“Let Marriage Be Honorable Among All”
1. Why was Hebrews 13:4 fittingly written toward the end of Paul’s letter?
THE entire tenor of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Hebrews is to fortify God’s people against falling back into the sinful ways of the world which we have abandoned. Therefore with good reason he injected toward the close of his letter this admonition, “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” (Heb. 13:4, NW) That letter was written directly to Hebrew Christians. They had been advantaged by having had the benefit of the Mosaic law with its commandments against immorality, such as, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” But during the centuries of the Christian era the good news has been preached to all nations and peoples, including those not under Mosaic law and its moral code. It is meant to save sinners, including fornicators and adulterers. Fornicators are unmarried persons who commit immorality. Adulterers are married persons who willingly have sex relations with someone of the opposite sex not their legal marriage mate.
2. When formerly immoral persons come into the truth, what is then necessary on their part?
2 Even in his day Paul said he had preached and brought into the truth fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, sodomites or men kept for unnatural purposes and men who lie with men, etc. All were gross offenders against moral law. Jesus himself told the outwardly moral priests and religious elders that the tax collectors and harlots were going into God’s kingdom ahead of them. (1 Cor. 6:9-11, NW; Matt. 21:31, 32) But now they had been cleaned up by the truth. So no longer must they fashion themselves after the customs and standards of this world but must conform their thoughts, affections and behavior to God’s truth and commandments. So when these come into the truth and God receives them into his theocratic organization, they have to make radical changes in their lives, including their home arrangements. This was true nineteen centuries ago in apostolic times. It is just as true today.
3. On becoming a Christian may a polygamist continue as such on the basis of Caesar’s laws? Why, or why not?
3 In apostolic times polygamy, the marriage of a man to several living wives, was legal in many lands. It is so today. Here is a polygamist who becomes a Christian. Can he continue to live with several wives and have God’s approval through Christ, just because polygamy is the local law and practice? No. In this case he must not live according to what “Caesar” allows in this world. He must render to God what he now owes to God, namely, pure worship. He may not take advantage of Caesar’s law in order to satisfy his selfish passion. To do so means to side-step the law of God which is higher and altogether righteous. “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29, NW.
4. How did Jesus show what the Christian standard of marriage is?
4 Jesus was perfectly clear on what God’s law is concerning Christian marriage, namely, that the Christian standard of marriage is the one established by God at the beginning in Eden where he gave the perfect man only one living wife. Jesus’ enemies then tried to make him compromise on the marriage position, just as some today try to make God’s organization compromise on this same position. On this we read: “And Pharisees came up to him, intent on tempting him and saying: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on every kind of grounds?’ In reply he said: ‘Did you not read that he who created them at the beginning made them male and female and said: “For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will stick to his wife, and the two will be one flesh”? So that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has yoked together let no man put apart.’ They said to him: ‘Why, then, did Moses prescribe giving a certificate of dismissal and divorcing her?’ He said to them: ‘Moses, out of regard for your hardheartedness, made the concession to you of divorcing your wives, but such has not been the case from the beginning. I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except on the grounds of fornication and marries another commits adultery.’”—Matt. 19:3-9, NW.
5. So what must a polygamist do under the varying circumstances?
5 Thus God made only two “one flesh”, the man and his one wife, not three or four or more one flesh. So when a polygamist, in perfectly good standing with his community according to the customs and laws of his land, wants to be a real Christian he must dispose of his excess wives. It may be he has children by these, in which case the local laws and proprieties may require him to make proper provision for such dismissed wives and their children until such women may marry another man. If the laws do not allow for him to divorce these excess wives, then what? He dismisses them from the marriage estate with him and retains only one of the wives and acknowledges to her alone the marriage dues. He allows none of the other women such exchange of marriage dues with him, although under the necessities of the case he may still keep them and their children in his establishment. They act merely as servants or hired help for their support, but he openly acknowledges just the one woman as his wife according to Christian standards.
