The Way of Marriage, Sex and Family

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. "For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh" [Genesis 2:24]. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see to it that she respect [lit., "fear"] her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33).

Marriage is a sacrament for Christians. The entrance into marriage by disciples of Christ is a sacramental act, and the marital union is a sacramental relationship.1 This is one reason why a believer is forbidden to marry a non-believer (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14): such a union would be an act of faithlessness to Christ (cf. 1 Timothy 5:11-12).

Marriage is, in a sense, a natural sacrament as well as a Christian sacrament. God ordained the marriage relationship for all human beings, and works even in a union between those who are not Christians, to make the two of them into one fleshly unit (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). In any marital relationship, God has built into the union a potential for the two to become as one: they, of course, must work creatively together in order to learn to think and feel as if the two of them were one human being.

Christian marriage, however, is sacramental in the more proper sense as well. For Christians, marriage is the creation of a spiritual unity as well as the creation of a fleshly unity. Christian marriage is, as the above quotation from Ephesians indicates, a union that "sacramentalizes" for a husband and wife the union between Christ and His Church. In the marital bond between two disciples of Jesus, the very bond that exists between Him and His Church bride is applied to that relationship and union of two people. The man has the place of Christ and the woman has the place of the Church: such is the way they are commanded to relate to each other. He commits himself to love and serve her in conscious imitation of Christ's self-sacrificing love, and is her head in the same authoritative way that Christ is head of the Church. She commits herself to submit to her husband and serve him in the same whole-hearted way that the Church is to submit to Christ -- indeed, she submits to Christ Himself through submitting to her husband. All of this is explicitly taught by Paul in the passage from Ephesians quoted above (see also 1 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Peter 3:1-9).

This manifestation of the Christ-Church relationship is to be a conscious, deliberate and creative endeavor of the two partners. The world would call it "role playing," and in a certain sense it is; it is not something that just naturally happens. As a matter of fact, the same spiritual struggle must be undertaken to subdue the fleshly instinct in marriage as must be undertaken in the personal life of the believer himself (Galatians 5:13-16; please read it now, but with marriage in mind). In the flesh, the marriage relationship tends to become a very spontaneous affair: when you are angry you become increasingly freer to express it as the years go by; the same thing is true for complaining, domineering, laziness, greed and lust. As with the application of Galatians 5:17 in the personal life of the disciple, so here also: you have to "act" the roles out before they begin to feel natural. But the "acting" is authorized and commanded by God Himself, and it corresponds to the true nature of that sacramental marital union: thus it is not the same kind of "role playing" in which the world engages. The husband must consciously imagine himself in the place of Christ; the wife must consciously put herself in the place of the Church. Believers in the congregation must help each other to bring their marriage relationships into this form, for the fleshly instincts will find this an unnatural feeling at first.

Peter tells us (1 Peter 3:1-7) that the women should find their role model in Sarah, who obeyed her husband as a Lord. This relationship is unheard of in democratic cultures and, alas I am certain, in most Christian homes; but it is the only form of relationship that is faithful to the teaching of God. The husband may be a young believer, and full of the same foolishness we see in Abraham (e.g., Genesis 20:1-18), but her submission is made as an act of faith in God, not in her husband (Ephesians 5:22: "as to the Lord").2

Peter also tells us that the right kind of attitude toward one's mate is so important that one's prayers will be hindered without it (1 Peter 3:7). Christian couples cannot afford to give free rein to their tempers and unforgiving spirits, for they place their very relationship with God in jeopardy by doing so.

It is at this point that we must correct a very common misconception: the idea that a husband's authority over his wife implies that women in general are in some way inferior or weaker than men in general. A man's authority over his wife has absolutely nothing to do with inferiority and superiority of the sexes. Suppose you were to line up all men, from the most gifted to the least; then do the same for all women. The most gifted of the women would be superior to the overwhelming majority of men. God has deliberately made it that way. The Lord teaches us that if a woman chooses marriage, she is to choose a man to whom she can be a helpmate and to whom she can yield her obedience and trust. I understand this to imply that a woman should choose a man that she looks up to, and then dedicate her life to supporting him. A more highly gifted woman would fit most successfully with a man whose gifts she could look up to, even if she is more gifted than the great majority of men, because she was created to be a helpmate to her husband.

Sexual submission

Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:1-5).

The idea seems to have arisen rather early in the history of the church that it was sinful to have any other motivation for sexual intercourse than the conception of children. But this attitude was not derived from the Bible. It was, rather, a crude oversimplification of the attitude taught by Jesus and Paul regarding celibacy, combined with Paul's teaching about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. What is taught in the Scriptures is that each partner is to be alert to fulfill the desire of the other (7:3). Going a step further, Paul then unveils a principle that would probably revolutionize the personal relationships and the sexual lives of the majority of Christian couples: the authority over the wife's body belongs to the husband, and the authority over the husband's body belongs to the wife (7:4). Remember now, in the eyes of the Lord, submission is what a "servant" renders to a "master." This tells us that just as the wife obeys and creatively anticipates her husband's will in all other areas, so the husband, in sexual matters, is to serve and creatively anticipate the will and desire of his wife. In other areas the wife is to treat herself as the servant of her husband; in this area, she is to walk in the same degree of authority that he normally exercises over her (and he has similar authority over her body).

