Unfaithfulness to the marriage vow

What does the Church Manual mean?

Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

The Seventh-day Adventist position regarding divorce and remarriage takes as its first and basic starting point the following statement from the Church Manual: " 'In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared plainly that there could be no dissolution of the marriage tie, except for unfaithfulness to the marriage vow'1 (Matt. 5:32; see also Matt. 19:9).

"When Jesus said, 'Let not man put asunder,' He established a rule of conduct for the church under the dispensation of grace which must transcend forever all civil enactments which would go beyond His interpretation of the divine law governing the marriage relation. He here gives a rule to His followers, who should ad here to it whether or not the state or prevailing custom allows larger liberty." 2

The main problem with this statement concerns meaning. How is meaning of a statement determined—by the intention of its author or by the understanding of its readers? Is meaning extracted, or imported, or produced by an interaction between the two? When a statement has multiple authors, as in the case of the product of a committee, do they all have the same intention? Are there intentional ambiguities introduced to permit consensus? Is the meaning of a word in the statement determined by its back ground only, or can the meaning evolve? Must exegesis be limited to the probable original intention, or can there be such a thing as a sensus plenior that allows later readers and later generations to find dimensions of meaning that were never imagined by the original author or authors? These are the issues that face us when interpreting even such a short and seemingly straightforward statement as the one before us.

"Unfaithfulness" in the Church Manual

The Church Manual states that the marriage tie is indissoluble except for "unfaithfulness to the marriage vow," and that this is a rule established by Jesus that transcends civil law and social custom. Three observations are important to make here.

First, the rule admits of an exception to the prohibition of dissolution: "unfaithfulness to the marriage vow."

Second, the statement appears to use the language of the indissolubility doctrine. In the early development of Catholic canon law, Augustine's view that marriage is a sacrament led him to speak of it as indissoluble, but by this he meant that marriage should not be dissolved. Medieval scholasticism, however, went a step further and said that marriage cannot be dis solved. This meant that two people who divorced were still married in God's sight, and this was why they could not remarry without commit ting perpetual adultery. The apparent meaning of the authors of the Church Manual is more in line with the original Augustinian intention than with the later scholastic intensification, or else the exception phrase would not apply.

Third, and most important, the rule is given in the form of a direct quotation from Ellen G. White. This fact throws us back to the meaning of her statement, and thence into a diachronic study of the meaning of "unfaithfulness to the marriage vow."

Ellen White's concept of "unfaithfulness"

The quotation reads: "In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared plainly that there could be no dissolution of the marriage tie, except for unfaithfulness to the marriage vow." Two features in this statement draw our attention.

First is the reference to "the marriage vow." Beyond reasonable doubt Ellen White had in mind the traditional vow that formed a part of the wedding service in her day and that, with some modification (replacement of "obey" by "cherish" in the bride's vow), is still found in manuals for ministers. The usual form now runs something like this: "Wilt thou have this man/woman to be thy wedded husband/wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the sacred estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love, honor, and cherish him/her in sickness and in health, in prosperity or adversity; and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him/her, so long as ye both shall live? Dost thou so declare?" To which both parties respond, "I do." This was the "marriage vow," and upon its being made the minister formally declared the couple to be husband and wife, adding, "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder."

The key words are "forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him/her so long as ye both shall live." It is the violation of this part of the vow that has been traditionally understood to be grounds for divorce.3 The question may indeed be asked, though not answered at this point, whether the violation of some other part of the vow also can become grounds for divorce.

The second thing to notice is that Ellen White's statement occurs in an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, specifically of Matthew 5:32, which is parallel to Matthew 19:9 (as noted in the Church Manual). There fore the search for further understanding of "unfaithfulness to the marriage vow" must throw us back to the Gospel of Matthew's report of the teaching of Jesus.

The exception clause in Matthew

Since Ellen White's phrase "except for unfaithfulness to the marriage vow" occurs in her exposition of Matthew 5:32 (the section being based on the supplied subtitle of Matthew 19:3), it seems fair to say that she intends it to be a paraphrase of the exception phrase in Matthew, which in her King James Version would have read "saving for the cause of fornication."

It is well known that Matthew is alone among the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in inserting the exception clause in Jesus' saying about divorce.4 Mark and Luke have no exception clause of any kind.

The Matthew 5:32 phrase that the King James Version translates "saving for the cause of fornication" is in the Greek parektos logou porneias (Matt. 19:9 has me epi porneid). There has been much discussion about the meaning of porneia.

Porneia is a more general word than moicheia, which means adultery. To deal with the lexicographical question as briefly as possible, we may say that porneia is a general term for any kind of sexual misconduct. In early Greek sources it originally meant prostitution by female slaves, but it came to mean any sexual deviation, including adultery. In late Judaism the word was sometimes applied to intercourse in marriage that was contrary to Jewish law, such as marriage with a Gentile before she converted, or marriage within the degrees forbidden in Leviticus 18.

Many scholars have seen the Matthean exception phrase as a reference to the cause of divorce mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1, which speaks of a man giving his wife a bill of divorcement and sending her out of his house because "he has found some indecency in her" (RSV; the Hebrew for "some indecency in her" is bah ervat dabar). The logos porneias could very well be a literal translation of ervat dabar.5 If this is correct, then we are thrown back to Deuteronomy 24:1.

