The writing of Paul on the subject of divorce is probably limited to one passage in his letter to the church at Corinth. However, since his teachings on marriage are found in a number of passages, we will find it necessary to look at them as well, though they only bear upon the subject indirectly. We will look first at 1 Corinthians 7. We will devote chapter 8 to his admonition to married persons, covering his words both to Christian couples and to Christians in mixed marriages. His advice to single people will be treated in a separate chapter (9) along with his “marital analogy” in Romans 7. Our final treatment of apostolic materials will be in Chapter 10. Considering that chapter as sort of miscellany, we will group together a number of teachings that I am convinced do not really inform our discussion. I deal with them because many popular writers think that these passages indirectly decide the case regarding the propriety of divorce and remarriage. In that chapter we will deal with the “love” teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. There we will attempt to show how our previous conclusions can be harmonized with that Christian virtue. Then we will consider the apostolic teaching on “submission,” the teaching of Paul (Eph. 5) and Peter (1 Pet. 3). Finally, we will deal with the “qualification of church leaders” material in the pastoral Epistles.
The order set forth here is not lightly chosen. It is a continuation of the concern for reading and understanding the biblical text approximately as it was chronologically written.411 It does, I think, make a certain difference whether one starts with Romans 7:1 Corinthians 7:39 or 1 Corinthians 7:10-28. As in the Gospels, if one starts with the more absolute sayings against divorce and remarriage, one is disposed to explain away the more permissive words. Contrariwise, if Paul has already granted certain permissions concerning divorce/remarriage, it is rather easy to interpret absolute negations as pedagogical overstatements or general rules. Of course, since Paul’s writings are, I hold, consistent, the reader should ultimately be able to come to the same conclusions either way, but it seems wiser to follow the writer through in his own order.412
It is appropriate that the first words of Paul on the subject of divorce should be a repetition of the teachings of our Lord. The explicit reference to Jesus’ teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10 functions as a hinge in our exposition. Paul freely applies the messianic teaching with no qualms about its relevance.413 He then proceeds to give further, but non-contrary, applications of the abiding principles in a manner relevant to the struggling church at Corinth.
The teaching itself is, of course, but one word of advice to a church plagued with problems of all sorts. Paul knew of some of these problems from the reports of a family identified as “Chloe’s people” (1:11); of the rest he was informed by letter from the church itself (7:1). These sources seem, in part, to divide the letter into two sections, though that division does not seem to be as important as the thematic developments noted in most outlines of the book. For my own part, I believe that Rabbi Saul (trained in moral instruction by Gamaliel) structured his letter on that of the Ten Commandments in seriatim, with each section applying principles of the commandment to the problems of the church. This section of the letter ends the comment on the Sixth and begins the Seventh Commandment. [In an upcoming work on systematic biblical ethics I plan on developing and defending this idea.]
The thematic development evident in the book offers us a starting point for our discussion in 5:1. Paul deals with an unfortunate occurrence of incest involving one of the church members. Noting that such behavior is reprehensible even among unbelievers (a capital offense in the Mosaic Law), Paul prescribes harsh discipline—excommunication from fellowship. He concludes this matter by telling the church to prudently judge their own public sins, rather than try and discipline the immoral actions of outsiders.
The second matter mentioned relates to their treatment of their brethren before public courts of law. Apparently some church members were airing petty and private matters before unbelievers, thus bringing the fellowship into bad repute. If any group should not need recourse to courts for such matters, it should be Christians, who were to be known by their love and harmony. Paul’s admonition is, again, to judge such matters as a fellowship. These passages reveal a sad state of affairs still with us today. The church was permissive when it came to major matters (incest) but harsh (individualistically speaking) when it came to small issues.
This section does not mention exactly what those petty grievances were. By omitting this fact, the section underscores the need not to take any such small matters to the civil courts. But it is not far-fetched to suggest sexual matters lingering in the background. This conclusion arises not only from the previous section, which discusses the gross fornication of incest, but also from a consideration of the predominately sexual and marital matters that quickly follow in the text (6:9-7:40). And in those subsequent sections, one of the more crucial terms of the litigation section is repeated: defraud. In 7:5, Paul admonishes married people not to deprive the spouse of sexual relations. Could it be that just such a deprivation was one of the “small things” taken before the civil courts?
Consider this possible connection: Paul points out to the Corinthians a gross sexual problem that was infecting the church. Though incest was not commonly practiced “among the Gentiles” (5:1), such a sin was doubtless committed in this instance in the context of a sexually permissive and defiled Corinth. This general context, and such grossness, in all probability led some sensitive souls, upon conversion, to completely reject sex itself as sinful and desire to live lives of celibacy (cf. 7:3-7). It is not stretching the matter too far to see behind this “party” of ascetics the influence of Greek philosophy that saw the body as itself undesirable and “immoral.” Be that as it may, when such purists happened to be in existing marriages, their views would have produced an obvious problem for their spouses, who might well have had other ideas about the desirability of continued sexual relations. It might be that these deprived spouses were seeking legal support at the courts—an embarrassing suit, to say the least!414 It is to such a group of offended “suitors” that the apostle writes. He remands the cases to the church court. He does not, at this point, agree with the direction of the depriving group. In fact, his very use of a word like deprived (v. 7) is rather obviously a taking sides with the non- depriving group. But he gives no specific condemnation of depriving one’s spouse of sexual relations, only the implied rebuke that the church court should deliver.
The next section (6:9-11) proceeds to detail a catalogue of sins that will inhibit entrance into the kingdom of God. At the forefront are the sexual sins. Why this list, and why in this location? A definitive answer may not be available, but it is reasonable to see this as Paul’s point of agreement with the would-be celibates who are reacting to the evils of the city around them. There is also in this catalogue of sins a preparation for the rebuke of another problem, which surfaces in verses 13-20: consorting with prostitutes.
But Paul is not in complete agreement with the ascetically minded church members of, Corinth. Verse 12 rebuts the contention that “things,” such as bodies, are intrinsically evil. It is not the things but the use to which the things are put that is evil and rejected by God. It is the uses mentioned in verses 9-10 that must be avoided, and marital sex is not found in the list! Again, Paul underscores his point. In verses 13-20, Paul takes one of the sins of the list and points out wherein it is “unlawful.”
