The Lord on vows and divorce

One of the interesting arguments I’ve come across when counseling/giving advice to people in rough marriages is that “God cares more about the people more than the marriage.”

An interesting take that seems to be true on the surface, but it doesn’t actually take into account the Lord’s position and is actually wrong.

Consider the story of Jephthah:

Judges 11:29 Now the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon. 30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33 He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel.

34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.” 36 So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.” 37 She said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.” 38 Then he said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. 39 At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, 40 that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

Obviously, Jephthah makes a terrible vow, but both he and his daughter recognize that obeying the Lord is of the utmost importance even though it may result in his daughter’s death.

Related: Numbers 30 on vows and Jesus on avoiding rash oaths/vows (because of the seriousness of them).

Matthew 5:33 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

Of course, every husband and wife takes vows to enter into the covenant of marriage.

Yeah, it sucks if you’re in an abusive situation (an actual abusive situation, not just they’re not doing what I want). If there’s physical abuse, sure, there’s possible reason to separate and stay single or reconcile. However, Jesus gave us the best example: he was totally innocent and suffered violence and abuse so that we would be reconciled to God. If only husbands and wives would model Jesus’ example in order to win their spouse to God.

Christians today think so little of God that at any sign of “suffering or abuse” they are counseled that they have the right to leave their marriage. Jesus’ example of bearing our sin and suffering means nothing to them.

Instead, God cared so much that He sent His totally innocent son to suffer violence and abuse on our behalf, and He invites us to follow His example to win others to Himself.

I think that many of these people are going to be surprised by God’s judgment on judgment day when God says “why did you counsel others to divorce” and they respond with “their spouse was abusive” that their response doesn’t cut it.

This is also another reason why the “exception clause” in Matthew 19 does not refer to divorce but likely the betrothal view (Deut 22), which I covered in Divorce Part 7 Final.

Matthew 19:3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any reason at all?” 4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 7 They *said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8 He *said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to puts away your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 And I say to you, whoever puts away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples *said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”

God does not invalidate your marriage vows despite how bad your spouse acts (“to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part”), which means the exception cannot mean that God allows for divorce.

Indeed, only death breaks the marital covenant:

Romans 7:2 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. 3 So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.

1 Corinthians 7:10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

1 Corinthians 7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

The Lord and Paul are consistent about this fact, and most Christians gloss over 1 Corinthians 7:39. This also means that the “abandonment” earlier in 1 Corinthians 7 cannot be a reason for release from the covenant of marriage and by extension definitely does not allow remarriage.

1 Corinthians 7:15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.

Paul is saying that a believer is not under the “bonds of marriage” or the “roles and responsibilities of marriage.” They should stay single or reconcile as they are still married to them to be consistent with the other Scripture.

Finally, to circle back to the beginning: God cares more about you being faithful to Him and honoring your word than even your physical health.

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22 Responses to The Lord on vows and divorce

  1. cshort says:

    Paul is saying that a believer is not under the “bonds of marriage” or the “roles and responsibilities of marriage.” They should stay single or reconcile as they are still married to them to be consistent with the other Scripture.

    While I don’t disagree with your sentiment here, I think you’re reading 1 Cor 7:15 out of context if you believe that this precludes the possibility of divorce.

    12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you (some manuscripts read “us”) to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor 7:12-16 ESV)

    When looking at verse 15 in it’s immediate context, I read this, and the original Greek, to mean that the unbelieving partner is the one that is essentially initiating a divorce. And because of that the believer is not enslaved to the marital vows in these instances. Basically Paul is stating here that the believer shouldn’t initiate a divorce and should live with their unbelieving spouse. He is not stating that they should ignore reality if the spouse leaves and divorces them. Despite what you state, this is not inconsistent with the rest of Scripture.

    You’re also reading more into Romans 7 than the Scripture supports in context. Paul is making a larger point on the law, vows, and other such things apply to the living and not the dead. He’s not making an all inclusive argument on the nature of how marriages can come to an end. In fact, that whole passage is a response against certain Jewish Christian elements arguing that Paul is denigrating the law (primarily in the sense of the Mosaic Law/Torah) with the Gospel he’s preaching. Finally, you’re putting away the words attributed to Christ in favor of a more restrictive, but out of context, passage written by Paul despite the fact that they don’t actually conflict. It’s like a contract that has a term to it but one exit clause. An example that many would understand is a contract with a gym that last for X number of years, but if you move more than so many miles away from your address at the time of the contract it can be terminated. I’m not saying that marriage vows and contracts are the exact same thing, but there are similarities. A marriage would normally end with death as the end of its term. Jesus and Paul give the only two acceptable ways outside of death that a marriage can come to an end. These are still extremely restrictive to both those under the old covenant and Mosaic Law as well as those that follow the ways of their culture/the world.

