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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