10. The Teachings of Paul on Divorce (Part 2)
The Nonexplicit Teachings
Paul’s Advice to the Unmarried
(1 Corinthians 7:25-40)
There are in the writings of Paul two passages that do not directly mention divorce or “putting away” but do discuss the duration of marriage. They are 1 Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:2-3. These verses are often quoted as veritable “showstoppers” with regard to permission to divorce and remarry. It is our task in this chapter to dissect them and, by close analysis of their contexts, to see if it is possible to harmonize them with the view already set forth in this book, a view that does permit some divorce and remarriage.
General Instruction to The Unmarried
In our previous chapter, we followed Paul in prohibiting the guilty party from remarrying (at least until reconciliation attempts have been exhausted) and in releasing the innocent party to remarry. Both issues involved the already married. In the second half of Chapter 7 of First Corinthians, Paul turns to another matter broached by the people of Corinth: Is it advisable for the unmarried to become married? or Is marriage expected?
The Structure of the Section
His advice is broken into several parts:
I. Advice to single people, vv. 25-35
A. Prologue: the source of the advice, v. 25
B. Basic advice: sociological stability is preferable at this time
(emphasis on singleness), v. 26
C. Consideration of the moral options, vv. 27-28
1. From the man’s side, vv. 27-28a
a) those married: stay married, v. 27a
b) those subsequently single (probably inclusive of divorce): stay single, v. 27b, “but…”
c) moral permission to remarry, v. 28a
2. From the woman’s side, v. 28b (virgins)
II. The underlying principles behind the advice, vv. 28c-35 (this section reaches backward to part I and forward to part III; it is somewhat parallel to 7:17-24)
A. Sparing them trouble (emphasis on singleness), vv. 28-31
B. Keeping them undistracted, vv. 32-34
(basic principle: be in the state that is most conducive to leaving time for serving the Lord)
C. Summary: practical nature of the above, v. 35
(leaves room for needed marriage)
III. Advice to those responsible for single women, vv. 36-40
A. Consideration of the moral options, vv. 36-39
1. From the Guardian’s side, vv. 36-38 (virgins)
a) the need for the ward to marry, v. 36
b) no need for the ward to marry, v. 37
c) summary; implied general principle, v. 38
2. From the ward’s side, vv. 39 f.
a) those married: stay married, v. 39a
b) those subsequently single (widowhood): stay single, v. 39b, “but…”
c) moral permission to remarry, v. 39b
(B. Implied, immediate need for sociological stability)
C. Epilogue: the source of the advice, v. 40
(emphasis on singleness, v. 40a)
Concerning the prologue and epilogue there is little that we need to say. Paul notes as he has before (v. 12) that his advice at this point does not come explicitly from a previously revealed command, but instead from his sanctified (and inspired) reason. The basic advice to preserve social stability (“remain as you are,” maritally speaking) repeats his previous advice to the married (v. 24).
Controversy arises in the next section. In the process of giving advice, Paul tells some people that if they marry they have not sinned. Who are they? Are they virgins, widows, the divorced, or all of these? If the divorced are included, then the permission to marry is a permission to remarry. Remember that there is no term for “remarry,” as opposed to “marry,” used by Paul. For example, it is clear that the topic of 7:11 is, in part, the propriety of remarriage. But Paul does not say, “Don’t remarry.” He says “remain unmarried” (agamos). This latter term is simply the negation of the normal word for marriage (gamos). Were there a specific term used by Paul in this context for “remarriage,” it would be relatively easy for us to decide if Paul means to stress the right of the divorced to remarry in verse 28. Such specific terminology might also incline us not to see remarriage in verse 28, if the simple term for “marry” were used in that location. Since such terminology is not found at this point, we will have to argue the case from another vantage point, that is, the terms used identifying the personal objects of the advice.
Who Are the “Virgins”?
The identification of the “virgins” is a matter of dispute. The positions include the following:
1. 1. The widow in a levirate marriage.452
2. 2. A couple who have set up house together for economic reasons, but who have agreed to live a celibate life—a sort of “spiritual marriage.”453
3. 3. An engaged couple (or the female therein).454
4. 4. A virgin daughter who is at or beyond marriageable age.455
Often, the specifics of these views do not come clear until authors directly consider verses 36-38.
Of these positions, I believe that we may safely dismiss the idea of a levirate marriage. There is little to commend it to us; there is no indication that the levirate law was practiced in Corinth. Those who assert have the burden of proof.
As for the idea that these are a celibate couple, two considerations speak in its favor: the term virgin is used figuratively of the pure men in Revelation 14:4, and we do know that in Corinth there were some who wished to live as married without sex (cf. vv. 3-5). There is, however, more to condemn than commend this alternative. First, the figurative usage in Revelation does not refer to a couple, only to a group of pure single persons. And in that text there is a striking reversal in the use of virgin for the idea of sexual purity. The men in question are said not to have had relations with a woman. Elsewhere the term almost always refers to females who have not known a man or to unmarried women (cf. Matt. 1:18, 23; 25:1, 7, 11; 2 Cor. 11:2; Luke 1:27; Acts 21:9).
Second, if this couple did not have a marriage covenant at all, Paul surely would have clearly blasted them for giving the appearance of the evil of fornication. Given the evils and temptations of fornication as they existed in Corinth, such an arrangement would have provided an example to salve the consciences of non-Christian fornicators, who would not have believed such celibacy possible. Nor were the temptations to be taken so lightly by those celibates who thought they could stand. Had not Paul warned men in chapter 6 that they should flee fornication? And had he not in earlier verses warned a couple not to tempt themselves by abstaining from sexual relations for a prolonged period of time? I cannot see a shadow of a chance that this position would have met with anything but the harshest condemnation by the apostle. Yet at no point does he speak out against it (unless that is encompassed somehow in verse 36). Indeed, such a position would have to see Paul commending such a risky relation, for which there is absolutely no moral precedent in the Scriptures. For Paul would then be saying to them, “He that stands steadfast in his heart … who has power over his own will … does well” (v. 37).
