Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
Bookmark and Share

The Unbreakable Bond of Marriage

Francesco De Lucia



The doctrine of marriage is for sure one of the most beautiful truths that Holy Scripture teaches. It proves to be of great interest for every Christian, young as well as old, and it carries with it enormous practical significance for the every-day life of a Christian, both already married and not married and considering marriage. There are many important things to be said about marriage, and a lot has been and is being said in the Christian church about it.

But there is one aspect of marriage which is particularly important and which particularly needs to be addressed, since it is here that so many go terribly wrong today. It is the area of divorce and remarriage. The questions involved are very serious. The right answer to them may be of eternal significance for an individual or a couple. What should every Christian couple (as every other married couple) do in considering or dealing with the difficult and painful reality of divorce and remarriage? Is marriage really to be seen as for life? Can and does anything else than physical death break the marriage tie between husband and wife in the eyes of God? Is remarriage allowed, and if so, in what case? How should one look at these things while pondering and considering marriage?

We shall give an answer to these very important questions by establishing first what marriage is according to the Scriptures, and then what the implications regarding divorce and remarriage are. Let us begin, then, first of all by asking: What is marriage?


Marriage is … "What God has Joined Together"

Marriage is a personal, physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual bond between one man and one woman. This bond is created by the Triune God alone. The couple take public vows or oaths, and they are one flesh for life.1 Consequently, this means they are bound by God to live life in all its aspects as one, in their thoughts, emotions, desires, purposes, actions, as two who should know, enjoy and seek each other, and think and do nothing without the other. Marriage is a close union God makes between two human beings of the opposite sex, indeed, the closest relationship human beings can ever possibly experience. This union is so close, so binding, so powerful, so comprehensive and far-reaching that, as long as one or both of the spouses live, it cannot be broken.

But where do the Scriptures speak to us in these terms about marriage? It is at creation in Genesis 2, when God out of the dust makes man, and out of man the woman, that we see that marriage is a one-flesh union of that man and that woman, a union which God alone is seen to create, just as He alone created man and woman. After having created the woman out of man, He alone brought her to him. He then caused Adam to recognize, through the wisdom and the knowledge with which was endued by God, that this woman, unlike the animals he had named, was "bone of [his] bone and flesh of [his] flesh," that is, she was from him, like him, for him, and meant by his Father to be one with him (Gen. 2:18-25; I Cor. 11:8-9; Eph. 5:28-32). God creates and brings the other half of Adam’s flesh, as it were, to him so that she may be joined to him forever. And so man is seen to "cleave" to his wife, and the two become "one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Marriage, as seen in the beginning, is thus a union between man and woman wholly conceived and regulated by God alone. From creation we also understand that anything outside of or against what He meant and means with marriage as marriage was instituted is sin.

The Lord Jesus Christ defined marriage by appealing to the historical account of Genesis 2. When asked by the Pharisees to answer a question they had concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage, He answered by giving a definition of marriage (Matt. 19:1-9; Mark 10:1-12). He taught that to understand correctly what the true nature of marriage is and what it entails concerning divorce and remarriage, we are not to appeal to the (temporary) Mosaic prescriptions regarding divorce, "but" we are to go rather to "the beginning of the creation" (Mark 10:6; cf. Matt. 19:8).2 By doing so, and thus virtually defining marriage, He stated, "what God has joined together"—this is what marriage is, God alone joining, uniting together two in one flesh, as we have seen above in describing Genesis 2—"let man not put asunder." Here the truth that marriage is an institution created by God alone, and a one-flesh union made by God alone, obviously implies that man, mere man, must not, and indeed cannot, sever this union! God made marriage; God joined them together in one, entirely without the cooperation of man and woman. Man cannot, that is, has not the ability to sever something made by God. And thus mere man may not try to do it! This would be impossible. The only way to put asunder what God has joined is the death of one of the two who have been joined together by God. And, of course, death is in the hands of God alone (cf. Deut. 32:39; II Kings 5:7; Rev. 1:18). Only God, through death, puts asunder what He has joined (Rom. 7:2; I Cor. 7:39).


