The greater part of the church has viewed the duration of a marriage covenant in a fundamentally flawed way, which has steered believers into thinking that God always forbids divorce. This critical flaw needs to be recognized and corrected before the church properly understands God’s will as revealed in scripture on marital divorce and in particular as it relates to God’s children who are unequally yoked in marriage.
Before we get started observe Merriam Webster’s definition of covenant: 1 a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement : compact
2 A written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of some action.
Brief observation: A commonly held but difficult to define belief is seen in the writings of many who hold a prohibitive view on divorce. This belief or understanding could be called, “The Mystical Covenant of Marriage”.
The common belief regarding the marriage covenant has many forms, but briefly stated it is the belief that a marriage covenant is so much more than an agreement between two or more parties. The belief has an ethereal aura about it as its possessors never reveal what exactly is meant by “so much more” than an agreement, but one thing is clear: Marriage covenants, as these people envision them, do not follow the laws of a covenant. Marriage covenants have taken on magical qualities instead of righteous, moral and legal qualities that normally define covenants. It would seem that those who hold to this idea want to raise covenants to a higher plane were it is not required to stay within the bounds of scripture and reason. Of course, no such plane exists—covenants do not have mystical qualities. Reason and scripture are sufficient for all to comprehend truth.
Placing a concept into the unknown, untouchable realm is a ploy of those who want to go beyond what God has revealed in His word. If someone thinks a covenant is more than an agreement, then they should spell out the details plainly for one and all to see. But of course, this cannot be done because a covenant is merely an agreement between two or more parties. Like any other agreement, marriage covenants must logically function as covenants are intended to function. The expected fallout for ignoring the moral, righteous and legal aspects of marriage covenants is great injury to God’s people, which is precisely what has taken place for centuries–expressly it is God’s people who have been so terribly injured by this man-made injunction against divorce for those saints unequally yoked in marriage. And the culprits who advance this mystical view put the blame at God’s doorstep, which is even more wicked.
One brave soul who holds the mystical understanding of covenants attempted to demonstrate how marital covenants operate by rules that no other covenants are bond under. Gary Chapman’s five points below will illustrate how covenants are viewed as mystical. To be fair Chapman is comparing the idea of a marriage contract with what the bible calls a marriage covenant. Obviously many people enter marriage with the idea that they can always get out if they so choose anytime they desire. Christians must not overreact in their response to the sins of the culture. Making divorce unattainable for those whom God has provided it is just as wrong as breaking its covenants whenever one pleases.
The reader will see that Chapman’s points defy scripture and reason, which demonstrates a desire to establish the marriage covenant as a mystical union that cannot be broken for any reason. We will first show Chapman’s points and then briefly rebut each one.
Chapman‘s Five Covenant Characteristics
A covenant, like a contract, is an agreement between two or more persons, but the nature of the agreement is different. The biblical pattern reveals five characteristics of covenants.
1. Covenants are initiated for the benefit of the other person.
Many of us can honestly say that we entered marriage motivated by the deep desire to benefit the person we were about to marry. Our intention was to make them happy. However, when needs aren’t met, spouses can revert to a contract mentality.
Chapman first states that a covenant is an agreement, but the nature of the agreement is different. This statement is illogical. If a covenant is an agreement, and it is, then its nature must be that of an agreement as well. Chapman’s logical failure here and elsewhere is that he begins with the premise that God hates divorce and His children can never get divorced and then builds backwards to defend his premise. Therefore his premise is both the foundation and the conclusion to his argument, which in this case is also contrary to reason.
Chapman states that people enter marriage covenants to benefit the other person.
But the reality is that covenants are enacted for the benefit or protection of both parties, but each enters into the covenants primarily to protect themselves. This is not selfish, but wise.
No covenant is necessary to act in ways that will benefit others. Neither does it require a covenant to continue being a victim to an abusive person. People do both of these all the time without an agreement in place.
Although each covenant partner should be considering seriously the promises they are making they must not lose site of the promises being made to them. The covenant is a binding agreement between two or more parties. Two equal parties should expect to benefit equally if the covenant is operating correctly. This balance is what makes the relationship flourish and keeps the covenant going strong. The purpose of a covenant is to protect either party from deceptive or wicked behavior from the other.
2. In covenant relationships people make unconditional promises.
Covenant marriages are characterized by unconditional promises, such as those spoken in traditional wedding vows.
In covenant relationships people make conditional promises.
