J. C. Ryle on Marriage and the Limitations of Government – Mark 10:1-12

30 Aug

J. C. Ryle remains my favourite author (my son’s middle name as a result is Ryle).

Here are Bishop Ryle’s thoughts on marriage and the limitations of government. (This is quite pertinent considering last night’s overwhelming support of the Marriage Reform Act during it’s first reading in Parliament.)

This comes from Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on Mark. Unfortunately the only electronic version I have has modernised the English, which isn’t my preference, but the substance is maintained…

The Right View of Marriage Expounded (10:1–12)

1. Christ’s Patient Perseverance as a Teacher

The opening verses of this passage show us the patient perseverance of our Lord Jesus Christ as a teacher. We are told that he came “into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them” (verse 1).

Wherever our Lord went, he was always about his Father’s business, preaching, teaching and laboring to do good to souls. He threw away no opportunity. In the whole history of his earthly ministry we never read of an idle day. Of him it may be truly said that he sowed his seed by every stream (Isaiah 32:20) and that he sowed his seed in the morning and in the evening did not let his hand be idle (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

And yet our Lord knew every human heart. He knew perfectly well that the great proportion of his hearers were hardened and unbelieving. He knew, as he spoke, that most of his words fell to the ground uncared for and unheeded, and that so far as concerned the salvation of souls, most of his labor was in vain. He knew all this, and yet he labored on.

Let us see in this fact a standing pattern to all who try to do good to others, whatever their job may be. Let it be remembered by every minister and every missionary, by every schoolmaster and every Sunday-school teacher, by every district visitor and every lay worker, by every head of a house who has family prayers, and by every nurse who has the charge of children. Let all such people remember Christ’s example and resolve to do likewise. We are not to give up teaching because we see no good done. We are not to relax our efforts because we see no fruit of our toil. We are to work on steadily, keeping before us the great principle that duty is ours and results are God’s. There must be plowmen and sowers, as well as reapers and binders of sheaves. The honest master pays his laborers according to the work they do, and not according to the crops that grow on his land. Our Master in heaven will deal with all his servants in this way on the last day. He knows that success is not under their control. He knows that they cannot change hearts. He will reward them according to their labor, and not according to the fruits which have resulted from their labor. It is not “the good and successful servant” but the “good and faithful servant” to whom he will say, “Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21).

[Some remarks of Bishop Latimer on this point are well worth reading. They occur in a passage in one of his sermons on the parable of the wedding garment (Works, Parker Society, Vol. I, p. 286):

The man who had not the wedding garment was blamed because he professed one thing, and was indeed another. Why did not the king blame the preachers? There was no fault in them, they did their duties: they had no further commandment but to call men to the marriage. The garment he should have provided himself. Therefore he quarreleth not with the preachers, “What doth this fellow here? why suffered ye him to enter?” For their commission extended no further but only to call him. Many are grieved that there is so little fruit of their preaching. And when they are asked, “Why do you not preach, having so great gifts given you of God?” “I would preach,” say they, “but I see so little fruit, so little amendment of life, that it maketh me weary:” a naughty answer: a very naughty answer. Thou art troubled with that which God gave thee no charge of: and leavest undone that which thou art charged with.]

2. The Dignity and Importance of Marriage

The greater portion of this passage is meant to show us the dignity and importance of the relationship of marriage. It is plain that the prevailing opinions of the Jews on this subject when our Lord was on earth were lax and low in the extreme. The binding character of the marriage tie was not recognized. Divorce for slight and trivial causes was allowable and common.

[The extent to which the Jews allowed divorce for absurd and frivolous causes would be almost incredible if we had not the evidence of their own Rabbinical writings on the subject. A full account of the matter will be found in Lightfoot’s Horae Hebraicae on St. Matthew 5:31. One passage quoted by him will be sufficient to give the reader an idea of Jewish customs about divorce: “The school of Hillel says, If the wife cooks her husband’s food ill by over-salting it, or over-roasting it, she is to be put away.”]

The duties of husbands towards wives, and of wives towards husbands as a natural consequence, were little understood. To correct this state of things, our Lord sets up a high and holy standard of principles. He refers to the original institution of marriage at the creation, as the union of one man and one woman. He quotes and endorses the solemn words used at the marriage of Adam and Eve as words of perpetual significance: “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (verse 7–8). He adds a solemn comment: “What God has joned together, let man not separate” (verse 9). And finally, in reply to the inquiry of his disciples, he declares that divorce followed by remarriage, except for the cause of unfaithfulness, is a breach of the seventh commandment.

