Project Canterbury

The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter VII. Holy Matrimony

IN a recent book written by a man who does not believe in the permanency and indissolubility of marriage as taught by the Church, the author, referring to the fact that our teaching on matrimony is based upon words ascribed to our" Lord in reply to a question on the subject, makes the bold assertion that he does not believe that Jesus taught any such thing. Jesus, he explains, was in constant revolt against the traditionalism of His time. He disregarded the Sabbath restrictions of the Jews, teaching that the "Sabbath was for man, and not man for the Sabbath." His disciples who were traditionalists, were always misunderstanding Him and misinterpreting Him as the record bears witness. And it is likely, so this writer tells us, that in the matter of His teaching about marriage His disciples, as usual, misunderstood him, and perverted his "freer" doctrine by their own narrow and traditional views which they attributed to Him. This is truly an ingenious method of transforming white into black, but there is probably no place in the New Testament where it is less applicable than it is here.

The views on marriage, and divorce, enunciated by our Lord in the New Testament, far from being the traditional views of His time, are, in fact in diametrical opposition to them. The Mosaic Law--the traditional Law--allowed divorce, the only question was under what conditions it was lawful for a man to put away his wife. Our Lord flatly breaks with this tradition and declares that divorce cannot be tolerated. Dr. Rawlinson in his excellent Commentary on St. Mark's Gospel has some striking remarks about this. "There was no point," he writes, "at which Christian morality contrasted more sharply with the standards tolerated in the Graeco-Roman world than with respect to the ideal of permanent monogamic marriage. Christian converts at Rome were the more in need of instruction with regard to this matter, inasmuch as the subject was one in which the teaching of Jesus transcended the moral standards even of the Old Testament, which (in the LXX version) formed as yet the only sacred Scriptures of the Church, and the question whether it was in any circumstance legitimate for a Christian to take advantage of the Mosaic toleration of divorce must have been at the time when the Gospel was written a living issue--as indeed, by reason of the 'hardness of men's hearts,' it still appears, in a certain sense, to be." ["The Gospel according to St. Mark," p. 133.]

It may be well to transcribe the account of this matter, as given in the Markan Gospel, in full:--

"And there came unto him Pharisees, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?, trying him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. But Jesus said unto them, For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of the creation, male and female made he them. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh: so that they are no more two; but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

Our Lord's teaching is so radical and so unexpected that his disciples are scarcely able to believe their own ears. They are uncertain about it and question Him further. In the words of the Gospel:--

"And in the house the disciples asked him again of this matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her; and if she herself shall put away her husband, and marry another, she committeth adultery."

On the basis of this distinctive teaching as to the indissolubility of marriage, the Apostle Paul likens the marriage bond to the relationship between Christ and His Church a comparison which permits no thought of an abandonment of the relationship through divorce and the undertaking of a new union.

This high ideal of the marriage relationship, which according to our Lord's teaching is the ideal intended by God in all human marriage, is what lifts Holy Matrimony from the level of a mere matter of convenience or of legal contract into the status and dignity of a true Sacrament. There is imparted to Christian believers entering upon the married state, an inward and spiritual grace which enables them to live together, for their mutual help and comfort, to procreate and rear children in the fear of the Lord, and to bear and forbear with one another, thus fulfilling the Apostolic precept, "bear ye one another's burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ." That the ideal is a high and difficult one goes without saying, but so is the whole moral ideal of the Christian life. But we cannot doubt that He who laid down the ideal will also supply the grace and power to realize the ideal. It is to Christ that men and women who come together in the Holy Estate of Matrimony must look to supply what is needed. Just as at Cana He turned the water into wine, so He can and will redeem from any sordid motives or lower human conceptions the relationship between Christian men and women who look to Him and trust Him.

It is not the Christian ideal of marriage which is at fault so much as the fact that many people who enter into matrimony are not truly Christians. The ideal must remain unrealizable for those who do not really accept the Christian religion, the implications of Christian marriage as sacramental, and the saving power of Jesus. In the last century, many men who rejected Christian beliefs and Christian theology, honestly thought that they could still retain the system of Christian morals as their ideal, though the basis on which those morals rested had disappeared. But today it is painfully evident that rejection of the Christian faith means also the disappearance of Christian morals. It is our tragedy that many people who have no intention of entering into the sort of union set forth by our Lord, and who do not really believe in His supernatural transforming power, are nevertheless married by Christian priests and ministers and take upon their lips with the invocation of the Holy Trinity vows and promises, the gravity of which they do not realize, and which oftentimes they have no intention of keeping. And the Church is reproached because it will not permit men and women who have been divorced, to take again with new partners the same vows which they have already broken, and thus doubly perjure themselves in the sight of Almighty God.

