Note: Ajith is on leave writing a preaching commentary of Deuteronomy. This is an excerpt from that.
An Exposition of Deuteronomy 22:19
Deuteronomy 22:13-21 describes how the people must react if a man who does not like the woman he marries and makes accusations of promiscuity following their first night together. This may have been a common occurrence because, in those days of arranged marriages, men sometimes met their brides for the first time on their wedding day. If the accusations are true, the woman is to be stoned to death. If they are not true, the man must be punished for making false accusations against his bride. He is to be whipped and made to pay a fine to his father-in-law, “because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel” (22:19a).
The point here is that a man cannot get away with making false accusations against his bride. Sadly, however, usually when an accusation of a sexual nature is made against another—especially a Christian—it spreads like wildfire, and it is very difficult to contain the spread even if it us totally untrue. Sometimes when a woman accuses a man of improper behaviour towards her, he tries to negate the accusations by insinuating she is an immoral person, so that she is the offender, not him. I heard the story about a successful pastor who had to leave the ministry because his secretary accused him of impropriety. The church ruled that the accusations were true and he had to resign. Several years later, she admitted that she was the one who had tried to be intimate with the pastor and not vice versa. The accusations were her angry response to his rejection of her advances.
We should not tolerate false accusations; and must adopt careful procedures to determine whether an accusation is true or false. The severity of the punishment prescribed here is intended to be a deterrent to spreading slanderous stories about people and also a just sentence for the wrong done. Today we hardly subject to discipline people in the church who slander others. Perhaps by adopting such disciplinary processes we can minimize the circulation of unsubstantiated slanderous stories in the church. I think the command about false witness is one of the least kept commands among the Ten Commandments in the church today.
After mentioning the punishment to be given to the man, the law goes on to say, “And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days” (22:19b). Many today would react to this statement with shock and incredulity. Why should a man be forced to live until death with a woman he “hates” (22:13)? Should not the couple divorce because they are so incompatible? Incompatibility seems to be almost universally accepted grounds for divorce today. Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth made popular the idea that incompatibility can be a plus point in a marriage. Billy Graham once described the secret of their more than 60-year marriage saying, “Ruth and I are happily incompatible.” Chuck and Barb Snyder, who describe themselves as “the world’s most opposite couple,” have written a helpful book, Incompatibility: Still Grounds for a Great Marriage, which, they say, explains “how they have survived almost 50 years of marriage—and enjoyed the journey.”
When a couple marries, they make a solemn covenant before God and human witnesses to be faithful to each other until they die. That is a serious undertaking. If people keep breaking their covenant commitments, we are going to end up with a very insecure society when no one trusts anyone and authentic community life becomes extinct. Sadly, this seems to have happened, and the world is filled with insecure, unhappy and restless people—missing the enriching “life in community” that God intended for them. The idea of lasting commitment has gone out of fashion. When people find their church does not meet their particular needs (incompatibility?) they move to another church—forgetting that the key to their church membership is not their needs but the fact that they have become part of that body. Imagine a body having to amputate its members all the time. Today’s church hopping culture has made the body metaphor for the church very difficult to sustain!
The Christian ethos of commitment comes from the way God deals with us. God clings to us with patience when we fail him, and the Bible implies that we need to be patient with people just as he was with us. The New Testament Epistles use the noun usually used for “patience with individuals” four times to describe God’s patience with humans. Then the Epistles use this noun and the corresponding verb to describe the believer’s patience with people fifteen times (six and nine times respectively). So we are to be patience just as God was patient with us. There is another word group, which is generally used for “endurance amidst difficult circumstances,” which appears thirty-one times in the Epistles to refer to the endurance that Christians must have. Patience, then, is clearly a vital feature in the Christian lifestyle. And a key aspect of that is commitment to people, expressed in patience with their faults and weaknesses. Colossians 3:13 asks us to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us. That is also the point of Jesus parable of the king and the two servants who owed him money (Matt. 18:21-35).
This commitment to people—expressed in patience with their weaknesses and failures—finds its fullest expression in marriage. Christians do not practice this commitment only by stoically clinging to an unhappy and gloomy marriage out of an obligation to be faithful to vows made at the wedding. The Christian view of patience is much more positive, and it is based on the belief that God turns everything to good (Rom. 8:28). We are patient with people because that is the best possible thing to do. If the Old Testament is any indication of what a “good” family is, then joy is an important feature of the marriage relationship. When Christians exercise patience with their spouses, they are fired by an ambition to see their family life joyful just as God intended it to be. They know that God can help them to achieve this joy.
With such ambition, Christians exercise patience as part of a concerted effort to work at improving their marriage relationship. This is expressed, for example, in Paul’s advice: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Paul is talking about sacrificial commitment to the spouse. Couples can make such commitments if they view the solemn marriage vows they made before God as vows that have to be kept no matter what happens.
Over the years, I have worked with a few couples who have looked like they were very incompatible to each other. Some had come from dysfunctional backgrounds, which had left serious psychological scars in their personalities. At times, it looked like there was no hope of salvaging these marriages. However, as they persevered in obedience to God and with an ambition to make their marriages work, I have seen them emerge with beautiful testimonies to how the sufficient grace of God helped them forge stable marriage relationships.
I am not saying that there is no place for divorce in the Christian church. We know that sometimes devout, holy Christians have to resort to divorce because of an impossible relationship in which one partner refuses to work towards a resolution. What I am saying is that far too many battles to save marriages are abandoned too early. God can make incompatible people happy as the quote from Billy Graham above has shown. However, for all this to make sense, we must first bring back to the thinking of Christians the utmost importance of commitment as a key Christian value. As Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6)