Why I no Longer Believe in the “Permanence View” Of Marriage

The “Permanence View” of marriage is the view that a marriage is always for life for Christians. Some believe that even divorce is a sin: all believe that remarriage is a sin. This belief is based largely on Jesus’ words:

“It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 5:31-32

The Permanence View is common among Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians. Some of the most outspoken proponents of it are John Piper, Gordon J. Wenham, and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. I once firmly held this view. Here is a summary of my previous position: below, is my current position.

1. The most important thing about marriage is that it reflects Gods glory (John Piper)

2. God does not break His covenant with us: we should never break our covenant to our spouse

3. Jesus said, “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mat. 9:6, Mark 10:9)

4. Jesus said if anyone marries a divorced person, they are committing adultery (Mat. 5:32, Luke 16:18)

5. Paul said that if a divorced woman marries another man while her husband is still living, she is an adulteress (Rom. 7:1-3)

6. Paul said that a woman should not divorce her husband: if she does, she should remain unmarried or go back to him (1 Cor. 7:11)

7. In a fairly complicated (but convincing) argument, Heth and Wenham make a lengthy argument based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

a) the reason why a divorced couple could not remarry in the Old Testament is that marriage bound them together like family.

b) Therefore, remarriage would be like incest.

c) This also means that divorce does not break the marriage bond (they are still “like family,” this is why they cannot be remarried…do you understand the logic?)

d) …thus a divorced person is still married. This is why their second marriage counts as adultery

8. Jesus & Paul said that anyone who has sex, even with a prostitute “becomes one flesh” with that person. (Mark 10:8, 1 Cor. 6:16) Therefore, having sex with a second partner is being “one flesh” with three or more people, or committing adultery

9. It is OK that the “permanence view” of marriage consigns many spouses (especially women) to terrible, even abusive marriages, because life is supposed to be suffering. It is good character development. (Nancy Leigh Demoss)

10. It is also OK that this will result in a lot of singles. As John Piper once mentioned, “Such singles are honestly a great blessing to our church.”

…here is why I no longer hold to this view:

A Biblical Basis for Divorce and Remarriage:

1. According to Jesus, “man was not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man.” (Mark 2:27) This means that rules were meant to guide and aid human behaviour, not provide inflexible and painful boxes to limit expression and the fluidity of real life

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Matthew 12:7

2. He further said that God desires “mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mat. 12:7). The permanence view seems unmerciful, demands a very high sacrifice, and seems to condemn the innocent

3. Jesus, James, and Paul say that the Christian life should be about protecting the most vulnerable (Mark 12:40, 1 Tim. 5:16, Jam. 1:27): but the permanence doctrine seems to protect abusers, and force victims to go back to bad marriages. It provides no protection for abused spouses. Most churches have no singles ministries, and I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of a “single mothers pastor” in a church. Divorced and separated people often have little support in the church.

4. Jeff Crippen argues that there are not many types of covenants in the bible, but only two: bilateral and unilateral covenants. Unilateral covenants are covenants where only one party fulfills all of the obligations of the covenant (eg. God to Christians) whereas in bilateral covenants, both parties have obligations.

5. Marriage is a bilateral covenant.

a) If a spouse commits adultery, they are breaking the covenant. If they abandon the other, they are breaking the covenant. If they abuse (the opposite of “love, cherish, have hold, in sickness and in health… “) then they are breaking the covenant.

b) Once the covenant is broken it is…broken. The party that broke it is responsible for the dissolution

c) It is not reasonable to expect one party to continue being bound to the covenant that the other has broken, because marriage is a bilateral covenant. This would be abusive and unreasonable.

d) Once one or both parties have broken it, the covenant is no longer in effect.

e) If one party choses to get a divorce, when the marriage is already “over,” that person is not necessarily guilty of breaking the covenant. Physically leaving one’s house is not the act of “breaking the covenant,” when said covenant has already been broken.

f) The words, “she should not leave” (1 Cor. 7:10) are not meant to prevent a spouse whose marriage covenant has already been broken from physically and legally leaving their marriage.

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Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure. You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows. Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.”

Malachi 2:13-16, NLT

6. It is clear that marriage is meant to be a lifelong union. The most common form of abuse is for a spouse to seek a divorce out of boredom or due to a desire for another person. This is the practice that was confronted in Malachi and in Matthew: religious men seeking a divorce to legally commit adultery by switching to another woman. When Jesus said, “What man has joined together, let man not put asunder,” he was saying that the marriage covenant should not be broken. It is cruel and ungodly to end the marriage for any reason, except if the covenant has already been broken, as in the case of adultery.

Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?”

Matthew 19:3, NASB

7. Paul also adresses this in 1 Corinthians 7, stating that a mixed marriage is not grounds for divorce: unless the unbelieving spouse breaks the covenant, the believer should stay. If she has left, she should return, lest the covenant be broken.

But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commitadultery.

Matthew 5:32, NASB

8. The person who broke the covenant bears the guilt of “adultery,” according to Jesus. (Mat. 5:32)

Now, dear brothers and sisters—you who are familiar with the law—don’t you know that the law applies only while a person is living?For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.

