Remarriage after Divorce

Remarriage after Divorce

John L. Odhner Council of the Clergy 1996

Note: Part one of this paper was presented to the Council of the Clergy of the General Church of the New Jerusalem in March of 1996. The second part was distributed to the Council of the Clergy in 1997 but never discussed. The third part is offered to the Council of the Clergy in 1999.



Part One: Remarriage After Divorce

Part Two: Questions about Remarriage

Part Three: Making Judgments about Marriages


Part One: Remarriage after Divorce

The first part of this paper (presented to the Council in 1996) focuses on the passages that speak of marriage after divorce and causes for divorce. The main point is that to understand these passages correctly we must look at them in terms of intention, as it is primarily the intention of committing adultery, veiled over with legal procedure, that the Lord was forbidding when He said that it is wrong to divorce without just cause and remarry.

Specifically, Part One suggests that the phrase, “he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” should be understood in terms of the implied intention, as if it said, “He who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery.” The thrust of the teaching is that outward observance of the accepted laws about marriage and divorce does not make one chaste when the intention in the heart is the same intention that an adulterer would have.

Similarly, the teaching that “he who marries the one who is divorced commits adultery” refers to situation where the intent behind the divorce would have been to establish a new relationship. Again, the statement, “he who divorces his wife except for fornication causes her to commit adultery,” should be understood in terms of an implied intention on the part of the wife to gain a divorce from her husband in order to be able to remarry.

Finally, the teachings in the Writings about divorce are directly based on the Lord’s teaching in the New Testament, so just as the teaching about manifest obscenity points to adultery in intent as a cause for divorce, so the teaching about malicious desertion points to an adulterous intention as a cause for divorce.

Part Two: Questions about Remarriage

There are a number of areas where the Lord does not provide specific answers to our questions about what is the proper procedure. This is the Lord’s pattern with other issues mentioned the Word, where the Lord tells us how to think, rather than what to think. He gives us general principles, and then leaves us plenty of freedom to work out specific procedures as if of ourselves. Thus the areas of uncertainty are given to us to aid us in our spiritual development, to encourage us to understand and apply the essential principles, and to discourage us from relying on mere external rules of procedure and outward appearances of propriety.

By examining these fuzzy and gray areas, we will gain greater clarity about the essential issues.

To fully consider the question of remarriage after divorce, we must also consider related issues, such as, What constitutes adultery? and What constitutes a marriage?

  • What about annulments? Under what conditions might we say that a marriage never really took place?
  • Can anyone remarry after committing adultery? Or is the punishment for adultery that one should never remarry?
  • Is divorce without sufficient grounds actually a separation? Do we accept the court rulings when they say that a marriage is ended?
  • What about concubinage? May a woman divorce her husband for taking a concubine? Who is to determine whether an affair is adultery or concubinage? Is it allowable for a woman to have a “concubine”?
  • Is spiritual adultery adultery? If a man divorces his wife for committing spiritual adultery, should he be allowed to remarry?
  • Is abuse obscene? Can severe spousal abuse be considered grounds for divorce? Is spousal abuse a form of manifest obscenity?
  • To what extent does one’s ignorance about the New Church change the way we regard that person’s behavior? Should a minister’s willingness to marry a divorced person depend on whether the person knew about the New Church at the time of the divorce?
  • Do we forgive adultery? If a person shows signs of repentance, might we allow a remarriage that we would otherwise forbid?

The purpose of this paper is not to provide clear answers to all these questions, but rather to bring to the fore issues which involve some uncertainty, and which lead to a variety of opinions amongst the ministers and lay people of the General Church. I suggest that these areas of uncertainty and variety are fertile ground for our spiritual growth, as they lead us to focus on essential, internal things through a process of thinking as if of ourselves about the Lord’s will for us.

Part Three: Making Judgments about Marriages

We are taught, “Judge not.” We are also taught, “Judge righteous judgment.” Each of us will bring these teachings together in our own way. Generally, we know that we are not to make spiritual judgments, but may (and must) make judgments about the civil and moral life of others.

A person’s spiritual life has to do with the intentions of their heart that are known to the Lord alone. For this reason we cannot judge the intentions of other people. And yet the Writings tell us that a wise person will look at others from their intentions. Yet certainly a wise person will not make spiritual judgments of other people.

I believe we can have greater clarity about this by considering three levels of judgment: spiritual, moral (or rational) and civil. Spiritual judgment has to do with intentions, and civil judgment has to do with behavior. Moral judgment is on a level above civil judgment and below spiritual judgment. I suggest that it is a judgment of a person’s motives as they appear in words and actions.

Many of the judgments we make about others will be on this level. Judgments about a person’s civil life are made by judges and juries based on the laws of the state and country. Spiritual judgments are made from Divine law after death. Moral judgments are made by an individual on the basis of rational law. Most of our judgments about marriages are on this level.

When we are making moral judgments, there are some clues the Writings offer us that can point us in the right direction. First of all we should be sure to apply to ourselves the truths by which we would judge others, taking the log out of our own eye before taking the splinter out of another’s. Next we can look at a person’s actions as the primary indication ofwhat a person intends. Yet there are other indications:

  • What a person says
  • The level of rationality the person displays
  • The affection in the person’s face, tone and gesture
  • The circumstances in which a person acts
  • The nature of the person’s relationships with others
  • What the person regards as allowable
  • The way the person worships the Lord.

In all our judments we look at intentions in order that we may act wisely towards others. Though we cannot be certain of others’ intentions on the deepest level, we must judge their intentions as best as we can because our actions towards others should be based on what we know of their intentions.

The lack of certainty we have regarding others’ intentions. This lack of certainty is better than certain knowledge because in that uncertainty hope, humility, freedom and individuality can thrive.

If we try too hard make clear rules and define in detail what is right and wrong we may be in danger of confusing moral law with civil law. The priest’s job is to teach Divine Law, not to be a civil judge or to legislate individual morality.

Part One

Remarriage After Divorce

The subject of remarriage after divorce has been a painful one in the General Church. This is almost inevitable, considering that pain that is involved in any divorce. I can remember the last time we discussed this issue at length in the Council of the Clergy, I wept through most of the sessions when it was discussed. I left those meetings thinking that I had gained some clarity on the issue-that I would know what to do next time a couple came to me for remarriage.

Very soon afterwards a couple came to me wanting to be married. Both had been married previously, and I had no idea from all I had just heard from the Council whether I would be doing the right thing to marry them. I counseled with the Bishop and another minister who knew the couple. I repeatedly read the relevant passages in Conjugial Love and went over and over Bruce Rogers’ paper on the subject. I still felt no clarity. I muddled through that situation, and since then through several more like it, and I have continued to reflect on the questions they have raised for me.

It has really been a puzzle for me. I have studied all the pieces (all the passages that I can identify as relevant) and reflected on how they fit together. I have often returned to Bruce’s paper-it puts some important pieces in place. But when it comes to applying these laws, I still find that the puzzle is far from complete. There are pieces that just don’t seem to fit in, and large areas where the picture is not clear.

This paper does not present a complete, clear picture. I hope I have fit a few more pieces in the puzzle, and I offer some reflections on why it is such a puzzle. I would be delighted if some of you can offer further suggestions.

Intention Is Key

One of the things I like about Bruce Rogers’ paper is the focus on the intent to commit adultery. It is the intention that makes adultery severe, and opposes it to marriage.

We know that the end and purpose is the all in all of the deed (CL 530, 453, 494; TCR 523). To take an extreme example, what of a woman faced with rape, who even though married, submits to the violation in order to avoid a worse calamity, perhaps death? Surely we would not charge her with scortation, even though the act itself occurred. In fact we would charge the rapist with adultery for his deed; but the woman we would exonerate. (Grounds for Divorce, p. 3)

What we are told in CL 255 is that adultery is grounds for divorce because marriages are holy and adulteries profane-

…thus marriages and adulteries are diametrically opposed to each other, and when opposite acts upon opposite, the one destroys the other even to the last spark of its life; this is what happens with conjugial love when a married man deliberately (ex confirmato) and thus on purpose (ex proposito) commits adultery (emphasis added).

To our reading this indicates fairly strongly that by scortation opposed to conjugial love is meant purposeful adultery, thus that it is purposeful adultery which is grounds for divorce. (Grounds for Divorce, p. 6)

Speaking of manifest obscenity:

Yet as the doctrine asserts, the will and the purpose are the all in all of the deed (CL 530 453, 494; TCR 523); and it seems to be the will and purpose deliberately conceived and willfully chosen, which produces the opposition that causes the complete separation of minds called divorce (CL 255; AE 1010; CL 423), which provides the legitimate grounds for actual divorce (CL 255, 468). So this clause in CL 468, dealing with “manifest obscenities,” seems to stand as a rational permission of divorce when all but the ultimate act exists, or all but proof of the ultimate act, because the act, though in itself not insignificant, is nevertheless of secondary importance to the will and the intention, which are what can destroy conjugial love “even to the point of extinction,” or “to the last spark of its life.”

Again it is on the will and purpose that the doctrine seems to focus and not on act, except as act gives expression to that which lies within. (Grounds for Divorce, p. 11-12)

I think this approach emphasizing intention is essential to understanding these passages, and that is what I primarily want to examine below.

Causes for Divorce in the New Testament

Jesus said, “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that who ever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31,32. There are other passages, but this one will do for now.) This teaching could be understood in very strict terms, or in broader terms, depending on how we look at the context.

The Strict Interpretation

Taking Matthew 5:32b out of context, we see that “whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” This phrase by itself would seem to say that even a woman who divorces an adulterous husband could not be remarried, because whoever marries her (a divorced woman) would be committing of adultery. In fact, a parallel passage (Mark 10:12) does not give any exceptions, simply stating that anyone who gets divorced and marries another is committing adultery. The Catholic church has traditionally argued that this passage means what is says. They have not permitted any remarriage after divorce. (This position has not been practical in today’s liberal world, and they have effectively circumvented it by granting annulments. The reasoning is that if the marriage was never really a marriage, then there is no need for divorce, and the partners would be free to remarry after their non-marriage ended in non-divorce. However, my purpose is not to examine Catholic practices, but simply to point out that some have interpreted Matthew 5:32b literally as “anyone who marries any divorced woman is committing adultery,” regardless of the circumstances of the divorce.)

A Broader Interpretation

A broader interpretation of this passage takes into account the context. The Lord is not talking about “any” divorced woman here, because Matthew 5:32a allows certain divorced people to remarry. To clarify this, let me note three kinds of divorced people:

  1. Innocent people divorced because their spouses committed adultery.
  2. People divorced without just cause.
  3. People divorced because they themselves have committed adultery.

This broader interpretation states that the innocent people in the first group should be allowed to remarry. The phrase “Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality,” suggests that it is allowable for a man to divorce his wife if she commits adultery. Since he has legitimate grounds for divorcing her, he should be free to remarry. Presumably the same would apply to a woman who divorces her husband because he has committed adultery (cf. Mark 10:12). If this woman is free to remarry, Jesus must not have meant all divorced women in His prohibition against remarriage; the prohibition against remarriage must not apply to people who divorce their spouses for just cause-because their spouses have committed adultery.

This broader interpretation is consistent with the teaching in the Writings that after divorce for just cause there is “entire liberty to take another” partner (CL 468).

Causing the Wife to Commit Adultery

The broader interpretation helps fit some of the pieces together, but leaves questions unanswered. One of the key questions is, What does the Lord mean that a man who divorces his wife without cause “causes her to commit adultery”? Various interpretations of this have been presented, including the idea that a woman abandoned by her husband in that culture would have no option but to turn to prostitution, and would thereby be forced into adultery.

Conjugial Love 468 alludes to this passage. It says that one of the legitimate grounds for divorce is “malicious desertion which involves whoredom, and causes the wife to commit adultery and thus to be put away (Matt. 5:32).” CL 468 is not referring to a woman forced into prostitution by her husband’s desertion, since (as Bruce Rogers clearly shows) it is speaking of malicious desertion by the wife. Part of the confusion is that Matt. 5:32 is not talking about malicious desertion, unless we say than anyone who divorces his wife without cause is maliciously deserting her. Malicious desertion as a cause for divorce was codified in Swedish law (and laws of other countries) of Swedenborg’s time, but the Scriptural basis for this law was probably 1 Cor. 7:15. So why should Swedenborg refer this cause to Matt. 5:32?

Intention Is the Key to the New Testament

We can gain some light on the passage in Matt. 5:32 by examining the larger context. In this chapter, Jesus was discussing how the Jewish law should be applied by His own disciples. The thrust of the whole sermon seems to be that internal things are more important than external things.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 5:3

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. 6:1

When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. 6:5

When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites 6:16

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth 6:19

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink 6:25

Seek first the kingdom of God 6:33

Judge not, that you be not judged. 7:1

Beware false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 7:15

Yet the Lord is not saying that external laws do not matter. Quite the contrary, He says, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” We could ask what He means by “fulfilling” the law.

  • Certainly it means that He Himself lived according to the law, not only as any obedient Jew would, but as the Word made flesh, the Divine Truth on earth.
  • We could also take it to mean that He fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament, since every jot and point of the law contained a prophecy of His life, in the inner meaning if not the literal meaning.
  • Finally, we could say that He fulfilled the law by filling it with more inward truths, by opening up deeper levels of meaning in the law for His followers.

All these are valid, but it is the latter I want to focus on. The Writings say that the Lord opened up interior truths while He was in the world. (AE 641.4) What are these “interior truths”? In this context, I think He was primarily showing that the laws applied not only to outward actions, but also to inward intentions.

When the Lord was in the world, He taught the internal things of the church, and these internal things are not to lust after evils. (TCR 326)

The Law has more to do with our attitude towards one another than with making ourselves look good.

Keeping the Law Outwardly, But Not Inwardly

Because Jesus was focusing more on intentions than on actions, He says, “It was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ …But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Matt. 5:21) Here the Lord is not so much trying to replace a lax law with a strict law, as He is trying to say that a person who keeps the law outwardly but not in spirit is nevertheless transgressing.

Next the Lord says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27) Here again, the Lord is not so much making the outward law stricter, as He is showing that a person who keeps the law outwardly but not in intention is still breaking the law. Speaking of this passages Swedenborg writes,

In the will evils are in their origin and in their root, that is, in their lusts and in their delights; and unless these are seen and acknowledged the man is still in evils, although in externals he has not committed them. DP 152

Adulteries committed in act are grievous according to the measure and quality of the understanding and the will within them. That they are grievous in like manner if not committed in act is plain from these words of the Lord: … (Matt. 5:27, 28). (CL 494)

It is man’s spirit-by which is here meant his mind as to its affections and thoughts-which makes what is chaste and unchaste; for it is from the spirit that these exist in the body, the body being altogether such as is the mind or spirit. Hence it follows that those who abstain from adulteries in bodily act and not from the spirit, are not chaste, … if they do not execrate adultery in their spirit and this from religion, they are still adulterers; for though not committing adulteries in bodily act, they yet commit them in spirit. (CL 153; cf. TCR 313)

It is clear that manifest obscenity is included as a cause for divorce because it is evidence of a desire or intent to commit adultery.

In the natural sense, this commandment means not only not to commit adultery, but it refers also to willing and doing obscene things and thinking and speaking about lascivious things. That merely to lust is to commit adultery, is evident from the Lord’s words … (Matt. 5:27, 28). The reason of this is that when lust enters the will it becomes, as it were, deed; for allurement enters into the understanding only, but intention enters into the will, and the intention of a lust is a deed. (TCR 313)

The Legality of Divorce

After the above passages, the Lord comes to the passage we have been considering:

Furthermore it has been said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. (Matt. 5: 31, 32)

I would suggest that this passage, like the two previous ones, is referring to a person who is keeping the law outwardly, but breaking it in intention. The Lord is not so much trying to make the law of divorce outwardly stricter, as He is trying to make it apply more inwardly-to thoughts and intentions.

That the Lord taught the internal spiritual man, is known from His precepts; from His abrogation of the rituals which served only for the use of the natural man; from His precepts concerning washing, that it is the purification of the internal man (Matt. 15:1, 17-20; 23:25, 26; Mark 7:14-23), concerning adultery, that it is a lust of the will (Matt. 5:28), concerning the putting away of wives, that it is not lawful, and concerning polygamy, that it is not in agreement with Divine law (Matt. 19:3-9). The Lord taught these and many other precepts which pertain to the internal and spiritual man. CL 340.3

So for example, suppose a woman wants to have an affair, but she knows she may be accused of adultery. Her would-be lover says, “Why don’t you get a divorce, and then we’ll get married. Then it won’t be adultery.” Under the laws of the time this would have been legal, but clearly the intent is to commit adultery. In other words, it is not so much the outward actions, as the inner intentions that make it wrong to marry a divorced woman. The Lord is saying here that changing your legal status does not change the intentions of the heart. If your purpose in getting a divorce is to do what would otherwise be immoral, then the legal papers are just a cover to make the immorality look legitimate.

When the Lord spoke about divorce, He always brought in the idea of remarriage. It is not simply the act of divorce without cause which is wrong, but the intention of taking another afterwards. That is, it is the intent to have an affair, legalized with a divorce, that makes divorce without cause equivalent to adultery.

Divorce in the Old Testament

Examining the context of those New Testament teachings as we have done may help us see what the Writings are saying. Likewise, examining the Old Testament teachings will help us understand the New Testament. The question about divorce in the New Testament focuses on a passage in the Old Testament, of which Jesus quotes only a portion.

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of the house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. (Deut. 24:1-4)

There are several things we should note about this Old Testament provision for divorce.

First, it was male-oriented. Women could not divorce their husbands, although this may have just begun in New Testament times. The men had complete control over the divorce process. Women had no say at all.

Second, this divorce implied complete freedom to remarry. So if a woman committed adultery, and her husband consequently divorced her, the woman who committed adultery would be completely free to remarry. The certificate of divorce was essentially a license to remarry.

Thirdly, it ruled out reconciliation. The certificate of divorce was a way of saying, “If you marry someone else, I will never take you back.“Whether a man remarried after divorce was irrelevant provided he did not remarry the same woman he had previously divorced after she had been married to another man. Likewise, there was no injunction against a woman remarrying after divorce (regardless of the cause), provided she did not go from her second husband back to her first husband.

By the Way…

Before we return to the New Testament I would like to make four tangential points. First, one might argue that a man would not divorce his wife for adultery because the punishment for that by law was death (Lev. 20:10). The fact that this was questioned in New Testament times (John 8: 5) leads me to suspect that this law was often not enforced, and that the husband might have a lot of say in the matter, particularly if the adultery was not publicly known (cf. Matt. 1:19). Furthermore, the husband might have known about the adultery, but not had any witnesses or evidence that could bring a judgment of death.

The second point is that this Old Testament law of divorce clearly does not apply to us as it did to the people of Israel under Moses. Jesus said that this law was permitted by Moses because of the hardness of our hearts. Those people did not know the joys of true married love. They had other laws of marriage, such as the laws about polygamy and the levirate marriage, that do not apply to us today (see AC 10603.5 below).

The third tangential point is that we have to look at this Old Testament law on a spiritual level, because on that level it does apply to us today. I am not certain how to unfold it, but I would suggest that this is a passage about profanation. The man who finds some uncleanness in his wife represents us when we see evil loves in our will. Giving a certificate of divorce would mean rejecting those evil loves. The command that one should not remarry a woman he has previously divorced suggests that we should not fall back into evil loves after we have recognized and rejected them. We should say to those evil loves, “I will never take you back.”

The fourth tangential point is the Lord’s marriage with the church, the Lord does not enforce the law about the certificate of divorce. That is, He never says to us, “I won’t take you back.” Rather, He says, “It doesn’t matter what you have done. Just stop doing it and come back to Me.” I think this is the import of the Lord’s question, “Where is the certificate of your mother’s divorce, whom I have put away?” (Isa. 50:1) This is echoed by Jeremiah:

“They say, ‘If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?‘ Would not that land be greatly polluted? But you have played the harlot with many lovers; yet return to Me,” says the Lord. (Jer. 3:1; compare vv. 8, 12)

The New Testament, Again

This background in the Old Testament is important to understanding what the Lord was saying in the New Testament. When Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,” (Mark 10:11), I think the message was this: a man who gets a divorce in order to have a “legal” affair may be acting legally, but he is committing adultery in his heart. I note that this passage in Mark says nothing about valid causes for divorce. Taken all by itself in the strictest sense, it forbids any remarriage after divorce, and does not allow any exception, even in the case of a man who divorces his wife for adultery. I suggest the reason it does not mention causes for divorce is that intent is implied, as if it said, “Whoever divorces his wife simply for the purpose of marrying another commits adultery against her.”