Unconditional promises are simply untenable in a world of sinners. Unconditional promises sounds like a fruit of unconditional love. Unconditional love is very much misunderstood by most Christians. God chose a people for Himself and His choice was unconditional, which means that He did not choose them because of anything good that He saw in them. His choice was entirely due to His own good pleasure. Thus it can be said that God has unconditionally loved His own children. However, when God unconditionally loves an undeserving sinner He transforms the sinner by forgiving him of his sins, by granting him the righteousness of Christ, and by giving him the gift of the Holy Spirit who continues the work that the Father has begun in that person—a work of sanctification.
However, God does not have any perpetually rebellious children whom He continues loving in spite of their refusal to repent. This is a picture that is uniquely humanistic. Because men do not have God’s power to transform wicked people into saints, their claims of unconditional love from one human to another will often be detrimental to the person being “unconditionally loved”. A sense of entitlement grows into a destructive self-centeredness that sees others as a means to serve their ends. Becoming narcissists, they learn to view others with contempt and expect to be served and worshiped.
3. Covenant relationships are based on steadfast love.
In a marriage, steadfast love refuses to focus on the negative aspects of one’s spouse. Steadfast love is a choice.
Covenant relationships are based on keeping the conditions including love.
Steadfast love sounds similar to scriptures oft repeated “everIasting lovingkindness of God”, but that’s God. If human love were steadfast, then the fall would not have taken place and sin would not exist. Covenants exist because human love is anything but steadfast. The reader must guard against being too romantic on this point. Though our hearts want to agree with Chapman our reason knows better.
Nevertheless, fallen man cannot love apart from God who is love. Do men have some great relationships? Yes, but why? Are they entirely altruistic? In a fallen world the answer is never. Not even in a fallen world where a chosen few have been set apart by/for God. Good relationships between men exist because both sides are getting something out of the relationship, which is why we need covenants.
4. Covenant relationships view commitments as permanent.
Unquestionably the biblical ideal is one man and one woman married to each other for life. As Christians, we must not lower the ideal. This standard can only be attained if we practice the fifth characteristic of covenants.
Covenant relationships view commitments as obligations.
Human commitments are as reliable as human love. God’s word instructs His children not to take vows because their word should be enough. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. It is all fine and good to say a commitment should be permanent, but what should be the proper response to those who will not keep their commitments? It is unwise to reward such behavior. Wisdom dictates strong negative consequences for such. Destruction, brokenness and ultimately death and eternal damnation await these scoundrels. How foolish it is to insist God’s children remain united to them in this lifetime. “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate God and thus bring the wrath of God upon yourself?” (2 Chron. 19:2)
5. Covenant relationships require confrontation and forgiveness.
These two responses are essential in a covenant marriage. Confrontation means holding the other person responsible for his or her actions. Forgiving means a willingness to lift the penalty and continue a loving, growing relationship. Ignoring the failures of your spouse isn’t the road to marital growth.
Of the five points this is the only solid one, but Chapman applies it so very poorly.
The outcome of confrontation and forgiveness is entirely dependent upon the participants. With two penitents a good outcome should be expected. With one penitent and one unrepentant soul a separation should be the outcome. And with two unrepentant souls a godless free-for-all can be the expected outcome. Come what may confrontation will end in one of two ways. The offender can either repent or rebel; his choice will generally hinge upon his spiritual condition; either dead or born-again. Repentance brings about reconciliation. Rebellion destroys and tears apart.
Thus it is not up to the faithful partner to determine the outcome. Forgiveness can be offered regardless of the direction that the treacherous spouse takes, but wisdom still insists that the innocent partner be removed from the evil, unrepentant partner. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Chapman says, “Forgiving means a willingness to lift the penalty and continue a loving, growing relationship.” First of all, God did not lift the penalty—He paid it. Men, unlike God cannot forgive another man of his sins so as to transform him. Man’s forgiveness lies in his determination to not seek vengeance, but wisdom demands a separation between good and evil people. “Do not be bound together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). No matter how good and godly a man is he cannot have “a loving, growing relationship” with godless men. If you doubt this, just refresh your memory of the story of Jehoshaphat and his son in 2 Chronicles. God’s children can be loving to the children of Satan, but they cannot have growing relationships with them.
At least Gary Chapman had the bold integrity to make an attempt at explaining why so many see covenants as something mystical and more than agreements. Nevertheless, both scripture and reason dictate that a covenant is an agreement…nothing less and nothing more. An agreement by any other name is still an agreement, and it must follow the laws of agreements.
