Radical Faithfulness: A Proposal about Marriage Permanence

In this post I want to summarize the basic position I’ve come to in my understanding about marriage permanence. This post will be concise, even simplistic at times. I will use generalizations about what some Christians believe, generalizations that veer into caricature. And I won’t try to prove my own assertions from Scripture, either—that must wait for later.

This post is not really part of my series on Jesus and divorce, but I thought it would be helpful to summarize up front the basic perspective I’ve reached, emphasizing especially my desire for faithfulness in marriage. Perhaps it will prevent a little confusion about my goals as I proceed through future posts that deal with exegetical details.

Here, then, is my basic thesis: God calls us to radical faithfulness in our marriage relationships—not radical freedom nor radical permanence.[1]

Radical Freedom and Radical Permanence

Radical freedom is the perspective on marriage that is dominant in Western culture today, including among many Christians. This perspective disregards the clear and strong teaching of Scripture that marriage is designed to be life-long, stressing instead a more general and genial message that God wants us to be fulfilled in our relationships. Radical freedom says a marriage should exist only as long as there is mutual agreement that it is wanted.

Radical freedom talks much about love but, in a perverse inversion of the second great commandment, love is defined as attraction rather than loyalty. Marriage often lasts only as long as love (attraction) does, rather than love (loyalty) being what preserves a marriage through the fickleness of feelings. Love for God (the first great commandment) is demoted to second place at best, as shown by the disregard of his commands about marriage. Radical freedom multiplies excuses for ending marriages and belittles the treachery and damage of divorce.

Radical permanence rightly rejects radical freedom, but shrivels into a reactionary stance. It uses an incomplete selection of biblical prooftexts, interpreting them with simplistic literalism and applying them, too often, without mercy. It stresses the permanence of marriage but is in danger of forgetting that God designed marriage for our good (“it is not good that man should be alone,” Gen. 2:18). Love for God (defined as obeying his marriage laws) is stressed, but often in such a way that love of neighbor is constrained.

Radical permanence means believing a marriage union is unconditionally permanent—“once married, always married”—with no exceptions ever possible. In a sort of fatalism, one’s actions within marriage are understood to have no effect whatsoever on the true duration of one’s marriage. Marriage is understood to persist even if a marriage partner persists in adultery—even if they leave and become married to someone else. If divorce is ever permitted, it is divorce redefined as separation only, with no possibility of remarriage. By claiming that marriage can never be truly ended except by death, rigid fatalism belittles the damage of sins such as adultery, abandonment, and abuse.

Image from a photo by Margaret Almon.

Radical Faithfulness

Radical faithfulness springs from the full witness of Scripture and seeks to reflect the heart of God. It takes seriously God’s creation intent for marriage to last until death, insisting that human love be understood within the parameters of the greatest commandment, to love God. It also remembers that “marriage was made for man, not man for marriage” and that “the Son of Man is lord even of marriage” (Mark 2:27-28, adapted). This means that, just as he did with Sabbath laws, Jesus has authority to recognize exceptions to the biblical laws surrounding marriage.

Radical faithfulness recognizes the seriousness of anything that ends a marriage; it belittles neither treacherous divorce (divorce without due cause) nor the treachery that precedes many divorces (such as adultery, abandonment, or abuse). Imitating God’s example, it recognizes that true faithfulness can include judging those who are unfaithful (Rom. 3:3-6). It emphasizes that marriage permanence begins in the heart, by cultivating contentment rather than covetousness and a wandering, adulterous eye (Matt. 5:27-30). Stated positively, radical faithfulness means living in such a way that people looking on can clearly see one has “gone the second mile” to preserve and nurture marriage relationships.

What does “going the second mile” look like? It means offering a level of commitment to a marriage that exceeds what the other marriage partner reasonably expects or deserves. It means offering to carry more than your fair share of the burden of marriage, and for longer than looks reasonable to those looking on.

