I’ve been studying quite a bit on marriage lately. Much of this post I learned by going through an extensive series on marriage/divorce/remarriage delivered by the After Class Podcast. These brothers in Christ are such a great resource. I highly recommend you listen to this 8-episode series. (After Class Podcast: 4.36 – Marriage – Part 1 (libsyn.com))
Recently, I wrote a social media post inviting discussion on the differences between “legal wedlock” and wedlock in the eyes of God. This was prompted by a discussion on the guilt and stigma often associated with couples who get pregnant before they officially walk down the aisle. My belief is in these cases, assuming no adultery or porneia (more on that word later), that couple has entered into a union of one flesh that is in keeping with God’s good design. All the other things we typically think about with marriage (ceremonies, licenses, rings, etc.) are superfluous to God’s working between the man and woman. Throughout Scripture, sex is defined as the marital act. This is not at all to say that the looseness we see in society is in keeping with that. Abuse of that marital act is where the breakdown occurs (and it is rampant) but adding a ceremony and some paperwork is not the cure. We need a robust understanding of what marriage even is in the eyes of God. Tradition runs deep here, and it’s not always easy to sort out God’s ideas and man’s ideas.
I’m not against weddings or other marriage traditions. I was blessed to be a groomsman in some dear friends’ wedding several weeks ago, and I’m going to another wedding today! Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding feast. A marriage is something to celebrate! But the events around a marriage should be to celebrate what God is doing. The ceremony doesn’t make the marriage. The preacher’s words don’t bring the two into one. The government’s paperwork isn’t filed in Heaven. To allow our government (dare I say even our religious organizations) to have the ultimate authority on what we consider “marriage” through licenses and other official documentation, are we not taking away God’s ultimate authority in the one flesh union that he has been overseeing since the Garden of Eden? This is God’s institution. We didn’t invent it. Malachi 2:15 says: “Did [God] not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” Jesus echoes this in Matthew 19:6: “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” It’s not what man has joined together. It’s not what our government says is joined together. It’s what God has joined together.
This is all written with the believer in mind. The world will do what the world wants to do. I don’t put much stock into what my country or state calls marriage. That ultimately has no bearing on me or God’s Kingdom. But, throughout history, the world has contaminated the hearts and minds of God’s people and led us astray. As believers, we should always pursue deeper understanding of God’s truths.
In the Beginning…
When Jesus speaks on the topic of marriage, he takes us back to the very beginning, so it’s fitting we start there too. Genesis 2:20-25 paints a beautiful picture of God creating man and woman for each other, they become “one flesh,” and therefore are made husband and wife.
I can’t read Hebrew, but I’ve grown to see how much we miss by only studying our various English translations. The story of Adam and Eve is just one of many examples of that.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the story: God saw that Adam needed a partner in the Garden, so he put him under some divine anesthesia, plucked out a rib, and formed Eve (Gen 2:18-25).
But that version misses so much. First, the name “Adam” is simply a Hebrew word for “human.” So, Adam is just “human” at the start of this story. That’s important. He’s also formed from the ground, or in Hebrew, “adamah.” Then God makes Adam a helper, which better translates to “completer” or “savior.” Also, when our English translations say God took a “rib” from Adam, there is no Hebrew word that means “rib” in that sentence. The word translated to rib is really “sela” and it typically means one of two opposite sides of a building. So, God really separated the human into two separate sides and created man (Ish)and woman (Isha). When Adam wakes up and sees Eve, he utters a beautiful poem:
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.” – Genesis 2:23
He is now half of a whole. She’s bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh.
Doesn’t the next verse make more sense now?
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24
Those two halves were always meant to come back together in perfect unity. And how has God divinely ordained that happen? By designing sexual intercourse—a both literal and figurative expression of that new identity.
Inauguration of a Marriage
What initiates a marriage? Is it a ceremony? Vows? Marriage was primarily handled between the families in ancient times, and religious institutions were not even involved in the process. Marriages became marriages when the two were joined together, becoming one flesh through sex. Some cultures even have third-party witnesses to make sure the marriage is consummated! Cultures all over the world have various traditions revolving around marriage. And many harmonize well within God’s design. But how often are we tempted to think that our ideas about something must also be God’s ideas because that’s what we’re comfortable with?