Remember, pilgrim: this is a matter of solemn duty, done unto the Lord, not unto man. When the husband recognizes that his wife desires him, he has an obligation under God to be a faithful servant to her, whether or not he "feels like it" (and so also with her). For a person not to "feel like it" is as invalid a reason here as it is in preparing meals or going to work. Of course the desiring partner must be sensitive to the physical and emotional condition of the other partner; but we must totally reject the notion that it is somehow wrong for one partner to have a stronger desire than the other, and need the other to serve him (or her) physically even when not feeling like it. It is not at all necessary for both partners to have a desire for sex before an act of intercourse is honorable in the eyes of God. For you to make your mate feel guilty (directly or subtly) for desiring sexual intercourse when you have no desire for it yourself is a sin against God and against your mate, dear pilgrim. It is a person's ability to serve happily even when he (or she) does not feel like it that is a true test of one's humility, one's love and one's victory over the flesh. When your mate desires you and you have no sexual desire of your own, you are in a perfect place to demonstrate to your heavenly Father your willingness to be a true servant. There is a need for this principle to be taught and discussed in appropriate settings -- in the discipleship groups, or with personal counselors.

If this principle were seriously cultivated and obeyed, the level of generosity and gratitude (to say nothing of gratification) would increase greatly in most relationships, and the couple would find themselves happier servants of each other in many other areas than the sexual one.

Of course, one must not use his or her authority over the other partner in a way that violates another command: "let the marriage bed be undefiled" (Hebrews 13:4). It is not only fornication and adultery that defile the marriage bed. To be angry with your mate and yet require them to submit to you sexually without there having been reconciliation would be to defile the marriage bed. So also would any sexual activity that degrades each other's dignity as children of God. In this delicate area, one must listen to the Holy Spirit, and let Him teach you. He is not at all against our giving delightful physical pleasure to each other, but our sexual communion is designed to express our personal relationship with each other, and for the physical activity to descend into an exercise in self or mutual masturbation would be to defile the marriage bed.

Christ's apostle also recommends regular periods of sexual abstinence, forming part of a period of total devotion to seeking God in prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5). Since both of you are going to be devoted to prayer and (perhaps) fasting during that period, both must obviously agree upon the timing of it. But regardless of the time originally agreed upon, the time to come together again, Paul teaches us, is as soon as one feels strongly tempted by Satan to lose self-control in some way.

The procreation of children

Modern technology has created the ability for virtually all couples to prevent the conception of children, thus giving to contemporary couples the freedom and the responsibility to choose whether or not they will have children, and how many children they will have. In the great majority of evangelical circles, as well as among growing numbers of Roman Catholics, the creation of a smaller family is being either recommended or else presumed as a norm. But we must not silence the clear teaching of God in the Scriptures for the sake of personal convenience.

Children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them! (Psalm 127:3-5)

Modern attitudes simply do not foster the belief that one is blessed when having a large family and that your children have been given to you by God (cf. Genesis 33:5). Their argument is almost exclusively one of economy and convenience: the more children you have, the lower the standard of living you will all enjoy and the less time you will have to yourselves. It is very understandable to me that people who have no covenant with the God who raises the dead should think in those terms; it is the way I used to think. However, a person who enters into the love of God will come to love being surrounded with children, regardless of the inconveniences involved with supplying and coordinating a large family. The God who indwells disciples loves to see children produced from parents who are walking in His love.

We are clearly taught that God can be trusted to provide us with all that we need (Ephesians 3:20; Philippians 4:19; Mark 11:24; Matthew 6:30-33); yet, despite the fact that we know God loves a quiver full of children, and despite the fact that He has promised to supply our needs, the attitude that is dominant (and growing more so) seems to believe that having more than three children is almost scandalous. But this thinking is an invasion into the Church by the thinking of the world. Believer, you can trust God to provide the right number of children, a number that will bless you the most -- and it will in all likelihood be a "quiver full" of them. We may protest against this attitude presented above by saying that there is no explicit command in the Scriptures for us to have large families, and that there is no explicit prohibition against birth control, and we should be correct. But God sees the motivation of our hearts, and we will have to give an account to Him why we chose to turn away from a blessing of God, and chose to deprive our children of the blessing of a large number of brothers and sisters when we knew the Spirit-inspired attitude in the matter.

Having said this, though, one ought not conclude that the practice of birth control is a "sin unto death" (1 John 5:16-17) -- a sin that cuts us off from the grace and covenant of God. It does reflect a condition of littleness of faith, but it belongs to a category such as the command to "owe no man anything" (Romans 13:8): the Spirit will instruct us in the right way to fulfill the Scriptures in the matter as we mature in faith and knowledge of the things of God.

To reject children totally, however, is outright rebellion against God, for we have the command to multiply (Genesis 1:28). The argument against large families that is rooted in the overcrowded condition of the planet is irrelevant for children of God. The planet is not at all overcrowded with stable, happy and holy children of God. Remember also that we are not providing guidance for those who are not disciples of Jesus.

We must also keep in mind the principle that the instructions of God were intended to be fulfilled within the context of very tightly-knit brotherhoods, in which there is a generous sharing of possessions and resources. This common life will be a tremendous blessing and will bring much relief to those who are raising families.


The idea that human life only begins at birth is totally foreign to God's revelation. According to the Scriptures, "I" began in my mother's womb: .".. You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 138:13; please also read Job 10:11, 31:15; Isaiah 44:2,24). Therefore, whatever is being done in my mother's womb is being done to "me," a human being. Furthermore, God's calling and plan for me began before I was born, while I was still a fetus:

From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother's womb you have been my God (Psalm 22:10).

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:15-16).

The word of the Lord came to me, saying: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart..." (Jeremiah 1:5).

