Why the argument for equal marriage undermines itself.

Introduction – the campaign for equal marriage

Last week a new campaign was launched in the Church of England to ‘enable same-gender couples to be married in Church of England parishes.’ The name of this campaign is ‘Equal’ and it describes itself as ‘The campaign for equal marriage in the Church of England.’[1]

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by this campaign is not a novelty. It is in fact merely echoing the language used by those who successfully campaigned for the introduction of civil same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland and who are currently campaigning for its introduction in Northern Ireland.

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by both secular and religious campaigners for same-sex marriage reflects the force that arguments based on the principle of equality have in British society and across the Western world as a whole. The implicit argument evoked by the use of the word ‘equal’ by campaigners for same-sex marriage runs as follows:

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is an example of equality;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

In the remainder of this post I shall explain that this argument undermines itself because the very principle of equality to which it appeals leads to the conclusion that same-sex marriage should not be accepted.

What do we mean by the principle of equality?

As the American writer John Safranek explains, the principle of equality is derived from the basic philosophical principle of non-contradiction. In Safranek’s words, the principle of non-contradiction:

‘… asserts that something cannot be and not be at the same time and under same conditions. For example, a woman cannot be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, according to the common understanding of ‘pregnant.’ Similarly an individual cannot simultaneously be and not be in the United States. Although one might speak of the person ‘being’ in both the United States and a foreign country because his image is communicated from there, he is not capable of bilocation, and therefore we are not using ‘be’ in the same sense.’ [2]

Applied to ethics the principle of equality seeks to avoid falling foul of the principle of non-contradiction by treating equally two agents who are in equal situations. To quote Safranek again:

‘…. The principle of equality proscribes treating differently two agents similarly situated in regard to all relevant factors; to do so would be to contradict oneself. The contradiction is that one claiming to act in a principled way thinks agent x deserves z but agent y who is similarly situated does not. It is to treat as unequal two parties judged as relevantly equal.’ [3]

As a good example of what Safranek is talking about, imagine two students who both give equally good answers in an exam. The person marking the exam holds to the principle that students should get the marks their answers deserve. However, he gives student A 80% and student B 30%. By so doing he treats them unequally and therefore contradicts his avowed principle that students should get the marks their work deserves. The work of the two students is ‘relevantly equal’ and therefore the principle of equality holds that they should be treated equally by being given equal marks.

The need for a common standard to establish equality

As Safranek goes on to further explain, in order to decide whether two situations are in fact equal one has to have a common standard of measurement against which to assess them.

‘Equality consists of a triadic relationship. To compare two things as equal or unequal, one needs two objects that can be compared and a standard by which to compare them; to speak of equality in isolation from a common standard is meaningless. Is a paraplegic Caucasian male equal to a Hispanic female track star? The question is unanswerable because, although two objects are being compared, some standard must be offered to compare them. The question of equality cannot be answered until the standard of comparison is stipulated. They are unequal in weight, sex, skin colour, mobility, ability to bear children, and numerous other qualities, but they are equal in being mammalian, human, alive, rational, desirous, and possessing five senses. These two individuals are equal to a census taker, since each counts as one citizen, but unequal to a track coach. Is an acre of land in Paris equal to an acre of land in Detroit? It all depends on whether the metric is area, financial worth, or soil quality. Whether the two are equal depends on the relevant standard, and the relevant standard does not depend on equality, but on other criteria considered important to the one comparing. Once the standard or metric has been established, then equality can be determined.’[4]

The appropriate standard for assessing same-sex marriage

The claim that is made by those campaigning for the Church of England to permit same-sex marriages is that marriages between two people of the same sex are equal to marriages between two people of the opposite sex. Hence the principle of treating equal things equally means that the Church of England should permit both.

However, as we have just noted, in order to determine whether these two types of marriage are in fact ‘relevantly equal’ we have to have a common standard against which to compare them. Since the Church of England holds that marriage was established by God (‘instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency’ as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) it follows that the common standard has to be the form of marriage which God established.

We learn what form of marriage God established from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 and from Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matthew 19:2-6 and Mark 10:2-9 which refers back to these creation accounts.