6. Why may polygamy not be allowed anywhere among Christians? Has it been possible for them to rectify it?
6 Polygamy doubtless presents a difficult situation to rectify and adjust. But just on this account God’s organization cannot compromise, allowing one standard of marriage to obtain say in Africa because of the native laws, and forbidding it elsewhere and insisting on another standard there because Christendom’s laws make it easy. There is just the one Christian standard, which Jesus insisted on. Even in polygamous countries it has been possible by God’s help and spirit to apply it. For example, one of the difficulties hindering our work in Tanganyika, Eastern Africa, has been polygamy. There the custom of the people has been as elsewhere on that continent. Marriage is not very strict, and men like chiefs have as many as 25 wives or more, while the common people have three or four. Jehovah’s witnesses as true Christians cannot wink at such practices on the part of men who take up Christianity, get baptized and act as witnesses of the Most High God. So the worldly practice of polygamy has been cleansed from their midst.—See the 1951 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, page 226; also The Watchtower of August 1, 1949, page 240, “On Polygamy.”
7. Why may polygamists not be put in responsible positions of service?
7 A polygamist, if he keeps on as such, denies his Owner who bought him, for his Owner Jesus Christ set up the standard of having one living wife for his followers. A polygamist cannot be appointed to a responsible position of service in a Christian congregation by the visible governing body of Jehovah’s theocratic organization. The apostle Paul belonged to the governing body in the first century. Writing to his assistant Timothy regarding the qualifications of men to be appointed to official service in the congregations, he said: “If any man is reaching out for an office of overseer, he is desirous of a right kind of work. The overseer should therefore be irreprehensible, a husband of one wife, . . . a man presiding over his own household in a right manner, having children in subjection with all seriousness.” Was that the requirement for only the most prominent servants in the congregation? No. Concerning the subordinate servants it is also prescribed: “Let ministerial servants be husbands of one wife, presiding in a right manner over children and their own households.” Titus was in another land, but he was not allowed to set up another standard on that account. He was instructed similarly: “Make appointments of older men in city after city, as I gave you orders, if there is any man free from accusation, a husband of one wife, having believing children that were not under a charge of debauchery nor unruly. For an overseer must be free from accusation as God’s steward.”—1 Tim. 3:1, 2, 4, 12 and Titus 1:5-7, NW.
8. Was monogamy required of only such servants? What requirement of widows shows whether it was?
8 It was required of such servants to be husbands to but one living wife. This is not to be understood as saying that monogamy was required of only servants but polygamy was allowed for the rest of the congregation. Certainly polygamy was not practiced by the women back there in having many living husbands. So polygamy of the women was not why this registration requirement was made of aged widows to receive material support of a congregation: “Let a widow be put on the list who has become not less than sixty years old, a wife of one husband.” (1 Tim. 5:9, 10, NW) But by having confined herself to one husband such widow showed she had self-control over animal passion. She was following Paul’s advice concerning widows at 1 Corinthians 7:8, 9, 39, 40: “I say to the single persons and the widows, it is well for them that they remain even as I am. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to be inflamed with passion. A wife is bound during all the time her husband is alive. But if her husband should fall asleep in death, she is free to be married to whom she wants, only in the Lord. But she is happier if she remains as she is [namely, a widow], according to my opinion. I certainly think I also have God’s spirit.”—NW.
9. So what does the example to be set by the appointed servants show respecting all the congregation?
9 So monogamy applies to Christian women as well as men. Since the appointed servants of the congregation, the overseers and the ministerial assistants, were to be examples to the Christian flock, they were to be examples of the believers in this matter of being married to one living wife also. This in itself shows that the standard for the entire Christian congregation, for all of Christ’s followers, is that of a man’s having but one living wife, just as God originally arranged it with Adam in Eden.
CHRISTIAN GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE
10. How does Matthew 19:9 rule out all polygamy, and how do some clergymen understand that verse?
10 Jesus’ words at Matthew 19:9 on divorce plainly rule out all polygamy among Christians: “I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except on the grounds of fornication and marries another commits adultery.” (NW) If to marry another woman while his former guiltless wife is still living meant adultery, then how could a Christian practice polygamy without being an adulterer? Some religious clergymen take Jesus’ words here to mean that all divorce is barred from Christians, even on the grounds of adultery. Under date of December 13, 1948, the New York Times reported: “Divorce is not justified by any circumstance of marriage, however ‘painful or brutal,’ the Rev. Anselm Leahy declared yesterday in his second Advent sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He termed modern divorce ‘successive polygamy’ and denounced as ‘adulterers and adulteresses’ divorced persons who contracted new marital unions within the lifetime of one another. . . . His unqualified condemnation of divorce [was] followed by a statement issued by Monsignor Robert E. McCormick calling upon the [New York] State Legislature to ‘outlaw’ divorce and assailing the ‘present movement to liberalize divorce in our state’ as ‘a menace to society.’”
