Till Death Us Do Part?

Fri, 01/12/2017 - 11:19 -- James Oakley
Wedding Ring
Image Credit: Devanath

One of the tongue-twisters in the marriage service is the phrase in the vows, “till death us do part”. Should it be “us do part”, or “do us part”? I’ve known many a bride or groom stumble over that one. It turns out that saying it is the easy bit. Harder is to keep that part of the vows; tragically, divorce rates in the UK (and around the world) are running high.

Divorce has been in the news this week. As Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement, the British press got itself in contortions trying to understand why Meghan is to be baptised and confirmed before her wedding. Amongst that chat, the other topic being discussed amongst Christians is that Meghan is a divorcee. She’s been married before, and her former husband is still alive. Is this a problem for her plans to marry into the royal family? Is this a problem for her marriage in church? The BBC News website picked up the question as well.

Here are four statements - three about me, and one about friends of mine whom I respect and regard as partners in the gospel, fellow ministers who’s mission nearly exactly matches my own:

  1. I believe marriage is for life.
  2. I have married couples where one (or both) is a divorcee.
  3. I have refused to marry couples because one (or both) is a divorcee.
  4. Friends of mine refuse, on principle, ever to marry couples where either is a divorcee.

Take just about any two of those statements, and they appear contradictory. I want in particular to explain how I hold 1 and 2 together, and how I hold 2 and 3 together. Because of 4, I expect that some who usually read my blog sympathetically will disagree with me. That’s fine. On this issue, we disagree as brothers and sisters. I would just point out that statement 1 is still in here. I’m going to try to explain why, even though I am willing in principle to remarry divorcees, I still believe marriage to be for life.


First a quick tour of where I’ve come from.

In my younger years, I was an “indissolubalist”. That’s to say, I believed marriage to be indissoluble. Divorce is a “legal fiction”. The state can produce legal papers pronouncing a marriage over. This allows people who have been through divorce to have this recognised officially, which means they can start to make the legal, financial and technical changes to build a life after the break-up of the marriage. However, the marriage hasn’t really ended. In the eyes of God, the man and woman remain man and wife until one of them dies. The decree absolut thus serves a very valuable purpose, but it would not be appropriate for either of them to remarry.

I then went to theological college, where I met fellow Christians who did not take this line. Crucially they understood things differently, not because this “hard line” indissolubalist approach is hard to run in the real world, but because they believed the Bible to teach something other. They’d looked at all the biblical data. (One must do this when faced with any ethical issue. It’s not enough to find some texts that support your view. The Bible is inherently consistent. One needs to look at all the relevant data, and work out how the texts that superficially speak against your view actually support it). They’d put that data together, and reached a different conclusion.

That did not immediately make me change my mind. It did show me that the view I held was the result of inadequate attention to the details of Scripture. Here were Christians, whose view did not immediately persuade me, but who had not gone soft either. I could see why I thought what I thought, but I could also see why they thought what they thought. I needed to look into it properly.

So I did. We had relatively long summer breaks from college term, so in addition to helping on a youth camp and taking a holiday, I used one summer holiday to check out a pile of books from the library. Time to read both sides, carefully. Time to weigh the arguments.

And I changed my mind. For readers wanting to follow this up, I found David Instone-Brewer’s work particularly helpful. The arguments on both sides are involved (and 2004 was a long time ago, so my memory of them is rusty!). Inevitably, what follows is the barest of summary, and not a full defence.

Marriage for life

Let’s start with the basics. Marriage is for life.

In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus is asked a question:

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Jesus goes back to Genesis chapter 2, the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. God made human beings in two genders - male and female. He did this because of his intention that a man and a woman would leave their parental homes and form a new unit in society. Then comes his key quotation from Genesis 2:24:

“The two will become one flesh.”

Jesus then concludes:

“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined, let no one separate.”

When a man and a woman marry, God joins them. The biblical equation for marriage is “1 + 1 = 1”. It’s therefore not for us to separate what God has joined.

The Pharisees then ask a follow-up question. Why does the law contain provisions for divorce? The answer:

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

In other words, God’s intention, “from the beginning” (from the way he made and wired us) was for marriage to be lifelong. When two people get married, they are entering into a lifelong union. Sadly, we have hard hearts. We all, singles and marrieds alike, sin. Because of which sometimes marriages go wrong. Jesus is saying that God gave laws to regulate how this should be handled, but this does not change the fact that marriage is created to be a life-long institution.

One phrase from Matthew 19, “divorce your wives”, begs the question of whether wives can divorce husbands. We’ll get to that. (They can.)

We’ve reinforced the principle that marriage is for life; we haven’t yet answered the question of whether those who do divorce can marry again while their former spouse is still alive.

Released from marriage

It could be simply said that divorce implies freedom to remarry. I’ve seen it argued that the “certificate of divorce” to which Jesus refers was a piece of paper confirming that its bearer was free to marry again. If that’s right, the argument ends here.