Going the second mile doesn’t mean carrying your enemy’s load with zero help from them for the rest of your life, but it does mean you aren’t parsing the log book to ensure the load-bearing is shared fairly. It doesn’t mean ignoring all offenses, but it does mean inviting repentance. It doesn’t mean the original relationship can or must always be fully restored after betrayal, not even always after repentance, but it does mean you pray for the grace to always offer forgiveness.

Going the second mile doesn’t mean you believe there are no valid grounds for recognizing that a marriage has been broken. It doesn’t mean believing there are never any biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage.[2] It does mean that, when your marriage starts to get difficult, you diligently seek to bring it to life rather than looking for loopholes to escape it.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Let’s be honest: If all Christians practiced this kind of second-mile, radical faithfulness in marriage, divorce rates would plummet and marital joy would skyrocket! In addition—though this may be harder for some of you to imagine—I believe that a move toward this kind of radical faithfulness would make our churches safer and healthier for those whose marriages have been destroyed by spouses who have been radically unfaithful.

Radical Unfaithfulness

For radical unfaithfulness is a problem we dare not ignore or minimize. The best book I have read for understanding the real-life dynamics of abusive marriages is Gretchen Baskerville’s 2020 book The Life-Saving Divorce. Baskerville has been a “Christian divorce recovery leader” since 1998. Based on her experience and studies she has examined, she estimates that in America “at least 42% of divorces, and probably about half of divorces, are for very serious problems, the kind of problems that make the marriage miserable: unfaithfulness [sexual infidelity], physical or mental abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, refusing to support the family, or simply walking out the door.”[3]

What does this tell me? First, it tells me that at least half of divorces were almost certainly unjustified. They are the tragic fruit of, among other things, the perspective on marriage permanence that I’ve called radical freedom. This perspective encourages people to run from marriage as soon as it hits the sort of minor or moderate challenges that most marriages eventually face. Clearly, radical freedom is not serving marriages well.

But this research also tells me that nearly half of divorces are for “very serious” causes, namely adultery, abandonment, and various forms of abuse. Nearly half. That is, frankly, more than I would have guessed—more than what I have been led to believe by those who look at all divorces through a “God hates divorce” lens.[4] And here I need to ask: Which perspective on marriage best serves those suffering from these broken marriages: radical freedom, radical permanence, or radical faithfulness? Consider, for example, Baskerville’s summary of research showing that, in marriages with the kind of series problems named above, divorce is actually better for children than attempting to preserve the toxic marriage.

Image borrowed from “Is it Always Best to ‘Stay for the Kids’? No, Not If the Home is Toxic,” a September 26, 2020 blog post by Gretchen Baskerville. See https://lifesavingdivorce.com/abuse-and-kids/.

Sound Doctrine

Asking which perspective on marriage best serves broken marriages might not sound like a good question. After all, it smacks of pragmatism (What works best?), a concern which must never override the wisdom of God as revealed in the words of Jesus and the Scriptures. Pragmatism that relies on human wisdom can quickly lead us astray. I’ve come to believe, however, that the perspective that not only serves all sorts of marriages best, but also best reflects the heart of God and the witness of Scripture, is radical faithfulness. In other words, I believe radical faithfulness is sound doctrine—teaching that is both true and healthy.

This, then, is what I see in the Scriptures and what I mean to promote: radical faithfulness, not radical freedom nor radical permanence. No, I have not proven here that this is the most biblical perspective on marriage permanence, but as I share from Scripture in future posts you’ll start to see why I believe that it is.

If this summary post seems helpful to you, I’d be glad to know. I’m also open to suggestions about how to express things better—with greater accuracy, balance, or clarity.

If this post doesn’t feel helpful for you, just set it aside. Hopefully we can learn something helpful together as we dig into the Scriptures in future posts.

See you again soon, and thanks for reading!

If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:

[1] Please don’t get hung up on the terms. They aren’t perfect but they give me something to hang my thoughts on. I debated long and hard for a couple of them, trying to be memorable and accurate without being needlessly offensive. It was to avoid offense that I ultimately rejected rootless freedom and rigid fatalism as alternatives to radical faithfulness. The trade-off is that you are subjected yet more often to what has become a buzzword: radical.