Biblically, how are marriages started? Through the marital act of sex. (By the way, it’s always marital. There is no pre- or extra-marital sex. More on that later…) This marital act literally brings the two halves perfectly together and it figuratively brings those two lives together until death.
Adam and Eve were married. Not by a priest. Not in a church. Not with a ceremony. They were joined together by God and made one flesh through the marital act of intercourse. Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage is also described in this way in Genesis 24:67. Also, Jacob and Leah (and Rachel, and Bilhah, and Zilpah… more on that in a bit). In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, instructions are given for how to treat females from enemy nations taken captive. In the context of taking care of them and giving them a home, they may be taken as a wife (after being allowed to mourn). The phrasing used here is: “After [the mourning period] you may go into her and be her husband she shall be your wife.” (Deut 21:13) Also in Deuteronomy (Deut 25:5-10), instructions are given for how to take care of a widow if she has no sons. Again, as strange as this may seem to us as modern readers, these laws were critical in that culture to ensure the woman was cared for and not forced into desperate situations. The brother of the man is supposed to take her as a wife and produce children for his dead brother. The phrasing? “Her husband’s brother shall go into her and take her as his wife to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” (Deut 25:5)
In God’s design, the one flesh act is the ultimate symbol of unity and should provide a glimpse at the perfect unity between Christ and His church. It’s a bond that can’t be broken during this life. One man. One woman. One flesh. That is the ideal, and that’s why Jesus points to it when questioned about marriage in Matthew 19. Unfortunately, people don’t always follow the ideal path…
Inaugurated but Disrespected
In some cases, marriages are inaugurated, but not recognized. The marital act of sex is so commonly abused. The sacred joining of those two halves into one flesh is initiated with the act of sexual intercourse whether the participants understand the weight of that or not. Is this sacredness always realized? No. Respected? No. Have people throughout history always followed God’s design for this bond? No.
In fact, several laws in Torah were written specifically because of the people’s inability to maintain God’s good design the way he intended. Unfortunately, many of those laws were taken out of context by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and even still today.
Some Pharisees come to question Jesus about his understanding of the Mosaic Law for divorce, really intending to test which Rabbinical interpretation he would side with, hoping to stir division and discredit him. This is recorded in Matthew 19:3-12. He responds simply: “Don’t you remember what was said in the beginning? God created them, male and female, and the two will become one flesh. What God has joined together let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6) He reminds them (and us) that if we want to understand God’s plan for marriage, we can’t look at the laws given to govern a fallen people as a baseline (they were referencing Deuteronomy 24:1-4, albeit with poor understanding). Instead, we should go back to the beginning. God’s plan for marriage was perfectly implemented in the Garden.
It bears repeating:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24
But the humans didn’t get to stay in the Garden for long. This is not a perfect world, and we are certainly not a perfect people.
One prominent example of God having to work through imperfect people is Jacob. He is certainly an example where the ideal path of marriage wasn’t followed. And to be fair, not all of that was his fault. That part of the story starts in Genesis 29. Jacob is in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel—so much so that he agrees to work for Laban for seven years to have her as his wife. When the day finally arrives, Laban pulls a fast one and swaps Leah for Rachel at the last second. Whether Jacob was drunk or if it was just dark and she had on a full burka no one knows, but Jacob didn’t realize the switch until after the one flesh act, the marital act, had already happened. Of course, in the morning, Jacob realizes that he’s with Leah and goes to confront Laban. But not once does Jacob claim that what happened between Leah and him “didn’t count.” He knew they were one flesh and there was no going back. Even though there was no ceremony for Leah, there was no party for Leah’s engagement—Jacob and Leah were husband and wife. He couldn’t give her back after they had sex. But he still loved Rachel. He agrees to work another seven years for her to have her as his wife as well. Was that God’s plan for marriage? No. Just because something is recorded in the Bible doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. I believe it was the After Class Podcast where I heard the phrase “Description does not equal prescription.” In fact, the rest of chapter 29 and into 30 records the intense conflict that came about because of this twisting of God’s good design. Later, a law comes about in Torah to specifically prohibit sisters being taken as wives of the same man (Leviticus 18:18). Even more conflict arises when Leah and Rachel give their servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, to Jacob as wives. But God redeems Jacob’s situation. He becomes the father of the 12 Tribes of Israel. God can still use imperfect people and imperfect conditions.