11 By taking such a position those clergymen condemn Jehovah God for allowing the Jews to practice divorce according to the divine law given through Moses. (Deut. 24:1-4) But Jesus at Matthew 19:1-9 did not condemn this divorce provision or say it was “not justified by any circumstance of marriage, however ‘painful or brutal’”. Neither do his corresponding words in the sermon on the mount condemn it but simply say: “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ However, I say to you that every one divorcing his wife except on account of fornication makes her a subject for adultery, seeing that whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:31, 32, NW) He also showed that a woman might start the divorce proceedings, saying: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if ever a woman, after divorcing her husband, marries another, she commits adultery.”—Mark 10:11, 12, NW.
12. If not barring all divorce, what does this allow as grounds for it?
12 This does not bar Christians altogether from divorce, but it allows them only immorality as the justifiable Scriptural grounds for getting a divorce. Whoever married a person that was divorced on grounds other than immorality would be committing adultery, for the marriage bond was not really canceled in God’s sight by the legal divorce. But this is not saying that the Christian who gets the divorce because of the sexual unfaithfulness of his mate may only get rid of such mate and deprive such mate of bed and board and not be free, however, to marry another Christian woman. Under God’s law to Israel the man getting a divorce from his morally unclean wife was not barred from marrying another Israelite woman. So Jesus was not interpreting divorce by a Christian in such a way as to forbid his remarriage. Jesus’ words mean strictly this: If the Christian procures the divorce on grounds other than the immorality of his marriage mate such Christian is committing adultery if he remarries.
13. How do some lands with anti-divorce laws in effect approve of bigamy or polygamy? What difficulty does this create for truth seekers?
13 The establishing of a law forbidding divorce under any circumstances has not served to maintain marriage in honor or to prevent adultery and fornication. In lands where anti-divorce law obtains many married people ignore it and follow the course of their own passions. For one cause or another a man will abandon his wife or a woman will leave her husband. They can obtain no legal divorce. So the man or the woman will enter into a common-law marriage with another person while the legal marriage partner is alive. By such a procedure the man or the woman is both committing adultery and also practicing bigamy or polygamy. The local government, though adhering to the religious canon law of no divorce, is conniving at polygamy or is in effect approving of it when it does not enforce the law and penalize those who violate it. This creates the difficulty of how to adjust their marital affairs properly when such a man or woman comes in contact with the Kingdom truth and wants to become a witness of Jehovah.
14. How do some even violate common-law marriage, and what must such violators do on taking the truth?
14 In some lands where there are religious prohibitions and economic oppressions common-law marriage is a general practice. The people in the community do not look down on it or discriminate against those who practice it. But there are those who abuse even this custom. They will have one common-law marriage wife in one locality, another such in another, and even others in still other localities and will go the rounds and regularly visit with each one for a period. The women in the case are aware that their man is keeping another woman or other women and having regular relations with them. But because of the home support which they get from the man they do not object but are content to have him come live with them in their turn. Such a practice by a man is polygamy, and the women are guilty of fornication. If any such man or woman comes to the knowledge of the truth and wants to associate with God’s organization, it is absolutely necessary for that person to break off all part in such an adulterous, polygamous arrangement. The man must confine himself to one wife, the woman confine herself to one husband, and each be faithful and true to that one from then on.
15. What should Christians in common-law marriage do, even though clergymen are not needed to solemnize marriage? Why?
15 In numerous cases persons who are living in common-law marriage come into the truth. In the interests of the truth and for their own immunity against any reproach whatsoever they should legalize their marriage. This honors their marriage estate. It is true from the Scriptures that the marriage rite is not a so-called sacrament which the religious clergy have the exclusive right to perform. No clergymen are necessary to perform a marriage. But this is no argument against legalizing marriage and in favor of common-law wedlock. In the theocratic nation of Israel there was no common-law marriage even though a religious clergyman was not called to solemnize the marriage. Yet the marriage was legally arranged for. An intermediary or go-between dealt with the parents or caretakers of the young man and woman for whom the marriage was sought, and then a contract was entered into. From then on the man and woman were considered engaged or betrothed. Any immoral act by the woman before her bridegroom took her to his home was a violation of the marriage contract and was a case of adultery for which she could be stoned to death. It was this way with Joseph and Mary when she became pregnant by God’s holy spirit. After a period of betrothal the bridegroom took his bride from her parents’ home. He publicly conducted her to his domicile amid the joy and good wishes of the neighborhood, followed by a wedding feast. Thus the marriage was made public knowledge and there were many witnesses.
