Q. Can a husband or wife unilaterally end a marriage vow?
A vow, be it a marriage vow or some other vow, is as sacredely binding as an oath (Deuteronomy 23:21-23) and for this reason should not be entered into hastily (Deuteronomy 23:23). To 'end' a marriage vow is the same as taking out a divorce. The conditions under which a divorce may be taken out are laid out in detail in the Torah (Law) as follows:
The grounds for divorce are given in such general terms that no precise interpretation can be given. The husband finds "some uncleanness" in his wife. The Hebrew words 'erwat davar (literally 'nakedness of a thing'), occur elsewhere only as a phrase in Deuteronomy 23:14. Shortly before Christ the school of Shammai interpreted it as unfaithfulness only, while the school of Hillel extended it to anything unpleasing to the husband. What we must remember is that Moses is not here professing to state the grounds of divorce but accepting it as an exisiting fact, a view remarkably similar to the contemporary secular Western one.
"When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before Yahweh, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Yahweh your Elohim (God) is giving you as an inheritance" (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, NKJV).
There are two situations in which divorce is forbidden:
On two exceptional occasions divorce was insisted on. These were when the returned exiles had married pagan wives (Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13:23ff). In Malachi 2:10-16 some had put away their Judahite wives so as to marry pagans.
- (a) When a man has falsely accused his wife of pre-marital unfaithfulness (Deuteronomy 22:13-19); and
- (b) When a man has had relations with a girl, and her father has compelled him to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29; Exodus 22:16-17).
It is worth examining these conditions before we take a look at the New Covenant modifications imposed by Christ and the apostles. The Torah (Law) is principally concerned with two areas:
Otherwise, we are told, Yah'shua (Jesus) said Moses tolerated divorce only because of the hardness of the people's hearts (Matthew 19:8). Divorce was never a part of the Creator's intention but was permitted until such a time as a higher standard was again restored.
In comparing the words of Yah'shua (Jesus) in Matthew 5:32, 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18, we find that He brands divorce (the ending of a marriage vow or covenant) as adultery, but this does not say that man cannot put asunder what Yahweh has joined together. As we have analysed in previous articles, the sole ground for divorce given by Christ is adultery, which is defined as a married man having a relationship with another man's wife, or vice versa. If an unmarried or a married man sleeps with an unmarried woman he has committed fornication and according to the statutes given in Torah is compelled to marry her. However, if the married man is bound to his first wife by monogamy-only vows, and she refuses to modify the terms of those vows, the man finds himself in a dilemma: he is obliged to marry the woman he has fornicated with but cannot do so because of the nature of the vows he has entered into with his first wife. He is in a kind of limbo or purgatory unable to fulfil either requirement. What then does he do? And in what condition is he before Yahweh? Which vow has precedence?
Before answering that question, let us here underline how important it is not to have sex presumptuously, and how serious a predicament a fornicator can find him- or herself in. Obviously such a situation cannot be left unresolved. A decision has to be made. If the woman he has fornicated with is willing to wait for him then he must obligate himself to his first wife's monogamy-only covenant. If she is not, and decides to end the relationship, then she is in grave danger of committing adultery if she has a relationship with another man. If the man unilaterally marries the second woman, he has broken his vows to his first wife and has placed his soul in grave danger, for Yahweh does not look kindly upon vow-breakers. In this instance only a revelation of Yahweh's will can resolve such a dispute which means seeking prophetic and apostolic counsel. Wrong or uninspired cousel could, moreover, result in even greater spiritual problems, both for the one receiving it as well as for the one(s) giving it.
There is a scriptural case for branding adultery and fornication together as interchangeable terms in certain instances. For instance, in both passages in Matthew fornication is given as the sole ground on which a man may put away his wife, whereas there is no such qualification in Mark and Luke. Thus fornication has commonly been taken as here being equivalent to adultery; similarly, the conduct of the nation of Yahweh's wife is branded both as adultery (Jeremiah 3:8; Ezekiel 23:45) and as fornication (Jeremiah 3:2-3; Ezekiel 23:43); and in Ecclesiastes 23:23 an unfaithful wife is said to have committed adultery in fornication (cp. also 1 Corinthians 7:2).
The reason for the omission of the exception clause in Mark and Luke could be that no Jew, Roman, or Greek ever doubted that adultery consisted grounds for divorce, and the evangelists took it for granted too. Similarly, Paul in Romans 7:1-3, referring to Jewish and Roman Law, ignores the possibility of divorce for adultery which both these laws provided.
Other theories have been held about the meaning of Christ's words. Some refer fornication to pre-marital unfaithfulness, which the husband discovers after marriage. Others have suggested that the parties discover that they have married within the prophibited degrees of relationship, a thing which must have happened too rarely for it to be the subject of a special exception in Christ's words.
Of course, these speculations are laregly within the framework of the monogamy-only mindset and are therefore invalid and sometimes self-contradictory. Were it not for Paul's remarks to the Corinthian congregation we would have no apostolic ruling on the permission given to a spouse to remarry when an unbelieving partner deserts the marriage. Such a ruling was not, of course, required in the Torah since it operated within the framework of a theocracy which the Church or Messianic Community currently is not, because the New Covenant nation of Israel, with land and judges, does not exist yet. The Pauline allowance is therefore significant not only because it addresses a need that never existed within the Israelite state, but also because of the implications of the spiritual principles that lie behind it:
The extra dimension of New Covenant marriage as compared to the Old is the element of possible redemption coupled with forgiveness. Christ forgave the woman caught in adultery demonstrating that, heineous a crime though adultery is, with adequate repentance and a determination not to repeat it, a marriage can, and ought to be, saved. The New Covenant Torah thus becomes two-tiered or two-dimensional:
"Now to the married I command, yet not I but Yahweh: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not Yahweh, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But Elohim (God) has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?" (1 Corinthians 7:10-16, NKJV).
