Christian Basis for Marriage Divorce and Remarriage by Richard Foster
All the passages below are taken from Richard Foster’s book “Money, Sex and Power,” published in 1985.
Christianity does not depreciate marriage, it sanctifies it.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Marriage is a great gift of God. It ushers us into the strange and awesome mystery of ‘one flesh’ in all its fullness. It is a gift to be received reverently and to be nurtured tenderly. To be sure, we must not elevate the gift of marriage above the gift of the single life, but neither should we underestimate its importance. Martin Luther declared, `Ah, dear Lord, marriage is … a gift of God. It is the sweetest and dearest, yes, purest life.’1
In the Genesis account we are told that the bond of marriage is greater even than the bond of child to parent. `Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24 NRSV). Jesus refers to this Genesis passage and then adds, `So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6 NRSV). And the apostle Paul elevates marriage to a place of high spirituality by declaring it to be a reflection of Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:21-32 NRSV). The Bible, therefore, sees marriage as a great calling indeed. So much so, in fact, that Helmut Thielicke can speak of marriage as pre-eminently `the covenant of agape.’2
CHRIST AND MARRIAGE
What constitutes an adequate basis for Christian marriage?3 Couples of all ages struggle with this question. Are romantic feelings and the sense of mutual attraction enough? Certainly they are important, but they are not enough. It may surprise you to realize that the New Testament regards romantic love as such a minor factor in marriage that it does not even mention it. That does not mean that romantic love is without significance, but its significance must be brought into perspective with the larger considerations for marriage. One of the great tragedies of our day is the way people drop in and out of marriage solely on the basis of romantic love and sexual attraction. Eros is running amuck today because it is not subordinated to agape. (In simple terms, eros refers to romantic love and agape refers to divine love or charity.) Sexual attraction and romantic love are good things to have in a marriage, but we cannot build a marriage upon them alone.
If not romantic love, then what does constitute a Christian basis for marriage? The basis for getting married that conforms to the way of Christ is a regard for the well-being of ourselves and others and a regard for the advancement of the kingdom of God upon the earth. Without question, this takes into account romantic love and sexual gratification (1 Corinthians 7 NRSV), both of which are God’s creation and both of which are limited—limited in the sense that we cannot make a life out of them. Both sex and romance are elements to consider and may even be the deciding consideration in whether or not to marry a particular person, but they can never serve as the basis for marriage among those who follow Christ.
The point is that Christian marriage is far more than a private undertaking or a way to personal fulfillment. Christians contemplating marriage must consider the larger questions of vocation and calling, the good of others, and the well-being of the community of faith, and, most of all, how their marriage would advance or hinder the work of the kingdom of God.
I can well imagine that all this may sound terribly devoid of moonlight and rhapsody to you. And in one sense it is, because the Bible rejects the romantic-novel paradigm for conjugating the verbs of marriage. Eros simply must stand under the discipline of agape if we expect to give strength and permanence to marriage.
On the other hand, there is plenty of room for romance and rhapsody within the Christian basis for marriage. In fact, the goodness that is in romance and sex is available to us only within homes and communities ruled by agape.
Marriage, you see, must be understood within the larger context of the law of love (agape). Love, from a biblical perspective, is a well-reasoned concern for the well-being of all. A vital consideration in the decision to marry is whether our well-being, the well-being of our partner, and the well-being of others would be enhanced by it.
Marriage must also be understood within the larger context of discipleship. Christian marriage does not stand outside our obedience to Christ; indeed, it is to be an evidence of it. A vital consideration in the decision to marry is whether a greater discipleship to Christ and a further advancement of his kingdom will result from it.
Now, although this general principle can be helpful, it can also cause problems. Life seldom comes so neatly packaged. A potential marriage could enhance the well-being of the couple and could at the same time be destructive for relatives. Who can accurately determine the effect a marriage will have upon Christian discipleship? And after all, aren’t romantic feelings and sexual desires at such a fever pitch for couples contemplating marriage that all other considerations seem ludicrous?
Here is where we need the help of the Christian fellowship. We are not left to flounder on our own in these matters. There are others who can lovingly and compassionately help to bring us perspective and discernment. Besides, I have found that even the simple recognition of a larger, more Christian basis for marriage has a way of bringing romantic feelings and sexual desires into better perspective.
Please do not think I am opposed to romantic love. It is of vital importance in enhancing a marriage relationship. It may even be the deciding factor in who specifically to marry. But it is only one factor in deciding whether or not to marry, and not the most important factor at that. My plea is for a greater balance today.
