Marriage, Vows, and Divorce
UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.
[July 11, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
The following is a excerpt from our book, A Cry for Justice [*Affiliate link].
What about those promises made at the wedding?
Matthew 5:37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
Contracts. You are probably bound to more of them than you might realize. Credit cards come with them. You finance your car, buy a home with a mortgage, and enter into an employment agreement with your boss. All of these aspects of normal life involve contracts. And they all have sanctions. Blessings or curses, we might say. If I buy a new flat screen TV with my credit card, I am promising to pay the debt off in a particular time, with a specified interest rate, and if I do so, I will be blessed. I get to keep the TV. If not, well, the curses go into play! Some burly “repo man” might show up at my door, or my paycheck could be slapped with a garnishment.
For a number of years, I have wondered about one of the most important contracts human beings make. It is the marriage contract, entered into (we even use those words “entered into” at the wedding!) with vows recited in the presence of God and witnesses. My confusion about these vows originates in the fact that for the most part, the church tells people their marriage contract is non-enforceable. This is particularly evident when we consider abuse and the marriage vows. Consider a typical vow:
- To love.
- To honor.
- To cherish.
- To forsake all others.
- Until death.
Normally, at least in a Christian ceremony, these vows are expressly stated to be made “solemnly,” in the sight of God, and witnessed by everyone present. And yet, unlike every other human contract in life, it seems that this contract can be disregarded the first day after the honeymoon with full immunity from sanctions (curses) and continued enjoyment of all privilege. Isn’t, as we say, something really wrong with this picture? A spouse can, for example, never love, never honor, never cherish their wife or husband, and yet we tell the wronged party that there is nothing to be done about it. They are married, the contract is binding, and that is that. Perhaps if there is adultery, then yes, divorce is permitted. Otherwise, the defrauded party is still bound by contract. What? Say that again?
Marriage is a contract. [Instone-Brewer 2002] That may not sound very romantic, but contract is the essence of the wedding ceremony, and the vows are the means by which husband and wife enter into this contract (see Proverbs 2:17; Malachi 2:14). Each one of them states the terms, the blessings for keeping their “part of the bargain,” and the curses for breaking the deal. [Sutton 1988, 10] Essentially, the curse comes from the fact that the vows are recited in “the presence of God and these witnesses,” acknowledging that, as the London Confession of Faith states, God is being invoked to either bless or curse us. In that respect, wedding vows are made to God!
A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgment, solemnly calls God to witness what he swears, and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof….Whoever takes an oath warranted by the Word of God, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to vow nothing but what he knows to be truth; because by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns. [Chapter 23, The London Confession of Faith, modern language].
Today, people often want to write their own vows for their wedding. If I am the officiating minister, I discourage this or at least reserve the right to review what they propose. Why? Because I recognize that vows are to be more than mere flowery, vapory, feel-good words that evaporate as they are uttered. The vows are the terms of the contract, entered into before God. As such, they are solemn. While a wedding is indeed cause for celebration, I wonder how the atmosphere of many “party-on” ceremonies would be radically changed to a more sober sense if everyone realized just what was actually happening — “Lord, we call upon you to bless us or curse us according to the vows we are now making.” Perhaps some marriages wouldn’t even take place! It is possible that this realization is what prompted the disciples to exclaim [to ask Jesus]:
Matthew 19:10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
Once we recognize that marriage is a contract, entered into with sober vows, we are in a position to define divorce – something that is often overlooked in many treatments of this subject. What we mean by “divorce” is not always as clear as we think. I am going to use two terms for clarification: 1) destruction of the marriage, and 2) divorce of the marriage [Divorce is the breaking of the marriage contract. It is effecting separation of what God has joined together by violation of the vows, the terms of the deal. Therefore]:
- A marriage covenant is destroyed (made void) by willful, habitual, unrepentant breaking of the marriage vows. [Divorce, or the effecting of the “separation” that Jesus forbids (see Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9), is committed by the guilty party; by the marriage partner who actually breaks the contract.]
- This violation of vows is what actually causes a marriage to end. [Divorce is never effected by the innocent partner In fact, it is impossible for the innocent partner to effect a divorce.]
- The innocent party may then file for divorce and should not be condemned for doing so. Divorce then is simply the legal declaration that a marriage is over. [When the wronged spouse takes the legal means to end the marriage (i.e, files for divorce with the civil authorities) he or she is not divorcing, but is merely acknowledging the divorce that has already taken place.]
