THE CHRISTIAN FAITH: AN INTRODUCTION TO DOGMATIC THEOLOGY - By CLAUDE BEAUFORT MOSS, D.D.LONDON - S.P.C.K 1965 Holy Trinity Church  Marylbone Road London NW 1 - Printed in Great Britain by Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd  Bungay Suffolk - First published in 1943 - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2004.



HOME | contents | Marriage: difference between church & state | Divorce | dissolution forbidden | law of the Church | duty of church members | duty of the clergy | practical observations

I. Difference between Church and State about Marriage

Marriage is of great importance to both Church and State;
and since their interests are not the same,
there is nearly always tension between them.

The State has to make laws for all its members, Christian and non-Christian. 
There are always some, and there may be a large majority, who are unwilling to live according to the Christian law of marriage or who do not even recognize it as binding.

The Church makes laws only for her own members and must obey the revealed law of God, which the secular State cannot be expected to recognize unless the great majority of citizens recognize it.

The law of Great Britain and of all European countries recognizes the EXCLUSIVENESS of marriage and does not allow polygamy or polyandry;
but it does not recognize the PERMANENCE of marriage,
for it claims the power to dissolve it in some circumstances. 
(In Southern Ireland, however, the civil law makes no such claim,
and marriage cannot be dissolved.)

II. Three Meanings of "Divorce"

The word DIVORCE is used in three senses,
which must be carefully distinguished.

It is sometimes used in the sense of nullity of marriage. 
In this sense Henry VIII "divorced" Catherine of Aragon on the ground that they were within the prohibited degrees, and that therefore the marriage had never been valid. 
(Catherine's claim was that her marriage with Henry's brother Arthur had never been consummated, and therefore they were not within the prohibited degrees.)  Napoleon's "divorce" from Josephine was also a suit for nullity of marriage.

Divorce may also mean separation a mensa et thoro (from bed and board). 
The Church in certain cases has always allowed this,
and the canons of the Church of England provide for it. 
The married couple are freed from the obligation to live together;
but they may not marry anyone else, and they are required to live chastely. 
Their marriage vows are not dissolved but only suspended.

But in modern times divorce usually means dissolution of marriage. 
The Church does not recognize this. 
Since marriage is a permanent state, it is indissoluble. 
A union that can be dissolved is not marriage but concubinage. 
A State that permits divorce in this sense legalizes concubinage.

III. Our Lord Forbade Dissolution of Marriage:
Meaning of the Apparent Exception

Both Jewish and pagan laws allowed dissolution of marriage
(though the prophet Malachi strongly discouraged it: Mal.2.16). 
Our Lord, however, forbade it absolutely. 
His teaching is clearly recorded by St. Mark (10.2-12), and St. Luke (16.18);
and so radical a critic as Dr. Cadoux admits that He undoubtedly taught the indissolubility of marriage. 
St. Paul and the other writers of the New Testament everywhere assume that marriage is indissoluble.

But St. Matthew (5.31, 19.2) adds to the prohibition of divorce the words
and many have supposed that our Lord meant that a man may divorce his wife for adultery, but for no other reason, and be free to marry another. 
(The case of the wife who divorces her husband is not mentioned,
but all Hebrew laws are addressed to the man. 
Since men and women are equal under the New Covenant,
whatever applies to the husband applies also to the wife.)

But this interpretation of our Lord's words appears to be mistaken for two reasons. 
The word used is not ADULTERY (μοιχεία) but FORNICATION (πορνεία);
and if He had meant that divorce was allowed for adultery, He would merely have been following the teaching of the stricter of the two Jewish schools of thought, the school of Shammah. 
But if He had done this, His disciples would have shown no surprise.  
As it was, they were astonished and exclaimed,

If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. (Matt.19.10). 

This interpretation must therefore be rejected,
and the Church has in fact rejected it.

The Roman Communion, which does not allow the dissolution of marriage, teaches that when our Lord permitted a man to put away his wife for "fornication", He did not give him the right to marry again as the following words show. 
The reference was to separation from bed and board,
not to dissolution of marriage.

The objection to this interpretation is that it does not explain the use of the term "fornication" rather than "adultery".