A great deal of confusion about marriage would and could be avoided if the fact were frankly faced that perhaps the majority of the population today is really Pagan, not Christian, and that many who are Christians in name do not really accept Christ as the guide of their lives. Such persons may and should be married, not by a priest of the Church, but by a secular official under such conditions as they please, or the Law allows, and we should not criticize them. But for Christians the conception of marriage laid down by our Lord, indissoluble, sacramental, supernatural, must remain the only possible ideal. Should we reject this as impossible or impracticable, it could only mean that for us Jesus Christ could no longer be regarded as the supreme moral teacher, or as the Incarnate Son of God.

Doubtless there are cases, special cases, in which charity and justice alike proclaim that a separation between husband and wife is the only possible solution. The Church has always permitted divorce of this kind, but such separation does not carry with it any permission to remarry while the husband or wife is still living. In the normal marriage there are children to be considered besides the husband and wife. The value of permanent monogamy here appears in a very practical form. It is significant that many of those who are loudest in advocating a general abandonment of the Christian view of marriage are firm in their declaration that a man and woman who have children should not be allowed to have a divorce. Here the Church is more tolerant than the "reformers," for it may sometimes happen that separation between husband and wife may be necessary for the welfare of the children themselves.

Of late there has been much agitation for a type of marriage, the so-called "companionate marriage," in which the man and wife live together with the understanding that there shall be no children, and where the propagation of children is frustrated by contraceptive methods. Here again, we ought clearly to recognize that, provided the State should legalize such so-called marriages, they are not and cannot be Holy Matrimony. They may be legalized by the State but they never can be solemnized or blessed by the Church. The primary and natural purpose of marriage is the "procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name," as the English Prayer Book has it. This is not its only purpose. It is also "ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity." But it is "not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God." Into the subject of so-called "birth control" we cannot fully go.

It is not an easy problem. There appears to be much difference of opinion even among medical men as to its effects, and a great authority on the subject declared recently to a group of clergy that there was not yet sufficient evidence in hand to be able to make any definite pronouncement even as to its physiological effects. The wild statements of those who; seem to regard "birth control" as a cure-all are often in sharp opposition to the opinions of those who have scientifically studied the matter. Granted that there may be special cases when "birth control" may be morally legitimate or advisable, it is clear that an agreement between husband and wife that there are to be no children, is a mockery of Holy Matrimony.

For if marriage is a Sacrament it must be marked with the sign of a Sacrament, the sign of the Cross. Baptism brings with it its promise to "renounce the devil, and all his works," and "manfully to fight under Christ's banner." It is marked with the Cross. Confirmation brings the Holy Spirit for strengthening the believer in his struggle with sin. It is marked with the Cross. Holy Communion, displaying to us the very symbols of the Passion, calls upon us to offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies. It is marked with the Cross. Penance too brings its tears of sorrow, its purpose to amend, the resolve to take up the Cross. Holy Order is a call to the ordinand in vows most exacting in character to bear the burdens of the Cross. All these have their joys, it is true, but it is the joy that comes of bearing the Cross of Christ.

The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony does not differ from these. It is not a call to self-indulgence, to a life from which every care, anxiety and responsibility is removed. It too calls to the Cross, to self-sacrifice, to self-control. It reminds those who enter into it that they take their husbands or wives "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness! or in health, to love and to cherish till death" parts them. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. That grace is that wonderful thing,--true love. It is to be a love higher than any mere passion, though sexual love itself may be high and holy too, it is to be like the love of Christ for His Church. It is a love which nothing can overcome. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?", writes the Apostle, "shall tribulation or anguish or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? . . . For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." It is a love like that, akin to that, though still far away, that can turn marriage into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and give force to the declaration that "Those whom God hath joined together let not man put asunder."

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