Marriage and Divorce in Various Cultures

By Gene Frost

            DISCUSSIONS of the right to remarry following divorce seem unending. This not because God’s word is uncertain or unclear, but because of man’s weaknesses and constant desire to justify his every sinful indulgence. (Proverbs 16:2)  It was through the hardness of their hearts that the nation of Israel sought to justify divorce for every cause. (Matthew 19:8)  It remains so today.  In our lifetime we have seen the same determination to justify all remarriages following divorce. Those seeking justification for remarriage may differ as to the circumstances under which remarriage is permitted by God, yet collectively justification is sought for every situation. Major shifts in arguments for justification have been offered until today the major arguments are pretty well established and have been effectively refuted. Anything new seems to be nothing more than some novel variation of an old argument dressed in new terms.

            In recent days there has been a renewed interest in the subject, as may be noted by the exchange of articles being published in various journals and on several internet sites. I do not propose to join the discussion per se. My interest is to call attention to some facts apparently being overlooked in these discussions. I best do this by simply pointing out what I understand the Bible to teach on the nature (the essential characteristics and qualities) of marriage and of divorce.

Marriage is a Covenant

            Marriage is a covenantal relationship. “Marriage,” as defined in the dictionary, is “the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife.” (The American Heritage Dictionary.) This definition is useful in that it discriminates between differing sexual relations. Not all unions constitute marriages. Two people just living together are not by that fact married. There must be the aspect of recognition of the union by authority. In the case of marriage, it is the authority established by society, whether legal or custom. It is perhaps on this point that we find some confusion and disagreement. To determine what authority is under consideration in a given time and place, we need to understand that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman that establishes their intent and commitment to live together as a husband and a wife (or literally as his “woman” and as her “man,” there being no scripture term for “husband” or “wife”).

            Malachi 2:14, “Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.”

            The marriage covenant (berith, Hebrew; diatheke, Greek) is a solemn compact made between a man and a woman, by which each party binds himself to fulfill certain conditions and is assured of receiving certain advantages. (I Corinthians 7:3-4, Ephesians 5:22-25, 28-29.) There are three elements involved: (1) an agreement as to what is expected of each in the relationship; (2) an oath, or vow, by each to the other to observe the terms, God being witness; and (3) the formal ratification of the covenant by some external act that attests to the fact that the covenant is in effect.  The oath and ratification are usually coincident.

            1. Agreement. The nature and terms of a covenant must be agreed upon before the covenant can be established. So in marriage, the man and the woman must come to an agreement to join their lives in a “one flesh” commitment, with an understanding of what is required of each. The period following the agreement is the engagement.

            2. The Oath (vow). The vows, to accept and live by the terms of the agreement must be solemnly made. They are publicly acknowledged, usually coincident with the confirmation or ratification of it.

            3. The formal Ratification or confirmation. Marriage is not a secret arrangement; it is an open arrangement in which the man “leaves father and mother to cleave unto his wife,” and she to become his companion and helper. (Gen. 2:24, 18; Mal. 2:14.)  Together, as “one flesh,” they face life in all that it offers.  When this takes place, it is an event that is of public notice. It is above the scandal of two people just “living together”; the society in which they live have verifiable evidence of their marriage. They can know when and where the vows were exchanged and how it was ratified.

            The sign of ratification has differed from time to time and from culture to culture. Originally the word "covenant" (berith) signified the ratification itself.  Gesenius notes that the word “usually referred to the cutting in pieces of the victims which were sacrificed on concluding a solemn covenant, and between the parts of which the contracting parties were accustomed to pass” (William Gesenius, Hebrew and English Lexicon, trans. by E. Robinson, page 159). We note this in Jeremiah 34:18: “And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof...”

            Covenants were also ratified by erecting a pillar and a mound of stones and sharing a meal: “Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee. And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap: and they did eat there upon the heap.” (Genesis 31:44-46)  The heap of stones constituted the sign (oth) or witness (ed) (verses 48, 52). “But the greatest tool for covenant making came to be the written document in which the words of the covenant, its terms in the form of promises and stipulations, were spelled out, witnessed to, signed an sealed.” (Theological Wordbook of the O.T., volume I, page 129.)