Romans 7:1-3, NASB

9. Paul is using marriage as an illustration in Romans 7:1-3. He is using shorthand, and speaking in generalities: we understand what he means. Usually, marriage is until death. He is using marriage here to illustrate a theological point about covenants being broken in death.

a) This verse is not actually about the remarriage question, which is handled elsewhere. It is unreasonable to expect that every time Paul mentions an issue he will mention all of the exceptions and caveats. This verse needs to be interpreted according to the verses dealing more specifically with the topic. This verse should not be read as a once-for-all statement, which overrules the other passages

b) Taking this verse out of context would seem to say that any remarriage is a sin. This unreasonable, because actually Jesus has stated elsewhere that remarriage is clearly permitted in the case if adultery

10. The “incest argument” of Heth and Wenham (above) is…

a) A very recent argument with virtually no historical support. It has never enjoyed widespread support. Even John Piper says that not all of his elders at his own church agree with his position on this point. Furthermore…

b) The logic of the argument would seem to forbid a divorced couple from getting remarried (that is literally what the verse in question forbids). But this is exactly what such teachers are trying to mandate! They are actually saying the exact opposite of their own proof-text!

c) The “one flesh” argument would seem to say that anyone who is not a virgin when they marry is committing adultery. This would include rape victims. This seems unreasonable.

d) (Or) if previous sexual experiences are not a hindrance to marriage, but a previous marriage is a hindrance, then they are being inconsistent. The argument is supposed to be that sex creates a bond that divorce cannot sever. But in this case, previous sexual encounters are not the problem, but a previous marriage covenant is the problem. Which is it? Is it the marriage covenant, or physical sex which is permanently binding? They seem inconsistent on this point.

11. Requiring a second marriage to dissolve (as some do) would cause both parties to break their new vows. Calling these vows illegitimate is unfounded, because even unreasonable vows in the Bible are binding

12. Requiring a person to return to their divorced spouse or remain single may cause an abused person to return to, or never to leave, a situation of abuse. This is a terrible reality, which I don’t think is given nearly enough weight in these discussions

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

James 1:27, NASB

13. God maintains over and over that He has a heart for the oppressed and outcasts. The permanence view of marriage literally creates widows and orphans.

14. The Bible states over and over that humans are sexual beings, and that we are not meant to be alone

a) It was not good for the first human to be alone (Gen. 2:18)

b) Jesus said celibacy was not recommended, and should be only for those who had a biological necessity, or those who chose it (Mat. 19:12)

c) Paul recommended celibacy, in view of the terrible persecution the church was the experiencing: however, he recommended that those with strong sexual desires should disregard this advice and pursue marriage

The younger widows should not be on the list [to receive church support], because their physical desires will overpower their devotion to Christ and they will want to remarry. Then they would be guilty of breaking their previous pledge. [Apparently, receiving church support included a pledge to celibacy] And if they are on the list, they will learn to be lazy and will spend their time gossiping from house to house, meddling in other people’s business and talking about things they shouldn’t. So I advise these younger widows to marry again, have children, and take care of their own homes. Then the enemy will not be able to say anything against them. For I am afraid that some of them have already gone astray and now follow Satan.

1 Timothy 5:11-15, NLT

d) He encourages young widows to seek marriage, to prevent their becoming “busybodies” about the church, and also being lead into temptations (1 Tim. 5:11-15).

e) Requiring that a normal, sexually-active person live the whole rest of their lives without love or sexual fulfillment seems contrary to the design of God. It seems to be “tying up heavy burdens,” on people, without “lifting a finger to help.” (Mat. 23:4)

15. The Permanence View seems to place an incredible amount of power in the hands of abusers. Imagine. An abusive person can deceptively marry an innocent victim. They may abuse them physically, sexually, emotionally, financially, spiritually, and in other ways. But this doctrine makes the victim feel trapped. Do they really want to live their whole lives alone? If the abuser decides to leave, they can break the covenant, and have married or unmarried sex with whomever they want, and move on with their lives. Yet this doctrine ties a victim forever to their abuser. The victim is told that their only hope ever of sexual and romantic intimacy is with their abuser. Does this sound like God’s heart for the “widows and orphans” to you?

16. The Christian religion is centred on love (Mat. 22:37-38), and love involves consent.

a) Non-consensual intimate relationships are subjugation, not love

I thought, ‘After she has done all these things she will return to Me’; but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce.

Jeremiah 3:7-8, NASB

b) God allows Israel to enter into a bilateral covenant with Him. When they are unfaithful, He is patient but He finally divorced the northern state of Israel, as well as the Southern state of Judah. God takes Judah back, and makes a new spiritual covenant only with the faithful Israelites. God invites gentiles into this new covenant.

c) The fact that God divorced Israel proves that divorce itself cannot be a sin: because God is incapable of sin. (Jam. 1:13)

d) God allows people to leave this relationship. As CS Lewis famously explains: “Hell is locked from the inside,” and, “There are only two types of poeple, those who say to God, ‘thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘thy will be done.'” That is to say, God is willing to allow people to leave Him, and exit their relationship with Him.

e) But the permanence view seems to lock people into a relationship that they no longer chose, even if the covenant has already been broken by the other party