The demons, camouflaged as gods, used to require the slaughter of new-born babes, a practice that was an abomination to God (Psalm 106:35-39; 2 Kings 16:3). For God's people to practice such an abomination was to invoke the punishment of death (Leviticus 20:1-5). Is it not obvious to you that in the eyes of God, therefore, there is little distinction between killing a newly-born child and killing a developing child: both are an abomination.

The practice of abortion was quite common in the world of the ancient Church, and Christians condemned it as the murder of a human being. The very popular early second century "Epistle of Barnabas" required, as part of the Christian way, "You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shall you destroy it after it is born."3 And the "Epistle to Diognetus," equally as popular and equally or more ancient, describes one of the many differences between Christians and those of the world: "They beget children; but they do not cast away fetuses" (ch. V).4 Around 200 A.D. Tertullian described the church's teaching:

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.5

In the possible, but increasingly rare, situation where a choice must be made between the life of the mother or the unborn child, the true disciple of Christ will not really have difficulty making the right choice. She who has already been won to the way of losing her life for the sake of Christ (Matthew 10:39) will not find it difficult to follow Christ's example and teaching as recorded in John: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (15:13). But in this hypothetical situation we ought to trust God for safe deliverance, even though we are giving preference to the child. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, to deliver them (Psalm 34:7). And, like our Master, we cannot be taken away before our time (John 7:30, 8:20), so we need not worry about giving preference to the child. It will not speed up the Lord's timetable for us by one day (Psalm 139:16).

It ought to go without saying that one guilty of abortion can be accepted into the covenant with Christ (or back into it), as long as there is acknowledgment of the crime as premeditated murder. Christ's blood is more than adequate to cleanse from all sin, as long as we repent of it. However, if we do not accept it as the true sin it is (murder), we will not really be repenting of God's accusation against us, and cannot enter His forgiveness.

Child rearing

This catechism is not a manual on child raising, so we must defer to other Christian works regarding that subject. But this much can be said: with respect to God, children of believers are to be raised to believe that, because of your covenant with Him, they also have been set apart by Him to belong to Him (1 Corinthians 7:14); give them His promise every night when you tuck them in: "You belong to God; He let us be your parents because He wanted us to show you His love for you and because He wants you to know Him and follow Jesus."

And this much can also be said: your children are to be raised strictly and affectionately at the same time. It only takes the Spirit a few years to bring you into the strength and softness needed to use the rod and the hug equally well, if you are walking carefully in the way taught by the apostles. Children who enjoy both affection and play with their parents are not at all harmed by knowing that they will also be punished every time they willingly transgress the boundaries established by their parents. Consistent discipline with the literal and/or symbolic rod of discipline act to create within a child a wholesome fear response which he will internalize and then eventually experience when he knowingly and willingly does what is wrong. When they are accompanied by explanations of the rules and principles by which they are being raised, they will come to see the rightness of it all, even of the punishments. This wholesome and godly training becomes the basis for a sense of justice and a sense of justifiable guilt that will later help him or her to experience the frustrations of Romans 7, and lead to the joyful experiences of Romans 8. This important role of Biblical discipline is the reason the Proverb says,

"Do not hold back discipline from the child; although you beat him with the rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from Sheol" (23:13-14).

The special danger into which the strict disciplinarian can easily fall is that of relying too much upon the influence of punishment, to the exclusion of other ministries to the child. Paul tells us fathers, "do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart" (Colossians 3:21); if all you ever do is act as a negative influence upon their sin, they will indeed lose heart, since we all have so much sin within us. We must not merely prohibit their evil; we must encourage and train them in what is good. We must be a source of hope for them as well as a source of frustration -- as diligent to compliment and hug and tickle as to criticize. Have as your growth goal the ability to be at play with your children, to revert to a swift disciplinary response (the rod, rebuke, exhortation, etc.) when they willingly transgress, and then to return to play -- all within a matter of minutes. If God can bring me to this capacity, He can do it for anyone.

Do not listen to the many exponents of painless, fearless childhood, who want you to feel guilty for believing in something as "primitive" as punishment. Nor should you listen to those few at the other end of the secular spectrum who want the childhood experience to be structured like a Marine boot camp. No matter how many psychological or medical degrees the person has who speaks, our Christian wisdom about raising children is rooted in large measure upon (1) our superior understanding of the forces that are at work within human nature, and (2) upon our vision of the ideal human being.

Regarding (1) our superior wisdom, the Christian lives by the revelation of God that is recorded within the Scriptures, not by this world's wisdom. That revelation describes a human nature that is created in the image of God and is therefore capable of the highest and best that we can imagine. It further reveals that that nature has been corrupted by Adam's fall, contains indwelling tendencies toward self-centeredness, fear and rebellion, and is readily influenced by any human and spiritual beings that know how to manipulate those tendencies. Those are the forces at work within human nature, and none of the secular wisdoms is rooted in those revealed truths.

And regarding (2) our vision of the ideal human being, that ideal is Jesus: we do not want our children to become brave and disciplined Spartans, nor sophisticated and intellectual Athenians, nor utterly spontaneous little libertines, but followers and imitators of the Christ of God, Who is that Image in which all human beings are created.6

Divorce and remarriage

The relevant New Testament Scriptures are Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:1-3; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, 7:39. You should read them right now. From these texts we are taught the following:

  1. Matthew 5:31-32. A man who divorces his wife forces her to commit adultery (i.e., when and if she remarries, of course); however, if he divorces her for "the cause of unchastity" this does not hold true.7 Furthermore, anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.