MARRIAGE’S COVENANTAL CHARACTER
When we confess that Christian marriage initiates us into a `one flesh’ reality, we are not being merely sentimental. The two become one functional reality a little like the way a computer disk drive and its disk form one functioning unit or the way a bow and arrow are essential to each other.
The result of this reality is the Christian confession that marriage is meant to be for life. It is to be a permanent covenant `for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health till death do us part.’ We will look at the matter of divorce in a moment, but for now, notice the advantage the permanence of marriage gives us.
Because of the covenant we have made, because of the `one flesh’ reality we have experienced, we are able to transcend those times when romantic love cools. Romantic love will cool, you know. No one can maintain the intensity of eros forever; it is in the nature of eros to wax and wane. But as C. S. Lewis has noted, `Ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love.’4 When such times come (and they will come), agape disciplines and nurtures eros. Agape has the staying power that can fan the embers of eros into flame once again.
The moment we call for permanency in the covenant of marriage, we are calling for many other things to happen in concert with it. For example, we are calling for a commitment to make the marriage covenant work. Serious efforts to improve a marriage are tasks as sacred as Bible study or prayer. Indeed, to neglect a marriage relationship in favor of Bible study or prayer is sin, because it violates the covenant we have made in our marriage vows. Attention to our marriage is an act of obedience to God. It is one concrete way we can put the kingdom of God first in our lives. We are serving Christ when we are investing time and energy in the marriage relationship.
When we join in the covenant of marriage we join a lifelong communion with another person. And that communion, in all of its intimacy and mystery, will demand our most skillful efforts. We are committing ourselves to gladly give our best hours and our peak energy to this most taxing and rewarding effort.
CELEBRATION IN THE BEDROOM
Frankly, sex in marriage should be a voluptuous experience. It is a gift to celebrate, excellent in every way. We join in the celebration of the Song of Solomon:
I come to the garden, my sister, my bride,
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, 0 friends, and drink:
drink deeply, 0 lovers! (Song of Solomon 5:1 NRSV)
Gladly we respond to the counsel of Proverbs: `May her breasts satisfy you always’ (Proverb 5:19, NIV).
Those who try to limit sex to procreation are simply ignoring the Bible. Scripture enthusiastically affirms sex within the bonds of marriage. Frequency of sex and variations of sexual technique simply are not moral issues, except in the sense of consideration for one another. In other words, married couples are free in the Lord to do whatever is mutually satisfying and contributes to the relationship. There is nothing inherently wrong with oral sex or mutual masturbation or many other ways to give pleasure to each other if they are mutually agreed upon.
There is an abundance of literature on sexual technique, so I will refrain from dealing with it in this book. It is enough to say that believers are free within marriage to explore the sexual realms of tenderness and delight that can lead them into deeper experiences of love.
I would, however, like to comment on the mutual rhythms of our sexuality. Sexual intercourse is not a given, something that somehow miraculously takes care of itself once we enter marriage. It needs nurture, tenderness, training, education and much more. When two persons enter into sexual intimacy, there must be a lot of emotional, spiritual, and physical give-and-take.
Men and women respond differently in the sexual experience, and we had better learn the differences. You can find them cataloged in any number of books. But what you cannot find is the unique differences that exist between you and your spouse. The books can only provide hints to point you in the right general direction. It is up to you to explore the unique and mysterious ways of your partner.
Women, the experts tell us, respond to sex more in terms of relationship, of caring, of sharing, than do men. But it is my God-given responsibility to learn the specific rhythms of my wife. How often, how intense, how slow, how fast, what gives pleasure, what offends—these and a thousand other things form the vocabulary of love. I must learn to read the language of her heart and soul, and she must learn to read mine.
This is the agony and the ecstasy of sexual intimacy. But we cannot avoid it even if we want to. Besides, it is the very thing that provides such infinite variety and life-long pleasure in our sexual experience. No wonder the Creator made marriage permanent—after a lifetime we have only just begun to understand the marvelous inner clockwork of each other.
The reason many people become bored with sex is that they sever it from the mysterious, wondrous challenge of human personality uniting in one flesh. After all, if the only thing we see in sex is the insertion of a penis into a vagina, then it soon becomes wearisome indeed. But if the Christian witness to a `one flesh’ reality is true, then nothing could be more wonderfully challenging.
So it is a spiritual undertaking to learn the ebb and flow of one another’s sexuality. Our spiritual growth helps to enhance our sexual intimacy. Christian meditation often helps to sensitize us to the inner rhythm of each other. God, it seems, is keenly interested in helping us experience the full reality of ‘one flesh.’ In meditative prayer we are sometimes given a new insight into how to strengthen our sexual intimacy. Why not! God cares about such matters. We will become better, more sensitive lovers if we will give more attention to his guidance through listening prayer.