Causing the Wife to Commit Adultery

When the Lord spoke (in Matthew 5:32) of a man causing his wife to commit adultery, He was speaking to people who were familiar with the Old Testament teachings and customs regarding divorce. One of these customs is that only the husband (not the wife, and not the court) could grant a divorce. Suppose a woman wanted to have an affair. What would she do? If she simply committed adultery, both she and her lover might be put to death. (Lev. 20: 10-12). It would be safer to get a divorce first. But she had no right to divorce her husband-the husbands controlled the divorce process. Nor could she take the matter to court. She might ask her husband to divorce her. If he agreed to divorce her then she would be free to have a “legal” relationship with her lover. Keep in mind that at that time a divorce would not prevent remarriage; rather it was virtually a license to remarry. I think this is the situation Jesus was referring to in Matthew 5:32. He might have said, “Any woman who divorces her husband in order to marry another is committing adultery.” But He was speaking to a culture in which men held the power of divorce and bore responsibility for their wives’ decisions. So instead He said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery.”

One might object that Jesus does not refer to remarriage in Matthew 5:32a. Why didn’t He say, “whoever divorces his wife so that she can marry another is making her commit adultery”? My answer is that to speak this way would have been redundant. Divorce implied complete freedom to remarry, so when Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife… puts her in a position to commit adultery,” it was equivalent to saying, “Whoever gives his wife permission to remarry… puts her in a position to commit adultery.” I don’t think Jesus’ intent was to blame the husband for the adultery. Rather, he was speaking this way simply because the husband was the only one who could give the permission to remarry, and thereby make the adulterous intent appear legal. The husband’s crime would not be that he himself would be committing adultery, but that he would be covering up the wife’s adultery by making it appear legal, and he would be failing in his duty to overrule a bad decision on her part; he would be an accomplice to adultery. The import of Jesus’ statement is that even if the husband makes it “legal,” she is still committing adultery in her intent and attitude.

The Old Testament Law gave husbands more responsibility for their wives’ decisions than we would give husbands today. If a married woman made a vow, it was up to her husband, upon hearing her vow, to accept or reject the vow. If he rejected it, it was completely void and of no effect. If he accepted it, not only was the vow valid, but her husband, by not objecting, would be assuming responsibility for the vow. If he later makes the vow void, “he shall bear her iniquity” (Num. 30: 15, 1-16). Under this law, a husband who did not object to his wife’s intended divorce and remarriage (and still more when he aided it by granting the divorce) would have borne at least partial responsibility for consequences of her actions.

In terms more familiar to today’s culture, we might look at the passage in Matthew as making an additional point that divorce for the purpose of remarriage is still adultery even if there is mutual consent to the divorce. If the husband agrees to the divorce, he is an accessory to the “legalized” adultery.

One might ask: if only husbands controlled the divorce process, then why does the Lord say in Mark, “If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”? (Mark 10:12; see also 1 Cor. 7: 13) My answer is first that the idea of women divorcing men was a new, uncommon practice (Josephus says that the law did not allow women to divorce their husbands, and that Salome, the sister of Herod the Great, went against tradition to do so; Ant. xv, vii, 10). Second, I would note that the book of Matthew (more than the book of Mark) was written with the Jewish laws and traditions in mind, so it is not surprising that Matthew would speak in more the traditional terms (i.e., of the husband’s controlling the divorce process) while Mark would speak in more contemporary terms (i.e., of the new practice of wives divorcing their husbands). Still, the point of both passages, as I understand them, is that “legalized” adultery is still adultery, and the woman who seeks a divorce for the purpose of remarrying is committing adultery regardless of whether she has to get her husband’s permission.

Malicious Desertion

I have suggested that Jesus was speaking (in Matt. 5:32) of a woman who, desiring to legitimize her planned adultery, asked her husband for a divorce. The husband by granting her permission to remarry would have put her in the position of acting on her adulterous intent. Does this interpretation give any light on the teaching about malicious desertion?

Let’s suppose that Swedenborg was describing a similar situation that might occur in his own time. Let’s imagine a woman in the 1700’s with the same intentions as the woman described in Matt. 5:32a (assuming I have interpreted that passage correctly)-a woman who wanted to cover up her planned adultery by legal maneuvers. Over the centuries, society had changed. The laws about divorce in the Christian world became very strict, compared to the easy divorce that was available (to men) in the New Testament times. If Swedenborg were describing a woman covering up adultery with legal maneuvers, the motive could be the same as in Jesus’ time, but the circumstances would have to be different because of the change in the laws.

Firstly, the requirement that the husband grant the divorce would be gone, because in the 1700’s a woman could as easily initiate a divorce as a man, and divorce was granted by the courts not by the husband. Therefore, in the case of a woman wanting a way out of the marriage, Swedenborg would not refer to the man divorcing his wife. He might speak of the wife divorcing her husband in order to remarry, but the courts would make the legal decision.

Secondly, there would be no point in a woman initiating a divorce to “legalize” her affair, because the divorce would not be granted unless adultery could be proved, and her motive is to avoid the guilt of open adultery. There would be only one way for her to escape the marriage without being charged with adultery. Since most countries at that time allowed divorce for malicious desertion, the woman could simply desert her husband, with the intention that this would lead to a divorce. She might also hope that while separated she could commit adultery without it being discovered. This would make her legally guilty of desertion, but she would avoid the more serious charge of adultery. Once the divorce was complete, the woman would then marry her intended lover. Legally, she would escape the charge of adultery, but spiritually, she would be guilty of adultery, because the intent was the same as if she had committed adultery without a divorce. In this case her malicious desertion would have been just a cover for adultery, to make it look more legitimate. In this 1700’s update of the scenario Jesus spoke about, the woman, in spite of trying to get around it legally, would have put herself in the position of committing adultery.

This, I suggest, is the situation Swedenborg had in mind in CL 468. He there writes about “malicious desertion which involves whoredom [involvit scortationem] and causes the wife to commit adultery.” The Latin involvere can mean the same as the English “involve,” but it also has the additional meaning of “wrap up,” “cover,” “hide” or “obscure.” I would suggest translating this passage, “malicious desertion which hides whoredom…” or “malicious desertion which is a cover for whoredom….” Thus the third cause of adultery listed in CL 468 would be:

Quote from CL 468 Paraphrase
Malicious desertion The wife maliciously deserts her husband
which is a cover for scortation in order to cover up her desire for an affair, or make the affair look legal.
and makes the wife commit adultery In spite of this cover-up, the wife by her affair makes herself morally guilty of adultery,
and so to be put away. giving the husband just grounds (not only legally, but spiritually) to divorce her (or to separate from her).

When we interpret CL 468 this way, it is clear why Swedenborg refers to Matt. 5:32 in speaking of malicious desertion, even though Matt. 5:32 is speaking not of malicious desertion, but of easy divorce. Malicious desertion was about the closest thing to easy divorce that 18th Century Europe had (until the French changed their laws in 1792 to allow divorce by mutual consent or on grounds of incompatibility).

What confuses us about these two passages is we get stuck on the term “malicious desertion” in CL 468, and then try to see how Matt. 5:32 is about malicious desertion. But this does not work because Matt. 5:32 is not speaking about malicious desertion. In fact CL 468 is using malicious desertion as an example of legal separation with adulterous intent. When we think of it in these terms, we can see that Matt. 5:32 is also speaking of legal separation with adulterous intent. In the case of CL 468, the legal separation is through malicious desertion; in Matt. 5:32 the legal separation is through divorce without cause. In both cases, what makes it wrong is not the legal separation itself, but the adulterous intent that leads to it.

I would point out that the desire to cover up adultery may be not only from a desire to escape legal condemnation, but also to escape moral condemnation. Consequently a man might separate from his wife for reasons that are not legitimate, just or weighty, while maliciously blaming his wife for the separation, and then take a concubine. By finding excuses to justify his affair he would gain his friends’ approval for his misdeeds and he would make his wife look like the one at fault by spreading lies about her. This scenario is suggested by Conjugial Love 474, which talks of specious reasons for having a concubine. I would suggest that this kind of man is guilty of “malicious desertion.” He claims that he is morally justified in taking a mistress, because his wife’s problems had forced him to separate from her. In fact, those problems were not the real reason for his separation. He was interested in taking a mistress, and a separation (based on invented reasons) was just the excuse he needed to make the affair look valid in his friends eyes. Therefore, although his friends may approve, he is in his purpose and motivation an adulterer, guilty of “malicious desertion involving whoredom” and this (based on the teaching in CL 468) gives the wife just grounds for divorce. (Of course there is the difference that CL 468 suggests a case where the deserter is a woman, whereas CL 474 suggests a case where the deserter is a man.)

Looking at CL 468 in terms of an intent to commit adultery gives us consistency in the definition of adultery as the cause for divorce. The Lord speaks of the intention or confirmed desire to commit adultery as being essentially the same as adultery (“whoever looks at a woman in order to lust after her”). His teaching about divorce and remarriage follows from this. Conjugial Love speaks of deliberate, intentional adultery as the sole cause of divorce (CL 255), and goes on (in CL 468) to include in the definition of adultery both “manifest obscenity” (which indicates an intent to commit adultery) and “malicious desertion which is a cover for whoredom” (which also indicates an intent to commit adultery).

One reason I prefer this interpretation is that it means Swedenborg is not adding a new element (malicious desertion) to the causes for divorce, but simply updating the causes mentioned by the Lord while on earth, which include legal separation as a cover for adultery.

In brief, I would suggest that the meaning of all these teachings on causes for divorce become clearer when we think of adultery as essentially an intention or purpose.

Intention and Behavior

The Lord’s purpose in discussing murder, adultery, and divorce was to internalize the laws rather than to make them more strict and specific. That is, His focus was on intention, not on behavior. Still, we might expect that a change in intention will result in a change in behavior. When people give up anger and hatred, they will not only obey the law not to murder, but they will also stop calling others names (such as “You fool!”). When people give up lust, they will not only avoid actual adultery, but they will also avoid obscenity and pornography. You might say that when we apply the laws inwardly to our thoughts and intentions, we become much stricter about keeping the laws in our actions.

Being strict about our own behavior, based on the intent to keep the spirit of the law, is one thing. Strictly enforcing specific behaviors in others, with the hope of encouraging good intentions, is something else entirely. For example, it is one thing for me to give up abusive language (“You fool!”) because I desire to eliminate hatred and contempt from my heart, and it is something else entirely to try to get others to give up hatred and contempt by strictly punishing politically incorrect language. Again, it is one thing for me to give up girl watching and pornography (“looking at women to lust for them”) because I want to shun adultery in my heart, and it is another thing entirely to strictly punish the use of pornography, with the hope of ensuring moral purity in others.

Strictly enforcing certain behaviors in others does not make those people apply the laws inwardly to their own intentions. A legalistic approach to the subject of contempt or lust will not get to the root of the problem. For example, we might try to define legally exactly what pornography is. The courts have attempted this, with mixed success. The trouble is that no matter where we draw the line, people intent on stirring up prurient desires will find a way around the law. Meanwhile, works of art that are innocent and culturally valuable may be censored because they go beyond the letter of the law.

The trouble with pornography is that the intention is the essence of it. The difference between an innocent nude and a pornographic one is virtually impossible to define legally. One judge said, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” There is an intention there which a spiritual person might identify but can’t quantify.

The Lord’s purpose in speaking of lust (“whoever looks at a woman to lust after her is committing adultery”) was not to encourage us to take a stricter legalistic approach to adultery, but rather to encourage us to approach the whole issue from the point of view of motivation and intention.

In a similar way, I think that the proper result of a more internal approach to divorce will be that we not only avoid open adultery, but we also avoid the hidden adultery that happens when people divorce and remarry for the sake of lust, but in a way that looks respectable. When we try to legally define this hidden adultery, we run into trouble, because it is essentially a matter of intention, not of following a set of rules that define exactly when remarriage is permissible and when it is not. We ask, “When is remarriage adultery?” The answer might be, “I can’t define it legally, but I know it when I see it.” There is an intention there which a spiritual person might identify but can’t quantify.

Stricter Laws?

Even though Jesus was focusing on intention rather than behavior, it seems clear that the Christian is in some cases bound by stricter laws than the Jews before them were.

On account of that nation also a plurality of wives was permitted, a thing quite unknown in ancient times; and likewise the putting away of their wives for various causes. Consequently laws were enacted relating to such marriages and divorces, which otherwise would not have entered into the external of the Word. Wherefore this external is spoken of by the Lord as given by Moses; and as having been granted because of the hardness of their hearts (Matt. 19:8). AC 10603.5

It is known that the institution of monogamous marriage is founded upon the Lord’s Word, that whoever shall put away his wife except for whoredom, and shall marry another, commits adultery; that it had been ordained from the beginning, that is, at the first institution of marriages, that two should become one flesh; and that man should not put asunder what God has joined together (Matt. 19:3-11). But although the Lord dictated these words from the Divine law inscribed on marriage, yet if it cannot support that law from some reason of its own, the understanding, by twistings to which it is accustomed, and by sinister interpretation, can get around it and reduce it to obscure ambiguity. …For the Israelitish nation it was permitted to marry more wives than one because with that nation there was no Christian Church, and hence no possibility of true married love. (CL 332)

The Lord’s primary purpose was to internalize the law, but the result is that the external of the law about divorce is stricter than it was for the Jews. A Jew could be divorced for many reasons, but for a Christian, adultery is the only grounds for divorce. This is implied in the Lord’s teaching that whoever puts away his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

The Writings support this stricter law. In Swedenborg’s time, many countries accepted malicious desertion as grounds for divorce. This was based on Paul’s teaching, “if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.” (1 Cor. 7:15) Swedenborg mentions malicious desertion as a cause for divorce, but as Bruce Rogers showed, Swedenborg goes beyond the laws of his time by adding the condition that the malicious desertion must somehow involve adultery in order to be grounds for divorce.

In CL 255 Swedenborg gives one cause for divorce: adultery. In CL 468, he gives three causes, but he is not adding two separate causes, but rather expanding and clarifying what is included in the one cause. In other words, he is saying that manifest obscenity and malicious desertion as a cover for whoredom are types of adultery because they show an intent to commit adultery, and therefore are grounds for divorce.

To be judged according to the will is the same thing as to be judged according to the love, and also the same as to be judged according to the ends of life, likewise to be judged according to the life, for the will of man is his love, and is his end of life, and is his very life itself. That this is the case is evident from the words of the Lord quoted above, that “whoever looks on a strange woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27, 28). AC 8911

Looking at the Words of Jesus

Swedenborg mentions three causes of divorce, but in my mind, he is not adding to what the Lord already stated, but simply referring us back to His statements. When Swedenborg gives the first cause of divorce (adultery) he refers us to the Lord’s teaching:

The one only cause of this total separation or divorce is whoredom, according to the Lord’s precept in Matthew 19:9. (CL 468)

The idea that adultery includes “manifest obscenity” is also clearly based on the direct teaching of Jesus:

That to “commit adultery” means also to do obscene things, to speak lascivious things, and to think about filthy things, is evident from the Lord’s words in Matthew …(5:27, 28). (Life 78)

And finally, the idea that adultery also includes separation or divorce with adulterous intent is again directly based on the words of Jesus:

To these causes is added malicious desertion which is a cover for whoredom and makes the wife commit adultery and thus to be put away (Matt. 5:32). (CL 468)

Thus the three examples of adultery mentioned in CL 468 are the same three examples that were mentioned by the Lord Himself in Matthew.

More Forgiving Laws?

We can see from the previous section that the Lord has given us as Christians laws about causes for divorce that are stricter than the laws given to the Jews. But this is not the whole story. We need to see these teachings in context with other teachings about adultery and divorce.

For example, the Old Testament teaches that the punishment for adultery should be death (Lev. 20: 10-12). Some still advocate this for extreme cases of rape and child molestation, but most Christians would see this as rather severe for ordinary cases of adultery. In fact, the Lord’s response to the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8: 1-10) suggests that death is not to be the normal punishment for adultery in a Christian culture.

It seems that some people thought Jesus was too lax with adulterers (and “sinners” in general). They thought He should not be so forgiving of them, and not socialize with them or touch them (Matt. 9: 10-13, 11.19; Mark 2.15-17 Luke 5.30-32, 7.34-39, 19.7). For example, the test with the woman caught in adultery was no doubt intended to embarrass Him by showing that His forgiving adultery He was going against the Law.

The Lord’s response was always to show people mercy and call them to repentance, and encourage people to look at their own intentions rather than to define proper behavior in either a strict or lenient legalism. To the self-righteous religious leaders He declared, “Go and learn what it means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matt. 9:13, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32), and, “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31). But to the woman caught in adultery, He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells of a younger son who went astray, a father who welcomed him home with a party, and an older brother who was angry and did not want to celebrate his brother’s return or join the party with him because he had wasted his life “with harlots” (Luke 15:11-32). When we view the teachings about adultery from this angle, we might conclude that Jesus was much more lenient-more forgiving-about adultery than the religious leaders of the time were.

Another Strict Law

If we were to make a list of areas where the laws that are more strict for Christians than they were in the Old Testament, very near the top of the list would be the law about forgiveness. The Old Testament allowed a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Ex. 21:23-25), but Jesus gave us a much harder saying: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you” (Matt. 5: 38-44). Consider the warnings:

Forgive, and you shall be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)

Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matt. 7:1)

But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:15, Mark 11:26)

“…And his lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due to him. So likewise shall My heavenly Father do also to you, if you from your hearts do not forgive every one his brother their trespasses.” (Matt. 18:34-35)

Apparently some people found these teachings hard to take, and asked the Lord how strictly they should be applied. The Lord did not allow much leeway:

Take heed to yourselves: If your brother trespasses against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he trespasses against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turns again to you, saying, I repent; you shall forgive him. (Luke 17:3, 4)

Then Peter came to Him, and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” Jesus said unto him, “I do say not to you, ‘Until seven times,’ but, ‘Until seventy times seven.'” (Matt. 18:21, 22.)

We might think that the stricture to forgive balances out somewhat the hard sayings about causes for divorce. From my point of view, the strict law about forgiveness is the same law as the strict law about divorce; that is, the teaching about reasons for divorce is simply one example of how to apply the teachings about forgiveness.

When the disciples came to Jesus asking if they could divorce their wives for any trivial matter (Matt. 19:3-12), Jesus said in effect, “No. You can’t get rid of her just because she has offended you.” In other words, He was telling them they should forgive their wives’ faults rather than rejecting their wives for their faults. Apparently the Lord’s disciples found this difficult to accept, and complained, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). What would make the disciples feel this way? Is it not that they found the idea of forgiving their wives too hard to accept? If the Lord was giving them a “hard saying” here, the thrust of the hard saying was that they should not be so hard on their wives.

This suggests to me that when people divorce without just cause, a primary area where they may have failed is in forgiving each other. So the question arises, How do we treat a person who has been unable or unwilling to forgive? Can we forgive such an offense? How do we judge someone who has judged a spouse to harshly?

Conclusion of Part One

The key to understanding the issues of adultery, divorce and remarriage is seeing that intention is the essence of the act. This is the case whether adultery is committed in act or not. If a married person has extra-marital sex, but there is no intention to commit adultery or turn against marriage, we must regard the person from the intention. For example a person who takes a concubine for just reasons is not an adulterer, because the intention is not adulterous.

If a person clearly intends adultery, yet does not commit it in act, we still may regard the person from the intention, and treat that person as an adulterer. For example, a person whose obscenity demonstrates adulterous intent may be divorced on the grounds of adultery even though adultery was not committed in act.

The teachings about intention are also key to understanding the teachings about divorce without just cause. When Jesus condemned divorce, He was not condemning every act of divorce, but only those acts in which the intent was essentially adulterous. Swedenborg included malicious desertion as a cause for adultery, not because every act of desertion is adultery, but because desertion can be a cover for (or even evidence of) adulterous intent.