A better interpretation, which was published independently by Dr. Lowther Clarke and Dr. Gavin, is that the words "except for fornication" are not our Lord's own but are a note inserted by the editor of St. Matthew's Gospel and refer to conditions in the Christian Church when she first began to receive Gentile converts. 
Some of these converts had probably contracted marriages permitted by Greek law and custom but regarded with horror by the Jews, such as marriage between an uncle and a niece.
[But unfortunately not regarded with horror by the royal families of Southern Europe since the Counter-Reformation.  Many such marriages have been contracted by papal dispensation, especially in the royal families of Spain and Portugal, with disastrous results.] 
It is these marriages that are meant by πορνεία - porneia, fornication. 
The words "except for fornication" mean that the prohibition of divorce did not apply to a convert to Christianity who had in his pagan days married his niece. 
This interpretation makes clear the difficult passage in Acts 15.20, 29. 
The Council at Jerusalem decided that pagans who became Christians need not keep the Jewish law, but that they must abstain from:

  1. things sacrificed to idols,
  2. fornication,
  3. things strangled, and
  4. blood;

and it has always appeared strange that fornication should appear in company with three ceremonial prohibitions, or tabus, of the Jewish Law. 
But if fornication means marriages held by pagans to be lawful but by Jews to be incestuous, the meaning becomes clear. 
If the converts from paganism were to live in one community with the Jewish converts, they must abandon habits that Jews could not be expected to tolerate. 
They must abstain from food that Jews had been taught to regard with special horror,
and give up marriages that the Jews regarded as incestuous.

But this interpretation of the words "except for fornication" would not be acceptable to the Roman Communion which is committed to the belief that whatever words the Gospels attribute to our Lord must have been actually spoken by Him, and therefore would probably not admit that these words are an editorial note. 
In any case however we interpret them, the Scriptures are not to be interpreted in such a way as to contradict one another in doctrine.
[The Church may not so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another: Article 20.]
The evidence of St. Mark and St. Luke is clear, and the two doubtful passages in St. Matthew, the meaning of which is disputed, must not be preferred to it, especially as on critical grounds the matter peculiar to St. Matthew is the least trustworthy part of the Synoptic Gospels.

Some have argued that our Lord was not a lawgiver and that He laid down ideals to be aimed at, not rules to be obeyed. 
Some of His commands, such as "Give to him that seeketh of thee",
cannot be observed literally in all cases. 
It is one thing to say, "No one ought to divorce his wife and marry again in her lifetime". 
It is another to say, "No one may divorce his wife and marry again in her lifetime, and if he does, the marriage is not a marriage" but adultery.

It appears, however, that the latter is what our Lord said. 
He was setting up a society,
and that society would be founded on marriage,
as is every form of human society. 
His commands about private conduct were addressed to individuals
and were ideals rather than laws;
but His commands about marriage
were addressed to the society and must be taken as laws. 
We see in this argument the influence of the modern English idea,
which is unknown to the greater part of mankind,
that marriage concerns only the bridegroom and the bride. 
This is a mistake. 
Every marriage is of the greatest importance to the two families that it links together,
and to the whole community, both ecclesiastical and civil, in which they live. 
What is required for a strong foundation for society
is that the natural law of exclusive and permanent marriage
confirmed by Divine revelation
should be taught, accepted, and reverenced by all,
and with it a true and pure attitude towards the instinct of sex in human nature. 
It is impossible to enforce the marriage laws of Christ upon a society with low and coarse ideas about marriage and about sex. 
The attempt to do so, as in medieval Christendom, has often been disastrous.

IV. Law of the Church about Dissolution of Marriage

The Western churches have on the whole been faithful to the command of our Lord in this respect.
[But not the followers of Luther and Calvin.] 
The marriage service of the Church of England teaches quite firmly that the marriage bond remains

till death us do part

and is supported by English canon law
(until 1857 there was no statute law on the subject,
but the control of marriage in England was left to Church laws and Church courts).

The witness of the Eastern churches has not been so consistent. 
From the fifth century onwards the close connection between the Church and the Byzantine Empire led to the contamination of the Greek canon law by the civil law, which was pagan in origin and spirit. 
The Orthodox churches permit dissolution of marriage for several causes (though in Russia it was not allowed at all before Peter the Great whose legislation was influenced by German Lutheranism). [Father George Florovsky told me this.] 
But the laxity of the Eastern churches has nothing to do with the supposed exception in St. Matthew and must not be connected with it (as has often been done by people who ought to have known better). 
The Eastern churches do not accept as divorced those who have been divorced under civil law, but have their own divorce courts presided over by a bishop and conducted according to the canon law.

Experience shows that any departure from the rule that marriage is absolutely indissoluble is soon extended. 
Dishonest methods of taking advantage of it are widely employed,
and the way is prepared for fresh departures. 
The English civil law first permitted dissolution of marriage in 1857 as a remedy for a few hard cases. 
Now the number of divorces has grown so enormously that the civil courts can hardly deal with them because the public opinion has become accustomed to divorce.