But the question of context arises again. Why would a Christian go to a prostitute? The traditional answer is that the promiscuity of the city led to this practice. Doubtless this is correct. But could it not also be that these were not only unmarried men seeking sexual experience but also married men, deprived of sex at home by an ascetically minded partner? How many times have we heard the threat, “If I don’t get it at home, I’ll get it somewhere else!” And Paul, by inhibiting the spouse from legally forcing (if that can be done!) his wife to have sex with him, seems to have played into this kind of thinking. So Paul anticipates this response to his blocking of litigation by blocking recourse to extramarital sex.
Moreover, for good reason, sexual relations imply union into a team. But the vocation of a prostitute makes her an illicit choice for a partner. To be teamed with her is to be joined with one whose commitment is contrary to the will of God. To become a member of her body—to become one flesh with her—is to defile one’s own body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are one flesh with him. What fellowship can God have with the Devil?415
All this makes it very hard on relatively innocent spouses who have simply found themselves married to some soul who misunderstands God’s view of sexuality. Though Paul has begun the message to that ascetic spouse, that is, the body is not bad, and implied that the church should correct such deprivation, he has really said little to admonish such spouses to give themselves in the sexual act. Paul achieves balance on these subjects as he turns to answer the questions that church members have raised to him.416
He begins (7:1) with the statement that it is good for a man not to touch a woman. There is a certain enigma in this statement. Is this the first statement of his principle that singleness is a virtue insofar as single people can be devoted to God’s service? Or is it a restatement of his prior points about fornication?
Gordon Fee, in his excellent study of the first verse of this chapter, argues that Paul is advising marriage to those who find it difficult to avoid the sin of fornication. Fee suggests that, rather than start off with a preference for celibacy, which is then withdrawn for those who are troubled by their passions, Paul is reminding the married Corinthians that their own marriages are the answer to their passions (vv. 1 and 2).417 Fee’s main point is that the normal meaning of ma aptesthai is “not to touch,” not “not to marry,” as the elevation-of-celibacy school prefers.418 The question from them that he initially answers is, then, something like: May I go to the prostitutes if my wife isn’t satisfying me at all times? (a sort of reversal of Prov. 5:19 in context).419
The next three verses oblige married persons to give their bodies to their spouses. And by saying thus, Paul balances the ledger. The man must not go to the courts to force his wife to have sex (6:1-8). He must not seek sex outside of marriage (6:9-20). The wife must not withhold herself from her husband, thus pressuring him to fall to Satan’s temptation to seek sex outside marriage (7:1-6). The latter saying provides the judgment for the church in its own attempts to adjudicate the argument between the ascetic spouse and the sexually active spouse.420
Of some interest is verse 6. Paul states that his prior admonition is not a command but a concession. What exactly does he mean by this? Several options exist. First, since such a “this” usually refers to something immediately said, he could be referring to the resumption of sexual relations after the temporary denial. But this seems to contradict the main thrust of the admonition in verse 5. Second, he could be referring to the whole of his advice. This would mean he has no command to require people to satisfy their sexual drives by means of their spouse. But this would imply that immorality is a moral option. That would be absurd.
A third option is that the entire saying (v. 5) is the concession. Against this is that the husband’s having sexual relations with his wife was a matter of command (Exod. 21:10 f.). On the other hand, there was no Old Testament requirement for the wife to have sex with her husband. If she refused, he doubtless would simply have taken another wife to fill that need—if he could afford the bride price. Perhaps this element should be highlighted, giving us a sort of variation of the third option. That is the very reciprocity of his admonition not to deprive one’s spouse. Though the Old Testament did not require such reciprocity, the cultural monogamy of the Greeks required such a concession in order to accommodate the customs in place. We must note that such a bilateral admonition would not have been needed in Old Testament times. This latter interpretation also has the benefit of helping to make sense of the next major section of the letter, which presumes that the woman is depriving her husband (cf. vv. 10-11).
The final option, however, which seems to make the best sense of the data, is that the concession is the temporary option to defer sexual relations for a season of prayer. Though at first this might seem strained—why would he call occasional prayer a concession—Fee suggests that it is a concession to the ascetically minded Corinthians.421 This option makes even better and more direct sense of what follows. In order to avoid the conclusion that Paul disdains celibacy, he hastens to note that singleness, after all, is preferable to marriage if and only if passions can be contained. This is Paul’s first clear statement of the principle that singleness and marriage are both gifts of God, and that he commends the gift of celibacy. There is no disparagement of either gift in the final analysis—both are from God. We note also that Paul does not explain the rationale for this desirable celibacy at this point. That waits for verses 25-35. He concludes this section by stating that it is far better to disregard his affirmation of celibacy (for the unmarried and widows) than it is to burn with lust. This parallels his reasons for getting married (v. 2) and for sexual deprivations in marriage to be temporary only (v. 5).
Now come Paul’s teachings that directly relate to the matters of divorce and remarriage. The question behind these teachings must have been somehow related to the first question. Perhaps it was: “May a couple who cannot agree upon the need for sex in marriage simply end their marriage and form another with a believer who is of like mind?” It is hard to believe that they want to know simply if a marriage partner can walk away from the marriage or if divorce and remarriage are proper. The teachings of Jesus doubtless had been repeated to them (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount). After all, had not Jesus ordered the evangelistic program to teach whatsoever he had taught the disciples? If that had been obeyed, the divorce teaching in its pristine form was already known to those at this church, where Paul had spent eighteen months. This is why I suspect some wrinkle in the question that reaches past the elementary teaching that it is wrong for a spouse to divorce with no other reason than to find a more desirable mate.
But if this is the case, Paul surprises them by reminding them of that very basic teaching. He tells them that to divorce without grounds is improper, and that if they have done so they are not to strike a second covenant but to seek reconciliation with their (former) spouse. This advice has the benefit of tying the final knot in the rope he has been working on. To spouses who seek to circumvent his admonition to give their body to their spouse by getting rid of the spouse and finding a more congenial partner, he rejects separation, that is, the sundering of the marriage. Of course, the prohibition works both ways. To the spouse who might desire a new mate who would be less demanding with regard to sexual relations or to the spouse who might desire a mate who would desire more in the way of sexual relations, his advice is the same: “stay married.”
