What do we mean when we say that marriage is indissoluble? More importantly, is this an accurate way to express the biblical witness about marriage? I will not answer that second question in this post (does that make my title clickbait?), but I do want to examine two passages from Paul that appear to answer it very clearly.
When people assert that marriage is indissoluble, they generally mean that nothing except death can end a marriage union. Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 are two passages cited most often as evidence for this assertion.
These parallel passages certainly do offer vital biblical evidence that must shape our understandings about divorce and remarriage. I have come to believe, however, that sometimes our thinking and speaking about these passages is not as careful as it should be. In our haste to cite these passages as being “clear,” we may not read them with the diligence that the Scriptures deserve.
Let me start by suggesting that neither passage quite says that only death can end a marriage union. Neither passage says that there is a “marriage bond” that holds every marriage together till death, or that the one-flesh marriage union is a sort of glue that cannot be broken by man. Rather, both passages say something slightly but significantly different. Here is the shorter passage:
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 Cor. 7:39-40)
What does “bound” mean? What sort of reality is implied by words such as “bound” and “free”? If we had only this passage and not the near parallel in Romans 7, we might be able to conclude that the passage is talking about some “marriage bond” or one-flesh union that is indissoluble—some mysterious ontological oneness that is impossible to separate.
But the language of “bound” and “free” is a hint that these passages are talking about different realities. The longer passage makes this clearer:
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3)
How is a married woman bound to her husband? “By law,” Paul says. To understand these passages well, we must remember that we are dealing not with metaphysical realities but with legal codes—with law.
By what means does law bind someone? Here it is instructive to look at how δέω, the Greek word translated “bound” in both Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, is used elsewhere in the New Testament. Here are a few typical examples: A colt was “bound” most likely with a rope (Matt. 21:2), Peter was “bound” with two chains (Acts 12:6), a woman was “bound” by Satan with sickness (Luke 13:16), and Paul declared that the word of God was not “bound” or prevented by persecution from spreading (2 Tim. 2:9). A wife, however, is not supposed to be bound to a man by a rope, a chain, sickness, or political oppression.
The closest NT parallel to how δέω is used in our two passages is probably found in Jesus’ words in both Matthew 16 and 18:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 18:18)
In these passages, “bind” and “loose” are terms “used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and is not permitted.”1 The way the law binds someone, then, is by declaring what is and is not permitted.
The words for “bind” and “loose” in these Matthew passages are the same words that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7:27: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” He then repeats the same word “bound” a couple paragraphs later in one of our key passages: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.” (1 Cor. 7:39).
Paul, trained under the Rabbi Gamaliel, is using the language of rabbis.2 He is not declaring a spiritual or scientific law that describes an unchangeable reality. Rather, he is “declaring what is and is not permitted” under the law, probably referring to the law of Moses.3 Legal rulings are not made against things that are impossible to do. To the contrary, any law, even a divine one, can be broken.
The law typically describes what could but shouldn’t happen and then says what will happen or should happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. (Read that three times fast in a row!) It is important not to confuse these different dynamics.
The language of “binding” in 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7 indicates, first of all, that something could but shouldn’t happen. Paul says that the law does not permit a wife to leave her husband while he is alive. The fact that this law was necessary implies that it is indeed possible for a husband or wife to separate from their spouse. It is possible for them to violate the law that binds them together.
This does not mean, of course, that as soon as a law is broken it has no say over the person who broke it. The Romans passage says one thing that certainly will happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. Paul says that if a woman breaks the law that binds her to her husband, then “she is called an adulteress” (Rom. 7:3). Who calls her an adulteress? Paul does not explicitly say, but the implication is that it is the law, first of all, who calls such a woman an adulteress. Since her husband is still alive, the law’s requirement that she be faithful to him is still binding on her. This law, still in effect even though broken, labels her an adulteress. This will happen. Humans are free to disregard the law binding husband and wife, but they will also suffer the legal consequences if they do so.
What about the phrase “as long as he is alive” (Rom. 7:2; cf. 1 Cor. 7:39)? This phrase does not address the question of whether or not it is possible for humans to end a marriage. Rather, it describes how long “the law is binding on a person” who is married (Rom. 7:1). At any point before death, a married person can break the law that binds them to their spouse, violating the union that was supposed to last until death. At that point, the law says what will happen: They will stand guilty of adultery.
How should a person guilty of adultery be held accountable? What does the law say should happen next? In neither passage does Paul answer this question. Neither passage says what should be done if a marriage is broken prematurely by sexual unfaithfulness.
We know from Leviticus—“for I,” like Paul, “am speaking to those who know the law” (Rom. 7:1)—that the law of Moses did not simply say, “It is impossible for a woman to separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “A woman must not separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “If a woman unites with a man besides her husband she will be called an adulteress.” No, the law had more to say than what Paul records in either of our passages.