  2. Judges is a fascinating book because pretty much all of the stories are actually of the ones who made extremely bad decisions and we see the consequences that goes with them. Jephthah’s story is what happens when Hubris and Vanity mix together and you make agreements you don’t know the consequences about. He gave much room for Evil to do him harm, and it cost him dearly.

    Vows, oaths and covenants are extremely serious matters to the Lord. He’s quite clear on this. The place most Christians find themselves in is that they don’t take the Lord seriously about what He has told us.

    Good piece.

  3. SnapperTrx says:

    I concur with your observations on unbelieving spouses. As a believer I am under obligation to care for my wife, to clothe her, to shelter her and to see to her well being. A christian wife is under obligation to care for her unbelieving husband, to provide him with sex and to be under his authority in caring for his home. However, if that unbelieving spouse chooses to leave and “abandon” us then we are not under these obligations so long as that situation exists. If my unbelieving wife abandons me I am under no obligation to care for her, send her money or bail her out of a bad situation so long as she remains so. If she chooses to return to me and live under my authority then those obligations are reinstated. At no point is she not my wife, even when she has left me. For a woman it gets a little muddier because she is still under the authority of her husband if he chooses to return. At no point does she have biblical justification to rebel against him unless he instructs her to sin against God. I will need to do some pondering and reading on that.

    Also, lets not forget the peoples who approached Joshua in disguise (I forget who they were even though I just looked this story up a couple of weeks ago) and got him to make a covenant not to destroy them. Despite even being fooled Joshua knew that breaking the covenant would have dire consequences, so when it was revealed the people were not who they said they were, Joshua was angry but did not destroy them. Unfortunately, however, Saul DID break the covenant by killing them and God punished him for doing so. To say that God cares more for people than for the covenant of marriage is to ignore scripture.

  4. Joe2 says:

    Obviously, Jephthah makes a terrible vow, but both he and his daughter recognize that obeying the Lord is of the utmost importance even though it may result in his daughter’s death.

    Yes, it was a terrible vow. I understand that Jewish scholars would disagree with you that Jephthah was obeying the Lord, as follows

    1) Human sacrifice was forbidden by Mosaic Law. There was no divine acknowledgement of the sacrifice. Thus, why would God accept the sacrifice of a child?

    2) Jephthah made a vow without reading the laws of vows in the Torah. Had he read the laws he could have gone to the high priest to get the vow annulled.

  5. SnapperTrx says:

    1) He made a rashly worded vow and, human sacrifice or not, he was bound to keep it as he spoke it. Just as some other foolish vows got people into trouble, such as the one that got John the baptists head removed from his body. “Up to half of my kingdom” was it? A powerful obligation, and one that bound Herod to do as he had said had said.

    2) I don’t know if I can get on board with this only because it assumes that Jephthah didn’t try everything he could to see how he could remedy the situation. I mean, no word is recorded that he did, but he obviously loved his daughter very much, and one would assume he would search for any and every avenue to take back what he had done. I could be way off base here, but it just seems like something a father would do.

    I think the fact is that he had made the vow to God and knew it would be better that he hold fast to it than to break it. Even his daughter knew, and this says a lot about how sacred such a vow, of any type, was back then.

  6. @ cshort

    When looking at verse 15 in it’s immediate context, I read this, and the original Greek, to mean that the unbelieving partner is the one that is essentially initiating a divorce. And because of that the believer is not enslaved to the marital vows in these instances. Basically Paul is stating here that the believer shouldn’t initiate a divorce and should live with their unbelieving spouse. He is not stating that they should ignore reality if the spouse leaves and divorces them. Despite what you state, this is not inconsistent with the rest of Scripture.

    No, I already covered the Greek wording in the Divorce Part 7 Final topic more in depth.

    Here’s the section:

    1 Corinthians 7:12-15 — Paul, not the Lord, says to live with unbelieving spouses

    1 Corinthians 7:12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put away (aphiēmi autos). 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him (aphiēmi autos). 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. 15 But if the unbelieving depart (chōrizō), let him depart (chōrizō). A brother or a sister is not under bondage (douloo) in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. 16 For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?

    This passage is also used as a so-called exception clause for remarriage. “If I’m not under bondage anymore because my unbelieving wife or husband left me then I can remarry.” This interpretation is incorrect.