[I am aware that the opinions I have expressed at the close of this paragraph are contrary to that of some learned theologians. I can only say that I have arrived at them deliberately, after calm investigation of the parallel passage in Matthew 19:9, and of the words of our Lord in Matthew 5:32. I decidedly believe that the remarriage forbidden by Christ is remarriage after a divorce for trivial and frivolous causes, and that his words do not apply to remarriage after divorce on account of unfaithfulness. Remarriage after divorce for frivolous causes is clearly adultery, for one simple reason: the divorce ought never to have taken place, and the divorced party is still a married person in the sight of God. Remarriage after divorce for unfaithfulness, by the same process of reasoning, is not adultery. Unfaithfulness dissolves the marriage tie altogether, and places the husband and wife once more in the position of unmarried people, or of a widower or widow.]

The importance of the whole subject on which our Lord here pronounces judgment can hardly be overrated. We ought to be very thankful that we have so clear and full an exposition of his mind upon it. The marriage relation lies at the very root of the social system of nations. The public morality of a people, and the private happiness of the families which compose a people, are deeply involved in the whole question of the law of marriage. The experience of all nations confirms the wisdom of our Lord’s decision in this passage in the most stiking manner. It is a fact clearly ascertained, that polygamy and permission to obtain divorce on slight grounds have a direct tendency to promote immorality. In short, the nearer a nation’s laws about marriage approach to the law of Christ, the higher has the moral tone of that nation always proved to be.

It is a good idea for all those who are married, or intend to marry, to ponder well the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in this passage. Of all relations of life, none ought to be regarded with such reverence and none taken in hand so cautiously as the relation of husband and wife. In no relation is so much earthly happiness to be found if it is entered upon discreetly, advisedly and in the fear of God. In none is so much misery seen to follow if it is taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, wantonly and without thought. From no step in life does so much benefit come to the soul, if people marry “in the Lord.” From none does the soul take so much harm if fancy, passion or any mere worldly motive is the only cause which produces the union. Solomon was the wisest of men, but “even he was led into sin by foreign women” (Nehemiah 13:26).

There is, unhappily, only too much necessity for impressing these truths upon people. It is a sad fact that few steps in life are generally taken with so much levity, self-will and forgetfulness of God as marriage. Few are the young couples who think of inviting Christ to their wedding! It is a sad fact that unhappy marriages are one great cause of the misery and sorrow of which there is so much in the world. People find out too late that they have made a mistake, and go in bitterness all their days. Happy are those who in the matter of marriage observe three rules. The first is to marry only in the Lord, and after prayer for God’s approval and blessing. The second is not to expect too much from their partners, and to remember that marriage is, after all, the union of two sinners, and not of two angels. The third rule is to strive first and foremost for one another’s sanctification. The more holy married people are, the happier they are. “Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her, to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:25–26).

[There is an expression in this passage which claims special observation. The Pharisees told our Lord that “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away” (verse 4). The answer of our Lord is very remarkable. He says, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law” (verse 5). And he then goes on to show that this permission to divorce was a proof that their forefathers had fallen below the original standard of marriage, and were dealt with as being in a weak and diseased state of soul. For he says, “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female’” (verse 6).

The expression throws much light on some portions of the civil law of Moses. It shows us that it was an institution which in some of its requirements were specially adapted to the state of mind in which the Israelites were, on first leaving the land of Egypt. It was not intended in all its minute particulars to be a code of perpetual obligation. It was meant to lead on to something better and higher when the people were able to bear it. The possession of it was undoubtedly a great privilege, and one of which the Jews might justly glory. Yet in glorying they were to remember also that their law contained some grounds for humiliation. Its very permission to obtain divorce on light grounds was a standing witness of the hardness and cruelty of the people. It was thought better to tolerate such divorces than to have the nation filled with murder, adultery, cruelty and desertion. In short, the very law of which the Jew boasted was shown by our Lord to contain permissive statutes which were in reality written to his shame.

The expression throws light on the position of God’s people in this world of sin. It shows us that there may be things tolerated and permitted by God, both in churches and states, not because they are the best things but because they are the things best suited to the church or state in which they are found. It is vain to expect perfection in any government, or in any church. If we have the essentials of justice in the one, and of truth in the other, we may be content. God tolerated many things in the government of Israel, until the time of reformation. Surely we may tolerate many things too. To spend our lives in searching after an imaginary state of perfection, either civil or ecclesiastical, is at best a waste of time. If God was pleased to allow some things in Israel “because their hearts were hard,” we may well endure some things in churches and states which we do not entirely like. There is a balance of evil in every position in the world. There are imperfections everywhere. The state of perfection is yet to come.] {J. C. Ryle, Mark (, Crossway Classic Commentaries Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 142-47. BOLD ADDED}


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