Tag Archives: sound doctrine

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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Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Greetings, friends! After months of silence, I have finally prepared some blog posts for you. I hope you will find these thought-provoking and helpful, as their preparation has been for me.

My Study on Divorce in Anabaptist History

A major focus of my blogging in the past couple years has been on Anabaptist understandings of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce and remarriage in cases of sexual immorality (Matt. 19:9; cf. 5:32). The historical evidence (see here and here) clearly shows that early Anabaptists agreed Jesus’ exception permits both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. While their interpretations of the Bible’s divorce teachings were simplistic at points (and some also had erratic practices), I was impressed by their trust in the apparent clarity of Jesus’ teaching.

My historical study also convinced me that when American Mennonites officially abandoned this early Anabaptist belief and practice (in the late 1800s to early 1900s), they did so for social and pragmatic reasons more than because of any fresh or deeper study of Scripture. It appears they were primarily motivated by the widespread social concern about the “divorce evil” in America at the time, a concern that engaged churches of all denominations—and also political leaders, all the way up to the president. (Can you imagine a president today addressing Congress and warning that because “the divorce laws are dangerously lax” there is “a diminishing regard for the sanctity of the marriage relation”?)[1]

Yes, Mennonites did develop new ways of explaining the Bible’s teachings on divorce. (They also suddenly began complaining about how confusing Jesus’ exception clauses are.) But it appears that their stricter position on divorce was adopted before their new biblical interpretations were comprehensively developed or published. In other words, doctrinal conclusions probably controlled the exegesis more than the other way around.

That history really deserves a book-length treatment. Maybe someday?

(In many ways this history reminds me of what is happening today as Christians react to broader cultural concerns, such as that over racial conflict. Christians of varied camps typically begin with their conclusions, often influenced by non-Christian sources, and then develop biblical paradigms for defending those conclusions. In neither case—divorce then or racial conflict now—do many Christians have the liberty of starting without bias from Scriptural evidence to form well-balanced doctrine. Back to my topic…)

My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Starting with Paul

Meanwhile, my historical study had another effect: It stirred and freed me to take a fresh look at the biblical evidence for myself. What does the Bible actually teach about divorce and remarriage? This, too, deserves a book—especially for fellow Anabaptists who, like me, share a church history that includes (1) sharply contradictory teachings from our most important historical leaders and documents and (2) a tendency to prioritize divorce teachings as a boundary-marking doctrine.

Are divorce and remarriage always forbidden? Is separation sometimes okay, but never divorce? Is divorce sometimes okay, but never remarriage? Is remarriage okay only in cases of sexual immorality (based on Jesus’ exception)? Is remarriage also possible in cases of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (based on Paul’s teachings)? Are there other similar legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage? Questions abound not only among biblical scholars but also—often unspoken, sometimes fiercely debated—among conservative Anabaptists.

Where, then, is the best place to begin a biblical study on divorce and remarriage? There are strong opinions about this! Some insist we begin with what Genesis 2 says about marriage. Others argue we should begin with the “clearest” of Jesus’ statements—defined as the ones with the least data, the ones with no mention of exceptions. A very good case can be made for beginning with Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that was the teaching manual of the early church—which includes Jesus’ exceptions. An equally strong case can be made for starting with Paul’s writings, which may have preceded the writing of the Gospels and which provide apostolic interpretation of Jesus’ words.

I’ve concluded there are pros and cons to any starting point. What matters most is that one considers all the relevant biblical material well.

My study first centered on Jesus’ words, and I gradually started gaining more light there. Then early this year I dove deep into Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, especially his statement in verse 15: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (ESV). Does “not enslaved” mean free to remarry?

I carefully crafted a long series of blog posts (about 40 pages) digging into this question. I learned a lot from some of the best scholars and dug further into a few sub-questions on my own.  I gained confidence about what Paul meant, confidence that remains with me today. Then I shared my conclusions with over fifteen respected friends and acquaintances, intentionally choosing some likely to agree and some likely to disagree.

Their response reinforced several things to me. First, this is a topic with entrenched opinions and social consequences, and people are slow to change their minds. Second, most people lack either interest or ability to dig into a highly technical discussion on the topic, no matter how clearly I try to write. And third, most Anabaptists will have a hard time listening well if one starts with Paul rather than Jesus, even if one presents biblical reasons for doing so.