The Implied “Exception”
Now, someone might react somewhat negatively to my loose paraphrase of verses 10 and 11. One might wish to stress, especially, that Paul does not speak of an exception to a no-divorce teaching of Jesus, but absolutely rejects divorce and remarriage.422 But I believe that, although this is technically true, the evidence nonetheless points in the direction of an implied exception. First, note that Paul refers to the teaching of Jesus, which did include the exception clause. We have no right to presume that Paul was unfamiliar with the exception. It was spoken on both of the major occasions wherein Jesus taught on divorce, that is, the event of the Sermon and the event recorded by Matthew 19 and Mark 10. Since neither Matthew’s nor Mark’s Gospel was as yet written,423 it is presumptuous to suggest that Paul knew nothing of an exception clause in Jesus’ teaching. In fact, since, as previously argued, Mark likely knew of the exception clause but excluded it only for purposes of focus, even if Paul obtained his understanding only from the Marcan tradition he may still have received an understanding of the exception.
But however this speculation about the sources of Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’ teaching might turn out, there is another indication in the text that the exception is implied. It is the word reconciliation (v. 11). This term, though used theologically of both the guilty and the innocent parties in a dispute, is more limited in biblical usage. The term is never used of an innocent party. God is never said to be reconciled to us, but only we to him. Since this is the case, it is clear that Paul sees this person who has divorced the spouse as guilty of some offense. Since he refers to teachings of Jesus, we must ask who Jesus considers to be guilty of any moral offense in marital breakups. It is relatively simple to prove that Jesus disdains divorce for improper grounds, and though it may be argued (wrongly, I believe) that Jesus rejects remarriage for any grounds, it is nowhere evident that Jesus prohibits all divorce for whatever grounds and apart from the issue of remarriage. It is far easier to understand Paul as simply prohibiting groundless divorce with the aim of remarriage—which he blocks—and admonishing reconciliation. At least, we may say that, given the exception clause in the teachings of Jesus, the burden of proof rests with the person who would affirm that Paul (reflecting the teachings of Jesus) holds a person guilty of sin for divorcing a spouse on the grounds of porneia. I suggest that this is a burden that this position cannot bear.424
“Sunder” Versus “Divorce”
We should note, as well, that Paul does not say that a woman should not divorce her husband. He says that she should not sunder her relationship. The Greek term is chorizo, not apoluo. Heth/Wenham point out that these two terms are synonyms in the papyrus literature of the day and doubtless would have been thought such by the Corinthian readers.425 Nevertheless, these authors argue that we should not be compelled to see them as synonyms. Their reason is that both the terms as synonyms implied a full divorce with the right to remarry. This is contrary to their own view, and they must distance the text from this legal usage of the papyri terms. I understand their desire to keep the biblical usages harmonious, but my own search for harmony leads me in a different direction. Having not found warrant for their idea of divorce without the right to remarry, I do not feel a need to argue as they have. Rather, I wish to keep the terms that Jesus used true to His own apparent distinctions between them. Remember that Jesus does use both terms in the same discourse (Matthew 19), but restricts his condemnation of a given divorce as adulterous to where there were no sundering grounds.426 This is to say that the terms are not perfect synonyms. And what language is so broken down that there is such a thing as a perfect synonym? There are always nuance differences. It seems to me that in the teachings of Jesus chorizo emphasizes the moral severing of the existing valid bond or covenant. Apoluo, on the other hand, was Jesus’ way of referring to legal and complete divorce, without regard to grounds. Both terms refer to ending the marriage, but the former is an offense-term, and the latter is a descriptive term. Jesus teaches that divorce (descriptive term), when it does not involve the sundering offense of fornication, is itself sundering (moral offense term), and the nature of the offense Jesus identifies as the sin of adultery. This does not mean that the readers of the Corinthian letter had to stretch to understand Paul’s usage. In fact, since in this instance the sundering certainly did in fact involve legal divorce, the use of the terms in the papyri of the day is quite in harmony with my suggestion.427 Even in the case of the Gospel passages (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9), it is clear that chorizo connotes divorce. But I contend that chorizo is implied as the essence fornication in the exception clauses. Thus, one may sunder one’s marriage either by fornication in marriage or by groundless divorce. Such a statement is entirely in harmony with the teaching in Matthew 19. Now, if our analysis of these terms and their use is proper, I feel that it is another indication that Paul is here dealing with cases where there were no sundering grounds, but where the divorce itself was the sundering.428
The Limits of Paul’s Prohibition
As such, divorce becomes grounds for the moral freedom of the innocent party. This is to say that the aggrieved are given implied permission to remarry, insofar as Paul prohibits only remarriage of the sundering or guilty party. The reason that he permits the guilty divorcer to stay divorced (v. 11) is that it may be impossible for the divorcer to be reconciled to the former spouse.429 Actually the language may simply mean: “If you got a groundless divorce, don’t run out and get remarried to a more desirable partner, but instead be reconciled to your wronged former spouse.”
This latter reading would even permit remarriage of the guilty partner at some future time, for we believe that Paul’s admonition here is dealing with an immediate problem. Someone had put away a spouse without grounds, probably in order to marry a “better” partner. Paul is trying to stop it. I do not believe that he wishes to block all future possible remarriages in the event that the guilty party attempts to reconcile and finds that this is now impossible.430
For example, do we wish to say that the prohibition of remarriage of this guilty party extends beyond the lifetime of the offended former partner? Probably not. But Paul does not specifically say here that such a conclusion is overextended. What if the “innocent” party refuses to be reconciled? Is the “guilty” party doomed to celibacy, or has the moral “shoe” been put on the “innocent” partner’s foot? Perhaps the order of Paul’s final words is significant. He does not say, as we might have expected, “Be reconciled or remain unmarried”; he says it the other way around, “Remain unmarried or be reconciled.” I see in this the advice applying as long as reconciliation is a reasonable option. It deals with the immediate, not the long-range. Thus, Paul’s advice to the troubled married here need not in the slightest disagree with our previous conclusions. And if we have been right about them, since Paul admittedly reflects upon Jesus’ teaching, we would expect harmony after the manner present here. And again, the burden of proof would be upon the person arguing a difference.