Heth/Wenham side with J. K. Elliot in supposing that this is an engaged couple who are now reconsidering the consummation of their marriage so that they may serve the Lord. The most explicit support for this idea is that the term virgin is used of betrothed girls in a number of New Testament verses.456 But I cannot agree with their use of this fact. Though it is true that the virgins of the texts cited were betrothed, that is not known from the term at hand but from the context. There is no compelling reason to believe that the context of 1 Corinthians 7 supplies that information. These scholars might appeal to the fact that verses 36-38 in part seem to imply that the man addressed may marry the virgin (esp. v. 36— “let them marry”). But other parts of the section seem to lean the other way. For example, verse 38 may credibly be translated, “He that gives the virgin in marriage does well.” A fiancé does not give the woman away.
Additionally, this view suffers, I suspect, from a rather modern and Anglo-American understanding of betrothal. Paul, we must remember, was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a man learned in the Law. What was the Law’s view of betrothal? It was tantamount to marriage. The fact of betrothal called for the consummation at the time of the wedding feast. The vows to become one flesh were stated at the time of the engagement. It would seem to me that by affirming a breakup of this relation in 1 Corinthians 7:38 or 26, Paul is encouraging the breaking of the intention to marry, if not the vows themselves. Nor will it do to suggest that the couple agrees on this matter. In verses 2-5 it is presumed that at least one member of the couples spoken of feels defrauded. And in verse 36, it appears quite clear that the woman feels inclined to make the union. Would Paul say that the man can do “what he wills”? True, it goes on to say, “Let them marry,” but what if the man decides not to will that but to insist on not fulfilling the promise of engagement? Paul’s words would support that as well, on this view, and I cannot see that this would be moral given the principles of the Ninth commandment (much less the Seventh). It would also be of doubtful consistency with the moral principle of Exodus 21, since a previously established vow to have sex would now be denied.
Some have suggested that what we have here is not really an engaged couple but an unengaged couple anticipating engagement. On this view, they are thinking of “calling the whole matter off to remain pure.457 But, again, this strikes me as more American than Corinthian. The text speaks of the woman as “his.” It does not use the simple genitive but a more possessive indicator, autou, “his.” Would such be said of a “girlfriend”? And why is she so old— “if she be of full age”? Such would hardly seem so common in the ancient world as to call for a lengthy comment.
It falls, then, to seeing (with Lenski, et al.)458 the “virgins” as single women (though perhaps men are included, at least in subsequent verses). What hinders the acceptance of this view? First, and perhaps foremost, is the statement in verse 36: “Let them marry.” Since the command is given to the “he” whose virgin this is, it would seem this is tantamount to suggesting incest, the man marrying his virgin daughter!
But this is only a seeming necessity. I agree with Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich in seeing this passage as suggesting that a father or guardian is being allowed to let his daughter marry a man who, doubtless, is the object of his daughter’s (or ward’s) affection and who has raised this dilemma for him.459 In spite of strenuous argument to the contrary by Elliot and company, it still seems best to suggest that this man is being told that it is moral to have the dependent given in marriage or withheld from it.
Supplementing this view, I suggest that Paul’s admonition to single persons actually breaks down into two different parts: first, a section addressed to the single persons themselves (vv. 25-35) and then a section addressed to the father or guardian of a marriageable virgin woman (vv. 36-40). The former section has as its aim suggesting the principle of beneficial celibacy to persons who are considering marriage; the latter tries to direct guardians, who may or may not have to administer to single women wishing to be married, in spite of the apostolic “general rule” to remain single in order to maximize service to the Lord. Let us look at each section in turn.
The Origin of Singleness
Verses 25-35 are directed to the unmarried. They are a complement to verses 1-24, which is primarily a message to currently married persons. Verse 25 begins by speaking to “virgins,” which word I interpret in the normal way as unmarried females. I believe that Paul then brings forth his basic principle: “remain in your present marital state.” However, since this dictum is worded “it is good for a man (anthropos, masculine singular) so to be,” Paul flows with the thought and begins to speak of single men. He speaks of them regarding the origin of their singleness, and in this regard, the section balances a similarly digressive discussion of the origin of the married state in verses 2 and 8.
Who Are the “Released”?
The origin of singleness is not only virginity. Singleness also comes to married persons. Thus, Paul asks, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed.” In saying this he is not speaking to every married man, because for most men, that would be rather unnecessary advice. It would be like suggesting that the man hopes his wife will die, commit adultery, or desert him-all rather surprising thoughts. I suspect in saying this he is merely referring back to his advice in verses 10 and 12; namely, try and keep the marriage together rather than hoping for its demise. “Have you been bound at some point in the past, with the result that you are still bound today? Don’t go seeking for a way to get out of the marriage relation.” Of course, some forms of seeking would be downright immoral. And it would be less than noble to hope for the spouse to breach the covenant or die. What, then, is left? Either instances where both might seek to end the marriage by “common agreement” (no-fault) or even where there were grounds. I consider the former more likely, but the latter would still be a valid way of saying it even to an “Erasmian.” The goal of the discipline of divorce is not the single life, but restoration of the marriage!