The Spiritual Reality Behind Marriage

When God instituted marriage at the beginning of creation, He did so ultimately because He wanted the one-flesh union to reflect, in a creaturely way, something higher and sublime: God’s union with the church through Christ in the eternal, unbreakable covenant (bond) of grace. The covenant of grace between God in Christ (the bridegroom) and His church (the bride) is pictured in Scripture as a union and is compared precisely to a human marriage, both in the Old and New Testament (cf. Eze. 16; Hos. 2; Eph. 5:28-32). In the New Testament, we are told that Christ and the church become one in the Spirit (I Cor. 12). The Holy Spirit is the Bond who binds them so closely as to make them one body (I Cor. 12:12ff.; cf. 6:15-20) and one flesh (Eph. 5:30-32; cf. Gen. 2:23-24).

It is notable, in this connection, that the Scriptures go so far as to speak of earthly marriage as "the mystery of Christ and the church" (Eph. 5:28-32), thus proving they are the one same great idea in God’s mind. This is an astonishing way to teach us that the institution of earthly marriage, as created in the beginning, was meant to be by God a creaturely, typical revelation and manifestation of the relationship of Christ and His church. Especially and most clearly after the New Testament revelation (for example in Ephesians 5), we are called to look at the creation ordinance of marriage as, ultimately, nothing but a picture of Christ and the church. This union and relationship between Christ and the church was kept partially hidden and veiled in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed fully in the New Testament as the ultimate reality that human marriage, from creation, was meant by God to symbolize. We cannot fail to notice several striking parallelisms: as the woman was drawn from the man, so the church is taken out of Christ. As the woman is brought to man by God alone, so is the church brought to Christ by the irresistible grace of God alone. Again, in Ephesians 5, we are told that the church becomes "flesh of [Christ’s] flesh and bone of [Christ’s] bones." These words are a literal quotation from the creation account of man and woman and the institution of marriage in Genesis 2. Through these parallelisms, God is telling us that Adam and Eve, and the institution of marriage, were meant to represent what the union of Christ and the church would be. It is because of this that the Holy Spirit can use the words used to describe human marriage in the beginning to tell us something about the union of Christ and the church. He is telling us what human marriage was meant to picture since the beginning.

It is on the spiritual significance of this mystery that Ephesians 5 draws to describe the most fundamental practical callings of both human husband and wife within the marriage relationship. Those who live in and use the institution of marriage are supposed and called to live in such a way that their union reflects in a creaturely way everything the marriage between Christ and His church is and does, according to verses 28-32 and other passages of Scripture regulating the respective duties and callings of husbands and wives in the bond of marriage. If husband and wife lived perfectly in the institution of marriage, even without knowing that it represents Christ and the church (as it was the case for Adam and Eve as created and married by God and before the Fall), they would reflect in a creaturely way that beautiful union. Unbelievers and those who do not know about Christ are still called not to break the seventh commandment. They are still called to live in marriage according to the law of God for marriage which they know in their consciences (cf. Rom. 2:14-15).


The Bond is Unbreakable

To understand correctly the implication of all this regarding the subject of the unbreakability of the marriage bond, and thus the issue of divorce and remarriage, we have to consider once again the true, antitypical marriage relationship, and consider the behaviour of God, the husband, and the church, His wife. The church is not faithful to her husband as she ought to be. She is said to commit "adulteries" (cf. Eze. 16; Hos. 2), to "play the harlot" and to go "after [her] lovers" (Hos. 2:5). God, her husband, sees and considers her sins, her transgressions to the law, as harlotry and adultery. This is so because the law defines the way she ought to relate to Him in the covenant so as to be faithful and pleasing to Him in their marriage (cf. Lev. 26:15; I Kings 11:11; Ps. 50:16; Hos. 8:1; Isa. 24:5; Eze. 16; etc.). But from Hosea and Ezekiel, we see that God never leaves His wife to marry another. Although He is provoked and angered by her adulteries, and also chastises her for them, He loves her with an everlasting love, and always re-establishes her in their covenant relationship, by forgiving her sins and by making her more faithful to Him (Eze. 16:60ff.; Hos. 2:14ff.).

In the same manner, an earthly husband, and even more so a Christian husband, is not supposed to leave his wife—no matter how grievous her unfaithfulness—with the purpose of marrying another woman. As God never, in no case whatever, leaves His wife to marry another, so the Christian man, and every man for that matter, is called and held responsible by God never to leave his wife with the purpose to marry another. By not leaving his wife, man is acting according to the purpose that human marriage has always had, for it is a creaturely picture of God in Christ and the church. Anything which goes beyond or against this is a violation of, and a transgression against, the most fundamental meaning of the institution of human marriage, as it was conceived and created by God from the beginning. Now, as we have said, the purpose is that within the union of marriage, the spouses may enjoy emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical communion. This communion must be in harmony with the will of God for them as spouses, so that in such a union and communion they may reflect the union and communion of Christ and the church in the true, unbreakable marriage, thus glorifying God!