16. How did Israelite practice show registration of marriage proper? For what good purposes?
16 Further, at the village or city recording office where genealogies of families were kept the children by such marriage were registered and thus each child could trace its ancestry. Also the husband was registered as the legal son of his father-in-law. All this arrangement made for the legal protection of the rights of both the husband and the wife and also of the children. It held each one responsible for personal conduct toward the other in the family and marriage relationship. The Jews were the first ones to become Christians and they carried this arrangement over into the Christian congregation. This makes it right and proper for common-law marriage couples today who become consecrated Christians to legalize their marriage and thus bind themselves before the law as well as before God to be true and loyal to each other. This opens up the way for them to enter fully into the privileges of the theocratic organization and to act as appointed servants in it.
17, 18. Why is Hebrews 13:4 timely now? To enter marriage honorably, what must single persons and widowed ones not do?
17 This is the day when the ratio of marriages to divorces is 4 to 1 in the United States of America and 8 to 1 in England and Wales, and when loose marriage relations and immorality prevail in all lands. So it is most urgent upon consecrated Christians to obey the apostolic order, “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement.” True marriage is honorable in itself at all times, for it is an arrangement from God. It does not matter whether we are in the “time of the end” or that it is yet ahead of the battle of Armageddon, marriage can be honorably indulged in by those who want or feel the need to get married. Nobody should criticize them because of the apparent lateness of the time for this world. But let Christians enter into marriage in an honorable way. Let no single girl entice a single man into sex relations with her with the aim of obligating him to marry her. That is fornication by both of them even if afterward he does feel obligated and marries her. Likely, however, her easy virtue will create a contempt in him for her, so that he will want as his wife, not her, but a woman with honor who resists all inclinations or suggestions to immorality. Let no young widow with animal passions entice or yield to a man for sexual satisfaction. Paul says: “I desire the younger widows to marry, to bear children, to manage a household, to give no inducement to the opposer to revile.”—1 Tim. 5:11-14, NW.
18 On the other hand, let no single man think he has premarital freedom and can have sex relations with one girl after another, until he comes up against one with the moral standards that he wants in a wife. By such sex tolerance he is a fornicator and a selfish corrupter of womenfolk. The Christian congregation must guard against men who try to sneak in for such immoral reasons.
19. How should man and wife regard and treat their marriage?
19 Marriage should be dignified and made a responsible matter by legalizing it before witnesses and registering it with the proper authorities of the land. Once married, the man and wife should hold their wedlock in honor by being faithful to their vows to each other. They should treat their marriage relationship seriously as something that cannot be easily broken on any grounds except marital infidelity, even though the laws of the land on divorce are very liberal and broad. Marriage is something that restricts them in their relations with others of the opposite sex. For man and wife to have sex relations is not a defilement of the marriage bed but is the rendering of a marriage due, according to 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. But for either the husband or the wife to commit adultery with an outsider is a defilement of the marriage bed.
20. What shows whether separation is allowable? With what limitations?
20 Are couples who do not get along together allowed to part company either by a mutual agreement or by a legal separation? Yes; for at 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11, 15 (NW) the apostle says: “To the married people I give instructions, yet not I but the Lord, that a wife should not depart from her husband; but if she should actually depart, let her remain single or else make up again with her husband; and a husband should not leave his wife. But if the unbelieving one proceeds to depart, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not in servitude under such circumstances.” As it is only a separation and there has been no legal divorce on the grounds of marital unfaithfulness on either one’s part, neither of the separated ones may remarry or have sexual relations with an outside person. To do this would be to commit adultery, and it would be a defilement of the marriage bed.