A covenant is an agreement. It is legally binding both by God’s laws and by the laws of world governments. Covenants are, generally speaking, legal documents that bind two or more people together for a specific purpose for a predetermined amount of time. Covenants are made up of several components.
The three primary components are as follows:
1st THE BENEFIT (or promise), without which there would be no motivation to become party to a covenant. Most people are appropriately leery of signing legal agreements or covenants because they realize that the signatories will be obligated to perform whatever they agreed to well into the future. Therefore only two types of people willingly enter into covenants: first, those who perceive the BENEFIT of the covenant to far outweigh the obligations to which they place themselves under, and secondly, those treacherous scoundrels who have little or no intention of keeping the obligations of the covenant.
The 2nd primary component is THE CONDITION(S), without which the BENEFIT would not likely be obtained or realized. When a wicked party to a covenant ceases to meet their obligation of fulfilling the CONDITIONS, then the BENEFIT should stop being awarded to that party. If the BENEFIT continues to be made available to the offending party, then the innocent party becomes the foolish party as 2 Thes. 3:10 suggests:“If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat either.” This is not a divorce thing, it is a wisdom thing. It is unwise to remain in an agreement that is injurious to you (Prov. 6:1-5), it is unwise to trade with someone using a false balance and scales, it is unwise to continue being a victim, it is unwise to allow another to intentionally or unintentionally take advantage of you, etc.
The 3rd primary component is THE DURATION, without which one’s obligations would never end. The DURATION is why there are one year leases on apartments, a three year lease on a car, a 15 year house mortgage and so on. Some people mistakenly think that a marriage covenant has a perpetual DURATION, but they are wrong. Some of the shortest covenants ever made have been marriage covenants, because as soon as one of the two parties dies the covenant is kaput. Even the best marriages will not continue in heaven.
Let us take a closer look at these three important components of a marriage covenant.
So how has the church fundamentally misunderstood the DURATION in a marriage covenant?
The DURATION has some aspects of a BENEFIT and some aspects of the CONDITIONS but remains its own aspect of a covenant.
**** HERE LIES THE HEART OF THIS ARTICLE ****
The church’s fundamental flaw has been to understand or categorize the DURATION, in essence, as though it were one of the CONDITIONS. The reality is that DURATION is an aspect of a covenant just like CONDITIONS and BENEFITS. The church has treated the DURATION like an aspect of CONDITIONS or even as though it were a CONDITION when it is in fact a separate aspect of a covenant in relation to but distinct from CONDITIONS and BENEFITS.
In so doing they entirely discounted and even slighted the DURATION’S aspect of BENEFIT. Understanding DURATION in this light caused the church to think that a divorce is itself the breaking of a CONDITION when in fact a divorce is merely recognition and acceptance that both the covenant and its DURATION have been terminated due to the covenant’s CONDITIONS being violated.
The very existence of the CONDITIONS logically establishes the possibility of a second DURATION; either the death of a person or the death of the covenant itself. In other words, the DURATION is until the death of one or both parties or until one or both parties violate the covenant’s CONDITIONS.
Therefore, the flawed understanding of DURATION allows churchmen to think that an innocent partner’s divorce action, in response to their spouse’s refusal to keep the CONDITIONS, is tantamount to returning evil for evil because the innocent party in so doing would be breaking the CONDTION of a life-long DURATION. Obviously the problem with this reasoning is that the DURATION is not a CONDITION; therefore, when the DURATION comes to an abrupt end, due to the violation of the conditions, the faithful party is no longer bound by the covenant, so the faithful party does not transgress the CONDITIONS or any other of God’s laws in divorcing and marrying another in the Lord. In this scenario the innocent partner has merely recognized a spiritual reality that the DURATION of their marriage covenant has concluded due to the violation or transgression of the CONDITIONS by their partner; a divorce is the legal representation of the spiritual reality already existing.
There is one exception in which DURATION does actually share the aspect of CONDITION:
So then, how does DURATION share the aspect of CONDITION? The DURATION of a marriage covenant itself acts like a CONDITION when either party seeks a divorce without any broken CONDITIONS. This seems to be the scenario in Matthew 19 when the Pharisees are questioning Jesus about divorce for any reason at all. Jesus rightly understood this action as adultery because such divorces were not allowed. In the absence of broken CONDITIONS, and hence a broken covenant, the married couple still belong to one another and a relationship (including a new marriage) with a third party would be adulterous. In this case and only in this case the DURATION acts in essence like a CONDITION.