One common objection is that sexual unfaithfulness or desertion breaks the bond of marriage between two married persons. They usually think something like, If my spouse leaves me and goes for a new life with another, what connection, what bond has (s)he with me any longer? To this the answer of God in His Word is simpler than one may expect, Why do you think sexual unfaithfulness or desertion "breaks" the bond between two spouses? It simply doesn’t! This is so because, according to Scripture, there is only ONE thing that in God’s eyes breaks the bond between man and his wife, and that is death, physical death of one of the two. This is the perspicuous testimony of God in His Word (Rom. 7:2; I Cor. 7:39). Unfaithfulness, as serious and grievous as it may be, only violates, corrupts, adulterates the intimate bond God has created between husband and wife, but it does not, and can never, break it. Even less does desertion or anything else. Before God, who created that bond (Gen. 2; Matt. 19), a man and his wife are "one flesh," and will remain such until the death of one the constituent parts of this "one flesh." Just as in the true marriage between God and His bride, the church, her adulteries cannot and do not break their bond, so that the true elect church is rejected forever from the presence of the Lord (Eze. 16), God has conceived and made human marriage in such a way that when He does unite two in the bond of one flesh, He does so for life! And He calls them to see and believe this and live accordingly!

Thus, there is a very important difference to be kept in mind between an "adulterated" or "violated" bond and a "broken" bond. Even basic English prescribes that the word "adulterated" itself cannot possibly, and does not, mean "broken."3 Sexual unfaithfulness can and does (even grievously) adulterate, that is, corrupt, but cannot by any means actually break it. Only God, through death, can and does. Such are the implications of the depth and the power and the significance of the union between one man and one woman as created and meant by God! We say it once again: God has constituted and made the one-flesh union of earthly marriage so powerful and indissoluble because with every human marriage He means to represent, in a creaturely and beautiful way, the powerful, unbreakable, deep, intimate, indissoluble, ever-lasting union between Himself and His church in Christ.


I Corinthians 7:15 and Matthew 19:9

There are two—and only two—objections from the New Testament that can with any plausibility be raised to deny the biblical idea of marriage. One is from I Corinthians 7:15 and the other from Matthew 19:9. Since the Protestant Reformation especially, these texts have been seen as representing "exceptions" to the truth of marriage as we have considered it above. At this point we need to ask: Is it possible that the grand, fundamental idea of marriage, as it is rooted in the creation of man and woman from the beginning, could be contradicted by these two verses? Is it possible that marriage, as considered thus far, can be in any case considered broken before death? We will answer the objection from Matthew 19:9 as we seek to establish the true meaning of I Corinthians 7:15. The latter reads:

But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.

To determine the right meaning of this verse, it is indispensable that we look at the context first. In verse 10, the apostle treats the case of a believing wife, and commands her not to leave her husband, because she is called to live out the practical calling she has in the marriage bond as faithfully as possible. Moreover, leaving him would cause him to commit adultery (Matt. 5:32).

In verse 11, we meet with the permission given to the wife to depart, but we are not told for what reason. In verse 10, we are told that what the apostle says in verses 10-11 is something that he is not commanding, but that the Lord has commanded. Together with the orthodox commentators, we understand that what Paul is saying here is not something revealed to him for the first time. This had been the teaching of the Lord on this question already in His earthly ministry. Thus Luke (16:18), Matthew and Mark (already quoted above) teach that for a believer there is one and only one reason why a believer is permitted to leave his/her spouse: adultery on his/her spouse’s part. The apostle is simply repeating here what the Lord had already taught elsewhere on the matter of divorce. Paul teaches that the wife must not separate from her husband, but he also grants her permission to leave her husband, to separate from him. Although the apostle does not explicitly tell us for what reason the wife is allowed to leave her husband, we infer that this permission is granted only in case of adultery, because this had been the teaching of the Lord as it is recorded in the Gospels, which the apostle has told us he is simply repeating in I Corinthians 7:10-11.

