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. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 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. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 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 Corinthians 7:12-16
Unjust also is the tradition which forbids an innocent person to marry after divorce.
-Philip Melanchthon, A Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope
Marriage as a “Love Story” or Work of Art
It is interesting to observe the language which is nowadays used to describe divorces. We speak of “failed” marriages or how a marriage has “broken down”, or more commonly as “tragic” and all that. The implicit premise behind such language is of course that the marital relationship is essentially a phenomenon beyond the scope of human agency. Buildings and machines break down, power lines and businesses fail, volcano eruptions or tsunamis are tragedies. Of course the one thing which all of these have in common is that they are ultimately the result of forces and factors which exceeds the control of human agencies. Sometimes a business ventures just “fails”, a freak occurrence in the stock market, a chance bad investment, a power line severed by a falling tree, a machine simply becomes worn and breaks down or a rat has crawled in and jams the gears, etc. While naturally human agency is partially involved, but ultimately the successful maintenance of these involves an element of luck and the fortuitous convergence of forces beyond.
If we are going to have a coherent understanding of marriage and divorce, the abdication of the human agency in marriage is the first place to start. It is not by accident that the language of “failures”, “breakdowns” and “tragedies” reflect and affect the way in which we think about marriage. This of course is strongly correlated to the rise of the concept of “romantic” marriages as a “love story”. We think of marriages as something which is essentially “beautiful”, a work of art whereby a fortuitous convergence of chance events and interactions brings a couple together in love. Just as an artist, but an unaccountable “moment of inspiration”, fits the pieces of a good novel together and creates his masterpiece, likewise do we think of marriages in the same way, a marriage happens because a fortuitous convergence of events “fits” a couple together to enable them to “fall in love” and get married. It’s such a beautiful story!
It should be quite obvious here that this conception of marriage significantly reduces the role of human agency in it. As philosophers have already noted, “artistic success” is largely a matter of luck. There are many many skilled authors, in the technical sense possessing a perfect command of their language, who have largely been forgotten simply because they couldn’t find that “click” or inspiration to produce an enduring work.
Thus likewise do we speak of a marital “bond” or “special connection” or “union” as a thing of beauty which acquires a life and meaning of its own beyond that of the individual actions of the person’s involved. The “love story” is greater than the sum of its actors. But naturally if the sustenance and integrity of marriage is something which transcends the individual acts of the couple, then naturally it’s dissolution is likewise simply a “tragedy”, something which “just happens” to themselves beyond the individual couple’s control, like a sudden crash in the stock market, a volcano eruption, etc. A tragic convergence of events beyond the individual’s agencies is responsible for the “breakdown”. (It is not by accident that “tragedy” itself is a genre of dramas!)
This is why there has been an increasing trend towards downplaying the stigma and shame which comes with divorce. One can no more fault or “morally blame” a person for divorcing then one can “morally blame” a businessman for an unlucky venture. A failure in business acumen is not a moral failure, likewise is a failure in sustaining a marriage not a moral failure to which one can attribute blame or guilt. It is as ludicrous as attributing moral guilt to an author who has published a badly written story book. Thus, a divorce is simply a “tragedy”, it just happened, it’s no one’s fault really, just an unlucky convergence of various events.
Marriage as the Undertaking of an Obligation
Now that we have a clear idea of our contemporary understanding of marriage and love, we can now turn to the proper understanding of what actually constitutes a marriage.
A marriage is at it’s heart the undertaking of a promise and duty to perform certain actions. Thus, it is essentially the undertaking of an obligation. It isn’t merely an expression of falling in love or some special connection or bond or whatever, it is at it’s heart, a decision to undertake the duty to love and to care for each other. Thus there is a difference between being in love and promising to love. To be “in love” is just something which one experiences, one suffers it, it is not an act. “To love” on the other hand is an act of will, a decision, an exercise of human agency, etc.
Thus this is why the marriage is an undertaking of a vow, a promise. Because ultimately it is a duty and an obligation to love and care for each other. The couple assents to the question, “Will thou love her, comfort her, honour her, etc, etc,” with “I will”, an intentional decision of the will with regards to the future. (It is interesting to observe that the answer “I do” is not found in any of the traditional formulas of marriage. What effect or implications does changing the formula from “I will” to “I do” have upon our understanding of marriage? Unlike “I will” which is a decision which pertains to an intent to act in the future, saying that “I do” is simply a report of one’s present state. I do love her, in the sense that I am now currently in love with her, or feel the love, etc. But it says nothing about one’s intentions about the future. Maybe in future you don’t anymore, etc. The “I do” becomes merely an expression after some subjective fact rather than the objective assent and undertaking of a promise in “I will”.)
To recapitulate, marriage is essentially the promise to perform various specific duties and actions for each other. It is an obligation to perform certain actions. Thus under this older conception, marriage is squarely subject to human agency and acts.