What we learn from these sources is that God established marriage as a permanent and exclusive sexual (‘one flesh’) relationship between one man and one woman which is in principle open to the procreation of children as a fruit of that relationship. When judged by this metric same-sex marriages fall short in two basic respects. They are not a sexual relationship between a man and a woman and they are intrinsically closed to procreation. It follows that they do not conform to the form of marriage established by God and that they are therefore not equal to the traditional, opposite sex, form of marriage currently permitted by the Church of England since this does.

Why same-sex marriages should not be accepted

What this means is that the appeal to equality in support of same-sex marriage being permitted by the Church of England undermines itself. Same-sex marriage is not equal to the form of marriage established by God which the Church of England celebrates. Therefore it should not be treated as if it was, because just as the principle of equality says equal things should be treated equally so also unequal things should not be treated as if they were.

If same-sex marriages are not a form of marriage established by God then what are they? The answer is that they are what the New Testament calls porneia, extra-marital forms of sexual activity that are contrary to God’s will and in which God’s human creatures should therefore not engage. [5]

To re-run the argument set out at the beginning of this post we can therefore say

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is not equal to traditional marriage and is contrary to God’s will;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should not be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

M B Davie 16.4.19

[1] For details see the campaign’s website at http://www.cofe-equal-marriage.org.uk .

[2] John Safranek, The Myth of Liberalism (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), pp.43-44.

[3] Safranek, pp.44-45.

[4] Safranek. pp.51-52.

[5] For justification for this point see Martin Davie, Glorify God in your Body (London: CEEC, 2019), ch.8.

A Christian approach to divorce and re-marriage

A new government proposal

The lead story on the BBC news this morning was an announcement by the Ministry of Justice that the Government plans to introduce legislation in Parliament to change the law relating to divorce in England and Wales.

Should the proposals become law, the sole ground for divorce would become the ‘irretrievable breakdown of a marriage’ and the current possibility of seeking divorce on the grounds of adultery or unreasonable behaviour would be abolished. If this happens, then England and Wales will move to a totally ‘no fault’ system of divorce in which the sole criteria for ending a marriage will be that one or both parties in a marriage wish to end it and in which it will be impossible for that desire to be legally challenged by a spouse who wishes the marriage to continue.

Although the current proposals for a change in the law seem to have been driven largely by the legal profession, what is proposed can be seen to be in line with the way in which the thinking of the Church of England about divorce and re-marriage has changed since the 1960’s. A significant feature of this change has been the replacement of a distinction between guilty and innocent parties in divorce with an emphasis simply on the fact that a marriage can be seen to have failed.

There have been two reasons for this change. The first is the perception that ‘it is unwise and may also be uncharitable, for those outside the marriage to attempt to say precisely where the fault lies in any case.’[1] The second is the perception that what really brings a marriage to an end is not simply the performance of certain specific acts (such as acts of adultery) but the fact that the couple involved are no longer able, for whatever reason, to fulfil their marriage vows by providing each other with a relationship of ‘mutual society, help and comfort,’ It is a relationship of love that is at the heart of marriage and when this dies then the marriage dies with it even if it still formally exists.[2]

What the government calls the ‘irretrievable breakdown of a marriage’ and what the Church of England calls the ‘failure’ or ‘death’ of a marriage mean the same thing. The government and the Church of England can thus be said to be ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ on this matter. Thy have both moved to the position that when a marital relationship can be seen to have broken down then a marriage can rightly be said to have come to an end and divorce (and re-marriage) is thus permissible.

What I want to look at in the remainder of this post is what God thinks of the issue. Does he agree that relationship breakdown is a legitimate reason for divorce? To answer this question I shall look in turn at what God says about the matter in the Old and New Testaments.

What does the Old Testament say?

Genesis 2:24

The relationship ordained by God in Genesis 2:24 is a permanent union. The Hebrew word dabaq which is used to describe this union is the same word used to describe the permanent bond between God and Israel in verses such as Deuteronomy 10:20, Joshua 22:5, and 2 Kings 18:6. Just as God is in a permanent and unbreakable covenant with his people, so also he has ordained that marriage should be a permanent and unbreakable union between one man and one woman.