It was Dr. Norman Lobenz who said, `There is no better safeguard against infidelity than a vital, interesting marriage.’5 And certainly one place in marriage where we want to keep the mystery, the excitement, the fascination – the zip, zam, and zowie – is in sexual intimacy.
CHRIST AND DIVORCE
It is a thrilling thing to soar among the high and lofty peaks of marital success; it is quite another thing to descend into the valley of marital defeat. It is a little like the valley of the shadow of death. All marriages face times of sorrow and pain, but sometimes the sorrow seems too heavy and the pain too great. What should believers do when they are faced with the valley of the shadow in marriage?
The answer to this question is hotly debated today. Interestingly enough, it was hotly debated in Jesus’ day. In the Hebraic society of the Old Testament divorce was a common practice, and so Moses set forth legislative guidelines in an attempt to humanize it (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 NRSV). But even these guidelines were fiercely debated. In Jesus’ day there was one school of rabbis, led by Rabbi Hillel, who held that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. For example, if she burned the toast that morning, or if he saw another woman that pleased him more—these were sufficient grounds for divorce for the school of Hillel. Another group, led by Rabbi Shammai, felt that marital unfaithfulness was the only allowable grounds for a man to divorce his wife. (You notice that divorce was a male prerogative only—women had no say in the matter.)
The Pharisees sought to bring Jesus into this debate, and so they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ (Matthew 19:3 NRSV). The school of Hillel said yes; the school of Shammai said no. Who would Jesus side with? But rather than side with one group or the other, Jesus brought them back to God’s intention from the beginning, `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”? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:4-6 NRSV).
God’s intent is for marriage to be a permanent `one flesh’ reality. But this, of course, raised the issue of the Mosaic legislation, and so the Pharisees asked, `Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ (Matthew 19:7 NRSV). Now, please notice Jesus’ answer to that question, `For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’ (Matthew 19:8 NRSV).
Do you see what Jesus is saying? He is talking to men, and he says that Moses allowed divorce in order to protect women from hard-hearted men! It was better for the man to divorce his wife than to bash her head against a wall. But as Jesus said, divorce was not God’s intent from the beginning.
Jesus opposed the divorce practices of his day for exactly the same reason that Moses first instituted a bill of divorcement—to protect the woman, who was utterly defenseless and trapped by a destructive and evil practice. There was great harm done to women in Jesus’ day by divorce. The very word for divorce means literally ‘to throw away,’ and women could be thrown away by a very simple procedure that did not involve a court of law or even a religious organization. Only witnesses were involved, and they could be the husband’s witnesses. No legal charges needed to be brought; it was simply a matter of handing the woman a bill of divorcement that said she was divorced for certain reasons, and those could be almost anything, from speaking out of turn to kicking the dog.
The woman was trapped in the patriarchial world of the first century. And Jesus was opposing this evil practice of throwing women away. He even said that any man who divorces his wife `makes her an adulteress’ (Matthew 5:32 NRSV). What he was getting at was that a woman who was thrown out into the street had only one way to make a living. She could not go out and get a job somewhere. She had only one thing to sell, and that is why prostitution was tolerated in first-century culture.
The one thing we need to see from all this is that Jesus was not trying to set down a legalistic set of rules to determine when a divorce was allowable. The fact that in Matthew 5:32 Jesus seems to lend support to the school of Shammai about adultery as grounds for divorce does not mean that this is to be the one and only allowable basis for divorce, or even that adultery should mean divorce in every case.(See Matt. 5:32 and 19:9. But compare this with Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18, where the same saying is given but without the exception clause about adultery. There is considerable debate over whether the exception clause in Matthew was a later addition to the text, since it seems to blunt the point of the teaching). He was not establishing rules at all: he was striking at the spirit in which people live with each other. And so when we study Jesus’ teaching on divorce we must not look for the one or two or three things that make divorce allowable. No, we are to see to the heart of Jesus’ teaching on human relationships within the context of first-century Palestine and seek to interpret those insights in the context of our world.
That is precisely what the apostle Paul did with regard to Corinthian society. The problem there was that many individuals had come into faith in Christ but had marriage partners who remained pagans. What was the status of that marriage relationship? And what should a believer do if the unbelieving spouse wanted to dissolve the marriage? If Paul had viewed Jesus’ teaching legalistically, he would have had to tell Christians that they were bound to the marriage relationship unless there was adultery, since that is the one ground Jesus mentions for divorce (Matthew 5:32 NRSV). But Paul did not do that. Instead, he instructed believers to stay in the marriage wherever possible. `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’ (1 Corinthians 7:15 NRSV).