There are many questions about divorce and remarriage that have no answers, or that have too many diverse answers. May a person divorced for committing adultery remarry after repentance? Is spiritual adultery grounds for divorce? Is concubinage allowable for women? Is spousal abuse a form of adultery? In each of these cases, we must look beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law, beyond the act to the intention. As we do we will face other questions: To what extent can we judge another person’s intentions? What is the priest’s role in judging whether a divorce is justified? What is the church’s role in establishing or sanctioning civil law? Are we in danger of being judgmental and unforgiving towards those who are judgmental and unforgiving towards their spouses?

I think the Lord could give us much clearer answers to many of these questions. There could have been a section on remarriage after divorce in the chapter on Repeated Marriages in Conjugial Love. There could have been a clear warning that a priest should never officiate at the wedding of someone who might have been improperly divorced. There could have been a clear statement that spiritual adultery is not grounds for divorce. If we had more clear directions, we wouldn’t have to think about this so carefully. We could just follow the rules, judging each case according to the actions of the people. Instead, the Lord leaves us with questions that make us look at people’s intentions, rather than just their actions. The gray areas in these issues stimulate us to raise our minds above the letter of the law to the spirit of the law, so that we may, as much as we are able, keep the letter from the spirit, rather than keeping the letter without regard to the spirit.

Part Two

Questions about Remarriage after Divorce

When we consider the issue of remarriage after divorce, there are some teachings that are very clear. There are other teachings that are unclear, and leave us a wide lattitude for making a variety of judgments and decisions. One thing that seems clear to me is that the Writings teach that adultery is the only cause for divorce. One thing that is not clear is how strictly the Writings define adultery.

Strict vs. Permissive

We might ask the question, How strict or permissive should we be in our approach to remarriage after divorce? I suggest that we should be neither strict nor permissive. Neither of these terms embodies a truly New Church attitude. The term legalism calls to mind people who view the laws very literally, with very strict application to life. However, for every prosecuting attorney there is a defense attorney, and the game of legalism can be as easily played by people who want leniency as by people who want severity. When legalism (which has its place in the courts) invades the church, the whole focus of the church is diverted away from the question “What should we love?” to the more external question, “How should we behave?” The church then takes its focus off Divine law and focuses on civil law instead.

On a number of occasions people tried to pin Jesus down about how strict or permissive we ought to be, or about what specific behaviors we should have. Jesus avoided giving answers, or gave an answer that turned the conversation in an entirely different direction.

“Now Moses, in the Law commanded that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” …But Jesus stooped down…as though He did not hear. (John 8:5,6)

“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” …”It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:10,12)

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But He said to him, “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:13,14)

“By what authority are You doing these things?” … “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (Matt. 21:23-27; Mark 11:27-33)

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” …”Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22)

“In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” … “You are mistaken… In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage…” (Matthew 22:23-33)

“Why do your disciples…eat bread with unwashed hands?” … “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.” (Mark 7:1-23)

“Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” … “Sell whatever you have…and follow Me.” (Mark 10: 17-22)

Often, it seems, the answers the Lord gave people were ambiguous, or significant for what they did not say more than for what they did say. Often such answers were frustrating to the people who received them, even to the point that they dared not continue asking him questions. The Lord gave answers which regarded the motive of the questioner more than the bare question, and answers which challenged the questioners to raise their thought to a higher level of thinking rather than to blindly follow an explicit directive.

Some people find a similar frustration in seeking in the Writings for answers to their questions. What is the New Church stand on welfare? On homelessness? On capital punishment? On Social Security? On assisted suicide? What is the best ritual? How should the church be governed? On these any many other issues the enlightened statements in the Writings seldom match any of the preconceived multiple-choice responses provided by casual questioners. The answers, such as they are, lift the mind to higher things and encourage us to think in new ways, and seldom dictate specific behaviors.

In marriage, more than in any other area, the Writings discuss the doctrine in practical, down to earth ways. Yet even here what the Writings do not say seems as significant as what they do say. Swedenborg wrote a whole book on marriage and sexuality, yet in that book there is no mention of some of the major issues surrounding this topic today, such as ordination of women, homosexuality, birth control and abortion. There are, of course, many passages which are relevant to all these subjects, but for the most part the Lord does not tell us what to think about these issues, but how to think about them.

Ambiguities Regarding Adultery

In studying remarriage after divorce, I have been impressed with how little the Writings say about it. There is a whole chapter in Conjugial Love on remarriage, but that chapter refers strictly to remarriage after the death of one’s spouse. Was remarriage after divorce too rare to be a matter of concern in those days? Are we to draw our conclusions on the basis of the teachings in the chapter on repeated marriages? Did Swedenborg think the answers were so obvious as to not need discussion? Or is the Lord giving us the kind of answers He gave two thousand years ago, answers that challenge us to think on a higher level, from a purer love?

The teaching that adultery is the only cause for divorce is clear in the Word, yet we might apply to the law about divorce what the Writings say of the law about monogamy:

But although the Lord dictated these words from the Divine law inscribed on marriage, yet if it cannot support that law from some reason of its own, the understanding, by twistings to which it is accustomed, and by sinister interpretation, can get around it and reduce it to obscure ambiguity. (CL 332)

The question is, how can we avoid reducing the laws about remarriage to obscure ambiguity? Or how can we remove the ambiguities that seem to be there? I want to look at some areas where I find uncertainty, with the hope that we might find a little more clarity.

What about Annulments?

When it comes to annulments, my first inclination was to think of them as merely a device the Catholic Church invented to get around its own overly strict teachings about divorce. I was inclined to completely dismiss the concept of anulling a marriage simply because I found no mention of it in the Writings. Now, I have come to see that the issues of how a marriage ends cannot be separated from issues about how a marriage begins. The Writings do clearly show a proper order for starting a marriage. This order, like the laws about divorce, is designed to protect marriages and ensure that they endure. It seems to me that the laws for beginning marriages and the laws for ending marriages go together. In post-Christian Western society neither of these are consistent with what the Lord teaches.

I know someone who got married just to be able to immigrate into the U.S. The intention in entering the marriage was to get a divorce as soon as the immigration process was complete. This is clearly an abuse of the institution of marriage, yet it is an abuse made possible by our current laws about marriage and divorce. Since there was no real intent on either part to actually be married, do we consider it a real marriage? If they remarry after the divorce, do we consider them guilty of adultery for the second marriage, or guilty of fraud for the first? If the first marriage involved no real consent to be married, no consummation of the marriage, no promise of a long-term relationship, much less of remaining married “until death do us part,”-in short, if the marriage existed only on paper not in actuality, ought we to treat it as a real marriage?

Some people have told me that their first marriage was not a real marriage, so getting a divorce was not wrong. For example, someone says, “I got married when I was 16. The parents of both of us were against it. We really didn’t know what we doing. We weren’t acting rationally. The marriage only lasted two months, and we got divorced by mutual consent.”

I do not believe mutual consent is good grounds for divorce. But I do believe it is an essential element in marriage. I wonder how much we should hold minors accountable for their decisions about marriage and divorce. In a case such as this the Catholic Church would almost certainly grant an annulment. Would we say that it would be adultery for either of these young people ever to remarry?

When Is a Marriage Not a Marriage?

The Writings clearly teach a proper order and motivation for the establishment of a marriage. If this order is not followed exactly, and people get married, say, for the wrong reasons, or without a betrothal, then a good marriage may still result (cf. AC 9182, 4145.3, CL 460). Consequently, a marriage should last until death even if the couple married for the wrong reasons or followed the wrong order (CL 276). While acknowledging that a marriage, once begun, should continue at least until death, we must also recognize the possibility that the marriage never really began. In the context of defining adultery, the Writings say that adultery is opposed to marriage

because it violates the covenant for life contracted between married partners, rends their love asunder, defiles it, and shuts off the union initiated at the time of betrothal and confirmed in the beginning of marriage; for after the pact and covenant, the conjugial love of a man with one wife unites their souls. CL 480

If covenant for life and the union of souls was never there, is it still just as much adultery?

There are a number of factors working together which bring a person from an unmarried state into a married state, such as:

  1. Free consent (CL 21, 299-301)
  2. Focusing love on only one (CL 48, 58, 301, 304, 306, 333, 447, 482)
  3. A commitment for life (CL 276, 278, 279, 480)
  4. Shared spirituality (AC 8998, CL 80, 149, 152, 238-244, 304, 341, 458, 531, 282)
  5. Consummation (CL 460, 321, 198, 199, 502-4, 310, 355, 172, 173, 306)
  6. A legal contract (CL 307, 257, 276, 279)

What if some or most of these elements are missing? What if there never was any free consent-for example, in an arranged marriage? Or suppose the love was never focused on one-if a woman who is the third wife of a polygamist becomes a Christian, is it wrong for her to divorce and remarry? Suppose the marriage is never consummated, and the woman remains a virgin-should we necessarily consider her to be married? What if the original contract was illegal-as in a marriage entered into for immigration purposes, never consummated and later nullified by the government?

I think it would be wrong to say that for lack only of a legal document, the marriage is not a marriage. The marriage covenant (which might be broken by adultery) is not merely a legal bond; it is also an emotional and spiritual bond. If a man takes a mistress before marriage, and their love becomes like married love, the man will be committing adultery if he breaks the covenant, even though there was no legal document involved.

On the other hand, if a couple was legally married, but there never was any free mutual consent to be married, I would not regard the legal document as morally or spiritually binding. The marriage license testifies to free consent, and if free consent was not given, the document is false and invalid.

To make a fraud of marriage like this is a travesty. I can imagine putting a person in jail for such fraud, but I cannot see that any future marriage for such a person would necessarily be adulterous.

Freedom is of course a very relative thing. A person who apparently gave free consent to be married may decide at a later time that the consent was not free after all. I don’t like the idea of a person saying, “We just weren’t thinking clearly when we got married. It was a mistake, not real free consent. It was never really a marriage. So now we’re getting a divorce.” If there was an intention to marry, even if somewhat muddled or selfishly motivated, that intention must be regarded as an essential factor in judging the marriage.

I believe in weddings, as in adulteries, we must regard people’s intentions as the essential. Each of the elements I listed above (and perhaps some others) should testify to the kind of intention that is present in the beginning of a marriage, and becomes part of the basis for judging whether a marriage ever existed.

Till Death Do Us Part?

One of the early ritual innovations made in the New Church was eliminating the phrase “Till death do us part” from the wedding ceremony. The reasons for this are obvious: In the New Church we believe that true married love will last forever. The phrase “Till death do us part” implies that it will end with death.

I have always felt good about this, but now I wonder whether we should put this phrase back in, because that phrase also implies that the marriage won’t end before death. When people make a covenant at the time of the wedding, what kind of covenant is it? As a spiritual covenant, it is to look to eternity. As a legal contract, it has no force after death. Certainly, in a church wedding ceremony we want to focus on the eternal, spiritual side of the covenant. Yet many marriages come to the point when the hope for a spiritual union is lost, and there is not much more than the legal bond holding the marriage together. In cultures that allow divorce for almost any cause, the marriage will endure through difficult times only if the couple has a strong sense of moral obligation to continue the marriage until death even when the spiritual element fails to appear.

The Writings tell us that in the world, matrimonies are to continue to the end of life, and therefore appearances of love and friendship are useful and necessary. But “it would be otherwise if the marriages entered into were not contracts enduring to the end of life but were dissolvable at will, as was the case with the Israelitish nation which arrogated to itself the liberty of putting away their wives for any cause whatsoever” (CL 276). As I live in a nation which we might say has more or less “arrogated to itself the liberty of putting away their wives for any cause whatsoever,” I wonder how that affects the usefulness and necessity of keeping up an appearance of love and friendship in a marriage.

In Swedenborg’s time the commitment “till death do us part” was largely enforced by law. Today, a marriage is no longer a legal contract “enduring to the end of life.” Do we do enough to make it clear before the wedding that there is a moral obligation to continue the marriage until death, even when the hope of the marriage being eternal seems to have vanished? I have wondered whether it would be good to have a clear marriage contract that spelled out the kind of promise the couple is making. Specifically, would it be good to ask the couple, do you promise to keep the marriage going even when the love is gone, even when there is serious conflict, even when there is serious abuse, even when you can’t live together, as long as there is no adultery? How many couples would say, “No, I don’t feel that much commitment to this marriage thing.”

And on the other hand, if neither the law nor our culture spells out this kind of commitment as a condition of marriage, is it reasonable-is it even possible-to hold people to a commitment they never consciously made?

Is Divorce Without Sufficient Grounds Actually a Separation?

When Jesus spoke of causes for divorce, He was referring (in my opinion) to people who use divorce as a way of making adultery look legal. These are people who have an adulterous intent, which is evident in their desire to remarry after the unjust divorce.

Is it fair to take what Jesus said about these people and apply it to situations where there is no such intent in getting a divorce? For example: Pauline marries Mitch. Later, Pauline decides she does not want to be married and divorces Mitch. Mitch does not want the divorce. He is not interested in any other woman. Clearly, the divorce was unjustified. Pauline seems to be at fault. She expresses a disgust for marriage and for men, and shows no interest in romance of any kind. In the eyes of the law, the marriage has ended. But how do we as ministers treat this relationship? Do we consider them to be actually still married, though separated, regardless of what the law says?

The Lord says a person commits adultery if he divorces and marries another “excepting for licentiousness,” because divorce for this latter reason involves a full and complete separation of minds, which is properly called divorce. But all other cases of divorce on their own particular grounds are properly separations, which we have already discussed just above. If after such separations a person takes another wife, he commits adultery. Not, however, after divorce. (CL 255)

On the one hand I believe that divorce is not right unless there has been adultery. On the other hand, when an improper divorce takes place, I don’t think we should pretend that the couple did not actually take that improper step.

Supposing ten years later Mitch falls in love with someone else. Would it be adultery for Mitch to then remarry, even though he had no intention of leaving his wife to marry someone else? Pauline is the one who wronged Mitch. He did nothing to reject her. It seems to me that in this case Pauline would be more guilty of adultery than Mitch.

In considering a case like this some people would refer back to the narrow interpretation of the Lord’s teaching that whoever divorces his spouse (except for fornication) and marries another, commits adultery. But to apply this teaching to someone who has had no desire or intent to get a divorce is, I believe, contrary to the spirit of the Lord’s teaching.

Can Anyone Remarry after Committing Adultery?

There is no place in the Writings where Swedenborg specifically addresses the subject of remarriage after divorce. There are two primary (and several lesser) passages which talk about the causes for divorce, but in both of these the subject of remarriage after divorce is left unclarified.

We are told that after divorce there is “entire liberty to take another wife” (CL 468). It is clear from this that when a woman commits adultery and her husband divorces her, the husband is free to remarry. What is not clear, is whether the divorced woman who committed adultery is free to remarry as well.

The Old Testament law clearly stated that she could remarry. I am not certain that Jesus overturned this provision of the law. Would a woman who is divorced for committing adultery necessarily be committing further adultery were she to remarry? This would be the case if we take the strictest view of the Lord’s teaching that “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” On the other hand, one could argue that the passages in the New Testament apply to people divorced without legitimate cause, not to people divorced for the legitimate cause of adultery.One might say that the prohibition against remarriage is not a punishment for adulterers, but its purpose is rather to prevent adultery when the first marriage is not actually ended.

One could also argue that the Lord forbids marrying a divorced person for reason that anyone who marries someone who is in active adultery may be doing it from lust or approval of adultery. The assumption here (consistent with AE 710c:27) is that the person was divorced for adultery. “Who but a man of vile character can observe the rights of the conjugial bed and share the couch with an adulteress?” (CL 469)

On the other hand, there is a big difference between someone who is actively involved in adultery and someone who has committed adultery and then repented. Should we not consider whether a person shows signs of repentance? If we say, “Once an adulterer, always and adulterer,” are we not bypassing the Lord’s teaching that “If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed…none of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him”? (Ezek. 18:21,22)

In Swedenborg’s time, the laws varied from country to country. Some (primarily Catholic countries) did not allow any remarriage after divorce. As far as I know, those that did allow remarriage after divorce would allow remarriage only to the innocent party, not to the guilty party.

Suppose a married woman commits adultery, and her husband divorces her. Later, she recognizes that she was wrong, and shows signs of repentance. Many years afterwards she falls in love, and wants to begin a new marriage with a new resolution to not commit adultery. Although we may have a variety of opinions about the best direction for her to take, it seems clear to me that we must regard such a woman from her intention. Whether she is following all the correct steps outwardly is less important than her intent. Does she in her heart regard marriage as holy and inviolable-has she really repented?-or is she merely seeking an outlet for adulterous lust, and trying through marriage to make it appear good and socially acceptable?

What about Concubinage?

Certain aspects of the teachings about divorce seem clear to me. For example, it seems clear that a person may divorce and remarry if the spouse engages in blatant, repeated adultery. In this case there is clear intent on the part of the offending spouse to commit adultery.

It also seems clear that one is not allowed to divorce one’s spouse in order to marry one’s lover. In intent, this would be using the divorce to legalize the adultery, so the intent would make it an act of adultery.

These teachings seem clear, but they can be difficult to apply when we take into account the teachings about concubinage. Let me illustrate this with some examples:

When Is Concubinage Adultery?

Suppose a woman and man separate for valid reasons. Let’s say she is mentally ill (valid grounds for separation: CL 252). After they are separated, the man takes a “concubine” -he starts a sexual relationship with another woman, reasoning that this is permitted by Divine law (valid grounds for concubinage: CL 470e). Then his estranged wife accuses him of committing adultery and the courts grant her a divorce on those grounds.

Can the man remarry? If so, can he marry the “concubine”? Can the woman remarry?

Suppose that instead of mental illness, the husband’s grounds for separation were that his wife talked too much about trivial matters and did not keep the house clean. These are grounds for separation (CL 252), but not as weighty as the previous example. Would this make the wife’s claim that her husband is committing adultery more valid?

Getting a Divorce to Marry One’s Lover

In general I would say it is wrong for a person to get a divorce in order to marry a lover. But again, the teachings on concubinage suggest possible exceptions to this rule. Suppose, for example, that a wife becomes promiscuous, but not openly. For the sake of the children, her husband chooses not to divorce her, even though he has grounds for divorce. However, he completely breaks off his sexual relations with his wife, and he develops a sexual relationship with another woman, reasoning that grounds for divorce are also legitimate grounds for having a “concubine.” It begins as merely a sexual relationship. Eventually his children grow up an he no longer has a need to remain married to his adulterous wife. Meanwhile, he has fallen in love with the “concubine”. Can he then divorce his wife in order to marry his lover? I see no teachings in the Word that would forbid this, and I think a New Church minister might legitimately marry them. Still, someone who did not have all the facts could easily think the minister was consecrating adultery.

Concubinage and Conscience

For most people today, “concubinage” is not a part of their ordinary vocabulary. Our culture makes no distinction between adultery and concubinage, nor does it restrict the causes of divorce to adultery. The result is that many people may have a conscience which is in conflict with what the Writings teach. Specifically, when a man has separated from his wife for just reasons, and wants to have another relationship, many people after consulting their conscience and everything they believe to be right and good and religious, will say that the right thing to do is get a divorce before finding another partner, and then not to have sex with a new partner until after marrying her. They would say that it would be adultery for the man to get involved with someone else before there has been a divorce.

Let’s say a man who has justly separated from his wife is considering one of two choices:

a) to become sexually involved with another woman without getting a divorce first, or

b) to get divorced first and then marry the other woman.

The Writings indicate that a) is lawful and b) is adultery. The average modern conscience would more likely say that a) is adultery and b) is lawful. These differing definitions of adultery result in differences in conscience. When our cultural conscience disagrees with doctrine, there is a conflict which can be very difficult to resolve. We may attempt to correct the cultural conscience, but the number of messages a person receives from the culture (through media, friends, etc.) will far outweigh the number that come from the minister.

If a person works to avoid adultery following what we would consider an undoctrinal definition of adultery, can we still regard the person as having an intention to shun adultery?

What about Concubinage for Women?

What Kind of Woman Would Become a Concubine?