[2] Note: I added this clarifying sentence on 6/27/2022, after several readers had already commented on the post. I added it not because I changed my mind, but because one reader noted I did not express my position as clearly as I could have on the question of whether remarriage is ever biblically justified.

[3] Gretchen Baskerville, The Life-Saving Divorce: Hope for People Leaving Destructive Relationships (Torrance, CA: Life Saving Press, 2020), pp. 28-29. Baskerville’s book spends too little time on biblical interpretation to satisfy readers who have significant questions about divorce and remarriage, but it is the best book I have found for understanding the real-life dynamics of abusive marriages. I highly recommend it for pastors in particular, who should find it valuable no matter their own perspective on marriage permanence.

[4] “God hates divorce” is found in some translations of Malachi 2:16. The Hebrew of this verse is notoriously difficult to translate, and many scholars agree that “God hates divorce” is a very unlikely translation, despite the popularity that the KJV provided for this reading. The Christian Standard Bible gives a more likely reading: “If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Armies. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.” The Coverdale Bible (1535) provides a pre-KJV reading that some scholars think is even more likely: “If thou hatest her, put her away, sayeth the Lord God of Israel and give her a clothing for the scorn…”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Save, print, email, or share this post:

13 thoughts on “Radical Faithfulness: A Proposal about Marriage Permanence”

  1. I’ve been following your series on divorce with great interest. This problem of looking for the loopholes so we can do what we’ve wanted all along needs to be brought to light. Once again, the heart must be transformed by Jesus Christ to truly follow Gods ways!

    Thank you for writing this series! I can only imagine the amount of work and time you’ve invested!

  2. [3] “God hates divorce” is found in some translations of Malachi 2:16. The Hebrew of this verse is notoriously difficult to translate, and many scholars agree that “God hates divorce” is a very unlikely translation,….”
    It feels like we are straining at things, Dwight. I don’t know who the scholars are who you are quoting, but the NASB seems to be in complete agreement with the KJV/NKJV and even the CSB, NIV, ESV, etc., seem to capture the basic thought of God’s distaste for unfaithfulness to our spouse.

    1. Hi Mark. Thanks for reading and taking time to respond.

      Yes, I was not sure how much detail to include in that footnote. I finally decided to not provide any references to substantiate my claim, but I see I didn’t provide enough information for you.

      The following is my best understanding.

      First, yes, all translations clearly convey how much God dislikes (or even “hates,” if you will) when husbands are unfaithful to their wives. That is the context of the passage: husbands treacherously divorcing their wives and marrying new, pagan wives.

      But making a universal statement that “God hates [all?] divorce” is very different from saying that God is opposed to husbands treacherously divorcing their wives without cause. Thus, there is a very real difference in what translations like CSB, ESV, and NIV say compared to others like KJV, NKJV, and NASB.

      As for the difficulty of the Hebrew, I first must acknowledge I don’t read Hebrew at all, so I’m relying on scholars. Here are comments from a few, starting with two commentators trusted by conservative evangelicals.

      Robert Alden in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series affirms the translation “I hate divorce” without much comment, but observes that “The Hebrew is quite clipped, and several words must be supplied by any translation to make readable English.”

      Douglas Stuart (in the volume edited by McComiskey) spends well over a page discussing interpretive options for this phrase, rejecting the “God hates divorce” on grammatical grounds and affirming the approach taken by the NIV, etc.

      I’ll also include a few links here for those who want to dig into the evidence more fully, starting with one that shows how the KJV broke with previous English translations when it introduced the reading “God hates divorce.”


      Here is a very technical paper by the same author that affirms Coverdale’s translation. (Caveat: I have not read this paper, but have read a book and various blog articles by the author). https://www.academia.edu/44443657/Malachi_2_16_ancient_versions_and_English_translations_and_how_they_apply_to_domestic_abuse

      And here is another author who came to the same conclusion about what Malachi 2:16 means:

      Thanks again for taking time to read and respond.

    2. Here is a quote from a discussion I recently came across on Malachi 2:16. It supports Dwight’s references attesting to the difficulty of the Hebrew.

