Christian Marriage (Henson)/Chapter 2



When we seek to ascertain the actual teaching of our Lord on the subject of marriage we find ourselves confronted with some grave difficulties. It is very important that these should be seriously considered, for they disallow many natural and attractive misconceptions. There are, then, three broad conditions which determine our knowledge of the mind of Christ on this and other matters.

In the first place we can never wisely or rightly forget that we possess the tradition of the Master's teaching in documents which, though generally trustworthy, are not actually contemporary or first-hand authorities. Christ Himself wrote nothing: two of our four Gospels are admittedly not the work of Apostles; and neither of the others is certainly Apostolic. We are fairly justified by the facts disclosed and appraised by critical scholars in believing that the account of the life and teaching of our Lord, and the broad lines of His character, are faithfully given in the four Gospels, but our reasonable assurance does not extend to an exact knowledge of the very words of Christ, nor are we able to escape from a large measure of uncertainty as to His actual teaching.

Thus it happens that we are rarely able to adduce the supreme authority of Christ in the discussion of any question of practical morals. The principles of His religion are clearly stated, and therefore we have in the Gospels the postulates of a sound handling of practical questions, but direct pronouncements on practical problems are few, if indeed it can be said that any exist at all, and we abuse the Gospels to our own hurt if we treat them as legislative codes, or as casuistical treatises. Even in the crucial matter of marriage we shall find that our Lord's recorded teaching is not free from ambiguity. Either the different statements of the Evangelists are not wholly harmonious, or the text of the crucial passages is uncertain, or, finally, the passages themselves are capable of more than one rendering.

In the next place we have to remember that we are living under circumstances extraordinarily remote from those which conditioned the teachings of Christ—so far, I mean, as His teachings must be supposed so to have been conditioned. We cannot fairly separate His pronouncements on marriage from the situation, social and political, which originally called them forth. Take for example Christ's prohibition of divorce, either absolute, if we accept the version of His words given by St. Mark and St. Luke, or with the single exception of adultery if we prefer that given by St. Matthew. Can we simply carry over the words of the Gospel without explanation to the conditions of our own time? "There is danger of making marriage too difficult," said a very wise Christian bishop—Phillips Brooks. His biographer extracts from the Bishop's note book the following suggestive passage, which will serve to illustrate the present argument:

"The 'putting away' which Christ condemned was not the equivalent of our present divorce system; it was purely arbitrary, with no trial or opportunity of defence, the man's right only, while the woman had no corresponding power; it was originally for some cause which includes more than adultery, and it allowed remarriage (Deut. xxiv. 2). Our divorce is a different matter, involving different necessities. The Mosaic institution which Christ modified had reference to inheritance and preservation of purity of descent. There are strong objections to using the Holy Communion for enforcing a position on this subject, especially in the matter of its administration to the dying, in view of the perfect conscience with which divorces are obtained. It would be more consistent to deny divorce altogether. But the whole question is not a clear one, in view of the fact that Christian nations have so differed regarding it, and so differ still. Circumstances have changed since the time of Christ. The spirit is more than the letter."[1]

Without question there is much force in such contentions. The existence of a careful and legal regulation of marriage in all its bearings is a fact which bears plainly on the practical application of Christ's words, and especially since this regulation has been the work of the Christian State. In view of our Lord's doctrine about the State, and of His recognition of the legitimacy of the Mosaic legislation as a necessary concession to the hardness of men's hearts, it is much to be considered whether His declarations about marriage ought to be applied without many modifications to the circumstances of the modern world.