One of the questions occasionally raised about concubinage and pellicacy is, what kind of woman might a man find to be his mistress? Obviously, the woman must not be a virgin, nor the wife of another (CL 460). It also seems clear that the woman should not be a prostitute, since one of the reasons for allowing the taking of a mistress is to avoid relations with promiscuous women and prostitutes (CL 459e, 469e, cf. 464e). Those who turn to prostitutes seldom stay with just one, and it might be difficult to find one who would not be promiscuous (although I’ll admit I have no experience in this area).

Both pellicacy and concubinage are preferable to indiscriminate sex because they come closer to the married state by focusing on one partner. “Fornication is light so far as it looks to conjugial love and prefers it” (CL 452). In pellicacy, “a more restrained state is induced which is more akin to the conjugial life” (CL 459). “Pellicacy is not to be contracted with more than one, because when with many there is in it something polygamous, and this induces on the man a state merely natural, and thrusts him into a sensual state so that he cannot be elevated into the spiritual state in which conjugial love must be” (CL 460). In concubinage “the woman is used as a wife and a sharer of the marriage bed” (CL 465, cf 466).

If those eligible to be taken as mistresses are not virgins or married, we are left with women who have had previous relationships that have failed and who are unable or unwilling to marry, but want something more than a one-night stand. What more might the mistress want? Food and shelter? Comfort and companionship? A sexual relationship “akin to married life”? If the woman needs food and shelter, it seems to me close to extortion to barter that for sexual favors, if in giving the sexual favors she brings herself closer to hell. If she just needs friendship, why not just be her friend?

The question here is whether it is very hurtful for a woman to become a man’s mistress. Clearly, concubinage and pellicacy are evil, not good, yet they are allowable evils-the lesser than the evil of promiscuity, when that seems the only other choice. Is it an evil allowable to a man, because with him it will not destroy his love of marriage, while it is unlawful for a woman, because for her it would destroy her love of marriage? If this were the case, then the man who takes a concubine would be destroying the woman’s conjugial love in order to preserve his own.

When a married person commits adultery with an unmarried person, both of them are committing adultery. If one is in ignorance and the other acting deliberately, then of course it would be more evil for one than the other. But assuming both are acting deliberately, the act cannot be good for one and bad for the other, nor can it be a mild evil for one and a severe one for the other, for the unmarried person (though not breaking a marriage vow of his or her own) is by collusion approving of and delighting in the breaking of the married one’s vow. Thus both are in the same evil.

The same must be true about concubinage. If it is spiritually damaging for a woman to become a concubine, then the man who knowingly takes her becomes guilty for participating in her damnation. It seems to me that if it is allowable for a man under certain circumstances to take a concubine, then it must be equally allowable for a woman under comparable circumstances to become a concubine.

Consider the reasons why it is not allowable to take a virgin as a mistress or concubine: to take a woman’s virginity without a vow of marriage would be highly damaging to the woman, and because it would be damaging to the woman, it would also be damaging to any man who intends it (see CL 460). The fact that pellicacy and concubinage are allowable can only be because they are not more damaging to the woman than to the man.

Avoiding a Double Standard

The western world has had twisted attitudes towards sexuality for many centuries. The moral values that have prevailed in the last few centuries have been greatly influenced by false doctrines, such as that the man is the head and savior of the woman, as the Lord is the Head and Savior of the church; that there is no marriage in heaven; that Eve, the first woman, was to blame for all the evil in the human race because of her sexual desire. Accompanying these beliefs has been a “double standard”-a set of rules that allow women to be judged as evil and men to be judged as good when both are engaging in the same acts from the same motivations.

For example, suppose a woman and a man become involved in premarital sex with each other. If we say that what the woman has done is a serious evil, while what the man has done is a mild or negligible evil, we are applying a double standard. When the Pharisees brought to the Lord the woman taken in adultery, they were applying a double standard. She was “caught in the act,” which means that both a man and a woman were caught. Yet the man was let go, and perhaps was even among the men who accused the woman. They were condemning the woman’s behavior and condoning the man’s behavior when both were engaged in the same act; they applied a double standard.

If there is a difference between the man and woman in age, power, knowledge or previous and consequent behavior, then it is appropriate to judge them differently, because all of these suggest differences in intentions. For example, if a 25-year-old commits adultery with a 15-year-old, we would probably consider the 25-year-old to be in a greater evil. If an employer uses the power of his position to pressure an employee into adultery, we would likely consider the employer to be more guilty. If someone uses deceit and trickery to seduce an innocent person, we would consider the seducer more guilty than the one seduced. If someone who has often committed adultery does so with one who never has before, we might consider the one who has done it repeatedly more guilty. If one shows signs of repentance and the other does not, this would also indicate a difference in intention. This is not a double standard, because we would apply the same measure of intentions to both sexes. The double standard arises when we judge people by gender rather than by intention.

Separating Sex from Love?

One of the issues connected with concubinage and pellicacy is the need to keep married love separate from purely sexual love. Married love can be preserved while taking a mistress if the love of pellicacy is kept separate from the love of marriage.

That the love of pellicacy is to be kept separate from conjugial love is because they are distinct loves and therefore are not to be commingled; for the love of pellicacy is an unchaste, natural, and external love, but the love of marriage is chaste, spiritual, and internal. The love of pellicacy keeps the souls of the two distinct and conjoins only the sensual things of the body, but the love of marriage unites souls, and also, from the union of souls, so unites the sensual things of the body that from two they become as one, that is, one flesh.

The love of pellicacy enters only into the understanding and into all that depends on the understanding; but the love of marriage enters also into the will and into all that depends on the will, thus, into each and every single thing of the man. Wherefore, if the love of pellicacy becomes the love of marriage, the man cannot with any right withdraw from it without a conjugial violation of the union; and if he does withdraw and take another woman, conjugial love perishes in the breach of it. It should be known that the love of pellicacy is kept separate from conjugial love, by the man not promising marriage to his mistress, nor leading her into any hope of marriage. Nevertheless, it is preferable that the torch of love of the sex be first kindled with the wife. CL 460.4, 5

The question might arise, Is a woman able to keep these loves separate the way a man is? It is feminine to perceive from the will and masculine to perceive from the understanding (CL 168). Men can separate their thoughts from their affections in a way the women cannot (CL 169). Since the love of pellicacy is a love that “enters only into the understanding,” perhaps men can keep it separate in a way that women cannot, so men may be allowed to take a concubine, but women should not.

The other side of the coin is that the relationship between a man and his mistress goes both ways. It is not only important for the man to be clear about the difference between loving his mistress and loving a wife, but it is also essential for the mistress to be clear about this. The two loves are kept separate by “the man not promising marriage to his mistress, nor leading her into any hope of marriage,” which means he must take pains to see that his mistress also observes the distinction between married life and merely sexual love. When conjugial love comes into the relationship, it “joins their souls.” Love of pellicacy apart from conjugial love keeps the souls distinct. The joining or separating of their souls is not something that can happen for one but not the other. It affects the man and woman equally.

This makes it clear that there must be an ability with women, as with men, to keep conjugial love separate from a purely sexual relationship. The fact that a male has an ability elevate his understanding in a different way than the female, and to separate his thought from his affection may give him a greater responsibility in preserving the distinction between conjugial love and love of pellicacy, but it certainly does not give him license to enter into a relationship with a woman who cannot make that distinction.

The question of whether women can have concubines is not directly addressed in the Writings, yet it is one that affects our definition of adultery. If we conclude that women are not allowed to have concubines, then any kind of extramarital sex would be considered adultery and be grounds for divorce. If we conclude that women are allowed to have concubines, then a man would not necessarily have grounds for divorce if his wife separated from him for legitimate reasons, and then began a relationship with another man.

Is Spiritual Adultery Adultery?

How Broadly Do We Define Adultery?

We have already discussed the clear teaching that adultery is the only cause for divorce. But what is meant by adultery? Clearly the adultery which is grounds for divorce includes not only the act of adultery, but also the intention of adultery, and consequently manifest obscenity (which is evidence of adulterous thought and intent) is grounds for divorce. As we have seen, the Writings clearly include this obscenity in the definition of adultery

In the natural sense, this commandment means not only not to commit adultery, but it refers also to willing and doing obscene things and thinking and speaking about lascivious things. (TCR 313, cf. 236, Life 74, CL 468, AE 803.2, 935, SS 67.3).

Another way the Writings broaden the definition of adultery is by including spiritual adultery in the definition:

The natural man is able to know from rational light that to “commit adultery” includes in its meaning the doing of things obscene, the speaking of things lascivious, and the thinking of things that are filthy; but he does not know that to commit adultery means also to adulterate the goods of the Word and to falsify its truths, and still less that it means to deny the divinity of the Lord and to profane the Word. (Life 74)

That is called adultery where its love reigns, which is called the love of adultery, whether it be within matrimony or out of it. (AE 988.5)

Becoming an adulterer means living in the marriage of evil and falsity by thinking evils and falsities from a delight in them and by doing them from a love for them. Every man who does this becomes an adulterer. (AE 989.3)

“To commit whoredom” means to adulterate the goods and falsify the truths of the Word. (AR 134)

Indeed the Writings tell us that the law which the Lord spoke about divorce and remarriage “derives its internal cause from the spiritual marriage; for whatever the Lord spoke was in itself spiritual.” (CL 339) The reason people don’t know about this broader definition of adultery is that they have no understanding of spiritual things and how they relate to natural things:

You shall not commit adultery. This means that we are not to pervert the things which belong to the doctrine of faith and charity, thus that we are not to apply the Word to confirm falsities and evils, also that we are not to break the laws of order. This is evident from the meaning of “committing adultery,” “infidelity,” and “whoredom,” as being in the spiritual or internal sense, to pervert the goods, and falsify the truths, which belong to the doctrine of faith and of charity. And since “committing adultery” means these things, it also means to apply the Word to confirm evils and falsities. for the Word is the very doctrine itself of faith and charity, and the perversion of the truth and good of the Word is its application to falsities and evils. Scarcely anyone at this day knows that “committing adultery” and “being unfaithful” means these things in the spiritual sense, for the reason that within the church few now know what the spiritual is, and in what respect it differs from the natural…. Such things being at this day unknown, it therefore cannot be known what “committing adultery” means, further than being unlawfully conjoined as to the body. (AC 8904)

Although in a broader sense adultery includes spiritual adultery, the Writings do not specifically mention this aspect of adultery as a cause for divorce (see CL 255, 468). Some New Church people feel that teachings such as these (quoted above from AC 8904 and Life 74) are sufficient to justify including spiritual adultery as grounds for divorce. Others feel that the fact that it is omitted from other passages which define adultery (see just below) is a basis for excluding spiritual adultery from the definition of adultery for purposes of divorce.

Now it shall be told what adultery is. Adulteries are all the whoredoms that destroy conjugial love. Whoredom of a husband with the wife of another or with any woman, whether a widow or a virgin or a harlot, is adultery when done from loathing or aversion to marriage; likewise the whoredom of a wife with a married man, or with a single man when done for a like reason. Again, the whoredoms of any unmarried man with the wife of another, and of any unmarried woman with the husband of another, are adulteries, because they destroy conjugial love by turning their minds away from marriage to adultery. The delights of varieties although with harlots are the delights of adultery, for the delight of variety destroys the delight of marriage. So, too, the delight of the defloration of virgins without the end of marriage is also the delight of adultery; for those who are in that delight afterwards desire marriage only for the sake of defloration, and when that is accomplished they loathe marriage. In a word, all whoredom that destroys the conjugial and extinguishes its love is adultery or pertains to adultery; while that which does not destroy the conjugial and does not extinguish its love is fornication springing from a certain instinct of nature towards marriage, which for various reasons cannot yet be entered into. (AE 1010.4)

Married Love and Religion

The central teaching in Conjugial Love is that true married love and religion go hand in hand.

The human conjugial and religion go together in even pace. Every step and every move made from religion and into religion is also a step and a move made from the conjugial which is special and proper to the Christian, and into the conjugial. CL80:2

With married partners, it is religion that makes their chastity. (CL152)

Where there is no religion there is no conjugial love. (CL 239)

The origin of the Church and the origin of conjugial love are in one and the same seat, and that they are in continual embrace… Conjugial love is according to the state of the Church with a person, and so is from religion, it being religion that makes this state. (CL238)

That this love is the repository of the Christian religion is because that religion makes one with the love, and cohabits with it; for it has been shown that no others come into that love. and can be in it save those who approach the Lord, love the truths of His Church, and do its goods (n. 70, 71); that that love is from the Lord alone, and hence is with those who are of the Christian religion (n. 131, 335, 336); that that love is according to the state of the Church because according to the state of wisdom with man (n. 130). (CL 458)

The conjugial of one man with one wife is the precious jewel of human life and the repository of the Christian religion…. That love accompanies religion, and religion, being the marriage of the Lord and the Church, is the initiament and engrafting of the love. (CL531)

These teachings lead many people in the church to hope for a marriage in which there is a close spiritual relationship, a mutual sharing of the things of the church, and a clear presence of the Lord in the marriage. They know that this inner spiritual connection is the basis for true love, and without it, the marriage will be empty and relatively meaningless.

In spite of this longing, many people find that their marriage is not what they hoped it would be. They may find that their partner is negative about spiritual things and turned off to the church. After years of vainly stuggling to inspire spirituality in their partner, they begin to think that this marriage simply will not work.

When the Spiritual Element Is Lacking

The teachings about simulated love and friendship suggest that a marriage can continue on an external basis even if the spiritual elelment is lacking on the part of one of the partners. We are told that if inward affections that join the partners’ minds are not present the marriages come apart in the home (in private). (CL 275) But still, marriages are meant to continue to the end of life, so in marriages where married love is not genuine, it should still be affected or be made to appear as though it were. (CL 276) As a result there may be marriages in which one partner is spiritual and the other is natural (CL 280, 282) and resulting appearance of love and friendship may involve conjugial love on the part of one, if not the other. (CL 271, cf. 531) The one who is spiritual will have conjugial warmth even if the other does not (CL 241). The Writings add that a reason for maintaining such marriages in which the spiritual element is lacking on the part of one or both partners is that by Divine law the only cause for divorce is sexual immorality (CL 276) or adultery (CL 255).

It may seem as if these two sets of teachings present conflicting values: it is essential that marriages be spiritual as well as natural, and it is important to keep marriages together even when the spiritual element is lacking. If we emphasize the importance of marriages being primarily spiritual relationships where mutual involvement in true religion brings the inner minds together, then some people may feel that there is no point in maintaining a marriage where this seems to be lacking. On the other hand, if we emphasize the need to keep marriages together regardless of their inner state, some people may fail to focus on the very essential spiritual elements which can make the marriage truly endure.

I don’t believe that there is an actual conflict between these two sets of teachings. In fact, the Lord is at work in every situation, providing the means to an eternal marriage for those who wish it. For those who find themselves in marriage where the spiritual element seems to be lacking, that very lack of spirituality may be the means to attaining a true heavenly marriage. A spiritual marriage is not attained by marrying a spiritual person, but by becoming a spiritual person. Consequently if I am not finding spirituality in my marrage I can:

  • Focus on making myself spiritual, not my partner.
  • Remember that spirituality in marriage is attained primarily by shunning adultery as a sin against the Lord.
  • Remember that I can reach my greatest spiritual potential by having my spirituality challenged.

With these things in mind, we can see that apparent love and friendship do not conflict with the spiritual process in marriage, but support it.

I have prefaced the discussion of spiritual adultery with these remarks because I think it is very important to see that a marriage which is lacking spirituality is not in itself spiritual adultery. In particular, I don’t see any basis in the Writings for a person to get a divorce based on the fact that spirituality is lacking in the marriage.

Interfaith Marriages

Even though I do not believe that a lack of spirituality is grounds for divorce, I find it difficult to explain why marriages between people of different religions should continue to the end of life. The Writings do not mince words about this:

When one has religion and the other does not their souls cannot but be discordant (CL 241).

When one has one religion and the other has another, then from the two souls there cannot be made one soul; consequently, the fountain from which that love springs is closed…. Once when going through the streets of a great city, seeking a place of abode, I entered a house where dwelt married partners who were of diverse religions. While I was still unaware of this, angels addressed me and said, “We cannot stay with you in this house because the partners there are in discordant religions.” They perceived this from the internal disunion of their souls. (CL 242).

Those who have been born within the church, and from infancy have been imbued with the principles of the truth of the church, ought not to contract marriages with those who are outside of the church, and have thus been imbued with such things as are not of the church. The reason is that there is no conjunction between them in the spiritual world, for every one in that world is in consociation according to his good and the truth thence derived; and as there is no conjunction between such in the spiritual world, neither ought there to be any conjunction on earth. For regarded in themselves marriages are conjunctions of dispositions and of minds, the spiritual life of which is from the truths and goods of faith and of charity. On this account moreover marriages on earth between those who are of a different religion are accounted in heaven as heinous, and still more so marriages between those who are of the church and those who are outside of the church. …The origin of conjugial love is from the marriage of good and truth. When conjugial love descends from this source, it is heaven itself in man. This is destroyed when two consorts are of unlike heart from unlike faith. (AC 8998)

These teachings about interfaith marriages are strong. How do we faithfully present these teachings, and at the same time encourage people in interfaith marriages to continue in their marriages? When married partners are of different religions, should we tell them that their marriages are accounted in heaven as heinous (AC 8998), that their souls cannot be united (CL 241, 242), that angels cannot remain in their home (CL 242), that conjunction between them should not take place on earth and that heaven itself is destroyed in them (AC 8998), that such marriages naturally disintegrate (CL 241) and after death just dissolve and fade away (CL 320.3, 49, 54, 273)? I have difficulty putting forward such teachings clearly, and at the same time explaining why such marriages should last to the end of life in this world (CL 276).

These teachings about interfaith marriages emphasize the importance of the spiritual element in marriage. Still, interfaith marriage is not adultery, either naturally or spiritually. Spiritual adultery always involves an actual evil life.

What Is Spiritual Adultery?

When I have talked to people about spiritual adultery, I have found that the idea of what spiritual adultery is varies widely from person to person. Some people equate spiritual adultery with adultery in the heart, saying that a person who wishes to commit adultery and fantasizes about it (but does not commit it in act) is a spiritual adulterer. I do not think this is what the Writings mean by spiritual adultery, since they include this in the definition of natural adultery (TCR 313).

Another description of spiritual adultery I have heard is “loving something more than your spouse.” It seems to me that this definition is helpful for encouraging people to explore whether love of self and worldly things is predominating in them, but still it is not to my mind the meaning the Writings attach to “spiritual adultery”.

Others have suggested the spiritual adultery is the failure to join faith with charity. Here again, I believe the Writings mean something different. A failure to join faith with charity can be the result of ignorance or immaturity. It may be the result of a person being merely natural. But there is a big difference, to my mind, between a person who is merely natural and a person who is a spiritual adulterer. A person who is merely natural is self-centered and materialistic, although that person may from natural good disposition appear kind and trustworthy. A spiritual adulterer is one who is deliberately living an evil life and at the same time deliberately twisting the truth for selfish purposes.

The Writings define spiritual adultery simply as the conjuction of evil and falsity. (AE 710c:27, 1008:2, 618) Other passages describe spiritual adultery as falsifying the truths of the Word and adulterating its goods, blaspheming against the Lord, heaven, and the church (AE 1083), perverting the goods and falsify the truths which are of the doctrine of faith and of charity and applying the Word to confirm evils and falsities (AC 8904), and the profanation of the marriage of the Lord and the church, the marriage of good and truth, the Word and (with the Word) the church.(CL 339). Profanation is a serious evil. This is not something we can attribute to everyone who has wrong beliefs. Clearly it involves a deliberate perversion of truth together with an evil life.

