When Does Marriage Really End?

QUESTION: “When does marriage end? Does it end at the “legal” end when a divorce becomes final? Or, does it end in biblical terms at the moment when a spouse commits adultery? “ The Bible speaks of marriage not as a contract, but as a covenant. There are several differences between the two, but the one that applies most in this case to this question is simply this...

Thursdays are usually geared towards answering theological questions I receive in my role as a pastor. They tend to be longer and more detailed than the other days, and I hope the topics are helpful in your journey.
—Pastor Phillip

Marriage is hard.

As a single man, I look forward to being married and having a family one day, but this is the statement I keep hearing again and again about marriage, that it’s hard work.  One preacher said it this way, “You can’t put two sinners together and expect things to always go smoothly.”  Good point.

Yet, even though many say that marriage is the most difficult thing they’ve ever done, the Bible tells us that simply giving up is not an option.  We are called to approach marriage as a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:31-32) and He certainly doesn’t give up on us when things get hard.  However, there are examples in Scripture where divorce is permissible, but sometimes the lines can be hard to define.

I grieve to see so many in our day going through the pain of divorce and infidelity.  It’s disheartening, and I know for me it takes an intentional effort sometime to resist the spirit of fear that can try to creep in that such things are inevitable.  Praise the Lord that they do NOT have to be inevitable, and there IS hope for us as the people of God!  Of course, we must do our part as well and try to walk in wisdom.

Along that line, here are two questions I received on these issues, and some thoughts that will hopefully be of some help.

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QUESTION 1: “When does marriage end?  Does it end at the “legal” end when a divorce becomes final?  Or, does it end in biblical terms at the moment when a spouse commits adultery?

The Bible speaks of marriage not as a contract, but as a covenant. There are several differences between the two, but the one that applies most in this case to this question is simply this.

In a CONTRACT (as far as I know), once one party breaks the terms, the contract is officially null and void in the eyes of the law. This is because a contract is inherently based on DIStrust and therefore has provisions in place that explicitly invalidate the contract in the event of a breach.

A COVENANT, however, is based on trust, not distrust. This means that when a spouse commits adultery, they have indeed broken the “terms” of the covenant, but Biblically that doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage is over. Moses and Jesus and Paul are the Biblical figures who spoke to the issue of marriage and divorce, and in each case the idea is that in cases of infidelity, divorce is an option, but not a requirement and certainly not an “automatic.”

So, according to scripture, marriage “ends” when the divorce is finalized according to the laws and customs of the culture of which the couple is a part. (This is why the Old Testament law spoke of “a certificate of divorce” in Deuteronomy 24, a passage on which Jesus comments in Matthew 5, Matthew 19, and Mark 10.) However, in the case of adultery, this is an option, not a given.


QUESTION 2: “Is someone that is in the process of divorcing their spouse committing adultery if they are dating someone while they are separated from their spouse?”

This question is a trickier one, because the concept of “dating” is a relatively new invention in our society, and didn’t exist per se in “Bible times.”  In those cultures the norm was usually arranged marriage, or if not arranged by the parents, it was more a matter of a man proposing to a woman’s family and being granted permission, and that was that.  The idea of a man and woman spending time together “getting to know each other” in unsupervised environments has no real Biblical precedent that I know of.

That said, here are a few principles I believe would apply.

1) Jesus said “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12)  This speaks to the idea that it is a violation of the original covenant to enter into another covenant in its place without proper justification.

Jesus speaks to some of the dynamics of this a few verses earlier, “the two shall become one flesh.  So, they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8)  The big issue from a covenantal standpoint is sexuality, the “two becoming one.”  Obviously, then, someone in the process of getting a divorce should not be intimate with someone else, though of course they also shouldn’t be intimate until they are married again!

2) Expanding the principle of “two becoming one,” we know that if a man and woman are married, they should not be developing intimate emotional relationships with a member of the opposite sex, either.  This is one of the big problems that comes up with office relationships, where the excuse becomes, “well we didn’t ‘do anything’…”  Maybe nothing happened physically, but there was an emotional bond that was created and the heart of the married person (or persons) was led astray.

Here’s why this is an important point.

Again and again in Scripture, God issues judgement against Israel because they “turned their hearts” after other Gods to worship them.  THEREFORE (long explanations aside) according to this principle, someone who is in the process of divorce but has not completely finished it should not be building intimate “heart” relationships with others, because that is still violating the terms of the covenant.  Even though the covenant is in the process of being terminated, it is still in effect until the last details are finished up.

On a positive note, by refraining from building intimate heart ties with others during the divorce process, that leaves the door open for God to do a restorative work in the hearts of the couple and bring them back together!  He can and does do this, and it would be wrong to close off that possibility.

3) Finally, if “dating someone else” is less like the heart-to-heart connection of being “boyfriend/girlfriend” and more of a casual getting-together with multiple other people for companionship, I would not say it was sin, though I would approach it as a wisdom issue and say that one should be very careful.

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I hope the points above have provided some helpful perspective. As I said, I grieve the state of marriage in our time, and pray that God may use each of us who follow Christ to actively “drive back the darkness” by helping people walk with wisdom and grace and thus honor their covenants of all kinds before God… and may we do the same.



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