Gospel Truths, Volume XIV, NUMBER 11 (November, 2003)
Posted with permission
The Marriage Covenant and Ratification
By Gene Frost
ONCE again the people of God are becoming embroiled in controversy over divorce and remarriage, evidenced by the voluminous exchange of articles on the internet, by the number of meetings conducted to discuss the subject, and a felt need for it to be publicly debated. It seems that this ageless issue ebbs and flows, lies dormant for a time and then surges forth with new zeal and enthusiasm. We find many arguments of the past being expressed in new ways, with a new wrinkle here and there.
What disturbs me, in what I have been able to read, is that the covenant of marriage has been left out of the discussion, yet both marriage and divorce relate to it, the one to establish it and the other to annul it.
The Covenant of Marriage
Marriage is a covenant relationship:
“Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.” - Malachi 2:14.
Covenants of marriage are established as a man and woman reach (1) the agreement to come together as husband and wife, followed by (2) an exchange of vows (their pledge or oath to faithfully observe the obligations and restraints of marriage), usually coincident with the (3) confirmation, or ratification, of the covenant. We need to pay special attention to the ratification; it is essential to establishing the covenant:
“Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.” (Galatians 3:15; emphasis added.)
To confirm or ratify (translated from the Greek kuroo) is to enforce or validate, and is used of various legal actions, e.g. of laws, decrees, treaties, wills, etc.1 To “‘ratify,’ ‘confirm,’ as in Galatians 3:15, is common in legal documents...”2
Just here, perhaps we should define and comment on the word “legal.” Legal is derived from the Latin word for “law” and means “of, created by, based upon, or authorized by law.”3 Law refers to “all the rules of conduct established and enforced by the authority, legislation, or custom of a given community, state, or other group.”4 Therefore, when we speak of ratifying a decree, or will, or a covenant, what the ratification is depends upon the authority or customs under which it takes place. So it is with the covenant of marriage. Ratification has been expressed in many ways, as adopted by each society or culture in which the covenant is made. At one time contracting parties confirmed their covenant by passing through halves of a sacrificed animal – from this cutting comes the word “covenant” itself (Hebrew berith); see Jeremiah 34: 18.5 In time past covenants of marriage have been ratified (confirmed, established, made valid) by a feast and ceremonial entrance into the bride’s tent (Genesis 29:21-23), or by a marriage procession and wedding feast (Matthew 25:1, 10), or by mingling the blood of bride and groom, or by jumping the broom … in various ways according to the laws or customs of the time and place. The ratification was determined by law, legislation or custom; the parties involved did not choose “a ratification of their choice.” In every case, it was a matter of public record, witnessed, as to time and place. There is no clandestine confirmation of a marriage or divorce, either in the mind or private place. A couple cannot establish a covenant of marriage in an automobile, by agreeing to marriage and by exchanging vows, and then as husband and wife consummate it on the back seat. Such behavior is a travesty of marriage; their cohabitation is fornication.
In the present controversy, some are arguing that a divorce where no fornication is the cause, is not really a divorce, just a civil divorce. Stop right there! and mark it down. Whenever the Lord says that one “marries” or is “married” He means married; and when one “divorces” or is “divorced,” He means divorce. When men try explain what Jesus meant – one time He means the civil marriage/divorce (using the word accommodatively) and another time He means the real marriage/divorce (the actual case) – they do not clarify, but confuse the issue. At such a time when one, who has divorced his mate without just cause, marries again, he commits adultery. Then, it is contended, the innocent put away mate may divorce him. That’s two divorces” The advocates of the modern concept protest, “No, just one divorce,” and by that they mean one for each! They differentiate, saying that the first divorce was a “civil divorce,” not a real divorce, while the second, where the one who was put away in turn divorces him who put her away, is the “real divorce.” In times past, the two were referred to as a “divorce accommodatively speaking” and the “real divorce” or “actual divorce.” Anyway you count it, and whatever you call it, the advocates have two divorces!
Divorce or divorcement is translated from the Hebrew word keritut, in Deuteronomy 24:1, 3, Isaiah 50:1, and Jeremiah 3:8, which signifies “a cutting apart.”6 With the “putting away,” the separating of the couple in divorce, there must be an annulment of the covenant (a release from the vows, promises and commitments), and thus duly ratified according to the customs or laws of our society. This is the idea behind the name of the divorce document, the “bill of divorcement.”
In the New Testament, divorce is translated from two principal words in the Greek text, apoluo and apostasion. Apoluo is translated “put away” in Matthew 1:19; 5:13, 31; 19:3, 7, 8, 9(2); Mark 10:2, 4, 11, 12; Luke 16:18(2); and “divorce” in Matthew 5:30. It means to divorce, “to send away, to separate, to leave one another,” “to let loose from, to loose or unbind a person … let go free, put away, dismiss.”7 Apostasion is a legal technical term, referring to “a written notice of a divorce.”8 It was “a written statement prepared … as evidence of a legal divorce.”9 “In Matthew 19:7 and Mark 10:4 apostasion occurs together with biblion ‘notice’ …, but Matthew 5:31 apostasion occurs in the absolute sense and denotes both the document and its particular contents.”10
Divorce is not just simply telling someone to “get out,” as a dismissal may convey in a common and loose way. However, when used in the context of marriage, words become technical terms. (Often a word with a general meaning, when used in a particular context, takes on a technical aspect, e.g. “elder,” “apostle.”) As used in a marriage context, a divorce suggests a loosing from a mate which results in one being free of marriage ties, so that he is free to remarry. The words “marriage” and “divorce” relate to the physical relationship. The words do not convey whether such marriage or divorce is acceptable to God. In fact, some marriages and some divorces are condemned by God (Romans 7:2, Matthew 19:9); even so, God calls them marriages/divorces without qualifying terms.