Then, Paul entertains the possibility that the person has been released at some time in the past with the result that at the point of admonition the person is still in an unmarried state, this is to say the person has been divorced; or perhaps the divorce was out of righteous motives but the goal of restoration has not been achieved. To this group, Paul suggests a continued state of singleness but adds, significantly, that if they do get married they have not sinned. We may presume that this remarriage could be either to the former spouse (unlikely in view of the perfect tense of “have been loosed”) or to another.
This sort of statement obviously implies that remarriage is morally permissible and does not limit it to the first spouse. And that, in turn, is unacceptable to some exegetes who are set against remarriage. Again, taking Heth/Wenham as examples, let us look at several arguments that they bring to bear to block this sort of interpretation.
Not the Divorced?
First, they suggest that the context prohibits seeing these loosed ones as divorced in the first place. They argue that the section is referring to “virgins,” whom they believe cannot include the divorced. The perplexing thing is that alongside “virgins” is the word unmarried (agamos), and this word is used in verses 8 and 11 to refer to persons previously married—“separated” or divorced. They feel that they must somehow show that the use of “unmarried” in 27-28 is nuanced differently than in the others, else it might be argued with the traditionalists that these verses digress into a discussion that permits divorced people to remarry. They berate the Erasmians for careless interpretation and misunderstanding of how one word has shades of meaning determined by the context.460 This apparent motivation leads-to rather manipulative efforts.
Essentially their argument comes to this: if it can be shown that the term means XY in one verse, XZ in another, XAO in a third, and XAP in a fourth, then it is highly unlikely that it would mean XZ in a fifth. Of course they feel that very sophisticated contextual exegesis is required in order to derive the exact nuance in each of the verses.
In verse 8 they seek to limit the relevant meaning of “unmarried” to “widowers.” Their argument supporting this is a purported logical parallelism between “unmarried” and “widows” in that verse.461 But this is woefully weak. How do they know that the two words connected by “and” are logically parallel and exclusively complementary? They admit themselves that there is a Greek word for “widower” that Paul did not use. But they attempt to turn this into an argument on their behalf. They imply that Paul intentionally avoids this word, and that his custom is to use agamos in its place. It is far more natural simply to say that “unmarried” in verse 8 includes the broad range of single persons, virgins and divorced, and that Paul then underscores the group widows by mentioning them specifically. Perhaps he felt it necessary to mention the widows specifically to Corinth because of the problems peculiar to them (cf. v. 26). After all, his advice to the women in Timothy’s church would be different (cf. 1 Tim. 5).
As for “unmarried” in verse 11, Heth/Wenham allow the word here to mean “divorced”; they imply that the word is limited to divorced here. That is true, but they seem to be playing a semantic game. Though it is clear that the word here is used only of divorced or separated persons, they imply that this is the meaning of the word here. That is not quite correct. The context does not tell us that the “unmarried” are “divorced” but that the “divorced” are “unmarried.” The meaning of “unmarried” is not limited, but the meaning of “divorced” further defined.
In verses 32 and 35, they point out that the gender of “unmarried” in 32 shows that it refers to a man, whereas the gender in verse 35 reveals that it speaks of a woman. Both verses they limit to engaged people, presumably because that is their interpretation of the direction of the admonition in that section.
Again, I must protest. Aside from the matter of whether that section is primarily aimed at the engaged—I prefer to speak of those anticipating marriage—there is not the slightest contextual reason for limiting those words to the engaged.462 Paul is simply making a statement of principle concerning those unencumbered by marital commitments. Again, it seems that these authors have allowed their modern view of engagement to determine their interpretation. Since the ancients saw engagement as a marital commitment, the males of verse 32 and the females of verse 35 most decidedly cannot be considered engaged. Paul cannot mean that men who had already made their covenantal commitments but had not taken possession of their pledged ones should have no concern for their “woman” or that women who had agreed to marry a certain man should do so in order that either could “undistractedly” (v. 35) serve the Lord. No. The adjective unmarried may be distributed by gender so as to agree with its noun, but it may not be made to refer to engaged, as opposed to other “unmarried” persons.
I cannot see that Heth and Wenham have shown that the meaning of unmarried is not univocal throughout the chapter. And, since the only specific group to which the term is specifically applied is people who are divorced, I cannot see how they hope to exclude them from those deserving the term in verse 27. 463
With such weak arguments to support them, it disturbs one to read how Heth/Wenham chastise C. Brown for using “divorced/unmarried” in verse 11 to illuminate verses 27-28.464 Brown argues that verses 27-28465 include but are not limited to the divorced, and he allows this conclusion to affect his translation of “virgins” in verse 25 to read “unmarried[s].” I suggest that his treatment of “virgins” is hasty, but I find no fault with his thoughts regarding verses 27-28. Since “unmarried” is used only in this section in the New Testament, and since one of the four uses there clearly includes the divorced, the burden of proof is on Heth/Wenham to show why they cannot be included in verses 32 and 34 as well as being implied in verses 27-28.
Heth/Wenham seek to rest this burden on the back of Paul’s “structural” indicator (“Now concerning virgins”) in verse 25, suggesting that having ceased to speak exclusively to the married and previously married he is turning exclusively to advice for the never married.466 To support this, they cite extensively from Gordon Fee’s rhetorical criticism of 1 Corinthians 7:1-9.467 His argument that verses 1-7 consistently refer to married people is seen as undercutting any appeal to verse 8 as a reference to the “previously unmarried.” Their own interpretation of the “unmarried” of verse 8 is those “who were at one time married and therefore can only be widowers.”468 The admonition to the previously unmarried does not begin until verse 25.