But now notice that the apostle, continuing to restate what the teaching of the Lord on this issue had been, proceeds to define the wife’s calling once she has decided to leave him in case of adultery on his part: either remain unmarried or reconcile with him. No third option whatever. No remarriage for the "innocent party." Thus, notwithstanding the apparent problem with the possible partial obscurity of Matthew 19:9, if taken all on its own and leaving aside other exegetical considerations we could add from the context of Matthew itself which would only further corroborate our explanation thus far, the difficulty in establishing the exact meaning of Matthew 19:9 is conclusively resolved.4 I Corinthians 7:10-11 interprets Matthew 19:9, thus settling its true meaning conclusively for every Bible-believing Christian. With the light given by I Corinthians 7:10-11, we can confidently say, with apostolic authority, that Matthew 19:9 emphatically does not teach that after divorce for fornication the "innocent party" may remarry. The question, then, is, Are we prepared to be content with and receive the inspired, apostolic interpretation of Matthew 19:9 given in I Corinthians 7:10-11 or shall we still go about doubting or, worse, contradicting it?

Let us proceed, then, with our analysis of I Corinthians 7. In verse 12, the apostle says that what follows from there on is something that the Lord did not deal with in His earthly ministry, but that He has committed to Paul to treat at that point, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost (v. 40). Thus, what the apostle is going to say here are the commandments of the Lord too, this time through the mouth of His apostle (cf. 14:37). The case under consideration in I Corinthians 7:12-13 is that of a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. The inspired, apostolic directives for such cases are the following.

In case a believing wife, married to an unbelieving husband, finds that her husband is pleased to live with her notwithstanding the fact she is a Christian, the command of the Lord through the apostle is, Do not leave him! The same is true for a believing husband leaving with an unbelieving wife. The incentive added to the command is that the Lord may save the unbelieving spouse by means of the pious behaviour of the believing spouse. Another reason, not expressly given as such in the text, but which is certainly legitimately inferred from the text, is that the Lord has His elect, spiritual, covenant children from mixed marriages too (v. 14), who certainly would not benefit from the painful and distressing condition a split family would create for them.5 A third reason, partly implied in the directives the Lord gave which the apostle assumes his readers already know (Matt. 5:32), and partly already stated earlier in I Corinthians 7 (v. 5), is that by leaving his/her spouse one exposes him/her to the temptation of sexual unfaithfulness, thus very probably causing him/her to commit adultery.

And now I Corinthians 7:15. In verse 15, we have the case of an unbeliever who is NOT pleased to live with the believer. What is the believer commanded to do? Until now the believer has always been told not to leave her unbelieving husband or not to send away his unbelieving wife. The emphasis until now has been on the calling of the believer to live in the marriage bond and dwell in the union God has created, even though this union is not enjoyed fully when one of the two is an unbeliever. But now the apostle deals with the case of an unbeliever not pleased to live with the believing spouse in the marriage bond. What is the believer to do? Is it still the duty of the believer, as in every other case thus far treated, to discharge his/her marital duties towards him/her, to "please" and "care for" him/her (v. 34)? Considering this hypothetically to be the case for a moment, it surely would mean that the believer would have to force upon the unbeliever a relationship he/she is (sinfully) not pleased to live in anymore. It would also find all of this intolerable and absurd. What would result is simply a continual struggle between an unbeliever not pleased to dwell with his/her spouse any longer and a believer trying to live with his/her spouse! The unbeliever probably would try to get rid of the believing spouse or make his/her life impossible or force him/her to leave. The believer may even come to the point of thinking he/she is forced at all costs to be with his/her spouse, even if this would entail just being a slave, duty-bound to follow his/her spouse wherever he/she may go. But the will of God in such cases is not to try and pursue such an impossible and distressing course of action. God’s calling to the believer in such cases is rather to let the unbeliever depart, and not consider oneself chained to him/her or enslaved to him/her, so as to think he/she must be with him/her at all costs. God calls that person to live in peace.6 If the unbeliever will one day change his/her mind and come back, reconciliation is still possible, since the believer knows must remain unmarried while the unbeliever lives.7 The possibility of remarriage is only read into the verse. Both the general teaching of Scripture and a contextual reading of this chapter such as we have just sketched above forbid such a reading; it is a classical case of eisegesis.