Divorce was never a part of God’s plan for man. God hates putting away. (Malachi 2:16) He ordained marriage to be a life-time relationship.
“For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth” (Romans 7:2).
“The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth” (I Corinthians 7:39).
When men began to abuse their wives by summarily sending them away for any and every cause, indicating a hard and rebellious heart that cared not for the will of God nor for the integrity of their own oaths, God moved Moses to command civil restraints regarding divorcement. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) Moses’ legislation did not amend God’s original will. (Matthew 19:8) Hardness of heart has never caused God to compromise His moral will and law. What God suffered (allowed without bringing immediate punishment) in civil conduct does not mitigate against the moral enactments of His revealed will (Acts 14:16, 17:30). Now, to lawfully annul the covenant, one was required to present a certificate of divorcement. The confirmation of a breaking of the covenant was to be in the form of the “bill of divorcement,” obtained prior to the severing of the relationship, and its presentation established when and where the divorce took place.
A bill or certificate (Hebrew sepher) was a “legal document,” referring to a certificate, an indictment, an official letter, a written decree, a bill of sale, a deed, or a book.11
Jeremiah 32:11-12: “So I took the evidence (sepher) of the purchase, both that which was sealed according to the law and custom, and that which was open: And I gave the evidence (sepher) of the purchase unto Baruch the son of Neriah, the son of Maaseiah, in the sight of Hanameel mine uncle’s son, and in the presence of the witnesses that subscribed the book (sepher) of the purchase, before all the Jews that sat in the court of the prison.”
Esther 1:22: “For he sent letters (cepher, king’s decree, verse 20) into all the king’s provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.”
I Kings 21:8: “So she wrote letters (cepher) in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters (cepher) unto the elders and to the nobles that were in his city, dwelling with Naboth.”
It may be noted that the cepher was an official writing, of public interest, concern and notice. It is not to be confused with writing a personal note on a sheet of paper, as some have suggested, that a man could scribble a note to his wife, “I am dismissing you” (or words to that effect), and that this would qualify as a “bill of divorcement.” How silly some can become when wanting to justify an unscriptural procedure!
God uses the metaphor of divorce to describe the captivity of Israel: “And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill (sepher) of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also.” (Jeremiah 3:8) The divorcement was documented and validated; God’s stated rejection was publicly declared.
As there is a ratifying or confirming of the marriage, even so its dissolution also must be established, as a matter of public record. The word ratify is translated from the Greek word, kuroo. In Greek the alpha privative a, when prefixed to a word, makes the word a negative so that the positive aspect becomes negative; as “un-”, or “in-”, or “not.” Thus kuroo with the privative becomes akuroo, meaning to “invalidate, to make of no effect, to annul...”12 Akuroo translated “disannul” and “none effect,” in Galatians 3:17, is a technical legal term: “'To make invalid’, ‘to rob of force’...”13
The Jews, before Moses, were simply ignoring the covenant of marriage and were putting away their wives with no confirmation of their action. Moses put a stop to it and legislated that a “bill of divorcement” must precede the action: “let him write her a bill of divorcement … and send her out of his house.” Some today are imitating (in argumentation) the condition that Moses faced. They are advocating that it is proper now to do what God corrected through Moses. A divorce, we are told, does not have to be ratified. A man can just dismiss his wife and they are divorced.
Ratification in the United States, in our society, is not the law or custom of other places and times. The confirmation of a covenant in the United States is with legal recognition, documented or recorded in public records. However, some are denying the role of civil authority, even to declare that one may marry and divorce without ever complying with civil regulations in establishing or annulling a marriage. They say, “Civil courts have no God-given role in establishing marriages.” Therefore, to effect a marriage or a divorce, it is left to the individual (not society or legal regulations) to choose “whatever procedures and mechanisms that may best serve” him. If this new concept ever becomes practice, not just argument, it will create untold havoc and will subject us to the ridicule of the world.
Some have suggested that civil authority should be respected, and to satisfy the law file for civil divorce … but this could be after the fact. They steadfastly deny that civil regulations have anything to do with the divorce. With or without complying with regulatory statutes, one can divorce (or marry) a mate. When one who believes this says that he believes in complying with law, ask if the compliance has to be before there can be a divorce (marriage)? Is the divorce (marriage) coincident with the law or is it independent? If one fails to comply, can there be a real divorce (marriage)? When these questions are answered, all can see that the so-called “respect for the law” is only a smokescreen to hide the real attitude toward civil law, or it will manifest irreconcilable contradictions within the concept itself.