Malachi 2:13-16

In Malachi 2:13-16 we read that God is opposed to divorce:

‘And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favour at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord 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. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.’

These words tell us that God regards divorce so seriously that he will not accept the sacrificial offerings of the men of Israel who have divorced their wives. Elizabeth Achtemeier comments that:

Israelites married very early, before the age of twenty, and therefore verse 14 speaks of ‘the wife of your youth’ (cf. Prov. 2:17). The thought is that these men have spent years of mutual companionship with their spouses – building their homes, raising their children, facing life vicissitudes together – and then they have abandoned their wives for the sake of other women. It is little wonder that the act is called ‘violence’ (v.16), for it violently injures the well-being, the dreams, the securities, of all involved. (The reference to the ‘garment’ is the man’s symbolic act of spreading his garment over the woman as a sign of his choice of her, cf. Ruth 3:9; Ezek. 16:8). Malachi knows all about the desolation that accompanies the breakup of a family.

He is also certain about God’s attitude: The Lord hates divorce. It is an attitude that God never gets over, according to the Bible, and yet it is a fact rarely considered by divorcing persons. Usually they ask all the wrong questions. When a couple is considering a separation they are likely to ask, ‘Will I be happier?’ ‘Can I make it on my own?’ ‘Will it be better for the children?’ rather than ‘What is God’s attitude to the dissolution of this marriage?’ Here in this prophetic torah, as the ‘messenger of the Lord of Hosts’ (2:7), the prophet Malachi furnishes the reply.[3]

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

Although the Bible thus tells us that God hates divorce, it also recognises that divorce occurs. The Law of Moses seeks to limit the damage it causes by regulating it. We can see this in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which is the key piece of legislation in the Law of Moses regarding the matter since it is the only Old Testament passage that sets out the grounds, procedure, and consequences of divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 runs as follows:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’

John Stott notes that this passage ‘neither requires, nor recommends, nor even sanctions divorce.’[4] In technical terms it consists of a protasis, or description of conditions, in verses 1-3 and then in verse 4 an apodosis, a command that comes into play if these conditions are met. ‘If this, then that.’[5] God is not saying that the conditions in verses 1-3 must or should happen, only what must follow if they do.

As Stott says:

‘The law is not approving divorce; what it is saying is that if a man divorces his wife, and if he gives her a certificate, and if she leaves and remarries, and if her second husband dislikes and divorces her, or dies, then her first husband may not marry her again.[6]

The grounds for divorce referred to in this passage are that a husband finds ‘some indecency’ in his wife. What this might mean has been widely debated by ancient and modern scholars, but it seems most probable that it refers to some kind of immodest or indecent behaviour which nevertheless fell short of illicit sexual intercourse.[7] If a man divorces his wife on these grounds, the passage says, he then causes her to become ‘defiled’ (v4) if she marries another man.[8] As Peter Craigie explains, ‘the sense is that the woman’s remarriage after the first divorce is similar to adultery in that the woman cohabits with another man.’[9] Having caused her to become defiled in this way her husband cannot then marry her again because, to quote Craigie again:

‘If the woman were then to marry her first husband, after divorcing the second, the analogy with adultery would become even more complete; the woman lives first with one man, then another, and then, finally, returns to the first.’[10]

This kind of serial quasi-adultery is immoral conduct that will defile the land God is giving to his people. For this reason it is forbidden.

The primary purpose of this piece of Mosaic legislation is, as Chris Wright puts it, to stop a woman being ‘a kind of marital football, passed back and forth between irresponsible men,’[11] but, as Richard Davidson observes, it also points to the truth highlighted in Malachi 2:16 that divorce is contrary to God’s will even when there are grounds for it in the behaviour of a spouse:

‘… within the legislation is an internal indicator that such divorce brings about a state tantamount to adultery and therefore ultimately is not in harmony with the divine will. Though not illegal, it is not morally pleasing to God. Already in 24:4 it is indicated that breaking the marriage bond on grounds that are less than illicit sexual intercourse causes the woman to defile herself, that is, commit what is tantamount to adultery. By providing an internal indicator of divine disapproval of divorce, the legislation is pointing back to God’s Edenic ideal for permanency in marriage. God’s concession to less than ideal situations did not supplant the divine intention set out in Gen 2:24.’[12]