A representative example of the teaching which I deprecate as implying an indefensible handling of the Gospel is provided in Bishop Gore's deservedly popular exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. The passage runs thus:

"Our Lord proclaimed, as a prominent law of His new kingdom, the indissolubility of marriage. And for us as Christians it is perfectly plain that not all the parliaments or kings on earth can alter the law of our Lord. And if any ministers of Christ, or persons claiming to represent the Church of Christ, ever dare to let the commandment of men, in however high places, override the law of Christ, they are simply behaving in a way which brings them under the threat which our Lord so solemnly uttered: 'Whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also shall be ashamed of him, when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels'. Beyond all question for the Church, and for all who desire to call themselves Christians, it is absolutely out of the question to regard those as married who, having been divorced, have been married again contrary to the law of Christ, during the lifetime of their former partner. It is quite true that this indissolubility of marriage may press hardly upon individuals in exceptional cases. But so does every law which is for the welfare of mankind in general: and, press it hardly or softly, the words of our Lord are quite unmistakable. He who refused to legislate on so many subjects legislated on this, and the simple question arises whether we prefer the authority of Christ to any other authority whatever."[2]

The attentive reader will detect a fallacy in the different senses of the crucial word "law." The "law" of Christ's kingdom is a moral principle; the "law" which "the parliaments or kings on earth" can alone "alter" is a statute of the realm. They do not "override the law of Christ" when, following the example of Moses, which Christ certainly sanctioned, they recognise "the hardness of men's hearts" as a reason for permitting in the mixed society for which they legislate a lower standard of marital obligation than the ideal. The legitimacy of their action must depend on the adequacy of their plea of expediency. They do not claim to legislate for Christians as such, but for citizens, who may, or may not, be Christians. Re-marriage after divorce is so far from being disallowed by Christ that, in the only case of divorce which He contemplates, it must be assumed as permissible, since divorce apart from liberty of re-marriage was unknown to His contemporaries. Moreover, it is an abuse of language, unintentional but none the less grave, to apply to Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount the name and character of "legislation" in the political sense of the word. Bishop Gore himself recognises this earlier in his book when he says that the Sermon on the Mount "teaches, not by negative enactments or by literal enactments at all, but by principles, positive and weighty principles."[3]

In the third place, Christ clearly taught that the complete content of His revelation would be gradually perceived as time went on. His promise of the Spirit of Truth carried with it an implicit warning against premature conclusions as to the practical meaning of His religion. There would be, He said, within the society of believers a divine influence of guidance and illumination, which would from age to age interpret experience and apply the principles of the everlasting Gospel to the novel circumstances of human life. If we would understand rightly the law of marriage according to Christ we cannot limit ourselves to a few texts from the Gospels, however important these may be, but we must take into our reckoning the whole movement of Christian thought during the many centuries of the existence of Christianity, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, present still as always before with Christian men, determine what shall be the actual obligation of discipleship here and now.

Bearing these important considerations in mind we may proceed to collect the evidence of the New Testament as to the doctrine of our Lord on the subject of marriage. How far, if at all, did He modify the current practice? In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord sets in contrast the laws of His spiritual kingdom and the actual system of the Jews. He was not legislating in the true sense of the term, but rather laying down broad principles of action. And this He did positively by stating in its extremest form the action which the right principle would require, if it were logically applied without hindrance or mitigation: and negatively, by showing what the wrong principle implied even in its least important applications. The whole passage treating of the intercourse of the sexes runs as follows:

"Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart … It was also said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress; and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery."[4]

Later in the Gospel we have this declaration repeated in an extremely interesting connection. The narrative must be read as a whole:

"And there came unto him Pharisees, tempting him, and saying, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said, Have ye not read, that he which made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife; and the twain shall become one flesh? so that they are no more twain, but one flesh. What there fore God hath joined together let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it hath not been so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery. The disciples say unto him, If the case of the man is so with his wife, it is not expedient to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, which were made eunuchs by men: and there are eunuchs, which made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it."[5]

In the Gospel according to St. Mark this narrative is somewhat differently rendered. Our Lord's condemnation of divorce is represented as an answer to the questioning of His disciples "in the house", and the exception in the case of adultery is omitted. The Evangelist appears to have added an explanatory extension of our Lord's words for the benefit of Roman readers, among whom it was permitted for the wife to divorce the husband, a franchise which the Jews did not allow.

"He saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her: and if she herself shall put away her husband, and marry another, she committeth adultery."[6]

In St. Luke's Gospel we have the same absolute prohibition of divorce repeated, but in a context which seems doubtful. The passage runs thus:

"Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth one, that is put away from a husband committeth adultery."[7]

In the fourth Gospel there is the touching history of the woman taken in adultery, whom Christ did not condemn, but this carries no clear indication of His mind on the subject of marriage. The point of the story is the unseemliness of moral severity in those who are themselves immoral.