Paul now moves to another question. It is a question similar to the preceding one in that it deals with the severing of the marriage relationship. But, whereas the former question dealt with the right to put away a believing spouse (to avoid the sexual relation), the latter question deals with the obligation to put away an unbelieving partner. We may imagine that the question was phrased something like this: Is it proper to remain married to a spouse who has not converted to Christianity?
Whence arises such a question? It is easy to see Paul’s connection with his prior admonition: ‘You should flee fornication, that is, a one-flesh relationship with an unbelieving prostitute. If you become one body or one flesh with her, you defile the temple of the Holy Spirit. Instead, be married to a Christian, who can fulfill your marital needs (i.e., sex) except when you both agree to forgo sexual relations in order to pray.” From such admonition, it might be possible for a careless reader to suspect that Paul disdains mixed marriages of all sorts as contrary to Christian purity. But this only shows us part of Paul’s logical progression. It does not explain the origin of the Corinthians’ question.
Perhaps we may gain some understanding of what lay behind this question by considering a certain mistaken notion prevalent among the believers. In 5:10, Paul speaks of a previous letter in which he had admonished the believers “not to associate with immoral people.” The Corinthians had misunderstood that admonition to mean not to have relationships with nonbelievers. Since he is correcting this misunderstanding of his previous letter, it is probable that some of the people receiving it thought that it was proper to separate themselves from unbelieving spouses—a species of separation from unbelievers. If so, this second misunderstanding needed to be corrected as well. With this sort of misunderstanding lingering in the background, it is understandable that the question should arise in their midst about the propriety of leaving an unbelieving spouse.
Another probable element (aside from the reference to Paul’s prior letter) may have been earlier teachings of Paul during his stay with them. Though we may only speculate about what exactly he taught them, we must believe that Paul, following the example of the disciples, followed the instruction of the Lord to teach the nations what He had taught them. Part of the teachings of Jesus regarded the consequences of becoming his followers. Jesus taught that belief in him would divide families (Matt. 10:34 ff.). He went on to say that a person who left house and family for his sake would be rewarded (Matt. 19:29/Mark 10:29-30). Perhaps the Corinthians had missed the point that in none of the relations mentioned was there the slightest indication that a spouse should “leave” his or her partner, that is, that a valid covenant should be sundered. Thus, again, the Corinthians might well have wanted clarification of the basic teaching of Jesus.
A final, yet more speculative possibility is that Paul had previously taught them that grand Old Testament doctrine of separation. That, after all, was behind the very teachings of Jesus just mentioned. That doctrine had over and over been stated and exemplified: Do not make binding covenants with the unbelieving people of the land. If you have, break them off. This was the stern message of Deuteronomy 7:3 and Ezra 9 and 10. Perhaps it is not too hard to see these people, many of whom doubtless were Jews learned in the Law and the Prophets, reflecting upon the message of Ezra and wondering if it pertained to their own situation.431
Whichever of these points may have informed their question, we know that they asked it, and that Paul sought to provide them a righteous answer. He does not pretend that he has a made-to-order citation from Jesus or from the Old Testament. He says to them that his admonition comes from his own sanctified reason.432 Such reason was informed by his understanding of God’s justice and holiness.
How to Handle Acceptance by the Unsaved Spouse
Paul’s main point is simply and quickly put: “Do not separate.” This negative response to the question is in line with his prior admonition in 5:10 not to “take yourself out of the world.” It is also in line with his just-spoken admonition to the spouse of a believer not to separate from a spouse on inadequate grounds (7:10 f.). Separation may come, but it should not be initiated by the believer. Behind this advice is a principle, or a couple of them: first, that valid covenants morally entered, are binding and, second, that simply being married to an unbeliever is not in itself a sin of disloyalty to God—intentionally joining to a known unbeliever would be.
Harmonization with the Prior Context
Here we must pause and explain how these principles can be harmonized with the teachings mentioned earlier. First, note carefully that when Jesus mentions division of a family never once is it the division of a husband and wife. The relationships mentioned are not covenantal. When a child comes of age, he or she may have to break off family relations because of belief in Christ. But the sayings do not sanction breaking existing covenants. And insofar as the situation envisioned by Christ relates to post-conversion discord, this omission of husband-wife relations is very significant to the problem as it arose in Corinth, but it was not explicitly stated.
Harmonization with Ezra
The problem in Corinth was quite different from the one that Ezra encountered in post-exilic Israel. Ezra was rebuking those who, knowing the Law, had married proscribed persons. Their marriages were, from Moses’ point of view, illicit. They may have had the sanction of prevailing legal custom, but they were against the Law. By contracting the marriages these Israelites were committing adultery against God. Thus, the only fruit of repentance that the scribe could accept had to include the discipline of putting the illicit (i.e., unbelieving) partners away. This was not at all the situation in Corinth. These believers had been married before they were converted. Paul is at pains to make this point in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. It is not illicit for two unbelievers to covenant in marriage. Since they had contracted covenants under these conditions, they are to realize that the covenants were and are still licit and should be kept. There was no hint of spiritual disloyalty on their part in such unions.
It is thus a mistake to see in the admonition of Paul a negating of the moral disposition of Ezra. It is wrong-headed, for instance, to suggest that the harshness of the Old Testament has been superseded by the softness of the love ethic of the new dispensation. Neither Jesus nor Paul take it upon themselves to clean up Yahweh’s ethics or the ethics of His prophets. The Old Testament had taught that it was wrong to be willfully and rebelliously yoked to an unbeliever. Paul explicitly agrees (2 Cor. 6:14).433 Paul even quotes the Old Testament to show what correction is necessary for those who fail to keep separate: “Come out from their midst” (Isa. 52:11). It would seem that essentially this is what Ezra forced upon the intermarriers of his day. Certainly at no point does Paul suggest that Ezra was wrong or that Ezra’s corrective is not still the proper disciplinary action.434 Thus, we may presume that even in our own day believers knowingly marrying outside God’s will must show the fruit of repentance, which is the dissolving of the relationship.435
How to Handle Rejection by the Unsaved Spouse
Now, although Paul clearly replies to the supposed question in the negative, he is not so naive as to think that conversion might not lead to the sundering of marital covenants. For, although the relationship with a believer offers some special consideration by God of an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:14), it is still possible that the Evil One might put it in the heart of an unbelieving spouse to initiate separation. It is as if Paul is now repeating Jesus’ warning that conversion will bring persecution and the separation of families. And it is regarding this possibility that Paul’s controversial words concerning the resulting “freedom” of the forsaken spouse are spoken.436We need not assume here that desertion without a valid divorce is the only leaving in view. The exact term here is chorizo, “to sunder or separate.” This is the same term used in verse 10. In the former verse it quite obviously entails legal separation or divorce, because remarriage is prohibited. In all likelihood legal sundering is anticipated here as well.437
The “Pauline Permission”
In any case, Paul states that a forsaken believer is free from bondage in such cases. Exactly what this means has occasioned not a little spilled ink. Is Paul saying that the forsaken one is free to remarry, or only free from the need to fulfill marital obligations, or free to not pursue the departing spouse?
