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Desertion (2)

Having seen in the last News that I Corinthians 7:15 does not teach that a deserted believer is free to remarry, we turn to the tradition of the interpretation of this verse. Here we acknowledge that we differ from the Reformers.

However, we are far from alone in our position. Amongst the commentators on I Corinthians who agree with us are men of various theological persuasions: Bengel and Weiss (German), Godet (Swiss), Grosheide (Dutch; NICNT), Albert Barnes and A. T. Robertson (American), and Alfred Plummer, Gordon Fee and C. K. Barrett (English). Other theologians include the New England Congregationalist, Timothy Dwight, and the American Baptist, W. E. Best.

This is also the historic position of the Anglican churches—as witnessed in the famous marriage vow "Until death us do part"—and the doctrine of the Brethren assemblies. Many Dutch Reformed churches around the world have also held this testimony. Moreover, the early church and the medieval church were well nigh unanimous in denying that desertion enables remarriage. The first recorded dissenter from the catholic consensus was about 400AD and the next occurred about 800AD. All the church’s synods, for the first 1500 years of her existence, which addressed the subject, taught only one ground for divorce (adultery) and that remarriage while one’s spouse is living is adultery.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the ardent free-willer, Erasmus, was the first in modern times to break the catholic consensus. Perhaps the Reformers, in following Erasmus’ view, were reacting in part to the erroneous Roman Catholic view that marriage is a sacrament. In general, those who (wrongly) view the covenant and thus the marriage covenant as a contract are the ones who hold that it is dissolved by desertion, while we who believe that the covenant and thus the marriage covenant is a one flesh union or bond (Gen. 2:24Matt. 19:5-6) confess that God alone breaks the bond at death (Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39).

Thus, on the basis of the Word of God, we have to disagree on this point with the Westminster Confession (WC) which allows the remarriage of those deserted by their spouse and the "innocent party" (WC 24.5-6). Our appeal here against this otherwise excellent confession is to the Word of God itself: "The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture" (WC 1.10).

We are not alone in seeing weaknesses in Westminster Confession 24, "Of Marriage and Divorce." Many, if not most, Presbyterian denominations do not hold Westminster Confession 24.4 which deals with degrees of consanguinity and incest (e.g., The Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, p. 70). While we believe that the confession errs by permitting two grounds for divorce (adultery and desertion; WC 24.6) when Christ only permitted one (adultery; Matt. 5:32; 19:9), many Presbyterians and Reconstructionists criticise the confession from the other side, because they allow divorce upon many grounds (e.g., "incompatibility"), like many Pharisees (cf. Matt. 19:3).

While Westminster Confession 24.5 allows the remarriage of the "innocent party" only, many Presbyterian churches disregard their confession by also allowing the "guilty party" to remarry. Other Presbyterian churches will not marry any divorced persons, either the "innocent party" or the "guilty party," because of the practical difficulty of ascertaining who was guilty. They thus believe that Westminster Confession 24.5 is unworkable.

Noted Presbyterian theologian, John Murray, has pointed out a "loophole" in Westminster Confession 24.6. This article states that "such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate" dissolves the marriage and allows subsequent remarriage. However, even if I Corinthians 7:15 allowed for remarriage after desertion—which it does not (News XI:3 [July, 2006])—it would only allow a believer who had been deserted by his unbelieving spouse to remarry. Westminster Confession 24.6 would allow deserted unbelievers or believers deserted by professing Christians to remarry, which is contrary even to the erroneous interpretation of I Corinthians 7:15.

Westminster Confession 24.5 seeks to justify the remarriage of the "innocent party" arguing that it is "as if the offending party were dead." However, Scripture knows nothing of any "as if they were dead" concept which then allows remarriage. The "guilty party" is alive; otherwise there would be no need for a divorce. Romans 7:2-3 (which WC 24.5 cites) and I Corinthians 7:39 state that a person is bound in marriage unless his or her spouse is really and physically "dead." Remarriage while one’s spouse is still living is not "lawful" (WC 24.5); it is adulterous: "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth … So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress" (Rom. 7:2-3).

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 10
  • Issue: 10
Stewart, Angus

Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)

Ordained - 2001

Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001


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