This is what the law of Moses originally taught about adultery: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). Under this law, what should happen after adultery was death, which ended the marriage union and left the violated marriage partner alive and free to remarry. In addition, as Moo reminds us, this same law of Moses also recognized situations when a husband was permitted to divorce his wife and remarry:
Any body of law that Paul may be citing—Roman or OT (cf. Deut. 25:1-4 [sic; should be Deut. 24:1-4])—allows for remarriage on grounds other than the death of the spouse. His readers, who “know the law” (v. 1), would certainly recognize this possibility without it in any way spoiling the effectiveness of Paul’s analogy.4
It is probably significant that in both of these passages Paul refers to how a wife is bound to her husband until he dies. Under the law of Moses (unlike Roman law), a wife, unlike her husband, had no right to initiate divorce. For a husband, his marriage could end not only through the natural death of his wife but also in at least two other ways: 1) his wife could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) he could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1). In this sense, under the law of Moses a woman was “bound to her husband as long as he lives” in a way that her husband was not bound to her.
Yet, even for the woman, the law of Moses recognized at least two ways that her marriage could end apart from the natural death of her husband: 1) her husband could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) her husband could divorce her for some offense less than adultery (Deut. 24:1), leaving her free to remarry. The latter scenario, at least, is an exception to Paul’s statement about what the law required for a wife.
Is Paul misrepresenting the law? It is better, I suggest, to conclude that Paul accurately summarizes what the law under normal circumstances required of a wife, without meaning to deny any exceptions implied by specific case laws dealing with special circumstances.5
For Jews in Jesus’ day, legal divorce had largely replaced the death penalty in cases of adultery. It was understood that it was divorce that should happen next after adultery.6 It was also understood that divorce ended the marriage, so that the woman no longer had a husband and the man no longer had a wife. Therefore, in such a situation, the law cited by Paul that bound a wife to her husband was understood to no longer apply, for she was no longer “a wife” (1 Cor. 7:39) or “married woman” (Rom. 7:2). Rather—as had been the case under the Law of Moses after the death penalty—the wronged marriage partner was free to legally remarry.
(There was a severe gender inequity in how this was applied. Men generally were not liable to be charged with adultery, since polygamy was still legal under Jewish law. Thus, it was women who were divorced when suspected of adultery, but men were not. After a divorce adulteresses, like their former husbands, were free to remarry. But there was a stigma in marrying an adulteress and, as a reasonable precaution, adulteresses were not permitted to marry their lovers.7)
Christians today, even more truly than the Jews of Jesus’ day, are no longer bound by law to carry out capital punishment for adultery. We are under Christ’s new covenant. Jesus warned that the provision for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24 was given because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people (Matt. 19:8), so it is unlikely that he thought this exception still applies under the new covenant—certainly not in the broad way that it was interpreted by many in Jesus’ day.8 But, leaving that question aside, we still have the other “unnatural” way that a woman could find herself released from the law that bound her to her husband: By her husband committing adultery.
What should happen next after a husband or wife commits adultery in our time? Again, neither of the passages we are discussing here answers our question.
In Corinthians 7:39-40 Paul had no reason to answer our question because the main reason that he cites this law about marriage, apparently, is to show that it is lawful for widows to remarry. Since he is discussing widows, the question of adultery is irrelevant. In Romans 7:1-3 Paul had no reason to answer our question because he is introducing the law of marriage primarily to make a similar point, one relevant to his theological argument: just as death ends a marriage and frees one to remarry, so Christians have died to the law so that they can be married to Christ. Again, his focus is on the fact that the law is not binding on a married couple after one of them dies. He is not concerned to detail exactly how the law was binding on a husband or wife whose marriage had been damaged by adultery. He does mention an adulterous wife in passing here (the language may imply she had remarried), but he says nothing about what should happen next.
What should happen to the adulteress? What should the wronged husband do? What were either of them permitted or required to do? Again, neither passage answers such questions.
If you are waiting for me to answer those questions in this post, I will (once again) leave you disappointed. Those are crucial questions, but my purpose here is different. My goal is to invite us think more diligently about these two passages, for they are often cited as being among the most “clear” New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage. I agree that these passages are indeed very clear on what should not happen. But I am proposing here that they say little about what should happen if the law that binds wife and husband together has been violated.
If I were to paraphrase the main point of what Paul is saying in both Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, it might look like this:
The law requires that a woman remain faithful to her husband as long as he lives; after that, she is allowed to remarry any Christian man she wishes. If she unites with another man while her husband is still alive, the law declares that she is an adulterer, but it doesn’t say that about a woman who remarries after her husband is dead.
I have often heard that these two passages from Paul are “clearer” than the exception clauses of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 regarding the topics of divorce and remarriage. For the reasons described above, I am not sure this is so.
Specifically, I don’t think these passages are clearer than Jesus’ sayings are regarding the question of whether divorce is permitted in the case of adultery. Unlike Jesus’ exception clauses, these passages from Paul don’t even mention the topic of divorce. (Read them again if that statement surprises you.)
