1 Marriage is to be between one man and one woman. It is not lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.1
God did not say in the beginning that the three should become one. His creation of one woman, Eve, for the one man, Adam, indicates God’s intention that marriage was to be between one man and one woman. The practice of polygamy by the patriarchs and kings can be explained by the lesser light given to the saints of the Old Testament. Their actions were contrary to the will of God as revealed in the creation account but, like divorce, were tolerated by God at the time (Mt 19:8).
The phrase “at one and the same time” certainly allows for the remarriage of those whose spouses have died and may allow for the remarriage of divorced persons. The Reformers were the first in Western Christendom to endorse genuine divorce and remarriage (CH 39:25). In the medieval church divorce meant only that a man and a woman no longer shared a common bed and table. They remained, however, bound by the marriage bond and were thus forbidden remarriage until the spouse died. It is interesting that the Westminster Confession included two paragraphs in this chapter on divorce that permitted divorce on the grounds of adultery and desertion. Similar statements were also present in the Savoy Declaration making it all the more unusual that these were deleted from this confession. As this subject in our present society is too important to ignore we will take this place to look at the nature of marriage and divorce.
Marriage has been called “the covenant of companionship” (Adams, 8), and this points us to its very essence. It is not an institution with the primary purpose of propagating the human race. The race could be multiplied quite effectively without the benefit of marriage, and might in fact expand even more quickly without it. Neither is marriage to be identified with sexual union. Sexual relations are a central obligation and pleasure of the marriage union, but do not in themselves constitute marriage. Sexual union between two unmarried people does not constitute marriage but fornication. According to Jewish custom in Jesus’ day the betrothed couple was considered married and the only way to break this relationship was through divorce. All this despite the fact that they had never had sexual relations. In our day the preacher at the end of the wedding ceremony says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” If these words have any real meaning, and they do, then the young couple is married at that point even though the marriage may not be consummated until later. Marriage is a covenant that is constituted by a public and formal swearing of an oath. This covenant brings a man and woman together as companions on an emotional, spiritual and physical level.
If marriage is a publically and formally constituted covenant, then divorce is the public and formal declaration that that covenant relationship has been severed. Divorce does not occur when one of the marriage partners commits adultery any more than a marriage begins when sexual relations take place. Divorce is more than the recognition of a reality that has already taken place. The formal declaration of divorce ends the marriage and places the previously married man and woman into the category of the unmarried (cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11). The Westminster Confession recognizes men will invent all sorts of excuses for divorcing their wives, but finds only two biblically valid ones: adultery and desertion. A believer is not required to divorce under these conditions, but if he does the marriage covenant is severed and he is no longer bound by that relationship (cf 1 Cor 7:15). Since there are no further obligations to that relationship the divorced believer is free to remarry. God hates divorce because it is always the result of sin, and divorce is never desirable but, at least among Christians, it is never inevitable. Reconciliation under the care and discipline of the church is always a possibility.
2 Marriage was ordained
Marriage is not an institution devised by man to serve as a convenient and responsible way of handling male/female and family relationships. It is not a human innovation at all and therefore men have no right to modify it so as to fit with their more enlightened ideas about what marriage ought to be or dismiss it altogether as an outmoded institution. Marriage is not a tool used by men or women to trap the other into an unwanted binding relationship, but is a gift of God in which they are joined together for a life more fulfilling than what they could have had separately. People sometimes seek the things God created us to find in marriage somewhere else. When the joys and responsibilities to be found in marriage are sought elsewhere, the results are neither satisfying to the people involved nor pleasing to God.
for the mutual help of husband and wife,2
Eve was created as a “help meet” for Adam, a helper corresponding to him in nature. As man’s counterpart woman completes or fills out man’s life, making him a larger person than he could have been alone. And this cuts both ways. Man as woman’s counterpart brings to her life a fullness, another dimension she could not have known alone. They are together companions united in a joint work or effort. A part of God’s intention for marriage is that the man and woman should both be able to do more for Him than they ever could have had they lived separated lives. As marriage companions they are united in thoughts, goals, plans, efforts as well as bodies.
for the increase of the human race with legitimate children,3
The Roman Catholic Church has wrongly identified the propagation of the human race as the most fundamental aspect of marriage. This view holds that the satisfaction of the sex desire is proper only when the purpose is to beget children. Paul’s teaching seems to indicate that even if the ability to have children were absent, marriage partners would have a responsibility towards each other in this. Perhaps in reaction to this Protestants have sometimes erred in the other direction, in seeing no relation between the satisfaction of the sex desire and God’s command to multiply and fill the earth. To avoid bearing children for purely selfish reasons is to reject one of God’s purposes for marriage.
and for preventing immorality.4
Through the ages there have been Christians who have seen sex itself as evil, though a necessary one needed to fulfill God’s purpose for propagating the human race. Some of these find the evil of sex in the intensity of its desire and pleasure which it was felt ought to be reserved for God alone. Sin however lies in the perversion of this desire and pleasure, not in these things themselves. God has not given us sex within marriage as a necessary evil, but in part as a means of escaping evil. The divinely ordained means for dealing with lust is not what so many in the Middle Ages thought, running off to the desert or joining a monastery. God may grant to some the gift of singleness, but for most the solution to the temptation of lust is not a great spiritual quest but the simple joy of Christian marriage. Within marriage there is to be no failure on the part of either spouse to help the other in dealing with this need of overcoming the temptations of lust (1 Cor 7:2-5). Even duties of piety were not to interfere with these duties except for a short time that was agreed to by both parties.