That’s just one example of polygamy we see in the Bible. Some may be tempted to think that God supports polygamy, but again, description does not equal prescription. God had a perfect plan for a lot of things, and humans have successfully perverted them all. Lamech was the first to abuse marriage with polygamy, and he is not a guy any of us should emulate (Gen 4:19-24). In addition to the conflicts among Jacob’s wives, his grandfather Abraham’s wives also had major conflicts (Genesis 16 and Genesis 21). King David and King Solomon are no stranger to the problems brought about by polygamous lifestyles. Despite a clear law in Torah forbidding Israel’s kings from having multiple wives (Deut 17:17), David and Solomon allowed themselves to be pulled away from God’s plan. These are the most entitled people in the kingdom—if they weren’t allowed to have multiple wives, what should that say about everyone else?
God’s plan was one man, one woman, for life (Gen 2:24). The law of Moses that came later was meant to address the failings of the people in a lot of ways. Sometimes we can read that as if certain things were allowed, but many times the law is addressing how to make the best out of a bad situation when there is a failure—not to facilitate a detour a from God’s design.
But didn’t Solomon also have a bunch of concubines too (1 Kings 11:3)? They weren’t his wives, were they? Turns out a lot of characters in our Bible had concubines (Abraham, Jacob, and Saul to name a few). Concubines were an abuse of the marital act (as were multiple wives in most situations, excepting Deut 25:5-10). Concubines were exploited by the wealthy for sex without giving them the status of wife and the benefits therein. But just because they failed to recognize them as a wife doesn’t mean they were any less “one flesh.” They would be akin to a prostitute, which Paul very clearly states in 1 Corinthians 6:16 that you do in fact become one flesh with them. This sets up the context for 1 Corinthians 7 which is commonly used to talk about “pre-marital sex”…
Marital, Pre-marital, Extra-marital?
In God’s eyes, all sex is marital. There is no such thing as “pre-marital sex.” Jacob was planning on marrying Rachel, but his uncle tricked him, and he unknowingly slept with Leah. This was a marital act. Jacob was then married to Leah. He knows it and accepts it as we discussed before.
The problem is the extensive abuse of the marital act. What we have going on in our world today is “serial polygamy”—a lot of people very loose with sexuality entering into one flesh relationships with many people with no regard for what that bond truly means. Biblically speaking, polygamy is going on all over the US—not just in certain small, isolated communities in southern Utah. But it’s not new to our current time and place.
1 Corinthians 7:2 is sometimes interpreted to be a warning against so-called “pre-marital” sex. But this fails to consider the full historical context of this passage. As stated above, 1 Corinthians 6:16 talks about becoming one flesh with a prostitute. This is the immorality Paul is referring to in 1 Cor 7:2. The Corinthians were constantly confronted with temple prostitution in their culture, and many of them came from that way of life directly. The word translated as “sexual immorality” there is porneia, which typically describes something totally against God’s design (such things as in Leviticus 18 and prostitution). So, Paul is telling them it’s better that they marry so they will not be tempted to visit the temple prostitute.
Even if porneia is translated as “fornication” in some versions of our English Bible, we have to be careful not to read back into the text a modern definition of a word. Just because we can find “pre-marital sex” under the definition of fornication in our dictionary does not mean that’s how authors and readers of the Biblical texts defined those words. When we’re interpreting the Bible, we must remember that none of it was written in English. Translations are never perfect, and vocabulary is relative and contextual. This takes study. This takes research. This takes learning from experts. We must be responsible in how we interpret the text.
The woman Jesus meets at the well in John 4 is also brought up as someone who is in a sexual relationship outside of marriage—and indeed she is, but not because they didn’t walk down the aisle so to speak. This woman has clearly had some struggles in her life, but as God always does, He is looking out for those that are poor in spirit, humble in heart, and truly seeking Him. Jesus points out these struggles not to bring guilt upon her, but to show her that he sees her; that she is not lost on him. Look at John 4:16-18 specifically. Jesus says to her “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” I would previously emphasize “not” in that last part. But it makes more sense to emphasize “your.” He’s talking about her other husbands and then says “the one you have now”—so she has him as a husband, but he’s not her husband because he is supposed to be living as the husband of someone else. This was an adulterous relationship. This reading of the text then is easily aligned with all the other texts we’re discussing.