What had Paul done? Had he ignored Jesus’ teaching about divorce? No, not at all! He saw that the law of love stood at the heart of Jesus’ instruction on marriage and divorce, and he brought that central truth to bear on the Corinthian situation.
We must not turn Paul’s counsel to the believers at Corinth into a new legalism, either. For example, some will teach that there are two and only two allowable grounds for divorce: adultery, because of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:32, and desertion, because of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Then if a woman comes in telling of marital rape and every other conceivable inhumanity, she is simply and grandly told that unless there is adultery or desertion she has no `biblical’ basis for divorce. Such is the mentality (and the fatal weakness) of all attempts to turn the words of Jesus and Paul into a new legalism.
But if we are not given a set of rules, what guidance are we given on the question of divorce today? The first thing we can say is that God’s intention from the beginning is for marriage to be a permanent `one flesh’ reality. God created us male and female, and we are made to go together. We are complementaries—lifelong, permanent complementaries—and anything short of that violates God’s intent.
So, although Christians may disagree on the allowable grounds for divorce, we can all agree that divorce is akin to cutting into a living organism.6 We are not talking about dissolving a convenient partnership that has gone sour; it is more like amputating an arm or losing a lung. Divorce cuts into the heart and soul of a `one flesh’ unity. It is possible to survive the operation, but let us be unmistakably clear that we are talking about radical surgery, not just minor outpatient care.
This being the case, believers need to see divorce as an absolutely last-ditch solution after every possible means of grace has been exhausted. Divorce is not something we turn to just because we are having trouble in our marriage or because we have `fallen in love’ with someone else. No, Christian marriage is a `one flesh’ union, a single organism, and we split it asunder only when no other option is open to us. Chuck Swindoll wisely notes, `Two processes ought never be entered into prematurely: embalming and divorce.’7
We must not give up too soon. The Bible literally bristles with the hope of forgiven and redeemed relationships. God is vitally interested in the success of our marriages. The resources of a caring Christian community are available to us. The love and care of friends and neighbors are at our disposal. The wise counsel of professionals and the healing prayer of those skilled in spiritual direction can be ours.
But we live in a fallen world, and there are times when, despite all our efforts, the marriage enters the valley of the shadow of death. Every resource has been used. Every possible way to bring healing and wholeness has been tried. Still the marriage is immersed in destruction and bitterness. When such is the case, the law of love (agape) dictates that there should be a divorce. If, indeed, divorce is understood as a consequence of the law of love, the evil that is present in most divorces will be absent, and, indeed, few divorces will occur. But believers will make sure of their obedience to the law of love in any divorce by making God their lawyer and judge through prayer.
The basis for divorce that conforms to the way of Christ is, therefore, precisely the same as the basis for marriage. When it is clear that the continuation of the marriage is substantially more destructive than a divorce, then the marriage should end.
If, as the final, radical solution to an unbearable situation, divorce is chosen, it must not be the cruel `throwing away’ that Jesus condemned. Provision must be made for the equitable division of property and other resources so that neither partner is left destitute. Further, we must not `throw away’ one another emotionally but seek to diminish bitterness and enhance cordiality in every way possible.
Now, there are those who in faithfulness to God choose to stay in a bad marriage. Their decision is not wrong, but it is extremely difficult. They need the prayer and support of the Christian community. We are to suffer with them, to bear them up, and to pray for the inbreaking of God’s life and light. Should they later choose divorce, they have not failed or done wrong, and they need our generous love and acceptance.
I want now to speak a word to those of you who are divorced and who fear that you did not work hard enough to save your marriage. When I spoke earlier of divorce as the `absolutely last-ditch solution after every possible means of grace has been exhausted,’ your heart probably sank. Deep down you wonder whether you turned to divorce too quickly `Perhaps,’ you think, `perhaps, if I had stayed with it a little longer, if I had tried one more time, things would have turned out differently.’ If that describes your quandary, I want to ease your mind and your heart. Perhaps you have failed—we all fail—but God is greater than our failure. His mercy and forgiveness and acceptance cover it all. You cannot reclaim the past, but you can be set free from its dominion. Stay where you are. Bathe in his love and care. Accept his offer of forgiveness and his invitation to a hopeful tomorrow.
