Marriage: A Lifelong Bond
This article first appeared as an editorial by Prof. David J. Engelsma in the April 15, 1998 issue of the Standard Bearer.
Over the past few months several editorials lamented the approval by Reformed churches of unbiblical divorce and of the remarriage that invariably follows (Nov. 1, 1997; Nov. 15, 1997; Dec. 1, 1997; March 15, 1998). The evil is widespread. Many churches quietly tolerate this great wickedness against God and the neighbor. Many others openly defend it.
Various factors contribute. A significant factor is the churches' conformity to the world. In these last days, the churches become worldly, as Christ forewarned. Therefore, lawlessness increases both among the membership and on the part of the institute itself. "And because lawlessness shall abound, the love of many shall cool" (Matt. 24:12, Greek text).
As the editorials showed, the root of the scandal is the churches' refusal to view marriage as a lifelong, unbreakable bond that God establishes between one man and one woman. Having compromised this fundamental truth about marriage, even those churches that once tried to restrict the right of remarriage to the "innocent party" have caved in to the pressure to tolerate the remarriage of any and all who are divorced, including the guilty party. This necessarily follows from the granting of a right of remarriage to the "innocent party." For if the "innocent party" may remarry, it must be that his original marriage has been dissolved. If the original marriage has been dissolved, it is dissolved not only for the "innocent party" but also for the guilty party. And if the marriage of the guilty party is dissolved, she may marry again, just as every unmarried person is free to marry. The church may not forbid it. The church may not refuse the membership of the remarried guilty party, at least not on the ground simply of the remarriage.
The epidemic of divorce and remarriage among their members and, especially, the scandalous presence at the Lord's Table of many who have unjustly divorced and then remarried ought to drive the churches to reconsider their doctrine of marriage. Specifically, this evil should compel the churches to consider seriously whether marriage is not a lifelong bond established by God, which no one and nothing can dissolve as long as the two live.
Instead, the churches more and more view marriage, if not in theory, then in practice, as a contract drawn up and entered into by the married persons mutually. It is dependent upon their pleasure. As a conditional contract, it can be broken by one or both of them. In this case, the marriage is abrogated. It is as if it never existed. Both may then make another contract with other parties. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.
A spineless church enthusiastically blesses every new contract and dutifully approves the breaking of the old ones.
What part the great God of heaven and earth plays in this abuse of His holy ordinance is a mystery. It seems to be His role genially to validate every abrogation of the old contract and compliantly to ratify every new one. Whatever suits the will and pleasure of the men and women who marry, divorce, and remarry, He sanctions. The god of the marriage doctrine and marriage practice of many evangelical and Reformed churches resembles nothing so much as a "Great Wax Nose" in heaven.
There is no excuse for the churches' rejection of the truth that marriage is a bond created by God. The testimony of Scripture is clear and compelling. A child can know it. The cleverest theologian cannot explain it away. At the institution of marriage in the beginning, the Word of God described the very essence of marriage as a man's cleaving to his wife in a "one flesh" union (Gen. 2:24). Where was the contract in the garden? Where was the conditional agreement, implying the possible dissolving of marriage? Marriage is, by God's own ordaining and effecting, a bond, a wonderfully intimate oneness. It is such a close oneness—"one flesh"—as unavoidably raises the questions, "Can this oneness be dissolved? Who or what can possibly make two again of those whom God has joined together?"
Appealing to the institution of marriage, specifically the words of Genesis 2:24 that describe marriage as a bond (with the express purpose of forbidding divorce!), Jesus sharpened and strengthened the biblical revelation that marriage is a God-formed bond: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6). Essentially, marriage is God's joining together of husband and wife as one flesh. It is a bond. There is no room in Jesus' authoritative doctrine of marriage for the notion of marriage as a human contract, not even if God is allowed to peer over the shoulders of the contracting couple to ratify their bargain.
Christ's apostle taught the same, and ordained it in all the churches: "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord" (I Cor. 7:39). The point now is not that the bond is broken only by death (which the text teaches in language that cannot be misunderstood), but that marriage is a binding and bonding. To be married is to be bound, to be bonded. What binds and bonds is the law, that is, the living Word of God. Of a contract, the apostle knows absolutely nothing.