The catholic (universal) consensus of the church for the first 1500 years of the New Testament era has been that human marriage is a God-made, one-flesh union, between one man and one woman, that is unbreakable by man. Only God can and does do so through physical death. After the Protestant Reformation, the church has come to be divided on the issue, with the Anglican church, the Brethren assemblies, and—important to notice—also some in the Reformed churches continuing with the catholic consensus, while most Protestants broke with it on the vital issue of the unbreakability of marriage. Protestantism did so, we believe, because it was reacting to some corruptions of the truth of marriage which over the centuries had crept in the church, such as the view of it as a grace-conferring sacrament or the view that remarriage is forbidden even after the death of one of the spouses or the prohibition for the clergy to marry, plus other factors.8 The two main scriptural passages the Protestant Reformers and other appealed to in support of their revision of the older position of the church have been shown to be the first a classical case of eisegesis (i.e., reading into a text something that is simply not there). This erroneous interpretation arose, at least in part, because of problems of that day, as we have briefly remarked. The second passage (Matt. 19:9), surely cannot contradict the overwhelmingly clear testimony of Scripture in its parallel Gospel passages. Also, and conclusively, Matthew 19:9 is interpreted in the clearest possible terms in the inspired I Corinthians 7:10-11 as not permitting remarriage after divorce.

The calling, then, for those who are seeking a spouse is to seek for one who believes from the heart the scriptural truth of marriage and who is committed to live it out in all its implications, especially as regards divorce and remarriage. Those who are already married have to be encouraged in pursuing their important calling of faithfully showing forth something of the beautiful mystery of the everlasting union and communion of Christ and His church. Those who have been living with someone other than their (true) spouse are urged to recognize the clear, scriptural idea of marriage, and pray to God for mercy to leave their adultery, and, with the advice and assistance of a true church, seek reconciliation with their only true spouse, if possible, or remain unmarried. For those determined to continue in this sin, let there be no self-deception. Adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven (I Cor. 6:9-10). Since God is not mocked vain is the attempt to try to justify one’s adulterous conduct by saying that one really has repented of that sin, and that God has forgiven it, if one, in fact, continues to live in adultery. Repentance involves not only being sorry for, and not only hating, and not only confessing one’s sin, but always also abandoning one’s sin (Prov. 28:13).

We are painfully conscious that due to the total depravity of all men not everyone is prepared to or will receive such teaching on marriage, save those to whom it is given. But for that same reason we can be and are sure that the grace of God, which is peculiar to His elect, will prove efficacious in causing His true people to take heed to the Word of God regarding marriage, with its implications for divorce and remarriage. Thus, He that is able to receive this Word, let him receive it (Matt. 19:11-12)!

1The public vows or oaths may take place in an ecclesiastical or non-ecclesiastical context. What matters is the public oath (which is taken in the presence of God who is witness of this oath). From that moment on the couple have been joined in marriage before Him for life, and they are bound to live accordingly (cf. Num. 30:2; Prov. 20:25; Ecc. 5:2-6).
2For the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 and what the Lord Jesus says concerning the temporary Mosaic prescriptions regarding divorce and remarriage at that time, see David J. Engelsma, Marriage: the Mystery of Christ and the Church (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 1998), pp. 96-102.
3Check out the several meanings of the verb "to adulterate." "To break" is not among them.
4See, for example, the CPRC Marriage Resources.
5See "Holy Children" for a correct exegesis of I Corinthians 7:14.
6The Greek word translated "under bondage" (AV) is dedoulotai does not mean "is not bound" but "is not under bondage," which is very different! The Greek word used for "bond" is different. The word used in I Corinthians 7:15 is used elsewhere in Scripture and never denotes marriage (cf. Acts 7:6; Rom. 6:18, 22; I Cor. 9:19; Gal. 4:3; Titus 2:3; II Peter 2:19). The verb deo, correctly translated "bond" or "bound," is used in I Corinthians 7:2. Deo means to bind together, to be bound in marriage; but douloo, on the other hand, means to be under bondage. The passage, then, is not saying that the believer is not bound anymore in marriage! This idea is not in the text, nor does it fit with or arise from the context. This being so, the believer cannot remarry without adulterating that former, still existing bond, that is, without living in adultery against his/her spouse.
7How complicated and painful would be the situation of a deserted believer who has remarried, if later his/her unbelieving spouse were to seek reconciliation, perhaps even after having become a Christian?
8For a historical treatment, see Engelsma, Marriage: the Mystery of Christ and the Church, pp. 145-229.