A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Marriage, Vows, and Divorce

The following is a excerpt from our book, A Cry for Justice [*affiliate link].

What about those promises made at the wedding?

Matthew 5:37  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

Contracts.  You are probably bound to more of them than you might realize.  Credit cards come with them.  You finance your car, buy a home with a mortgage, and enter into an employment agreement with your boss.  All of these aspects of normal life involve contracts.  And they all have sanctions.  Blessings or curses, we might say.  If I buy a new flat screen TV with my credit card, I am promising to pay the debt off in a particular time, with a specified interest rate, and if I do so, I will be blessed.  I get to keep the TV.  If not, well, the curses go into play!  Some burly repo man might show up at my door, or my paycheck could be slapped with a garnishment.

For a number of years, I have wondered about one of the most important contracts human beings make.  It is the marriage contract, entered into (we even use those words “entered into” at the wedding!) with vows recited in the presence of God and witnesses.  My confusion about these vows originates in the fact that for the most part, the church tells people their marriage contract is non-enforceable.  This is particularly evident when we consider abuse and the marriage vows.  Consider a typical vow:

  • To love.
  • To honor.
  • To cherish.
  • To forsake all others.
  • Until death.

Normally, at least in a Christian ceremony, these vows are expressly stated to be made “solemnly,” in the sight of God, and witnessed by everyone present.  And yet, unlike every other human contract in life, it seems that this contract can be disregarded the first day after the honeymoon with full immunity from sanctions (curses) and continued enjoyment of all privilege.  Isn’t, as we say, something really wrong with this picture?  A spouse can, for example, never love, never honor, never cherish their wife or husband, and yet we tell the wronged party that there is nothing to be done about it.  They are married, the contract is binding, and that is that.  Perhaps if there is adultery, then yes, divorce is permitted.  Otherwise, the defrauded party is still bound by contract.  What?  Say that again?

Marriage is a contract. (Instone-Brewer 2002)  That may not sound very romantic, but contract is the essence of the wedding ceremony, and the vows are the means by which husband and wife enter into this contract (see Proverbs 2:17; Malachi 2:14).  Each one of them states the terms, the blessings for keeping their “part of the bargain,” and the curses for breaking the deal. (Sutton 1988, 10)  Essentially, the curse comes from the fact that the vows are recited in “the presence of God and these witnesses,” acknowledging that, as the London Confession of Faith states, God is being invoked to either bless or curse us.  In that respect, wedding vows are made to God!

A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgment, solemnly calls God to witness what he swears, and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof….Whoever takes an oath warranted by the Word of God, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to vow nothing but what he knows to be truth; because by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns. [Chapter 23, The London Confession of Faith, modern language].

Today, people often want to write their own vows for their wedding.  If I am the officiating minister, I discourage this or at least reserve the right to review what they propose.  Why?  Because I recognize that vows are to be more than mere flowery, vapory, feel-good words that evaporate as they are uttered.  But the vows are the terms of the contract, entered into before God.  As such, they are solemn.  While a wedding is indeed cause for celebration, I wonder how the atmosphere of many “party-on” ceremonies would be radically changed to a more sober sense if everyone realized just what was actually happening?  “Lord, we call upon you to bless us or curse us according to the vows we are now making.”  Perhaps some marriages wouldn’t even take place!  Perhaps the realization of this is what prompted the disciples to ask Jesus:

Matthew 19:10  The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

Once we recognize that marriage is a contract, entered into with sober vows, we are in a position to define divorce – something that is often overlooked in many treatments of this subject.  What we mean by “divorce” is not always as clear as we think.  Divorce is the breaking of the marriage contract.  It is effecting separation of what God has joined together by violation of the vows, the terms of the deal. Therefore:

  • Divorce, or the effecting of the “separation” that Jesus forbids (see Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9), is committed by the guilty party; by the marriage partner who actually breaks the contract.
  • Divorce is never effected by the innocent partner.  In fact, it is impossible for the innocent partner to effect a divorce.
  • When the wronged spouse takes the legal means to end the marriage (ie, files for divorce with the civil authorities) he or she is not divorcing, but is merely acknowledging the divorce that has already taken place.

