Can an engagement be broken?

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William Branham taught that being engaged was the same as being married and couldn't be broken:

When you're engaged to her, as far as God is concerned, you're married to her.[1]

Is this what Scripture teaches?

What the Bible says

1 Corinthians 7:36-38 states:

In the case of an engaged couple who have decided not to marry: if the man feels that he is not acting properly towards the young woman and if his passions are too strong and he feels that they ought to marry, then they should get married, as he wants to. There is no sin in this. But if a man, without being forced to do so, has firmly made up his mind not to marry, and if he has his will under complete control and has already decided in his own mind what to do — then he does well not to marry the young woman. So the man who marries does well, but the one who doesn’t marry does even better. [2]

Paul is speaking to the fiancé or engaged couple in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 and his advice is that, while the engaged couple commit no sin (despite what some Corinthians think) if they do marry, it is preferable (‘better’) for them to remain unmarried. This is completely opposite to the view of William Branham.[3]

Paul clearly doesn’t think that it’s impossible simultaneously to serve both the Lord and one’s marriage partner. He knows many married Christians, including most of the other apostles, and he doesn’t imagine for a moment that the two callings are mutually exclusive. But there was a famine on. Times were hard, particularly for newlyweds, who would rightly be eager to build up their marriage relationship by pouring themselves into thinking what would make their newly acquired spouse happy.

Paul does not look down on that aim. It is right and proper. Indeed, we find in Ephesians 5:22–33 that the self-giving love of husband to wife, and the answering love of wife to husband, are themselves things richly pleasing to God, gloriously reflecting his image. But in times of social and economic distress it may simply be impossible to do both things well—to find out and do what will please the Lord, working for the gospel in whatever way one is called to do, and to find out and do what will build up a new marriage relationship. And if that’s the choice, Paul is clear: one’s service to the Lord belongs first.

As in most of the chapter, Paul is not laying down hard and fast rules. He is trying to teach the Corinthians to think clearly, wisely and above all Christianly about delicate issues where there is no absolute right and wrong. In our own day there are many who have ignored his wise advice and have rushed ahead into marriage and into a new sphere of Christian work or service, assuming that because God has brought them together the complex business of learning to work for the gospel and the complex business of learning to live as a couple will somehow fall into place. This simply can’t be assumed.

Paul’s stated aim is to keep Christians free from anxieties. Sometimes he simply tells people to put anxieties away, trusting the Lord for everything, as in Philippians 4:6. But maybe part of that ‘trusting the Lord for everything’ will involve taking steps to make sure that one is not placing unnecessary burdens of anxiety upon oneself — and upon those to whom one is bound in ties of human love. This isn’t a way of saying that the Lord helps those who helps themselves. But it is a way of reminding God’s people that when we pray for something, part of the answer to the prayer may be some action that lies in our own power to do or not to do. There is no point in praying for safety on the road while continuing to drive dangerously.

Paul is very emphatic in all of this that he is not opposing marriage itself. (He here addresses the man, although elsewhere in the chapter he is careful to speak to both man and woman; perhaps this reflects the social situation in which the engaged man was responsible for arranging the wedding.) On the contrary; if the man finds that his desire for his fiancée is getting stronger, putting him in an impossible position (see 1 Cor 7:9), then they should marry; that is perfectly all right. But they should be prepared then to face the difficulties that will accompany the early days of a marriage, even and perhaps especially a Christian one, when life for other reasons is in any case hard.[4]

Based on this passage of scripture, a man and a woman who are engaged to be married are not bound. They are free to either go ahead and get married or to decide not to get married. Importantly, they should not be worried or anxious about the situation.

As a result, it is clear that William Branham's teaching is not scriptural. In fact, William Braham's teaching creates a great deal of anxiety, something Paul was trying to eliminate.

Quotes of William Branham

"Joseph, fear not, take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost." He was minded to put her away privately, see, after he'd already engaged to her. When you're engaged to her, as far as God is concerned, you're married to her.[5]



Footnotes

  1. William Branham, 65-1125 - The Invisible Union Of The Bride Of Christ, para. 86
  2. American Bible Society, The Holy Bible: The Good News Translation, 2nd ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1992), 1 Co 7:36–38
  3. Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 122.
  4. Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 95–96.
  5. William Branham, 65-1125 - The Invisible Union Of The Bride Of Christ, para. 86


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