CHRIST AND REMARRIAGE
What `hopeful tomorrow’ is there for those who are divorced? Can they or should they look forward to the possibility of remarriage? These are perplexing questions for those who sincerely want to do what is right.
For example, many are genuinely troubled by Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount that `whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery’ (Matthew 5:32; see also Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; and Matthew 19:9). Does this mean that remarriage is never allowed for believers? The language seems straightforward enough, yet why would Jesus make such a stringent prohibition? What was he striking at by forbidding remarriage?
Jesus was dealing with the aggressiveness of the male in the context of first-century culture. In that day a man could drop a woman or take up a woman at a whim, and Jesus was striking at this destructive attitude of male domination. That is why we need to look very carefully, for example, at Jesus’ visit with the woman at the well (John 4). He notes that she had had five husbands and that the man presently living with her was not her husband. Jesus, you see, was making a statement of fact—there was no note of condemnation in his words, for the woman had had no say in those divorces. She had been `thrown away’ five times, and she had become such `used property’ that a man no longer needed to marry her to have her. And Jesus was condemning the callousness by which a man would marry and divorce and remarry with the same ease as he might buy and sell cattle. (In fact, in Jesus’ day a good cow would bring a higher price than a woman on the open market!)
In his teaching on remarriage Jesus was calling attention to the degraded relationship that existed between a man and a woman when the woman had been previously married. And in his day it was indeed a degraded and degrading relationship. It was something that kept the woman in perpetual fear, constantly in a corner. The man had her under his power, which made it easy for him to abuse her. In first-century culture the divorced woman was viewed as a `second-hand woman,’ and Jesus was saying that when a man thinks of a woman as a cheap commodity he has her in a vicious relationship. And that still persists today, doesn’t it? Many women live through hell in our day simply because their husbands treat them as `used women.’
Jesus therefore spoke of remarriage as adultery, not because there was anything inherently wrong with it, but because of the attitude of contempt with which the man lived with the woman. He used the word `adultery’ to refer to the kind of sexual relationship that is wrong and damaging. He did the same thing when he described the lust of the heart as `adultery’ (Matthew 5:28 NRSV). In both instances Jesus was pointing to the destruction done to the relationship and was condemning it.
What we must not do is to turn these perceptive words of Jesus about remarriage into another set of soul-killing laws. We would not even consider doing that with Jesus’ other sayings. If we took as law his words about eyes and hands that offend us, we would all have truncated bodies (Matthew 5:29-30 NRSV). None of us would even think of turning into a new legalism Jesus’ instruction not to invite friends or relatives or neighbors when we give a banquet (Luke 14:12 NRSV). And we should not do that with his teaching on remarriage, either. It is true that in the absolute will of God his creative intent is for marriage to be a permanent `one flesh’ reality that should never be severed. But in the absolute love of God, his redemptive intent covers the brokenness of our lives and sets us free.
Therefore, the basis for remarriage that conforms to the way of Christ is precisely the same as the basis for marriage and divorce. When the persons involved would be substantially better off and the kingdom of God more effectively advanced by remarriage, then the law of love indicates that remarriage can and even should occur.
In the context of remarriage the practical problems of how to deal with sexual hurts and emotional wounds must be considered. Often these are not things that an individual can handle alone. There are reasons why marriages fail, and seldom is the failure exclusively one-sided. And even if it were one-sided, there would still be wounds that need healing. A remarriage is unwise without substantial movement toward such wholeness.
The Christian fellowship can often help. Compassionate listening and healing prayer can do much. Resources such as counseling and good books to read can also help. Most of all, we can provide a context for intimacy—a womb of compassion in which it becomes safe to feel and to care and to risk loving once again.
Where have we come? We have sought to understand our sexuality within the light of the biblical vision of wholeness. We have endeavored to see what this vision might look like for the single person. We have tried to understand the context in which marriage, divorce, and remarriage conform to the way of Christ. We are now prepared to focus all that we have learned on the vow of fidelity. [135-150]
1. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Martin Luther: The Man and His Work (New York: Century, 1910), p. 287.
2. See Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, trans. John V Doberstein (Cambridge: J. Clarke & Co., 1964), pp. 79-144.
3. I am indebted to Dallas Willard for the insights he has given me into the Christian basis for marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
4. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
5. Quoted in J. Allan Peterson, The Myth of the Greener Grass (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1983), p. 175.
6. I am indebted to C. S. Lewis for this analogy. See Mere Christianity.
7. Charles R. Swindoll, Strike the Original Match: Rekindling & Preserving Your Marriage Fire (Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications Ltd, 1983), p. 136.