The DURATION can also share the aspect of BENEFIT:
And how does DURATION share the aspect of BENEFIT? The relationship between BENEFIT and DURATION is much closer than the relationship between CONDITIONS and DURATION. If the marriage covenant is beneficial, then the longer it’s DURATION the greater it’s BENEFIT. This is easily seen in all godly marriages. When a believing man and his believing wife are deeply in love with one another they never want this love relationship to end, so the longest possible DURATION enhances the BENEFIT to the married couple. If marriages were like child raising and this deeply loving Christian marriage had to end in twenty years it is apparent how this married couple would greatly prefer a life-long covenant and view it as a BENEFIT.
As another example, heaven’s DURATION is eternal. Nobody understands the eternal DURATION of heaven to be a CONDITION that man must keep. Rather all joyfully recognize heaven’s DURATION as a divinely granted BENEFIT. The CONDITION for receiving this BENEFIT for the eternal DURATION was to be chosen of God and found in Christ Jesus. Without being motivated by a false belief nobody in this scenario would ever confuse the DURATION with the CONDITION. Neither should these two have been so confused in the case of marriage covenants.
Had the church properly understood that the only way in which the DURATION shares the aspect of CONDITION is when one or both parties seek to exit the covenant without any broken CONDITIONS, then they could have understood the necessity of God’s allowance for divorce when the CONDITIONS were violated.
On the other hand, because the church has failed to understand how the DURATION is much more like a BENEFIT than a CONDITION they have failed to see the wisdom of withdrawing the BENEFIT (a life-long marriage) to an unrepentant scoundrel who routinely violates the CONDITIONS of the marriage covenant.
Note: It is important to bear in mind that the second way in which the DURATION shares the aspect of a BENEFIT is that it also acts as a protection for the innocent party by breaking the covenant in the event of violated CONDITIONS. If the DURATION does not end once the CONDITIONS are violated, then the marriage BENEFIT becomes an evil affliction, a curse and an impediment to righteousness and sanctification for the faithful spouse, which is why the DURATION is a benefit for the godly partner whether or not the CONDTIONS have been broken. When the church has forced its members to remain in broken marriages with unrepentant scoundrels the DURATION ceases being a BENEFIT to the faithful spouse as it has been prevented, by a dogma, from functioning as a protection for faithful participants. In this horrible state of affairs it is the wicked CONDITION violator who now receives a BENEFIT by the DURATION not being concluded or terminated.
Why Did This Happen and To Where Has It Lead?
All the research in the world will not likely uncover the precise moment and the identity of the first theologian where this flawed understanding of the marriage covenant began. No doubt a great researcher could likely nail down the century it began, but no single man is likely the originator though perhaps such a man exists. Common sense dictates that the prevailing understanding on the marriage covenant’s DURATION was necessarily, albeit subconsciously, manipulated so that it would act more like a CONDITION in order to avoid contradictions in the prevailing view on marriage and divorce. The prevailing view existed in part because of some strong words found in a few biblical passages that caused people to jump to the conclusion that divorce is never allowed. The following strong words in scripture have become platitudes that push the unthinking hordes into the direction of restricting divorce in every instance: “God hates divorce”, and “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”, and “If the unbelieving spouse is willing to stay, then let him stay”.
If divorce is forbidden, then marriages cannot be covenants because covenants have CONDITIONS that will terminate the DURATION and thereby the covenant. In order to mesh the forbidden view of divorce with God’s word the marriage covenant had to undertake a metamorphosis. This transformation of the marriage covenant, no doubt, seemed quite natural as men juxtaposed the marriage covenant with God’s unilateral covenants, which gave the strong impression that man could in no way interfere with either type of covenant.
However, a great distinction exists that was conveniently ignored. God’s unilateral covenants differed in that God promised to keep the conditions for both parties to the covenant. This clearly does not apply with bilateral marriage covenants between a man and a woman who are both fallen. Of course the problem is that the metamorphosis only took place in a “man-made concept” about marriage. Because this man-made concept gained wide acceptance, sadly, it has had a huge impact on God’s people. Most think that the impact has been positive, but it has been, in fact, very negative. It is always negative when men miss God’s mark in order to set one they prefer. It matters little whether they miss the mark on the side of excessive liberty or on the side of restrictive legalism the mark has been missed…man’s will and not God’s has been observed. And a path of destruction many centuries wide lays in the wake. May God forgive us and help us hit the mark that He has set before us.
Biblical view on divorce