From every conjunction of evil and falsity in the spiritual world a sphere of adultery flows forth, but only from those who are in falsities as to doctrine and in evils as to life; but not from those who are in falsities as to doctrine yet are in goods as to life, for with these there is no conjunction of evil and falsity, but only with the former. (AE 1007)

By “committing whoredom” is signified the falsification of truth; and by “committing adultery,” the adulteration of good. The falsification of truth is done in three ways. First: If a man is in evil of life and acknowledges the truths of doctrine; for in this case evil is within the truths, and evil falsifies truth, because evil disperses what is heavenly and Divine out of the truths, and implants what is infernal; from which comes the falsification. Second: If a man is at first in truths as to doctrine, and afterward accedes to the falsity of some other doctrine; which takes place with those only who are in evil of life; for evil seeks falsity, and eagerly seizes on it as truth. Third: If a man who is in evil as to life and in falsities as to doctrine seizes on the truths of some other doctrine, he also falsifies truths, because he does not acknowledge the truths for their own sake; but for the sake of something of gain, honor, or reputation. (AC 10648:2-3)

To make this more clear, I offer my own list of behaviors and attitudes which are not spiritual adultery:

  • Ignorance of the truth is not spiritual adultery.
  • Apathy towards the truth is not spiritual adultery. The fact that a person is uninterested in the church is not evidence of spiritual adultery.
  • Rejection of the truth is not spiritual adultery. The fact that a person refuses to join the church or becomes an atheist is not by itself evidence of spiritual adultery.
  • False belief is not spiritual adultery. The fact that a person has wrong or crazy ideas, or is a Buddhist or a Muslim is not evidence of spiritual adultery.
  • A life of evil by itself is not spiritual adultery. A person for example who is violent, but does not justify the violence by twisting the truth is not a spiritual adulterer merely on account of the violence.
  • Being unregenerate is not spiritual adultery. A person who knows truth and yet has difficulty living up to his or her ideals is not necessarily in spiritual adultery. A person who is in mediate good, who mixes good motives with selfish motives in doing what is good is not in spiritual adultery.
  • Temptations are not spiritual adultery. People who are attacked by evil spirits, but are doing the best they can, and who repent when they have done something wrong are not in spiritual adultery. Struggling with ordinary sexual urges and inherited evils is a necessary part of spiritual life, not the antithesis of it.

Spiritual adultery is a deliberate perversion of the essential truths of the church to accomplish evil purposes. I think it is important to realize that spiritual adultery is a very serious evil, not just a minor failing. In fact, if we compare natural adultery to spiritual adultery, then clearly spiritual adultery is worse, because it is spiritual adultery that makes natural adultery bad, just as it is spiritual and heavenly marriage that makes natural married love holy, pure and clean.

Spiritual and Natural Adultery Go Together

Just as true married love goes hand in hand with spiritual and heavenly marriage, so natural adultery and spiritual adultery go hand in hand. Where one is the other is as well.

The love of adultery, which is natural, exists from the love of evil and falsity, which is spiritual; consequently this spiritual is in the natural love of adultery as a cause is in its effect. (AE 991)

The conjunction of evil and falsity is spiritual adultery, from which according to correspondence natural adultery exists. (AE 1008.2)

With every man the natural and the spiritual cohere together like soul and body, for without the spiritual, which flows in and vivifies the natural, man would not be man. From this it follows, that he who is in spiritual marriage is also in a happy natural marriage and, on the other hand, that he who is in spiritual adultery is also in natural adultery, and vice versa. (CL 520)

Adultery is so great an evil that it may be called diabolism itself, for he who is in natural adultery is also in spiritual adultery, and the converse. (Life 74)

They who are not in the good and truth of faith cannot be in genuine conjugial love; and also those who find the delight of life in adulteries can no longer receive anything of faith. (AC 8904:2)

Although the merely natural man does not commit adultery, yet as he believes it to be allowable he is all the while an adulterer, since he commits adultery to the extent that he has the ability and as often as he has opportunity. (HH 531)

He who is in natural adultery is also in spiritual adultery, and the converse. …But those who from their faith and their life do not regard adulteries as sins, are in adulteries of every kind at once. (Life 74)

The body being altogether such as is the mind or spirit. Hence it follows that those who abstain from adulteries in bodily act and not from the spirit, are not chaste, as neither are those who abstain from them in spirit by reason of the body. …. Among these are also those who, being unable or not daring to commit adulteries in bodily act, condemn them in their spirit and so talk morally against them and in favour of marriages. But if they do not execrate adultery in their spirit and this from religion, they are still adulterers; for though not committing adulteries in bodily act, they yet commit them in spirit. (CL 153)

A Christian, if he marries more wives than one, commits not only natural adultery but also spiritual adultery. (CL 339)

When a man is in evil and weds falsity, or when he is in falsity and takes evil into the partnership of his bed, then, by virtue of this joint covenant, he confirms adultery and commits it so far as he dare and is able. He confirms it from evil by means of falsity, and commits it from falsity by means of evil. On the other hand, when a man is in good and weds truth, or when he is in truth and takes good with him into partnership of his bed, he confirms himself against adultery and in favour of marriage, and embraces a blessed conjugial life. (CL 428)

The falsity which is from evil is all that which a man thinks when he is in evil, namely, all that favors his evil; as for example, when he is in adultery, that which he then thinks about adultery: that it is allowable, that it is becoming, that it is the delight of life, that the procreation of offspring is thereby promoted, and so on; all these thoughts being falsities from evil. (AC 2243)

Is it Visible?

There can be no doubt from these passages that spiritual adultery and natural adultery exist together. If one is present, the other is as well. The question is, how does spiritual adultery manifest itself? I assume that the natural adultery in such a person may or may not show itself. The person may actually act out the adultery somehow, or may keep the desire for adultery hidden behind a moral external. Furthermore, the spiritual adultery with such a person may also become apparent or remain hidden behind a spiritual external.

Some might argue that spiritual adultery exists only on an internal level, and hence it can never become apparent in this world except as it manifests itself in natural adultery.

Or, one might conclude that when a person shows signs of spiritual adultery but not natural adultery, the absence of apparent natural adultery is reason to believe that the appearance of spiritual adultery is not confirmed or deliberate.

Natural Divorce for a Spiritual Marriage?

Even if we allow that we may be able to observe spiritual adultery in our partner if it becomes manifest, one could argue that the proper resolution is not legal divorce. Divorce is a worldly end to a worldly marriage when there is natural adultery. Spiritual adultery involves a sundering of the spiritual marriage of good and truth, and requires a spiritual resolution, such as divorcing ourselves from evil desires, which is repentance.

How Do We Make Judgments?

We ought not to make spiritual judgments, either about natural adultery or spiritual adultery. Any judgment we make must be qualified: “If you are in internals as you appear to be in externals, then you are an adulterer.” And obviously, there are many who are inwardly adulterers, but outwardly chaste. If the inward adultery does not appear is words and actions, we can’t judge it at all.

The only judgments we can make about any adultery, spiritual or natural, are when the inner intention of adultery appears in words and actions.

Judging Manifest Obscenity

One example of inner adultery is manifest obscenity. This is something which we can judge in other people. It is a very subjective judgment based on words and actions that suggest an adulterous intent, even when the act of physical adultery is not in evidence.

What degree of obscenity is serious enough to justify divorce? Manifest obscenity broadly defined would include almost everyone. “When one sees a beautiful and lovely woman, maiden or married, is there anyone who can so chasten the ideas in his thought and so purify them from lust that he loves her beauty, yet without at all wishing to taste it if he could? Who can turn the instinctive lust that every man feels into chasteness like that, thus into something against his own nature, and still feel love? When love for the opposite sex enters from the eyes into the thoughts, can it stop at a woman’s face? Does it not instantly descend to her breast and beyond?” (CL 55) The description of manifest obscenity is clearly speaking of an extreme situation: “manifest obscenities which do away with decency and fill and infest the home with disgraceful panderings, giving rise to a licentious shamelessness into which the whole mind is dissolved.” (CL 468)

Judging Spiritual Adultery

When we judge about spiritual adultery, just as when we judge about manifest obscenity, we make a very subjective judgment. Like any judgment, it would have to be qualified (If you are in internals as you appear in externals…). Just as with manifest obscenity, we should not make a judgment unless the behavior has become quite extreme. If we follow these caveats, might we allow spiritual adultery as grounds for divorce?

Let’s take an example of a man who lies, cheats and steals in his business, is abusive to his wife, constantly ridicules his wife’s religion when at home, but puts on a pretense of being a good Christian when in public. He talks in public about the importance of honesty, kindness and faith in God, but at home he laughs at people who actually believe that stuff. Although he once accepted the New Church, he now speaks of being saved by faith alone. He says that the Bible is inspired, but does not believe in the virgin birth or the Divinity of Christ. He seems set on destroying any religion which his wife instills in the children, laughing at their worship and expressions of faith. He says that marriage is a stupid waste of time, and constantly puts his wife down.

His wife wants a divorce. She says that she has no evidence of his having committed physical adultery, but that his behavior is much more destructive to the marriage than physical adultery would be. She says she can’t judge his internals, but his externals certainly show evidence of spiritual adultery. She claims that according to her reading of the Writings, she has grounds for divorce.

If she divorces and remarries, would she be guilty of adultery?

Some Reasons for Discomfort

There are several reasons why I feel uncomfortable with the idea of allowing spiritual adultery as a cause for divorce. First, it could be an easy excuse. People who are looking for a divorce when they really should be working on their marriage may use spiritual adultery as an excuse for a divorce. Since the boundary between spiritual adultery and ordinary evil is not very clear, almost anything could be called spiritual adultery. A second reason I feel uncomfortable with this is that the Writings do not explicitly say that spiritual adultery is cause for divorce. Another reason is that the line between making a spiritual judgment about adultery and making a judgment about spiritual adultery is not clear. I believe it is possible to judge about spiritual adultery in others when it appears, without making a spiritual judgment on the others about their going to heaven or hell. But it would be easy go beyond what we can rightly judge, and slip into making spiritual judgments that are damaging both to those we judge and to ourselves.

Although I feel uncomfortable with the idea of spiritual adultery as a cause for divorce, I also feel uncomfortable with condemning people who see this as a valid cause of divorce. The Writings do not explicitly say that spiritual adultery is not a cause for divorce, and it is a kind of adultery. Real spiritual adultery is extremely destructive, cruel and adulterous.

Is Abuse Obscene?

What Degree of Abuse?

The causes of separation in the Writings range from very mild to very serious. Considering that impiety, quarreling, uncleanness and excessive gabbling about trivial matters are legitimate causes of separation, it seems that any person in a fairly troubled marriage would not have too much difficulty finding a “legitimate” reason for separating. Such causes of separation are mild enough and temporary enough that reconciliation could easily be possible (cf. CL 289e).

Other causes of separation seem severe enough or chronic enough that reconciliation would be unlikely or impossible. For example, if a man is extremely abusive of his wife physically,it is unlikely that the abuse will stop unless the woman completely and permanently separates from him. The causes of separation include permanent, chronic conditions that last until death (CL 252, 253, 470). Consequently Swedenborg notes that the veil which concubinage puts over married love may be removed only after death (CL 475).

Any evil ranges from mild to very severe. Obviously, someone who gets drunk a few times is easier to live with than someone who has very advanced alcoholism. A person who loses his temper and on a few occasions strikes his partner is not as hard to live with as someone who is chronically enraged and cruelly abusive. A person who has a few emotional problems is not as difficult to live with as a person who is extremely psychotic. The Writings seem to suggest that the line between faults which can be tolerated and those which require separation can be drawn only by the spouse of the offending person (CL 252, 288, 471). Likewise, it is up to the offended spouse to determine whether the level of obscenity in the home justifies a divorce (CL 468).

Among the causes of separation listed in Conjugial Love are to quarrel, strike blows and take revenge (CL 252, 472). This passage does not specify the degree or object of violence here. A woman may separate from a man because he is violent with other men, or she might separate because he is violent with her. When a man fights with a woman, it may be partly his desire for her which motivates him (for example, if he is jealous). It is common for married people to fight with each other (cf. CL 294.6, 254.2, 426, 511), and this by itself is not grounds for divorce. Some have concluded on the basis of violence being a cause of separation, that spousal abuse is therefore not to be included in the definitions of adultery and manifest obscenity.

Is Murdering One’s Spouse a Form of Adultery?

Is there a point at which violence against one’s spouse becomes so directly opposed to the marriage that it becomes a form of obscenity or adultery? In extreme cases, this seems obviously true. If it is adultery for a man to divorce his wife without cause in order to marry another, then surely it is also adultery for him to kill his wife in order to marry another. (Henry VIII was probably the most famous example of this.) If a man attempts to kill his wife so that he will be free to marry someone else, but fails in his attempt, the wife, knowing the adulterous intent behind the attempted murder, has grounds to divorce him for “manifest obscenity” (i.e., an intent to commit adultery manifested in attempted murder).

Now if there is no evidence that the husband is about to become involved another woman, can he still be considered adulterous for wanting to kill his wife? The death of the spouse is a complete breaking of the legal covenant, leaving the surviving partner free to remarry (CL 320.2). If the husband attempts murder of his wife, is he not showing a desire to completely abolish the marriage covenant? Isn’t this adulterous?

What if a man stops short of murder (perhaps out of fear of the law) but seems to take delight in causing his wife pain? One of the ways adultery manifests itself is in cruelty.

It is remarkable that those who have been cruel in the life of the body have been also, more than others, adulterers. AC 840

Adulterers are in the desire of destroying society; many of them are cruel (n. 824), and thus in heart they are opposed to charity and mercy; laughing at the miseries of others; wishing to take away from every one what is his; and doing this as far as they dare. Their delight is to destroy friendships, and to bring about enmities. AC 2747

It is the delight of hatred which, becoming a fire in the extremes and being injected into the lusting flesh, becomes for the moment the delight of adultery-the soul in which the hatred lies concealed then withdrawing itself. It is for this reason that hell is called adultery, and also that adulterers are desperately unmerciful, savage and cruel. This, then, is the hellish marriage. AE 991

I think it would be wrong to say that every act of cruelty is an obscenity. For example, when a man is cruel to his enemies in war, it may be from many different motivations. However, some people have argued that a man who is constantly very cruel to his wife is showing an aversion to the marriage covenant-a manifestation of obscene intent.

Ignorance Excuses

The lowest degree of adultery, the one most easily wiped away, is adultery done in ignorance. Generally speaking, a person who commits adultery from ignorance may not be at fault, but still the adultery is classified as adultery.

However, the definition of adultery is different for different religions. For a muslim, or for a man in ancient Israel, it would not be adultery to take a second wife. For a Christian it would be. For a man in ancient Israel, it would not be adultery to divorce (on grounds other than adultery) and remarry. For a Christian it would be. Someone who is ignorant of true Christianity may have a wrong idea about what is truly adultery. Yet the Lord accepts falsity as truth when it is from innocent ignorance, and people who are ignorant are not to blame for their errors, if their intention is good. It seems to me that it is wrong to say that someone is committing “adultery” if they are acting faithfully and rightly according to their conscience and the laws of their culture. (We all know that ignorance is not always innocent. Often people want to be ignorant because they have no affection for truth. This would, of course be an entirely different case.)

Often people who get divorced without cause are ignorant of the Divine laws about divorce. It may be that they were raised outside the church, or that they weren’t taught much about this. Let’s say, for example that a woman gets divorced because her husband is an alcoholic. Some time later, she falls in love with a New Church man, joins the church and wants to remarry. Does the fact that she was ignorant about the causes for divorce make her remarriage acceptable? Can we say that her divorce and remarriage do not constitute adultery because the intent to commit adultery was not there?

We might argue that regardless of her past intentions in getting a divorce, being now aware of the teachings about divorce she should not remarry, but should seek reconciliation with her ex-husband, if possible, or if not, should stay single. This approach is based on a relatively narrow interpretation of the Lord’s teachings on marriage, and it is not clear to me that this is what the Lord intends the law to be.

Take another example: A divorced man an a divorced woman meet each other after having divorced for some time their previous spouses. Each had been divorced for reasons other than adultery (let’s say their previous spouses were alcoholics). By New Church standards they did not have grounds for their divorces, but they were acting according to their consciences at the time. After developing a happy second marriage, the couple finds the New Church, and comes to see their current marriage as a true marriage that will last to eternity. Would any of us say, “No, your current marriage is adulterous!”?

Do We Forgive Adultery?

Actually, there should be no question about whether to forgive adultery. The Lord tells us to forgive until seventy times seven. We should always be willing to forgive. The question is, How do we forgive? What form should forgiveness take? When a person is divorced for adultery, or divorces without just cause, is the path of forgiveness to prevent or discourage the person from ever remarrying? Would this be helping the person to not commit adultery in the future? Or does forgiveness involve forgetting the past and allowing a person to get on with a new marriage and new determination to avoid adultery?

Anytime someone has done something wrong, there are a number of factors which will affect our attitude and behavior toward the person.

  • Has the person stopped doing the evil? Has the observable behavior changed for the better?
  • Has the person made amends? Has everything possible been done to correct the damage that has been done?
  • Has the victim (in this case the wronged spouse) been able to heal and come to peace with the wrong that was done?
  • How long has it been? We usually find it easier to forgive wrongs that have happened in the distant past. We can assume that over a long period of time people may heal and change for the better.
  • Has the person confessed their evil? It is hard to forgive someone who never admits to doing anything wrong. Verbal repentance is not enough by itself, but when it expresses a sincere intent it helps the process along.
  • Does the person worship the Lord? When a person shows piety in their daily life, it is a sign of their growing relationship with the One who can forgive sins. We find it easier to forgive someone who shows signs of following a spiritual path.

Some of us may feel that when a person shows such signs of repentance, it is appropriate to put the past behind and allow the person to begin a new life. Others may feel that anyone who remarries after an unjust divorce (or after committing adultery) is committing adultery by that very act of remarriage, and we cannot offer forgiveness by pronouncing a blessing on further evil.

It seems clear to me that the teachings about forgiveness must have a very direct bearing on this issue, but I do not see how we can all come to agreement about how to respond to people who need our forgiveness. The law was clear that adulterers should die, when they brought to the Lord the woman caught in the act of adultery. When He asked that one without sin throw the first stone, was He upholding the law? It is not easy to bring together both parts of the Lord’s saying: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:10) Our failure to forgive adulterers as the Lord does offers us new occasions to forgive one another.

The Pursuit of Happiness

We tend to want what is just and fair. If a person becomes paralysed through an accident, we see that only death will give the person the freedom of a healthy body again. We may rebel against the unfairness of it, though. We may wonder how God could allow such a tragedy, or speculate on what sins may have brought the victim to such a state. A jury might award exhorbitant compensation to somehow make up for the unfairness of it all. A lifetime of not walking seems like a long time to suffer with injury.

People in the U.S.A. tend to think of themselves as having an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When a person is suffering with a difficult marriage, the pain can be intense. If the person’s spouse is completely unwilling or unable to work on the marraige the person can easily feel trapped and cheated. The person might ask, “Why should I have to stay married to this person who has no interest in me or my religion or my children? I have a right to liberty and pursuit of happiness. It is not fair to expect me to spend the rest of my life tied to this jerk!”

A person divorced without just cause may ask, “Why is it adultery for me to remarry? Why should I have to stay single all my life?” Such a person may reason that after death, marriages that have no internal reality are dissolved spontaneously because of the differences between the mind of the partners. Afterwards each partner is free to find happiness with someone more suitable. Should there not be some allowance for such dissolution and remarriage to take place in this life as well. Likewise, there is no objection to a person remarrying after the death of the spouse. So why should not remarriage be equally allowable after divorce? The greatest gift the Lord can give, filled with heavenly and spiritual blessings and deep happiness, is true marriage. Why should this be withheld from someone who sincerely seeks it?

A simple answer to the pursuit of happiness argument is that it is not temporal but eternal happiness that the Lord wishes for us. There are many people who have to suffer through this life with various crippling or painful conditions. For some people an unhappy marriage or the loneliness of a single state may be precisely the environment that will bring the greatest spiritual growth and eternal happiness. It is not wise to give these up for the sake of the more immediate gratification of a pleasant marriage.

Avoiding Ambiguities

My purpose in pointing to these many areas of uncertainty is not to obscure the clear teachings of the Lord, but to bring a little more clarity to it.

There are many shades of gray between the white of true marriage and the black of adultery. By looking at the many things in between adultery and marriage, we come to see the whole picture more clearly, just as a photograph with 256 shades of gray is more clear than one which has only black blobs on a white background. In fact, making everything either black or white and not allowing many shades of gray actually makes the whole picture less clear, not more clear.

Another reason for looking at these uncertainties is that there is a wide variety of opinions amongst our clergy about what constitutes the adultery that is grounds for divorce, and what conditions allow for remarriage. Since all of us base our opinions on certain passages from the Word, it can be difficult to sort out what is direct teaching and what is “derived doctrine” or opinion. I think it is important to look at what the Word actually says, and what it does not say. As we form personal and professional opinions about how to interpret the words of revelation, humility requires that we revisit our uncertainties in order to allow for others to come to differing opinions. The gray areas can keep us humble.

