Marriage (or matrimony) is a wonderful thing and I think that most cultures around the world would agree. After all, it’s been around since the beginning of mankind, specifically ordained by God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:21-25). Marriage is one of the main foundations of a healthy society.
The Catholic Church considers Holy Matrimony as one of its seven sacraments, and they acknowledge that marriage was given to us by God – a holy institution where one man is bound together with one woman for life and in many (if not most) cases they produce children. The Catholic Church also rightly recognizes that Holy Matrimony is a symbol of the bond between Christ and His people (CCC # 1661).
First of all, I agree with most of the things the Catholic Church teaches about marriage. But I do have to wonder though, is anyone in the Catholic hierarchy qualified to give quality personal marriage advice when the great majority of them (at least in the “Latin rite”) are unmarried? What private intimate advice can a celibate priest/bishop/cardinal offer, having no first-hand experience in actual married life? Wouldn’t he just be sort of an “armchair quarterback,” either critiquing or trying to help marriages when he has no practical understanding in this field?
Be that as it may, we must understand that marriage is a special and holy covenant, not just a human contract. In the wedding ceremony, the man and woman stand before God Almighty and pledge/vow/promise to love each other unconditionally, live with each other and be faithful (sexually) to each other, and respect, honor and cherish each other. These vows also include protection and provision in good times and in bad.
The vows may not always be exactly the same in each wedding, but the above summary is generally what is agreed upon, and these vows are reflected in Scripture. Furthermore, there are multiple human witnesses in each wedding, as well, so your marriage vows are not to be taken lightly on any level. Of course, there will be good times in your new life together, but there will also be disagreements and trying times, as well.
What About Divorce?
Marriage is a beautiful institution, but since there are sometimes problems in marriage, the topic of divorce will come up from time to time.
While I commend the Catholic Church for their strong stance against “easy divorce” and divorce, in general, I would like for them (and every other church – Protestant, Orthodox, etc.) to take a closer look at the biblical evidence for marriage and divorce.
From the very beginning, God’s intent for marriage was to have one man and one woman come together in Christian love and the two would become one (Genesis 2:24). He intended for them to be ever faithful and loving toward each other, and live under His Word and His authority, each with their own role (Ephesians 5:22-33) in a wonderful lifelong relationship. They would never part until death. That was the plan. That was God’s perfect intention.
But sin entered the picture through Adam and Eve. This did not catch God by surprise, of course, but in His foreknowledge He allowed for divorce, even though it was never intended to be the norm. In the gospel of Matthew, the hard-hearted Pharisees approached Jesus to ask Him about divorce, trying to trap Him. In His day, the Jews were all familiar with a sort of “no-fault” divorce which they called “divorce for any reason” (Matthew 19:3). And for some, divorce was indeed allowed for almost any “violation.” But Jesus goes back to the very beginning and told them:
“Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
The Pharisees, thinking they had cornered Jesus with a hard question, asked:
“Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” (Matthew 19:7)
Jesus then humiliated them with His response:
“Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8)
Then Jesus seems to give what many believe to be the only exception for allowing divorce:
“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 - emphasis added)
Ok, so Jesus says that “fornication” (sexual sin/adultery) is the exception. Does that mean that absolutely no other reason can be allowed for divorce?
So, what exactly did Jesus mean when He said, “Because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8)?
First of all, divorce was tolerated and not God’s perfect will. The Jews of Jesus’ day certainly seemed to enjoy this concession, since a man could simply “trade in” a wife for frivolous reasons (for example, bad breath, burning his supper, or not liking her friends). But ask yourself, would God reward these hard-hearted Jews for putting away their wives for such trivial “offences”? Wouldn’t it make more sense that the concession (divorce) was to give relief to wives who were trying hard to be faithful, but who were abused by these intolerant men? So, divorce was certainly not given as a favor to the hard-hearted Jews/Pharisees, but as a favor to the WIVES, so they would not have been trapped in a marriage by husbands acting like ruthless dictators! It was an act of mercy from God in an imperfect world of sinful humans.
Apologist, church historian, and Professor of Bible and Theology William Luck seems to agree with this sentiment in an article in the link below:
“The phrase ‘because of your hardness of heart’ is [sometimes wrongly] interpreted as saying something like: ‘Well, God knows that divorce will take place, so He made a concession to you, allowing you to do what you wanted.’