My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Jesus and Expectations about Simplicity

These observations made me hit pause on my plans to share my posts online starting in April. As I regrouped, I decided the best thing to do might be to start over, beginning this time with Jesus and aiming, if I can, to write a little more simply.

Simplicity, of course, has its own dangers. Readers from conservative backgrounds often have many valid concerns and questions about divorce and remarriage that are not sufficiently addressed by most writers. Many authors leap to conclusions too quickly, leaving cautious readers behind. On the other hand, many conservative Anabaptists are highly skeptical of anyone who uses a lot of words to argue their point. Anything that hard to prove probably isn’t true, right? Isn’t the Bible clear? Isn’t Satan the author of confusion?

This is a catch-22 situation of the worst sort and honestly can be quite discouraging for someone who is sincerely searching and teaching the Scriptures. I’m trying to come to peace with the fact that there is no way to please everyone, and I won’t try to do so in this series. (I also need to give up the goal of fully pleasing myself, a hurdle equally unattainable and equally able to keep me from sharing my words.)

So, here goes: I’ll start sharing my thoughts, imperfect as they are, and see what sort of a “series” we end up with.

In an ideal world, a short explanation about divorce and remarriage would be all we would need. Nearly twenty centuries of contradictory interpretations have spread layers of paint and grime over the Bible’s words, however, hiding its original artwork from clear view. Our job, then, is to be art restorers, patiently removing misinterpretations and misunderstandings while leaving the original undamaged. To do this well, we need to leave our preferences behind and invite the Spirit to enlighten the eyes of our hearts, even if this means seeing some things differently than we have before.

As I revisit Jesus’ words, I mean no disrespect to those Mennonite church leaders of a century or so ago, who adopted and articulated the strict no-divorce position that many of us inherited. Nor do I mean any disrespect to those of you who share the same view today. Rather, I ask for myself the freedom to evaluate inherited teachings by Scripture—the same freedom that was exercised both by the first Anabaptists and by those Mennonite leaders who adopted the more recent teachings we inherited.

I extend this freedom to you, too. Every generation is entrusted with this freedom and responsibility, which should be carried out humbly—under God’s word, submitted to the Spirit, and with an ear to fellow saints past and present.

Why Am I Writing?

Why, then, am I writing about divorce and remarriage? Three quick clarifications:

  • No, thank God, I am not digging into this topic because of any difficulties either in my own marriage or of anyone close to me.
  • No, I am not writing because I am a flaming liberal who is intent on deconstructing the clear teachings of Scripture. (For the record, I still fully affirm what I wrote in my series on Jesus and homosexuality, where I reached a decidedly orthodox and counter-cultural conclusion.)
  • And yes, one reason for this study is simply that I enjoy puzzling over tough questions of biblical interpretation. This certainly qualifies. I’ve had unanswered questions about divorce for years. (See here for a bit of my story.)

More importantly, though, this is a topic with real-life implications, with people who urgently need what Paul called “sound doctrine”—teaching that is both true and healthy. If I can help even a few people hear Jesus better and experience his life more fully, I will have achieved my main goal.


I realize I may have raised a lot of questions in your mind with this opening post—questions about me, about your own beliefs, or about what the Bible says. I still have questions, too, and have no desire to pose as an expert who can answer all divorce and remarriage questions.

You are welcome to share your questions and insights in the comments below. I look forward to learning from you and probably even hearing good reasons to revisit a few of my conclusions.

Do comment, but please be patient about jumping to conclusions or demanding answers. First we must engage the task of carefully reading Jesus’ words. God is faithful, and by his Spirit he will guide us together into as much understanding as we need to please him.

I plan to share a blog post at least once a week, at least for the next six weeks or so. The next two posts will also be introductory, then we’ll start walking slowly through Matthew 19. Please be patient if it takes me a while to get to your favorite Bible verses. 🙂

Thank you for reading, and welcome back!


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[1] These are the words of Theodore Roosevelt, spoken to Congress on January 30, 1905. Evans Holbrook, “Divorce Laws and the Increase of Divorce,” Michigan Law Review 8, no. 5 (1910): p. 387, accessed 6/15/2022, https://doi.org/10.2307/1272577. The “divorce evil” was mentioned frequently in Mennonite periodicals that year, as they tracked the comments and decisions of public figures and church denominations. On November 18 of the same year the Mennonite Church officially adopted the position “That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church.”


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