Since they don’t even mention divorce, how can they be clearer than Jesus’ sayings on the topic? How can we use them to cancel out his words?
Before I close, however, let me underscore two things that are indeed clear in both these Pauline passages.
First, God’s intent is that our marriages last for life. This was clear in the law of Moses not only from its prescriptive laws, but also from the creation account that Moses recorded. This is also a consistent message from Christ and the witness of the NT.
Second, God still holds humans accountable today when marriages end before death. Whether or not marriage itself is truly indissoluble (“incapable of being undone”9) may be a question that these specific passages do not answer. But there is no question that married people are bound together by a divine law that is indissoluble (“perpetually binding or obligatory”10). Almost every marriage that ends before death does so because one of the spouses has sinned by breaking God’s law11, and anyone who breaks God’s law should fear being held accountable by him.
Now may that same good God, the God who redeems law-breakers, teach us from the whole biblical witness—not just a couple of the “clearest” passages—how to respond faithfully when unfaithfulness is found in our marriages.
It is a weighty thing to teach on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The cost of broken marriages has been tremendous and is growing. Many people are confused and looking for true and loving counsel. Sincere Christians have long disagreed on minor and major points of interpretation and practice. My own understanding is still incomplete. For these latter reasons, this topic is even more difficult for me to handle than the series on homosexuality I shared last fall, where my biggest challenge was to present my understandings courageously, compassionately, and clearly.
On the other hand, it is a blessing to be able to ponder this topic at a time when I have no burning personal need to do so, besides a long-standing desire for better understanding of God’s word and will. It is a joy to know he is able to give us whatever understanding we need!
I have been intentionally seeking resources from a variety of perspectives so that my preferences and assumptions have a chance to be tested. My personal preference is usually to consider “small” exegetical questions one at a time (though in context, of course), rather than trying immediately to answer the big theological or practical questions. Hence my last two posts, one on the term “one flesh” and this on two short parallel passages.
I have also been puzzling over Jesus’ use of “one flesh” in Matthew 19 and his central statement there: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). I hope to be able to share more here if God entrusts me with more understanding. If not, I won’t!
Meanwhile, you can help in two ways: 1) Pray God will guide me, both in my thinking and in knowing when to write and when to wait. 2) If you read anything here that is contrary to Scripture, please show me from Scripture where I am wrong. I am eager to be increasingly true to Christ and the Scriptures.
Also, if you have a favorite resource that you think is exceptionally helpful for understanding the biblical witness on divorce and remarriage, you are most welcome to mention it, though I cannot commit in advance to giving it the time it may deserve.
Thank you for reading, and please share your insights in the comments below!
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- R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 626. Luz agrees: “The primary meaning is ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ with a halakic decision of the rabbis, that is, the interpretation of the law.” See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, ed. H. Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 365. ↩
- Gamaliel was influenced by the famous rabbi Hillel—the one who argued for “any cause” divorce as discussed in Matthew 19, as opposed by Shammai who argued for narrower grounds for divorce. McRay suggests that Paul seems to have been influenced by the Hillel point of view in how he felt free to make legal adjustments for new situations “which the law did not envision,” such as dealing with mixed marriages (1 Cor. 7:12). See John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 45. ↩
- Most commentators agree that this is the law Paul is referring to, and it makes best sense to me. ↩
- Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 438, n. 649. ↩
- Paul may have using language that has been discovered in some marriage contracts from near his time. These sometimes stated that a marriage was for life, while nevertheless assuming the possibility of divorce and remarriage. Here, for example, is a translation from a Greek marriage contract from Egypt in 92 BC: “And it shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in any other wife but Apollonia, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while Apollonia lives.” Notice how “while Apollonia lives” matches Paul’s language in Romans 7:2: “while he lives.” (David Instone-Brewer, “1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman Marriage and Divorce Papyri,” Tyndale Bulletin, 2001, https://www.tyndalearchive.com/Brewer/MarriagePapyri/1Cor_7a.htm Accessed May 28, 2020.) ↩
- Roman law required this for its citizens, too; a husband who refused to divorce his adulterous wife was to be punished. ↩
- David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 121-23. ↩
- Jesus’ exception clause was likely an allusion to the Shammaite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But he offered an authoritative rewording of the text that narrowed it to allow divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality, not merely shameful behavior. The way Jesus expressed his exception suggests that he narrowed the exception originally permitted in Deuteronomy 24:1 and thereby disagreed not only with the “liberal” Hillelites but also, to a lesser degree, with the “conservative” Shammaites. ↩
- Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” abridgement of first definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble ↩
- Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” third definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble ↩
- I say “almost” because some people have been tragically separated from their spouses by events such as war, with no way to know if they are still alive. By far the majority of marriages that end before death do so because one or both of the spouses have been unfaithful to their spouses. ↩