Freedom to Remarry or Not?
Heth/Wenham present us with no less than seven reasons why they believe that the free-to-remarry option is incorrect. Since this is the major point at issue, we will consider each of their arguments and see how convincing their stand is.
1) First, they make their stand upon the fact that marriage is a creation ordinance and an indissoluble union according to Jesus.438 I believe that I have previously shown that Jesus does not teach that marriage is indissoluble but only that it ought to be.439 They have made the common mistake of confusing moral statements with ontological ones. As for the “creation ordinance” idea, I believe that I have shown that in addition to the rather theologically speculative aspects of these terms, nothing in Genesis 1:27 or 2:24 implies ontological permanency for marriage.
2) Second, these authors insist that the idea “free from the bonds of marriage” is out of harmony with Paul’s admonitions in verses 10-16. With Plummer and Robertson they argue, “All that ou dedoulotai clearly means is that he or she need not feel so bound by Christ’s prohibition of divorce as to be afraid to depart when the heathen partner insists on separation.”440 To this they add, 3) third, that the rejected interpretation is contrary to the nature of marriage as a creation ordinance recognized by Paul as binding in 1 Corinthians 11:2-26 and 1 Timothy 2:12-15.441
Against this it must be stated that the contextual disharmony to which they refer arises from their failure to correctly understand verses 10-16. Paul has not said in verses 10-11 that all divorced persons should not remarry, but only the guilty party (i.e., the ones who need to be “reconciled”). The believer is told not to divorce the unbelieving spouse for the reason that the spouse has a valid marriage covenant and has committed no sundering offense. As to the verses cited from Paul’s writings, they seem to me to be irrelevant. The fact that Paul recognizes the headship of the male (husband) over the female (wife) and that he anchors his thoughts in the Genesis account has nothing transparently to do with the issue of the permanence of marriage.
4) Fourth, Heth/Wenham see the freedom to remarry as contrary to the “hope of conversion” in verse 16. Siding with the early Church Fathers, they connect verse 16 with verse 13; they reject the modern commentators who connect 16 with 15. The significance of this is that connection with 13 favors a hope for the conversion of the forsaking spouse, if the forsaken remains available for reconciliation. The connection with 15 prognosticates little hope but rather suggests that it is futile to remain available, hoping against hope that the conversion will take place. Modern translations are mustered to show the difference:
NEB “Think of it as a wife you may be your husband’s salvation; as a husband you may be your wife’s salvation.”
NASB “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”
Heth/Wenham’s customary attention to detail in matters grammatical is missing in their support of the NEB-NASB-Fathers reading. They only note that the “if” in verse 16 will allow for it, and “contextual congruency favors it.”442 Against their view stands the rather detailed work of R. C. H. Lenski, who points out that the “for” (gar) points neither to the subordinate clause of verse 15 (the matter of peace) nor to the sanctification of the spouse in verse 14 (nor, we would add, to the mandate to the believer not to leave the spouse in 13), but rather to the major point in verse 15: the believer is not bound. He regards connection with 13 or 14 or a subordinate clause in 15 to be grammatically artificial (as I do) rather than “contextually congruent.”443
The one reason that a forsaken spouse might not experience peace centers upon the hope that by continuing to remain bound in some way, at least in the mind, there is hope for the former spouse’s conversion. The forsaken believer worries that allowing a complete ending of the marriage will somehow hurt the former spouse’s chances of coming to the Lord.444 Paul brushes this false sense of responsibility aside. It is the Spirit who has the ultimate responsibility to see conversion to its conclusion. Such a guilt-ridden, forsaken believer is brought back to reality by Paul. “How do you know” (adverbial accusative) God intends to use you in your former spouse’s conversion? Lenski ends by pointing out that the “if” has the sense not of “if you won’t” but of “if you will.” Paul is not asking the forsaken one, “How do you know that you won’t contribute to the former spouse’s salvation?” but “How do you know if you will contribute to it?”
The textual congruence stands against Heth/Wenham, not for them, for it is their interpretation that refuses to release the forsaken ones from bondage, keeping them bound under the lingering hope that by restricting themselves to a life of “limbic” chastity they preserve the hope of another’s salvation. A greater form of bondage than this is hard to imagine! If the submissive spiritual condition of the convert led to the ending of the marriage, is it reasonable to suppose that acting as though still married will lead to the salvation of the lost and subsequent remarriage? No.
5) The fifth argument centers around the Greek words employed for “bondage” or “bond” in 1 Corinthians 7:15, 27, 39, and Romans 7:2. The authors point out that the term for “bondage” in verse 15 is douloo, whereas verses 27 and 39 (and Romans 7:2) have deo. The former, they insist, is never employed with regard to the legal aspect of marriage; Paul uses the latter term for that. And, they continue, even if the terms were the same or even if the same term were used, it would not make any difference, because all that would be implied is that the believer “is not under obligation to pursue the unbeliever to keep the marriage together if the unbeliever wishes to leave.”445
These arguments are, in my estimation, strained, to say the least. First, although Paul may not use douloo specifically to speak of the legal bonds of marriage, he uses it in its common sense of “the bondage of slavery.” Paul uses it in Galatians 4:3, where being in “bondage” to the “elemental things of the world” (v. 3) is parallel to being “under the Law” (v. 5). Is this not to suggest that douloo involves legal bond? To argue that douloo involves legal bond, but is improperly applied to a marriage legal bond seems like straining at a gnat. Whatever the difference between the two words, the clear legal implications of the crucial douloo make it far more akin to deo in usage than to the artificial interpretation of “freedom only from bed and board, without the right to remarry” offered by Heth/Wenham. In all likelihood, douloo is a harsher term than deo, the former stressing forced bondage (1 Cor. 9:19, though there it is forced upon the person by himself) and the latter stressing chosen servanthood (cf. 7:23; Rom. 6:17-20).446
Given this significance, as attested by contextual use, Paul is simply saying that no one should keep this woman in forced allegiance to her broken marriage bond. But this is precisely what Heth/Wenham have presented Paul as doing-keeping her bound to her covenantal obligation not to have sexual relations with another! Herein lies another great mistake of the no-remarriage school. They have been myopically focusing upon the apostolic concession of reciprocal right to the spouse’s body, rather than on the specifics of the stated Old Testament marital bond of the woman. In the Old Testament God does not require the woman to have sex with her husband but, rather, not to have it with anyone else. Were her obligation simply put in the positive—have sex with your spouse—their case might be made to the point that those who think otherwise have the burden of proof. However, since her moral obligation is consistency put in the negative—you can’t have sex with another man while married—to be freed from that bondage is to be free to remarry, if done properly and “in the Lord.” And any other interpretation bears the burden of proof.