As a side note, although it seems paradoxical in today’s age, but the Bible does seem to present love as essentially a duty or obligation which one fulfills whether or not one feels like it or whether one wants to or not. It is a command after all, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, etc, etc, and love thy neighbour as thyself. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ didn’t want be crucified and prayed for the cup to be passed from him, but yet he demonstrates his love by the fact that he negated his desires and didn’t do what he wanted but instead submitted to the will of God, “Yet not my will but thine be done.” Naturally I don’t want to discount all those “romantic” aspect of marriage as ecstatic union and all that, but I would argue that those are not a continuous fact of marital life (no matter what Hollywood would like you to believe!) but instead occur by, well, luck or the grace of God when by a fortuitous convergence of certain events, there is flashes an existential moment of romantic realisation of being one in love and all that. But this doesn’t constitute the totality of marital love and this occasional realisation of union is only a glimpse which occurs now and then in the broader mutual journey of the arduous work or duty of love.
Willful Sin as the Root of Divorce and the Pauline Privilege
If indeed a marriage is simply the promise to perform certain duties and actions, then the only way a marriage can “break down” is if either party, or both parties, acts contrary to their marital obligations or duties. Thus, if it is an act not to fulfill one’s obligation or duty, then of course it is not a tragedy beyond one’s agency but a sin.
In this light, I would like to propose a way of dealing with divorce which is based on a set of distinctly Protestant principles. If marriage is indeed a mutual duty and obligation to each other, an act of the will, then it is entirely right to speak of the guilty party and the innocent party as Melanchthon puts it. Let us recall that the refusal to honour one’s marriage vows is a sin. Therefore whoever does not fulfill his obligations, deliberately and willfully renounces his vows, or intentionally refuses to fulfill it would by default constitute the “guilty” party. The party who desires to continue to remain in the marriage and to fulfill his or her vows naturally remains the “innocent” party.
Now, if any of the party publicly, intentionally, and willfully declares his or her intention not to fulfill his or her marital vows or even seek to renounce it, then naturally they are sinning deliberately and willfully and publicly, and therefore liable for excommunication. If after much exhortation and rebuking the guilty party refuses to repent of his or her sin, then he would be publicly excommunicated and thereby cease to be a Christian. In which case, the 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 “Pauline privilege” applies and the guilty party can simply be treated as an unbeliever or tax collector, who refusing to live with the innocent believing spouse in marriage, will be set free. But even then, the innocent party can only divorce if the excommunicated party seeks it first, otherwise as per the passage, the innocent party is still instructed to remain with him or her.
Thus, the cases in which divorce is legitimate does not quite fall into conventional Christian categories. Adultery, for example, does not automatically grant a license for divorce. Only if the offending or guilty party explicitly and deliberately declares his or her intention not to stop sleeping around, and are thereby liable for excommunication, can the innocent party be allowed to divorce even. Unlike other cases, this can occur without the excommunicated party seeking a divorce first for Christ himself cites sexual immorality as an exception to the no divorce rule. But failures to perform one’s marital duties or obligations does not by itself constitute a permission for divorce. Only the deliberate and willful intent not to perform it and even then, only after they are excommunicated. Therefore, in the case of a repentant adulterer, the “innocent” party must perform his or her Christian obligation and forgive the offending spouse and maintain his duty or oath to him or her.
In cases of physical abuse or addiction to alcohol or drugs and failure to provide for one’s domestic oligations, again although that does constitute a failure to care for one’s spouse, but those again does not by itself constitute a reason for divorce. Only if the offending person announces his intention never to cease his abuse or drink would that constitute a context for excommunication, and even then, divorce is permitted only if the offending person wants to divorce first. Although in cases of physical violence, even if the offending party does announce his intention to repent, but for the safety of the children and wife, it maybe prudent for them to be separated for a while (which is also permitted in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11) until the husband proves himself able to rule over his household competently.
I guess you can get the general outline or idea behind this theology of divorce. The basic idea is, marriage is a duty and an obligation. The failure to perform one’s marital obligations is a sin. But yet not all sinful lapses from one’s marital promise by itself constitutes an excommunicable crime. As long as the offending spouse repents, the innocent spouse is still subject to their marital vow and is under a Christian obligation to forgive and receive the offending spouse. The only circumstance in which a Christian is permitted divorce is if his or her spouse ceases to be a Christian, and the only way that that could happen is if the spouse gets himself excommunicated. This can only occur if the spouse willfully and deliberately declares his intention to not fulfill his or her marital promises. If this happens, the innocent party is still not by default allowed his or her divorce. Only when the excommunicated offending party seeks a divorce first will the innocent party be free, except in cases of sexual immorality where the “first divorce” rule does not hold.
No system is perfect or free from being abused. But I think the principles outlined here are coherent enough and takes seriously the concept of marriage as an obligation and an act of human agency, divorce has having its root in sinful acts as well as doing justice to the Biblical texts concerned. It is also I believe not overtly or absurdly idealistic, aimed towards the pastoral care of the well-being involved.