  2. Matthew 19:3-9. A husband and wife are joined together by God Himself, causing them to become one flesh; man is forbidden to sever what God has joined together. Whoever, therefore, divorces his wife and marries another person commits adultery against her (one qualification).8

  3. Mark 10:2-12. The two are one flesh and are not to be separated. If either party divorces and remarries, they are committing adultery against their true spouse (no qualifications).

  4. Luke 16:18. Any man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (no qualifications).

  5. Romans 7:2-3. The "law" binds a woman to her husband as long as he is alive, and if she marries anyone else while he is alive, she is an adulteress (no qualifications).

  6. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. The wife is not to leave her husband, nor is the husband to divorce her. If she does leave she must either remain unmarried or be reconciled to him.

  7. 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. If a believer is married to an unbeliever and the unbeliever is willing to live with the believer, the believer must not separate from the unbeliever. If, however, the unbeliever leaves, the believer is to let them leave, and is "not under bondage in such cases."

  8. 1 Corinthians 7:39. A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

There is a move under way today to stretch the Scriptures regarding divorce and remarriage as far as possible in the direction of individual liberty and permissiveness; but this is very wrong. When studying the attitude of Jesus and the apostles, it is clear that they were quite determined to fight exactly that kind of permissive liberty. In Jewish culture, the man had great liberty of divorce, and in gentile cultures both parties did.

Ordering all of these texts, we should readily see that the general rule is one of unqualified judgment against divorce and remarriage: remarriage is adultery. The two remain in a one-flesh union until death alone parts them. Three of the above passages are commonly used to introduce qualifications to this rule: 1 Corinthians 7:15, Matthew 5:31, and Matthew 19:9.

The passage from 1 Corinthians 7 is certainly being unnaturally forced when trying to make it say that the abandoned believing party is not "bound" to the marriage relationship in the sense that they are no longer one flesh and one is free to marry again. All that one may legitimately derive from the text of the passage is that the believer is not bound to resist the separation, and ought to let the other person go; if they want to leave, do not fight it.

The second passage, Matthew 5:32, when looked at carefully, is not really saying that fornication by one partner frees the "innocent" party from the marital bond, allowing him or her to remarry. If it is referring to adultery within marriage at all, all that the text says is that the man who divorces his wife is forcing her to commit adultery at her remarriage, and therefore he shares in her guilt -- unless of course she had already been guilty of adultery at the time of his divorcing her. If he had divorced her precisely because of her adultery then he would not be guilty of forcing her into an adulterous situation when she remarried, since she had already brought it upon herself. That is all that the text says; it does not grant to the man (or woman) freedom from the one-flesh union so that he may remarry.9

Thus, the only text that may seem to add a qualification to the judgment that remarriage is always adultery is the passage from Matthew 19:9, the so-called "Matthean exception": "And I say to you [speaking to the Pharisees], whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."

That passage seems to many to say that remarriage is adultery in every case except when a person divorces his (or her) mate for their adultery. Extending this somewhat, it could then also logically mean that if a divorce occurred and one of the partners proceeded to remarry, then that adulterous remarriage severed the bond, leaving the remaining partner free to also remarry. However, there are several reasons why such interpretations are wrong.10

The phrase translated "except for immorality"11 is more simply and literally translated "not on a basis of immorality [or fornication]" or "not of immorality." The passage more literally then reads, "whoever sends away [i.e., divorces] his woman/wife not on the basis of immorality and marries another commits adultery." The italicized phrase can refer to the sending (as most translate it), so that it would loosely read, "whoever's divorcing is not on the grounds of adultery cannot remarry without committing adultery." However, that is not a natural translation of the Greek terms involved. It is more natural, in the Greek, to refer the phrase "not on the basis of immorality" to the noun ("wife") rather than the verb ("send"), so that it would loosely read, "whoever dismisses a woman/wife that is not one from fornication [i.e., a concubine or any unlawful union], and marries another, commits adultery."12 If this is the proper translation it would mean Jesus is saying that the only time you could divorce a person with whom you were joined and marry someone else without committing adultery is if your partner were not a true wife to begin with.

There is another consideration that weighs in favor of this interpretation that Jesus was not talking about divorcing a woman for adultery. In Jewish law, a woman who was guilty of adultery did not need to be divorced: she was stoned to death (e.g., John 8:3f.). This situation was not a point of controversy among the rabbis. To them, one was of course free to remarry if one's wife committed adultery: because she was no longer alive! However, having concubines was not uncommon in that day (e.g., see John 3:16-18); and the growing number of men and women in our day who live together without being married would be another example of the kind of relationship Jesus would be talking about here. The Greek term "porneia" was the term that translated the Hebrew word "zenut", a term that the rabbis and the scriptures applied not only to all extramarital intercourse but to marriages that are contrary to the legal decisions of the rabbis.13 It was forbidden for a Jew to marry a woman who had been guilty of fornication outside of marriage, and for other reasons; any such forbidden marriage was considered "porneia." If any form of "porneia" were discovered to have existed before the marriage, it made the marriage forbidden. If the woman had been guilty of "porneia" before the marriage, but it was not discovered until after the marriage, then the marriage was annulled.14 It makes perfect sense to understand, therefore, that Jesus was talking about such situations. This phrase was not giving permission for divorce and remarriage; on the contrary, Jesus was describing unions which had no right to exist and could be annulled. Such an interpretation is, of course, to be expected from Roman Catholic exegetes, who are bound to that interpretation by canon law.15 But it is not Roman Catholics alone who see Jesus here forbidding remarriage unconditionally and speak about annulment. Friedrich, referred to above, is a German liberal; Fredrick C. Grant was an American liberal; G.E.P. Cox and David Hill are Anglicans.16 Understanding the Matthean passages in this way fulfills best the natural meaning of the text, and it fits best with the other passages we have already studied. The attitude necessary for the church to take in this matter, therefore, is that the marriage bond -- if a true bond to begin with -- is indissoluble because it is sealed by God Himself. And only He can break it -- by death. A man or woman may never bind themselves to another mate, while the first spouse is alive, without becoming guilty of adultery.