Speaking of adultery, it’s interesting that even Abimelech, king of the Philistines, knew adultery was wrong. When both Abraham and his son Isaac lied to him about their wives being their sisters (Gen 20:1-18 and Gen 26:6-11), Abimelech was appalled at the predicament he was put in. “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” (Gen 20:10) Abraham also pulled this trick on Pharoah in Gen 12:10-20 who was also sensitive to this sinful act.
So, what are the ramifications of all this? Sex is the marital act. Random hook-ups had (and still have) serious implications. Whether you want/recognize it or not, you now have a spouse. You participated in a marital act. You’ve entered into a bond that only ceases by one thing…
Only One Thing Ends a Marriage: Death
Back to our Matthew 19:3-12 passage. Jesus’s definition for marriage is plainly given here. The Pharisees seemingly want Jesus to rattle off a long list of what “indecencies” would warrant a divorce, citing a “command” of Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
But is that really the intent behind that passage of Torah?
“If she finds no favor in his eyes and a man writes a certificate of divorce…”
This is not a command. It’s not even really a concession. It’s an acknowledgment that humans are broken and are going to do things that go against God’s good design. Much of Torah is all about what has to be done after men have taken matters into their own hands and messed up God’s plans for them. And the consequence for that action of divorce is simple in this passage: If you send her away, and she begins another one-flesh union, she can’t be your wife again. John Nugent refers to this as the “no take backsies” rule.
We also see in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 that a man knew divorce was not an easy option. A man that accuses his new wife of not being a virgin must prove that fact. This suggests “writing a certificate of divorce” is not as simple as it sounds, or else the man accusing his wife of this would just go that route instead of risk being whipped when the woman can prove her virginity after all.
Another passage that some try to use to support divorce as a legitimate way to end a marriage is Exodus 21:7-11. The problem with using this as a passage about divorce is that it is primarily a passage about slavery. This is not the type of slavery we tend to think about in the US—it was a consensual practice to help meet economic needs, and it was strictly regulated. Israel was not meant to be built on slave labor. Men taken as slaves had to be released on the seventh year whether their debt was repaid fully or not (Exodus 21:1-2). Since Israel was a patriarchal society, the men had family land and inheritance that they must take control of. This was not the case for the women; therefore, the rules governing the treatment of women were created to protect them as the more vulnerable of that society—quite a progressive system compared to the world around them.
So, in that Exodus passage, a man may have certain debts that he can only repay by accepting an early dowry for his young daughter. She is essentially taken in under an agreement of betrothal to this family. The person taking the girl in also benefits by being able to ensure that the girl “fits in” with their family and the dowry is less expensive. Now, if she doesn’t fit in, the family would have a lot of incentive to treat her poorly. This law helps prevent that potential abuse. If the man ends up wanting to take her as his wife down the road, that’s great—she’s in the family and cared for. Once she’s a wife, she’s not a slave anymore though (this would be how concubines were treated). If he decides not to take her as his wife, her family can buy her back (she can be redeemed). She can’t be sold off to a foreign people for a profit. If she is to marry the man’s son, she cannot be treated like a slave anymore, but as a daughter. And if the man takes another wife instead of her and she is still living with them (not redeemed), he still must provide for her basic needs, or she is free to go. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated “marital rights” there is “onah,” but this word can also mean oil or shelter. It’s unclear because this is the only time it appears in the Bible. But, if this passage is referring to the man taking an additional wife, it’s a command that she should still be treated equally as a wife (and not receive a “demotion” to slave). Since the man has already departed from God’s design for marriage, if he does begin to treat her as a slave instead of a wife, God steps in to let the woman go free (back to her home) where she can be treated fairly even if she is in a bad position for remarriage. Either way, this law addresses sex slavery and human trafficking. This is meant to protect the weak and the vulnerable—something that God is always doing. This protects women that may find themselves in a situation like Hagar, for instance.