Finally, in the Epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul quotes a commandment of the Lord to the following effect:

"But unto the married I give charge, yea not I, but the Lord, that the wife depart not from her husband (but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband); and that the husband leave not his wife."[8]

When we consider carefully these passages it is hard to avoid the conclusion, that they all relate to the same incident, and are repetitions more or less exact of one pronouncement. Our Lord's words are to be interpreted in connection with the challenge of the Pharisees which called them forth. This challenge certainly appears to be most correctly stated in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" The judgment of Christ was demanded on the question which at the moment divided the religious world of Israel. The rival schools of Hillel and Shammai contended as to the interpretation of the Deuteronomic law of divorce. The text of that law was ambiguous.

"When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it shall be, if she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorcement, and give it into her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife."[9]

The question in debate was the measure of liberty of divorce granted in these words of the Law. The school of Hillel explained them to give an unlimited liberty to the husband. He was himself judge of what should constitute an adequate justification for divorce. He might, in the phrase of our Lord's questioners, "put away his wife for every cause." The opposing school of Shammai took a stricter and worthier view. The words could not possibly carry so scandalous a sense. They must be supposed to restrict the causes of lawful divorce to one—the act of adultery.

Our Lord decides on the question of interpretation in favour of the laxer school; on the main question He emphatically endorses the view of the stricter moralists, who had read into the statute the nobler teaching of the prophets. Challenged by the Pharisees how He could reconcile these decisions, He declared the essentially contingent, and therefore transitory, character of the Mosaic legislation, and pointed to the true nature of the marriage union as declared in the record of Creation. Marriage is indissoluble save for one fact which destroys its presupposition. Divorce for any other cause than adultery has no moral validity however complete may be its legal sanction. To put away a wife for a trivial cause was to "make her an adulteress," that is, to degrade her into that category and treat her accordingly . This extreme injustice, however, could not alter the fact. Wife she continued to be, though the bill of divorcement were in her hand, and whosoever married her, thus unrighteously divorced, was really as much guilty of adultery as if he had taken her from her husband's house.

Now I think, when Christ's words are thus held strictly to their connection with the historic situation in which they were uttered, the absence of the saving clause in St. Mark's version of His speech becomes comparatively unimportant. There was no question anywhere of a total prohibition of divorce. Both the rival schools accepted the validity of the Deuteronomic rule, and only differed about the range of its application. In the actual expressions ascribed to Christ by St. Mark there seems implied an allusion to the injustice implied in such frivolous divorces as the Jews admitted. "Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her," that is, with respect to his discarded partner, since she is really still his wife.

I cannot doubt that He referred, and that His words were understood to refer, to such frivolous divorces as were common among the Jews and directly in debate between the Rabbinic schools. He proclaimed the indissoluble character of the marriage union, that is, its indissolubleness as against the provisions of human law, but He emphasised the gravity of that sin which, by its own mere force, cancelled and destroyed the natural union. "Precisely as divorce does not break the marriage tie, adultery does break it." The very reason why divorce for any other cause is invalid morally justifies, nay requires, divorce in the case of adultery.

Accordingly I am constrained to conclude that the words of Christ are unduly pressed when it is said that "He gave no sanction to any divorce which was supposed to carry with it a right to marry again, before at least death had severed the bond." He taught rather that adultery destroyed the marriage bond. The ancients knew no divorce which did not carry the right to marry again, and Christ, in disallowing the re-marriage of those who were divorced for any cause save for the cause of adultery, cannot reasonably be supposed to prohibit the re-marriage of the divorced in that special case.