The alternative to the view of marriage as a bond is the notion of marriage as a contract. James Fitzjames Stephen was right in his debate with John Stuart Mill when he put the alternatives as he did: "(Is marriage) a divine, indissoluble union governed by the paterfamilias, or is it a contractual unit governed and dissolved by the wills of the parties?" (John Witte, Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 198).
All contract-theory of marriage shatters on Ephesians 5:22ff.
Is the relation between my head and my body that of a contract? Did my head and my body agree conditionally to live together for their mutual advantage and pleasure, or even for their life? Is it part of their "co-living" and of their cooperation that if one fails in its duty the other may sever relations and find another, more agreeable body or head? If the head should become senile, may the body leave and re-attach? If the body becomes paralyzed, may the head dissolve the relationship?
Can they dissolve their union?
Nonsense, you say.
And you are right.
No fool represents the relation between physical head and physical body as a contract. It is a wonderful, close, ultimately mysterious bond established by the Creator in His creation for every one who partakes of human nature. Such is the bond that head and body, though distinct, are one.
But now the inspired apostle describes the relation of husband and wife exactly as that of head and body: "the husband is the head of the wife" (v. 23); "men ought to love their wives as their own bodies" (v. 28). No more than that of head and body is the relation of husband and wife a contract. As much as the relation of head and body, marriage is a bond of intimate fellowship in which the two share one life.
Not even this in Ephesians 5, however, is the most powerful testimony against the sterile, fragile contract-theory of marriage and for the fruitful, solid doctrine of marriage as bond. The most powerful testimony is the apostle's teaching that earthly marriage symbolizes the relationship of Christ and the church. Having quoted the fundamental Word of God at the institution of marriage, the apostle exclaims, "This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church" (v. 32).
If earthly marriage is not a bond, but a contract, such also is the relationship between Christ and the church. If earthly marriage is a mere contract, dependent for its endurance upon conditions fulfilled mutually by husband and wife, so also is the relationship between Christ and the church. If earthly marriage can be dissolved by one or the other of the parties at his or her will and pleasure, or even by his or her sin, so also can the covenant between Christ and the church be dissolved by the will of Christ or by the sin of the church. And then, a remarriage, at least on the part of Christ.
Years ago, a dear sister, who was not at that time enamored of everything Protestant Reformed, said to me, "The best thing that the Protestant Reformed Churches have going for them is their stand on marriage." She was not far wrong. For in addition to its being a blessing to many families, as well as to the churches made up of these families, the doctrine of marriage as a lifelong, indissoluble bond serves the gospel of the covenant of grace. And this grand gospel of the covenant as a bond of fellowship between Christ and us, established, maintained, and perfected by the triune God in sheer, unilateral, unconditional grace and, therefore, unbreakable and everlasting, is the "best thing" in the Protestant Reformed Churches, as it is the "best thing" in the Bible.
On the day (which may God graciously forbid!) when the Protestant Reformed Churches give in to the pressures of the world, which are heavy, and to the desires of their own members, which can be strong because of the hard, marital circumstances of ourselves or of our children, and permit remarriage, on that day they will repudiate marriage as a bond. And on that day they will be committed to a doctrine of the covenant as a contract—a conditional, breakable contract.
By virtue of Ephesians 5:31, 32.
Marriage is a bond. God the Creator made it so. He made it so for the sake of the redeemed and for the sake of His own covenant as Redeemer.
The question then is: Can the bond be broken? and if so, by whom?
God must answer this question. Marriage is His institution. He has formed every marriage-bond as with His own hand. Men and women may not speak here. All must listen to the Word of God. Then they must confess what God has said. They must ignore what the world says. They must pay no attention to the answer pleaded for by their own circumstances or by the circumstances of those whom they love.
God's answer, given in Holy Scripture, is plain.
Earthly marriage can be dissolved. It can be dissolved only by God Himself. He dissolves it by the death of one of the married persons (I Cor. 7:39).
Fornication on the part of husband or wife can so strain the bond that divorce in the sense of full, legal separation is allowed. But even then the bond is not broken, so as to permit remarriage (Matt. 19:9; I Cor. 7:10, 11).
Only the death of one of the married persons dissolves the bond, for the bond is superhumanly strong: "one flesh" by the joining of the Almighty.
"Marriage: a lifelong bond" implies "marriage, a calling."
Will you consider this with me next time?
Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)
Ordained: September 1963
Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof_D._Engelsma
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