Mary and Joseph: Why Protestant Theologians Downplay Their Betrothal

MaryAndJosephby Standerinfamilycourt

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.    And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.   But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit”…… And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife,  but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son…    Matthew 1:18-24


They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.
John 8:41

Even before the time God met with the Israelites on the mountain in the wilderness, gave them the Ten Commandments and told them they would be His people and He would be their God (effectively vowing an indissoluble wedded state on an unconditional basis),  we see the analogy of indissoluble holy matrimony woven through virtually every book of the bible from Genesis to Revelation, with some particularly powerful examples, such as the books of Hosea, Malachi and Ezra.   Arguably,  holy matrimony is the first and holiest symbol He has chosen for His purpose and plan for human families in His creation.   We see also throughout scripture how jealous God Most High is of His chosen symbols.   Woe to anyone who would mock and trample them in Old Testament times, how much more so after the Bridegroom has laid down His life for His bride and solemnly promised to return for her!  

[….Promised to return for her…]    At  some point, perhaps just a few months prior to her conception by the Holy Spirit, Joseph paid a bride price for Mary as part of the traditional Hebrew kiddushin, the engagement ceremony that resulted in a legally-binding contract to marry a year or so in the future, called a ketubah.    Just as Jesus had recited these words to his disciples at the last supper, Joseph had ceremoniously recited them to his Mary:

“In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.   If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”     John 14:2-3

Joseph was going about his business preparing a place for Mary when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy and before he was visited by the angel.    At that point, the law uniquely regarded Mary as his wife, even though the marriage was not yet consummated.   Had Joseph died before returning for Mary, she would have all the rights in Joseph’s family prescribed by the Law of Moses that a consummated wife would have.    Had the Romans continued to permit the Jews to carry out capital punishment by stoning, he could have exercised those consequences for her pregnancy, but in the years since that option was withdrawn, a legal document called a “get” or a writ of divorcement was required to dissolve the ketubah, and free him to seek another wife, but only up to and including the wedding night.   However, as stoning became unavailable, the remedy for “some uncleanness” found in Deuteronomy 24 was expanded by the rabbis in the centuries between Moses and Ezra or Malachi to unilaterally dispose of betrothed wives such as Mary, as well as wives of long standing.   An ugly example was thereby established that would prove troublesome sixteen centuries later.

Even with the most biblically-faithful exegesis of God’s marriage laws, rarely is this important piece of context mentioned or discussed in Protestant churches, despite the heavy emphasis Jesus gave it while instituting the sacrament of holy communion.    But why not?   When members of the community of covenant marriage standers engage online with various theologians concerning divorce and remarriage based on the culture and context of Hebrew betrothal in understanding Matthew 19:9 and Matthew 5:32, most become uncomfortable and dismissive, as if an annoyingly irrelevant point has been interjected into the “scholarly” discussion.    Why?

Many of the writings of Protestant Reformers indicated that they chafed at the idea of divorce and remarriage not being a readily available option in the church of their day.    Annulments (extremely rare and costly, though they never should have existed at all in defiance of  Matthew 19:6 and Exodus 20:16),  had only been conceived of and available for about 300 years at that point, and marriage, God’s holiest symbol, was quite reasonably considered a sacrament otherwise, since holy communion was.    The Reformers were recoiling at two basic circumstances: one supremely legitimate as laid down by Jesus, and the other a legalism later contrived by misguided clerics of the 3th and 4th centuries in response to the waves of sexual immorality attacking the church in the form of Gnosticism and similar cults.

Jesus said all of the following:   (a) anyone who marries a divorced person commits ongoing adultery, (b) anyone who divorces a consummated wife causes her to commit ongoing adultery, and (c) anyone who marries another after divorcing their spouse commits ongoing adultery.   (In other words, holy matrimony is unconditionally indissoluble by men, echoing what He said in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9).

Ascetic clerics such as Tertulian, Origen and Jerome went beyond what Jesus said, and started to teach that celibacy was holier than God’s most sacred symbol.   They further argued that sacramental treatment of marriage was essential to cover the  resulting “sin” of the marital act, and that married couples should refrain from sexual intimacy except to procreate (thereby contradicting Paul in 1 Cor. 7:3-5,  while over-emphasizing verse 1…”it is good for a man not to touch a woman. “)   One source attributes to Origen (185-254) the strange assertion that during marital sexual intercourse, the indwelling Holy Spirit departs the bodily temples of the spouses.
Even during an act of adultery or sodomy or pornographic activity, scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit is a Person who is grieved or quenched, but not that He departs a regenerated person’s body.
(Of course, the Holy Spirit is never present during any activity of an unregenerated person who has never surrendered to Christ’s lordship.)