There is more to add. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is important. This discusses the case where a woman is divorced by her husband, marries again, is divorced again, and then wishes to remarry a third time. God says she may not return to her first husband. We note two things about this. First, this simply assumes that the woman, having been divorced, is free to remarry. It discusses the ethics of a particular remarriage, but that she may remarry is simply assumed. Second, something of the marriage is not broken at divorce. If the first marriage were totally dissolved, as if it never occurred, her first husband would not be unsuitable as her potential third husband.

Ezekiel 44:22 says that the priests “must not marry widows or divorced women”. Nobody would quibble that widows may marry again. Here, divorced women are placed in the same bracket. Indeed, the implication is that lay people would routinely be free to remarry widows and divorced women. If this were not so, God would not have to proscribe this specifically for the priests - they are being asked to restrict themselves in ways the common people were not.

There’s more that could be said here, but for now: It seems that “free to marry again” is what the biblical writers mean by divorce. The idea that there is some “legal fiction”, whereby they are freed from the former marriage, but still married in the sight of God and so not free to remarry, may help modern thinkers assemble the data, but it’s a harmonisation we impose on the text. It’s not something the Bible writers themselves ever had in mind.

The exception clause

This brings us to the “exception” clause. There is a similar passage to Matthew 19:1-13 in Mark 10:1-12. But there’s a key difference. Here’s Mark 10:10-12:

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’

Here’s Matthew 19:9:

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.

Matthew adds an “exception clause”, “except for sexual immorality”. Now, again, whole books have been written on what that phrase means. For now, let’s consider: Why does Matthew record the exception clause, but Mark does not?

There are two possibilities. One is that Jesus never said “except for sexual immorality”, but Matthew added it in. (Maybe he was writing for Christians who had been remarrying after divorce, and he wanted to soften the blow). The other is that Jesus did say “except for sexual immorality”, but Mark did not record it for editorial reasons. (All biblical narratives are summaries. Presumably, his focus was more on Jesus’ underlining the permanence of marriage, so he chose not to complicate matters.)

We have to go with the second option. The first is to suggest that Matthew played fast and loose with the words of Jesus. The assumption behind my whole rethink was to work out what the Bible said, assuming it’s true and accurate. If you want to play the game of “chop out bits of the Bible, because Jesus didn’t really say them”, it’s a bit like the game “unravelling a bit of wool from a jumper”. That is not a game I ever play - there is only one Jesus, and I want to follow the one revealed to us in Scripture rather than one we invent.

Which means that there are exceptional circumstances when divorce and remarriage are acceptable. (In case anyone’s forgotten: We still mourn that it should be necessary. “It was not this way from the beginning.”). Jesus explicitly pursues the “legal fiction” option. To remarry after divorce, except for this exceptional situation of “sexual immorality”, is to commit adultery. The woman is already married, so to marry again would be adultery. But there is this “exceptional case” when this is not so.

To short-circuit the debate, I believe “sexual immorality” to refer to adultery and other sexual unfaithfulness. Jesus is not saying that such must lead to divorce. It is very possible to rebuild from that, to find forgiveness and love afresh, and to rebuild trust. But if there has been unfaithfulness, Jesus permits divorce, and he permits remarriage.

We mustn’t miss the precise question Jesus was asked. He was not asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He was asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Jesus is saying “no” to casual divorce, divorce on a whim, any view that treats marriage as cheap and disposable. He can do that, whilst leaving space for there to be some cases for which divorce is “lawful”?

Now we’ve said this much, we want to know: Are there any other circumstances when remarriage might be appropriate?

Other Circumstances

Reading the rest of the Bible, I believe there are two other circumstances.

The first comes from 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. Please note the context. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul has just underlined the principle that marriage is for life:

“A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”

Then he deals with the case where a Christian and a non-Christian are married. This can cause lots of tension, but for as long as the unbeliever wants to make it work, the Christian is not free to leave and pursue an easier life. But sometimes, the partner who is not a Christian cannot bear being married to a Christian any longer. In that case, the Christian must not feel guilty to let him or her go.

I said “him or her”. Paul is explicitly symmetrical. Some people worry that the Bible’s teaching on divorce is patriarchal: Men may treat their wives as disposable at will, but women may be left feeling trapped with no way out. I’ve already argued that the Bible has no time for a cavalier attitude to divorce. Neither man nor woman may dispose of their spouse at will. But it’s also symmetrical:

“If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. … But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances” (1 Cor 7:12-15)

The second exceptional case comes in Exodus 21:9-11. Once again, it’s tied up in a quite complex scenario. This time, we have a woman who has found herself married because her father sold her to her (now) husband - presumably so the bride price would help him clear his debts. Don’t let the complexities of that distract you from what we learn from this question: “What if he then changes his mind?”. Maybe he falls in love with someone else, and so neglects to provide the basic needs for his first wife. If so:

“If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”

If he fails to provide for her, at the basic level of physical needs, she’s free to go. Into this comes the really complex question of “emotional neglect”. Any pastoral outworking of these principles will need to think that one through. Here, I’ll just note the two extremes to avoid: We mustn’t deny that emotional neglect exists (it does), but neither must we use it to shoehorn divorce for just about any reason (because Jesus doesn’t want us to do that).