6) Their sixth argument is an appeal to the early Church Fathers. They point out that it is not until the fourth century father Ambrosiaster that a writing Father permitted a deserted spouse to remarry.447
About this I have little to say. It does not seem to me that an exegetical case can be made by an appeal to the Fathers per se. We need to consider the merits of their interpretations. Not many Fathers of the first centuries wrote on the subject. Most of the restrictive Fathers are separated from Paul by time and temperament. I admit that I have little patience with those who reject the “situation in life” of the hearers of Paul and the papyri on the grounds that we must, after all, let Paul speak for himself but quickly appeal to the hearsay teachings of ascetically minded Fathers of later centuries. This is not exegesis but historical proof-texting.
7) The final argument mustered by Heth/Wenham is that verses 17-24 reveal Paul’s commitment to keeping the mixed marriages together. As they put it, “Believers should remain in the same situation in life in which they were when they became Christian because Christ demands of His ‘slaves’ sole obedience to Him not a shared allegiance to other masters.”448
This is rather poorly stated as regards the main point at issue and, on the face of it, seems rather irrelevant to the question of whether or not a forsaken believer has the right to remarry. It may well answer another question: “What if I was divorced before becoming a Christian?” But that is not the problem at this point. We are speaking of people who were divorced subsequent to becoming Christians. Heth/Wenham would have done better to suggest that in 17-24, Paul is urging the Corinthians to remain in the state in which they were when converted, namely, married. But this idea, though a logical possibility, seems strained. After all, these believers are no longer in the same state in which they were called. They were legally married when converted, I and now, through no fault of their own, they are forsaken, probably legally. It is as if to suggest that Paul really does not understand their situation. I believe that it is Heth/Wenham who do not understand the situation. For, throughout their work, they are blinded by the rather philosophical assumption that the marriage bond is not really broken by legal divorce, and thus, they fall back into the unbiblical view that marriage is not essentially covenantal but essentially mystical and sacramental.449 If that supposition is removed, 7:10-16 makes perfectly good sense as affirming the right of the innocent party to remarry. The reason that guilty parties do not have an immediate right to remarry is that they have unfinished covenantal business. They have a moral, not a mystical, obligation to reconcile.
Before we leave this material it is necessary to touch upon one point that these authors have made that we hurriedly passed over in our response to their criticisms of the right-to-remarry school. Recall that they stated that becoming a Christian does not make any difference in marital obligations. By and large, I agree with them. If Paul is saying anything, it is that conversion does not negate morally valid vows made to another human being. It is not the interfaith marriage itself that is grounds for the right to remarry; it is being forsaken by the unbelieving first spouse. That forsaking is a breach of the minimum in marriage vows. It is adultery. Thus, this unbeliever is in exactly the same moral position of the man who divorces his wife without porneia as a ground and, thereby, commits adultery against her in Matthew 5:32a and 19:9. The forsaken believing spouse, on the other hand, is in the situation of the ill-treated woman of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and has that woman’s right to marry another. Paul is correct in saying that the case at hand is not directly commented upon by our Lord, but that does not mean that he is not completely in accord with Him and the Law and the Prophets that He did not abrogate.450 Of course, none of this is to say that the former spouse is likely to take the believer back. The conversion experience is likely to have the reverse effect. It will give the unbeliever just one more reason to want to remain free from this person. Even where the unbeliever fought the divorce, the conversion may stand as a stumbling block to the re-establishment of the marriage. It stands to reason that before the separation by the unbeliever, the believer appealed to them not to divorce. This having been done there is no reason to place even a need for further appeal upon the castoff believer. That would be part of the very bondage Paul removes.
Conclusion: Free to Remarry
It is thus my conclusion that when the unbeliever severs the marriage by legal (i.e., divorce) or illegal (i.e., desertion) action, the Christian spouse is free to remarry. This conclusion is also consistent with our previous findings.
It should be clear then that I do not see 1 Corinthians 7:15 as offering another “exception” of a different kind than porneia, but rather a nonsexual instance of the same kind of moral offense, that is, unfaithfulness to the essentials of covenant. Breach of covenant is the only grounds for righteous divorce, and that is an act that is against the very warp and woof of the (marriage) covenant itself. Porneia (by the wife) is a sexual application of such breach.451 Whether the abrogation of marriage vows is sexual (by the female), physical (abuse by either, or neglect by the male), legal (divorce), or illegal (desertion by either), the point is the same: the marriage has been sundered by such actions.
It should also be said before passing from this material that the key principle which permits the believer to be free of the unjustly divorcing unbeliever is not religious incompatibility at all. It is the moral failure to provide according to the marriage vows. Religious incompatibility in 1 Cor. 7 is merely the occasion for the desertion/unjust divorce, not the essence of it. Exodus 21 taught us that just because a person claims to believe in the God of the Bible, that does not exonerate him if he unjustly treats his wife by denying her essential provisions. And if any quibble about the support for this being from the Old Testament, let them consider 1 Tim. 5:8, wherein a person who does not care for his family is considered worse than an infidel and departed from the faith. In other words, if a so-called believer had deserted his spouse, Paul would have justified the spouse being free than he was regarding the unbeliever. That a believer would do something like that is “over the top” to Paul’s thinking at this point. But the principle set forth in the passage clearly justifies the believing spouse being free from an alleged believer who would be so hard-hearted as to divorce their spouse with insufficient moral grounds. Teachers who justify divorce for desertion when it is an unbeliever but who deny it if the deserting party is a believer have totally missed Paul’s point.