      “It is at the climax of this remarkable prophetic indictment that the Hebrew text becomes almost unintelligible. Many standard English translations render the beginning of v 16 with phrases like “For I hate divorce, says Yahweh the God of Israel.” Some Christian authors wax eloquent about how this prophetic denunciation of divorce anticipates Jesus’ wholesale rejection of divorce (some 500 years later). There is one slight problem: the opening Hebrew words of v 16 apparently do not make sense as they stand in the MT. In any event, they certainly do not mean “For I hate divorce.” Taken literally as they appear in the MT, the initial Hebrew words of v 16 (kî śānēʾ šallaḥ) mean something like “For [or: ‘if’; or: ‘when’; or: ‘indeed’] he hated [or possibly: ‘hating’], send away! [or: ‘to send away’].” I purposely make this translation as confusing as possible. As one can readily see, each word has more than one possible meaning, and no combination of meanings (e.g., “for he hated to send away”) really makes all that much sense in the larger context. Only by changing vowel points, adding consonants, assigning words unusual meanings, or understanding words not expressed in the verse can one produce an intelligible text—but then we are reading our text, not Malachi’s. Only by doing violence to the received MT can we manufacture the much beloved but textually unsupported translation ‘For I hate divorce.'”

      This is from A Marginal Jew, Volume 4 (Law and Love), by John Meier. Meier goes on to discuss Greek translations of the verse, and notes that one early manuscript tradition actually took the phrase as an imperative: “If you hate [her], send [her] away!”

  3. Hi Dwight,
    Interesting summary and I think I agree with your definition of radical faithfulness. I do think we as humans need to use caution in picking apart words and verses to find it’s meaning as it can cause endless debate and misses the bigger picture.
    God and Jesus both left us examples of marriage; God and his covenant with Israel and more specifically, Jesus with the church. What ever we decide on divorce and remarriage has to fit as with Christ and the church. I think ‘radical faithfulness’ fits that picture. However, we also need to realize that they practiced and still practice ‘radical reconciliation’ even though their ‘wives’ are the most unfaithful, even loving us and seeking restoration after divorce or separation until our death. Therefore we should be hesitant to assume they view divorce as our legal courts or the law of Moses did.
    If we assume their examples of marriage are too figurative for our real-life situations, than we need to assume that our relationship (as the church) with Jesus is not practical as well.
    God bless

    1. Hi Alan. Thanks for taking time to read and respond, and for your general affirmation of my thoughts regarding radical faithfulness.

      It seems to me that the imagery of God and Israel or God and the church is definitely relevant to our understanding of human marriage, but that it is also difficult to press too far. For example, we read in Ezekiel about God having two wives (Israel and Judah) and about him turning them over to their enemies to be stripped and stoned to death when they were unfaithful to him.

      There also seems to have been limits to God’s reconciliation, too. I get this sense from several details. For example, when the exile came for Israel, it was “game over” for the generation that was taken into exile. No matter how well they honored him while in exile, there was no returning to the land until the 70 years were up and a new generation was allowed to return. Also, when Jesus issued warnings to the “adulterous generation” in his day, he did so with a promise of annihilation for Jerusalem, and with only vague hints, at best, of possibility of future restoration–far different than when the pre-exilic OT prophets gave clear promise of restoration, a restoration that the NT frequently pictures as being fulfilled in the church. Further, we read in Revelation of Jesus threatening to “spew out of his mouth” specific churches who were no longer faithful to him, with no promise of restoration.

      What we do clearly see is God being extremely patient with his unfaithful OT people–going even the “third or fourth mile” before he finally divorced them. Certainly his grace in that regard is something we should imitate.

      In short, I value the biblical imagery of God and his Bride, but I think we are on safest ground exegetically when we subordinate that imagery to the clear instruction we find in the Bible for human marriage. Imagery can be powerful, but can also lead astray if taken out of context or pressed too far.

      That is my understanding. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Dwight, I’m finally getting to this. I’ve been troubled about some aspects the radical permanence position for some time now. Looking forward to seeing what you’ve found.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.