    If you examine the wording closely, the passage only says that if they depart then you’re not under the bondage (douloo) anymore. Greek douloo is from doulos which means servant/slave and is the verb form of slave which means enslavement. This is bondage is our duty to God for the marital roles and responsibilities.

    This verse must also be taken in context with the other verses in the Bible and passage. As Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 show, the Christian must stay single or reconcile and that the marriage covenant is only broken by death.

    1 Corinthians 7:10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart (chōrizō) from her husband: 11 But and if she depart (chōrizō), let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away (aphiēmi) his wife.

    Notice the same wording of an unbeliever departing (chorizo) and a wife departing (chorizo). They are still under the marriage covenant and must stay single or reconcile.

    Likewise, the end of the 1 Corinthians affirms this too:

    1 Corinthians 7:39 A wife is bound (deo) as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

    This is affirmed again at the end of 1 Corinthians 7. Notice the difference in the Greek word deo versus douloo used in the other verse. Deo means to bind. This is the same language that is used for the marital covenant as oneness/binding. and is only broken by death.

    There is no divorce or remarriage for Christians with unbelieving spouses either.

    Suffice to say, the Greek wording supports no divorce and remarriage for Christians with unbelievers.

    This is also consistent with Jesus’ statement “What God has put together let no man separate.”

  7. @ Joe2

    1) Human sacrifice was forbidden by Mosaic Law. There was no divine acknowledgement of the sacrifice. Thus, why would God accept the sacrifice of a child?

    It’s not like there’s no precedent before or after: Abraham and Isaac and God Himself and His Son Jesus (which was also post-Law of Moses)?

    Personally, I’m pretty thankful for Jesus’ sacrificial atonement.

    2) Jephthah made a vow without reading the laws of vows in the Torah. Had he read the laws he could have gone to the high priest to get the vow annulled.

    I don’t disagree.

  8. fuzziewuzziebear says:

    We may be comparing apples to oranges here. In biblical times, only men could initiate divorce. At present, women initiate seventy percent of divorces, and, if you look at college educated women, they initiate ninety percent. With those numbers, it does not look as if addressing men will be of much help.

    It is a off topic but tangential to this discussion. I read somewhere that judges in Israel are getting frustrated. They are ordering men to write a “get”, a document that confirms the divorce and is a religious legal requirement. Men that are overseas, and out of judges’s jurisdiction, are ignoring this order, frustrating the judges and divorcees.

    It would seem that men are naturally more likely to keep the marriage together. I have to wonder when women we allowed to initiate divorce that a profound socially destructive mistake was made.

  9. @fuzzie:

    From Muslim countries, with completely unfettered divorce rights for Men, we know the “natural” divorce rate is 8-12%. In countries where Women can start divorces, the rate is around 50% and the marriage rate falls. Women are responsible for 80-90% of divorces.

    It’s one of the most clear cut aspects of the difference between Men & Women, and we get to see the destruction in real-time.

  10. fuzziewuzziebear says:

    Looking Glass,
    Thank you for those numbers. It can get worse than fifty percent. Belgium and Denmark are running at seventy one percent. The point that needs to be made, that while it was true in Jesus’s time, addressing men on this issue won’t help much. Too much of what is wrong originates with women.

  11. Novaseeker says:

    The point that needs to be made, that while it was true in Jesus’s time, addressing men on this issue won’t help much. Too much of what is wrong originates with women.

    It will always be like that, though, because women are, generally speaking, much less prone to being content than men are — and it isn’t close. It isn’t just related to marriages, either, it relates to everything. Women are much less satisfied with what they have in their lives at any given time than men are, which is why liberating women hasn’t made them “happier” (people who are unsatisfied are not generally happy). We won’t be able to lecture women out of being discontent, it is in their nature. You either change the rules or you don’t, but you can’t expect women to magically become more content in their lives when so much of their psychology leads them to be discontent with things, and more so over time (again, not just their husbands or their marriages).

  12. fuzziewuzziebear says:

    Novaseeker,
    I don’t know how to fix this. All I know is that it is unwise to attempt to fix components that are working.

  13. @fuzzie:

    Depends what you mean by “fix”. The problem even honest Christians are always unwilling to accept is that we’ve been played, hard, for a couple of hundred years. We sit the end of selective breeding and evil machinations with no direct avenues out. That is, at the end, the point.

    “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:6 ESV

    The way forward is to know how to be “innocent as doves” while also knowing the process of Wisdom. Modern Christians act like Know Nothings and are about as useful.

