammai, on the other hand, restricted the grounds of divorce to unchastity in the wife.

The sayings of Jesus on the matter of divorce are found in Matthew 5:31, 32 and 19:3–12; Mark 10:2–12, and Luke 16:18. Those in Matthew are the same as the one in Luke except for the exceptive clause, while the saying in Mark, though it shares the occasion in common with Matthew 19, refers to the wife as initiating the divorce.

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.” The exception found here (Matt. 19:9) and in Matthew 5:32 has been a subject of much dispute. Some scholars regard it as a later insertion—an early attempt to modify the “new law” of Jesus by permitting the major marital offense of the Old Testament as a ground of divorce. Others regard it as original and part of a pronouncement that does, in fact, endorse the views of Shammai (compare Matthew 19:3 with Mark 10:2 for different forms of the initial question), or regard it as original but referring to an act of adultery or fornication prior to the marriage that would make the woman an adulteress if she were to consummate a marriage with someone other than the previous partner. She belongs to her former lover. Still others regard the exception as genuine and as being the only ground that makes a remarriage (as distinct from a divorce) possible. The possibility that all the sayings are authentic pronouncements of Jesus belonging to different occasions can certainly be maintained. As for the narratives in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, if the question in Matthew 19:3 is thought to be more probable than the one in Mark 10:2, then the case for the genuineness of the exceptive clause is strengthened.

Jesus’ words may be understood in several ways. (1) They may be interpreted as deliberately revising the law of Deuteronomy 24 by excluding divorce or remarriage altogether (Mark, Luke), or as excluding divorce and remarriage except where adultery is involved (Matthew), or as permitting divorce (i.e., separation), but not remarriage (Mark, Luke)—except on grounds of adultery (Matthew). (2) They may be regarded as teaching an ideal of total prohibition of divorce that was modified by the early Church (Matthew), either as a maximum concession (adultery) or just as one ground, thereby conceding the possibility of further modifications in the light of Matthew 19:11, 12. (3) They may be regarded not as a fresh piece of legislation replacing the old but as an exposition of the “ideal” (Gen. 2:24 f.) against which all our actions (including those within the law) may be judged. All divorces and remarriages are the rupturing of an ideal, a frustration of the monogamous and unitive pattern that affirms the antithetical pattern of adultery—of simultaneous (i.e., within the lifetime of the original partners) alternative unions. (When adultery has already occurred, the breach in the divine pattern has already taken place [cf. 1 Cor. 6:15, 16]. This would support the possible authenticity of the exceptive clause in Matthew 5 and 19.)

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Jesus allows that human sin being what it is, the alternative pattern is tolerated under the Law; but by reiterating the ideal (also in the Law) he thrusts his audience into the position where they must see if their reluctance to fulfill the ideal is due to a “hardness of heart” for which they can offer no excuse but ought, on the contrary, to repent, and press toward the ideal. Hardness of heart continues, and so does divorce as its remedy. But all this falls below the ideal and is judged by it. Human laws are, in part, concessions to fallen nature. The ideal lists our assessment of the actual and makes us realize that even when we are legally innocent we may be actually guilty before God. Jesus, here as elsewhere, does not legislate but confronts us with the divine pattern and says, in effect, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In First Corinthians 7:9–17 the Apostle addresses himself to Christians living under the word of God and seeking to realize, therefore, the ideals of God in their lives. Paul’s command, based on Jesus’ perspective in Matthew 19, is that there should be no divorce and remarriage (vv. 9–11). Both parties should work toward union, not dissolution. To the mixed marriages, however, Paul does not believe that he has the same right of appeal. The unbeliever does not endorse the divine pattern and cannot be made to act on the basis of something he does not accept as true. If the unbeliever is content to stay, all is well; but if he leaves (“to depart” probably implies divorce), then the believer should not contest the issue or struggle to save an impossible relationship (vv. 12–17). One can only assume that where there is a divorce arising from this latter situation, the believer is at liberty to make up his own mind about remarriage in the light of Matthew 19 and such realities as First Corinthians 7:9.

It seems that at least three lines of action follow from the above discussion. First, there is a pressing need for Christians and churches to instruct their families and congregations about the Christian understanding of marriage and to encourage the pursuit of this ideal despite the different standards that our society condones.

Second, there is a continuing need to inform society about Christian ideals but in a context that makes it clear that the Christian message is not just an ethical exhortation—it is a call to repentance and an offer of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. Within this context it needs to be pointed out that the prevalence of divorce in our societies is not just a sign of human “frailty” but also a sign of human “sin.” Our generation needs to hear the words of the Reformation homily:

For this folly is ever from our tender age grown up with us, to have a desire to rule, to think highly of ourself, so that none thinketh it meet to give place to another. That wicked vice of stubborn will and self-love is more meet to break and dissever the love of heart, than to preserve concord. Wherefore married persons must apply their minds in most earnest wise to concord, and must crave continually of God the help of his Holy Spirit, so to rule their hearts and to knit their minds together, that they be not dissevered by any division of discord [“An Homily of the State of Matrimony” from Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to Be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, London: SPCK, 1851, p. 535].

Repentance, forgiveness, and prayer are all instruments of remedy of which we hear too little in our unsettled times.

Third, there is a strong need for many churches or denominations to make realistic decisions about the remarrying of divorced people and the reception of divorced and remarried individuals and couples into the life of the congregation. No one would suggest that such decisions are easily made, but too often the possibility of making them has been complicated either by the view of marriage as a sacrament or by the assumption that Jesus rescinded the right of divorce laid down in Deuteronomy 24. Yet even when these confusions are removed, there remains a tension between the individual case and the general standards and truths to which a church witnesses in its institutional forms.

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