WCF 24: Of Marriage and Divorce

The primarily calling of every person is to glorify and enjoy God. And in our pursuit of God we are ultimately responsible for ourselves. But we do not go through life alone. We need to know how to honor God in our relationships. And for most adults our most influential relation is our spouse. Marriage will either help or hinder our walk with the Lord. Unlawful marriages harm the partners, their families, the church, and even the generations that may follow.

So piety demands that we understand God’s rules for both establishing and dissolving a marriage. This is true for children in the earliest stages of preparing for marriage, and for singles old enough to no longer be considering such a union. We need to stand together against the forces that are trying to rewrite God’s rules for matrimony. And we must all do our part to help prevent marital failures.


Rules for Marriage

Marriage is good. God made it. But not all marriages are good. Marriage brings two lives together into one. So the two must be truly compatible. The question of compatibility raises an important question.


Who May Marry?

“Marriage is to be between one man and one woman” (see Gen. 2:24). Both polygamy and homosexuality violate God’s intent and disfigure his symbol of the union between Christ and his bride. “One man and one woman” is the most elementary of all marital qualifications. But there are others. Close relatives may not marry; marriage is to be the start of a new family (Lev. 18:6–18; 20:10–21). Believers must not marry unbelievers; marriage is to be the start of a Christian family. Believers must only marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). No disciple of Jesus should even consider a romantic relation with anyone who does not share with them a passionate commitment to God’s truth. To have a God-honoring marriage you must respect God’s parameters.

You also must respect his purposes for marriage.


Why Should Anyone Marry?

There are at least three reasons. First, marriage is for the mutual profit of husband and wife. Marriage partners help each other in their often-mundane responsibilities (Gen. 2:20). They help bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Often, two can face trouble better than one (Eccl. 4:9–12). But marriage is more than two people pooling their resources to decrease their housing costs. The oneness of marriage can help combat loneliness. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Marriage is for joyful companionship. Christian marriage should help both partners follow Christ better together than they could alone.

Second, marriage is for producing children. A loving, committed, biblical marriage is the best scenario for raising children. God still ordains humans to fill and subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28). So believers marry for “the increase of mankind with legitimate issue.” Overpopulation is a scare-tactic that is unpersuasive to biblical Christians. Believers also procreate to provide “the church with an holy seed.” “Sometimes Christians cannot have children. But there needs to be a truly extraordinary reason for them to refuse to have children.”[i]

Third, marriage is “for preventing of uncleanness.” God made us to want intimacy and to be sexually pure (Eph. 5:3). This tension requires “Marriage by those that have not the gift of continency” (see 1 Cor. 7:1–2). So it is possible to sin by an “undue delay of marriage.”[ii] And many Christians do. But, says God, “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). Marriage will help those who sincerely want to abstain from sexual immorality and strive to control their own body in holiness and honor (1 Thess. 4:3, 4).

Scripture’s simple formula for a good marriage is to find a suitable partner, marry for the right reasons, and keep your vows to obey God’s rules for marriage. Sadly, because of sin marriages falter. So we must also understand divorce.


Rules for Divorce

There has never been a more important time to consider the rules for divorce. Modern marriage commitments are tenuous. People feel entitled to escape a marriage that makes them unhappy. And with a determined will anyone can find many reasons to leave a marriage. The old question is still relevant: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). And Jesus’ answer is, “no.” Husband and wife should “hold fast” to each other. They “are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:5, 6). God hates sinful divorce (Mal. 2:16).

Yet, in his kindness God allows—not requires—divorce in two instances: adultery and willful desertion (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:12–16). Both sins are radical violations of the terms of marriage. Sexual intimacy seals a marriage. Infidelity breaks that seal. An adulterous spouse invites a stranger into the marriage bed, and cancels its holiness. “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Heb. 13:4). Part of that judgment is allowing for the violated partner to leave the marriage. Willful desertion is similar to adultery. At the heart of marriage is a commitment to practice the one-flesh reality. When one partner refuses to live with a faithful spouse the latter is not bound to remain in the marriage. So divorce is possible.

Still, no one may take it upon himself to divorce a spouse apart from due process. If we grant the church a role in establishing marriage we must also allow the church to oversee “a public and orderly course of proceeding” when considering the dissolution of marriage. Serious conflicts—even within marriage—require following Jesus’ formula for dealing with sin, which includes potential involvement by church leaders (Matt. 18:15–20). It is unwise for marital partners to be “left to their own wills, and discretion” when considering a divorce. Especially in cases of desertion—a somewhat ambiguous phrase—the first goal of the church should be to heal the breach. The church may determine that a remedy is impossible. But Christians should wait for the church to judge their marriage before pursuing a divorce.

Under the right conditions remarriage is also permissible. In the Old Testament adultery was a capital offense; the offender would be stoned to death (Lev. 20:10). So it is lawful for the “innocent party”—the survivor of the marriage—“to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.” As J.C. Ryle says, “Unfaithfulness dissolves the marriage tie altogether, and places the husband and wife once more in a position of unmarried people, or of a widower or widow.”[iii]

God’s teaching on marriage and divorce can teach us to live not by our feelings but by the eternal word of God. It can help us practice real love and commitment. But marriage is not the ultimate source of love. An older single person once gave me a box of books. Tucked inside one book was a typed note: “The answer to our loneliness is love—not our finding someone to love us, but our surrendering to the God who has always loved us with an everlasting love.”[iv] Honor what God says about marriage. But resolve your loneliness with the love of the triune God.

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.

[i] Chad VanDix hoorn, Confessing the Faith, 325.

[ii] Westminster Larger Catechism 138, 139.

[iii] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, St. Mark (New York: Robert Carter, 1866), 198, note.

[iv] Elizabeth Elliot, The Path of Loneliness: Finding Your Way through the Wilderness to God (Grand Rapids: Revel, 2001), 192.


William Boekestein