  14. fuzziewuzziebear says:

    Looking Glass,
    Uh oh.

  15. @fuzzie:

    There are ways forward, but this isn’t the type of forum for it.

  16. From a strictly biblical view, vows are not part of marriage. Biblical restrictions on putting away wives and getting bills of divorcement have nothing to do with breaking vows. What God has joined together, let not man put assunder. Vows are not what join a man and woman.

  17. @ SubjectByDesign

    If we’re strictly speaking, all covenants (God-Abraham, God-Israel, Jesus-Christians, marriage, etc.) have agreements/vows to affirm them and require blood.

    Whether there was strictly “vows” or not doesn’t matter because there was an agreement for the establishment of the covenant. Covenants aren’t broken by bad behavior.

  18. seventiesjason says:

    be born into the right family, the right genetics, and the right place and be in the right church at the right time, above average IQ, above average skills, an ego the size of God……..otherwise “you’re just not trying hard / you have a bad attitude”

    marriage in the Christian faith is now pretty much for “the elect”

    and if you ain’t “the elect”

    Don’t worry, God doesn’t promise you a wife, and there is no marriage in heaven anyway………women are attracted to confidence, being funny, lots of muscles, confidence, leadership, supurlative social skills, height,

    Forget that Christian nonsense…being a “man of God” only matters…maybe ten on the list……you don’t have the ego, confidence, looks, career and ‘tude figured out by the time you are 25????

    God doesn’t promise you a wife. Suffering is normal.

    Hence Christianity’s terrible appeal for men today in general. Who wants to join a club where “the elect” win, and the rest “rejoice in their suffering”

  19. I don’t think you can make a biblical case for vows or agreement being an element of covenants. While I don’t agree that marriage is a covenant (it is the object of a covenant of betrothal, but most marriages don’t involve betrothal covenants), for the sake of argument I will say that it is, and I ask you for evidence that Adam or Eve agreed to marry. Or that Issaac and Rebekah agreed to marry. God’s covenants with his people placed duties on his people, but none of them required the people to agree or take vows. God alone initiated the covenants and promised to fulfill them. God alone joins people in marriage, they do not join themselves. A marriage is a marriage, regardless of whether the parties agreed or whether they took vows.

  20. @ SubjectByDesign

    for the sake of argument I will say that it is, and I ask you for evidence that Adam or Eve agreed to marry. Or that Issaac and Rebekah agreed to marry.

    1. God brings the animals to Adam to name and no helper is found. God makes Eve and brings him to her to name and to wed.

    Adam’s assent:

    “The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.””

    Notice after in the passage it talks man leaving his father and mother and joined to his wife and they become one flesh, which coincidentally Jesus also mentions in the divorce passage in Matthew 19.

    2. Abraham sends a servant to his homeland and expressly tells him to find a woman from his family. The servant as a proxy comes to an agreement with Rebekah’s father.

    This is also why father consent (for the woman’s) is often one required, especially if a woman’s consent is impaired such as in Exodus 22:16-17. Also present in the latter half of 1 Corinthians 7.

    God’s covenants with his people placed duties on his people, but none of them required the people to agree or take vows. God alone initiated the covenants and promised to fulfill them. God alone joins people in marriage, they do not join themselves. A marriage is a marriage, regardless of whether the parties agreed or whether they took vows.

    This makes no sense.

    So Abraham did not have faith to go where God called him out of his land?

    Jesus does not tell us repent, lay aside our own lives, take up our cross, and follow Him?

    Hebrews 11 details the faith of commitment of God’s people throughout the Bible.

    Come on now.

  21. The premise of this post, unless I am misunderstanding, is that even if a man is physically beating his wife, people should not counsel a woman to divorce and the woman should not choose divorce because God will hold her accountable to her vow.

    IF I am correctly understanding your premise, then your premise is wrong if a woman doesn’t make a vow.

    I agree that women are not permitted to put away their husbands and divorce them for the cause of abuse, but not because of the invented Western notion of marriage vows.

  22. @ SubjectByDesign

    The premise of this post, unless I am misunderstanding, is that even if a man is physically beating his wife, people should not counsel a woman to divorce and the woman should not choose divorce because God will hold her accountable to her vow.

    Correct, but it is only one reason of many.

    I noted the other reasons regarding the totality of the Scriptures in the divorce post which I linked.

    (1) I agree that women are not permitted to put away their husbands and divorce them for the cause of abuse, (2) but not because of the invented Western notion of marriage vows.

    It’s both.

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