Marriage & Divorce

Many papers have been written and much advice has been given on marriage and divorce. Yet it remains a point of controversy in nearly every church organization: How do they decide who is to be permitted to marry, to divorce and to remarry? Most of the controversy and heartache has been caused by decisions made on a false premise. This article may be a shock to some people, but the Biblical and historical truth of the matter is undeniable and easy to confirm.

Women Not Inferior to Men

Before we get into the "shocking" part, we must understand the basic scriptures that explain what men and women are:

So God created man [Hebrew 'adam] in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen 1:26-28)

While Genesis 2 shows that Adam was created before Eve, these verses unmistakably show that the Eternal's intention was to create male and female from the beginning. We notice here that man is not given dominion over women (or other men either), but they are both given dominion over the ground and the animals. For much of history, in many societies (including some who profess Christianity) women are treated like property—like so many animals or possessions. The men who understood the Bible and acted this way will have to answer for it in the judgement. Women were created on the same level with man. She was created from him:

And the Lord God said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him."... And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: "This is now bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man" (Gen 2:18,21-23).

The NKJV does a reasonable translation of the kind of helper Eve was: "comparable." The Hebrew also conveys the idea of "in contrast to him" or "to balance him." Although Eve was created to help Adam (and not the other way around), we do not find him being given authority over her at this point. The two were intended to work together. After they both partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen 3:16-19, KJV).

Adam and Eve had chosen to go their own way, rather than to accept the Eternal's way of love. This scripture is not commanding men and women to take on new roles as much as it is a prophecy of what would happen to society as a result of living the wrong way. The only thing that was cursed, was the ground—not Eve. Since men would probably fight against the creation rather than work with it, the Eternal "armed" it to defend itself. (thorns and thistles would grow). Men would have to sweat and work much harder and have much sorrow in the process. Much of what each man would work for would be destroyed by war, theft, vandalism and sometimes a man's own vices. We use the KJV here because it accurately translates the Hebrew showing that it was the same "sorrow"—not specific physical pain—that would come upon both men and women because of this sin. Similarly, women work to bear and raise children, only to see them destroyed in evil societies or sent off to some distant war. Women would desire their husbands even though their husbands would rule over them—often unreasonably.

Men were not created "superior" to women. This scripture is no more of a command for men to rule women than it is a command for men to sweat when they work. Some foolish men believe that this scripture gives them a right to mistreat their wives as a continuation of Eve's punishment. The only marital instruction to Adam in the above scripture is to reject his wife's request when he knows that she is wrong. When men begin thinking that they are innately superior to women, the results often turn out like Adolf Hitler's government in Germany: Since Germans were superior to other races, it was acceptable to enslave or kill the other races. Similarly, if men believe they are superior to women, then they believe their sins against women do not matter—or at least they are not all that bad.

Even right now, there are men who believe that once they have "gotten" a wife, they can do whatever they want. Until that belief is changed, there is little that anyone can do to make that marriage happy.

Men Lead With Our Savior's Love

While the above problem has caused much trouble from Adam until now, the opposite problem exists today. Many women refuse to recognize the many clear scriptures that make the husband the head of the family. The most straight-forward two are:

But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God (1Cor 11:3).

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body (Eph 5:22-23).

Many women ignore these scriptures altogether. Many men do not consider what they mean. Some men feel that being the head means that their wife must obey their every command and must do nothing without their approval. But look at Revelation 2 & 3, the history of "the Church" (whatever you consider that to be), and "the Church" today. Do we find a group of people scrupulously following her husband, or do we find people making mistakes and learning from them? It appears that He gives His wife (His church) a lot of free reign, but corrects her when she gets far off the track. Revelation 19:7 says "for the marriage of the Lamb has come, His wife has made herself ready."

Too many men feel the number one priority in their marriage is "making their wife submit." Actually, the most common Biblical commands to husbands are to love their wives and to be good examples and righteous leaders. "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). If men are to lead like their Savior, they will do what is best for their wife whether she submits or not. The Bible commands the wife to submit, but there are no commands to the husband to "force his wife to submit". The qualifications for an overseer ("bishop") require that a man's children be in subjection, but not his wife (1Tim 3:1-7).

The virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 is submissive, yet involved in much business activity of her own. How can a husband be head of his wife, yet allow both to live interesting, fulfilling and dynamic lives together without "stepping on" each other. Some of the answer is found here:

If she [a wife] vowed in her husband's house, or bound herself by an agreement with an oath, and her husband heard it, and made no response to her and did not overrule her, then all her vows shall stand, and every agreement by which she bound herself shall stand. But if her husband truly made them void on the day he heard them, then whatever proceeded from her lips concerning her vows or concerning the agreement binding her, it shall not stand; her husband has made them void, and the Lord will release her. Every vow and every binding oath to afflict her soul, her husband may confirm it, or her husband may make it void. Now if her husband makes no response whatever to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all the agreements that bind her; he confirms them, because he made no response to her on the day that he heard them. But if he does make them void after he has heard them, then he shall bear her guilt (Num 30:10-15).

Many dismiss these scriptures because they do not make "vows" to the Eternal in the same way that was common in the Old Testament. But it also says "or bound herself by an agreement with an oath." This is talking about any type of contract or oral agreement that would commit the family. The wife had full rights to make commitments, just like the husband. However, hers are subject to approval by the husband—in the day that he hears about them. If he agrees or says nothing, he is bound by the agreement also. If he voids the agreement, it becomes void. Obviously, if a woman is continually making commitments that her husband decides to revoke, it will be embarrassing for both of them. If her commitments are unreasonable, we hope she will stop making them. If he is unreasonably rejecting her wise decisions, we hope he will change and learn to let her decisions carry.

Following these instructions will help eliminate many of the arguments that occur in marriages. If a wife believes her husband is making a poor decision, his wife should tell him about it. If he concludes she is right, she has helped the family; if he does not hear good advice, the results are clearly his responsibility. There is no reason to nag him, he has heard and he is responsible. If the wife makes a poor decisions, the husband should not "nag" her either; he should either reverse the decision, or be quiet about it. He has had his opportunity and he is responsible. If a woman "sneaks" around her husband and makes important decisions without giving him a chance to say "no", then he cannot be responsible. This will cause arguments about who is responsible for which of the things that went wrong. If the wife does her part in asking for his decision, then it is the husband's fault if things go wrong.

Fortunately, many consumer laws in the USA and some other countries allow all consumers to return products and rescind contracts for a specified number of days. Families can use these laws to implement the principles in Numbers 30. In cases where a contract or purchase cannot be easily revoked by a husband, the only apparent solution is for wives to check with their husbands first.

The above principles apply to major and long-term commitments: jobs, houses, major purchases, etc. The Eternal gave this structure not because men know how to make decisions and women do not, but so families could work with a unity of purpose—so the wife does not decide to move to Washington while the husband moves to Georgia. There are obviously whole areas of a marriage where a wife has complete responsibility and there is no need for "checking with hubby."

What is a Marriage?

So why are we talking so much about contracts and financial arrangements? Aren't marriages started by love, romance, flowers and a big ceremony with a minister? Maybe they are, but this concept is in defiance of the Bible, history and logic.

Most married people will spend most of their lives working together: going to jobs, changing diapers, teaching and playing with their children, fixing and decorating their house, shopping for essential items at a good price, etc. Yet the way most people try to meet a mate is not by working together, but playing together: going to parties and going on "dates." Our culture paints the ideal date as someone who wears stylish clothes, looks "sexy," drives a nice car, acts "cool," takes the other to fabulous (expensive) places, and says the "right" things at the right time. If it is all a "put on" show and everything was purchased with borrowed money, our society accepts it—that person is still a "good" date. Our divorce rate is understandable when so many people go into marriages with primarily entertainment experience and do not think about working together until later. The issue is further compounded by people dating and marrying primarily to satisfy sexual desires and not to become responsible spouses and parents. While romantic attraction may sound sweet and wonderful, but it is not a successful basis for marriage. It is the icing on the cake, not the cake.

During the time that the Bible was written, marriages were made by a contract—largely an economic relationships. The contracts usually specified mutual support and cooperation, a sexual relationship, and responsibility for the children who would be produced. The contracts would specify whether or not the espoused were virgins. The contracts were often between the parents of the couple getting married. It was also fairly common for husbands to sign their own contracts. It was much less common for wives to sign their own contracts—if their parents were not available, a brother or other relative would usually sign for her. Why?