This sort of argument seems overreaching. Even if the major section of 7:1-9 is addressed to the married, why is it improper to suggest that “unmarried” in 7:8 has its normal meaning: anyone not currently married, including single people, widowed [men], and divorced persons?469 I know of no legitimate way to exclude virgins from the parenthetical verses 8 and 9, and no matter how you care to argue, the major section 7:1-14 is written to those currently married, with the exception of verses 8-9. If that section has a parenthetical digression, so may the section to those who are never married (7:25-35). Heth/Wenham have turned a structural indicator into a “Berlin wall” to exclude the interpretation they do not wish to accept.
Another argument used against the inclusion of divorced people in verses 27-28 is the purported contradiction this would produce with regard to verse 11b. Paul says, “Do not get remarried,” then permits it.470 But this simply folds back on a faulty interpretation of the earlier verse. Verse 11b refers to those who do not have grounds for divorce. Verse 27b refers to those who were either themselves divorced or who had grounds for divorcing their spouses. At least this interpretation harmonizes the passages.471
Finally, these authors suggest that the word for “having been released” is not Paul’s customary term for legal divorce. The word is derived from luo. If Paul had meant divorce, he would have used chorizo or aphieami, as he does elsewhere in chapter 7. They interpret luo as released from the bonds of betrothal. They note that this verb (or a form of it) is used of divorce in the Gospels, but they imply that this is not Paul’s term, at least in 1 Corinthians 7.472
But this is not impressive when we recall that the terms Paul does use for “divorce” in this chapter both imply offense on the part of the divorcer. Chorizo (vv. 10, 11, 15) implies the sundering of the valid bond. Doubtless divorce is the primary mode of sundering intended (though there is no sound reason for thinking that desertion would not fall under this admonition as well). Jesus uses it in the same way, as we noted earlier. To Paul, aphieami means “leave” (vv. 11, 12, 13) and may well imply divorce. But here again, its primary meaning is not divorce, but to leave. In the context, that leaving is illicit. It is improper to take these two instances of terms that are close in meaning and imply divorce in context and state dogmatically that they are Paul’s words for divorce. Rather, it is wise to admit that these terms do not essentially entail divorce, but that when the context brings across that implication, they imply treacherous divorce. The more common term for divorce in the New Testament is, like its counterpart in the Old, not an offense-term, but a morally neutral term, that, absent a negative context, may be used of morally acceptable divorce. Thus, Paul in verse 27 is likely simply referring to a treacherously divorced (or innocent) spouse, or a man who has divorced his spouse as a moral discipline, or is a widower.
Heth/Wenham stress that “released” is not Paul’s term for divorced, but they do not tell us how “released” can refer to engaged couples-their own view. Presumably Paul is telling them not to seek to break off their engagement. This may not be as helpful as these authors suppose, however, for engagement in the ancient world—especially to Rabbi Paul—would be tantamount to a marriage covenant, and its breach probably a sin like adultery. This means that the advice Paul gave here would likely work for fully married persons as well, and his permission to those who are released to marry again would apply to the divorced also.
It seems proper, then, to say that in his general treatment of the never married, Paul digresses to speak to the formerly married a point of advice that equally applies to all who are properly unmarried, however they came to be in that state (i.e., death or divorce). His advice, in the round, is to be in the state that maximizes one’s service to the Lord. He does not wish to make a major teaching to the divorced and widowed at this point, any more than he did in verse 8, but, as in verse 8, they are worth being mentioned in the context of people with another marital status.
Highlighting the theme of this book, note that there is simply no sound reason not to take verses 27-28 in a normal sense of presenting a (treacherously) divorced person with the moral right to remarry, while suggesting the worthy option of kingdom celibacy. If the person chooses celibacy, good choice! If the person chooses to remarry, that’s OK too! The presumption is that such a one will wisely choose based upon a knowledge of which state will ultimately allow more time in service for the kingdom. Remaining unencumbered-with-a-spouse theoretically will make time for the kingdom. But without the gift of celibacy, a person will spend time burning and might end up making time for Satan-by falling into fornication. 473
Instruction To Those Responsible For Virgins
If Paul on two occasions in Chapter 7 permits (divorce and) remarriage of the innocent (vv. 15, 28), what are we to make of his statement in verse 39 that a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives?
Several options present themselves:
1. 1. The statement in verse 39 insists that marriage is a state that cannot be broken; therefore, even though a formal divorce may be obtained, such a severance is not recognized by God, and therefore, no remarriage during the lifetime of a person’s (former) spouse is permissible. (Heth/Wenham)
2. 2. Verse 39, when taken literally, represents only one way that a marriage may be broken and remarriage contracted. However, since death and divorce are in the same category to the biblical mind, remarriage after divorce, as after the death of the spouse, is presumed. (Murray)
3. 3. Verse 39 is advice primarily designed for widows, specifically allowing for their remarriage.
4. 4. Since this section is exhortative to the indecisive person who has “control” over his “virgin,” it is intended only to serve him notice that his choice to have her marry is “till death do them part.” It affirms the necessity to intend permanency and it does not wish to speak to the propriety of divorce and remarriage. (Erasmus)
In my estimation, the Fourth view is correct, although there may be something to the Second as well. The first alternative seems impossible, if (a) the Scriptures are consistent and (b) our interpretation of the earlier passages is correct. I will not argue either of these points here. The first is a heuristic assumption of my book; the second is argued earlier in the book, and will stand on its own merits.