A further reason for examining these uncertain areas, is that it gives us a better sense of where the stable, solid areas are. Once we have gone around the pond, finding the places where the ice is thin, we may feel more confident about skating on all the other parts. Although there are certain situations in which the best path is not clear, the overall teachings about what makes marriages strong and what causes them to fail could not be more clear. If we put the primary emphasis on the primary truths-to love the Lord, love others, repent of evil, forgive one another, to look to heaven and to trust in providence, then we will have a good prescription for every marital illness.

In addition, the gray areas provide us with the freedom to judge each person’s situation differently. Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction of approval or disapproval of people whose outward behavior matches a certain stereotype, we can look a little more deeply and see what the person is really like.

The teachings in the Word have been given by the Lord to guide us in our daily life. If it seems at times that the guidance is insufficient for the problems at hand, then perhaps we are asking the wrong kinds of questions, the kinds of questions that Jesus so often answered obliquely or not at all.

I would suggest that a lack of clarity in these various areas comes primarily from looking at these issues in behavioral, legalistic terms, rather than in terms of people’s intentions. Simplistic black-and-white rules based only on behavior (e.g., remarriage after divorce is always wrong) are fine for stereotyping and judging people, but do not help people If on the other hand we try to define a complex legal code spelling out exactly what is right to do in each situation, defining the consequences of each wrong action, we will we will become tangled up in a mass of regulations and exceptions as complicated as any legal code can be. The more we try to clarify things in terms of behavior alone, the more confused we will become.

I believe the Lord has given us the teachings complete with many areas of gray specifically so that our doubts and questions will prod us to look more deeply, to see that the intention is the essential part of every action, good or evil. The more we see these issues in terms of intentions, the more we will be looking at them the way the Lord and the angels do. As a result, the real issues will become more and more clear to us.

Part Three

Making Judgments about Marriages

Two Teachings

There are two teachings in the Word that may seem to conflict:

  • Judge not. (Matt. 7:1)
  • Judge righteous judgment. (John 7:24)

The Writings tell us that we cannot understand these statements in the Word without doctrine which explains and reconciles them (SS 51). In a general way, we all know the teachings which reconcile these: We are not to make spiritual judgments of others, but it is allowable and necessary to make moral and civil judgments of others.

Yet though we would all agree on this basic teaching, we may still find ourselves divided between an inclination to judge and an inclination to allow people to judge themselves. The issues of whether to make judgments of others are part of our daily lives in work, family and social relationships; they are issues that confront us thousands of times in varying situations. Accordingly, there are many, many passages and ideas from the Word that relate to these issues. Within the idea of not judging there are whole sets of teachings, and likewise within the idea of righteous judgment.

Judge Not

The Lord tells us, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt. 7:1)

This is not an isolated teaching but part of a whole complex of teachings about how the Lord leads us and how we treat each other. Among these teachings are

  • The Lord judges no one
  • Charity looks for the good in others
  • We can’t know others’ motives
  • Evil has its own punishment
  • Do not return evil for evil

Teachings About Non-Judgment

Below are a few passages explaining that the Lord never judges or punishes anyone, and that those who are in charity do not observe evil in others.

The Lord is never angry, never punishes, or condemns, or cast into hell, but saves so far as man applies himself; for the Lord is good itself and truth itself, He is love itself and mercy itself. AE 382

He is called “blind” and “deaf” because the Lord is as if He did not see and perceive the sins of men, for He leads men gently, bending and not breaking, thus leading away from evils, and leading to good; therefore He does not chastise and punish, like one who sees and perceives. AE 409

Jehovah God or the Lord never curses any one. He is never angry with any one, never leads any one into temptation, never punishes any one, and still less does He curse any one. All this is done by the infernal crew, for such things can never proceed from the Fountain of mercy, peace, and goodness. AC 245

From these few statements it can be seen how deluded those are who think, and still more those who believe, and still more those who teach, that God can damn any one, curse any one, send any one to hell, predestine any soul to eternal death, avenge wrongs, be angry, or punish. He cannot even turn Himself away from man, nor look upon him with a stern countenance. TCR 56

Here, those who are in faith separated from charity are described by “Ham,” in his “seeing the nakedness of his father,” that is, his errors and perversions for they who are of this character see nothing else in a man; whereas–very differently–those who are in the faith of charity observe what is good, and if they see anything evil and false, they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in him, as is here said of Shem and Japheth. Where there is no charity, there there is the love of self, and therefore hatred against all who do not favor self. Consequently such persons see in the neighbor only what is evil, and if they see anything good, they either perceive it as nothing, or put a bad interpretation upon it. It is just the other way with those who are in charity. By this difference these two kinds of men are distinguished from one another, especially when they come into the other life; for then with those who are in no charity, the feeling of hatred shines forth from every single thing; they desire to examine every one, and even to judge him; nor do they desire anything more than to find out what is evil, constantly cherishing the disposition to condemn, punish, and torment. But they who are in charity scarcely see the evil of another, but observe all his goods and truths, and put a good interpretation on what is evil and false. Such are all the angels, which they have from the Lord, who bends all evil into good. AC 1079

[People who make worship consist only of externals and have no conscience or charity] are not indeed servants in the church of the Lord on earth, for there are many of them who hold high stations, and who are set over all others, who do nothing from charity and conscience, and yet observe with much strictness the externals of the church, and even condemn those who do not observe them. AC 1103

[4] [People who have not seen and lived by truths] seek nothing but faults in those who are in truths from good, in order that they may accuse and condemn them… [5] But they who are in the affection of truth for the sake of truth and of life, consequently for the sake of the Lord’s kingdom, … do not disturb anyone within the church, nor do they ever condemn others, knowing that everyone who is a church lives from his faith. AC 5432

Those who spoke with me from this exceeding high elevation, sought with avidity whatever of evil they could find against others, when yet, as I perceived, they themselves had been addicted to lasciviousness; wherefore I inquired of them why they were so intent upon discovering things of this kind and they did not seek to find out the good things (of others), and thus excuse their evils, as is the way of the Lord Himself. SE 1644

I remarked that it was not angelic to search only into a man’s evils to the neglect of his goods, and without an attempt to excuse his evils… SE 1675

The evil spirits accuse and attack; but the good excuse and defend. AC 8131

The angels even protect what is false and evil in a person, for they know very well whence his falsities and evils come, namely, from evil spirits and genii. AC 761

Those who are in no charity think nothing but evil of the neighbor, and say nothing but evil; if they say anything good, it is for their own sake, or for the sake of him whom they flatter under the appearance of friendship; whereas those who are in charity think nothing but good of their neighbor and speak only well of him, and this not for their own sake or the favor of another whom they flatter, but from the Lord thus working in charity. The former are like the evil spirits, the latter are like the angels, who are with a man. The evil spirits excite nothing but what is evil and false in the man, and condemn him; but the angels excite nothing but what is good and true, and excuse what is evil and false. From this it is evident that with those who are in no charity the evil spirits rule, through whom the man communicates with hell; and that with those who are in charity the angels rule, through whom he communicates with heaven. AC 1088

[3] Now as the angels of heaven have no perception of anything in man except his love, and his affections, desires, and delights therefrom, and thus his ends, on account of which he thinks in a certain way and in no other, so when they perceive within him the love of truth for the sake of the uses of life, which are ends, they see no falsities from evil; and if they chance to see falsities not from evil they know that these falsities do no harm, because there is no evil in them. AE 867

Those who are true men of the church are so far removed from cunning that they absolutely abhor it; and those of them who are as the angels, desire that if it were possible their minds should be open, so that what they think may be manifest to every one; for they intend nothing but good toward their neighbor, and if they see evil in any one they excuse it. AC 6655

Following this set of teachings some of us may want to take a non-judgmental approach to our ministry. We see our job as simply to present the truth. Each person will judge himself or herself by accepting or rejecting the truth from the Lord. What they do with that truth is between them and the Lord. We will never even know whether it has served for their regeneration or not. When it comes to the issue of remarriage, a non-judgmental minister might say to a couple asking for a second marriage, “Here are the teachings about divorce and remarriage. If it would be contrary to these teachings for you to remarry, then you should not marry. If you believe that you can remarry, following the Lord’s teachings in good conscience, then I will perform the ceremony for you.”

Judge Righteous Judgment

On the other hand, the Lord tells us, “Judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24) This also is part of a whole complex of teachings about judgment, including the following:

  • It is a matter of mercy to allow an evildoer to be punished
  • Everyone is allowed to make civil and moral judgments of others, as these are necessary for life in this world.
  • This world needs governors who can reward good and punish evil. (HD 312)
  • Evil is contagious. (AC 6666, CL 464, TCR 120)
  • Evil must be restrained by punishment and fear of loss of honor and gain.
  • To give an evildoer the means for doing evil is to harm the good

Teachings About Judging Evil

Evil spirits are severely punished in the world of spirits in order that by means of punishments they may be deterred from doing evil. This also appears to be from the Lord; and yet nothing of punishment there is from the Lord, but is from the evil itself; since evil is so joined with its own punishment that the two cannot be separated. For the infernal crew desire and love nothing so much as doing evil, especially inflicting punishments and torment upon others; and they maltreat and inflict punishments upon every one who is not protected by the Lord. When, therefore, evil is done from an evil heart, because it thereby discards all protection from the Lord, infernal spirits rush upon the one who does the evil, and inflict punishment. This may be partly illustrated by evils and their punishments in the world, where the two are also joined. For laws in the world prescribe a penalty for every evil; therefore he that rushes into evil rushes also into the penalty of evil. The only difference is that in the world the evil may be concealed; but in the other life it cannot be concealed. All this makes clear that the Lord does evil to no one; and that it is the same as it is in the world, where it is not the king nor the judge nor the law that is the cause of punishment to the guilty, because these are not the cause of the evil in the evil doer. HH 550

It is believed that evils too are from the Divine, because the Divine permits them, and does not take them away; and he who permits and does not take away when he is able, appears to will, and thus to be the cause. but the Divine permits because it cannot prevent, or take away; for the Divine wills nothing but good; and if it were to prevent and take away evils, that is, those of punishments, vastations, persecutions, temptations, and the like, then it would will evil, for then such persons could not be amended, and evil would increase until it had the dominion over good. The case herein is like that of a king who acquits the guilty: he is the cause of the evil afterward done by them in the kingdom; and is also the cause of the consequent license taken by others; not to mention the fact that the evil person would be confirmed in evil; and therefore a just and good king, though able to take away punishments, nevertheless cannot do it, for in this way he would not do good, but evil. Be it known that all the punishments, and also the temptations, in the other life, have good as their end. AC 8227

This appearance, or fallacy, …is circumstanced like one who sins against the laws, and on this account is judged by a king or judge, and punished, and who believes that the punishment comes from the king or judge; when yet it comes from himself, who acts contrary to the laws. AC 8282

It is the evil within the man which causes, and even leads into the temptation; and no cause of this is in God, as the cause is not in the king or in the judge, when a man does evil and suffers punishment therefor. AC 2768

But charity is to be exercised … toward an enemy or a bad man by indirect benefits, which are rendered by exhortation, discipline, punishment, and consequent amendment. This may be illustrated thus: A judge who punishes an evil-doer in accordance with law and justice, loves his neighbor; for so he makes him better, and consults the welfare of the citizens that he may not do them harm. TCR 407

That man is in charity and mercy who exercises justice and judgment by punishing the evil and rewarding the good. There is charity in punishing the evil, for to this are we impelled by our zeal to amend them, and at the same time to protect the good, lest these suffer injury at the hands of the evil. In this way does a man consult the welfare of one who is in evil, or his enemy, and express his good feeling toward him, as well as to others, and to the common weal itself; and this from charity toward the neighbor. AC 2417

In the exercise of charity man should see clearly whether he is acting from justice, and this he sees from judgment. For a man may do evil by deeds of beneficence; and by what appear to be evil deeds he may do good. For example: One who gives to a needy robber the means wherewith to buy a sword, by a beneficent act is doing evil; although the robber in begging the money did not tell what he would do with it. So again, if one rescues a robber from prison and shows him the way to a forest, saying to himself, It is not my fault that he commits robbery; I have given succor to the man. Take as another example, one who feeds an idler, and prevents his being compelled to work, saying to him, Go into a chamber in my house, and lie in bed; why should you weary yourself? Such a one favors idleness. Or again, take one who promotes relatives and friends with dishonest inclinations to offices of honor, wherein they can plot many kinds of mischief. Who cannot see that such works of charity do not proceed from any love of justice combined with judgment? [15] On the other hand, a man may do good through what appear to be evil deeds. Take as an example a judge who acquits an evil-doer because he sheds tears, pours out words of piety, and begs the judge to pardon him because he is his neighbor. But in fact a judge performs a work of charity when he decrees the man’s punishment according to the law; for he thus guards against the man’s doing further evil and being a pest to society, which is the neighbor in a higher degree, and he prevents also the scandal of an unjust judgment. Who does not know also, that it is good for servants to be chastised by their masters, or children by their parents, when they do wrong? The same is true of those in hell, all of whom are in the love of doing evil. They are kept shut up in prisons, and when they do evil are punished, which the Lord permits for the sake of their amendment. This is so because the Lord is justice itself, and does whatever He does from judgment itself. [16] From all this it can be seen clearly, why, as just said, spiritual charity is done with judgment from a love of justice, and yet from a love derived from no other source than the Lord God the Savior. TCR 459. See also AC 4730, 8121 (= HD 101) SE 4421

If our focus is on these teachings, we may think of the priest’s role as one requiring judgment for the sake of order. The priest is a governor who is to punish those who are not in order (cf. HD 312). If someone comes to us for remarriage, we may say, “Before I agree to perform this ceremony, I must look at your situation, your reasons for the divorce and the behavior of you and your ex-partner, to see whether a remarriage would be contrary to the Lord’s teachings. If I find that your relationship is not according to Divine order, I cannot perform a marriage; and I will tell you that for you do to so would be to commit adultery. If you then marry against my warning, I will advise church members that your relationship is adulterous and should not be supported.”

Bringing These Two Teachings Together

Because there are these two different sets of teachings, there is a lot a variety in emphasis from one to another of us in how we bring the two sets together. Those who emphasize the need for judgment may tend to look on the non-judgmental ones as wishy-washy and spineless, while those who see themselves as non-judgmental may look on those who are willing to make the tough decisions as rigid and unmerciful.

The general teaching is that we are not allowed to make spiritual judgments, but we must make civil and moral judgments; that is, we can’t judge whether someone will go to heaven or hell, but we must make appropriate responses to people’s behavior in this world.

No one is ever allowed to judge concerning the quality of the spiritual life of another, for the Lord alone knows this;… but every one may judge of another in regard to the quality of his moral and civil life, for this concerns society. AC 2284

Judge not that you be not condemned,… (Matt 7: 1)

That no other thought or judgment is here meant than concerning the spiritual life of another can be seen from this, that it is permissible to every one to think about the moral and civil life of another, and to judge of it; without such thought and judgment concerning others no civil society could subsist; therefore “not to judge and condemn” signifies not to think evil of the neighbor spiritually understood, that is, of his faith and love, which belong to man’s spiritual life, for these lie concealed in his interiors, and therefore are unknown to anyone except the Lord alone. AE 629. See also CL 523, 485, De Verbo 15, SE 1220, 4425

This distinction between spiritual judgments that we can’t make and civil or moral judgments that we can make allows us to see how both teachings (“Judge not” and “Judge justly”) are true.

Twisted teachings

Both these sets of teachings can be distorted. The teachings about judging justly can be used to justify revenge and prejudice. The teachings about not judging can be used to give license to lust-“to confirm the notion that it is not to be said of what is evil that it is evil, thus that an evil person is not to be judged to be evil.” (SS 51; cf. CL 79.7).

This means that there are in general four ways to approach any issue:

Judge justlyJudge Not
Judge vengefullyGive License to Lust

I would suggest that it doesn’t much matter whether we are on the left or right of this chart. In fact, we could embrace both at the same time. What matters is that we avoid the bottom and move towards the top.

How We See the Lord

At the heart of this issue is our vision of the Lord. On the one hand, we have a great many teachings about the Lord’s mercy and love: He never punishes, never judges anyone. On the other hand, we have teachings that the Lord’s mercy works through repentance and keeping of the Commandments, and works to protect the good and overcome evil, even by permitting punishments. Both these sets of teachings about the Lord are important.

It is also true that both sets of teachings can be distorted. The idea of the Lord’s mercy can be twisted into the idea that from mercy the Lord can instantly save anyone (particularly “believers”) completely apart from the means of salvation that the Word teaches. The idea that the Lord permits evil to punish itself can be twisted into the concept that God’s “justice” requires the damnation of the human race and that God casts people into hell in order that His offended sense of justice can be satisfied.

“My judgment is just”“I judge no one”
God punishes people and casts them into hellGod saves instantly without regard to a person’s life

Again, it does not matter so much whether we are on the left or right side of this chart; it is important that we move away from the bottom towards the top.

The way we view the Lord is the central issue in all of this. Our job as priests is to represent the Lord, and our civil and moral decisions ought to reflect both the mercy and the justice of the Lord.

Can We Judge Intentions?

As I stated above the teachings give us a general resolution to this “judge not/judge justly” paradox by indicating that we may not make spiritual judgments, but that we may make moral and civil judgments. We can judge externals, but not internals. We may make judgments about a person’s actions and relationships with others, but not about their eternal lot. When we look at particular situations, however, we may find that it is not always clear where to draw the line between inner spiritual issues and outward natural ones. There is a middle ground between the spiritual and the natural that allows us some view of the inner workings of a person’s mind, without allowing us to make a definitive judgment of a person’s spiritual state.

This middle ground involves judging people’s intentions. Here again we find two sets of teachings. One set clearly says that we cannot judge the intentions of others because they are known to the Lord alone. The other set tells us that we can see people’s intentions and ought to judge them accordingly.

We Ought Not Judge Intentions

I have often heard it said by members of our church that we should not judge other people’s intentions, for this is to make a spiritual judgment. There are many passages which support this statement.

End known to the Lord alone

The Affections of a Man’s Life’s Love Are Known to the Lord Alone. DP 197

But no one except the Lord alone can judge any one according to his acts; because all acts proceed from final causes, which lie deeply concealed within. Man is judged according to these causes; and no one knows them but the Lord. therefore judgment belongs to Him alone AC 8620

They of whom men judged harshly are good in the other life, and they of whom men judged well in the life of the body are evil, because men do not know how to judge but from externals; nor do they know whether (persons) act from ignorance, and what was their end; for the end is known to the Lord alone. SE 2459

But as to what concerns the interiors, as to the life of faith, and such things, concerning these we must not judge; (because) the Lord alone knows them. A thousand persons may appear alike in externals, nay, speak alike, and yet be altogether different as to those things, and the ends of each one as to them can never be known; to judge from actions concerning them is to be deceived; … [T]he interior ends of the life never appear before others in the life of the body, wherefore we are not to judge concerning them. From much experience it is known to me, that (many of) those concerning whom the world has judged evil, as to their interiors, are among the blessed, and on the other hand, that (many of) those of whom men have judged well, are among the unhappy. SE 4426

It is therefore the part of a wise man to know the ends that are in him…. A man can explore these things in himself, but not in others; for the ends of each man’s affection are known to the Lord alone. AC 3796

What mortal person knows who is licentious at heart and who is married at heart? And yet it is the thoughts of the heart, or purposes of the will, which judge everyone. CL 523

A judge determines his verdict in accordance with a person’s deeds, whereas everyone is judged after death in accordance with the intentions of his will and consequent intellect, and in accordance with the persuasions of his intellect and consequent will. Neither of these does a judge see. CL 485

Wise People Judge by Intentions

The above statements about not judging other people’s intentions provide part of the picture. Another part is provided by statements that we can and should judge the intentions of others-that it is the wise and truly charitable thing to do.