It was not because women were incompetent! The contract was with someone else on behalf of the wife for her protection. Since the husband has the ultimate decision-making power of the family and is usually physically stronger, he is by far the most likely one to break the contract (mistreat his wife). If a husband does not live up to his contract, the person who signed on behalf of the wife should make an effort to enforce it. In some cases, penalties were built into the contracts: a man who did not take care of his wife might have to pay her father. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 gives one instance where a father was required to negotiate on behalf of his married daughter. On the other hand, contracts also limited parents from interfering in marriages unnecessarily—if their child's spouse was keeping the broad provisions of the contract, they had no right to interfere.

While the following verse is dealing with a slave taken as a wife, notice the contractual nature of these marriage laws. If the man did not do his duty, the wife was free to leave:

If he [the husband] takes another wife, he shall not diminish her [the first wife's] food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money (Ex 21:10-11).

Genesis 34:8-17 gives some of the details of the marriage agreement worked out between the sons of Jacob and Hamor for the marriage of Shechem and Dinah. While this agreement came to an abrupt end (Simeon and Levi killed Hamor, Shechem, and all the other men of the city), it shows the wide latitude of specifications that could go into a marriage agreement.

Marriage agreements were often signed well before the marriage was consummated. This was known as the "betrothal" or "engagement" period. Once betrothed, the couple is often referred to as "husband" and "wife" and many of the marriage laws already apply to the couple— plus some special laws (see February 1996 Servants' News, pp 5-8). The marriage was considered consummated by the sexual union of husband and wife. This event was marked by a big feast with friends and family present—sometimes the entire town. The bride and groom usually spent a week together in a specially prepared chamber—sometimes the feast lasted that long. (If there were some physical problem that prevented the couple from having normal physical relations, they could still have a marriage—Joseph was told to keep Mary a virgin until Jesus was born, but they were considered married—Matt 1:24-25.)

One type of marriage agreement is illustrated by Jacob's marriage. The agreement was made when Jacob agreed to work seven years for Rachel. Seven years later, we pick up the story:

Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her" [consummate the marriage]. And Laban gathered together all the men of the place and made a feast. Now it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. And Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. And he said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?" And Laban said, "It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. "Fulfill her week, and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years." Then Jacob did so and fulfilled her week. So he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife also (Gen 29:21-28).

Jacob called Rachel his "wife" before he had consummated the marriage. Laban neglected to inform Jacob of the eldest-must-marry-first custom in his land, and probably avoided specifying an exact time as to when Rachel's seven years would begin, so he was technically not in violation of his agreement, though he certainly "deceived" Jacob. Later we find that Jacob did not treat Leah as well as Rachel, but there was probably little that Laban could do since Leah was married without an agreement. Laban, in his selfishness, probably deceived Jacob in order to keep him working for him—Jacob made money for Laban. In doing so, he made his family life for his daughters more difficult. Is there anything that Leah could have done to avoid being a "pawn" in her father's game? Yes. It would have taken much courage, but before Jacob went into her, she could have said, "I'm not Rachel, I'm Leah. You have no agreement to marry me." Her life, and the course of history, would have been very different. This example does not show that the marriage contract approach is wrong, but it shows what happens when it is not used.

What Role Should Priests or Ministers Play In a Marriage?

If a marriage should be made as a contract between the couple (or the parents of the couple), what is the role of the minister? We can search the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation along with a multitude of history books and get only one answer: None!

When a "minister" claims heavenly authority for pronouncing people "husband and wife," he never quotes a scripture giving that authority—there is none. Occasionally, papers on the subject will cite Matthew 16:19:

And I will give you [Peter] the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

This scripture says nothing about binding and loosing marriages. Also, the same people will sometimes use this same scripture to claim authority of one human leader (chief apostle) over the entire congregation. Were apostles the only ones who could "perform marriages?" If our Messiah wanted Apostles and other leaders to "bind and loose" marriages, would he have instructed them on how to deal with unconverted mates? Paul had never received such instruction (1Cor 7:10-15). When we realize that families had been taking care of their own marriage arrangements prior to the apostles, it is difficult to believe that the doctrine was completely changed without any direct discussion in the scriptures.