Testimony from the early church

The "Shepherd of Hermas," written in 140 A.D. (or some decades earlier), was very widely circulated and accepted in the early churches. While the author does not claim to be representing the unanimous Christian tradition, at the very least the following passage shows us that a large number of Christians walked in the understanding we have described above.

"Sir," say I, "If a man who has a wife that is faithful in the Lord detect her in adultery, doth the husband sin in living with her?" "So long as he is ignorant," saith he, "he sinneth not; but if the husband know of her sin, and the wife repent not, but continue in her fornication, and her husband live with her, he makes himself responsible for her sin and an accomplice in her adultery." "What then, sir," say I, "shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this case?" "Let him divorce her," saith he, "and let the husband abide alone: but if after divorcing his wife he shall marry another, he likewise committeth adultery." "... For the sake of her repentance, therefore, the husband ought not to marry. This is the manner of acting enjoined on husband and wife."17

This passage is the only clear and detailed passage on the subject written in the second century that I have been able to find, and it is in perfect harmony with the position derived from the natural reading of the New Testament that we have outlined above. Those who lay claim to the mantle of Biblical Christianity must admit the fact that the Son of God before whom we shall all give account has a much stricter attitude about remarriage than is commonly acknowledged by the Christianity of our day.

Pastoral considerations

But what of the pastoral applications of this matter? Divorce and remarriage is increasingly common, and the different kinds of situations that can develop can be amazingly complex. What if you were remarried before you surrendered your life to Christ, and want to be reconciled to God; what can you do?

(a) You must accept and confess the fact that in remarrying you entered into adultery and cut yourself off from the grace of God (in the way the Galatians did, though for a different reason -- Galatians 5:4). This admission of the true guilt you bear, and its deadly effects, ought to be obvious; but it is very commonly thought -- even in Evangelical and charismatic circles -- that the promise of non-condemnation of believers (Romans 8:1) means that even this kind of adultery could not bring us into the condemnation of hell. I have heard this strongly asserted by clergy and by representatives of Evangelical radio programs. And it is a terrible doctrine, begotten by those who have no fear of God. As with abortion, unless one accepts God's judgment in this matter, he cannot truly repent rightly, and cannot be forgiven.

(b) You must be prepared to make a decision that in all likelihood will be the most painful decision you have ever made. You must be prepared to separate yourself from one you love (for their good as well as for yours). You may not have to do it; but you must be prepared to do so, or else it proves that you do not want the approval of God more than the fulfillment of your own desire. If you think that God would not ask such a radical form of "separation" from you then you have not yet understood the nature of Christ's cross and the nature of the death to self that He called you to. But remember: He does have a solution prepared for you!

(c) You must submit to the wisdom and the judgment of an apostolic congregation.18 You are forgiven for your sin, but you are still responsible to let God establish His solution and His justice for your difficult relationship situation. The mind of Christ is needed in order to bring His wisdom to bear upon your specific case. We are thus in a situation in which the procedure of Acts 15 must be applied: the elders must investigate the matter and come to a common mind about what the Spirit of Christ is saying concerning your particular situation. And all who walk in the Spirit will have access to that mind as well; the wisdom of the Spirit will make sense to someone who is hungry to walk in the righteousness and holiness of God.

It is possible that your true marriage may have lasted for 20 years, producing 5 children, and that your second relationship has only been in existence for 6 months, and was the outcome of an affair that broke up your marriage. The solution in that case may be very different from one in which the first marriage lasted only one year, with no children, and in which you have been remarried for the past 20 years and have raised a family. God's wisdom might have you go back to your true wife, or He might have you stay in your present relationship. The point of the matter, however, is that you be willing to abide by the decision of those who keep watch over your soul, and not insist upon your "right to fulfillment," or upon your own version of happiness. Having a church with authority to tell you what to do may be "scandalously Catholic" to the majority of Protestants, but it is also scandalously Biblical (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:1f; Galatians 6:1; 1 Timothy 5:8,16).

A personal testimony of God's power

Expect God to use His power and ingenuity to work out a solution for you. As the cross quite forcefully demonstrates, God will go to great lengths to reconcile. We often grossly underestimate His power in that area, expecting Him to merely forgive our past instead of actually resolving it. My own marriage is certainly a testimony to that. My wife and I had been separated for five years (divorced for four). She had remarried, and I was engaged (and living with my fiancee and her children), and we were living on opposite sides of the country. Such was our situation when the Lord drew me back into fellowship with Him, and into the desire for the kind of wholehearted obedience we have been describing in this work. Within a short time it became clear that I was supposed to terminate the relationship with my fiancee. He then kept bringing our divorce back into my mind, and led me to search the Scriptures over the matter. I soon realized that I could no longer rationalize the breaking apart of our marriage in the way I had done: as if it were a sad but necessary thing, which -- now that it was all over -- had to be put into the past so that life could go on. I could now see that it was not "sad but necessary," but only sinful; I could see now that, regardless of the problems there had been in our marriage from the very beginning, our God had joined us together. It did not seem at first that God actually wanted to change the past, but only to change my attitude toward it. I thought He was testing the seriousness of my obedience by requiring me to be willing to go back (like Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac), even though -- "as we all know" --the present circumstances made that quite impossible. But finally He did bring me to the point where I knew in my heart that I was quite willing to be reconciled to Ann and the kids solely out of faith in God, even though it still seemed to be merely a theoretical assent.

