The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 24

Of Marriage and Divorce

Section I: Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time.[1]

1. Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4-6; Rom. 7:3; Prov. 2:17

Section II: Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife,[2] for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed;[3] and for preventing of uncleanness.[4]

2. Gen. 2:18; Eph. 5:28; I Peter 3:7
3. Gen. 1:28; 9:1; Mal. 2:15
4. I Cor. 7:2, 9

Section III: It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent. [5] Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord.[6] And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.[7]

5. Heb. 13:4; I Tim. 4:3; I Cor. 7:36-38; Gen. 24:57, 58
6. I Cor. 7:39
7. Gen. 34:14; Exod. 34:16; see II Cor. 6:14; Deut. 7:3-4; I Kings 11:4; Neh. 13:25-27; Mal. 2:11-12


IT is taught in these sections: --
1. That marriage was ordained. of God, and is therefore a divine institution, involving a religious as well as a civil contract.

2. The ends designed to be promoted by marriage are specified.

3. It is affirmed that the law of marriage allows it to be contracted only between one man and one woman, and that a man can have but one wife and a woman but one husband at the same time.

4. The pre-eminent sanctity of a life of celibacy is denied, and the lawfulness of marriage for all classes of men is affirmed.

5. It is taught that persons of different religions should not intermarry, and that true believers should not be unequally yoked with the ungodly.

1. Marriage was ordained of God, and is therefore a divine institution. This is so -- (1.) Because God created man male and female, and so constituted them, physically and morally, that they are mutually adapted to each other and are mutually helpful to each other under the law of marriage, and not otherwise; and (2.) Because the law of marriage, the conditions of its contract, continuance and dissolution, are laid down in the Word of God.

Hence it follows that marriage is a religious as well as a civil contract. No State has any right to change the law of marriage, or the conditions upon which it, may be lawfully constituted or dissolved, as these have been ordained by God. Neither has any man or woman a right to contract any relation different in any respect, as to its character or duration, from that which God has ordained as marriage. Hence marriage is a human contract under the limits and sanctions of a divine constitution, and the parties contracting pledge their vows of truth and constancy to God as well as to each other and to society.

But it is also a civil contract, because every State is bound to protect the foundations upon which social order reposes, and every marriage involves many obvious civil obligations and leads to many civil consequences touching property, the custody of children, etc. The State must therefore define the nature and civil effects of marriage, and prescribe conditions upon which and modes in which it shall be publicly acknowledged and ratified or dissolved. It is of the highest importance that the laws of the State do not contravene the laws of God upon this subject, but be made in all respects to conform to them. In all cases of such conflict Christians and Christian ministers must obey God rather than men. In Great Britain the civil authorities have transgressed the authority of God in this matter, chiefly by declaring marriages, really binding in God's sight, to be null and void ab initio, because of some trivial illegality as to the time in which or the persons by whom it was solemnized. In this country [America] the sin is chiefly committed in the matter of allowing the marriage bond to be dissolved for many causes not recognized as valid in the Word of God. The law of the land is to be obeyed for conscience sake whenever it does not contravene the higher law of God. When it plainly does so, then Christian men and church sessions are to act themselves and to treat others just as if the ungodly human enactment had no existence, and then take the consequences.

2. The main ends designed to be promoted by marriage are stated to be -- (1.) The mutual help of husband and wife. (2.) The increase of mankind with a legitimate issue. (3.) The increase of the Church of Christ with a holy seed. (4.) The prevention of uncleanness.

3. The law of God makes marriage a contract for life between one man and one woman. The proof of this is as follows: --
(1.) God instituted marriage at first between one man and one woman.

(2.) He has providentially preserved in all ages and among all nations an equal number of births of each sex.

(3.) Experience shows that physically, economically, and morally, polygamy defeats all the ends for which marriage was designed, and is inconsistent with human nature and the relations of the sexes, while monogamy proves in the highest degree adapted to effect those ends.

