Divorce & Remarriage 11: Where do our vows come from?


In Chapter 11 of Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, David Instone-Brewer explores the origin of the promises made in wedding vows. You know, to honor, cherish, love, obey, etc., depending on cultural contexts. I-B suggests that from good scientific evidence (findings in Cairo of ancient Jewish marriage contracts) we can be confident that vows to honor, cherish, nourish come from Exodus 21:10. But what about “obey” or “submit”? Is that part of Scripture? You might be surprised at what I-B contends. He suggests that this idea comes from Greek moral law. He doesn’t deny that Jewish women didn’t practice submission to their husband, but that it wasn’t part of the contract. He reports that the issue of submission became more significant during the 1st century AD when Roman and Greek women were demanding equality and freedom. In response to these societal shifts, leaders of the day tried to force folks back to the writings of Aristotle who believed that hierarchies in families and between masters and slaves would make for a peaceful, well-working society.

Paul himself picks up on these rules (wives to husband, children to parents, slaves to masters) but with “Christian comments added to it.” (p. 132). Yes, wife submit to husband, but husband should love sacrificially, children submit to parents but fathers should not provoke…and so on.

I-B suggests that Paul encouraged Christians to keep this code so that they wouldn’t be seen as immoral and give a bad impression of Christianity (Tit 2:5, 9-10; 1 Tim 6:1). Interesting. So, are these commands to submit God’s views on what makes for right living or peace? OR, were they given because they would most aid evangelistic efforts. [DOES THIS DISTINCTION MATTER?]

I-B then turns again to the question of whether the church should allow a divorcee to make vows again to honor, cherish, etc. Should the church remarry divorcees. He believes that if they have made an effort to reconcile and cannot then they should be allowed to remarry. However, he does not believe that the divorcee who causes a divorce by his/her adultery should then be allowed to marry the person they slept with. This, he says, would be condoning the sin of adultery. And he argues that the OT and NT Rabbis flatly refused to as well. He admits this position doesn’t have clear biblical support but thinks it makes good sense.

My thoughts?  This chapter has some good points but doesn’t hang together very well. There is good reason to remove the words “obey” as it was an idea designed to make Christianity not be offensive to the surrounding moralistic culture. This helps us understand why women were told not to bejewel themselves (as the out of control women of the day were doing).

Finally, he adds in this interesting line from an early English marriage vow (from 1085) , that the woman promise to, “be bonny and buxom in bed and at board.” He translates this for the readers, which I will give you tomorrow. What would you think it means? Give me your best shot!

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3 Comments

Filed under Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christianity, divorce, Doctrine/Theology

3 responses to “Divorce & Remarriage 11: Where do our vows come from?

  1. judi

    first of all, i would not be surprised if ron answered that question at the end! it sounds like it’s right up his alley.

    as for vows… it’s been my personal view that kids and dogs obey, wives respect and husbands love. and i *did* include the word ‘obey’ in my vows because right before the wedding, i realized i had no clue what we were going to do about vows, completely forgot about it! would have loved to have written our own but decided to go with tradition. and of course, someone i worked with picked up on the ‘obey’ part… if i could do it again, i’d do it all so very differently.

  2. Jess

    I’ll bite. How about something like this? “Be beautiful, well-endowed, and generally available in the bedroom, kitchen, and dining room.” I’m certain that the board room is not what is being referenced. ;)

  3. Jess,

    Yeah, that would have been my guess too.

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