The indecency in Deuteronomy 24:1

The meaning and correct translation of ervat dabar in Deuteronomy 24:1 is less sure and even more debated than the logos porneias in Mat thew. The only other place in the Old Testament where ervat dabar occurs is in the preceding chapter, in Deuteronomy 23:14 (verse 15 in the Hebrew Bible). There it refers to fecal matter, which could hardly be the meaning in Deuteronomy 24:1.

As is well known, in the time of Jesus the rabbis could not agree on the meaning. The debate between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel is summarized in the Mishnah Gittin 9:10. Beth Shammai limited ervat dabar to unchastity, but Beth Hillel applied it to almost anything that displeased the husband.

It is evident from Jesus' teaching that He would reject the teaching and the spirit of Beth Hillel in this par ticular matter. But the exception phrase in Matthew is only a little less ambiguous than the corresponding phrase in Deuteronomy 24:1. Matthew's phrase would seem, however, to refer broadly to offenses of a sexual nature and not merely to things like burning the toast.

Does ambiguity make room for a sensus plenior?

Traditionally the porneia of Matthew's exception clauses and the "unfaithfulness to the marriage vow" spoken of by Ellen White 6 have been understood to refer to adultery only, but both expressions are sufficiently ambiguous to permit a broader under standing, an understanding that may or may not have been envisioned by Matthew and Ellen White.

If porneia includes any sexual deviation in general, could it also include brutality, frigidity, or abandonment of the marriage bed, for ex ample? If such a broader interpretation is admissible, then the "Pauline privilege" of 1 Corinthians 7:15, which looses a marriage in case of desertion by an unbelieving spouse, can be seen as but a legitimate extension of the meaning of Matthew's exception clause—though Paul does not present it that way. A comparison of the usage of the word agamos (meaning "unmarried," whether by reason of having never married, or by reason of having lost a spouse in any manner) in verses 8, 9 with the parthenoi in verses 25-28 would seem to extend the right of remarriage to people divorced for such reasons.7

The "marriage vow" referred to by Ellen White contained more items than just the promise to limit oneself to one sexual partner. Could violation of any part of the vow also be porneia and ground for divorce? For example, in accord with the traditional vow, could one legitimate a divorce by arguing that a spouse had ceased to love, honor, and cherish him/her? If so, the formulation of the marriage vow becomes crucial.

The language of the authoritative texts we have been examining seems to leave room for such an application; on the other hand, the preponderance of teaching in both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White militates NEW from against easy divorce, and against divorce prompted only by transitory or even chronic emotional hurt. 8

We have limited our discussion narrowly to the meaning of the phrase "unfaithfulness to the marriage vow," in the Church Manual and the successive antecedents from which it was derived—the passage cited from Ellen White's Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, the Gospel of Matthew, and Deuteronomy 24. We have seen that all these antecedent sources make use of key terms that are sufficiently ambiguous to leave room for some latitude of interpretation. These terms are "unfaithfulness to the marriage vow," logos porneias, and ervat dabar. It cannot now be known whether that ambiguity was intended by the human authors, but since it exists we must concede that the Holy Spirit intended it.

This places on the church the responsibility of deciding what principles or specific rules are appropriate to our society and our times, operating within the room left by the ambiguity of the authoritative documents.

1. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 63.

2. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1990), p. 172.

3. Indeed, in categorical statements Ellen White plainly limits the grounds for divorce to adultery: "There is only one sin, which is adultery, which can place the husband or wife in a position where they can be free from the marriage vow in the sight of God" (The Adventist Home, p. 344). "Nothing but the violation of the marriage bed can either break or annul the marriage vow. . . . God gave only one cause why a wife should leave her husband, or the husband leave his wife, which was adultery. Let this ground be prayerfully considered" (ibid., pp. 341, 342). "1 would say that there is only one thing for which a husband may law fully separate from his wife or a wife from her husband, and that is adultery" (ibid., p. 345).

4. Robert H. Stein shows conclusively that Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11,12 are reporting exactly the same occasion and the same saying. See his article "Is It Lawful for a Man to Divorce His Wife?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 (1979): 115-121. The same would probably be true of Luke 16:18, though Luke does not preserve the narrative context. The earliest quotation of Jesus' saying on divorce is that preserved by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11. This Epistle was written between A.D. 55 and 57.

5. It is true, however, that the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) translates ervat dabar differently (aschemon pragma). But the direct citation of Deuteronomy 24:1 in Matthew 19:7 does not closely follow the Septuagint either.

6. This was Ellen White's final theological pronouncement on the matter, and the only one published in a book during her lifetime. Both before this and afterward she made pastoral judgments on individual cases that were strikingly less restrictive than her categorical general statements.

7. Parthenos is commonly translated "virgin," and it can have that meaning; but it can also mean simply "unmarried," agamos. That is obvious in verse 27, which is still addressed to the parthenoi: "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage" (RSV). But after giving that counsel, Paul adds: "But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl (parthenos) marries she does not sin" (verse 28, RSV). The marriage of a virgin would hardly have been in question.

8. Note for example, Ellen White's counsel: "Yet even for those who have found bitterness and disappointment where they had hoped for companionship and joy, the gospel of Christ offers a solace. The patience and gentleness which His Spirit can impart will sweeten the bitter lot. The heart in which Christ dwells will be so filled, so satisfied, with His love that it will not be consumed with longing to attract sympathy and attention to itself. And through the surrender of the soul to God, His wisdom can accomplish what human wisdom fails to do. Through the revelation of His grace, hearts that were once indifferent or estranged may be united in bonds that are firmer and more endur ing than those of earth—the golden bonds of a love that will bear the test of trial" (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 65).

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Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

November 1994

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