The truth of the matter is, the bill of divorcement is to be before the putting away. If we are law-abiding, there is no divorce without ratification. Following a divorce in civil court, there can be no further legal ratification. An additional “putting away” is a mental act, notwithstanding denials to the contrary.
We question, does God sanction our dismissing civil law and the annulling of the marriage covenant outside of the province of civil authority? We find no scriptural justification for such conclusion; in fact, this is the legitimate role of civil government, to provide for the common good, to establish law and order. Where such regulations of society are not in conflict with divine order, we are to submit to the authority of the law.
Perhaps we should now review the role of civil authority. Read Romans 13:1-5 and I Peter 2:13-15. It is clear that civil authority receives it authority from God. Legislators and administrators are God’s servants, His agents. To reject what God ordains is to reject God. Civil law is designed of God for our good, to give order and establish stability in society (in travel, commerce, domestic tranquility, protection of life and property, etc.) What would life be like without civil laws, where anarchy reigns? Of course, there may be shortcomings, laws or regulations not to our liking, but this does not limit and qualify the Christian’s submission. The only area in which one is not to obey the law is when demand is made of the Christian to disobey God. (Acts 5:29) To reject civil law in areas not to our liking, or that are perceived to be unfair, is to reject God. Brethren need to realize that it is not a light thing to cavalierly exclude civil law from any regulatory control of marriages and divorces. And we need to be careful that we do not equate our sense of “fairness” with God’s will. Obey the law, not just to avoid punishment, but do so with a good conscience, knowing that we have acted with respect to what God has ordained.
If we do not have proper respect for civil law, we can be sure that we will not avoid punishment. When civil authorities learn that certain preachers are counseling citizens of the state to ignore the law, that they are “married” without a covenant confirmed according to statute, we will see these preachers being brought into court. Or, when one tells a man that he can just dismiss his wife, without an annulment confirmed according to statute (no certificate, no ratification, no record), and that he is then free of any responsibilities toward her, that they are “divorced,” expect to see him in court.
Some object, noting that there have been unfair rulings in divorce courts. So, what do we do? “Throw out the baby with the bath water?” Disregard civil law and regulations regarding marriage and divorce? Are we no longer to comply with the public and civil ratification of marriages and divorce? There will be abuses—you can’t avoid them in this life. Life is not always fair. (II Timothy 3:12) But, to say that civil law has no authority to regulate the ratification of marriages and divorces, and refuse to submit to the ordinances of the State, is to counter good order, and places one in a position a Christian must avoid, i.e. being the object of society’s just criticism. Consider also that there are abuses in the tax codes, and violations of legitimate expenditures of our tax money. Does God want us to ignore the law and refuse to pay taxes? Question: If a Christian refuses to submit to the law requiring him to pay taxes, does he sin? Or, if one says, “civil authority has no God-given role in establishing businesses,” and refuses to obtain a business license before going into business, does he sin? If one refuses to obtain a marriage license, fill it out as instructed and file it, does he sin? Now reverse the question: if one obtains a marriage license according to the law, recognizing the right of the State to require it, fills it out as instructed and files it, does he sin?
Of course, where there is a divorce and it is confirmed, the marriage covenant is annulled—it is no more. (We speak of the marriage, not of the bond which is the mind of God.) How then can one divorce thereafter? There is no covenant to be annulled. The very concept of “covenant” denies the clever effort to justify more than one putting away. That’s why, I am persuaded, that the covenant isn’t even addressed in the modern concept. Apparently, some hope that it is overlooked and not factored into the discussion. Remember, only one covenant is established in marriage. One divorce annuls the covenant. The divorced couple are no longer married. There cannot be a second annulment, hence, no second divorce. The attempt to find a second divorce in putting away a spouse is a figment of one’s imagination. The Bible doesn’t describe it. When Jesus spoke of divorce, it was always in the singular (divorce), and not plural (divorces). To speak of divorcing the divorced not only sounds silly, so it is.
Why have some come to this conclusion? Not by just reading the Bible. To be sure, there is an agenda. It turns out that there must be a rationale for one who is divorced to be able to say he/she still has a right to divorce.
Advocates of the new concept equivocate with the term “divorce.” We are told that every person has a right to divorce, that there are as many divorces as there are persons. This cannot be. How can one sever the relationship, annul the marriage, and be unmarried, only to have the other mate at a later date sever the relationship, annul the marriage, and then be unmarried? How can one annul what is already annulled? Can one person be unmarried while the mate put away is still married? Such confusion cannot reflect the truth.
Reviewing the arguments which have been made, I find obviously flawed argumentation. I appeal to those who are now promoting this effort to stop, back off, and reconsider. I do not want brethren hurt by the controversy, nor brethren divided, a situation which this modern pursuit has created. I have some very dear friends involved, and I plead with all to take the time for calm reflection, to consider the direction this controversy is going, and then to reconsider the subject afresh. We all agree that God is not the author of confusion.
1 - Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Kittel,
ed.), vol. III, p. 1098.