21. What, therefore, should a Christian avoid defiling, and how?
21 Every Christian outside should respect the marriage bed of a husband and wife and not yield to any part in causing a defilement of it. For a Christian to procure a divorcement where the marriage mate has not proved immoral and then remarry is a violation of the marriage bed. Scripturally it is bigamy. Likewise a professed Christian who practices polygamy is dishonoring marriage and defiling the Christian marriage bed. A Christian will honor his own marriage or that of another because it is what God instituted. A Christian will not covet another’s marriage partner and will not commit adultery or fornication. These things are sin and displeasing to God. The apostle Paul warns against such sins, “for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” This fact should act as a deterrent against one’s dishonoring marriage and defiling the marriage bed. Jehovah is now at his temple, and he warns: “I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, . . . saith Jehovah of hosts.”—Mal. 3:5, AS.
IN BEHALF OF IDEAL MARRIAGE
22. Why must the immoral be disfellowshiped?
22 The Most High God will now have a clean visible theocratic organization. He will see to it therefore that now since his coming to the temple it is kept clean from immorality and other reproachful things. A person guilty of immorality may claim he has a right to mix in with the organization and may protest against being disfellowshiped. He protests and argues that by having access freely to the organization he will be helped to overcome his immoral relations with one of the opposite sex and thus be saved from the evil consequences of his course. But God’s Word orders the disfellowshiping of such immoral person as an expression of His judgment against him. Unless the guilty one repents and straightens out his life, he may not be forgiven and taken back into the society of the theocratic organization. But another immoral person may be defiant and say: ‘Go ahead and disfellowship me if you want to. I have an individual relationship with God. So I should worry.’ But such a person deceives himself, for God judges adulterers and fornicators with condemnation and has no relations with them. That is why he forbids his organization to have relations with them.
23. How does God show respect for his organization?
23 God’s organization is more important to him than the salvation of an immoral or disobedient creature. The vindication of Jehovah’s sovereignty and the keeping his name above reproach is of higher importance than the preservation of willful sinners. Hence these paramount things must come first. Accordingly God shows due respect for the organization which bears his name. He executes his judgments against the defilers and keeps it clean. He acts on the principle: “If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him; for the temple of God is holy, which temple you people are.”—1 Cor. 3:17, NW.
24. How should we show respect for his organization, and why?
24 Since God so respects his organization, then we must exercise fear and must respect it too. It is our solemn obligation to watch our conduct and avoid bringing reproach upon it or corrupting it. For one thing, therefore, keep marriage honorable and the marriage bed undefiled. We may not defile or bring reproach upon the organization by impure conduct and stay in the organization, for this would act like a yeast and tend to ferment the entire organization with uncleanness, hypocrisy and sin. It would make the organization odious in the eyes of sincere people and would prevent these offended ones from coming to the organization and being saved. We cannot consistently gain our own salvation and at the same time hinder others from doing so because of our immoral, reproachful behavior which involves God’s organization. So the judgment which God is executing today is: “Remove the wicked man [who is like a yeast of sin] from among yourselves.” (1 Cor. 5:1-13, NW) If we disown God by our conduct, he will disown us by disfellowshiping us. His judgment today is not moving slowly, and the destruction of the unclean is not slumbering.
25. Why so near the new world should we practice morality?
25 We are now at the threshold of the righteous new world. Concerning those who enter into the divine government of that new world it is written: “Anything not sacred and anyone that carries on a disgusting thing and a lie will in no way enter into it.” (Rev. 21:27, NW) Jehovah God is now building a new world society, and it must measure up to the clean, righteous standards that will prevail in his new world. Only those who strive to measure up to them will he carry through the “war of the great day of God the Almighty” which he fights against this unclean world, and they will live into the clean post-Armageddon world. There will be no polygamy sanctioned then in order to carry out the divine mandate to “fill the earth” with a righteous race. No immorality of any kind will be permitted, and there will be no divorce between those who share in fulfilling the divine mandate. As the flood of Noah’s day wiped out the immoral standards and practices of the antediluvian world, so the great tide of Armageddon will wash away the moral corruption of this world.
26. So what do we see now to be our duty?
26 So may we see our duty now to “put up a hard fight for the faith that was once for all time delivered to the holy ones” and do so by resisting all infiltration of immorality, unchastity and worldliness into the theocratic organization by persons today like Balaam and Jezebel. In this behalf the rule for us is, “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement.” Husbands and wives will harmonize with this divine rule. They will endeavor to honor their marriage by dignifying it according to the ideal standards which God’s Word sets for it.—Eph. 5:21-33, NW.