Marriage is a divine ordinance deriving its significance from the creative will of God "from the beginning". It is hence good and sacred in itself, though the desire for marriage is to be subservient to the Kingdom, within which some few may be called to remain unmarried and be given the grace to do so. In marriage, a man and a woman are joined together by God to form "one flesh" – this being ideally realised as a physical, personal and spiritual union. Within this relationship, the differences between the sexes inherent in creation complement one another, so that husband and wife fulfil different roles though equal "in Christ". This "one flesh" relationship is initiated and safeguarded by the marriage contract which involves a solemn covenant between the couple that they will in fact enter this relationship exclusively and for life. It is, however, especially the physical consummation that constitutes this relationship. The bond is therefore real even where it does not find its deepest expression. The "one flesh" relationship further implies monogamy.
Since marriage is far more than a legal contract, it cannot be dissolved by a legal agreement. While under Mosaic law, a certificate of divorce was permitted to protect the rights of women whose husbands were insistent on divorce, this permissive legislation was not to be taken as indicating the divine ideal. Basically, divorce is wrong, since it seeks to dissolve a bond established by God himself and since it sanctions adultery on the false assumption that the marriage bond has been so dissolved.
Marriage is dissolved by death, after which the remaining partner is free to remarry. But otherwise, and especially in the case of Christians who are to exemplify the divine ideal, the parties should either be reconciled or remain in singleness. This is the case, in part, in view of the imminence of the End – Christians should not be distracted by outside worries. For this reason, Christians are not obliged to resist pagan partners who want divorce – though it is not clear whether the Christian could remarry if he so desired.
While marriage cannot be dissolved by legal agreement, adultery is the one sin which by its very nature violates the "one flesh" relationship. It need not lead to divorce, but may be followed by repentance and reconciliation. However, the man divorcing his wife for adultery is not guilty of causing her to commit adultery since that sin is already present. But further, the break in the marriage bond through adultery is such that, unless reconciliation follows, divorce is not the sundering of what God has joined but the acknowledgment of what human sinfulness has already broken. The innocent party may thus be seen to be free to remarry.
Nowhere more than in marriage and divorce is it more truly seen that human laws are regulated to the exigencies of human sinfulness. The ultimate truth is not that divorce is good in this or that case. Even where it may be "just" or "warranted" it is never "good". The divine ethic must be seen in terms of the divine gospel which makes provision for that "hardness of heart" which so tragically makes divorce seem necessary. The ultimate truth is not merely that marriage can be exclusive, permanent and monogamous, but that within the creative will of God it can be the means of the highest and best, enriching and ennobling man and woman alike.
© Peter J. Blackburn 1965, 1999