3 It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able to give their rational consent,5
The Bible contains no further restrictions on who can marry than those mentioned in these paragraphs, and we should not try to erect more barriers than Scripture does. Entering into a marriage covenant requires a certain level of mental competence, but beyond that and the restrictions that are summed up in the holiness code of Leviticus marriage is a legitimate option for all sorts of people. There is nothing that forbids handicapped people, people of different racial backgrounds or unbelievers from getting married. (We should however, remember Paul’s words at this point: “Everything is permissible for me—but not everything is beneficial.”) It is not lawful for men to be sinners and reject Christ as their Lord, but there is nothing unlawful in unbelievers being married. Believers, in fact, have every reason to approve of civil laws that require unbelievers to observe the demands of monogamous marriage as far as possible.
yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord.6 Therefore those who profess the true faith should not marry unbelievers or idolaters.
It is not merely a good idea, it is our duty as Christians to marry only those who are believers for to do otherwise is sinful. Any temptation that might lead us to consider marriage to an unbeliever should be avoided, and for singles this means not seeking close relationships with unconverted members of the opposite sex. Any potential marriage partner should be examined for the quality of their faith to determine that they are indeed true believers (to the extent that we can know this). A credible profession of faith ought to be discerned before becoming entangled in any sort of romantic relationships.
Nor should the godly be unequally yoked by marrying those who lead evil lives,7
It is not enough that a potential mate give a credible profession, there must be a corresponding lifestyle. No matter how solid the grasp of biblical doctrines, if the person is not conducting his life in accordance with the commands of Christ then he is not fit as a marriage partner. How often have young people heard their future spouse claim to have saving faith and convinced themselves it was genuine only because that is what they wanted to believe? If we use faithful Christian behavior as a standard to judge by we will be less likely to be duped by a profession that is only a sham.
or who maintain heresy.
The other trap we can fall into while looking for a credible profession is that of mistaking a moral life joined to some talk about God as marking someone as Christian. Many cult members lead lives that are morally commendable and can convincingly argue their slant on Scriptures. Being religious and moral though does not necessarily mean being saved. Damnable heresies are those that if believed keep one from a saving faith.
4 Marriage must not to be contracted within the degrees of blood relationship or kinship forbidden in the Word, nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any human law or consent of parties so that such people may live together as man and wife.8
Though the regulations in the holiness code from which the prohibitions are drawn are part of the Mosaic law, they are not a part of the ceremonial law which passed away with the coming of Christ. Pagans were not held accountable for breaking ceremonial laws (e.g. eating unclean animals, not offering the sacrifices as directed by Moses) but for breaking the moral law written on their hearts. The holiness code from which these laws are drawn, however, show that even pagans were defiled by these kinds of relations (Lev 18:6-18, 24). Paul noted in his day incestuous relations were found abhorrent even to unbelievers (1 Cor 15:1). Plato calls marriages between a brother and sister “by no means holy and hated by God” (Laws 8:838).
The question often arises at this point as to how the children of Adam and Eve could enter into such relationships without guilt while those afterwards could not. The answer often given is that it was necessary for them, but not for later peoples, when there were more than brothers and sisters to choose a mate from. Strictly speaking, it was not necessary for their sons and daughters to marry one another for God could have chosen to create other people as he had Adam and Eve. Even so, necessity never makes a wrong thing right. Turretin explains that the reverence of children for their parents is based on the nature of God (as is all moral law) and this prohibits for all times a marriage between parent and child. Prohibitions against the marriage of siblings however is not based on the nature of God, but on circumstances ordered by the will of God (2:16-17). As such these relationships can be permitted or prohibited based on God’s determination of what is best for mankind. What was needed in the beginning because God determined that all mankind should be born of one blood was later forbidden because of the harm it could bring to the unity of a family. One can imagine the sort of divisions that would arise in large families where close contact is necessary if this sort of relationship were permitted.
Because these prohibitions are based on the law of God, there is nothing man can do to make them lawful. Let a society pass all the laws it wants to permit these relationships, let a man and woman within these degrees of affinity or blood relationships consent to it, but these things do not make right what God has declared to be wrong.