No love can ever become pure in human beings, nor in angels. So neither can this love. But because the Lord primarily regards the intention that is in the will, therefore to the extent that a person has the intention and perseveres in it, to that extent he is introduced into the purity and holiness of this love, and gradually makes progress in it. CL 71, cf. 146.2

A person is a person of such a character as he is in his purpose, intention or end, and so he also appears to the Lord and to angels; indeed, so he is also regarded by wise men in the world. For the intention is the soul in all actions, and it forms the basis for condemnations and exonerations in the world, and imputations after death. CL 452

Who that is wise regards a man from his deeds alone, and not from his will? If the will is good he loves the deeds; but if the will is evil he does not love the deeds. He sees the deeds also, but interprets them according to the intention of the will. He who is spiritual attends still less to the deeds, but explores the will; for the reason already given, that deeds in themselves are nothing, but all that they are is from the will, for deeds are the will in act. AE 98

“Works” signify the things that are of life because they are the effects of life, for they proceed from the life of every one. If the life is good the works are good, but if the life is evil the works are evil. The life that is in works is the intention, which is of the will, and of the thought therefrom; and this life is the life of man’s spirit; for it is the spirit in man that intends and thinks. Without this life in works they would be only nations like those of automatons. For this reason the wise do not look at the works, but at the life that is in the works, namely, at the intention. This is especially true of the angels who are with man; they do not see his works, but only the intentions of his mind, and conclude therefrom what the man’s state is. AE 185

For the Lord says that every tree is known by its fruit. Does not every one know another from his works, if he attends to them with reference to the end and purpose of his will, and the intention and reason from which they are done? To these things all angels direct their attention, as well as all in our own world who are wise. TCR 96

Therefore endeavor and will, as the internal act, are accepted by every wise man, because they are accepted by God, precisely as the external act, provided there is no failure when opportunity offers.” TCR 387, AR 875

In every created thing in the world, whether living or dead, there is an internal and an external; one never exists without the other, as there is no effect without a cause; and every created thing is esteemed according to its internal goodness, or is deemed base if internally malignant, as external goodness is when within it there is internal malignity. Every wise man in the world and every angel in heaven so judges. TCR 595.

It is wisdom to regard others from such things as are with them and which constitute them. For every angel, spirit, and man is his love and his affection, thus his good and his truth therefrom; and as these are what constitute them, and as they are wise, they must needs regard others according to what constitutes them. AE 828.

It is the part of an intelligent man to look at ends. AC 5094.4

He who is intelligent does not attend to a man’s deeds, but only to the will from which, by which, and on account of which, the deeds come forth. Nay, he who is wise scarcely sees the deeds, but only the nature and amount of the will in them. AC 9293

A man has as the end that which he loves above all things; in each and all things he has regard to this; it is in his will like the hidden current of a river which draws and bears him away, even when he is doing something else, for it is what animates him. It is this which one man searches out in another, and also sees, and according to it either leads him, or acts with him. AC 8855 (=HD 56)

The angels regard everyone in the light of his purpose, intention or end, and make distinctions accordingly; and that they therefore excuse or condemn those whom the end excuses or condemns, since an end for good is the end of all in heaven, and an end for evil the end of all in hell. This, too, they said, and nothing else, is meant by the Lord’s words, “Judge not, that you be not condemned.” (Matthew 7:1) CL 453

Resolving these teachings

These two sets of teachings about intentions make it clear that our judgments of others need to be balanced. The need to look beyond actions to intentions has to be balanced by a recognition that only the Lord can see all of a person’s intentions.

To a certain extent, it is the apparent conflict between these teachings that can keep us watchful and balanced. As long as we keep both sets of teachings in mind, we are less likely to err either by making spiritual judgments, or by failing to look at intentions at all. I think it is healthy for us to be faced with some uncertainty as we tackle difficult issues of justice and judgment, and the Lord’s teachings provide us with both enough direction to allow us to progress and enough uncertainty to keep us humble.

Yet if uncertainty should lead to humility, humility might lead to wisdom, and our goal is to gain greater wisdom in making these judgments, and perhaps that can come in part from further examination of this area of judging intentions, which forms that middle ground between judging a person’s heavenly state and judging their worldly state.

Rational and Moral Judgments

Some clarity about judging intentions may come from thinking of the degrees of the mind. The mind has many levels (celestial, spiritual, rational, natural, sensual, corporeal), and on each level there is will and understanding. Thus there are various levels of intentions, some of which are more visible than others.

For the purposes of this study, I wish to focus on three levels: the spiritual, the rational (which I see as being mostly on the same level as moral life) and the natural (here, in relation to civil life). I am focusing on these three levels because they are addressed in passages about judging others, and especially about judging marriages. For example, CL 523 mentions civil, moral and spiritual judgments, and CL 485 speaks in a similar way of three kinds of judgments: “Events are regarded in one way by a person on the basis of his rational sight, in another way by a judge on the basis of the law, and in another way by the Lord on the basis of the state of the person’s mind.”

I think it is mostly on the moral level that we experience the uncertainty of not knowing how much we can judge. Civil good and evil are defined by the law of the land, and judgments about it go to the courts. Spiritual good and evil are extensively described in the teachings and making judgments about anyone except possibly ourselves is forbidden. On a moral level we judge as individuals according to our rational light (which varies from person to person). At the same time, the moral level, more than the civil level, is concerned with motivations, circumstances and contingencies. This leaves plenty of room for uncertainty, and yet it is on this level that we make most of our judgments about marriages. It is for this reason that I would like to focus on moral, rational judgments in search of clarity on this issue.

Spiritual, Moral and Civil Levels

There are many teachings about these levels, so I can only offer a brief summary here. Here are some of the passages that have helped to formulate my thinking.

Three Kinds of Law

Civil, moral and spiritual levels

There is civil truth, moral truth and spiritual truth. (DP 36)

…the justice of civil laws, the virtues of moral life, and matters of doctrine and the spiritual life… (DP 104)

…the civil institutions of the state, the moral principles of reason and the spiritual things of the Church… (DP 109)

Man is able to know what civil evil and civil good are, also what moral evil and moral good are, and also, if he will, what spiritual evil and spiritual good are. (DP 276)

Good is distinguished, according to degrees, into civil good, moral good, and spiritual good. (Charity 55)

The laws of the Decalogue first become civil laws, afterwards moral, and finally spiritual. (Charity 59)

There are three kinds of truths, civil, moral, and spiritual. Civil truths relate to matters of judgment and of government in kingdoms, and in general to what is just and equitable in them. Moral truths pertain to the matters of every one’s life which have regard to companionships and social relations, in general to what is honest and right, and in particular to virtues of every kind. But spiritual truths relate to matters of heaven and of the church, and in general to the good of love and the truth of faith. HH 468

One can learn in the world what civil and moral good and truth are, which are called justice and honesty, because there are civil laws in the world that teach what is just, and there is interaction with others whereby man learns to live in accordance with moral laws, all of which have relation to what is honest and right. But spiritual good and truth are learned from heaven, not from the world. HH 512

Charity itself regards first the good of man’s soul; and loves that because conjunction is effected by it. Next to that it regards his moral good; and loves it, just in proportion as he lives a moral life according to the perfection of reason. And, lastly, it regards civil good, according to what the man is in his intercourse with the world. Through his civil good the man is a man of the world; according to his moral good he is a man above the world, and lower than heaven; and according to his spiritual good he is a man of heaven, or an angel. (Charity 60)

Furthermore, the laws of spiritual life, the laws of civil life, and the laws of moral life are set forth in the ten commandments of the Decalogue; in the first three the laws of spiritual life, in the four that follow the laws of civil life, and in the last three the laws of moral life. HH 531

The principle that marriages once contracted are to continue on to the end of life in the world is based on Divine law, and being based on this, it is a matter also of rational law and therefore of civil law. It is based on the Divine law which says that it is not lawful to divorce a wife and marry another excepting on the grounds of licentiousness, as cited above. It is a matter of rational law, because rational law is founded on spiritual law, since the Divine law and rational law are the same. CL 276

…Since there are many kinds of loves, some in harmony and others discordant, it follows that there are likewise many kinds of freedom; but in general there are three, natural, rational and spiritual.

Natural freedom every man has from inheritance. From it man [3] loves nothing but self and the world: his first love is nothing else. Since all evils exist from these two loves, and hence also become evils of love, it follows that to think and to will evils is man’s natural freedom; and that when he has confirmed evils in himself by reasonings he does evils from freedom in accordance with his reason. … so far as civil laws do not restrain

[5] Rational freedom is from the love of reputation for the sake of honor and gain. The delight of this love is to appear externally as a moral man; and because such a one loves this reputation, he does not defraud, commit adultery, take revenge, or blaspheme; and because he makes his conduct a matter of reason, he also from freedom according to his reason acts in sincere, chaste and friendly ways; indeed, he can from reason speak well of such conduct….

[6] Spiritual freedom is from the love of eternal life. Into this love and its delight no one comes but the man who thinks that evils are sins, and consequently does not will them, and at the same time looks to the Lord. DP 73

That circumstances and contingent factors vary every case is something people know. However, events are still regarded in one way by a person on the basis of his rational sight, in another way by a judge on the basis of the law, and in another way by the Lord on the basis of the state of the person’s mind. Therefore we distinguish between attributions, convictions, and, after death, imputations. For attributions are determined by a person in accordance with his rational sight; convictions by a judge in accordance with the law; and imputations by the Lord in accordance with the person’s state of mind. CL 485

These Levels Should Not Be Confused

The Writings tell us that these levels are distinct from each other, and should not be confused. I think we gain some clarity about making moral judgments by seeing more clearly the distinctions between spiritual, moral and civil levels of life.

When the life of man is scanned and explored by rational insight it is found to be threefold, namely, spiritual, moral, and civil, with these three lives distinct from each other. HH 529

There is in every man something that is interior, and something still interior to that, and indeed an inmost and that his corporeal and sensuous part is only the outermost. Desires, and things of the memory, are interior; affections and rational things are interior still to these; and the will of good and understanding of truth are inmost. And these are so distinct from each other that nothing can ever be more distinct. The corporeal man makes all these into a one, and confounds them. AC 634.2

These are so distinct from each other that they should never be confused. AC 657. See also 978, 1889, 1904.

As an aid to seeing the distinctions more clearly I offer this summary of some of the teachings about them. Summary of Teachings about Spiritual, Moral and Civil Levels

Kind of Law Spiritual, Divine Law Rational, Moral Law Natural, Civil Law CL 276
Kind of life The Church and Heaven Everyday-life and
Politics and
HH 468
Qualities What is good and true What is honorable and becoming What is just and fair AC 2915, 4366
Kind of
Spiritual Freedom to do what is good from love of eternal life Rational Freedom to appear moral from love of reputation Natural Freedom to do evil so far as civil law allows DP 73
How evil is restrained Shunning evils as sins, conscience Fear of Loss of Reputation, honor and gain Fear of Punishment DP 249
What kind of person belongs to heaven above the world, below heaven belongs to the world Char 60
How we learn From heaven From relationships with others From civil laws of our country HH 512
Decalogue Have no other Gods,
Don’t Use Profanity
Remember Sabbath
Don’t lie or covet Honor Parents
Don’t Kill, Steal, Commit Adultery
HH 531
Can we judge? Forbidden to judge in others Allowable and necessary
to judge in others
AC 2284,
CL 523, etc.
Kind of Judgment Imputation Attributions Convictions CL 485
Who can judge? Only the Lord A person from rational light A judge CL 485

The Rational Is Intermediate

One other point that may help us see these levels clearly is to see that the rational or moral level is intermediate, and so it partakes of both the spiritual and the civil levels. It is often said that the rational mind is intermediate between the spiritual internal and the natural external. (AC 978, 1015, 1702, 1889, 1893, 1900, 1904, 1940, 2181, 2187, AE 995, 798). We are also told that what is intermediate “derives something from each extreme, otherwise it could not serve as an intermediate.” (AC 4585) This also seems to be reflected in the teaching that from spiritual good a person belongs to heaven, from civil good the person belongs to the world, and from moral good is above the world, but below heaven. (Charity 60)

This suggests to me that moral judgments are intermediate between civil judgments and spiritual judgments. While moral judgments cannot extend to a person’s spiritual state, they do go beyond appearances and beyond the kind of evidence that would satisfy civil law. Spiritual judgments look at all a person’s intentions, which cannot be known in this world. Civil judgments are based primarily on a person’s speech and actions. Moral judgments are somewhere in between, looking at a person’s intentions, but only so far as they appear in this world and we can discern them. Spiritual

How Do We Make Rational Moral Judgments?

If moral judgments should look beyond words and actions to a persons motivation, how do we do this? How can we make truly just judgments about the morality and motives of others?

We Think Interiorly, Be Wise, Rational and Moral

The Lord says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Taken out of context, this may say that we should not make judgments of others, but looking further we see that it say, “…with what judgment you judge you will be judged…. First take the plank out of your own eye so you may see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” This implies that we may make judgments, as long as we judge ourselves first and foremostly and live by the same standards that we would judge others. Thus the kind of person we become is an essential element of good judgment.

I have quoted above a number of passages that say that those who are wise look at others in terms of their intentions or ends. One of the keys to making just judgments, I would suggest, is to be wise. The ability to make moral judgments does not come from following formulas or written rules (which may be the case with civil law), but from being a moral, rational, wise person, and making the judgments from the right motives.

We learn moral law by having civil law as a basis (See Charity 59, HH 529, AC 3701). We gain it from rational principles. “Moral good is that which a person does from the law of reason” (Life 12). We also learn morality by interaction with others. (HH 512). Ultimately as we become more interior through regeneration, we come to view others on a more interior level. As a person progresses in regeneration,

…regard is no longer had to any person as he appears in the external form but to his quality in respect to good first in civil life, next in moral life, and lastly in spiritual life; and good is that which the man then begins to hold and love in the prior place, and from good to love the person; and at last, when he is still further perfected, he takes care to do good to those who are in good, and this in accordance with the quality of the good in them. AC 3701

A person who is in love and charity becomes wise because the mind is raised to more interior things (AE 563.2, AC 6629) Sensual things come to be in the last place. (AE 543) He comes more into the light of heaven, (AE 563.2, and is able to see the interior things of the Word (AC 2520).

I think that “interior” things involve ends or intentions. The rational is the ability to look towards ends, given to every person according to the uses which are ends that he loves (AE 569.5) A person’s good ends are in his rational and are called his rational good (AC 3570.3). Thus a person who is rational is thinking from ends and looking to ends. His thought is raised above material things (AE 1147).

Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearances, but judge just judgment.” This implies that when we judge we must lift our minds about material things, above mere actions and words, and judge from interior things, that is, from ends. In order to rightly judge others in light of their intentions, we must have good intentions ourselves. “A judge who punishes an evil-doer in accordance with law and justice, loves his neighbor…. The end in view declares whether it is charity or not.” (TCR 407) It does not matter whether the judgments outwardly appear good or bad. “For a man may do evil by deeds of beneficence; and by what appear to be evil deeds he may do good.” (TCR 459) What matters is the kind of thinking and purpose that goes into the judgment-that it is done with judgment from a love of justice (ibid.).

We Look at Actions

The Word teaches us repeatedly that all will be judged according to their works. (HH 471) The primary way in which we can know the ends in anyone is through their actions. This is because every action comes from some intention, and actions are the primary way in which intentions express themselves.

“It is allowable to explore the civil and moral life of men from their words and actions.” (SE 1220)

“To do is to will, and to will is to do; because in deeds the will is everything.” (AE 15)

“Thinking good and willing good are not possible without doing good.” (AC 3934)

It must be understood that in deeds or works the whole man is exhibited, and that his will and thought or his love and faith, which are his interiors, are not complete until they exist in deeds or works, which are his exteriors, for these are the outmosts in which the will and thought terminate, and without such terminations they are interminate, and have as yet no existence, that is, are not yet in the man. … Every one can know that willing and not doing, when there is opportunity, is not willing; also that loving and not doing good, when there is opportunity, is not loving, but mere thought that one wills and loves; and this is thought separate, which vanishes and is dissipated. Love and will constitute the soul itself or a deed or work, and give form to its body in the honest and just things that the man does. HH 475

It is according to angelic wisdom that unless the will and understanding, that is, affection and thought, as well as charity and faith, clothe and wrap themselves in works or deeds, whenever possible, they are only like something airy which passes away, or like phantoms in air which perish; and that they first become permanent in man and a part of his life, when he practices and does them. DLW 216

The all of charity and faith is in works, and charity and faith without works are like rainbows about the sun, which vanish away and are dispersed by a cloud. On this account “works” and “doing works” are so often mentioned in the Word, and it is said that a man’s salvation depends upon these; moreover, one who does them is called a wise man, and one who does not do them is called a foolish man. But it should be remembered that by “works” here are meant uses actually done; for the all of charity and faith is in uses and according to uses. DLW 220

Nothing is done in or through the body except from the will through the thought; and because both of these act, it must needs be that each and all things of the will and thought are present in the action. They cannot be separated; consequently from a man’s deeds or works others judge of the thought of his will, which is called his intention. DLW 215

Although deeds are the fundamental expression of intentions, they are not they only way that intentions become visible, and (as we have seen), a wise person will look more at the intentions within the deeds than at the deeds themselves. The intention or end is the essence of the deed, and it is the end that determines the quality of the deed, not the deed that determines the quality of the end.

Be it known that it is the end that determines the quality of all a man’s deeds. If his end or intention is to do good for the sake of reputation, or to acquire honors or profit, then the good which he does is not good, because it is done for the sake of himself, and thus also from himself. But if his end is to do good for the sake of a fellow citizen, his country, or the church, thus for the sake of the neighbor, then the good which the man does is good. AC 9210

The charity the external form of which appears as charity is not always charity in the internal form. Its quality and its source are known from its end. The charity that comes from a selfish or worldly end in its internal form is not charity, neither ought it to be called charity; but the charity that regards as its end the neighbor, the general good, heaven, and thus the Lord, is real charity, and has within it the affection of doing good from the heart, and the derivative delight of life which in the other life becomes bliss. It is of the utmost importance to know this, in order that man may know what the Lord’s kingdom is in itself. AC 3776

A person’s character is such as that of his will and intellect. So, too, the character of a person’s action in itself is such as that of the affection of his will which produces it, and the character of a person’s speech in itself is such as that of the thought of his intellect which produces it. Therefore a number of people may do and say the same things, and yet be acting and speaking differently, one doing so from a corrupt will and thought, another from an upright will and thought. CL 527

So it is not from deeds in themselves, but from the intentions within the deeds that we come to know a person’s quality. “Does not every one know another from his works,if he attends to them with reference to the end and purpose of his will, and the intention and reason from which they are done?” (TCR 96)

We have already seen that a wise person looks not at deeds themselves, but at the intentions within the deeds (AE 185). He interprets the deeds according to the intention of the will (AE 98)

“He scarcely sees the deeds, but only the nature and amount of the will in them.” (AC 9293)

A person is a person of such a character as he is in his purpose, intention or end, and so he also appears to the Lord and to angels; indeed, so he is also regarded by wise men in the world. For the intention is the soul in all actions, and it forms the basis for condemnations and exonerations in the world, and imputations after death. CL 452

If, as these passages suggest, a wise person can see view actions in light of intentions differently than the actions alone would be regarded, then there must be something more than mere actions from which the intentions are discerned. So we look next at what besides actions can indicate to us the kind of intentions a person has.

We Look for Indications of Intentions


The Lord says, “By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.” (Matt. 12.37) The reason for this is that our words flow from our ends or loves, and so the end or love can be see within the words.

In its first origin this is the end which the man desires to set forth by the speech. This end is his love; for what a man loves, he has as his end. From this flows the man’s thought, and finally his speech…. This being so, the man who attends to the speech of another does not attend to the expressions or words of the speech, but to their sense, which comes from the thought of the speaker; and he who is wise attends to the end for the sake of which he spoke from his thought; that is, to what he intends and what he loves. AC 9407

Of course, a person’s words are sometimes contrary to their actions. It is not words alone that show the end, but the words taken together with the person’s actions and life.

No one is to be judged of by wise speaking, but by his life; that is, not by wise speaking separate from life, but by wise speaking conjoined to life. By life is meant love. DLW 418.


If we consider the teaching in Divine Providence that rational freedom is the freedom to appear like a moral person even when one is not moral, we can see that such freedom would not exist if we could definitively judge anybody’s morality. I find the following passage fascinating because it describes the difficulty of discerning the nature of a person’s rational mind, and yet shows that there are certain signs by which we might observe the orientation of the rational mind of others.