In the meanwhile, unknown to me, God was at work in Ann's life 3000 miles away. Although she had not yet accepted Christ, He was showing her what an error she had made in this hasty and rebellious second marriage, and how wrong it was. She did not do it because of any thought of our being reconciled; she just knew they had to split up -- and they did.

Meanwhile, back across the country again, the Lord was bringing me to "stage two" of His plan (a plan of whose outcome I still knew nothing). To make a long and complicated story short, I finally realized, after much prayer and Scripture study (and even a prophecy), that God actually intended to restore my marriage with Ann (I still did not know what He was doing back East). I delayed some months, though, since I did not want to have any part in breaking up her second marriage (even though I knew now that it was a disobedient relationship in God's eyes). But finally, I could put it off no longer; I knew that in order to stay in God's will, I had to write to her with this strange proposal. I wrote, not knowing that the Lord had been working at the other end: they had separated just before I wrote.

We were finally restored to each other, and this time around has been quite different from our first seven years together. Ann soon accepted Christ; we have two more children, and a happy family life -- and all of this happened because God would not give up on us even though we had given up on us. This is the story of our redemption as well, isn't it? God chased us down, and even sacrificed the precious life of His Son, just to win back a people who had no desire to be free from sin itself (only from its suffering).

The saddest element in my story is that of the Christians who gave me counsel during this period virtually all encouraged me to remarry and let the Lord just cover over the past mistakes and sins. Christendom is walking in incredible disobedience and in incredible ignorance of His power to deliver -- and doesn't even know it! But God is mighty to deliver, pilgrim! Expect great things from Him. Wait on Him, and do not write off your past failures so quickly. He will show you what to do, step by step, whether or not it will be the same as what He did for Ann and me. Our God reigns!


The celibate life, under certain conditions, is also a sacramental life, instituted by Christ, and sacramentalizing the presence of the kingdom of God in our midst. In the old covenant, there was no encouragement or instruction about such a life; even the prophets were married men, as far as we have information to know.

But Jesus brought the kingdom of God down to the earth, making the beginning of the heavenly way of life possible for us who are living in the first-fruits of its glory (1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 1:14). And Jesus said of the resurrected citizens of the kingdom of God, "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage" (Luke 20:34). This is the foundation for the high regard and subsequent teaching of Christ and His apostles about celibacy:

Jesus said to him, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" ... Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" ...Peter began to say to Him, "Behold, we have left everything and followed You." Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life."19

Jesus encouraged radical forms of consecration to Him and to His kingdom -- not only separation from sin, but also separation from quite legitimate and honorable institutions and relationships. Protestants have all too often been so blinded by such strong antagonism to the Roman tradition that they have twisted the clear message of the Scriptures regarding celibacy, in order to attack Rome's required celibacy of the clergy.

The above passage of Scripture might be interpreted, and often has been, in such a way that it seems to refer to the missionary who leaves his wife and children at home and goes off for months at a time, to do the work of the Lord. While such separations are possible and perhaps sometimes commendable, they are all too often irresponsible. The apostles who were married took their wives (any presumably any young children) with them (1 Corinthians 9:5). How much more natural is the simple and natural interpretation that Jesus is here commending those who, animated by love of Jesus and His kingdom, leave behind the normal lifestyle in order to give themselves fully to God and to His gospel. They decide against the life of a householder, husband and parent -- as honorable as they are -- and consecrate themselves to minister the things of God in a celibate condition.

That this interpretation is the proper one becomes even more obvious when you consider what He taught in Matthew, just after teaching God's strict attitude about divorce and remarriage:

The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man to his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement20 but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it" (Matthew 19:10-12).

Jesus encouraged those who could, to accept celibacy: "He who is able to accept this, let him accept it."21 Now how could one know if this gift of celibacy had been "given" (19:11) to him? Certainly, not by any previous disposition: that is a fleshly tendency, not a gift of the Spirit. The only way to know if you can live out this kind of consecration is to attempt it. It is forbidden to "try" marriage, so one would have to experiment with celibacy first, and then choose one or the other.

Celibacy in Paul's teaching

Paul continued the teaching of Jesus. Let us look at several of those passages.

  1. 1 Corinthians 7:1 " is good for a man not to touch a woman." Note carefully how this has been worded by Paul. He did not say that it is bad for a man to touch a woman -- it is not bad (presuming marriage). What he did say was that it is good for a man not to touch a woman; that is, if you do not enter into a physical form of relationship with a member of the opposite sex, it will be a blessing for you. He amplifies this principle later in the chapter.

  1. 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 25-40 -- The value of celibacy. Paul teaches in these passages that for those who are not already married when called to believe, it is a good thing to continue in their celibacy. If you do choose to marry, you have not sinned -- for marriage is a beautiful sign/sacrament of Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:22f). We are not speaking here of good and bad, but of good and better. Marriage is good, celibacy is better (7:38), and for several reasons: you are less distracted from spiritual things than the married person (vs. 32-34), and are able to give more of yourself and your time in devotion to the Lord (vs. 35). These reasons by Paul are certainly what life itself teaches us who are married and have families: there is a pull upon you to be quite concerned about this world (safe neighborhoods, comfortable surroundings, keeping up with your peers, etc.). You have to work harder to resist worldliness and half-hearted consecration when you are married than when you are celibate (that is why we married people need the celibates' fellowship and ministry in the community: they inspire and remind us about what is truly important).