Having concluded thus, how can these interpretations of Paul be harmonized with what appears to be the clear teaching of the apostle (i.e., that marriage is “till death do you part”) in 1 Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:2 ff.? It is to those verses that we now turn.
411 To restate the principle: I believe that when writers speak to a topic, it is wise to think their thoughts after them, allowing for development of their thinking and understanding later comments as expansions of earlier teachings. By saying this I do not mean that the Author of the Scriptures himself gets a better grasp of the issues, but that the human instrument often does. The human instrument also finds in the continuing circumstances occasion to pen further, inspired instruction in righteousness.
412 I realize that this sort of statement is open to the criticism that Paul himself did not know that his different writings-directed to churches in different locations-would be collected into the volume we now call the New Testament. Thus, his teaching may well have no intention of specific development Nonetheless, it would still be proper to consider the first part of 1 Cor. 7 before the second and to look for a logical explanation for the seeming negation of a permission granted in the earlier part of the chapter. And since Romans, written after 1 Corinthians, contains sentiments very similar to the latter part of 1 Cor. 7, it is logical to treat them together It is also logical to treat the passages that clearly and directly speak to the divorce/remarriage issue before those that may only do so indirectly. Thus, I feel that there are other than chronological reasons for the pattern set forth.
413 I mean here to disparage the rather unfortunate dispensationalism of such as O. H. Small, which has led him offhandedly to dispense with the Gospel teachings as relevant only to the dispensation of the “Kingdom,” a kingdom that is not now, but once (Jesus’ time) and future (the “millennium”). Cf. D. Small’s The Right to Remarry (Old Tappan, NJ.- Spire Books, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1977).
This is as good a place as any to state forthrightly that I myself am a dispensationalist. I believe that God has, at different times, employed different sets of “house rules” to govern mankind. I actually theorize that there are nine such “ages” in groups of three (with development from promise, through wandering to a kingdom stage). But the trans-dispensational, moral nature of God (and His intention to save mankind by grace alone through faith alone) is what provides this differentiated history with a unifying principle. Since “all Scripture is profitable, we can go to any period of divine history and glean from any rule a principle which is applicable today for our own development in righteousness.
414 We must remember that in Greek society the women were seen as lesser persons whose rights to have sex would have been de-emphasized. They would have had a better chance of getting the court to permit them to divorce the man than to mandate the man to have sex with them. Moreover, they would have been laughed out of court were they to have been seeking the court to inhibit sexual relations by their husbands. On the man’s side, the courts would simply have wondered why a man who could not get sexual relations from his wife would not simply find a mistress or go to the prostitutes. Toward a husband who wanted to end sexual relations in his marriage, the courts would have responded with the similar confusion: If the wife still wants sex, let her take a lover!
415 Note the interesting relation here to Paul’s ideas in 1 Cor. 5:9-13. It is not wrong to associate with the people of the world, but it is wrong to be organically united to them.
416 Vis-a-vis those from the house of Chloe.
417 In what I have just said, I do not mean to imply that Paul’s language changes the Divine permission of polygyny, making monogamy morally normative. Lenski exemplifies this traditional mistake of seeing reciprocal monogamy in this wording. “His own wife” and “her own husband” “clearly” entail monogamy to him (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1937], p. 274). The grammar and ideas simply state that sex should be under covenant, i.e., the man should have a relationship with a woman who is “his” according to the law, and the woman should not have sexual relations with a man who is not hers by law. It is entirely proper to speak of Sarah as Abraham’s wife-she was his. It is certainly proper as well to call the legal spouse of a woman “hers” regardless of the number of his wives. For proof of this, simply note 1 Pet 3:5 f., where Sarah, the polygamous wife of Abraham, is cited as an example of a woman who was submissive to [her] own husband.” The Greek word is the same in both cases (idios) and means “proper.” The contrast in 1 Cor. 7:2 is between a woman who is a harlot (chap. 6) and a woman who is properly related by law.
418 Gordon Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1 in the NIV,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23 (1980), 307-14.
419 This is not to deny that Paul prefers celibacy, all things being equal. And at whatever point Paul begins to elevate celibacy, he goes beyond the teachings of Jesus, but in an entirely proper way. Jesus had simply said that those who choose celibacy are not under the requirements binding upon maimed men. Paul promotes celibacy to ensure maximum time of service for the kingdom (7:28 ff.).
420 The gender terms used in this summary might be reversed, though that reversal may seem less likely as we observe human nature.
421 Fee, “Corinthians 7:1,” p. 312.
422 Heth/Wenham speak of the “Intentional Fallacy”—“the error of supposing that Paul assumes permission to divorce and remarry in the event of Matthew’s exception even though he gives no indication of this and hints elsewhere that only the death of a spouse permits remarriage” (Jesus, pp 138-39).
423 First Corinthians is dated at A.D. 56, Matthew in the 60s, and Mark in the 50s-but in all likelihood subsequent to his problems with Paul, thus placing the writing after 1 Corinthians, i.e., the late 30s.
424 Heth/Wenham argue that divorce is always wrong, but that a person forced to divorce his spouse on the ground of porneia is not held guilty-the offender is guilty of adultery (Jesus, pp. 198-99) This is a strange ethic. A man intentionally divorces his guilty wife, an act that Heth/Wenham believe is absolutely prohibited, but his wife is charged with the guilt of his offensive divorce? How can his intentional, wrong action, i.e., divorce, not yield guilt for him?
425 Ibid., pp. 139 ff.
426 Cf. chap. 6.
427 It is appropriate here to note that chorizo (separate) does not denote, but connote, divorce. It is unthinkable in a landed and city-state society that a male spouse would desert the partner and start a new life somewhere else. This term, found in 1 Cor. 7:10 and 15, has in view a sundering of the covenant by divorce, but the sundering rather than the legal process is the emphasis.
