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William Gouge on Desertion


Dr. William Gouge (1575–1653) was a lecturer in logic, philosophy and Hebrew at Cambridge University and a minister at St Anne's or Blackfriars Church in London for the last forty-five years of his fruitful life. He was one of the most active members of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, an Assessor (or assistant) to the Prolocutor (or presiding officer) and the Chairman of the committee set up to draft the Westminster Confession. He was appointed to work on the Westminster Annotations of the Bible, with his own part covering I Kings to Esther. Known as an arch Puritan, Gouge was a leader in the establishment of the London Presbytery and was chosen Prolocutor at its first meeting (3 May, 1647). In 1649, he served as President of Sion College. A noted author, Gouge's many published works include books on the Lords Prayer (1626), the Lord's Day (1641) and the Lord's providence (1645), as well as A Short Catechism (1635) and a massive commentary on Hebrews (1655).

With his beloved wife, Elizabeth, William Gouge was the father of thirteen children, seven boys and girls, eight of whom reached maturity. Out of his deep knowledge of Scripture and practical experience, he penned Of Domesticall Duties (1622), a popular work, running to several editions, which ably sets forth the mind of Christ regarding family life.

In a section titled "Of desertion," the Cambridge scholar explains that Holy Scripture in I Corinthians 7:15 refers to the desertion of the Christian by his or her unbelieving spouse because of the saint's faith in Jesus Christ:

The vice contrary to matrimonial unity is Desertion when one of the married couple through indignation of the true religion, and utter detestation thereof, or some other like cause, shall apparently renounce all matrimonial unity, and withdraw him or herself from all society with the other, and live among infidels, idolaters, heretics, or other such persecutors, as a faithful Christian with safety of life, or a good conscience, cannot abide among; and though all good means that can be thought of be used to reclaim the party so departed, yet nothing will prevail, but obstinately persists in renouncing all matrimonial fellowship.

The London pastor adds that Scripture does not mean by desertion (I Cor. 7:15) "other cases than that which is above mentioned," even instancing several:

as when an infidel, idolater, or heretic shall depart from one of the true religion for other causes than hatred of religion: or when both man and wife having lived as idolaters among idolaters, one of them being converted to the true faith, leaves his abode among idolaters, and goes to the professors of the true faith, but can by no means get the other party to remove: or when one of the true religion shall depart from another of the same profession, and will by no means be brought to live with the party so left, but openly manifests peremptory obstinance; the matter being heard and adjudged by the Magistrate ...

Dr. Gouge specifies to what the "bondage" of I Corinthians 7:15 refers (the endless seeking of restoration of the marital relationship with the deserter) and does not refer (marriage itself):

This desertion is in the case of marriage so capital, as it frees the innocent party from any further seeking after the other. In which respect the Apostle says, If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases (1 Cor. 7:15). By bondage he means matrimonial subjection (by reason whereof neither of the married persons have power of their own body, but one of the other's). Now they that are not under this bondage, are not bound to seek after it. That desertion therefore on the delinquent's part is such dissolution of marriage, as frees the innocent party from the bondage thereof.

The Westminster divine and annotator points out that desertion does not "dissolve the very bond of marriage, as [if] liberty is given to the party forsaken to marry another," for it is not correct to say that through desertion "the marriage bond may be broken, and liberty given to the party forsaken to marry another."

Later William Gouge states that there is only one ground for divorce, namely adultery, not desertion: "Concerning Adultery, we deny not, but that it gives just cause of divorce: but withal we say (as we have good warrant from Christ's words [Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18]) that it is the only cause of just divorce. For to make a separation for departing from the catholic faith, is directly contrary to S. Paul's and S. Peter's doctrine (1 Cor. 7:12-14; 1 Pet. 3:1)."

American Baptist, John L. Dagg (1794–1884), DD, was the minister of a prominent Philadelphia church, a theological professor and a president of Mercer University. Despite being lame and almost blind, Dagg wrote influential books on doctrine and ethics which established his reputation as the country's first systematic Baptist theologian. He is perhaps the most representative theological figure among antebellum Baptists in the United States.

In his work on ethics, The Elements of Moral Science (New York: Sheldon and Co., 1859), Dagg declared that fornication is only biblical ground for divorce:

"The marriage covenant makes the husband and wife "one flesh." An intimacy is created, to which no third party can be admitted, without violation of the covenant; and such violation, according to the doctrine of Christ, is the only sufficient ground of divorce. The law of Moses allowed divorce for other causes, but Christ explained that this was not according to the original institution (Matt. xix. 8). The civil laws frequently grant divorce in violation of the divine rule (p. 247).

Dagg stresses the permanence of marriage, over against those who claim that there are other grounds for divorce:

It is important to matrimonial happiness, that the parties should understand the conjugal relation to be formed for life. This tends to make them one in feeling and interest, and presents a strong inducement to bear with each other's infirmities, and accommodate themselves to the necessities of their condition. When divorce is obtainable for trifling causes, a sense of insecurity is easily engendered, incompatible with the perfect confidence which the married pair should repose in each other (p. 248).

The American ethicist also rightly explains what desertion does and does not permit:

Some have understood Paul, in 1 Cor. vii. 15, to teach that a deserted husband or wife is free from the matrimonial obligation, and at liberty to marry again. But his language implies nothing more than that the deserted party is not bound to follow the deserter, and continue the performance of conjugal duties. Since Christ did not allow the privilege of marrying again to an unlawfully divorced party, it cannot be that Paul allowed it to one merely deserted (p. 248).