Exodus 21:10-11 is sometimes cited as another piece of legislation relating to divorce and is seen as showing that divorce is permissible if someone deprives their spouse of food, clothing or other marital rights. However, these verses have to do with the very specific situation of a slave taken as a wife who is then neglected when her husband marries a second wife. In this situation the solution laid down is not divorce, but freedom from slavery. As Doherty says, they thus do not provide ‘a general rule for divorce in monogamous marriages.’[13]

Davidson further notes that a good argument can also be made that the slave girl in question was not in fact married to her master since the Hebrew noun ona, translated ‘marital rights’ in the RSV, probably means lodging or shelter.[14] If this argument is correct it makes the passage even less relevant to the issue of divorce and completely undercuts the argument of David Instone-Brewer in his book Divorce and Remarriage that the teaching of these verses provided biblical sanction for divorce if there is a failure to provide food, clothing, or marital love, as well as in cases of infidelity. [15]

What does the New Testament say?

What does Jesus say?

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 forms part of the background to Jesus’ teaching about divorce. All Jewish schools of thought at the time of Jesus agreed that ‘adultery automatically annuls a marriage by creating a new sexual union in its place.’[16] For this reason Jewish law demanded the termination of a marriage if either premarital un-chastity or subsequent adultery was discovered (which is what lies behind Matthew 1:18-19).[17]

It was also agreed on the basis of Exodus 21:10-11 that divorce could take place if either a husband or wife refused food, clothing or conjugal love.

There was disagreement, however, on how to interpret the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1, which was understood as a command of God through Moses governing the grounds of divorce. The Rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel both agreed that divorce could only rightly happen if a husband found ‘some indecency’ in his wife, but what did ‘some indecency’ mean?

The school of Shammai held that it referred to some form of sexual offence falling short of adultery. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, held that it could include anything that caused a husband to be displeased with his wife, including burning his dinner, being quarrelsome, or even the husband losing interest in her because he came across another woman who was more beautiful. In fact, for the school of Hillel, ‘anything that caused annoyance or embarrassment to a husband was a legitimate ground for a divorce suit.’[18]

In Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-9 Jesus addresses the issue of divorce in light of this existing Jewish discussion:

Matthew 5:31-32

‘It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’

Matthew 19:1-9

Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.’

In these passages Jesus makes four points about marriage and divorce:

1.Jesus teaches that according to Genesis 2:24 those who are married are joined together by God and it is not right for human beings to dissolve this union: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6).

2.  Jesus teaches that even the permission for divorce granted in Deuteronomy is only a divine concession to human sinfulness (Matthew 19:8), following the internal indications in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that we noted above, and in line with God’s general opposition to divorce in Malachi 2:16.

3. Jesus develops the implications of the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 about the ‘defilement’ of the divorced wife who re-marries by declaring that all forms of divorce and re-marriage result not just in defilement, but in adultery, since they substitute a new sexual union for the union created by God (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9).

4. Jesus teaches that the only ground on which divorce is permitted is not the refusal of food, clothing or conjugal love, or the existence of something in the wife displeasing to the husband, or immodesty or indecent behaviour, but solely sexual intercourse outside the marital union (porneia, ‘unchastity’, Matthew 19:9). This fourth point is not explicitly made in the records of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:9-12 and Luke 16:18, but it is implicit in these other texts since any Jewish hearer or reader would have accepted that adultery was a legitimate ground for divorce unless this idea was explicitly ruled out. What Mark 10:12 does imply, however, which Matthew 19:9 does not, is that a wife can divorce her husband as well as a husband his wife.

