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The binding nature of marriage vows

The scripture is very plain that a person is obliged to fulfil whatever they vow to do.  This is significant when related to marriage.

In almost all marriage ceremonies, the parties vow something like:

  • …love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live…

Note that such a vow is unconditional.  There is no ‘except if you abandon me, abuse me or commit adultery’ conditions included.

Some have suggested that if the one person breaks their vow then that releases the other from their vow.  However we see no evidence of vows being contingent upon another in Scripture.

But more importantly, the marriage vow is very clearly a unilateral commitment to other person.  Although we have an expectation that the other will fulfil their vow, we do not condition our fulfilment upon that.  If the husband refuses to love his wife as the Lord commands does that mean that the wife is no longer obligated to love him as she should?  Of course not.  So, if the husband is not faithful to his wife and so forsakes her does that mean that the wife can forsake her husband?

The following are the general scriptures regarding vows and how the Lord considers them.

  • Num 30:2 KJV If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.
  • Deu 23:21 KJV When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee.
  • Psa 15:4 KJV In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the LORD. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.
  • Ecc 5:4 KJV When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed.
  • Ecc 5:5 KJV Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.
  • Lev 5:4-5 KJV Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these. 5. And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing:
  • Jdg 11:30-40 KJV And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 31. Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. 32. So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands. 33. And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel. 34. And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. 35. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back. 36. And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. 37. And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. 38. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. 39. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, 40. That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.


  1. Lois Tverberg

    What about Jer 3:8 where God gives Israel her divorce papers? The passage goes on to say that it would be unthinkable that he would remarry her, because of Dt 24 laws against remarriage. But in Jeremiah 31 he offers to do so anyhow. If you ignore the strong divorce imagery, you miss the stunning grace that God is showing here. God did indeed “divorce” his adulterous people, and now he wants to “marry” them again.

  2. agrogers

    Yes, I agree. That is a demonstration of amazing grace. People use this passage to argue that divorce *and subsequent remarriage* is acceptable to God. I think this passage demonstrates that separation under some circumstances is acceptable. However God did not take a different wife but, as you pointed out, graciously took his unfaithful wife back. This seems to follow Paul’s command given in 1 Cor 7 for the wife who departs to stay single or return.

  3. L1

    I’ve recently discovered a denomination that teaches that those in remarriage while the first spouse is still living must repent by divorcing. It seems to logically follow from the permanence view, but most people who hold to the permanence view will not go this far. But I am finding the arguments to be convincing and recently spoke to a woman who has applied this in her own life. Thinking about the cost for homosexual people who marry and have children and a family, but who then become born again, a situation that will undoubtedly occur increasingly in the future, makes me see that the hardship argument cannot be the basis for our view on this. I am reading an online book about this view (Till Death Do Us Part). For this argument, I would like to know whether Herod was married to his brother’s wife or not. What was John calling him to do?

  4. agrogers

    I think what you have described is the only consistent position. John Piper (who I highly esteem) holds the view that remarriage while the first spouse is alive is sin in all circumstances but affirms that the second marriage still remains binding and should not be ended. John Piper is a very smart man but I think he has allowed his heart to rule his head in this instance.

    1. Jesus calls a remarriage ‘adultery’.

    2. Thus, it cannot possibly be a real marriage in the eyes of God… otherwise it wouldn’t be called adultery.

    3. Thus, any continued sex will continue to be deemed adultery until it becomes a real marriage.

    4. So what is the mechanism by which the second marriage can become a real marriage and not be deemed adulterous? As far as I can tell there is none.

    There is no way it can be viewed as anything but ongoing adultery. If the ceremony and the witnesses and the vows resulted in God declaring their relationship ‘adulterous’, who are we (or John Piper) to declare that God accepts it?

    I have been a coward though in this respect. Although I have gotten myself in hot water for not attending friends’ second marriages, I have not taken a hard line on their remarriage. I have taken John’s stance for all practical purposes. It is a hard, painful line.

    But, it is a line that we would quite readily demanded of a homosexual couple which is your point! I think the ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ passage could be damning for many remarried people who oppose homosexual marriage.

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