The question concerning the second view is stated by Heth/Wenham. They believe that this idea presumes a “legal fiction,” the idea that the adulterer should be treated as if he were dead. These authors object to the implication that Jesus substitutes one form of the letter of the law (death for adultery) for another form of the letter of the law (divorce), rather than giving the spirit of the law, with its much higher standards of forgiveness and reconciliation, as Jesus does in Matthew 5:21-48. If it is true, that the “one flesh” bond of marriage taught in Genesis 2:24 is indissoluble during the lifetime of the spouses, then no “legal fiction” can change that fact.474
As I have noted earlier in this work, I believe that the Scripture indeed recognizes and uses the clearly historical fact that divorce was used by the ancient Hebrews as a substitute for the death penalty.475 The points are clear: first, the death penalty was prescribed for cases of sexual infidelity by the wife; second, Gomer, though guilty of sexual infidelity, was not executed but was divorced; and third, God used this “substitute” treatment of the guilty wife as illustrative of his judgment of his wandering wives Israel/Judah. The conclusion I drew was that divorce is an acceptable substitute for the death penalty.476 Thus, both with regard to the legal system of Israel and with regard to God’s just evaluation of penalties, divorce seems to be an acceptable substitute for death, so that it is proper to say that death and divorce are roughly in the same category of “punishment”. This is further supported by our previous study in Leviticus,477 where we noted that widows and the divorced were categorized together regarding their responsibilities to their former husbands and their present vows. About this I will have more to say.
Actually, it is not quite correct to say that the woman divorced for being unfaithful should be treated “as if she were dead,” but, rather, that her marital obligation to her first husband is the same as if he were dead. In neither case does the former husband have a right to expect the woman’s marital fidelity to him. The issue is not whether or not the divorce renders his “ontology” moribund but how death or divorce affects the covenant. I, at least, am not suggesting that God or society actually holds a trial for the guilty party in which that one is found guilty, sentenced, and executed. But I do imply that the covenantal effects are the same as if that had happened.
The second point in Heth and Wenham’s response I also find inadequate. Genesis 2:24 does not teach that marriage is indissoluble but that the covenanters should enter into marriage intending to make it permanent.478 The fact that marriage was intended to be continuous (unbroken) before the Fall does not logically imply that it was continuous (unbreakable) after the Fall. One cannot jump from intentionality to ontology.
But, though I do find the second view adequate, I think that it is better to see 7:39 in the light of its own context. Some understand the context to be the intermediate context (v. 8), where widows are mentioned. On this view, Paul is tying up the loose threads. He is providing advice for the disposition of marital status of widows, as he has not specifically given them the right to remarry.479 But would this be necessary? Would not that have been known by all his readers in Corinth? After all, the law of the levirate certainly presupposed that widows could marry. The only thought to be corrected by that law was the impression that it would be incestuous for the husband’s brother to marry the widow. The law protects against the charge of incest, not against some law prohibiting the remarriage of widows. There must be some better reason for the presence of these verses.
Who Are the Keepers of Their Virgins?
My own feeling is that verse 39 is meant to connect with verses 38. In these verses Paul has been addressing someone who is undecided about the advisability of marrying (off?) a virgin. As noted earlier, this may be a man and his fiancée, a boy and his girlfriend, a father and his daughter, or a guardian and his ward. I think it likely that the latter is the best and includes the father-daughter combination. To the man, Paul says that it is morally permissible to choose either way, to marry or not to. Previously, in his advice to the virgins, he has given a reason not to marry, that is, so as to be able to spend more time in devotion to the Lord. That advice is, in turn, qualified by his previous advice that it is better to marry than to burn. Burning is probably behind his words in verse 36 as well about acting unbecomingly toward the virgin. It is explicitly expressed in verse 8, where widows and, we presume, other single people, are mentioned regarding a reason to marry. So the virgin in question wishes to get married in order to properly care for her biological urges. For her guardian to block this outlet for her is unbecoming. It could set her up for undue temptation. Or, it may be that she understandably wishes for the sort of security that a husband could provide. For her male guardian to deny her this is unbecoming. In either case, the choice to marry or not to marry is not a moral choice, but a practical one, with points of argument on either side.480
But in all of this advice Paul may well feel that he has dulled the important point that marriage once contracted must be honored. It is permissible not to enter into marriage, but it is not permissible once the covenant has been made to simply back out of it. The time for a decision to quit the marriage is before the vows. Such advice is parallel to Jesus’ point in Matthew 19:11 ff.: “If you want to get married, you have to follow the rules.’481
On this account, Paul is not, at this juncture, trying to teach the whole theology of the breakup of marriage. He is not trying to speak to the ethics of divorce per se, because that is out of sight and mind. This marriage is not even contracted yet. Why talk now of some future, hypothetical breach of covenant? For now, Paul merely sets before the indecisive guardian the moral limits of his ward’s marriage from her perspective. It would have been correct to have added that she is also free to remarry if the husband ever sins so grossly that the marriage bond is sundered, but why repeat that when both Jesus and Paul have made that point clear in their previous teaching? For now, what is needed is a reminder about the seriousness of marriage. Paul speaks of a decision for permanence, not a permanent decision.482
What Is the Bondage That Remains Until Death?
There is another point to ponder in the wording of the text. We note that the text speaks of the two as being legal partners. They are bound to each other. In other words, the admonition is directed to two, or concerning two, who are legally and morally bound to each other. Can as much be said of the parties in the case of a divorce? If there is a divorce, they are no longer legally bound to each other, but what of the moral bond?