It might be asked at this point how the permission for divorce given by Jesus in Matthew 19:9 fits into his overall teaching that because God has created marriage as a permanent union human beings should not bring it to an end. Aren’t these two parts of his teaching inconsistent?[19]

Don Carson helpfully explains that:

‘ …. sexual sin has a peculiar relation to Jesus’ treatment of Genesis 1:27; 2:24 (in Matt 19:4-6), because the indissolubility of marriage he defends by appealing to those verses from the creation accounts is predicated on sexual union (‘one flesh’). Sexual promiscuity is therefore a de facto exception. It may not necessitate divorce; but permission for divorce and remarriage under such circumstances, far from being inconsistent with Jesus’ thought, is in perfect harmony with it’[20]

Carson’s point that Matthew 19:9 does not necessitate divorce needs to be emphasised. As Stott observes, ‘Jesus did not teach that the innocent party must divorce an unfaithful partner, still less that marital unfaithfulness ipso facto dissolves the marriage.’ Indeed, Jesus ‘did not even encourage or recommend divorce for unfaithfulness… Jesus’ purpose was not to encourage divorce for this reason, but to forbid it for every other reason.’[21]

Importantly, as Carson also notes, Matthew 19:9 permits not only divorce but also re-marriage. One tradition of interpretation has held that because the marital union created by God is indissoluble Jesus meant that separation was permissible following adultery, but not re-marriage. However, in the words of Doherty:

‘Matthew 19:9 describes remarriage after divorce as adultery except when it follows sexual immorality. The implication is that remarriage after sexual immorality is not adultery, which must mean that the original marriage is truly ended. But most importantly, in Jesus’s context, divorce meant by definition that you could marry again. The Jewish divorce certificate said simply, ‘You are free to marry any [Jewish] man you wish.’ By permitting divorce after adultery, Jesus permitted remarriage too.’[22]

Equality in regard to divorce and adultery

It is also important to note that just as Jesus’ view of the grounds for divorce was a departure from contemporary Jewish thought so was the equal standing he gave to women in the matter. The prevailing Jewish view was that while men could divorce their wives women could not divorce their husbands and that adultery was something committed by a man against another man or by a woman against her husband. Jesus. however, taught that divorce was possible for women as well as for men and that men could commit adultery against their wives.

We can see this in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples in Mark 10:11-12 where we are told:

‘And he said to them, ‘whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and is she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Jesus’ teaching here only makes sense if  men can commit adultery against their wives and wives can divorce their husbands.

Jesus’ view that women can divorce and men can commit adultery has been the view accepted in the Church ever since. It  forms part of the overall egalitarian sexual ethic of the Church which declares that the same standards of sexual conduct (fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside it) are to be expected of both sexes rather than of women only (which was the prevailing view in the Greco-Roman world in the first century).

What does St Paul say?

In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 St Paul begins by quoting the general teaching of Jesus as preserved for us in the Gospels that a wife should not divorce her husband or a husband his wife (‘separate’ in v.10 means ‘divorce.’).[23] He then considers an issue which never came up during Jesus’ earthly ministry, namely what should happen when a Christian has a spouse who is an unbeliever and that spouse initiates a divorce:

‘To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?’

Speaking with the authority of an Apostle,[24] Paul declares that in this situation, ‘a Christian should not initiate separation just because they are married to a non-Christian. But if the non-Christian leaves, let them, so that you can live ‘at peace’ with others. You don’t need to try to make them stay. When a non-Christian divorces a Christian, the Christian is ‘not enslaved’ (v.15).’[25] As Doherty says,

‘…. the phrase, ‘not enslaved’ in 1 Corinthians 7:15 must mean ‘free to remarry.’ Under Roman law, you obtained the freedom to remarry simply by separating from your previous spouse. This is corroborated by the fact that Paul uses the same word in verses 27 and 39 to say wife and husband are ‘bound’ together, which he contrasts with being ‘free’ to marry (see also Rom.7:2-3). Not being bound means being able to marry.[26]

Three principles unite the grounds on which Jesus and Paul allow divorce and remarriage:

  1. Both sexual immorality and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse violate one of the two fundamental components of marriage (either the ‘leaving and the cleaving’ or the ‘one flesh’ unity).
  2. Both sexual immorality and abandonment leave one party without any other option if attempts at reconciliation are spurned.
  3. In both cases divorce is therefore a last resort and an admission of defeat.[27]

What is the overall message of the Bible about God’s view of marriage, divorce and re-marriage?

