Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Vows and Consequences

Biblical marriage requires a one-flesh union, but not every one-flesh union is a marriage.

After uniting for life the first man and woman in history, the Holy Spirit editorializes in Genesis 2, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The Lord Jesus affirms this statement in Matthew 19. It is not mere patriarchal opinion.

Now notice what he did not say. Sometimes that is as important as what is said.

Things the Holy Spirit Did Not Say

He did not say, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his husband, and they shall become one flesh.” Nor did he say, “a woman” to “her wife”. Such a physical union might bring about some kind of fleshly connection, but it is not biblical marriage. Churches acting consistently with the teaching of scripture therefore do not acknowledge gay or lesbian civil unions.

Likewise, the Holy Spirit did not lead Moses to write, “Therefore a man shall leave his wife and hold fast to his lover.” Again, there is some kind of union of the flesh in every coupling, as there is when a man comes together with a prostitute, but it is not a biblical marriage. Churches acting consistently with the teaching of scripture therefore do not acknowledge “second marriages” when one party from the first marriage(s) has remained faithful.

Again, nor did he say, “Therefore a man shall drift into an uncommitted relationship with a woman and try it on for a while to see if it’s a fit.” The “hold fast to his wife” implies lifelong commitment from day one, and the condition of leaving father and mother implies a permanent public change of circumstances. The young man has left. He is now the head of a new one-flesh union, a marriage. A young man living with a young woman where neither is clear what the future holds for their relationship is not remotely in that position, and churches are correct not to acknowledge their relationship as a biblical, one-flesh marriage.

What I’m saying here is that every noun and verb in Genesis 2:24 matters. If we leave out any of them, we are leaving out something important about marriage. Biblical marriage is a man and a woman in legitimate, committed sexual union.

Marriages and Vows

But nothing about the original couple’s one-flesh union required a vow. The vow came later. In fact, it may have come a lot later.

The very first mention of anything resembling a marriage covenant in scripture comes in the book of Malachi, which is a long, long way from Adam and Eve (at least 3,600 years). The prophet writes, “she is your companion and your wife by covenant”. (There is a possible hint of a marriage covenant in Ezekiel, but the allegory for the relationship between God and Israel makes it uncertain which covenant is in view.) The word used by Malachi is the standard Hebrew for a binding agreement, like the ones God made with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and others, and like the formal agreements men made with one another. It is the taking of an oath to perform in a certain way. Another word for it is a vow.

The association of marriage with a vow in accordance with Jewish custom probably began many years before Malachi mentioned it, but you will not find it in the Law of Moses, where you might anticipate finding it if vows were indeed a divine expectation in the solemnization of marriage. It follows that vows are a manmade addition to the process, which does not make them so much wrong as superfluous. As far as we can tell, Adam and Eve didn’t make vows, nor did their children. The covenant of marriage in early Israelite history (and in the surrounding nations) was actually made between prospective husband and the father of the bride. That is most likely the covenant to which Malachi refers.

The Limitations of a Vow

A vow gives public expression to a commitment, but it does not create or maintain it. The commitment may exist without a vow, or the vow without the commitment. This is a subject the Lord Jesus raised in the Sermon on the Mount, when he condemned the practice of oath-taking. As Solomon writes, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.” Neither man’s words have done much to curtail the practice of taking vows, including Christians, but the point of these texts is that there is nothing magical about a verbal promise, even one made before God. It cannot bind a man or woman who refuses to be bound.

That’s a long way round to get to where I’m going this morning. Alan Shlemon at Stand to Reason has written a post about whether Christians ought to attend same-sex weddings. He is thankfully against the practice, so all that is fine. But it is this almost-unrelated remark that caught my attention:

“My wife and I were officially married when our pastor declared us ‘husband and wife’ at the altar of our church.”

In Alan’s thinking, presumably, he made a vow to his wife that ended with her responding, “I do”, and she did the same, after which the declaration of the pastor made their marriage official. In fact, this is no more the case than associating the official moment his marriage commenced with the filling out or filing of legal paperwork with the state. The church has no more authority to marry or withhold marriage from Alan than the state does. Alan’s marriage required more than commitment, whether expressed verbally or otherwise. It required consummation. The combination of those two things within a few hours of one another made it marriage in the eyes of God. Either one would only take him part way, and the pastor’s involvement in acknowledging the couple’s commitment had nothing to do with sealing the deal.

Niggling? No

Why does this little bit of apparent trivia matter? Well, it matters a great deal in how we think about marriage. If marriage is merely a contractual arrangement I make with a woman, then, like any other contractual arrangement, we can terminate it with appropriate penalties paid. We still have those: a tiny bit of social shaming (very little, usually ladled with far too much undeserved sympathy for the person departing), a financial ding for the more affluent of the two parties, and a mound of (inordinately expensive) legal paperwork. Done, dusted and on to the next one, right?

Wrong. As one Christian friend told me a while back, “I didn’t make my vows to her, I made them to the Lord” — or at very least in the presence of the Lord, who sealed the deal. If this is the case with marriage, then the breaking of a one-flesh union becomes something very different and far more solemn. “God has joined them together.” What any man or woman has to say about it — including their families, the state, the presiding religious officiant and the parties themselves — may be entirely irrelevant.

Christians who expect to dissolve a marriage and weave their way back into the blessings of God in short order may find that process considerably more complex and devastating than they think.

No comments :

Post a Comment