Heth/Wenham hold that the bond in this verse is legal. Thus, the text is saying that the woman is legally bound to be her man’s wife until he dies. They reject efforts employed by Erasmians (and myself) that seek to interpret this bond by the freedom-from-bondage passage in verse 15. They point out that there are two different words used by Paul. In verse 15 the term is douloo; in verse 39 it is deo. They belittle efforts showing that the two words have a common root by labeling them the “root fallacy” or the error of etymologizing (“giving excessive weight to the origin of a word over and against its actual semantic value in a given context”).483 For their own part, they doubt that the words do have a common root and argue that Paul never uses douloo to refer to the legal aspect of marriage. They conclude by saying that even if deo had been used in verse 15 the context would still keep it from being understood in the same way deo is used in verse 39.
I shall not quibble with them about the origins of the word. I disagree, however, with their conclusion that there is no relationship between verses 15 and 39. In the first place, it is clear that Paul does use douloo with regard to marriage in verse 15. I previously rejected their improbable interpretation that the Christian spouse is simply free from responsibility for the divorce. The text is not referring to the agent responsible for the divorce; that the separating unbeliever is the responsible agent was never in question. Paul is trying to relieve the rejected one of thoughts and feelings of obligation to the departed spouse. He would, of course, have had no moral right to do so if the legal aspect of marriage were not settled. To tell the rejected woman that she is not in the position of a subordinate one (doulos) is to deny that her former husband is her leader (kurios). But the relationship of a woman who is “under her husband” (hupandros) in the legal bond (deo)484 of marriage is one of doulos/kurios, at least according to the view of the Apostle Peter (1 Pet. 3:6). Heth/Wenham simply cannot keep these two words from bearing logically upon each other. If the woman of verse 15 is free from her position as a doulos it must be because she has no deo obligation. If she retains a deo relationship till death (v. 39) even if separated from her husband, then she must still consider herself a doulos and properly feel that obligation; Paul would have no right to tell her she is free (v. 15). Heth and Wenham cannot have it both ways. Either they have to qualify duration of verse 39, or they have to deny the freedom of verse 15. I prefer to interpret the thrust of verse 39 by previous teachings in verses 15, 27-28, and others.485
Supposing the husband to have committed some grievous offense against the body of his wife, I argue that she is no longer morally bound to reciprocate by keeping her own covenant obligations. For, by his actions, he has breached his covenant with her, releasing her from her moral bond. Were she to divorce him (end the legal bond), it would not be she who sundered the marriage, but he. In effect, his breach would have rendered her no longer under him or under the obligations of the covenant. Except for the legal fiction (the marriage writ), he ceases to be her husband. So, too, were he to divorce her treacherously, that is, without sufficient (sundering) grounds (i.e., porneia), she would not be under him either morally or legally. He could not be considered “her husband” or her man, nor she “his wife.” And the admonition given relates only to a woman who still is, morally, at least, under a man.
A male guilty party would have had the moral right to marry, insofar as this action would not hinder him from restoring the first marriage (viz., because polygamy was morally—though not culturally-permissible). The apparent disharmony that this statement raises with regard to the teaching of Jesus and Paul is only prima facie. Jesus, in condemning the man who divorces and remarries (Matt. 19 and Mark 10) is not so much concerned with the remarriage as with the divorce. Christ abhors treachery motivated by the desire to marry another. The remarriage is a part of the continuing adultery insofar as it is tied to the divorce—it is the reason for the divorce. And did it (that is, the second marriage) not inhibit the restoration or continuation of the first marriage, it would not be considered adulterous at all. It is inhibitive in societies that prohibit polygamy.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:11, significantly omits the injunction “let him remain unmarried” when he reverses his words to the treacherous female divorcer.486 And when he does proscribe the remarriage of the guilty female divorcer in that verse, he seems to so tie the remarriage to the immediate option to reconcile that a distant and relatively unrelated remarriage (even of this same guilty wife) is not in view but only one that is a part of the dissolution in the first place. By so viewing the remarriage of the guilty, we are actually back to what was said earlier concerning the teaching of Jesus. And, after all, Paul notes in these verses (i.e., v. 10 f.) that he is simply reflecting the teachings of our Lord.
Conclusion: The Keeper Is the Guardian
Thus we find in favor of the fourth alternative, suspecting that Paul simply wishes to advise the guardian to measure his decision with the ruler of intended permanency. If he gives her in marriage, he may not go the next week and try and take her away from her husband. Saul did this when he twice defrauded David of marriage to his daughters … first to Merab—taken before the marriage was official, and then with Michal after it was (1 Sam. 18 & 25). This “converted Saul,” Paul, would not wish the behavior of the Old Testament Saul to become a precedent for the Church.
Paul concludes by reminding the guardian of his prior principle, based upon sanctified reason, that, for now, singleness for the virgin will be in the best interest of her happiness. Given the whole discussion of defrauding with which this section begins, with the likely ascetic influences and with immorality of the city constantly harassing the married, we can understand his words.
Marriage as an Analogical Illustration of Freedom in Christ
We have not found in the didactic teaching of Paul on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 any measure of support for a denial of the right to divorce and remarry (at least on the part of the innocent). It is, therefore, unlikely that such moral teaching can properly be derived from Paul’s illustrative material in Romans 7:1 ff. In fact, it is almost a truism in hermeneutics that doctrine should not be based solely upon analogy and illustration. Yet often this passage in Paul’s epistle to the Roman church is the first court of resort for those who wish to proscribe divorce and remarriage.
These well-meaning defenders of marriage make their appeal with such conviction that they seldom take the time to inquire Paul’s purpose in using an illustration of the marriage state. In fact, he mentions marriage to illustrate what God has done for us in the substitutionary atonement. Far from trying to teach his readers that they are absolutely bound to their (physical) spouse till that spouse dies, he is, in fact, trying to tell them how to be free from their (spiritual) spouse to marry another while the abandoned spouse still lives. But let us set this forth in proper order.