Overall the Bible tells us that:

  • God intends marriage to be for life. ‘His intention was and is that human sexuality will find fulfilment in marriage, and that marriage will be an exclusive, loving and lifelong union.’[28]
  • Divorce is never either commanded or commended in Scripture. Even when it can be justified ‘it remains a sad and sinful declaration from the divine ideal.’[29]
  • Under the New Testament dispensation there are two legitimate grounds for divorce: (a) when the marital union is broken by extra-marital sexual intercourse, and (b) when a Christian is deserted by their unbelieving spouse.
  • When divorce takes place on these grounds then re-marriage can be legitimate.[30]
  • Re-marriage in all other circumstances constitutes adultery. In a situation of domestic violence or abuse then separation from the perpetrator is justified (and indeed can be argued to be required if there is danger to a spouse or any children involved), but this does not mean that divorce is justified except on the grounds noted above. We are not authorised to exceed the limits for divorce which God has laid down.

What all this means is that the Church of England was right to move away from the absolute indissolubilist position which it took for most of the twentieth century. The Bible indicates that God permits (though never desires) divorce and re-marriage in the specific circumstances described by Jesus in the Gospels and by Paul in 1 Corinthians.

However, what Jesus and Paul teach rules out the idea put forward by the Church of England and by the government that divorce (and therefore re-marriage) are permissible on the general ground that the relationship of love in a marriage has died, rather than on the specific grounds that there has been an act of adultery, or that a Christian believer has been rejected by their non-Christian spouse.

What are the practical consequences of a Christian position?

So, how should Christians act in a way that is consistent with what God teaches through the Bible on this matter? In general terms they need to bear witness to what God has laid down concerning divorce and re-marriage in both teaching and example. As Andrew Cornes writes,

‘Both are necessary. Teaching without example is hollow. If a church teaches about the lifelong nature of marriage, but its members are divorcing in large numbers and its leadership is doing nothing to help marriages in difficulty nor to discipline those who separate contrary to the will of Christ, then that church will have no impact on the attitudes to marriage of the society around it. And example without teaching is ineffective. If a church has a membership whose marriages are largely stable and yet never speaks of Christ’s command to man and wife not to separate nor his power to sustain even difficult marriages, society will simply imagine that Christians happen to have good marriages but will remain unaware that Christ’s teaching is radically different from their own presuppositions. Teaching and example must therefore be kept together in every church’s witness.’[31]

In more specific terms Christians need to:

  • Accept and teach that God has ordained that marriage should be for life and that, even when permitted, divorce and re-marriage are a departure from God’s intention for his human creatures.
  • Practice the Christian calling to exercise forgiveness and seek reconciliation when marriage gets difficult (‘ Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, Ephesians 4:31-32) and encourage and support others to do the same.
  • Separate from an abusive spouse if their wellbeing and those of their children requires it, and encourage others to the same, but seek reconciliation if possible and only divorce on the grounds laid down in Scripture. [32]
  • Only divorce if the conditions in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 are met through a spouse being adulterous or an unbelieving spouse wanting a divorce, and then only if there is no realistic possibility of reconciliation
  • When divorced, live a godly life as a single person with the requirement for sexual abstinence that this involves.
  • Provide friendship and support to those who are single as a result of divorce, particularly when they are facing the challenges of being a single parent.
  • Only re-marry if they are free to do so because their former spouse committed adultery before the divorce or has subsequently sundered the marriage bond by entering into a new sexual relationship, [33] or because they have been divorced by a non-Christian spouse.
  • Only re-marry in church people who are free to marry under these conditions.

Where re-marriage is possible it still signifies a departure from God’s intention that the first marriage of one or both new spouses should have been life-long. There therefore needs to be some way of giving this truth what Oliver O’Donovan calls ‘institutional visibility’ by marking this truth liturgically. [34]

Since neither the Book of Common Prayer nor the Common Worship rites make provision for this, one way of doing this might be to only allow a service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage and to explain to the couple involved the reason for not holding an actual marriage service. What it is not legitimate to do, of course, is to use a service of Prayer and Dedication to bless a new relationship that is in fact adulterous because it exceeds the limits laid down in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15.