What Jesus forbids, in other words, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” is the destruction of the marriage by violation of the vows.  That is what divorce is.  Divorce, we say again, is not the filing of the paperwork by the wronged party.

Some years ago when I was counseling a couple whose background included a history of adultery by one of them, I remember telling them, “Your marriage is over.  It was destroyed by the violation of the marriage contract you made.  Therefore, the wronged party has the right to acknowledge this fact by filing the necessary legal papers with the civil court.  You are not required to do so.  You may choose to forgive and continue on in the marriage.  But this is your right.”  In this case, the wronged spouse chose to forgive and continue on.  Perhaps in cases like this it would be appropriate to recite new vows?

In the case of abuse in marriage: the abuse victim is not the one “committing” the divorce when he or she decides the marriage contract has been rendered null and void.  That has already been accomplished by the abuser who has refused to love, honor, and cherish as he vowed before God to do.  The church continues, in many cases, to do great harm and injustice to abuse victims when we insist that if she files for divorce, she is actually the one who is effecting the divorce and therefore, guilty before God.  All the victim is doing is suing for the court to recognize that the marriage contract has been broken.  We even use that legal language – suing for divorce.

Why is it that we seem to hold credit card agreements and home mortgages in higher esteem than the marriage contract? What person in their right mind would ever enter into a contract, knowing that the other party can violate the terms to our harm, and yet there will be nothing we can do to get out of the contract?

 

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9 Comments

  1. Marianne Lordi

    Jeff, your words rang true to me. It is so sad when a wife is verbally abused by her spouse and all she can hope for is that he will be the one to file for divorce so that it is not het sin. Does that make sense? How do you live as one with an abuser?

    • Hi Marianne, my book (Not Under Bondage) explains the biblical grounds for divorce. You can find it in the sidebar of this blog. How does one live with an abuser? With great difficulty! You are free to divorce if your husband is abusing you. Look at the tag “Divorce” on this blog and you will find lots of posts about it. Here is the best post to start with:
      https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2014/10/10/the-bible-does-allow-divorce-for-domestic-abuse/

      I just noticed that when you’ve been commenting at this blog, you screen name has an embedded link to your WordPress blog. I suggest you remove that link before you hit the ‘submit’ button. Please email TWBTC if you need guidance how to do this — twbtc.acfj@gmail.com

  2. Jeff Crippen

    All kinds of unbiblical advice is being given to abuse victims, both women and men. It seems to me that in our zeal to preserve marriages at any cost, we have developed quite a body of our own traditions rather than applying Scriptural truth. The topics of forgiveness, reconciliation, marriage and remarriage are all intertwined in the question of divorce. I have read several books by prominent Christian authors and teachers and have been disappointed at what they are teaching on these matters.

    For instance, John MacArthur insists that abuse is not a biblical reason for divorce. You can check this out on his Grace to You website if you search under domestic violence, abuse, divorce or related topics. Anyone who is informed on the topic of abuse will readily see from MacArthur’s comments that he is uninformed about it. He seems to think that abuse is physical only, but even then he will not recognize it as a ground for divorce. I think that his woodenly literal hermeneutic (interpretive method) is one of the reasons for his conclusion.

    Other writers insist that forgiveness ALWAYS includes reconciliation of relationship, never bringing up the wrong committed against you again, and so on. But that simply cannot be. See 2 Timothy 4:14. We can forgive even our enemies, but they remain enemies – there is no relationship to reconcile. Forgiveness means at its heart, resolving not to seek vengeance nor hating the person who wronged us. So a victim can divorce an abuser AND forgive them. This is not contradictory. Thanks much Marianne.

  3. Jeff Crippen

    I was asked by someone who read this article if this position doesn’t free people up to “do whatever they want”? In other words, if their spouse abuses them, habitually breaking the wedding vows in hard-heartedness and thus destroys the marriage contract, doesn’t this give the wronged spouse freedom to “just bail out” and leave? In the case in question, a woman had done this – her husband was abusive and adulterous – and then she moved in with another man. Well, of course being wronged in one marriage does not authorize a victim to commit fornication, which “shacking up” with someone is.

