"Still married in the sight of God" has been virtually a slogan, a piece of Christian jargon, for centuries. Like other slogans (e.g., "God hates divorce") it has been a cause of injury and entrapment to many victims of domestic abuse — as well as to those who have suffered other kinds of marital violation. This article only discusses the history of the phrase "still married in the sight of God" as it has been applied to divorced (or separated) people. Those who have questions about the phrase’s truthfulness and applicability are referred to chapter five of my book Not Under Bondage.
A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. 1
Around the same time, Chrysostom explained the scripture “the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives” (Rom. 7:2) by saying,
...wives, even if they have left their husbands, have the law in the form of a chain which condemns them, accusing them of adultery, accusing those who take them, and saying: ‘Your husband is still living and what you have done is adultery.’ 2
Roman Catholic Canon Law no. 1141 states: “Marriage which is ratified and consummated cannot be dissolved by any human power, nor by any cause save death.” 3
In his book Divorce — the Unforgivable Sin?, the family lawyer Ken Crispin relates the story of a woman who had been divorced from her husband for ten years, during which time the ex-husband remarried and had three children to his new wife. The relationship between the woman and her ex-husband was trouble-free. Then a Protestant minister explained to the woman that:
her husband’s second marriage really constituted nothing more than adultery. Accordingly it was her Christian duty to do all she could to break up the relationship. 5
Though she felt the lives of three children should not be disrupted, the minister’s authority caused her to doubt her own opinion.
Other Protestants apply the expression only to unbiblical divorce — whatever they conceive that to be. Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher, said,
...a woman divorced for any cause but adultery, and marrying again, is committing adultery before God. ...persons once married are in the sight of God, married for life, with the one exception of proven fornication. 6
John Murray, the respected Presbyterian theologian, explained Matthew 5:32 by saying,
The only reason for which this remarriage can be regarded as adultery is that the first marriage is still in God’s sight regarded as inviolate. The divorce has not dissolved it. Illegitimate divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond and consequently the fact of such divorce does not relieve the parties concerned from any of the obligations incident to marriage. 7
Craig Keener says,
Matthew 5:32, then, claims that the marriage is valid in God’s sight until one party dissolves the marriage through unfaithfulness. 8
A survivor of abuse told me that a Baptist layman had asserted that she was “still married in God’s sight” while she was separated from her abusive husband. The Baptist had been "getting alongside" the husband because the husband made pretenses of becoming a Christian (which he always did every time his wife left him). The Baptist apparently thought that he was doing both husband and wife a Christian service by trying to encourage their reconciliation. This woman had separated and reconciled with her husband more times than she can remember. Every reconciliation saw a return of the abuse.
There is a testimony on the internet of a woman who converted to Christ during the time she was married to an abuser. She eventually discovered that her husband was a serial murderer and rapist. With little church support and despite many obstacles, she turned him in to the police and he was eventually sentenced to prison. Fearing she was committing the unpardonable sin, she divorced her incarcerated husband. She was then told by the murderer’s parents, as well as by the Catholic priest who had officiated at her wedding, that her marriage still existed in the sight of God. 9
It can be chilling when abusers use the phrase against their wives. An example can be found in the movie Chocolat, where a woman flees from her abusive husband and takes refuge with the owner of the chocolate shop. When the husband tracks his wife down he shouts at her, “We are still married in the sight of God!” to try to browbeat her into reconciliation. The abused woman cleverly retorts, “Then God must be blind!”
The phrase "still married in God’s sight" encourages unthinking, ham-fisted responses to the complex questions of Christian divorce and remarriage. I pray that the expression falls into disuse and that the Christian community will show a more finely nuanced (by which I mean more biblical) approach to divorce and remarriage.
Maschil is a Hebrew word which is thought to mean "prudent" or "insightful". It occurs in Proverbs and Daniel, and is a subtitle in some of the Psalms.
Maschil Press aims to promote insight into the biblical world view, and to expose and advocate against sub-biblical views which have caused pain and grief to the Christian community and the wider population.
Maschil Press does not accept manuscript submissions or query letters from authors or agents. At this stage no change is envisaged for this submission policy.
Expressions of interest regarding cross-promotional arrangements (such as flyer exchanges) between other publishers and Maschil Press will be considered on their merits.
To enlarge the lettering on your screen, press the Ctrl key while hitting the + key. To reduce the lettering size, press the Ctrl and - Key.