(4.) This original law of God and of nature is of course dispensable in special cases and under peculiar conditions by the Lawgiver; and whenever, and to whatsoever extent, it is thus dispensed it ceases to be binding, and its non-observance ceases to be sin. Thus Moses, as God's agent, allowed a dispensation of this law of monogamy, which had been long disregarded among the ancestors of the Israelites, "but from the beginning it was not so." Matt. xix. 8.

(5.) Christ expressly withdraws this dispensation, and restores the law of marriage to its original basis: " Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." Matt. xix. 9. It is obvious that it is not the putting away a wife improperly, but it is the marrying another before she is dead, that is the act of adultery. And on the woman's side the adultery cannot consist in being put away, but in marrying another man while her husband lives. Hence for a man to have two wives, or a woman two husbands, living at the same time, divorced or not, is adultery, with the sole exceptions noted above.

4. Our Confession teaches that marriage is lawful for all sorts of people who have intelligence sufficient to consent. The Romish Church allows that marriage is lawful for the great mass of men as a concession to the weakness of the flesh, but maintains that a life of celibacy is both meritorious and more conducive to spiritual elevation. Hence they say a life of celibacy is recommended by Christ (Matt. xix. 10-12) as one of his evangelical counsels, by-the observance of which supererogatory merit may be attained; and hence the Romish Church imposes it as a universal and imperative obligation upon its clergy.

This all Protestants deny for the following reasons: --
(1.) God created man male and female, and constituted the relation of the sexes, and ordained marriage in Paradise when man was innocent. Marriage, therefore, must be purely good, and a means of good in itself, except when abused by man.

(2.) The relation is honored in being selected as the highest earthly type of the grandest heavenly fact -- namely, the mystical union of the eternal Word with his Bride the Church. Eph. v. 28 -- 33. (3.) Reason and experience unite in showing that the relation is the best conceivable condition for the bringing out and educating the noblest moral instincts and faculties of human nature. The best and noblest men of the Old World and the New have been formed in the family.

(4.) The vast experiment of celibacy on the part of the priesthood and of the monastic houses of the Roman Church proves our position by showing the impoverishing and degrading tendency of the opposite system. The true meaning of what is taught by our Savior, Matt. xix. 10 -- 12, and by Paul, 1 Cor, vii. 1-40, is, that the unmarried are exposed to less worldly care than the married; therefore, that in times of persecution and public danger, and with reference to some special kind of service to which God providentially calls a man, it may be both his interest and his duty not to marry. It appears evident that, even in the present age, some kinds of missionary service both at home and abroad might be more efficiently accomplished for the glory of God and the good of men if our younger ministers would consent to regard marriage as less than absolutely essential, and in this respect also "seek' first the kingdom of God and his righteousness."

5. The principle that professors of the true should not intermarry with professors of a false religion, and that true believers should not intermarry with the ungodly, touches not that which is essential to the validity of marriage, but that which belongs to its perfection, and brings in question not the reality of the marriage when formed, but the propriety of forming it. Paul teaches that if one of the parties of a previous marriage becomes a Christian, the other remaining a heathen, the Christian brother or sister remains bound by the marriage-tie as before, unless the heathen party voluntarily abandon them, and so dissolve the relation, when the Christian is no longer bound. 1 Cor. vii. 12 -- 15. On the same principle, the marriages at present so common between the converted and the unconverted are unquestionably valid, and to be respected as such.

It nevertheless remains true that true Christians owe it both to Christ and to their own souls not to contract such alliances. For how can one who possesses the mind and the spirit of Christ, whose affections are as a practical fact set upon things above, whose motives, aims and aspirations are heavenly, become one flesh and heart, dwell in the most intimate of all possible communion, with a soul dead in trespasses and sins? (See 2 Cor. vi. 14-18.) If such a union is formed, it must follow, either that the sacred ordinance of marriage is desecrated by a union of bodies where there is no union of hearts, or in the intimate fellowship of soul with soul the believer will be greatly depressed in his inward, spiritual life, and greatly hindered in his attempts to serve his Master in the world. 1 Cor. vii. 39.