But Jesus does not go down these roads to support the practice of divorce. Jesus paints an extremely high view of marriage and the marital act of sex. He points these Pharisees beyond Moses and takes them back to the very beginning—one man, one woman, for life. The laws came because of men’s hard hearts, but God’s plan was good and perfect right out of the gate. Remember that had it not been for man’s fall, God’s plan was for them to never die in the first place, and they would live with Him forever in perfect peace and unity. That was the ideal—one flesh forever.
But alas, death did enter the world. And that is what separates the God-instituted one-flesh bonds. Paul makes this clear in Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39-40. He also has a record of encouraging singleness in these situations as well, perhaps to magnify the sanctity of marriage and the one flesh bond even more. The other interesting thing here is that if a believer is going to pursue a new marriage after the death of their spouse, it should be limited to someone who is also in the Lord.
We as believers should be concerned about displaying the sanctity and purity of marriage. Our marriages are critical to our overall witness for God’s Kingdom to the world around us. Similarly, the Levitical Priests were to be a display of the ideal picture of God’s perfect plan for marriage—knowing that the rest of the nation and world would be distorting that picture to varying degrees. The Priests were only to marry a virgin, and it was a once for life situation. Even though it was acceptable for a widow (or widower) to remarry in the general population, the Priests were explicitly barred from marrying a widow, a divorced woman, or a prostitute (Lev 21:10-15). Are we not all considered priests today (1 Peter 2:9-10)? Perhaps that should further shape how we view marriage…
So, ultimately, Jesus says that divorce is not an option to end a marriage. Jesus’s view of marriage is also recorded in Matthew 5:31-32, Mark 10:2-12, and Luke 16:18. The Mark and Luke passages are quite blunt. A divorce and remarriage equals adultery. End of story. Death is the only thing that ends a marriage. A legal document of divorce does not remove your one flesh bond. And neither, as we’ll discuss below, does an act of adultery.
Didn’t Jesus Give an Exception?
Interestingly, both Matthew passages (Matt 5:31-32, 19:3-12) seem to include an “exception clause.” Both passages have the phrase “except on the ground of sexual immorality.” Was Jesus condoning divorce here? Why did Mark and Luke record it differently? The Greek word in this “exception clause” is porneia. In some English translations, it may read as sexual immorality, marital unfaithfulness, or unchastity. However, just before this part in Matthew 5, Matthew records Jesus’s teaching on adultery (Matt 5:27-28). The Greek word translated to adultery there is moicheia. Matthew is familiar with that word, but he switches to porneia for this so-called “exception clause.” Why does Matthew change terms? Why do some English translations assume he means an act of adultery? What does porneia mean here? What was Jesus really saying? Why do Mark and Luke not include this clause? Seems like it might be an important detail to leave out if it’s the only “way out” of a marriage… Why does Matthew (Matt 15:19) and Mark (Mark 7:21) use porneia and moicheia side by side if they are interchangeable? This takes much consideration, and we should dig deeper than our English translations and modern dictionaries. As is always the case with Scripture, we need to let the context help us understand…
The Jerusalem Council is recorded in Acts 15. The Gentiles were coming to Christ, and the believers of Jewish background were trying to discern exactly how to handle this. Should they all be circumcised? What part of Torah, the law of Moses, should be imposed on them? After much deliberation and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, a decision was reached. The Gentile believers would have these requirements: abstain from idols, blood, food that had been strangled, and sexual immortality (porneia). These four things came straight from the law of Moses, as Acts 15:21 says: “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Abstaining from idols is easy to understand—no one can profess to follow Christ while deliberately worshipping idols. Also, the blood guilt laws were still in effect. The life was in the blood. Food laws were no longer binding (i.e., no “kosher” requirement) except that the animals must be drained of the blood (again back to the blood laws).
What about porneia? If these four requirements came from Moses, where did Moses talk about the term? This is where the Jewish people would have derived their understanding for the word.
The Torah discusses porneia in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 and it covers all sorts of cases of incest, same-sex eroticism, bestiality, and yes, even situations of adultery. Prostitution is later included in this term (1 Cor 6:12-20), and child molestation is easily understood to fall into the spirit of porneia as well.