428 See also Appendix E, which gives short definitions of the key biblical terms used to speak of divorce.
429 For example, the former spouse might have remarried.
430 In Heth’s “Divorce, But no Remarriage,” he cites J. A. Bengel (New Testament Word Studies [sic. Bengel’s New Testament Commentary or Gnomon of the New Testament], Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel reprint edition, 1971), p. 210 [sic. p, 201], as proving that the kind of divorce or separation he is talking about does not include permission to remarry” (Four Perspectives, p. 112). To most readers, Bengel’s language will appear quite difficult to understand on this point. He appears to imply that the admonition from verse 11 is still binding on the believer. That is, that they should not remarry, even if made free from the marriage by divorce by the unbeliever. That supports Heth’s position, but there is no convincing reason to apply verse 11 to interpret verse 15 as Bengel does.
431 Actually there may not be as much speculation about this as you might think. Remember that Paul’s readers were diaspora Jews, whose distant ancestors had been dispersed from Israel by God (using Assyria and Babylon) because of their adulterous relations with the gods and peoples of the lands around them. We know that these dispersed Hebrew’s set up and attended synagogues throughout the Greek world. In those synagogues there can be no doubt that Deuteronomy and Ezra were read and commented upon by their religious teachers. They knew of the need of religious separation. We may presume that they had kept separate from pagans, but when such disapora Jews converted to Christianity, what should they make of marriages to non-converting Jewish spouses?
432 By saying this I do not mean to imply that such reason may not have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.
433 His words to this effect in his second letter doubtless are spoken to head off any misunderstanding of the very teachings at hand. This is to say that the Corinthians might possibly have seen the material in 7:12 ff. as some sort of sanction of the very sins practiced by the Jews of Ezra’s time.
434 I must insist upon the hermeneutical rule that both a principle of morality and its application, once stated in the Word of God, are binding on all ages unless explicitly abrogated I decry the employment of the hermeneutical theory of a kind of dispensationalism that wields the ax of disharmony at the tree of God s trans-dispensational moral character.
435 Of course I hasten to stress that the marriage in view must have been an act of rebellion, not an act of ignorance, and that the conversion of the spouse sufficiently resolves the problem in a way not requiring legal separation, i.e., divorce. See chap. 3 for more information on this subject.
436 It is interesting to speculate about the marital condition of Paul himself. The only thing we know for sure is that at the writing of these words, he was unmarried (cf. 7:8). But what was his marital status before? Some have suggested that Paul’s words about being a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” and a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5) imply that he was once a member of the Sanhedrin. If this speculation is correct, then it is possible that he was once married, as Sanhedrin members almost certainly were. I regard his membership in this august body as unlikely, as he seems too young. Nevertheless, Paul was the Sanhedrin’s “special prosecutor” and it would seem that such a responsible position would have demanded the sort of Pharisee that would have been considered socially and emotionally mature.
In any case, it is probable that since Paul was a Pharisee he was married. Pharisees were men of age, i.e., adults. Men of age in Israel were more likely than not married. Second, since it is improbable that his wife predeceased him at this point in his life (given the actuary tables of nearly every period of history), it is probable (by process of elimination) that his wife had divorced him as a result of his own dramatic conversion. That he does not mention her is not surprising. We know that Peter was married, but he himself does not mention his wife in any of his writings or speak of her at any point in Acts. If he was silent about her and she was a believer, why should Paul haul out his duty linen concerning his former wife, who was not? Now mind, I am not saying that Paul was a divorced man. We do not know that. I am only saying that it is actuarially probable. And, if I am right in this educated speculation, then Paul may have known firsthand what he was talking about.
Interestingly, Clement of Alexandria, in the third book of his Stromata, Chap. 7, supposes Saint Paul to have been (once) married.
437 To this extent I follow Heth/Wenham, Jesus, pp. 138, 139.
438 Ibid., p. 140.
439 Cf. chap. 7.
440 A. Robertson and A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, 2d ed., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911), p. 143.
441 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 140-41.
442 Ibid., p. 141.
443 Lenski, I & II Corinthians, p. 297.
444 I believe that any who have counseled such folk will readily attest to the feelings of bondage and anticipated guilt that center precisely in this matter!
445 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 141-43.
446 See also Appendix E.
447 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 143.
449 See Chap. 1.
450 Some would suggest that the principle set forth by Heth/Wenham, that conversion does not make a difference, goes too far when it comes to suggesting that an improperly divorced couple remarry where one of them (even the guilty party) has converted (that is, after the divorce). It maybe contended that conversion places the convert under the biblical admonition not to marry an unbeliever, and that remarriage, as a fruit of repentance, is not warranted in such a case. I am sympathetic to this interpretation, but I cannot say that I find compelling biblical reasons for affirming such an application of principle.
In the first place, conversion usually compels the convert to make right the sins of the past The thief must steal no more but, like Zaccheus, will restitute in multiple kind (Luke 19:1-10). The covenant-breaker will seek to make right by the covenant. It would be totally against moral principle to claim special privilege to abrogate responsibility regarding a valid vow simply because you had turned from sin to the light of God’s Way. Since the broken covenant was a morally valid one, it must be presumed that conversion would move the convert to re-establish the former covenant and fulfill its terms. This means remarrying the unbeliever.
A friend has suggested that a middle way may exist—the male believer may fulfill his obligations to his former wife by means of paying the alimony and child support, though not by resuming the marriage in its fullest extent Again, I am sympathetic to such an approach, but scriptural warrant seems elusive. The Scripture, it seems, recognizes all or nothing. Since the woman has a right to the body of her husband, and since sexual relations should only occur when a socially recognized marriage exists, it would seem that the Christian man who seeks to fulfill his duty by paying alimony is not really fulfilling all his duties.
Additionally, it must be remembered that in such a remarriage, the believer is not rebelliously taking an illicit partner. Rather, he is resuming a relation with a legitimate partner. The remarriage is not, in one sense, by choice. And, it is certainly not an act of spiritual adultery. I can, therefore, find no compelling reason to admonish the believer not to resume the marriage with the unsaved former spouse.
451 I am in agreement with those who argue that a woman who deserts/divorces her husband may be presumed to have another man waiting to marry her—as Herodias did. And this would be considered tantamount to the sin of porneia, which would be a valid ground for her divorce by the deserted husband. This is also in line with our previous statement that “presence” was a presumed canon of the covenant of marriage.