Section IV: Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the Word.[8] Nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife.[9] The man may not marry any of his wife's kindred, nearer in blood then he may of his own: nor the woman of her husband's kindred, nearer in blood than of her own.

8. Lev. 18:6-17; 24-30; Lev. 20:19; I Cor. 5:1; Amos 2:7
9. Mark 6:18; Lev. 18:24-28

Section V: Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract.[10] In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce:[11] and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.[12]

10. Matt. 1:18-20; see Deut. 22:23-24
11. Matt. 5:31-32
12. Matt. 19:9; Rom. 7:2-3

Section VI: Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage:[13] wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.[14]

13. Matt. 19:8-9; I Cor. 7:15; Matt. 19:6
14. Deut. 24:1-4

These sections teach the divine law of marriage as to incest and as to divorce.

l. INCEST consists of sexual intercourse between parties forbidden by the divine law to marry, because of their relationship. Marriage between these parties is impossible; and no matter what may be the provisions of human laws or the decisions of human courts, such pretended marriages are void ab initio -- invalid in essence as well as improper and injurious. Since the degrees of relationship within which marriage is excluded differ in nearness, so the crime of incest differs, according to these varying degrees, from the highest to the least measure of criminality. The obligation to avoid intermarriage between near blood-relations is a dictate of nature as well as of the Word of God.

The only law on this subject in the Scriptures is the Levitical law recorded in Lev. xviii. 6 -- 23; xx. 10 -- 21. If this law is still binding, it carries with it the principle that it is incest for a man to cohabit with any one of his deceased wife's relations nearer in blood. than it is lawful for him to do of his own. If this law is not binding now, there is no other law of God remaining on the subject of incest except the law of nature.

The Greek and Roman Catholic Churches agree in holding that this law is still binding, since the reason of the law rests upon permanent relationships, and not upon any special circumstances peculiar to society among the Jews. All branches of the Protestant Church -- Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian -- have maintained the same principle in their Confessions of Faith or canons of discipline. It is asserted in these sections of our Confession. But a great diversity of sentiment and practice prevails in different parts of our [the American] Church, on this subject, and for the most part the enforcement of this rule has been left to the discretion of the majority of each local church court. Several efforts have been made, in 1826 and 1827, and 1843, 1845, and 1847, to have this section of this chapter changed, but without effect.

2. The divine law as to DIVORCE is, that marriage is a contract for life between one man and one woman, and that it is, ipso facto, dissolved only by death (Rom. vii. 2, 8); and that the only causes upon which any civil authority can dissolve the union of those whom God has joined together are (a.) adultery, (b.) willful, causeless, and incurable desertion.

(1.) The only causes upon which it is lawful to grant a divorce are -- (a.) adultery; this is explicitly allowed by Christ Matt. v. 31, 32; xix. 9); and (b.) willful, causeless, and incurable desertion. This is allowed by Paul to the Christian husband, or wife deserted by their heathen partner. 1 Cor. vii. 15. The reason in the case is also self-evident, since such desertion, being total and incurable, makes the marriage an empty name, void of all reality; and, being causeless, leaves the deserting party without remaining rights to be defended.

(2.) Such causes, however, do not, ipso facto, dissolve the marriage bond, but only give the right to the innocent party, if they so elect, to demand that it shall be dissolved by competent authority. And if they do demand the dissolution, they are not left to their own discretion in the case, but they must seek for the vindication of their rights at the hands of the public authorities and according to the law of the land.

(3.) The civil law, however, has no authority to grant divorces upon any other grounds than those above defined as allowed by the law of God. Whenever they do so, as is constantly done in fact, the civil authorities put themselves into direct conflict with the law of God in the case. Hence all Christians and church courts are bound in such cases to disregard the judgment of the civil authority, and to regard and treat such unlawful divorces as null and void. And if the parties to a marriage unrighteously dissolved marry again, they are to be regarded and treated by those who fear God as living in those new marriages in the sin of adultery. Matt. xix. 8, 9; Acts iv. 19; v. 29.

Text scanned and Edited by Michael Bremmer

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