Maybe the traditional understanding of the “exception clause” is correct, but just not broad enough? However, another important principle of interpreting Scripture is to always use the more clear passages to help discern the less clear passages.
We do have clear passages on this. Luke 16:18 says: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Mark 10:11-12 says: “And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 says: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”
Let’s dig into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians a bit more. He specifically says this word is from the Lord. This is supposed to directly reflect Jesus’s teaching, but where is that “exception clause”? It’s plain. Neither the wife nor husband should divorce. Period. The “if she does…” statement also should not be understood as Paul giving his readers a way to work around Jesus’s teaching. The English translation makes it sound like we can disagree with Jesus and have a detour to follow. The Greek there suggests this is someone who is already in that situation. Paul is saying that if that’s the situation you find yourself in, leave the door open for reconciliation. Don’t pursue another one flesh relationship if your spouse is still alive. Isn’t that why we all became disciples in the first place? We should be people that are all about the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
Porneia can be used more narrowly in some cases and more broadly in others (hence Matthew and Mark using porneia and moicheia side by side). Based on Matthew’s use of the word and the other cross references to this passage/topic, it becomes increasingly clear that this “exception clause” isn’t so much of an exception clause at all. Marriage is for life. Jesus seems to be saying that the only thing that should dissolve a marriage is if it’s a union that was a total aberration to God’s design in the first place. This would call for repentance. This is not Jesus delivering a new exception to the law of Moses—it’s actually keeping the law of Moses. As an (extreme) example, if a 30-year-old man is “married” to a 10-year-old girl and he comes to Christ, it should be obvious that this relationship is something that must end. He is not causing her to commit adultery if she grows up and gets married someday. Mark, Luke, and Paul may suggest that of course ending a “marriage” in that case goes without saying—that was an horrible aberration to God’s design.
Some translations of this so-called “exception clause” muddy the waters further, allowing for even broader interpretation. Versions that read “except for marital unfaithfulness” (like the MEV), could be stretched to mean any sort of unfaithful behavior—not helping around the house, not giving enough attention, not providing sufficiently, etc. Are those things problems? Absolutely! But this is not what Jesus is talking about. There is a way to address those things that all too often goes underutilized, and it’s talked about in Matthew 18:15-20. We as a body of believers should be holding each other accountable.
There may also be severe cases where there is violence or other forms of abuse within a marriage. There is nothing that suggests a wife should stay in the house with an abusive husband, or vice versa. The church should also be implementing Matthew 18:15-20 in these cases, as well as bringing in the civil authorities when needed. The discipline of the offending spouse discussed in Matthew 18 must be carried out all the way. If they repent, that is wonderful—that’s the job we all signed up for as disciples. If they don’t, they are then considered an unbeliever. Paul gave very specific instructions on how that situation can be handled in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. (Jesus never had to talk about this because there were no cases where a believer was married to an unbeliever at the time of his ministry.) The victim of abuse does not have to stay under the same roof as their spouse, but they are still one flesh. Physical separation doesn’t change that. The church should take on the difficult role of helping provide for the victim of this scenario. One day, the offending spouse may opt to end the marriage. Paul says that the believing spouse has no responsibility to keep the unbelieving spouse from pursuing that option and are at that point freed from the marriage. One question that isn’t answered is whether the believing spouse is then free to remarry. We can’t be sure, but it’s possible Paul assumes that the overall teaching is clear enough to suggest that person should remain single (until the death of the spouse breaks that bond). It’s a sacrifice to hold up the sanctity of marriage in such a difficult situation. But we should never encourage someone to remain in the house under threat of violence or abuse. We as the body must step in to help in those situations.
Another way that the sexual act is abused is through situations of rape. There’s an important passage about this in Exodus 22:16-17. Even though it wasn’t a consensual act, it was still an abuse of the marital act. This passage makes clear that because of that, the perpetrator must pay the bride price. And if she is betrothed, the consequences would be even more severe (discussed below). And it’s important to note: The girl has a choice in this situation. Maybe this was just two people who took things too far, but the woman does love the man. She can opt to live as his wife. Her father acts as her representative, and if she doesn’t want to be with this man, she is not bound to him because of this violent act.
