>The Sanctity of Marriage

>In 1966 Joseph Fletcher published a book that caused much discussion and debate inside and outside the church. The book, Situation Ethics (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), caused a furor because Fletcher was advocating a new form of morality, a morality based on individual responsibility in which a situation decided whether an action was right or wrong.

Fletcher developed the argument of his book by saying that “any act, even lying, premarital sex, abortion, adultery, and murder, could be right depending on the circumstances.” To Fletcher, when love reigns, love dictates what must be done. Thus, when a person is confronted with a moral decision, the solution is relative. The most loving thing is the answer to the problem. The introduction to Fletcher’s book quotes him saying: “Rising above any creed, this renewed morality of loving concern is based on agape, the love of which only God is capable, but which every man must endeavor to emulate. Just as Jesus defied convention to make decisions on the basis of particular people and particular circumstances, so must modern man.”

The most fascinating aspect of the book is the way Fletcher uses stories and anecdotes to illustrate situation ethics. Of the 126 stories and illustrations in the book, 86 are in the area of private morality and 36 are in area of sexual ethics.

Today, almost fifty years after the publication of the book, many people have never heard of Fletcher’s book and only a handful have ever read it. It is for this reason that I have selected two cases to illustrate what situation ethics is all about.

In this post I will present the first story. Then, in a few days I will post the second story. I welcome your comments and reactions. At the end of the story, I will give the guidelines for your response. Before I tell you the story, I want to introduce what the Bible says about the sanctity of marriage.

The Theological Imperative

The Bible says: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). The seventh commandment was given to protect the sanctity of marriage, to promote the happiness of the family, and to ensure the stability and permanency of a marriage.

The Story

The following story was given by Fletcher (pages 164-65) to illustrate a case of sacrificial adultery:

As the Russian armies drove westward to meet the Americans and British at the Elbe, a
Soviet patrol picked up a Mrs. Bergmeier foraging food for her three children. Unable even to get word to the children, and without any clear reason for it, she was taken off to a prison camp in the Ukraine. Her husband had been captured in the Bulge and was taken to a POW camp in Wales.

When he was returned to Berlin, he spent weeks and weeks rounding up his children; two (Ilse, twelve, and Paul, ten) were found in a detention school run by Russians, and the oldest, Hans, fifteen, was found hiding the in a cellar near the Alexander Platz. Their mother’s
whereabouts remained a mystery, but they never stopped searching. She more than anything else was needed to reknit them as a family in that dire situation of hunger, chaos, and fear.

Meanwhile, in the Ukraine, Mrs. Bergmeier learned through a sympathetic commandant that her husband and family were trying to keep together and find her. But the rules allowed them to release her for only two reasons: (1) illness needing medical facilities beyond the camp’s, in which case she would be sent to a Soviet hospital elsewhere, and (2) pregnancy, in which case she would be returned to Germany as a liability.

She turned things over in her mind and finally asked a friendly Volga German camp guard to impregnate her, which he did. Her condition being medically verified, she was sent back to Berlin and to her family. They welcomed her with open arms, even when she told them how she had managed it. When the child was born, they loved him more than all the rest, on the view that little Dietrich had done more for them than anybody.

The Question

Does the decision of Mrs. Bergmeier to be impregnated by the guard justify the violation of the sanctity of her marriage?

The Comments

I welcome your comments. If you want to comment on this post, I am going to ask you to abide by the following guidelines:

1. Your comment must only address the question I raised and the issue presented by the story.

2. Be brief and to the point. Do not preach a sermon.

3. No personal attacks will be allowed. Respect the comments of other readers.

4. If you are going to react to a comment by a reader, respond with respect and dignity.

5. Any comment that does not abide by these guidelines will be deleted.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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20 Responses to >The Sanctity of Marriage

  1. Jalisa says:

    >Yes, her act still does violate the sanctity of marriage. Sin is NEVER God's solution to a situation. Even with the Hebrew midwives who spared the children, God honored their faith and bravery, not their lie. Imagine how differently we would percieve Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego if they would have bowed to save themselves. Faith is the difference between waiting on God's timing, or taking matters into our own hands. Although, easier said than done.