The late Provost Salmon speaks with decision on this point:

"It is contended that in this case [of the wife's adultery] a man may put away his wife, that is to say, may separate her from bed and board, but still consider her so much his wife as to be incapable of marriage with another. But I do not know of any evidence that in our Lord's time there had been invented this method of acknowledging a woman to be a wife, but treating her as if she were not. If divorce to this extent is permissible, and if we are not to interpret the limitation in Matthew as putting a distinction between adultery and other causes for separation, the law of Deuteronomy practically remains in force. A man in whose eyes his wife, for any cause, does not find favour, may deal with her as the husband of an adulterous wife is permitted to do; and, provided he does not marry again, need not regard his vow to love his wife, comfort her, honour and keep her."[10]

Commenting on the passages Mark x. 3-9 and Matt. xix. 4-8 he makes this just observation:

"It is clear from the Old Testament quotation that the breach of the marriage does not so much consist in the marrying again as in the separation by man of those whom God hath joined together: consequently the sin is as much committed when man ordains a separation from bed and board as when a new marriage is sanctioned."[11]

The basis on which Christ makes the exception is nothing less than the destructive character of the act of adultery. Divorce was but the legal declaration of an accomplished fact; the marriage bond had already been dissolved by the act of infidelity, the sentence of a human tribunal did but certify the fact.

It has been objected to this view that an innocent person might cease to be married without knowing it, and that if an adulterous partner be forgiven there should properly be a fresh marriage; but these objections are not very serious. Marriage is a legal contract as well as a natural union; the latter may be destroyed while the former remains unaffected. Only the law can undo the work of the law. Divorce is a legal act dissolving marriage; but marriage is far more than a legal act; it is a natural union, and the religious validity of the legal act depends on its relation to the natural union.

It is true that the natural union may be dissolved without the knowledge of the innocent partner; but that is precisely the reason why the prophets and the Christian Church emphasise the religious aspect of marriage. The All-Seeing is a witness of all marriages, and He watches over the fidelity of those whose union He has ordained. Human law must follow, so far as it can, the lines of moral fact. The State ought not to uphold a covenant which has lost validity, where alone it could be valid, in foro conscientiœ. It seems to follow that no Christian can rightly condone adultery, for that would be to acquiesce in a monstrous association of the nature of polygamy.

In the case of adultery, discovered, repented of and forgiven, it must be assumed that a new marriage has really taken place, though of course no fresh legal ceremony is requisite, since the original contract has not been cancelled by divorce. The essence of marriage is free consent of the parties: that consent is abrogated when an adulterous union is formed: but the act of renouncing the sinful connection on the one side, and of forgiving the injury on the other, amounts on both sides to a fresh act of consent, that is, to a fresh marriage.

The reason why an adulterer should be refused the permission legally to marry, which is rightly allowed to the innocent party, lies, presumably, not in the region of Christian morality so much as in that of legal principle. It is a sound rule of law that no man shall profit by his own crime, and that rule appears to be violated when the adulterer is enabled to gain by his offence the very freedom which he desires. The French law of divorce in this respect appears sounder than our own. "There is this limitation on the power of re-marriage of divorced persons, that the party to the marriage against whom the decree has been pronounced is not allowed to marry the person with whom his or her guilt has been established."

The direct teaching of Christ, then, as preserved in the Gospels, does not carry us beyond this point; and so far, save of course for the supreme authority which He, and He alone, could add to moral teaching, Christ does not seem to carry the doctrine of marriage beyond the point reached by the prophet Malachi. The inference seems to be equally clear and important.

Just as in the case of the other human relationships the mind of Christ was to be slowly revealed to the conscience and reason of the Church, as the Holy Spirit interpreted experience in the light of the principles of the Gospel, so it was to be in the case of this primary and sacred relationship of the sexes. Indeed, to the reflective student of the history of Christendom it will necessarily occur that the indirect consequences of Christ's Gospel have been far more powerful influences for good on human society than His precise directions. Let anyone consider the effect on the doctrine and practice of Christian marriage which has come from four circumstances of the revelation of God in Christ.

I.—The general character of the life of Christ as plainly and confessedly normal. Ascetic contempt of marriage very early stained Christian thought and cast deep shadows over Christian life, but that baleful temper could find no support in the teaching or example of the divine Lord. His contemporaries were perplexed, and even scandalised by the ordinary aspect of His life. It cannot be a mere accident that the "beginning of His signs" was made at a marriage in Cana of Galilee. The Prayer Book justly infers the dignity and pureness of marriage from the fact that "Christ adorned and beautified with His presence" that "holy estate."