So, marriage is for life. Sometimes, because of sin (the hardness of heart), marriages fail. Divorce is a sad reality in the world, and God’s word speaks into that reality. We mustn’t fall into the trap of regarding marriage as disposable. If someone divorces, apart from the exceptional cases when God permits it, and then remarries, they’re an adulterer and even a bigamist in the eyes of God. But the exceptional cases are real: Sexual infidelity, desertion of a believer by an unbeliever, and neglect or abuse.

But how do we work this out in practice, in church life?

Pastoral considerations

Happily, as an Anglican, our bishops have written some really sensible guidance on how to implement this. I think it’s excellent at helping us to apply all this consistently. Here are the questions I’m always asking:

  • What were the circumstances of the break-up of the first marriage? Is this person free to remarry at all? Is this one of the exceptional cases just discussed?
  • Would taking this marriage in church undermine the teaching that marriage is for life? There are some cases when the first marriage is truly broken, but it would be wrong to allow a remarriage in church. For example, what of the case when the first marriage was broken by adultery, and the one asking to remarry is the adulterer? In terms of what has just been said, that first divorce is real and not a fiction. That cannot leave only one partner free to remarry. The person I’m talking to is free to remarry, but to take this remarriage in church would be to sanctify their adultery.
  • Has either partner been divorced more than once? This relates to the point above. If they have, this might give the public signal that marriage is not for life. It might also indicate a pattern that may repeat again. Which brings me to …
  • Has there been sufficient healing and forgiveness from the break-up? We don’t want to encourage a cycle of repeated divorce and remarriage. If someone is still so wounded from their divorce that they’re eaten up with bitterness, they’re not in a great place to start another marriage. How can we as a church support them, and help them to rebuild life? The answer is not: “Marry them to someone else”. Not yet.
  • Do the couple have a desire to grow in Christian faith? I marry all kinds of people in church - Christian or not. But where they’re making a “second go” of it, this is about God’s grace to heal us, to give us a second chance, to put us back together where we’re broken. The way God does that is give us a new heart as we unite ourselves in faith to the Lord Jesus, and then work that through every area of life. We cannot synthesise that kind of rebuilding, and if the remarriage is to be in church it needs to be because they’re serious at asking God in to help clear them up and reshape them.

These are hard questions, and they cannot be answered without getting to know the couple well. If I’m asked to consider a remarriage, I always go and see the couple, and let them know that this will be a long and careful process, that will be deep and personal, and may pick at the scabs of old hurts.

I know many clergy who do not take remarriages under any circumstances. For some, it’s principled - they don’t agree with my reading of the biblical data. Even then, please note the really important thing. They may not agree with me about how we put together the biblical material. But the difference is between people who all believe that the Bible must govern how churches run on the ground. This is not an instance of there being different approaches, with "governed by the Bible" and "setting aside the Bible" being alternatives.

For others, it’s because the process of discerning, for each couple, whether this is a “yes” or a “no” is just too time-consuming, too messy, too painful. They don’t want the weight of having to decide “yes” or “no”. I have some sympathies with that. This is hard.

But life is hard. I’ve seen it from the other side, too. I’ve known people, deeply hurt by an adultery and painfully shattered a former marriage. With time, the wounds have healed, they’ve found God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. They’ve also met someone else, who knows their past, and loves them no less for it. How it hurts for them to hear that their local church cannot consider marrying them, because the pastor finds life too messy. I think the couple know that life is messy; they need a pastor who will enter the mess with them, and help them find a way through.

Please note (again): I’m not saying that we must remarry people because we’re sympathetic to cases like that. First and foremost, we must do what Christ says we must do. I’ve reached the point where I believe that allows me to draw alongside couples in that position.


Let me return, only very briefly, to Harry and Meghan. I wish to make no comment at all on their situation. I do not know them personally. It should be clear from what I’ve said that the only way to advise a couple like this is to get to know them well. They do not need armchair advisers, so I will not be one. I hope that, whoever the bishops or clergy are who have advised them to marry in church, that they’ve had loving pastoral care. I hope Harry and Meghan have been led carefully through these kinds of discussions.

Enough about the royal family. I really wanted to show what Christians are doing, when we (properly) conduct remarriage after divorce.

Sometimes, people use this as an example of Anglican clergy believing one thing and doing another. “The official teaching of the Church of England is that marriage is for life. In practice, many clergy are happy to marry divorcees in church.” So some say.

That may be true of some. Maybe some clergy marry divorcees because they hold their nose and cross their fingers, content to ignore the teaching of Christ and the Anglican church. Maybe for some this is a case of letting “facts on the ground” gently undermine established teaching.

It is not so with me, and it is not so with many I know. Marriage, by design, is for life.

We conduct some remarriages.

We do them at all, because we believe God in his word tells us that we may.

We don’t do them all, not because God’s word is unclear or because we’re trying to avoid being too naughty, but because life is insanely complicated, and people need to be treated as people.

We need to get alongside each person, each couple, and help them match up their life story to God’s words, to discern the right way forward in each individual case.

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