The historian Eusebius also reported that Origen castrated himself in order to embody Matthew 19:12, apparently misconstruing what Jesus said (and Paul echoed in 1 Corinthians 7:11) about remaining celibate if deserted or divorced by a one-flesh spouse.    This self-castration account was widely believed during the Middle Ages, and no doubt also influenced the Reformers to ignore the powerful witness intended by Jesus, reducing it to just another “legalism”.
Satan has, from that bite of the apple in the Garden of Eden, constantly attacked the indissolubility and stability of God’s holy ordinance from multiple directions while stirring up the humanistic rebellion of men against it.   Erasmus, at the turn of the 16th century wrote of the “harshness” of Christ’s commandment, in his estimation (though this is far from the worst of Erasmus’ direct contradictions of both Jesus and Paul):

Eulalia:   Let your Husband be as bad as bad can be, think upon this, That there is no changing.   Heretofore, indeed,  Divorce was a Remedy for irreconcilable Disagreements, but now this is entirely taken away: He must be your Husband and you his Wife to the very last Day of Life.

Xantippe:  The Gods did very wrong that depriv’d us of this Privilege.

Eulalia:  Have a Care what you say.    It was the Will of Christ.

Xantippe:  I can scarce believe it.

(The Uneasy Wife). Nathan Bailey & E. Johnson. The Colloquies of Erasmus, Vol. 1 (London: Reeves and Turner, 1878)

Under Erasmus’ heavy influence, Martin Luther wrote:

“What is the proper procedure for us nowadays in matters of marriage and divorce?   I have said that this should be left to the lawyers and made subject to the secular government. For marriage is a rather secular and outward thing, having to do with wife and children, house and home, and with other matters that belong to the realm of the government, all of which have been completely subjected to reason (Gen. 1:28). Therefore we should not tamper with what the government and wise men decide and prescribe with regard to these questions on the basis of the laws and of reason.”

Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg); Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1956 (Luther’s Works 21, S. 21:93

Apparently, in the Age of Reason, neither God’s wisdom nor Paul’s ( 1 Corinthian 6:1-8) were “reasonable” enough any longer.   In summary, the fabrication of “biblical grounds” that purportedly removed the eternal consequences from this state of sin Jesus defined three separate times as adultery, was an opportunistic overreaction to Catholic legalism (including the spurious indulgence of marriage annulment) and to asceticism including the extra-scriptural preference for celibacy over holy matrimony.   After all, if the Popes were “all wet” with regard to issues of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, then who was to say they were also infallibly correct on the indissolubility of covenant marriage?    In an age where few had their own access to the scriptures or books on the history of the Church as yet, it was the perfect opportunity to shed the fear of God that restricted sexual options.     But, you ask, what does all this have to do with Joseph and Mary’s  Jewish betrothal?

Embrace of the Hebrew betrothal custom as part of the overall symbolism and analogy of the relationship between Christ and His bride the Church presents all of the following threats to the more indefensible elements of Reformation theology, and (more specifically) to key documents arising therefrom– such as the Westminster Confession of Faith:

(1) It presents a far more hermeneutically-sound explanation and interpretation of the “exception clause”, which appears exclusively in the gospel of Matthew, than does any merely implied exception for post-wedding adultery. 

(2) It reinforces that the Matthean “exception” was limited to a very narrow premarital provision that became totally irrelevant under the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus.

(3) It causes all of the other marriage scriptures in the Old and New Testaments to perfectly align around God’s having made  no provision whatsoever for either divorce or remarriage against the spouse of our youth, and it reinforces the eternal consequences for disobeying – see point (6).

(4) It would compel countless pastors and denominations to admit they have been presiding for nearly 50 years over false weddings, and most mainline denominations to admit this has been the case for some 500 years.

(5) Their nephew is a practicing attorney (just kidding!)

(6) It directly challenges the dogma “once saved, always saved”.
Regarding our initial justification as a legally-binding betrothal that can still be broken by us, provocatively calls into question the Calvinist doctrine commonly referred to today as “hypergrace”.   Once all of the other scriptures about not being ready for Christ’s return, and about falling away due to a hardened heart are integrated, dealing with such matters as the Rapture of the Church takes on a much more serious tone.   This harmful “OSAS” doctrine asserts that our sins have no eternal consequences, even if there is not physical repentance, so long as we “confess” and “repent in our hearts” of the things Jesus and Paul both said would send us to hell.   According to the revisionists, this is attempting to “earn” our salvation, as though the “full price” hadn’t been paid by Christ.    (If this is truly the case, then three of the gospels and all the epistles are seven times more wordy and verbose than was strictly necessary.)