Celibacy makes possible a special holiness and consecration of our bodies (7:34). In celibacy our bodies are set apart solely for the Lord, but in marriage we have yielded authority over our bodies to our mate (7:4).

Remember though, Paul is not saying that those who are married should regret it, or should pine away for the higher life; we are not to seek to be released from a wife (7:24, 27) either outwardly or inwardly. God called us to believe at precisely the right moment, whether married or unmarried. And if we are married, our vocation is to sacramentalize the relationship between Christ and His Church, which is a wonderful vocation indeed! The celibates have a different vocation: to sacramentalize the presence and transcendence of the kingdom of heaven and its glory, and to sacramentalize its freedom from all that the fallen world deems indispensable for "real" life.

  1. 1 Timothy 5:9-16 -- A solemn vow

Let a widow be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works ... But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge... (5:9-12)

In this passage Paul indirectly teaches the way in which celibacy was institutionalized within the church: in the form of a solemn vow. He refers to the qualifications that must be met in order for a widow to be put on "the list": she must be at least 60 years of age, have been the wife of one man, and have demonstrated the good works of a Christian for many years. It has often been thought and taught that this list had something to do with a list of those who received support from the congregation (as in Acts 6:1), but this is quite impossible. Paul instructed that a widow younger than 60 years of age must be "refused" (i.e., refused a place on the list); now, if you think that list had something to do with who receives support, you must also believe that Paul was saying that if you are under sixty you are on your own, regardless of your need! That this could not be what he is talking about is further verified by the reason he gives for refusing the under-sixty widows a place on the list: "for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ,22 they want to get married" (vs. 11). Being "on the list," therefore, precluded being married; and for one "on the list" to get married was to be in "disregard of Christ." It ought to be obvious, therefore, that the list Paul is describing is not a list of who is to receive support, but a list of widows who were to be allowed to make a vow of celibacy to Christ.

The nature and seriousness of that vow of celibacy is shown in his reaction to those who get married after being enrolled on the list: "they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge" (vs. 12). The term for "pledge" was the term commonly used at law;23 it was a term used to indicate a solemn promise or oath, and was the term for a bond or mortgage.24 In the Septuagint translation of Nehemiah 9:38 it is the Greek word that is translated as "an agreement" [NASB] or "a covenant" [NKJV]. The younger widows, Paul is saying, have proven themselves incapable of living up to their solemn vow to stay unmarried: all too often, they have abandoned that vow to Christ and made a marital vow with man; this abandonment was so serious that Paul says they were "in disregard of Christ" and had incurred "condemnation" -- terribly serious charges.

It is clear that the vow of celibacy, whether taken by a widow (as above) or by someone who has never been married, is to be regarded as a wedding of oneself to Christ; hence, its abandonment is likened unto unfaithfulness and merits condemnation. It is as permanent a vow as marriage: just as one must resist falling in love with another person when married, so also must one resist marriage when vowed to Christ in celibacy. Such is the natural and clear meaning of Paul's teaching for those who desire to see the Church restored to her apostolic foundations.

Our conclusion about celibacy

In Revelation 15:1-5 we are taught something else about celibacy. There is some controversy about just who these men are, and what their "celibacy" means. But, following the straightforward and natural sense of the text, one must conclude that they are men who lived their whole lives as deliberate virgins (vs. 5; Greek: "parthenos"). They had been "purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb" (vs. 4). As we have stated above and now see here, the celibate life is the living out of the heavenly lifestyle in a "first fruits" condition; it is a way of living in utter consecration to God, in the power of the Spirit. It demonstrates to unbelievers that the supernatural life of the kingdom of God is indeed here, that the power and glory of heaven are indeed available upon the earth. Married people can be equally dedicated and consecrated (Peter and most of the apostles were married, remember).25 But the celibate's very life is a supernatural testimony, if he or she is truly born again and filled with the Holy Spirit.

Who may enter into this vow? Anyone who is unmarried, with the exception of formerly married women who are under sixty years of age. They of course may remain celibate,26 but, for their own protection, they may not take the vow of celibacy until they are sixty years of age. The vow is a formal covenant, as binding and as public as marriage itself.

We are to conclude therefore, that the Roman Catholic tradition of clerical celibacy is not to be criticized because of its celibacy but because of its required nature, and -- even more importantly -- because all too many of its celibates are trying to live a form of gospel consecration without being in the kind of repentance and saving faith in Christ that is taught in the Scriptures. Celibacy on the part of those who are not in the covenant of faith is a dead work (e.g., Hebrews 6:1). In apostolic Christianity, however, if leaders are to be drawn from among those who are mature in the following of Christ, we should in fact quite naturally expect to find a higher proportion of celibates among the pastors, deacons, prophets and teachers than among the congregation at large. If Evangelical Protestants want others to really believe that they are motivated only by the desire to be faithful to the Scriptures they must outdo the Roman Catholics in the exercise of gospel celibacy, instead of explaining away these Scriptures as they so consistently do.

The value of celibacy in the life and ministry of the Church is incalculable. Celibates are free to minister in situations that would be far too unwholesome for a family to live in, and are free to maintain a daily schedule that would be destructive of family life. Community houses of celibates can minister to the church body as centers of intercessory prayer and retreat centers. School teachers who are celibate can minister to their students in a degree impossible for a person who has a family to care for. But the congregation must not allow the celibates to experience the loneliness that is the perennial danger for the person without a family. Christ encouraged celibacy, but not the hermit's life. Community life is, of course, the best antidote for such loneliness.