“…What then? For whom is the concession? For the wives whom these hard-hearted men have been divorcing since before the days of Moses… Knowing that they will be treacherous and turn their backs on their covenant partner, God has provided a law that will minimize the abuse. He will wink temporarily at hard hearted husbands putting away innocent wives so that these wives will be saved from their husbands, who would perhaps physically abuse them if forced to keep them. So the permission to divorce has nothing to do with condescending to wicked men, but everything to do with preserving innocent women.”
William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 157.
Many Christians are not aware that God has given some general principles concerning divorce back in the Old Testament, principles that we can apply today, for example, Exodus 21:9-11. In this passage, God (through Moses) points out that certain necessities for the wife (food, clothing and love, or marital rights) must be provided, or she is free to leave. The husband is not to neglect or abuse her. It is true that this is in the context of slavery and polygamy, but the point remains that even a lowly slave-wife had minimum standards of provision that must be met. The apostle Paul reinforces that same principle in 1 Timothy 5:8:
But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. (1 Timothy 5:8)
A close Christian brother and I were recently speaking about divorce. We both realize that divorce is out of hand in America and that it should not be taken lightly. But he said that if a woman is habitually and physically abused by her husband she should separate, rather than divorce. The brother pointed out that while separated, the man (if unrepentant) will almost always feel justified to seek an adulterous affair, trapping himself. Then, and only then, would the wife have a biblical reason to divorce.
I mostly agree with my Christian brother. This seems like sound advice. But suppose that this husband (who has been beating her) would never cheat on his wife? And suppose that he warns her that separation would deprive him of his conjugal rights (i.e., the right to marital sex – 1 Corinthians 7:3), and that she would therefore be breaking her marriage vows if she separated? What then? Would she be obligated to come back to him and sustain even more physical abuse toward her and their children simply because he has conjugal rights?
But what about his own obvious breaking of his marriage vows when he abuses her? The marriage covenant is not just about sexual fidelity. Just because a spouse hasn’t committed adultery does not give him permission to break the marriage covenant in other ways. Not to mention the husband’s God-given duty to provide safety and protection for his wife. Periodically beating your wife is not honoring the marriage vows that you proclaimed before God and men.
The apostle Paul says:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it. (Ephesians 5:25)
So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church. (Ephesians 5:28-29)
Again, beating your wife is far from “loving her as Christ loves the church.” Would this abusive husband also be willing to present his own body to be beaten? Not likely. That’s because he loves his own flesh and nourishes it. So, why does he not love and cherish his wife’s flesh like he does his own, as Paul commanded? Remember, marriage is a God-given covenant where both sides (whether saved or not) have responsibilities and benefits. This is not a one-way street.
For Better, For Worse?
Again, physically abusing your spouse is breaking the marriage covenant and so is abandonment. According to the apostle Paul, if an unbelieving spouse wants to leave, the believing spouse should not force the unbelieving spouse to stay. Divorce is acceptable in this case. The unbeliever is free to leave if he does not want to stay (1 Corinthians 7:12-15).
Someone may say, “Hey, you got married ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,’ so you need to hang in there and tough it out (even if your husband is beating you)!”
Well, that’s easy for someone who is NOT suffering from abuse to say, but the husband providing security for his own family (especially his wife and children) is mandated. So how about rebuking the perpetrator, rather than the victim! Again, physical abuse is a breach of the marriage covenant. Security and safety are two of the things that men have always rightly provided for their wives throughout the centuries. There is no question that protection for the wife is God’s will.
I just can’t imagine God forcing a physically abused spouse to remain in a marriage where the other spouse continually breaks the covenant, taking advantage of the one who desires to be faithful.
So perhaps divorce can be a biblical answer for some marriage circumstances for a violation other than adultery (like abuse and abandonment/neglect). The evidence of Scripture seems to indeed indicate that. God’s purpose in allowing divorce is to protect victims (vulnerable spouses). By the way, it’s not just women who can be abused in marriage. It is possible for the reverse to happen.
The Unpardonable Sin?
In light of all this, I’m still not going to be dogmatic about it, but I would strongly encourage everyone to take a long, prayerful look at the biblical evidence for divorce, both Old Testament and New Testament. Don’t ignore what Jesus said, but also don’t ignore the principles found in the rest of the Scriptures, either.
Ultimately, this is between the offended spouse and God. So, I’m not going to be the one to tell a woman to divorce her husband… but I will also not be the one to tell an often-abused/severely neglected/cheated-on/abandoned wife – who fears for her own life and the lives of her children – to stay with such a man. Only she can determine what to ultimately do, and she will have to live with the consequences.