            Paul refers to the ratification of a covenant: “Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed [ratified], no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.” (Galatians 3:15)  The word “ratify” is a translation of the Greek kuroo: “to make valid; to confirm publicly or solemnly, to ratify.” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, page 366.)  It is further defined: to “give authority, establish as valid, confirm” (Spiros Zodhiates, Complete Word Study Dictionary, page 902); “to make valid, ratify, impart authority or influence (from kuros, might, kurios, mighty, a head as supreme in authority)” (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary, volume I, page 226); “a legal term: to ratify by formal decree” (R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of Galatians, page 884).

            The marriage covenant was also ratified.  The validity of Jacob’s marriage to Leah was signified by a feast and his entering into her tent. {Genesis 29:21-23)  In Jesus’ day, marriages involved a procession of the bridegroom with friends to the bride’s house {or the groom’s house) for the marriage. (Matthew 25:1, 10)  In some societies, we understand that the ratification was a placing of a yoke across the shoulders of bride and groom; or a cutting of the arm of each, which were bound to each other and the blood mingled; or a jumping of the broom. In each case the marriage was a matter of public record, the event attested to by eye witness, when and where the wedding feast occurred, or when the bridegroom’s procession and ensuing ceremony occurred, or when the yoke was placed upon the marriage couple, or when their blood was mingled, or when they jumped the broom, etc.

            It may be observed that the ratification may change from time to time and with culture to culture. The way—means, procedure, determinants, process, or whatever one may call it—is not specified.  Whatever is determined by law or custom is the way in that particular place and time. This does not mean, however, that the word “ratify” is generic, allowing the individual to choose a specific way from other times and places. There is a difference in what is unspecified, and so allowing each society, culture, or nation to determine what is acceptable, and what is generic, so as to allow the individual to choose whatever specific way he wants to validate his covenant.  Authority resides in the community, whether by an acceptable custom they determine or by law.  It so happens in our time and in our nation, ratification is in the form of the documented confirmation.

            “But,” it may be argued, “the state cannot establish the way to ratify marriage and limit where God has not limited.” Au contraire. This is precisely the role of government, to establish the determinants that make for order. (Romans 13:1-2, 5)  To leave every individual the right to select for himself a form of ratification from any time and any culture (and ignore our own), or even to institute his own “custom,” would bring chaos.

            There is no need for us to discuss the ratification of marriage covenants of other times and in other cultures as possible procedures to follow today. The ratification of authority in the United States is the exchange of vows and validation by registering the testimony of witnesses in legal certificates of marriage.

            Finally, some would ask, “But can a marriage exist without comporting with God’s will in the relationship?”  Yes, marriage is descriptive of the physical relationship in which a couple is committed to living as husband and wife. It mayor may not be acceptable to God. In fact, Jesus spoke of a man who divorces, without acceptable cause, and marries again, and says that in doing so he commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)  It is a marriage, although in violation of God’s will.  The apostle Paul refers to a woman who is married, but because it is a relationship in violation of the divine will she is called an adulteress. (Romans 7:3)  Some say, “but Jesus and Paul were speaking of these marriages accommodatively.”  Who says so?  The Scriptures do not.  To those who claim to know what Jesus meant, though He did not express it, tell us what He would have said if He had meant they actually were married, and was not speaking accommodatively?

            Apparently some think that any marriage that is not in complete harmony with God’s will is not a real marriage. That means that God approves of all marriages indeed.  A relationship that is called “marriage,” if God does not approve is really no marriage at all.  And since some among us are qualified to tell which marriages Jesus refers to are real and which marriages are not (in name only), although Jesus refers to both as marriages, will they assume the role of some religious leaders to declare who are living in marriage and who are living in concubinage (even though they established a covenant of marriage)?  To speak of “marriages accommodatively speaking” and of “real, actual marriages” offers nothing for clarification, only confusion.

Annulling the Marriage Covenant

            The dissolution of the marriage contract is no less a legal action than the marriage. I believe we see this in the divorcement legislation of Moses.  When Moses penned Deuteronomy 24:1-5, he was not supplanting or adding to God’s strictures concerning the permanency of marriage.  The reason for this instruction was not to augment God’s will, but was because of a “hardness of heart” that prevailed in Israel.  It was contingency legislation to cope with a civil problem.