The man in whom sensuous things are in subjection is called rational, but the man in whom they are not in subjection is called sensuous; but whether a man is rational or sensuous can scarcely (aegre) be discerned by others; but it can be discerned by himself if he explores his interiors, that is, his will and his thought. Whether a man is sensuous or rational cannot be known by others from his speech or from his actions; for the life of the thought which is in the speech, and the life of the will which is in the actions, do not appear to any bodily sense. Only the sound is heard and the gesture seen together with their affection, and it is not distinguished whether the affection is pretended or real; but in the other life this is distinctly perceived by those who are in good, both as to what is in the speech and what is in the actions; thus what is the quality of the life, and also from what source the life therein is derived. In this world also there are some signs from which it can in some measure be inferred whether sensuous things are subject to the rational, or the rational to sensuous things, or what is the same, whether a man is rational or merely sensuous. The signs are these. If it is observed that a man is in principles of falsity, and does not suffer himself to be enlightened, but entirely rejects truths, and without reason obstinately defends falsities, this is a sign that he is a sensuous man, and not a rational, the rational being closed in him, so that it does not admit the light of heaven. AC 5128.2

Notice that this does not allow us to make a definitive judgment, but merely “to in some measure infer” the state of a person’s mind. The passage goes on to explain further indications of rationality:

The principal sign whether a man is merely sensuous or is rational, is from his life; not such as appears in his speech and his works, but such as it is within these; for the life of the speech is from the thought, and the life of the works is from the will, and that of both is from the intention or end. Such therefore as is the intention or end within the speech and the works, such is the life; for speech without interior life is mere sound, and works without interior life are mere movements….

There are two things which not only close up the way of communication, but even deprive a man of the capacity of ever becoming rational-deceit and profanation….

From these signs it may in some measure be known who is a rational, and who a sensuous man. AC 5128.4

Here is another passage which gives us some similar clues to look for:

That the natural is threefold can be seen in men who while they are in the world are either rational or sensual or intermediate. Which of these they are is clear especially from their perception of civil, moral and spiritual laws. Those are rational who think, judge, and conclude well from reason, and the thoughts of such are raised above material things; but those who are sensual think from material things and in them, and what they speak from thought is only from the memory. As there are these two degrees, there is also an intermediate degree which is called the natural. What men are can be known also from their understanding of the Word. The rational draw from the sense of the letter such things as pertain to doctrine, while the sensual abide in the letter only and draw from it nothing more interior. AE 1147

Face, Tone, Gesture

Another way in which come to know what is in a person’s mind is through their expressions.

The disposition and affections, or the interiors that belong to man’s mind, present themselves to be seen in the face; this is why the face is said to be an index of the mind; the face also is an effigy of the interiors of man, for it represents them, and his countenance corresponds to them. AE 412

The things of the mind, that is, of the thought and will so beam forth from the face that they are manifest in its expression; especially is this the case with the affections, the more interior of which are seen from and in the eyes. AC 2988

There is a correspondence of the internal things of man with all things of the face, and hence the animus shines forth from the countenance, and the interior animus or mind from the eyes. There is also a correspondence of the thoughts and affections with the actions and gestures of the body; as is well known in regard to those which are of a voluntary as well as those which are of an involuntary character. For humiliation of heart produces kneeling, which is an external gesture of the body; humiliation still greater and more internal produces prostration to the earth; gladness of heart and joy of mind produce singing and joyful shouting; sadness and internal mourning produce weeping and wailing; but conjunction from affection produces kissing. From all this it is evident that because such external acts correspond, they are signs of things internal; and that in them as signs there is an internal from which they take their quality. But with those who desire to counterfeit internal things by means of external, such externals are also signs, but signs of simulation, hypocrisy, and deceit. AC 4215

What is good and true in the spiritual life man sees almost in the same way as he sees the mind (animus) of another in his face, and perceives his affections from the tone of his voice, with no other knowledge than what is inherent in everyone. Why should not a man see in some measure from influx the interior things of his life, which are spiritual and moral, when there is no animal which does not know by influx the things necessary for it, which are natural? DP 317

Circumstances and Contingencies

CL 485-6 says that a rational person judges others according to “circumstances and contingencies” that a judge may not be able to take into account. Some examples are ignorance, extreme simplicity, delirium, illness, drunkenness. We are told that “it is evident” that the inward self is not fully present in the mind under such circumstances. So these circumstances give us a clue to what the person’s intentions are. Obviously, other circumstances, such as whether an act is premeditated or committed repeatedly, give us different kinds of clues about a person’s intentions.

Relationships with Other People

Moral good is defined as “the rational good according to which man lives with man, as a brother and associate” (Char. 57), and “the good of life in society” (HD 106). It is what we learn through interaction with others (HH 512). When we are making judgments about marriages, relationships are what we are judging. The marital relationship is connected with other relationships, and the various relationships are connected. So we may make judgments about a man’s intentions for his marriage on the basis of what we know of his interactions with women other than his wife. Or, understanding his relationship with his wife may help us know whether other relationships are chaste. (For example, concubinage is only allowable if a man is first separated from his wife.)

Swedenborg says of people who in fornication prefer adultery and regard all kinds of promiscuity and debauchery as allowable, and think of marriages in the same way, that “It is evident in itself that such people do not have in them a good or chaste purpose, intention or end to exonerate them.” (CL 453). This lack of a good intention is evident in part from the unchaste relationships the person is involved in. It may also be evident from his thought that adulteries are allowable.

What Is Allowable?

We can get some idea about what a person’s intentions are by knowing what the person regards as sins and what the person regards as allowable.

Lusts through their own delights produce evils; but when evils are believed to be allowable, which comes from consent of the will and the understanding, then the delights and the evils make one. It is well known that consent is deed; and this is what the Lord says:

Whoever looks on the wife of another to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matt. 5.28)

It is the same with all other evils. DP 111

For whatever a man within himself regards as allowable that he does. To regard as allowable is of the will, is endeavor, and in spirit is done; and it will be done in the body when obstacles are removed. Doctrine of Charity 5; cf. HH 531

We may never know what a person regards as allowable, but sometimes this seems to be evident from the way people voice approval of certain evils.

Worship of the Lord

Another sign of what goes on inwardly in a person is the way the person gives expression to his or her relationship with the Lord. External worship is a sign of charity. (Life 114, Charity 173-177, SE 4099, 6105) “By a sign is meant an indication and evidence that it exists; for it expresses and signifies and indicates and hears witness of it. There is no internal without its sign and indication.” (Charity. 182-3)

The externals of the body which pertain to worship are:-(1) Frequenting temples. (2) Listening to sermons. (3) Devoutly singing, and praying on the knees. (4) Partaking the Sacrament of the Supper. And at home:–(1) Prayer morning and evening, and at dinners and suppers. (2) Conversing with others about charity and faith, and about God, heaven, eternal life, and salvation. (3) And in the case of priests, preaching, and also private instruction. (4) And with every one, the instruction of children and servants in such matters. (5) Reading the Word, and books of instruction and of piety.

The externals of the mind which pertain to worship are:- (1) Thought and meditation concerning God, and concerning heaven, eternal life, and salvation. (2) Reflection upon one’s thoughts and intentions, as to whether they are evil or good, and that the evil are from the devil, and the good from God. (3) Aversion of one’s mind from impious, obscene, and filthy language. (4) Besides thoughts, there are also affections which come to the sight and sense of a man. Charity 174, 175

Notice that these externals of the mind are affection and thoughts that “come to the sight and sense of a person.” This suggests that these are things that we can to some extent see in others, and so have some indication of what their deeper motives may be.

Similarly there are signs of conjunction with heaven (life according to the Word and acknowledgment of the Lord’s Divinity-SE 5933), and “signs that sins are remitted.”

They whose sins are remitted, perceive a delight in worshipping God for the sake of God, and in serving their neighbor for the sake of their neighbor, thus in doing good for the sake of good, and in speaking truth for the sake of truth; they are unwilling to claim merit by anything of charity and faith; they shun and are averse to evils, as enmities, hatreds, revenges, adulteries, and the very thoughts of such things with intention. HD 167, AC 9449, 9450

External worship can exist without internal worship, and the signs that sins are remitted may perhaps be more signs to oneself than to others, so again we can’t make any specific judgment on the basis of these signs, but only a general one: “If you are in internals as you appear to be in externals…” (CL 523). Or we may assume that these signs, like the signs that someone is rational, allow us “to some extent to infer” what the inner state of the mind is, and thus what a person’s intentions are.

The Purpose of Judgment

We are all familiar with the teachings that charity must be exercised with prudence:

Genuine charity itself is prudent and wise. Charity. 54.

He who from genuine charity loves the neighbor inquires what the quality of a man is, and does good to him discreetly, and according to the quality of his good. Doctrine of Charity 52

It is the part of Christian prudence to search well the quality of a man’s life, and to exercise charity in accordance therewith. The man of the internal church does this with discrimination, thus with intelligence; but as the man of the external church cannot thus discriminate, he does it indiscriminately. AC 6704

The idea that we act differently towards different people according to their qualities assumes that we can determine something of those people’s qualities. The qualities we are to identify in the neighbor are more than mere external actions. It is the quality of a person’s Christian goodness, thus the quality of the Lord’s presence in the person, that is to be the basis for our actions towards the person:

The quality of Christian good determines in what degree each one is the neighbor; for the Lord is present in good, because it is His, and He is present according to the quality of it. And as the origin of the neighbor must be drawn from the Lord, therefore the distinguishing differences of the neighbor are according to the Lord’s presence in good, thus according to the quality of the good. AC 6707

I find the following passage interesting because it begins by saying that we should know these differences thoroughly, and ends by saying that no one can know them except generally:

The distinguishing differences of the neighbor, which the man of the church ought to wholly know, in order that he may know the quality of charity, vary in accordance with the good which is with every one; and as all good proceeds from the Lord, the Lord is the neighbor in the highest sense, and in a surpassing degree; and from Him the neighbor originates. From this it follows that in proportion as any one has of the Lord in him, in the same proportion he is the neighbor; and as no two persons receive the Lord (that is, receive the good which proceeds from Him) in the same way, therefore no two persons are the neighbor in the same way; for without exception all persons in the heavens and on earth differ in good. Precisely one and the same good never exists in two persons; it must vary in order for each person to subsist by himself. But all these varieties, thus all the distinguishing differences of the neighbor, which are according to the reception of the Lord, that is, of the good proceeding from Him, can never be known to any man, nor even to any angel, except in general, thus as to their genera and some species of these. Nor does the Lord require more of the man of the church than to live according to what he knows.AC6706

I think the last statement is very important. We are meant to look at a person’s inner qualities, their intentions and loves, and base our actions towards a person on our sight of those inner qualities. At the same time, we should recognize that our view is very limited and there is much that we do not know. But we must live according to what we do know. We must base our actions toward the neighbors on our limited understanding of their Christian goodness, their loves and intentions, even though that understanding is limited and may be flawed.

The reason for making judgments about other people is so that we may exercise charity in the best way possible. If that judgment is ever separated from that loving purpose, then it becomes judgment without justice, truth without love, which only condemns. Indeed it is that desire to do what is best and right for a person which enables us to judge justly.

Living with Uncertainty


Part Two of this three part paper on marriage reviewed a number of questions about uncertain teachings in the doctrines about marriage. Should we ever consider annulment or regard a marriage as not really having taken place? Should we assume people have made commitments for life when they have not? Should divorce without sufficient grounds be regarded as a separation? Can anyone ever remarry after committing adultery? How do we draw the line between concubinage and adultery? Is it allowable for women to have concubines? Is spiritual adultery ever grounds for divorce? What degree of abuse might be grounds for divorce? To what extent to we hold people liable for actions they took in ignorance of the teachings? Should forgiveness of adultery affect the decisions we make?

My purpose in raising these questions was not to bring the teachings into doubt, but to seek more clarity about these various issues. Why has the Lord left us with uncertainty about many of these things? Could He not have told a little more clearly just what we are to do?

This third part of the paper also leaves us with uncertainty. We are taught to look at people’s intentions, but also told that we can only know them a little, and we may be fooled. Again we are left with uncertain about how much we can judge and how correct our judgments may be.

I guess the answer may be that there is a purpose in uncertainty. The uncertainty about what do to may be a very important part of our spiritual life.


For one thing uncertainty keeps us humble. When we are sure of our answers, we tend to stop listening to others, and stop seeking further insights. One of the elements of temptations is doubt, and one of the purposes of temptations is to teach us humility. Perhaps a church that is uncertain about some issues of marriage may be a more humble church, and consequently a more charitable one.


DP (178) tells us that we are not given sure knowledge of the future, because if we had certainty about the future, we would have no hope, and our interest in the future or in any progress towards any goal would die. In making judgments about marriages, there is often reason to hope that a negative judgment may be wrong, or that a positive one may be right, or that the future may bring change in a good direction. These hopes, based on uncertainty, motivate us to work for what is best. What does a marriage have if it does not have hope? Without uncertainty, the hopes that sustain our marriages and other relationships would die.

Freedom and Individuality

The Lord keeps inner states hidden in this world in order to protect our freedom and individuality.

“But to judge what the inner mind or soul is like within, thus what a person’s spiritual state is and so his fate after death of this one is not permitted to judge, because it is known to the Lord alone. Nor does the Lord reveal it until after death, in order that everyone may do what he does in freedom, and that good or evil may consequently be from him and so in him, and the person thus live his own life and be his own person to eternity.” CL 523

Lack of certainty about how to apply the teachings allows each of us to think for ourselves and decide for ourselves how teachings should be applied. Sometimes people wait for clear answers to flow in from the Lord, but on the occasions when any kind of answer comes,

It is then to this effect that they should think and act as they wish and as they can, and that he who acts wisely is wise and he who acts foolishly is foolish. They are never instructed what to believe and what to do, and this in order that the human rational principle and human freedom may not perish; that is, that everyone may act from freedom according to reason, to all appearance as from himself. DP 321

What Is the Role of Priests?

The primary point of this paper is that in order to be most useful to people we can and ought to judge the moral quality of their marriages according to the intentions of each, but always with the recognition that our judgment is very limited. The issues I have raised set the stage for asking what the role of a priest is in judging marriages.

I think it should be apparent that a priest has the same moral responsibilities as anyone else. A priest is an individual who must act according to conscience in discerning the intentions of others and expressing their charity accordingly. If a priest as an individual discerns that a person’s intentions are adulterous, it would be wrong for him to perform a wedding for that person. The priest’s judgment may be wrong, but the priest must act according to what he can see.

As a priest, his primary work is with the Divine law. He does not administer civil laws, and cannot make civil judgments. He cannot issue or deny a marriage license, nor can he grant or deny a divorce. These are civil matters which must be handled by civil authorities according to civil law. It is important that we clearly distinguish between civil law, moral law, and Divine Law. Civil Law is not the priest’s domain.

Furthermore, I do not believe that moral law is a priest’s domain either. As an individual he has moral responsibilities and must make moral judgments. But these decisions are rightly left to each individual, and it is not right for a priest to dictate to his church what the moral values and decisions of the whole church should be. Here again we have to see clearly the distinction between moral law and Divine Law.

It is a priest’s job to teach Divine Law, thought not to make judgments about people’s spiritual life or punish people accordingly. Each level of law (civil, moral, Divine) has a corresponding level of freedom (natural, rational, spiritual). Each puts certain restrictions on us, yet they are very distinct. If priests deal with Divine law in the same way one might deal with moral or civil law, then I believe some of our spiritual freedom will be lost.

Priests as Punishers

Many passages in the Writings make the point that charity may require a person in authority to allow a person to be punished. Often they speak of judges allowing people to be punished, and of kings allowing people to be punished (e.g., AC 2768, 4730, 8282, 8227, 8121 (= HD 101), HH 550, TCR 407, 459). (I have not found any passages like this that refer to priests, however. For example, AC 8121 (=HD 101) says that a judge who punishes the guilty and acquits the guiltless, exercises charity toward the neighbor. The passage goes on to say, “The priest who teaches truth, and leads to good, for the sake of truth and good, exercises charity.” There is no mention of the priest punishing. Why is there not a similar example for the priest as there is for kings and judges?

Perhaps the reason is that punishment in this world belongs more to the realm of civil law than to the realm of Divine law. All human government is representative of the Lord’s Divine Government. And His Divine government has two kingdoms-His Priesthood and His Royalty.

There are two things which are predicated of the Lord, namely, that He is King, and that He is Priest. A king, or the royalty, signifies the holy which is true; and a priest, or the priesthood, signifies the holy which is good; the former is the Divine spiritual, the latter the Divine celestial. The Lord as King governs each and all things in the universe from Divine truth; and as Priest, from Divine good. Divine truth is the very order of His universal kingdom, all the laws of which are truths, or eternal verities Divine good is the very essential of order, all things of which are of mercy. Both of these are predicated of the Lord. If Divine truth alone were His, no mortal could be saved, for truths condemn every one to hell; but Divine good, which is of mercy, uplifts from hell to heaven. AC 1728 See also AC 2015, 2335.3, 3670, 7206, 8770, AE 831, 907

But as the kings represented truths, which ought not to have command, for the reason, as before said, that they condemn, therefore the desire to have kings was so displeasing as to call for rebuke, and the nature of truth as regarded in itself was describe by the rights (jus) of the king (1 Sam. 8:11-18); AC 2015:11

Punishment never comes from the Lord; it is only an appearance that it does so. Yet this appearance of punishment is associated with the Divine truth, not Divine good-with the Lord as King, not the Lord as Priest. It is Divine truth which condemns, not Divine good.

It seems to me that the reason why the Writings often connect judges and kings with punishments, but not priests, is that judges and kings are civil governors who represent the Divine Truth which (when Divine Good is rejected) condemns. Priests as ecclesiastical governs represent the Divine Good which never condemns or punishes.

Swedenborg criticizes the Catholic church for meddling with temporal punishments for crimes.

Who does not see that this does not belong to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but to civil jurisdiction; and that it is to extend their dominion over everything secular, and to destroy the public security? AR 799

If as priests we move beyond the ecclesiastical domain to civil; if we assume a role of lawmaker, judge, or policeman, rather than shepherd or teacher; if we become more concerned with laying out specific rules and punishments than with teaching truths and leading to the good of life, are we not abandoning our roles as representatives of the Divine Good? Are we not “asking for a king”?

Certainly there are judgments that priests must make and priests have a responsibility to maintain order, by separating, if necessary, those who create a disturbance. Let us by all means clarify what kinds of disturbance are a threat and what kinds of separations are appropriate. But in doing so I pray that we do not go beyond our jurisdiction, nor confuse ecclesiastical or Divine Law with civil and moral law. These levels of law should be in agreement, yet they should remain distinct, each on its own plane, in its own jurisdiction.

Conclusion: Intention Is the Key

The first part of this paper examined the need to look at adultery and causes for divorce in terms of intention. This is because what makes adultery adultery is primarily the intention within it. Viewed from externals adultery is like marriage. It is the internal that makes it evil. (CL 478) The Lord’s primary teaching about divorce in the New Testament focuses on intention, and without that focus we cannot properly understand what the Lord is teaching us about causes for divorce, for whether divorce is allowable depend primarily on the intent of the divorce, whether it comes from a love for marriage or a love of adultery.

In the second part of the paper, we considered various questions about marriage. The many uncertainties and ambiguities in the teachings about marriage leave us room for looking beyond mere actions to intentions. The teachings cannot always define what actions are right and what are wrong, because the same actions may be right when coming from a good intention and wrong when coming from a bad intention. And so the Writings teaches us clearly what intentions are good and evil, and teach us only enough about good and evil actions for us to see the intentions they contain.

In this third part we have considered both the importance and the limitations of judging the intentions of others. Although we can not judge anyone’s spiritual life, those who are wise view others from their intentions, not from their deeds alone. So in all our judgments about marriage, divorce and adultery, if we are to exercise charity prudently, we must search carefully for the intentions of the people involved, and make decisions on that basis.

To some extent the issues will always involve some uncertainty, because intentions can be simulated and do not always correspond with actions. Yet greater clarity is possible, not by more narrowly defining good and evil actions, but by understanding the intentions which guide and ultimately explain the actions. My hope is that by focusing more on intentions, greater clarity will come.

End of Paper

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