Remember, divorce can certainly be a sin, but it is NOT the unpardonable sin! The message of Scripture is that divorce is allowed in just a few limited cases, but whenever possible, it should be avoided. By the way, divorce is not mandatory, even in the case of adultery. Divorce should be done only as a last resort and should only be considered after much prayer and Bible study, and after great effort is made to reconcile the marriage.
Agreement and Disagreement
Getting back to the issue of the Catholic Church, they agree that the Law of God “aims at protecting the wife from arbitrary domination by the husband” (CCC #1610). They also agree that physical separation can be part of the answer to an unsafe marriage (CCC #1649). Kudos to them for recognizing these things. But one issue I have with them is their idea that marriage is always “indissoluble” (CCC #1614). According to Webster’s Dictionary, this means:
“Not dissoluble; incapable of being annulled, undone, or broken; permanent.”
I would say, yes, that indissolubility was indeed God’s original intent for marriage. But the truth is marriage can still be “broken.” We can all agree that Jesus, Himself, allowed divorce for adultery. In this case, the marriage union is officially broken and the (innocent) spouse can remarry. Furthermore, if it is true that marriage is absolutely indissoluble, then not even death can “break” it and the remaining spouse would not be free to remarry. But Scripture says differently (Romans 7:2-3). So, their argument is with God on that topic, not me.
Ok, so what about annulments? An annulment is when a Catholic tribunal (church court) decides whether a couple who wants to split up has met the legal conditions to do so.
Well, this sounds like divorce, doesn’t it? But the Catholic Church says no, that this is simply a process to determine whether a marriage actually existed in the first place. If the Church investigates and finds that the couple meets any one of the criteria, they can formally annul the marriage and the couple can go their separate ways and even remarry. They don’t consider this to be a divorce, but just a marriage that was never valid from the beginning.
Just to be clear, annulments are not just a Catholic thing – it is not just the Catholic Church who performs annulments – Other religious groups and secular lawyers do so, as well.
So, what are the criteria for having an annulment? You can find many reasons in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Code of Canon Law, Chapter IV, Canon 1095 through Canon 1123). See here:
But this article from Catholic Answers breaks it down into three main categories:
1 – Lack of Capacity, 2 – Lack of Consent, and 3 – Lack of Form
See the article here:
Examples of reasons to get an annulment include things that were wrong that existed at the time of the wedding/marriage – like mental incompetence, being underage without parental consent, coercion (e.g., “shotgun wedding”), fraud, incest, one spouse still being legally married, intent to be unfaithful in the future, etc. There are many more.
But the Catholic Church pushing annulments is just like the Pharisees getting divorces – it is simply a loophole to “legally” get out of a marriage. The bottom line is that this is indeed a divorce – it just has another name. The result is the same, except that annulments in the Catholic Church almost always offer the possibility of remarriage, while divorce doesn’t always offer it.
An annulment from the Catholic Church is an admission that the Church has failed to fully explain to the couple what marriage is all about before the wedding! The Church can’t claim that the resources to do so are not available, since the Catholic Church offers marriage preparation courses, counceling, marriage workshops, conferences, retreats, etc., etc.
If all the right questions are asked up front, before the wedding, and if all the necessary information is given to the couple, and if they have had enough time to process all the information, there should never be any reason for an annulment. This is simply a convenient way to give the unsatisfied couple what they want without the stigma of divorce.
And why do these problems always seem to come out so late in life (even after many years of marriage)? Funny how these issues only seem to be “discovered” when the couple wants out of the marriage! Only then do they realize that there was fraud, mental issues, intent to be unfaithful, etc. How convenient! And interestingly, it only takes one of these criterion to dissolve the marriage.
But notice the Webster’s dictionary definition above, that the word indissoluble means “incapable of being annulled.” Can anyone see the problem here? “Indissoluble” is the Catholic Church’s choice of words. It literally means that a marriage cannot be annulled! But loopholes are very convenient to have around, aren’t they?
As I said before, there are other religious systems and legal groups who use annulments, and my condemnation of promoting annulments extends to them, as well.
Another troubling issue concerning marriage in the Catholic Church is “same-sex-union,” or gay marriage. It seems that controversial Pope Francis is leaning toward this unbiblical trend. Having this in mind, is the Catholic Church losing sight of the origin and intent of marriage? This is certainly not what the Catholic Church has traditionally supported. But the pope seems to be taking the Church in that direction.
Again, I agree with a lot of things that the Catholic Church teaches about marriage, but there are certainly some exceptions, also.
And one last thing: Marriage/matrimony is not a “sacrament.” It does not “merit” grace. We dealt with this in our last two articles on the sacraments of the Catholic Church.