Tag Archives: forgiveness

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!


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[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…”


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Like Spring [Poem by Mom]

Georgia vines cover our backyard like love covers a multitude of sins. At least that is the natural order of things—with the vines, as well as with true love.

We are slowly learning about southern biology. My wife’s daily devotional times are suffering thanks to the babbling birds boldly blaring their boom boxes behind our brick abode. I’m noticing—I think, I hope—that Georgia grass grows just a bit more gradually than Iowa varieties.

I might be wrong. Either way, I know that my love should look more like Iowa grass and Georgia vines, and that forgiveness should grow more quickly in wounds of my heart.

Mom talks about these things in the poem she shares this month. If you are struggling to forgive, or surprised by your own capacity to hate, then may her words give you fresh courage.

Mom’s poem is old—first written when I was only eight. (I recall the geological events she describes from the time, but was blissfully unaware as a boy of the concurrent ecclesiological disruptions motivating her poem.) Mom has written a new introduction to her old poem. But first, here is the poem. Enjoy!


Photo Credit: Dainis Matisons via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Dainis Matisons via Compfight cc

LIKE SPRING

How persistent Spring is,
Untiring in her zeal
To carpet all that’s barren,
To beautify and heal.

Even into gashes
That man has blasted out,
Peninsulas are greening
And tiny islands sprout.

How forgiving Spring is
Of winter’s wasting shocks;
Ferns trail her every footstep
And moss adorns the rocks.

Oh, if man would mellow,
Forgive as joyously,
And seek to heal old wound scars
As conscientiously.

—Elaine Gingrich, January 1982/1985. Published in Ontario Informer, 1985.


Ken and I have been marking Bible courses for prison inmates for over twenty years. The very first lesson in the first Gospel Echoes Team course asks the student to name the most forgiving person that he knows other than God. Another question I marked last night: “What have you observed in Jesus’ relationships that could help you get along better with others?” The inmate responded with “Forgiveness is key.”

Forgiveness! This theme appears again and again in the inmates’ responses and comments and prayer requests. “Pray that my family, my wife, my children will forgive me.” “ Pray that I can forgive myself.” “I am finding it easier to forgive those who have hurt me.” “Studying these courses is helping me to forgive others.”

One student had wanted his life to end but reading the Bible showed him that he could turn his life around. He asked forgiveness of God and his loved ones and was finally able to forgive his girlfriend who left him while he was in jail. Forgiveness is transformative.

We all know forgiveness is not essential only for prison inmates. The scars that I write about in this poem have nothing to do with crime or incarceration. Sadly many Christians live imprisoned far too long in the grips of unforgiveness and bitterness. No wonder the epistles command us over and over to be tenderhearted, to forgive as Christ forgave us, and to return good for evil.

“Like Spring” was written after a discouraging season in church life. Differing opinions on church affiliation had caused our beloved pastor to move on. A few members moved away. Ken wondered why he was building our new home. The images for the poem grew out of the road construction occurring that summer past our property. The cottage trail winding between the northern lakes was redirected, blasted through the rocky hill between our circle drive. Several times rock-drilling and blasting sent us out of our trailer home to safety, and the dust and rumble of huge dump trucks and power shovels entertained my three young sons who had a front rock seat to all the action.

It was the next spring, as I walked and prayed, that I was amazed to see how soon the barren disturbed patches of earth and crevices in the rocks were again sprouting with new growth and green beauty. But then, of course, Christ is the giver of life, of new life, in nature and in human hearts. And God is love and has called us to love and forgive as He does, to join Him in the ministry of reconciliation. I think of a simple poem I wrote in my teens: “Hating Those Who Hate.”

HATING THOSE WHO HATE

The times when I most see the need
To love mankind,
I feel like driving this great truth
Into man’s mind.

The passion of this growing lack
Of love grips me.
I see it is our foremost great
Necessity.

And yet the times my being throbs
With pain at hate
Is when my heart most tends to hate
Those men who hate.

You cannot hope to help someone
You do not love—
The only answer to this need
Comes from above.

Yes, God’s way and nature’s way is better.

—Elaine Gingrich, May 26, 2016


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed this poem, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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A Traitor Comes to the Table [Poem by Mom]

Someday, we will feast in radiance at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-8)! Until then we often come to the table in clothes that are torn or stained. But we come hungry, nonetheless, needing the nourishment that is offered at the Lord’s Supper.

When we come to the table with stained clothes, and surrounded by others who do not yet shine as they ought, our participation must be an act of repentance and faith. It brings sorrow as well as humble gratitude. These emotions are shared yet deeply personal. My mother expresses some of these emotions in the following poem.

God bless you as you read—and as you eat of Christ’s flesh and drink of his blood. He can wash your garments anew as you partake of his feast (1 John 1:9).


Before Jesus died, He prayed that we who believe in Him might all be one. He left us a memorial service with emblems that typify unity and oneness. But sadly his followers have experienced disunity and division for centuries. How do we approach His table when our local body is not experiencing the communion of heart that we long for or when members have been torn away from fellowship?

I have felt betrayed at times as part of the body of Christ. I have come to the Communion table with a broken heart. But it is good for me to remember the first Lord’s Supper and what happened that night. That was the night that Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners—betrayed all the way to the cross. It is His body that is broken again and again when His church on earth does not experience peace. And most personally—it is crucial for me to focus on the humbling truth that it was my sins that sent Jesus to the cross. Even if there had been no other sinners to be saved, my sins were great enough to demand a Calvary, and Jesus’ love was great enough that He would have died for love of me alone.

It is my own heart I examine as I approach the table. It is my own betrayal of Christ that I acknowledge, and my own gratitude for His forgiving sacrifice that I celebrate.

–Elaine Gingrich, November 13, 2015


A TRAITOR COMES TO THE TABLE

The very night He was betrayed
Our Lord took bread and wine–
These earthy emblems, common food,
Embodied the divine.

A perfect body, perfect life
Was given to be broken.
With longing He embraced the cross
Where His love would be spoken.

The hand of him who will betray
Is with me on the table.
He hands the bread to me to eat!
“Oh Lord, I am not able!”

My sins betrayed the Holy One
To sacrificial death.
Forgiveness flowed from wounds and words
Until His dying breath.

A living bread, a bleeding bread.
My flesh gives life to you.
I, the betrayer, take and eat
And find His offer true.

—Elaine Gingrich, November 18, 2007, Communion Sunday


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed this poem, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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