  2. >Jalisa,Thank you for your thoughtful comment. In every situation, Christians are called to live by Christian principles, but as you said, it is easier said than done.Claude Mariottini


  3. Bunyan says:

    >We certainly want to be faithful, but what was the woman supposed to do? What about combating evil, what about getting her life back? I've often wondered what we as Christians ought to do about evil. Should we allow ourselves to be beaten, imprisoned, killed without saying or doing anything? Bonhoeffer struggled with the same question and he concluded that we must take action, he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. I don't know what the right thing to do is, but its too easy to say don't do it, it's sin. Just a thought.


  4. >Bunyan,I agree with you: what to do in this situation is not evident. There is no right answer to the issue raised by the story. That woman did what she did for the sake of her family. It is easy for us to make a decision for her. Whatever her decision, she and her family will live with it for the rest of their lives.Claude Mariottini


  5. miykayah says:

    >In the eyes of people it seems like she made the right decision. She did keep her family together in a dire situation. But when it comes to God, He will not approve it, because it is a sin and as Jalisa said: …"Sin is never God's solution to a situation."


  6. >I really don't feel worthy to throw her under the bus. She did not get herself impregnated due to her own lust but because she loved her family I don't think her sin was lust or adultery. In such a situation she didn't trust God for deliverance.


  7. >Miykayah,Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The woman in the story made a desperate decision in order to save her family. God is the one who judges people because he is the righteous judge. This same God is also the one who forgives sinners: Mi ka Yahu?Claude Mariottini


  8. >Marcus,It is hard to condemn the woman for her desperate decision. What she did was not right but she thought more about her family than about her condition. We must learn to wait on God during difficult times, but no one knows how much time she had.Claude Mariottini


  9. Bill says:

    >She was likely going to die in that prison and her husband and children would never have known why. She got home to her family and their love was even multiplied because of it.I don't think "right or wrong" is the question to be arguing over here.Thanks, Claude, for sharing this.


  10. >Bill,Thank you for your comment. The woman in the story had to make a difficult decision and she made the one that she believed it had to be made. Some will say she was right, others will disagree, In this case here, it is difficult for someone who is not involved to judge whether the decision was right or wrong.Claude Mariottini


  11. Anonymous says:

    >So, which marriage vow to break:1. Do not have sex with anyone other than one's spouse.2. Provide for and protect and keep one's family. In such a situation she didn't trust God for deliverance.Maybe she did trust God for deliverance, and believed that God okayed the pregnancy way out. Maybe God wanted the child of that union to be born.


  12. >Dear Anonymous,Thank you for your comment. This is where the problem of the story comes in. We do not know what she believed God wanted her to do. However, whatever she believed she must do, she knew that a God who forgives and a God who redeems would understand her decision.Claude Mariottini


  13. Anonymous says:

    >This reminds me of the contrary ending to the supposedly-true story of the Jewish woman who gave herself to the demands of the German boxcar guards, I believe, to save the lives of many of her fellow prisoners. Instead of thanking her for saving their lives, the Jews who were spared by her actions subsequently treated her with shame and rejection.


  14. >Dear Anonymous,Thank you for sharing this story. I have never heard of this case before. Do you know where I can read more about it?Claude Mariottini


  15. E says:

    >Sorry, Dr. Mariottini, but I can't find or remember where I read/heard the story. Google isn't much help, either. I hope you can track it down.I've been to The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as Yad VaShem in Jerusalem, but I don't think I heard/read it at either of those places.- E (The Poster Formerly Known as "Anonymous" :^D)


  16. >Thank you, E. I will try to find about more about this story because it seems to be an interesting story.Claude Mariottini


  17. Don says:

    >My understanding of the commandments is that there are greater and lesser ones and sometimes they conflict. In those cases (hopefully rare) one follows the greater commandment.


  18. >Don,But who decides which are the greater commandments? Are the commandments in the Decalogue greater or smaller commandments?Claude Mariottini


  19. Anonymous says:

    >God himself made a innocent man quilty to save the world. Tamar is not condemned by the Lord. And He blessed Batseba to be the grandmother of Jesus. Live is much more complicated than: Stick to His rules.


  20. >Dear Friend,No one would disagree with your statement. Life is indeed complicated and people will have to make decisions that are difficult. And when they make those decisions, they will have to live with them.Claude Mariottini


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