Much of the material in this post has been drawn from chapter 9 of Glorify God in your Body, which is a comprehensive study of ‘Human identity and flourishing in marriage, singleness and friendship’ which has been commended by the Church of England Evangelical Council as a resource for the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project. Details of this study can be found on the CEEC website at http://www.ceec.info/

[1] The House of Bishops, Marriage (London: Church House Publishing, 1999), p.16.

[2] For this latter point see Putting Asunder (London: SPCK, 1966), pp. 33-62 and Marriage and the Church’s’  Task (London: Church Information Office, 1978) pp. 123-135.

[3] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), pp.182-183.

[4] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984), p.262.

[5] See John Murray, Divorce (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976), p.p.3-8.

[6] Stott, pp.262-263.

[7] S. R. Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1902), p.271.

[8] The literal translation of the Hebrew is that the woman ‘has been caused to defile herself’ as a result of the action of her first husband.

[9] Peter Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p.305.

[10] Craigie, p.305.

[11] Chris Wright, Deuteronomy (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), p.255.

[12] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.397.

[13] Sean Doherty, The Only Way is Ethics- Part 1: Sex and Marriage (Milton Keynes; Authentic Media, 2015), p.103.

[14] Davidson, pp.191-193.

[15] David Instone-Brewer, Remarriage and Divorce (Milton: Keynes: Paternoster, 2011).

[16] R.T. France, Matthew (Leicester and Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press/Eerdmans, 1985,) p. 123.

[17] The Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Yebamoth 2:8, Sotah 5:1).

[18] William L Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids and London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974), p.363.

[19] It is this apparent inconsistency that has led scholars to suggest that Matthew 19:9 is not from Jesus, but is a qualification of Jesus’ teaching by the Early Church.

[20] Don Carson, ‘Matthew,’ in Tremper Longman III and David E Garland (eds), Expositors Bible Commentary, vol.9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), p.417.

[21] Stott, p.267.

[22] Doherty, pp. 113-114. For a detailed presentation of the case that Matthew 19:9 permits re-marriage see Murray pp. 33-43.

[23] For the fact that St. Paul is drawing on the teaching of Jesus see David Wenham, Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? (Oxford: Lion, 2010), pp. 56-6o.

[24] Stott, p.269.

[25] Doherty, p.112.

[26] Doherty, p.112. For a detailed study of 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 and why verse 15 allows remarriage see Murray, op cit. ch.3.

[27] For these points see Craig Blomberg, Matthew (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992), p. 293.

[28] Stott, p.271.

[29] Stott, p. 271.

[30] It is sometimes argued that the witness of the Early Fathers shows that the early Church viewed the teaching of the New Testament as prohibiting re-marriage after divorce. However, if we look at the teaching of the earliest Fathers, while they do generally reject the re-marriage of wives and guilty male spouses they do not reject all remarriage after divorce in principle (see William Luck, Divorce and Remarriage, Biblical Studies Press, 2013 Appendix F). Furthermore, while we need to take their witness  seriously it has to be compared by the witness of the Bible itself and set aside if it contradicts it.

[31] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage (Tain: Christian Focus, 2012), Kindle edition, Loc.7360. Cornes himself holds that marriage is absolutely indissoluble in all circumstances, but what he says in this passage also applies in the case of the position taken in this post.

[32] As Doherty comments (p.120), ‘although it is essential to leave a dangerous situation, to seek professional help, and to separate permanently if the perpetrator of abuse does not repent., I have to say that I cannot see a biblical basis for initiating divorce in such circumstances. Jesus only gave one exception to his  prohibition of divorce and I don’t think we can add to that.’

[33] If adultery makes divorce permissible because it sunders the one flesh marital union then by extension this would be true of a sexual relationship following a divorce. If the marital union was not broken before the divorce it would be at this point.

[34] Oliver O’Donovan, Marriage and Permanence (Nottingham: Grove Books, 1978), p. 20.