The Law His Readers Knew
Paul begins to illustrate the precious gospel message that sin kills but Christ makes alive (6:23) by making a general point about the Law: it has its rights over the living, not the dead. In context, he is saying that spiritual law, God’s law, demands its rights over the one under its jurisdiction. This is almost a tautology, but not quite. For it points out that a person who is dead is not under the Law. Laws are for the living. Paul is not trying to refer here to a person dead in trespasses and sins; that would be to mix his metaphors. Nor does he wish to overwork his analogy between spiritual law (cf. 6:15) and secular law (7:1). By this, I mean he does not wish to bring up that the law of a given land only concerns its citizens, not those of another nation. He does not broach the possibility that a person may become an expatriate and disavow citizenship in that land. He does not reflect on the condition of those banished from a given land. Paul is making a simple point: the people who live in a land are bound by its laws while they are living.
The exact nature of the “law” that these people know is not specified. I rather imagine that Paul does not care what particular law this statement evokes in the minds of his readers. What he says, as far as he goes, is equally true of Roman law or of Hebrew law. Law always functions in this way. Were his referent specifically the Mosaic Law, we would be advised to review our previous treatment of it in chapters 2 and 3. But it is sufficient here to simply think of the points concerning the relevance of law just mentioned.
The Wife’s Dilemma
Paul now narrows the general rule to a specific application, one that enlivens the minds of his readers. He chooses the area of marriage. The person “under law” becomes the woman, the wife. This means that the legal obligation would be understood as her responsibility to keep herself to her husband. As far as I know, all the laws of the Roman peoples agreed upon the obligation of the woman to be loyal to her husband. Polyandry was not a practice accommodated by Roman rule; nor was it the policy of the other peoples that made up the empire. As long as the man was her husband, as long as he lived, she was restricted to sexual relations with him alone. Anything else was adultery. Had Paul gone beyond this point of unanimity, he would have had to be specific about the law in view, for the laws of the various peoples in the empire differed on the issues of divorce and of how to treat adultery.
Paul is careful in his choice of expressions. Only certain aspects of general marital relations will illustrate his point. Nor would it have been in his logical interest to entertain all the possible ins and outs of marital laws. His is the task of illustration, and the point that he intends to illustrate is how we may be free from our husband the law in order to belong to another, namely, Christ. This, needless to say, severely limited how he could apply his analogy, especially if the law evoked in the mind of his readers was the Mosaic Law, for according to the Old Testament Law, there were only a few ways for the woman to achieve release and remarriage.
Paul walks a thin line. In his illustration the woman is married. She has a husband, and he is alive. Only these assumptions will work, since (before we are joined to Christ) our husband, the law (Mosaic or conscience), is alive. These facts reveal that we are obligated to the law. But ours is a husband of death, for we are ourselves guilty of the grave offense of adultery against our husband. We have not been completely faithful to him. We have broken our vows to him. We have transgressed the law. We are worthy of the death penalty.487
Were we to be joined to Christ while still bound to the law, it would not be proper. Just as a wife cannot be joined to another man while her husband lives, so we cannot be (at the same time) both bound to the law and joined to Christ. We must be freed from the law. But how can that be? The Law of Moses knew of only a few ways that a woman could be free from her husband. First, she could be freed if her husband gravely offended the covenantal obligations. This is obviously an inappropriate line of reasoning, for our husband has not sinned against us (“Is the Law sin? May it never be!” 7:7). If union with Christ awaits the disloyalty of the law, we will never be joined to Christ. So any hope of our divorcing the law for treachery (Exod. 21:10 f.) is empty. And any thought that the law will intentionally cease to “minister” to us (i.e., put us treacherously away, Deut. 24:1) is vain as-well.
Another theoretical possibility for release would be the death of the husband. But does the law die? No. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17). God’s law will not pass away. It is futile to expect our husband the law to die.
The only other possibility would be for us to be properly and intentionally released by the law. But what would this entail? Logically, either divorce or death. Paul’s point is made only if he ignores the possibility of divorce as a discipline. For if we are divorced in this manner, as God divorced Israel (Jer. 3:8; Hos. 1:9 f.), then the only recourse for us is repentance and restoration (at least for as long as the husband is still awaiting our return). That idea is a beautiful picture of our release from and remarriage to God, but the implications are not so happy when the husband is not God but the law. For this reason, it is counterproductive to address this subject from the illustration of forgiveness found in the Prophets (e.g., Hos. 2:14 ff.). Would Paul wish us to repent and be reconciled to the law—still under its bondage? Certainly not!
The last option, death, seems even less happy. Our execution for breaking the law frees us from our husband, but a dead wife is unable to be joined to anyone. Thus, it seems that there is no escape from our bondage to the law. And since we have already failed to be faithful, a righteous husband—and the law is certainly righteous—is duty bound to see justice done.488 According to Paul, the prescribed sentence is death. One way or the other, the wife must die.
It is here that Paul surprises us with a unique solution. A substitute appears to take our place beneath the stones of justice. Our wished-for mate, Christ, takes our penalty on himself. We die in Him. Thus, since we technically die in him, we fulfill the penalty and are no longer bound to the old husband. And since Christ not only takes us with Him in death but also in the resurrection from the dead, we are alive to be subsequently joined to Him as to a husband!