When the wronged spouse takes the legal means to end the marriage (i.e. files for divorce with the civil authorities) he or she is divorcing, but this is to merely acknowledge that the marriage covenant has already been rendered void by the guilty spouse’s violation of the covenant terms. This means that only the victim can rightfully petition for divorce and it is only the victim who can biblically decide when the marriage has ended.
What Jesus forbids, in other words, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” is the destruction of the marriage by violation of the vows. [That is what divorce is. Divorce, we say again, is not the filing of the paperwork by the wronged party.] Instone-Brewer affirms this:
Therefore, although the breakup of a marriage is always due to sin, it is not the divorce itself that is the sin; the sin is the breaking of the vows, which causes the divorce.
Some years ago when I was counseling a couple whose background included a history of adultery by one of them, I remember telling them, “Your marriage is over. It was destroyed by the violation of the marriage contract you made. Therefore, the wronged party has the right to acknowledge this fact by filing the necessary legal papers with the civil court. You are not required to do so. You may choose to forgive and continue on in the marriage. But this is your right.” In this case, the wronged spouse chose to forgive and continue in the marriage. Perhaps in cases like this it would be appropriate to recite new vows to establish a new covenant.
In the case of abuse in marriage, the abuse victim is not the one destroying the marriage when he or she decides the marriage contract has been rendered null and void [the abuse victim is not the one “committing” the divorce when he or she decides the marriage contract has been rendered null and void.] That has already been accomplished by the abuser who has refused to love, honor, and cherish as he vowed before God to do. The church continues, in many cases, to do great harm and injustice to abuse victims when we insist that if she files for divorce, she is actually the one who is effecting the destruction of the marriage [the divorce] and is therefore, guilty before God. All the victim is doing is suing for the court to recognize that the marriage contract has been broken. We even use that legal language: suing for divorce.
Why is it that we seem to hold credit card agreements and home mortgages in higher esteem than the marriage contract? What person in their right mind would ever enter into a contract, knowing that the other party can violate the terms to our harm, and yet there will be nothing we can do to get out of the contract? [Emphasis added to this paragraph is this post.]
[July 11, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to July 11, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to July 11, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to July 11, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (July 11, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
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- Posted in: Christianity
- Tagged: divorce, Jeff Crippen, marriage vows
Jeff, your words rang true to me. It is so sad when a wife is verbally abused by her spouse and all she can hope for is that he will be the one to file for divorce so that it is not het sin. Does that make sense? How do you live as one with an abuser?
Hi, Marianne, my book (Not Under Bondage [*Affiliate link]) explains the biblical grounds for divorce. You can find it in the sidebar of this blog. How does one live with an abuser? With great difficulty! You are free to divorce if your husband is abusing you. Look at the tag Divorce on this blog and you will find lots of posts about it. Here is the best post to start with: The Bible DOES allow divorce for domestic abuse.
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All kinds of unbiblical advice is being given to abuse victims, both women and men. It seems to me that in our zeal to preserve marriages at any cost, we have developed quite a body of our own traditions rather than applying Scriptural truth. The topics of forgiveness, reconciliation, marriage and remarriage are all intertwined in the question of divorce. I have read several books by prominent Christian authors and teachers and have been disappointed at what they are teaching on these matters.
For instance, John MacArthur insists that abuse is not a biblical reason for divorce. You can check this out on his “Grace to You” website if you search under domestic violence, abuse, divorce or related topics. Anyone who is informed on the topic of abuse will readily see from MacArthur’s comments that he is uninformed about it. He seems to think that abuse is physical only, but even then he will not recognize it as a ground for divorce. I think that his woodenly literal hermeneutic (interpretive method) is one of the reasons for his conclusion.
Other writers insist that “forgiveness ALWAYS includes reconciliation of relationship”, “never bringing up the wrong committed against you again”, and so on. But that simply cannot be. See 2 Timothy 4:14. We can forgive even our enemies, but they remain enemies — there is no relationship to reconcile. Forgiveness means at its heart, resolving not to seek vengeance nor hating the person who wronged us. So a victim can divorce an abuser AND forgive them. This is not contradictory. Thanks much, Marianne.