    On the other hand, we must answer – “yes” to the question of “bailing out.” Yes, the wronged spouse whose abusive husband or wife has unrepentently destroyed the marriage covenant by breaking the terms of that covenant – the vows – is indeed free. Now, we also know that we are bound to obey the laws of the civil authorities (Romans 13). So that means the victim cannot just go out and marry someone else without first going through the proper legal channels to petition for and finalize a divorce. The civil law does not permit polygamy!

    But you can see in this questioner’s question the reluctance Christians often have to granting a husband or wife the right to have the destruction of their marriage recognized. Somehow we want to preserve any “marriage” at all costs – when in fact very often what we are trying to preserve is no marriage at all. With all of this said however, the victim always has the right to choose to remain in the marriage and be reconciled. But she/he also has the right to finalize the divorce which the guilty party already effected.

  4. Wonderful article and excellent explanation. Something that’s always bothered me– as Christians, shouldn’t our standards be higher? Shouldn’t we treat our wives, husbands, children *better* than those who don’t claim to fear God? And yet so many times, abuse is not only tolerated, but condoned.

    Another point: Of the abused women I’ve known, *not one* wanted to leave. Every single one went above and beyond the limits of what most would consider reasonable. By the time any actual divorcing took place, they’d reached the very end of endurance, many times to the point of losing their mental and physical health.

    Could someone make a false accusation of abuse just because they want to bail? Of course they could. But do we hold all women in bondage for that reason? Please God, no.

  5. Jeff Crippen

    Ida – thank you much for your comments. Yes, the Christian church should be characterized by the best treatment of spouses and children in the world. Unfortunately, not everyone who claims to be a Christian really is, even if they are church members. The situation could be remedied to a greater extent however if we pastors and church members were educated to the mentality and tactics of the abuser. We have not arrived there yet though, which is one of the chief reasons we want to get our book published soon.

    Your point about abuse victims not wanting to leave their marriage is an excellent observation and one that I hope our readers pay close attention to. You are absolutely right. in this. It really is not a realistic fear to think that if we permit divorce for abuse, all of these people are going to come running forward crying abuse just to get out of their marriages. A few may, but the guilt will be upon them. To enslave real victims to their abusers by teaching them God does not permit divorce in their case is cruel, unjust, and I believe shameful in Christ’s sight.

    The gospel itself is open to the charge “then we can sin all we want since salvation is by grace alone!” Paul says so in Romans 6:1-2, but that doesn’t mean we should stop preaching salvation by grace alone in Christ alone!

  6. Alson

    I thought Paul, speaking for God, told we believers that we may separate, but if we do we must then remain single or reconcile with our husbands or wives. Are men who are abusive to their wives verbally not included in Paul’s words? Are not the women who rightfully leave the homes of these men still bound by these words to remain single or to reconcile?

    • Alson, we believe that verbal abuse is just as destructive as other forms of abuse.
      As we say in our definition of abuse in the sidebar of the blog —

      The definition of abuse: A pattern of coercive control (ongoing actions or inactions) that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his* target subordinated and under his control. This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical. Not all these elements need be present, e.g., physical abuse may not be part of it.

      The definition of domestic abuser: a family member or dating partner (current or ex) who has a profound mentality of entitlement to the possession of power and control over the one s/he* chooses to mistreat. This mentality of entitlement defines the very essence of the abuser. The abuser believes he is justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain that power and control.

      * Sometimes the genders are reversed—see our tag for ‘male survivors’ (tags tab in the top menu).

      And here are two of our FAQ pages:
      What About Divorce?
      What About Remarriage?

      On those pages you will find links to various posts that will answer your questions.

      Welcome to the blog 🙂 We always like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      If you want us to change your screen name for your safety’s sake, just email ‘The woman behind the curtain’ twbtc.acfj@gmail.com — she will be more than happy to assist. 🙂

  7. Finding Answers

    From Pastor Jeff’s original post: Why is it that we seem to hold credit card agreements and home mortgages in higher esteem than the marriage contract? What person in their right mind would ever enter into a contract, knowing that the other party can violate the terms to our harm, and yet there will be nothing we can do to get out of the contract?

    An interesting parallel…I was the only one who ensured the credit card agreements and mortgage contracts were kept, the bills paid for household services and repairs, and all the government taxes.

    Apparently, I was the only one who kept any contracts….

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