And the Christian/Messianic is given a choice: he can choose the inferior path of demanding justice or the higher one of yielding to forgiveness. The Pauline appeal is to remain yoked to an unbeliever because of the hope of winning him (or her) to Christ, providing he does not desert. Thus though both Old and New Covenant Torah forbid a Christian/Messianic from marrying an unbeliever (2 Cor.6:14) the New does not automatically allow a believer to depart from a marriage if the spouse refuses to convert. The Christian/Messianic is impelled by a higher force, that of apapé/ahavah/chesed love, to go the extra mile, a love which is willing to make sacrifices for the greater goal of salvation. And we see an Old Testament example in the story of Esther who was willing to marry a pagan king for the salvation of the Jewish people. Love apparently creates a number of exception clauses but hatred does not.
- (a) There is that aspect which appeals to justice and Letter-of-Torah (the letter of the Law); and
- (b) There is that higher aspect which appeals to the spirit of the Law, which is love.
We have already, at this ministry, addressed a wide range of divorce and separation issues that revolve around abuse, and we have asked ourselves: can someone who professes the Name of Christ, and yet who behaves as a heathen, fall within the area of 1 Corinthians 7:10-16? Many, because they believe in the 'once saved, only saved' heresy advocate a wife who is being beaten to death to remain with her husband because he is a 'believer'. Not a few number of tragedies have resulted from such dangerous theology. And so we have said that a husband who behaves like a brute is, to all intents and purposes, an unbeliever and the Pauline injunction applies.
But there are dangers with such a position that requires careful checks and balances. It is all too easy to imagine a wife looking for an excuse to desert a marriage to accuse her husband of being an unbeliever because he has some unresolved sin areas in his life. Under such circumstances divorce could be reduced to the kind of farce it was in Yah'ahua's (Jesus') day. The Gospel does require us to go the extra mile (or even ten miles) but it does not require us to:L
And even if this is a situation which a woman (or a man, for that matter) finds herself in, it is not automatic grounds for divorce. A proceedure of separation with attempts at reconcilliation should, and must, be made before any marriage is terminated. Many rightly feel that they should wait when a spouse has deserted them in the hope that the offender will repent, but then the question comes as to how long one should wait, especially if there are children to be raised and in need of a father? Because of the love-dimension of the Gospel, these questions are rarely easy. We are forced to think, pray and take serious stock of our situation before acting precipitously. We are not given a licence to be careless.
- (a) Put our salvation in jeapordy; or
- (b) Put us in the situation that we live in such abject terror that we cannot function like a normal human being.
It is easier, in some respects, for the men who have more options if a spouse deserts. He can remarry or take another wife if his wife deserts him. On the other hand, he is under a divine obligation to receive back a wife who has deserted him if she repents and is willing to subject herself to him in all things. He can't say 'no thanks'. He could, of course, cheat by marrying a second wife under monogamy-only covenants, but if he knows the biblical teaching on marriage, he would make himself a transgressor in doing so and have Yahweh to answer to.
For a woman forced to separate from an ungodly husband it is more difficult. How long should she wait? I have met many heroic women who have been waiting for years for husbands to reform and have been raising their children alone and often under considerable hardship. I am frequently asked how long they should wait. My counsel is always to give such a man a minimum of one year and then to seek revelation from Yahweh. Thereafter it becomes her responsibility, after carefully weighing the options, to make a decision. I believe that we may sometimes have such freedom. A year gives a soul time to settle and find balance, and so more clearly discern the Spirit.
To truly live in the spirit of New Covenant Torah does force us to be mature. And in the marriage arena, great responsibilities devolve upon us. As such, therefore, we should always invest much time into resolving questions of not only who we should marry but in taking such drastic steps as divorce. The freedom of Christ is not the liberty to do whatever we want, but to act within Torah, within love, and within a framework of responsibility and accountability.
Can we therefore unilaterally terminate a marriage vow? I know of one man who threw a wife out and 'annulled' (as he supposed) a marriage because he claimed that this wife was causing disturbances in his home. Though he might have had grounds for putting her in a separate house he chose to 'divorce' her. Did he have any biblical grounds to do so? None whatsoever. When I challenged him to get an apartment for her, his retort was, 'Who is going to pay for it?' I rather think that was his obligation as a husband, and to make the necessary sacrifices to realise such a need. The truth is, he just dumped her using the same kind of flimsy pretext that the Pharisees did in Yah'shua's (Jesus') day. He revealed by his behaviour just how little love was in his heart.
I could cite many examples, using both men and women, for they are as legion as there are carnal dispositions, spiritual oppressions, emotional disturbances, etc.. But whatever judgments we may make - judgments which will vary according to the clarity or distortion of the spiritual lenses through which we view both the world and our marriages - we are not in a position to unilaterally end marriage vows in a cavalier fashion unless the grounds are:
We may separate, or be separated, until such a time as we feel able to cope once again, but we cannot take the Torah (Law) into our own hands. Our vows are binding.
- (a) Squarely scriptural; and
- (b) Confirmed by the Holy Spirit.
To be sure, Yahweh can be, and is, merciful, but His justice is not arbitrary or haphazzard. He cannot contradict His own commandments or rules without giving Satan legal grounds to topple Him from His throne. There are times when we do rash things because we are not in our right mind, and whilst Yahweh may forgive, Satan will never pass by the opportunity to oppress and possess when given the legal grounds to do so. So be very, very careful what you do, for such actions may have eternal consequences for your soul.