Until Death Do We Part — For Real
If anything but death is an option for ending a marriage, then don’t say “until death” in your wedding vows. Tell the truth. Promise what is meant. Say something like “until adultery, abandonment, or abuse.” Say what you mean. God never lies (Titus 1:2) and delights in truth-telling and oath-keeping.
Whether speaking of marriage or any other subject, it comes as no surprise that God expects people to say what they mean. The immediate context of Jesus’s teaching about adultery includes his clarification that going back on your word (marital vow) is evil. Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” In other words, if you say “until death,” you should mean “until death.”
A couple may say, then, “Okay, we won’t pledge fidelity until death.” But if a couple does not promise fidelity until death, it is not a truly Christian marriage they are forging. The Bible teaches that marriage is until death.
When a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries. (Romans 7:2–3)
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. (1 Corinthians 7:39)
And even more plainly does the Scripture teach us not to go back on our vows.
When you make a vow to the Lord your God, be prompt in doing whatever you promised him. For the Lord your God demands that you promptly fulfill all your vows. (Deuteronomy 23:21)
When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him. It is better to say nothing than to promise something that you don’t follow through on. (Ecclesiastes 5:4–5)
Is it just a rhetorical flourish when the apostle writes that love never gives up (1 Corinthians 13:7)?
What About Adultery?
Some disapprove, saying that Jesus allows exceptions — that is, he allows divorce in cases of adultery — but a careful reading of Matthew 5:32 shows that adultery does not nullify or overrule what God has joined together. Rather than adultery being a cause for divorce, it is the divorce and remarriage of divorced parties which causes adultery.
“But I say that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)
In the original language, the “exception” given here (“sexual immorality”) is not adultery, but literally fornication. What precisely this fornication is may not be plain (some explain it as the just breaking of a betrothal, not a marriage). It is understandably controversial, but the observation about adultery remains: It is not, in this text, the cause of divorce, but the product of divorce and remarriage.
The marriage covenant is unilateral. Just because Person A in a marriage violates his vow, doesn’t mean that the vow made my Person B is nullified. The spiritual adultery of the Church does not nullify Jesus’s faithfulness to his word, and thereby to his bride.
Christian covenant keeping can be costly and painful. But God honors the one “who keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:4, NIV). The Bible couldn’t be any more straightforward: If you have a wife, do not end the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:27).
We are free to divorce when Jesus divorces the Church, which is never. (Even the divorce in Isaiah 50 is not a divorce from those he predestined, called, justified, and glorified, but rather a temporary action taken against ethnic Israel, who was never en masse the true bride in the first place.) We are free to remarry when Jesus remarries a bride other than the elect bride, which is not as long as the spouse lives.
What About Abandonment?
What about abandonment? Many respected God-fearing people who hold a high view of Scripture have come to the conclusion that divorce and remarriage are permitted by 1 Corinthians 7:15: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.”
Proponents of the view that this verse permits divorce and remarriage focus primarily on words leaves and bound. According to their view, the unbeliever leaves the marriage, and the believer is not bound to stay in it either.
But is this what is meant by leaves and bound? Certainly those meanings are not the only meanings available for consideration. In pursuit of a different life, the unbeliever could leave the house, could leave town, and could even leave the country. Accordingly, the believer would not be bound to go with them, but stay home and responsibly stay put, being a stable anchor in the relationship.
In the same verse, there is a clue consistent with this interpretation: God has called you to peace, which is not merely a state of personal tranquility but a matter of harmony between individuals. For the sake of harmony, let the relationship take on a measure of geographical distance for the time being. The believer is not bound to go with the leaving partner or to hound them, or to become a gallivanting entourage. We are bound neither to go along, nor to divorce. Stay put, stay stable, stay committed to living in peace. Abandon your marriage when Jesus abandons his.
Keep the Marriage Vows
A more faithful view is entirely consistent with verses 10 and 11 which state that if one spouse separates, the separation should not be followed with remarriage but with reconciliation.
How does Paul sum up his chapter?
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 7:39–40)
How shall we then live? Be like Jesus, and keep our marital vows as long as our spouses live. This is what it means to pledge “till death do we part.”
More from Desiring God on marital covenant-keeping: