The standard of husband = Christ, wife = obedient church is the impossibly high Biblical ideal of marriage. Yet that standard is set, and therefore inevitably God accepts the achievement of a lower standard. This was foreshadowed in the OT's attitude to this kind of thing, particularly in the Law of Moses- where, as we have seen, there were several examples of concessions to weakness. It is hardly surprising that in the area of marriage the Law also allowed levels of response within God's basic principles:
- If a man committed fornication with a girl he " surely" must marry her; so says Ex. 22:16. But if her father refused to give permission, this " sure" commandment didn't have to apply (Ex. 22:17).
- If a man's wife committed adultery he could have her killed; or he could put her through the trial of jealousy of Num. 5, with the result that she would become barren; or he could divorce her (Dt. 22:19; 24:1 RV; Lev. 21:14; 22:13). Within a Law that was holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12), unsurpassed in it's righteousness (Dt. 4:8; and let us not overlook these estimations), there were these different levels of response possible. But there was a higher level: he could simply forgive her. This was what God did with His fickle Israel, time and again (Hos. 3:1-3). And so the Israelite faced with an unfaithful wife could respond on at least four levels. This view would explain how divorce seems outlawed in passages like Dt. 22:19,29, and yet there are other parts of the OT which seem to imply that it was permitted. It should be noted that there were some concessions to weakness under the Law which the Lord was not so willing to make to His followers (e.g., outside the marriage context, Dt. 20:5-8 cp. Lk. 9:59-62; 14:18,19). He ever held before us the Biblical ideal of marriage.
- If a man betrothed his slave girl unto his son, he must treat her as he would his own daughter. But if he didn't, she could go free (Ex. 21:9-11).
- If a man simply felt jealous, he could subject his wife to the humiliating trial of jealousy (Num. 5:14). But evidently the higher level was to overcome that natural male jealousy.
- Abraham’s relationship with Hagar doesn’t really sound like marriage. And yet she is called “she with hath an husband” (Gal. 4:27), as if God recognized the relationship even though it was less than ideal.
- Throughout the Old Covenant there is the repeated stress that Israel were not to marry Gentiles. This was so far from the Biblical ideal of marriage. But then there is a concession to their likely weakness in Dt. 21:11-15: If they saw a beautiful woman among their enemies whom they liked, they had to put her through certain rituals, and then they could marry her.
- The New Testament is full of similar examples. 1 Cor. 7 is a chapter full of this kind of thing. You could paraphrase it something like this: 'Basically, consider the option of not marrying. But and if you do, it's no sin. Once married, don't separate; but and if you do, this is allowable. If you are an elderly widow, it's best not to re-marry; but and if you do, OK go ahead'. The Lord Jesus recognized that these sorts of concessions to failures in married life had been made earlier; He spoke of how God through Moses had " for the hardness of your hearts" allowed divorce under the Law, although this was hardly God's original ideal in Eden (Mt. 19:8). The Lord Jesus spoke the word to His listeners " as they were able to hear it" (Mk. 4:33), following the same pattern. The exceptive clause, allowing divorce for adultery, is a prime example of this kind of concession. And yet the Lord speaks in Mark 10 as if there is no allowance for divorce even in this case; whilst in Matthew’s record He clearly allows it. The point is, God doesn’t advertise His concessions to human weakness (and neither should we). He leads men to attempt life on the highest level. Likewise Num. 6:7 speaks as if a man couldn’t make himself unclean and end his vow, whereas in fact there was legislation which allowed him to take this lower level. But the Father doesn’t want us to be minimalists, serving Him at the lowest level; quite to the contrary.
-In this light, consider Paul's apparently contradictory teaching about widows. They should remarry (1 Tim. 5:11,14); and yet they should only be given special respect and support if they have been the wife of one husband (1 Tim. 5:9). Surely Paul is thinking in terms of 'different levels' here; the highest level was for a widow not to remarry; but because most couldn't cope with that, especially with all the difficulties faced by single women in the first century, therefore Paul commands them to remarry. But he did that full well knowing that there was a higher level.
- Although God joins together man and wife, He allows His work to be undone in that He concedes to separation, even when there has been no adultery (1 Cor. 7:11). Prov. 21:9; 25:24 almost seem to encourage it, by saying that it is better for a spiritual man to dwell in a corner of the housetop than to share a house in common (LKK koinos) with his contentious wife. The same word occurs in Mal. 2:14 LXX in describing a man’s wife as his “companion” (koinonos).
- Another concession in the area of marriage occurs in Dt. 25:5-10: " If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall...take her to him to wife...and if the man like not to take his brother's wife... then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face..." . Not only does this show a concession to human weakness and human inability to live up to the Biblical ideal of marriage; but it should be observed that seeing that most adult men in such societies were married, obeying this command probably involved polygamy. One principle was broken in order to keep another, more important one (in this case " that his name be not put out of Israel" ).
- The Lord Himself spoke of how the Law's attitude to divorce was a concession because of the hardness of men's hearts. Dt. 24:1-4 allows divorce if a man “found some uncleanness” in his wife. This, the Lord comments, was a concession for the hardness of their hearts. But the passage moves on to say: “When a man hath taken new wife, he shall not go out to war...but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife” (:5). Taking a new wife seems a strange way to describe taking a first wife. It would seem that Yahweh through Moses is making a gracious concession to a man taking a second wife according to the concession laid down in the previous verses.
- God remonstrated with David concerning Bathsheba: " I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom (which meant, incidentally, God encouraged David to marry both a mother and her daughter, contrary to the Law)...and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given thee such and such things" (2 Sam. 12:8). This seems to be saying that God would have made concessions to David's sexual weakness, even further than the ones He had already made. It is as if God had prepared those concessions on different levels. If David had felt that he needed yet more sexual fulfilment, God had a way prepared to meet this. Yet David took it into his own hands to decide what God would concede to him. However, God's concessions to David cannot necessarily be extrapolated to our lives today. Nor can the fact that we sense that God accepted the achievement of a lower standard in men like Aaron than what was potentially possible.
- Embedded within a context of criticizing adultery, Prov. 6:30 adds the comment: " Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry...but whoso commiteth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding...a wound and dishonour shall he get" . This statement about a desperately hungry man stealing and not being despised (cp. dishonoured) is, on its own, an example of God making concessions to human weakness. But the context in which it occurs leads one to think that the point is being made that in some marital areas, there could be concessions to human desperation. But this is not to be taken as a justification for adultery, which if unrepented of will lead to an inevitable judgment.
Paul wrote that slaves should abide in the callings they had when called, and not unduly seek freedom. This has huge implications when we consider the plight of female slaves, amongst whom the Gospel spread so significantly in the first century. They were the sexual property of their owners, who would personally use them and sub-let them as he wished. This was all part and parcel of being a female slave. For those women / sisters, the moral demands of the New Testament were even harder to follow then they are now. Yet nowhere do we read of Paul insisting that those women refuse their ‘duties’; he teaches that they should abide in that position, and try as best they can to live by Christian principles. That appears to me to be a concession to weakness and to the huge difficulty those women faced. If God has so repeatedly made concessions to human weakness, allowing us to live below the Biblical ideal of marriage, then we must in some way respond to this in our dealings with our brethren. Somehow we must do this without infringing the need to uphold the Truth of God's commandments. The Lord Himself seems to make a concession to the inability of the surrounding world to understand Him, when He tells Peter that as God's people, they are free from the requirement to pay taxes to the present world. But " lest we should offend them" , we should pay them (Mt. 17:27). As the Lord spoke to men according to their level of ability to comprehend Him (Mk. 4:33; and consider how He used the language of demons), so should we.