Jews in the first century, like Christians in later times, and perhaps like the "natural man" at all times, expected an ascetic ordering of life to mark a great religious teacher; but Christ disappointed this expectation. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking" was His own description of His life. In view of the fact that the sub-Apostolic Church was invaded by a powerful wave of ascetic sentiment, which has left clear tokens of its action on the sacred writings, and colours all the literature of the early centuries, it must be allowed, to indicate the overmastering impression made by the Lord's life and teaching on His contemporaries, that the Gospels preserve a record of both, which is so wonderfully free from ascetic tendencies.

Historically, asceticism is one of the two grand enemies of the female sex; the other is sensuality, and these two, if so familiar a phrase may be allowed, play into one another's hands. Asceticism belittles what sensuality degrades. When, at a somewhat later stage of Christian history, the theologians of the Church elaborated the doctrine of the Incarnation, this consequence was seen to follow—that all truly human relationships receive a divine authentication and an eternal significance. Marriage as the human relationship par excellence was more than any other exalted by this fact.

II.—For, and this must be counted a distinct cause, the historic Incarnation was effected by the means of a natural birth. "When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman". The Church was early called to emphasise the moral importance of this fact, and the presence in the Apostles Creed of an explicit declaration of belief in the birth of Christ from a human mother must be regarded as a definite repudiation of every version of Christianity, which, as was the case with that of the followers of Marcion in the second century, against whom perhaps that clause in the Creed was specifically directed, cuts the direct connection between the Incarnate and the human race by postulating for Him some non-human mode of terrestrial existence. Always the tradition of the Christian Church holds together the mother and the divine Child; and whosoever worships the one cannot but reverence the other.

III.—It is in accordance with this exaltation of woman in her most sublime function of motherhood that the Gospel gives a large and honourable place to women and children. Significantly in the sacred narrative there stand together Christ's declaration about the essential indissolubleness of marriage and His blessing of the children, for these are the normal effect and the fairest grace of the sexual relationship as guarded and crowned in the Christian home. Christ's fondness for children was hardly less perplexing to His religious contemporaries than His respectful treatment of women. His disciples, we read, "marvelled that He was speaking with a woman" when they found Him in converse with the woman of Samaria by the side of Jacob's well; and they moved Him to "indignation" by "rebuking" the Jewish mothers who, with a true insight into His mind, "brought unto Him little children that He should touch them."

IV.—Christ's doctrine of purity as something not to be narrowed down to specific acts, but rather to be conceived of as a chaste and reverent spirit inhabiting the mind, and holding under control the very thoughts and intents of the heart, necessarily tended, wherever it was in any measure sincerely accepted, to purify and exalt the relationship of the sexes. Far more powerful than specific regulations was that lofty declaration of the Sermon on the Mount:

"Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."

Is it not plain that marriage, contracted under such a conception of purity, has a security and a greatness, which are quite absent from so mechanical a notion of its obligation as that which breathes through the Mosaic rules?

The teaching of Christ, then, is rather implicit in the Gospel than specifically set down in pronouncements. He adopts the prophetic reading of the Jewish law, and leaves His disciples to correlate that reading with the knowledge of God which they received from His example and His teachings. The Christian doctrine of marriage must give free expression to the "mind of Christ" as unfolded in the Gospel; and just in measure as the Gospel is truly appreciated will that doctrine be satisfying and permanent.

  1. See "Life of Phillips Brooks," vol. ii. p. 720.
  2. Page 69 f.
  3. Page 8.
  4. St. Matthew v. 27, 28, 31, 32.
  5. St. Matthew xix. 3-12.
  6. St. Mark x. II.
  7. St. Luke xvi. 18.
  8. 1 Corinthians vii. 10, 11.
  9. Deuteronomy xxiv. 1, 2.
  10. See "The Human Element in the Gospels," p. 129.
  11. See Ibid., p. 392.