            Divorce was an evil that needed regulating. The Jews expressed it correctly when they said that “Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.” Jesus replied, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept” (Mark 10:4-5) and adds, “but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8)  The tense of “it was not so” from the beginning is present, perfect, active, which signifies an event from the past continuing to the present; that is, “permission from God to divorce for every cause was not so at the beginning and has not been so even until now!”  We must remember that the Mosaic law contained civil regulations as well as spiritual.  Since this was not spiritual instruction from God, but was a provision tolerated, it had to be a matter of civil restraint.  It was necessitated because of a hardness that felt no care, desire or willingness to conform to God’s will of moral conduct.  Here the gross attitude and behavior of the people was such that had civil law demanded compliance with God’s spiritual law, rebellion and civil disobedience would have disrupted the nation and interfered with God’s plans for Israel as a nation.  This regulation was “suffered”; it was tolerated; it did not reflect God’s will.  Hardness of heart has never caused God to compromise His moral will and law, but in civil matters He tolerated what spiritually He does not. Even so, although in civil conduct less was demanded, in spirituality and morality they were still amenable to God’s moral code and will be eternally judged accordingly. What was allowed in the law was to curb gross injustices to the women of Israel, who were being put away at the whim of heartless men. Now a civil regulation is given so they could not summarily dismiss their wives. Divorcement required the giving of a certificate of divorce.

            In our society, we follow much the same: divorcement requires a legal procedure. There must be a public confirmation, a validation, a record as to when and where the marriage was annulled. It is matter of public record.  To suggest that marriages or divorcements may be forthcoming with disregard to civil sanction, ignoring the conventions of society and the laws of the State is repugnant.  If such were the case, the marital scene would be thrown into utter chaos.

            There may be both marriages and divorces which fail to comply with God’s will, but they are marriages and divorces nonetheless.  Jesus refers to such in Matt. 19:9, when He speaks of one who puts away (divorces) his wife without a cause of fornication being involved.  Considering the condition of women in that time, there is no doubt that she would not have been a willing victim of divorcement. Nevertheless, not only could the man not remarry without committing adultery, but the wife he divorced (put away) as well could not remarry without committing adultery.  Jesus speaks of the condition of the man – “whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” – AND the condition of the woman: “whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

Confusing The Issue

            Moderns confuse the issue by declaring that the man and woman of Matthew 19 were not really divorced and hence did not really marry the second time. Therefore, it is reasoned, the first to remarry supposedly commits adultery because actually he/she is still really married.  This adultery now becomes the grounds for really putting away...but the divorcement has already occurred.  So all that is left for the “innocent” one, who has been put away, is to now mentally repudiate the adulterous mate.  Of course, there is no validation of this “real” divorce.  The only record is the civil divorce, which doesn’t count (it was just an empty gesture, we are told). Such is the confusion when one begins to think that when the Lord speaks of divorce and remarriage, He one time means a real marriage, and another a supposed marriage (not a real marriage), and one time a real divorce and another a supposed divorce.  We would like for those who advocate this reasoning to tell us, in this scenario just when and how this so-called real divorce takes place.  What does the one who has been divorced do to obtain a real divorce, what validates it, and where is the event witnessed and recorded that authenticates the fact?

            Confusion is due in part to the failure to recognize the distinction between the bond and the marriage. The binding is in the mind of God; marriage is the physical relation, whether approved of God or not.  One can be bound and not married or married and not bound. (Cf. Romans 7:1-3)  “Marriage” and “bound” are not synonymous.


            Brethren tread on dangerous ground when they begin to think about marriage and divorce without regard to regulations established by society. They encourage sin when they advise anyone who is “put away” to marry again (Matt. 19:9 Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18), claiming an exception (which the Lord does not give) for one who protests being put away.  To say that the one who protests the divorce is thereby given the right to remarry, after the fact, when the former mate remarries (or otherwise commits adultery). A divorce (putting away) in such case is now actual and accepted by God.  We ask, What record, validation, of society can this one now show to establish that the former marriage is now annulled?  He/she has only the theorists to validate the claim. Frankly, as sincere as the advisers are, I would dread to stand before God with nothing more than their testimony that a second marriage, after being put away, is acceptable to God.

            (This is but a brief study of an important issue. May I recommend a fuller treatment that I have given to the subject? I have two works, Marriage Is Honorable and Mental Marriages and Mental Divorces, which are available at religious bookstores operated by brethren.)

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Last Updated:  Thursday, January 26, 2006 12:41 PM