Celibacy in the early church

The kind of encouragement to celibacy that did not disparage marriage was rather well balanced by the leaders in the first several centuries of the Church, as the following passages exemplify:

Ignatius of Antioch

(early second century)

Wives, be subject to your husbands in the fear of God; and you virgins (be subject) to Christ in purity, not counting marriage an abomination, but desiring that which is better, not for the reproach of wedlock, but for the sake of meditating on the law."27

In like manner also, exhort my brethren, in the name of Jesus Christ, that they love their wives even as the Lord the Church. If any one can continue in a state of purity, to the honor of the flesh of the Lord, let him so remain without boasting. If he shall boast, he is undone; and if he seeks to be more prominent than the bishop, he is ruined.28

Apostolic Constitutions

(mid-fourth century or earlier)

Concerning virginity, ...we leave it to the power of those that are willing, as a vow; exhorting them so far in this matter that they do not promise anything rashly... For she that vows ought to do such works as are suitable to her vow; and to show that her vow is real, and made on account of leisure for piety, not to cast a reproach on marriage.29



1 That is, it is a channel through which the Christ-Church relationship is manifested, an assurance that that relationship is operative in the marriage, and a symbol of that union between Christ and His Church. <back>

2 Incidentally, we see here the value of elders who walk in the ministry and authority we have outlined previously. The husband's submission to his pastors is a most important assurance to those who are under his authority; it means that his authority cannot be exercised in tyranny, and that he must give an accounting of the way he exercises that authority and responsibility. <back>

3 The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, ch. 19 (p. 148). In the next chapter he accounts the practitioners of either as "murderers of children." <back>

4 Ibid., p. 26. <back>

5 "Apology", chap. ix. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 25. <back>

6 And One who has all of the bravery, discipline and intellectual creativity one could ever want. <back>

7 The Greek term translated as unchastity or fornication (Greek: "porneia"), is a broad term that can apply to many sex-related themes. It can refer to a specific form of sexual misconduct or to sexual misconduct in general. It can refer to relationships that God considers forbidden (e.g., marrying someone too closely related). Context must determine its meaning in any given text. <back>

8 This is the case "except for immorality" (literally, "a wife/woman not of 'porneia'"). <back>

9 It is very legitimate to interpret this according to the other meaning of "porneia," so that it has nothing to do with adultery within marriage. Jesus may well have been talking about marriages which were forbidden and therefore not true marriages in the eyes of God. <back>

10 For a very thorough, Biblically faithful and excellent study of divorce and remarriage in general -- and this passage in particular -- see J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), especially chapter 6, "The Teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-12." <back>

11 Greek: "me epi porneia". <back>

12 The Greek term "me" by itself does not mean "except"; there are words that need to be combined with it before it normally has that meaning, such as in the phrases "ean me" or "ei me." This is the only occurance of the term "me epi" in the New Testament; the usual term "ei me" occurs 90 times. The phrase "me epi porneia" may very legitimately refer to a noun (i.e., "wife") instead of a verb, for phrases using "epi" are used adjectivally in the New Testament: e.g., Philippians 3:9 ("a righteousness based on faith"); Hebrews 9:10 ("gifts and sacrifices... which only pertain to food and drink"); Hebrews 9:15 ("transgressions in connection with the first covenant"). <back>

13 Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1968), Vol. VI, p. 589. See also David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew (London: Oliphants, 1972). The very significant example of Esau confirms the validity of this rabbinical principle being used in the New Testament. He is described as a "fornicator" (Greek: "pornos") in Hebrews 12:16, even though his only recorded misdeed regarding women was that he took wives from among the Canaanite women (Genesis 26:34-35, 36:2). He was guilty of fornication because of those ungodly unions. <back>

14 Friedrich, op. cit., p. 592. <back>

15 e.g., John L. McKenzie, "The Gospel According to Matthew," The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), Vol. II, pp. 72, 96. Also, Michael L. Donovan, The Vicarious Power of the Church Over the Marriage Bond (Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1972), p. 16. <back>

16 Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 592. Fredrick C. Grant, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. II (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955), p. 22: "The best explanation seems to be that behind all three pronouncements is Jesus' unconditional refusal to recognize divorce." G.E.P. Cox, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (London: S.C.M. Press, 1952), p. 122-123. David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew. <back>

17 "The Shepherd of Hermas," M.4.i., The Apostolic Fathers, p. 184. <back>

18 Assuming, of course, that you can find such a brotherhood. For an imaginative example of this, see the last chapter. <back>

19 Mark 10:21-30; see also Matthew 19:27-29 and Luke 18:28-30. Luke adds "wives" to the list. <back>

20 By "this statement," I understand Him to mean "this statement of yours." <back>

21 If we are going to be truly Biblical, our preachers and teachers should be encouraging Christians to follow this advice from Christ. And we should honor those who have made this kind of consecration of their lives. <back>

22 Lit., "grow wanton against Christ". <back>

23 Greek: "pistis". <back>

24 Moulton and Milligan, op. cit., p. 515. <back>

25 Having been in that condition when they were called to follow Christ. <back>

26 We ought to understand Paul's statement that "I want younger widows to get married" (1 Timothy 5:14) as being spoken in the same sense as his saying "let each woman have her own husband" (1 Corinthians 7:2); he is speaking "by way of concession, not of command" (7:6). <back>

27 "Epistle to the Philadelphians," ch. iv. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 81. <back>

28 "To Polycarp," ch. v., ibid., p. 95. <back>

29 "The Apostolic Constitutions," IV. xiv., ibid., Vol VII. <back>