History simply shows that the practice of Christian priests or rabbi's "binding" a marriage is less than 700 years old. You can check any of the reference works listed in the box accompanying this article or search a library for yourself. We could find no serious disagreement. Marriages were simply handled by the families of the people involved. They were large celebrations (our Saviour attended one—John 2:1-2) where the guests were considered important witnesses to the event. If the husband or wife later did not keep their agreement or pretended like it never existed, all of the guests would be witnesses to the marriage.

Gradually, over the years, the clergy became more and more involved in weddings. It probably began by clerics coming to weddings as guests, and then blessing the couples. Also, if people did not have sufficient room for the guests at home, they would sometimes use the "church yard." During the middle ages when illiteracy was common, many marriage agreements were spoken rather than written. Our spoken marriage vows of today are a successor of this practice.

But as we might expect, humans were not always good at living up to their marriage duties. Husbands and wives would forget their contract, and marriages and children would suffer. The clergy, being literate, would sometimes offer their services to write down these agreements and to hold onto them. At other times, they would simply serve as "God's witness" of the agreement. Another practice: the celebration would take place at the groom's home, but the crowd would go to the church for a service during the festivities. Many of these early involvements were genuine and good—there is nothing wrong with blessing a couple or encouraging them to keep the promises that they made.

Although these partial church involvements may be found at various times during the last 2000 years, there are very, very few records of a priest or rabbi pronouncing a couple "husband and wife" before 1300 AD. The practice of Catholic priests presiding over weddings was not official doctrine until the Statement of the Sacrament of Matrimony from the 24th session of the Council of Trent, November 11, 1563. The Protestant reformation was beginning at that time, so there was great pressure on the Catholics to prove to their members why they needed the Catholic church for day-to-day life. The Statement of the Sacrament of Matrimony contains an opening dissertation with some scriptural support, which is followed by 12 canons (sub-points) containing no scriptural support at all—just a promise of excommunication (being "anathema") to anyone who disagrees:

CANON 1: If any one saith, that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelic law, (a sacrament) instituted by Christ the Lord; but that it has been invented by men in the Church; and that it does not confer grace; let him be anathema.

CANON 4: If any one saith, that the Church could not establish impediments dissolving marriage; or that she has erred in establishing them; let him be anathema.

CANON 10: If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.

CANON 11: If any one saith, that the prohibition of the solemnization of marriages at certain times of the year, is a tyrannical superstition, derived from the superstition of the heathen; or , condemn the benedictions and other ceremonies which the Church makes use of therein; let him be anathema.

CANON 12: If any one saith, that matrimonial causes do not belong to ecclesiastical judges; let him be anathema.

By making marriage a "sacrament" (like infant baptism, confirmation, communion, etc.), the Catholic Church placed themselves firmly in control. We must remember that civil governments often upheld the rulings of the Catholic church by physical force. Canon 11 clearly shows that the Catholics were attempting to control when marriages could be held—their Protestant critics which said such prohibitions were "superstitions of the heathen" were right!

After the decree of the Council of Trent, priest-conducted marriages became the order of the day. While some Protestant groups retained the custom of family-performed marriages for a while, the larger groups became hierarchical and began "offering the same services as" (controlling people in the same manner as) the Catholic Church. Not to be left out, Jewish rabbis and even people of other religions began having their religious leaders perform weddings.

As the years went by, the practice of clergy performing weddings became more and more common. Some states in the USA and some other countries still recognize marriages made by contract of the parties without any intervention by the clergy or the state. Many of the founders of the USA were independent Bible students and they saw that there was no authority for church or state to perform weddings. Today, however, most people believe that the clergy's or government's permission is required to have a marriage. Belief by many does not make truth.

Most people realize that they can be married by a judge if they do not want a clergy member to marry them. They may not realize that clergy members are acting as agents of the state (as well as their "church") when they perform weddings. Marriages are recorded legal events and judges and clergy members who perform weddings are normally responsible to properly notify the state. The state or legal aspects of marriage include the ownership of property, the custody of children, inheritance, etc. Obviously, these important aspects of life cannot be ignored.

How Should We Marry Today?

Are we saying that it is a sin to have a minister perform a wedding? No! Are we saying that anyone who does not have a signed contract today is not really married? No! While a written document is preferable, a verbal commitment is certainly sufficient. In most ceremonies, people recite a vow or at least say "I do" after the minister reads it. The intent for a marriage and the consummation thereof makes a marriage. You are still responsible before God, even though you did not start off with the best of circumstances.

