Till Death Us Do Part, No Exception

Whether married couples divorced because of adultery may remarry – the offended party particularly – has been a vexed question among Christians in the last few decades. Living under permissive civil divorce laws, Christians feel a strong tension between contemporary values and Malachi’s testimony of how God views divorce; many think it unfair for a spouse to be betrayed, sue for divorce and still be ‘punished’ with legal inability to remarry, so they conclude that holy Scripture surely cannot mean that. Undoubtedly, they reason, the victim has rights not available to the offender.

Seeing what St Paul says in Romans, however, I think it is true that death’s the sole condition on which spouses can remarry:

Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.

To illustrate the principle that the law applies till death, the apostle gives the example of a woman’s marriage to her husband and under what circumstances marriage with another man doesn’t earn her the title of adulteress. The example, to be effective, must somehow be clearer than what it shows, or it serves poorly as an example. That marriage is binding on a husband and wife so long as they both shall live, therefore, is as clear to Paul as it is that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives.

One wonders, by the way, what should happen to the adulterous spouse, if the one offended can’t off and remarry someone else. Well, in France what happened was that, if you committed adultery and your husband pardoned you, you’d rebuild the relationship, but otherwise you’d enter a convent. This rule, when applied to both genders, keeps divorced adulterers from getting off as if it’s nothing, but leaves a chance for the injured spouse to try to forgive and rebuild the marriage.

What churches must do is fight the discourse of rights divorced from duties, which has become a matter of my rights versus your rights, my good versus yours, and whichever has the most power wins under the guise of greater virtue. Such a world is conceived by Machiavelli, not God, and this is what’s muddied the waters on a whole range of marriage issues. To be sure, rights exist, but only with duties. We may as well acknowledge that fact and be up-front about it. And then, having taught the word of God, churches may actually (gasp!) practise church discipline and at least not fill the diaconate with adultery.


5 responses to “Till Death Us Do Part, No Exception

  1. I think that divorce and remarriage is another area where the Church has tended to weaken its stance on Scripture largely on the basis of changing social norms and realities, without much reference to the biblical text itself. It is important to see the biblical text front and centre in this debate again.

    That said, if adultery is understood to be a capital crime under the Mosaic Law and grounds for excommunication under the new covenant, couldn’t one argue that it provides grounds for freeing someone from the adulterous partner? What are your thoughts on David Instone-Brewer’s work on the subject?


    • I’m not familiar with David Instone-Brewer, but for one Christianity Today article. My response is probably that divorce is, like all evil, in some sense only a privation and therefore not real, though a necessary social construct legally instituted ‘because of the hardness of your hearts’. Therefore, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.

      Under the heading of πορνεία we would include, I think, incest above all, as grounds for annulling a marriage (although most of the degrees of consanguinity for which many mediæval rulers annulled their marriages aren’t really forbidden in Scripture). The Jewish Encyclopedia says of incest,

      Prior to the enactment of the Mosaic law on Sinai, a Noachid was prohibited only the natural degrees of incest, such as were later capitally punished by the Jews (Sanh. 57b). Maimonides enumerates them as follows: marriage with (1) mother, (2) father’s wife, (3) married woman, and (4) sister on the mother’s side (“Yad,” Melakim, ix.). Hence Abraham was permitted to marry his half-sister on the father’s side, and Jacob might marry two sisters because these cases were not contrary to the natural law, although they were later prohibited by the laws of Moses. It should be noted that the Noachian law was more rigorous on the mother’s side and the Mosaic law stricter on the father’s side, as the former was based on nature and the latter on the civil law of inheritance and social connections.

      Adultery, though, is indeed an odd case, since Scripture prescribes death for any violation of a married woman (and fornication with an unmarried girl might lead to a polygamous arrangement). What I’m suggesting with my comment on convents is that the wronged spouse may choose whether to recall the adulterous spouse from a monastic ‘death’ (marital resurrection!). In a legal system that allowed polygyny, of course, the having of multiple wives could assimilate most of the practical problems; but in our own Western legal system, which licences monogamy alone, either the cloistering must be permanent or the wronged spouse must not marry anyone else.


  2. Aha. I’ve finally figured out why I’ve always disagreed with you about this.

    Here’s the thing. It says: “If she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress.” Throughout this entire passage, Paul refers to “her husband.” This is not the same as her ex-husband.

    I think that Paul is talking only about remarriage after illegitimate divorces, i.e. any divorce that occurred for a reason other than adultery. That is why the man in question is still referred to as “her husband,” because even if a non-adultery divorce is recognized civilly, they are still man and wife in the eyes of God. If a divorce is legitimate, however (and even Jesus allows for divorce in cases of adultery), then the man can no longer be called “her husband,” because that’s what divorce means. Therefore, I believe that the offended party is allowed to remarry after divorce.

    Another thing: if adulteresses were stoned to death back then, it is “Death us do part.” If the adulteress was not stoned, then her crime must not have been made public. If her crime was not made public, the couple could not have been able to divorce, as divorce is a public act. The man would have had to forgive her, deal with it, and carry on with their married life if he did not want her to be stoned. Given, I believe they should have stoned adulterous men to death as well if they wanted to go about things that way, but let’s leave my anti-misogyny rant for another day.


    • I wasn’t sure there was a concise ancient Greek term for ‘ex-husband’, and it was hard to find one. In Plutarch’s Lives I found reference to Caius Marius having with him only Granius, his wife’s son by a former husband, but the Greek said only Γράνιον ἔχων μεθ᾽ αὑτοῦ τὸν πρόγονον (‘taking with him Granius, [his] early-born’). Finally I found in Diodorus of Sicily’s history a passage on divorce law, which yielded the word πρότερος corresponding to ‘former’ as applied to a husband; likewise I see in Josephus the phrase τὸν πρότερον αὐτῆς ἄνδρα (‘her former husband’ in the accusative), and in Herodotus a similar phrase in the genitive. So we know at least that a term does exist for ‘ex-husband’: πρότερος ἀνήρ.

      But in the Romans passage, when you already have reference to a husband, it’d be strange in any case, even if you were to discuss divorce, to begin calling him an ex-husband, unless you made it very explicit. In context, it would be very strange to say, ‘So then, if she marries another man while her ex-husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress.’ It would be impossible anyway, moreover, for the wife to marry a second time, unless she got a legal divorce. St Paul here shows no awareness, however, of a relevant difference between a valid and an invalid divorce, even though the example would clearly be a bad one if an audience could reasonably say (since the righteous law couldn’t be divorced for any fault), ‘Ah, but could the law not simply divorce the adulterous Church, that Christ might take her to himself?’ Instead, the idea of death seems theologically crucial to release from the law.

      The relation, it seems to me, is symmetrical for the offending party and the offended: both are bound, because it makes no sense for the one to be married and the other not. Unless we say the offending party’s released too, then, the offended party must also live under the same bond. Missing from any of the New Testament discussion, importantly, is the notion of punishment, because the point isn’t really that adulterers must be punished with celibacy: the real point’s that the marriage continues to bind both the adulteress and the cuckold, both the adulterer and the cuckquean.


  3. i am not totally sold on the concept that biblical divorce is the end of the marriage covenant. in 1st Corinthians 7 i believe when it speaks of divorce they are not to remarry unless it is to the same spouse or it is considered adultery. for that to be adultery the covenant has to still be in effect. and the thought also behind this is god does not break his covenants so marriage would still be intact.

    additionally christ and his bride the church it is clear that while in jeremiah he issues a divorce certificate god does not take on another because in hosea he teaches us that gomer is the church and he always takes her back regardless.


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