V. Duty of Members of the Church

The Church must have a stricter rule for her members than the civil law,
which is imposed on non-Christians as well as Christians. 
God has revealed the rule that marriage is indissoluble,
and the Church has no power to change it. 
But even if God had not revealed it,
the members of the Church would be bound by it until it had been altered. 
There is no room here for the exercise of private judgment. 
A member of the Church may think (mistakenly) that this rule is not Divine,
that it may therefore be altered, and that the Church ought to alter it. 
But as long as it remains the rule of the Church, he must obey it.
Archbishop Parker's example is here to be followed. 
He did not believe in clerical celibacy, and he wished to marry. 
But he waited for seven years until the obligation of celibacy had been formally removed.

No one who believes that the Church is a society with rules binding on its members and that its authority is not derived from the State can reasonably think that changes in the civil law can alter the duty of members of the Church. 
We are members of both Church and State. 
The State permits certain actions that the Church forbids. 
There is no conflict of duties. 
We are not disobeying the State when we obey the Church.

As citizens who are also members of the Church and believe that dissolution of marriage is contrary not only to Divine revelation, but also to natural law, we ought to oppose its extension and to do what we can to restore the observance of the natural law that marriage cannot be dissolved because the observance of the natural law benefits mankind.

As members of the Church we are bound not to make use of the right of divorce in any circumstances. 
A husband or wife who is prevented by the adultery, desertion, or lunacy of the person to whom he or she has sworn to be faithful "for better for worse, till death us do part" is bound to live in chastity until the other repents, recovers, or dies. 
However, the breach of the marriage vow is not being divorced
but marrying again in the other's lifetime.

VI. Duty of the Clergy

The duty of the priest is to refuse to go through the form of marrying persons who are validly married already to someone who is still alive.
[To read the English marriage service with its solemn vows "till death us do part" over such persons is a blasphemous mockery. 
English law does not now compel priests to solemnize the marriage of persons who have a divorced partner living.]
If the civil law requires him to act as a registrar,
he must disobey it and suffer the consequences whatever they may be;
for his first duty is to the Church. 
He must report every case to the bishop,
but the bishop has no power to permit by dispensation what is contrary to Divine law.
The priest is also bound to teach by every possible means that Christian marriage is indissoluble by Divine command, and that a union, which is not indissoluble, (anyone who has been divorced and remarried once may be so again) is not marriage at all, but concubinage. 
The address after the wedding is a good opportunity of teaching the nature of marriage to all who are present.

VII. Practical Observations

How persons who have broken the marriage laws of the Church should be treated is a matter of discipline, not of doctrine. 
Heart-rending cases often arise, and the temptation to laxity is strong. 
But four observations may be made here.

First, it must at all costs be taught that the rules of the Church, whether Divine or human, are binding on all her members and cannot be broken with impunity;
that the marriage service of the Church is intended for her members only;
and that those who have taken those solemn vows and broken them have at least committed perjury for which they must repent.

Second, the Church must require repentance, which includes amendment of life.  Those who will not admit that they have done wrong, or cannot be made to understand that the permission of the State is no excuse for adultery and perjury, deserve no sympathy and no concessions.

Third, the distinction between the "guilty" and the "innocent" party, besides being often quite unreal, is entirely unreasonable and ought to be dropped as was recommended by the recent Church Commission on the subject. 
If marriage is indissoluble, neither can marry again. 
If it is not indissoluble, the "guilty" party has as much right to marry again as the "innocent" party, and refusal of the right to marry is not a reasonable form of punishment for adultery.

Fourth, marriage is the concern of the whole community, and it is better that particular persons should suffer than that the whole community should suffer. 
To admit that even one valid marriage may be dissolved is to make every marriage, even the most happy, capable of being dissolved;
that is, to make it concubinage instead of marriage.

The logical way to deal fairly both with those who believe and those who deny that marriage is indissoluble would be to make two forms of union legal, as in the ancient Roman and the modern Ethiopian Empires. 
Marriage in church would be absolutely indissoluble, and this would be recognized by the civil law. 
Marriage in a registry office would be capable of being dissolved, as now, for certain reasons. 
Those who wished to leave open the possibility of divorce would have to avoid being married in church and taking vows of lifelong constancy. 
The Church of England would then have to do as the Roman Communion does and refuse to recognize civil union as a Christian marriage, or to admit those who had contracted it to the sacraments, unless they consented to add the Church marriage to it.

But English public opinion is too confused, too sentimental, and too ignorant for any such solution as this. 
Unfortunately there are still vast numbers who think that the Church is a public service like the post office, and is as much bound to baptize, marry, and bury everyone who comes, as the post office is to sell him stamps. 
It is at least the duty of the Church to avoid sentimentalism and laxity,
and to enforce her laws on all her members, clerical and lay. 
No one is obliged to belong to the Church,
but those who belong to her must keep the rules.