Unfortunately, the present system is not serving us well. Many people do not study or even know the content of their vows before they marry, and soon forget them afterward. They have, and are too busy thinking of something else. When a "church couple" realizes they want to marry, the typical sequence of events they go through is like this:

The Way It Usually Is:

1. Find a minister with which to counsel with that will agree to marry the couple. Sometimes this council is good, sometimes it is bad. If he agrees to marry them, the couple often assumes that the Eternal is approving of their marriage.

2. Get engaged. The main event here is usually the exchange of expensive rings and an expensive dinner out. Afterward, great attention is given to planning the wedding: expensive and usually rented clothes, flowers, tablecloths, decorations, etc.

3. Get married. Lots of friends and family come. The presents they bring, especially when of a practical nature, are very helpful. Unfortunately, too much money is often spent to "impress" the guests—money that the couple could better use to start their life together The couple exchanges spoken vows and rings. The girl's father "gives his daughter away," and some relatives may stand with the bride or groom but the entire event is presided over by the minister—the family has little or nothing to say. The minister pronounces the couple man and wife—sometimes by the authority of the state, sometimes by the authority of God. People often believe that it is the state license that makes them married—and later may seek a state's permission for a divorce if things go wrong.

The Way it Should Be:

1. Counsel with family and friends. Much ministerial marriage counseling is merely a private sermon with little listening. Couples planning to marry need to hear from married people who know them and know where they need to change to have a successful marriage.

2. Write an agreement. The purpose of this agreement is to focus on the man's and wife's responsibilities for the marriage. What is he going to do? What is she going to do? Where are they going to live? The agreement may specify how they are to treat each other; who will have what responsibilities; which possessions they are to have before they marry (a car?); what kind of job the man and possibly the woman will have, etc. The focus should be first on planning the married life. Secondarily, plans should be made for a large wedding where as many family and friends can be present to support them. Engagement rings, if you want them, are a minor issue.

3. The wedding celebration. While these historically lasted seven days, one day is probably all that most people can manage now. This is a time for the families to assure their support of the marriage, a time to bring gifts, and a time for the couple to consummate the marriage in comfortable surroundings. The parents and friends should be involved in the ceremony—telling stories of their own weddings, relating important events in the couple's lives, and blessing them for the future. The activities should bring everyone together—it is not a time of nervousness and fright. The couple themselves should read their contract, or a brief statement of their own summarizing their devotion to each other. If they are ashamed to do this, they are probably in for a rough time together.

The legal aspects of the marriage can be taken care of at this ceremony (a common law marriage agreement can be signed or a marriage license can be signed by the couple and a minister or judge). On the other hand, it might be better to do these legal formalities at another time—thereby recognizing that it is the couple's commitment and becoming "one flesh" that makes the marriage, not the paper-work they file. Certainly, a minister should not claim to "pronounce them man and wife" by the authority of a church or God—he does not have that authority. The scripture instructs:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen 2;24).

More to Come

This article is the first in a series regarding the subject of marriage and divorce. The intent of this series is not to propose a standard marriage procedure or ceremony, but to encourage couples and their families to take charge and do what is Biblically best for the marriage. We realize, though that we do not live in an ideal world. Problems like these exist:

"Some of my relatives might disown me if I didn't have a 'normal' wedding ceremony."

"We live far away from our families and they cannot all afford to attend the wedding."

"My parents refuse to have anything to do with the person I want to marry."

"My marriage is a nightmare, should I separate or get a legal divorce?"

"I am divorced, can I remarry?"

We realize that there are no simple answers to some of these questions. People have typically relied on ministerial counsel in these matters. Some counsel has been good, some not. It is the people who must live with the decisions that are made. If ministers do not have authority to bind marriages, they do not have authority to loose them either. People make friends, take jobs, hire others, enter into business contracts, conceive and raise children, counsel others, attend congregations, and make a multitude of other important activities without "ministerial" approval. Those schooled in the scriptures should be there to help when asked, but people can and should learn to handle this part of their lives in accordance with the scriptures.

We do not claim to have all of the answers, but we will cover the relevant scriptures and, we pray, provide a lot of help in the rest of this series.

—Norman S. Edwards

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