The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXIV. Of Marriage and Divorce

Section I.–Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more then one wife, nor for any woman to have more then one husband at the same time.

Section II.–Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife; for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.


Marriage is an ordinance of God, designed for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the honourable propagation of the human race, and for other important purposes connected with the comfort and improvement of the species. It was instituted before the entrance of sin, and must, therefore, be a holy ordinance, and no hindrance to men in the service of God. The Lord saw that "it was not good for Adam;" even in Paradise, "to be alone," and that "there was no help meet for him" to be found among all the other creatures. He was therefore pleased to form the woman from his side, as "bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh," and, having brought her to Adam, he joined them together as husband and wife, and thus gave an example to be imitated by their descendants. As God made no more than one woman for Adam, he thereby plainly indicated his will that every man should have only one wife, and every woman only one husband. In this manner Malachi explains the fact, when he says: "And did not he make one?"–namely one woman–"yet had he the residue of the Spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed."–Mal. ii. 15. Polygamy was first introduced by Lamech, an abandoned descendant of Cain (Gen. iv. 19), and, though practised, by the patriarchs, and other pious men, it is contrary both to the divine institution and to the law of nature. As God in his providence maintains so near an equality between the males and females born into the world, it is manifestly his intention that one woman only should be assigned to one man; and wherever polygamy has prevailed, it has been attended with numerous evils, both to the parties themselves and to the public. It promotes jealousies and contentions among the wives of the same husband; produces distracted affections, or the loss of all affection in the husband himself; tends to the degradation of the female character, to the neglect of children, and manifold other evils. The words of Christ (Matt. xix. 9) plainly imply a prohibition of polygamy; for if "whosoever putteth away his wife [except it be for incontinence], and marrieth another, committeth adultery," he who marrieth another without putting away the first, must be no less guilty of adultery.

Section III.–It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent: yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.


The Church of Rome forbids the marriage of the clergy, and of all under the celibate vow. This is one of "the doctrines of devils" which is mentioned as characteristic of the great apostasy (1 Tim. iv. 1-3): "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, &c. It is a doctrine in direct opposition to the Word of God, which allows "all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent." An apostle declares that "marriage is honourable in all (Heb. xiii. 4), without excepting those who are employed in the public offices of religion. Under the Old Testament, the prophets, the priests, and all those who attended more immediately upon the service of God, were permitted to marry. Under the New Testament, also, the ministers of religion have an express allowance to enter into the marriage state. That the Apostle Peter was a married man is evident from Matt. viii. 14. Philip the evangelist "had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy." Acts phi. 9. Paul claimed a right to "lead about a sister, a wife, as well as the other apostles."–1 Cor. ix. 6. And it is repeatedly mentioned that "a bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife."–1 Tim. iii. 2; Tit. i. 6. It is thus evident that the ministers of religion have the same liberty in that matter that other men enjoy. The constrained celibacy of the Romish clergy is one of the chief causes of the abandoned profligacy which has ever existed in that Church.

Under the former dispensation, the people of God were expressly prohibited entering into marriages with heathens, and especially with the Canaanites.–Exod. xxxiv. 12-16; Deut. vii. 3. Such marriages were reckoned in themselves null, and so Ezra and Nehemiah caused the Jews to put away their heathenish wives.–Ezra x.; Neh. xiii. Upon the introduction of the gospel, it must have frequently happened that a husband or a wife embraced the Christian faith, while their partner continued attached to idolatry. In this case, the Apostle Paul determines that the believing husband or wife should continue with the unbeliever: "If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him."–1 Cor. vii. 12, 13. The apostle thus decides, that after marriage, if either the husband or the wife embrace the Christian religion, the other party still continuing a heathen, this difference in religion is not a sufficient ground for a separation. If the idolatrous party is still willing to live with the party converted, it is the duty of the believer cheerfully and faithfully to perform his or her obligations, notwithstanding their different sentiments regarding religion. But if a Christian man or woman have their choice to make, they are required to marry "only in the Lord." The intermarrying of the professors of the true with those of a false religion, or of believers with those who are evidently strangers to true godliness, is prohibited, at least in ordinary cases (2 Cor. vi. 14): "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers." The disregard of this rule is productive of many evils. The Christian who unites himself to such a partner exposes himself to many powerful temptations. He must necessarily mingle in the society of those whose views and pursuits are of a character entirely opposite to his own. His opportunities of religious improvement will be greatly lessened. Family worship can scarcely be maintained. His endeavours to train up his children in the fear of God will be counteracted by the example and instructions of his unbelieving partner. Instead of an help meet for him in his Christian warfare, she will prove a snare to his soul. From this cause, many have apostatised from the faith, and others who have maintained their integrity have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Section IV.–Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden in the Word; nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife. The man may not marry any of his wife's kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own, nor the woman of her husband's kindred nearer in blood than of her own.

Section V.–Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.

Section VI.–Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed, and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case.


In the Mosaic law marriage was expressly forbidden within certain degrees of consanguinity or affinity (Lev. xviii.); and by the laws of our country the prohibition is extended to the same degrees. Marriages contracted within these degrees are in themselves justly deemed invalid, and may properly be dissolved.

Moses permitted the Jews, "because of the hardness of their hearts," to put away their wives, to prevent greater evils; but in the hew Testament a divorce is only permitted in case of adultery, or of wilful and obstinate desertion. There can be no question that adultery is a just ground for "the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead;" for Christ has plainly decided this case (Matt. v. 32): "I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery." But whether the wilful and obstinate desertion of one of the parties sets the other party at liberty to marry again, may admit of dispute. Many divines of great name have maintained the affirmative, and have thought the case to be expressly determined by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. vii. 15): "If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases." At verse 11, the apostle plainly declares, that the party who wilfully and obstinately deserted the other, was not at liberty to marry again during the other's life. But at verse 15, he appears to declare that the party who was deserted, after using due means for the return of the party deserting, was free to marry again. And the decision seems just; for by irreclaimable desertion the marriage bond is broken, and the ends for which marriage was appointed are effectually defeated; and it is not reasonable that the innocent party should be denied all relief. Our Confession, accordingly, teaches that not only adultery, but also "such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient for dissolving the bond of marriage;" and the law of Scotland also allows of divorce in case of wilful and irreclaimable desertion. It ought to be observed, however, that even adultery does not, ipso facto, dissolve the bond of marriage, nor may it be dissolved by consent of parties. The violation of the marriage vow only invests the injured party with a right to demand the dissolution of it by the competent authority; and if he chooses to exercise that right, the divorce must be effected "by a public and orderly course of proceeding."

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