I was asked by someone who read this post if this position doesn’t free people up to “do whatever they want”? In other words, if their spouse abuses them, habitually breaking the wedding vows in hard-heartedness and thus destroys the marriage contract, doesn’t this give the wronged spouse freedom to “just bail out” and leave? In the case in question, a woman had done this — her husband was abusive and adulterous — and then she moved in with another man. Well, of course being wronged in one marriage does not authorize a victim to commit fornication, which “shacking up” with someone is.
On the other hand, we must answer “yes” to the question of “bailing out.” Yes, the wronged spouse whose abusive husband or wife has unrepentantly destroyed the marriage covenant by breaking the terms of that covenant – the vows – is indeed free. Now, we also know that we are bound to obey the laws of the civil authorities (Romans 13). So that means the victim cannot just go out and marry someone else without first going through the proper legal channels to petition for and finalize a divorce. The civil law does not permit polygamy!
But you can see in this questioner question the reluctance Christians often have to granting a husband or wife the right to have the destruction of their marriage recognized. Somehow we want to preserve any “marriage” at all costs — when in fact very often what we are trying to preserve is no marriage at all. With all of this said however, the victim always has the right to choose to remain in the marriage and be reconciled. But she / he also has the right to finalize the divorce which the guilty party already effected.
Wonderful post and excellent explanation. Something that’s always bothered me — as Christians, shouldn’t our standards be higher? Shouldn’t we treat our wives, husbands, children better than those who don’t claim to fear God? And yet so many times, abuse is not only tolerated, but condoned.
Another point: Of the abused women I’ve known, not one wanted to leave. Every single one went above and beyond the limits of what most would consider reasonable. By the time any actual divorcing took place, they’d reached the very end of endurance, many times to the point of losing their mental and physical health.
Could someone make a false accusation of abuse just because they want to bail? Of course they could. But do we hold all women in bondage for that reason? Please God, no.
Ida – thank you much for your comments. Yes, the Christian church should be characterized by the best treatment of spouses and children in the world. Unfortunately, not everyone who claims to be a Christian really is, even if they are church members. The situation could be remedied to a greater extent however if we pastors and church members were educated to the mentality and tactics of the abuser. We have not arrived there yet though, which is one of the chief reasons we want to get our book published soon.
Your point about abuse victims not wanting to leave their marriage is an excellent observation and one that I hope our readers pay close attention to. You are absolutely right in this. It really is not a realistic fear to think that if we permit divorce for abuse, all of these people are going to come running forward crying “abuse” just to get out of their marriages. A few may, but the guilt will be upon them. To enslave real victims to their abusers by teaching them “God does not permit divorce in their case” is cruel, unjust, and I believe shameful in Christ’s sight.
The Gospel itself is open to the charge “then we can sin all we want since salvation is by grace alone!” Paul says so in Romans 6:1-2, but that doesn’t mean we should stop preaching salvation by grace alone in Christ alone!
I thought Paul, speaking for God, told we believers that we may separate, but if we do we must then remain single or reconcile with our husbands or wives. Are men who are abusive to their wives verbally not included in Paul’s words? Are not the women who rightfully leave the homes of these men still bound by these words to remain single or to reconcile?
Alson, we believe that verbal abuse is just as destructive as other forms of abuse.
As we say in our definition of abuse in the sidebar of the blog —
And here are two of our FAQ pages:
What About Divorce?
What About Remarriage?
On those pages you will find links to various posts that will answer your questions.
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From Pastor Jeff’s original post:
An interesting parallel….I was the only one who ensured the credit card agreements and mortgage contracts were kept, the bills paid for household services and repairs, and all the government taxes.
Apparently, I was the only one who kept any contracts….
My husband broke his vows to to love, honor, cherish and forsake all others long before I gathered the courage to legally separate myself from his abuse. For a long time I took responsibility for his actions even when he was physically abusive.
I chose to file for legal separation in [year redacted] to protect myself and our kids, giving him the opportunity to “do his own work”. It’s been almost [….] years and he has only become more bitter and abusive.
What’s made me hang in there this long is that I took vows to God for better or for worse. In fact I’ve often said to myself and others “well, I guess this is my worse.” Feeling bound by this mindset not realizing until this post that my husband did in fact divorce me a long time ago when he broke again and again the agreements in our marriage / contract covenant.
I still choose to forgive however, finally finding the freedom to file for divorce allows me the opportunity to not LIVE. [Note from Eds: perhaps the word ‘not’ in the last sentence is a typo?]
Thank you for this post.
[Eds — commenter’s name changed as a safety precaution.]
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