June 25, 2013
i. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time.
ii. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.
iii. It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.
iv. Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the Word. Nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife.
v. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
vi. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.
Chapter twenty-four of the Westminster Confession of Faith addresses one of the most controversial subjects at the present day. As various countries around the world consider the legality and morality of same sex unions, the Confession speaks with refreshing and bracing clarity about marriage and divorce. The Confession is, to be honest, building on a foundation of careful study of God's Word. The divines were not interested in fads and fashions which come and go with breakneck speed. They were concerned with permanent things.
This chapter is comprised of six paragraphs. While the Westminster divines could not have known about the debates concerning same sex marriage that capture our attention today, their teaching could not be more relevant. The first paragraph begins with a definition of what marriage is: "Marriage is to be between one man and one woman..." Reflecting the teaching of Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:4-6, this brief statement makes it clear that marriage is not a mere social convention, nor is it the result of years of cultural evolution. It is a relationship instituted by God.
But there is more. It is only lawful for a marriage to involve one man and one woman at the same time. While it is lawful for a man or a woman to remarry upon the death of a spouse, polygamy (many wives) and polyandry (many husbands) are off limits. This is no pedantic concern. Missionaries will tell you that one of the most significant practical matters faced when planting churches on the mission field is the biblical prohibition of multiple wives. An elder or a deacon, if married, is to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12).
The Confession continues in its second paragraph to offer four reasons for the institution of marriage. First, marriage was ordained for the mutual benefit of husband and wife. As Genesis 2:18 has it, "And the Lord God said, 'It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helper suitable for him." God made Adam and Eve for each other. Both would reflect the image of God. Second, marriage was ordained to propagate the human race. God commanded our first parents to be fruitful and to multiply (Genesis 1:28). Third, marriage provides a "holy seed" or covenant children for the church. Fourth, God instituted marriage to prevent uncleanness or sexual promiscuity (1 Corinthians 7:2, 9).
Paragraphs three and four address who should marry and to whom one should be married. The Confession notes that "it is lawful for all sorts of people to marry..." and that such people must be able to give their consent to the marriage. There are, of course, limitations too. Christians should only marry Christians. "...Such as profess the true reformed religion" ought not to marry non-believers, Roman Catholics, or idolaters of other sorts. Further, the godly should not be unequally yoked by marrying those who are known to be flagrantly sinful or those who maintain false religious beliefs. Moreover, marriage ought not to be within the bounds of consanguinity (relations by blood) or affinity (relations by marriage) which are condemned in Scripture (Lev. 18:6-17, 24-30; 20:19; 1 Corinthians 5:1; and Amos 2:7). Brothers can't marry sisters nor sons their mothers and the like.
The Westminster divines may have had a specific historical instances in mind here. Henry VIII married his brother's widow (Catherine of Aragon) and a special dispensation from the Pope had to be obtained for the new marriage. Later when Henry wanted a divorce from Catherine he had to obtain a special dispensation for divorce. When he could not obtain the desired divorce, he broke with Rome and he himself became the head of the church of England.
The Confession in paragraph five addresses circumstances which might lead to the breaking off of an engagement or divorce. At the time of the Westminster Assembly, engagement was more legally binding than in our day in the West. Specifically, adultery and fornication discovered after a couple had entered into engagement made it lawful for the offended party to dissolve the betrothal. The same thing discovered after marriage could lead to the lawful dissolution of the marriage and the offended spouse may marry again as if the offending spouse was dead.
The divines had a realistic view of sinful human nature and realized that many will diligently search for and weigh arguments which will release them from their marital vows. However, while many will look under every rock to find a useful argument to end a marriage, there are legitimate biblical grounds for divorce.
In particular, the Confession in paragraph six stipulates that divorce is lawful for "...adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate..." The Confession is clear that divorce is to follow an orderly procedure and ought never to occur at the mere whim of one or both marriage partners. The Lord only allowed for divorce because of the hardness of men's hearts. Marriage was for life until at least one of the spouses had died. Marriage, the apostle Paul tells us, is meant to reflect the reality of the relationship of Christ to his church (Ephesians 5:22-33).
Dr. Jeffrey Waddington is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and currently serves as stated supply at Knox OPC in Lansdowne, PA and as communications director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He is co-editor, along with Dr. Lane Tipton, of Resurrection and Eschatology: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (P&R, 2008).