Rape is not a true one flesh union. One party is not giving themselves to the other. The perpetrator is effectively using the victim to masturbate. The victim did not inaugurate or initiate any one flesh bond with the attacker. But the attacker took something from the victim. She is now defiled. In the culture of ancient Israel, it will be very economically challenging for her from that point on. Therefore, the attacker, who instigated this marital bond, must pay the dowry, but the woman is free to decide if she wants to be with this person or not.
Ancient Israel and other nations with strong honor-shame cultures also had other ways of dealing with these situations. Just look at how Jacob’s sons dealt with the rape of their sister Dinah in Genesis 34.
In Deuteronomy 22:25-29, more instruction is given for how to deal with those that violate the marital act. If both parties were guilty, capital punishment was invoked. If the rape happened in the country where the betrothed woman could not have summoned help, the man was punished by death. And if a virgin was raped, he had to pay the bride price and assume responsibility for her because of what he took. This sounds unfair to the woman, but it was primarily meant to ensure she was cared for. Also, the Exodus passage later clarifies that her father could step in on her behalf.
Let Not Man Separate
Jesus’s view of marriage is so high that his disciples say (basically) in Matthew 19:10: “Whew, if that’s the level of commitment it takes, it’s better not to marry at all!” The Pharisees are approaching him wondering how many ways someone can get out of a marriage, but Jesus says what God puts together man can’t separate. (Why is it I’ve heard that at every wedding ceremony I’ve ever been to, but am just now realizing the true gravity of that statement? And sadly, how many weddings have that passage recited, but the marriage still ends with the people separating anyway?)
In response to his disciples’ amazement, Jesus affirms that indeed some people have a special gifting to serve God’s Kingdom as singles, but not all. Paul talks about this special gift too in 1 Corinthians 7:6-7,40. But God has a role for the married and the single. In fact, it’s clear in Genesis 2:18 that God gave us marriage for our benefit. He made us, man and woman, as two halves that are meant to come together as a perfect whole.
God’s Grace is Greater
What I’ve written here may be difficult to swallow. You may disagree with some or many of my conclusions. I write this not to bring guilt upon anyone, but to try to help us achieve a greater understanding of God’s good design. That way, even if an individual has not followed through with that design, they can still be a champion of it. We don’t have to “baptize” our past mistakes. God’s capacity for forgiveness is inexhaustible. Let’s accept where we’ve fallen short and pursue God from wherever we find ourselves today.
A legal divorce granted through our government systems does not remove the one flesh bond that couple shares. But, praise God that adultery and divorce are not unforgivable sins. God can redeem imperfect scenarios—he did it repeatedly throughout Scripture. A perfect example of this is the story of Hosea and Gomer. Gomer was a prostitute, but God told Hosea to take her as his wife and love her despite her past. She represented Israel and their adultery with other gods. But God was always ready to redeem them.
We can’t un-ring a bell and we can’t go back in time. If you’ve already entered into a marriage after a divorce, you are now one flesh with the current spouse. The second marriage is as real as the first. Let God redeem that. Honor God through it. Commit to him that this is a bond that is “until death do you part.”
And if you had wild days in college or high school—yes, you abused the marital act. No, you don’t have go back and take them all as your spouse. Recognizing a past fault does not always require that we “fix it.” Many times, there’s nothing we can do. But we move from ignorance in an area to enlightenment, and we grow along the way.
God’s grace is truly amazing. His forgiveness is complete. Our walk with him is all about recognizing our brokenness and submitting to him. We have to come to him as we are and commit to moving forward (1 Cor 7:17-24). Remember the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11)? This was an offense punishable by death under Torah. Jesus flips the script. Even a capital offense didn’t garner capital punishment. That grace is offered to you today as well.
This isn’t how many of us have been taught to think about marriage, and it leads to lots of questions. A blog article is hardly adequate to tackle all of this, and especially a blog article written by me, but I do hope this starts a discussion and leads to further study and growth for all of us. Don’t take my word for it. Engage in honest study for yourself. Check out that podcast series or other scholars’ work. Pray for wisdom and understanding.
Grace and Peace.