Not only is the Jewish betrothal spurned by all but a few modern theologians in discussions of divorce and remarriage,  pastors go to great lengths not to even mention it in sermons dealing specifically with divorce and remarriage.    Hence, you might hear about it during the “safe zone” of Christmas services, but only as an interesting (but disembodied) curiosity of bible times.

I will betroth you to Me [pay  a  bride price for you]  forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,  And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the Lord.       Hosea 2:19-20

For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin.
2 Corinthians 11:2 




7 Times Around the Jericho Wall  |   Let’s Repeal No-Fault Divorce!




4 thoughts on “Mary and Joseph: Why Protestant Theologians Downplay Their Betrothal”

  1. What God has joined, let no man separate.

    An annulment is the Judgment that, from the beginning, in a particular case, God hand *not* joined a man and woman together because of some obstacle. If marriage really is for life –and I is– then it can’t be done if one is not capable of it, or if one were drunk.

    Since, dear Pastor, you have renounced the essential Protestant doctrine, after sola scriptura, namely: once saved, always saved, why not enter the Ark, the one true flock, the Catholic Church?

    1. Thanks for your comment. “standerinfamilycourt” is not a pastor, and has had other Catholics suggest that on account of our rejection of the false doctrine of “once saved, always saved”, we should embrace equally unbiblical doctrines in this church. I pray this response builds brotherhood and continued seeking of Holy Spirit revelation. With regard to sola scriptura, it is the true endeavor on everything that appears here, including guest blogs, that solid scripture back everything you will read on our pages. Not all Protestants embrace OSAS, including several respected seminarians. These recognize that the books of Hebrews and James are inspired for a reason, and that both Paul and Peter warned repeatedly warned that a regenerated person could nevertheless harden their hearts and walk away from the faith. Luther and Calvin did not always behave and speak with the mind of a truly regenerated person, and as Jesus Himself reminded us, NO human is infallible. There is certainly a difference between justification / regeneration which is assured, and sanctification which is a non-linear process that is complete and final at the point of death. In other words, we must continually choose to show up for the marriage supper and move from betrothed bride to consummated wife.

      In regards to your comments concerning annulment, if you can demonstrate in scripture where God explicitly authorized an man to render human judgment on whether or not He joined a covenant couple as one-flesh, and whether or not He then covenanted with the one-flesh entity, we will gladly investigate further. Until then, our recent blog on this topic stands. I would be trembling in fear to take on such a presumptuous accountability which risks bearing false witness against El Elyon – God Most High.

      In response to your other question, SIFC firmly believes in the universal priesthood of believers, that there is no mediator between God and man except Jesus Christ, that purgatory is a doctrine that sends at least as many people to hell as OSAS, and that no man other than Jesus has ever been born who was infallible (except perhaps for Enoch). Those are only the main considerations. This does not mean that there aren’t many Catholics who are dynamic, spirit-filled Christ-followers. Every church is a mix of wheat and tares, sheep and goats. God’s blessings to you!

  2. Thanks for your comment. When one reads an unsupported and highly opinionated piece written by someone who seems barely literate, what would you expect other than confusion?
    First of all, the book of Matthew was not originally written in Greek, it was written in Hebrew (unlike the other gospels), then translated into Greek and Latin. The actual word that most likely crossed Christ’s lips in Matt. 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 is “z’nut” which indeed is limited to premarital commercial prostitution. It is irresponsible to discuss this topic without any mention whatsoever of the kiddushin (betrothal) custom to which it refers. In fact, this misinformed shepherd displays a shocking lack of hermeneutical principles in this article. Here is our treatment of the topic, with appropriate application of those principles.

    We conclude with this thought: it cannot be denied that on three different occasions, and with NO exceptions, Jesus bluntly stated [Matt. 5:32b; Matt. 19:9b and Luke 16:18b], that EVERYONE who “marries” one who has been put away enters into an ONGOING STATE of adultery. Regardless of any jibberish around fornication, it is clear that adultery is always committed by and / or with MARRIED persons, including the kind that hides behind meaningless civil paper, according to Jesus. Therefore, the assertion that adultery “breaks” the covenant (rather than simply violating it) has to be false, or Jesus would not have deemed someone as still being married to their spouse when He clearly called non-widowed remarriage adultery. If adultery did “break” the covenant, wouldn’t those who choose not to divorce over an affair (obeying Christ’s commandment, actually), wouldn’t we be reading in scripture about the need for them to marry each other again? The inconvenient truth that this author is choosing to ignore is that the bible couldn’t be clearer that the only thing that severs the God-joined one-flesh entity He creates is death. Covenants to which God is one of the parties (per Malachi 2) cannot be dissolved by acts of men.
    Further, did Jesus not say, “no more eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth?” How, then, can anyone dare imagine that He would prescribe entering into what He called an ongoing state of adultery as t he “remedy” for an act or a season of adultery?

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