Any other way of telling the story—of illustrating the theological point-would have distorted that point. Divorce, though a theoretical option in two regards—by us or by the Law—would totally ruin the progressing argument. Divorce had to be ignored as an option in order to present a workable solution—to get us completely free from our husband and joined to Another (Christ) while our husband (the Law) still lived. An exceedingly clever illustration. An exceedingly “clever” God!
So, then, people expecting Paul to make anything (positive or negative) of the moral possibilities of divorce set forth in the Law and the Prophets show themselves to have missed Paul’s line of logic in these verses. Divorce is irrelevant to the theological issue. And it is worth underscoring what I noted with regard to 1 Corinthians 7:39 that all these references to bondage only relate to a woman who is bound to a husband. They do not speak at all of a woman who is no longer morally bound to a man, who has sundered the covenant by actions that are themselves immoral, that is, unfaithfulness during marriage or at the point of divorce.
In closing this discussion, it is worth noting that, though the New and Old Testaments most often use general terms for “husband” and “wife,” terms that could also mean “man” and “woman,” respectively, there is a technical way of speaking of the woman who is bound to her husband, and that technical term is used in this chapter (Romans 7:2). It is hupandros, “under the man.” This term implies clear legal and moral obligation. But we have already noted that, according to the Old Testament in Numbers 30:9, a widow and a divorced woman are both in the same category. They are not bound to a man, but may bind themselves by oath if they so wish. Just as the widow is not under obligation to the dead man, so too the divorced woman is free to contract a new oath to God—and by extension by vow to another husband.
Her former husband has no rights over her. Morally she is no longer under him. She is on her own. It could not be said that the divorced woman is “under her husband.” Like the woman to whom Jesus spoke in John 4:18, she may have had a husband, but this is only past tense after the divorce has taken place. Romans 7:2 speaks of a woman who is under a husband. This is not true of a divorced person. Divorce is essentially irrelevant to Paul’s discussion, and any attempt to use these verses to disallow divorce and remarriage is a study in poor hermeneutics on several levels.
452 J. M. Ford, “Levirate Marriage in St Paul (I Cor. vii),” New Testament Studies 10 (1964):361-65.
453 G. Delling, “parthenos” in TDNT, vol. 5 (1967), p. 836.
454 J. K. Elliot, “Paul’s Teaching on Marriage in 1 Corinthians: Some Problems Considered,” New Testament Studies 19 (Jan. 1973): 219-25.
455 Robertson and Plummer, Corinthians, pp. 158-60.
456 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 147.
457 This view was suggested to me by a colleague. Dr. William Baker, at Moody Bible Institute.
458 Lenski, I & II Corinthians, p. 326.
459 BAGD, s.v. “παρθενος.”
460 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 144.
461 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 144.
462 In point of fact, I deny that 24-35 speaks primarily to the already engaged. That seems to be an interpretation Heth/Wenham draw backwards from their view of the man in 36 ff. as the fiancé—another interpretation I do not accept.
463 In my opinion Heth/Wenham (Jesus, p. 144) make too much of their findings in Liddell and Scott (H. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed., revised and augmented throughout by H. Jones [London: Oxford, 1940], s.v. “agamos”). That lexicon points out that the primary meaning of agamos is “unmarried, single.” The definition goes on to apply this to men as either “bachelor or widower.” It would be interesting to see how frequently agamos refers only to widowers in the literature. As it is, Heth and Wenham have little lexically to support their limitation of agamos to widower. Further, though Liddell and Scott do not mention divorced men in their application, it is surely hasty to conclude that divorced persons could not be called agamos. What else could they be called? Were they not considered to be in the unmarried state? Liddell and Scott do not explicitly exclude divorced men from the term.
464 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 146-47.
465 C. Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. “Chorizo: Divorce, Separation and Remarriage,” vol. 3 (1978), p. 537.
466 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 147.
467 See my comments on Fee in the previous chapter.
468 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 146, emphasis theirs.
469 Cf. BAGD, s.v. “agamos.” I might mention here, that one of Laney’s students at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, Wesley M. Teterud, approached me and gave me a paper (“The Meaning of ‘Unmarried’ in 1 Corinthians 7”) he had written for Laney on agamos. Not surprisingly, in it he argued against inclusion of the divorced in the word. In the end, I found the paper unhelpful, though artful. Apparently Laney found it unhelpful as well, for he does not mention it or its arguments in his contribution to the Four Christian Perspectives book. Instead Laney spends his time with the doulo-oldeo relationship (pp. 43-43) as does Heth (pp. 110-111).
470 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 147.
471 Of course there is also the likelihood that 27b is meant to include widowers as well.
472 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 147.
473 It is likely that divorced people would get married, because we presume that they got married in the first place in order to satisfy their physical needs morally. But I have met a number who decided to stay single subsequent to their divorce in order to better serve the Lord.
474 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 84. In Heth’s subsequent work (“Divorce, but no Remarriage” in House’s Divorce and Remarriage; Four Christian Perspectives, pp. 98-99,110) attributes the “legal fiction view to R. H. Charles (The Teaching of the New Testament on Divorce (London: Wms. & Norgate, 1921), pp. 32, 62-71.) Charles argued that extramarital sins dissolved the marriage.
Feeling that he has his opponents in a sort of logic box, Heth raises two questions to those who believe that the bond is dissolved by sexual sin. First, why if the innocent party confesses and is forgiven, the couple is not responsible to go through a new ceremony? Second, why should a divorce be only permitted if the relationship is obliterated? On the other hand, he argues, if the bond is not really dissolved, how can it be said that Jesus allows remarriage to another?
My reply is that the adultery does not dissolve the “marriage” in the sense of the legal bond, but in the sense of the moral obligation to reciprocate by keeping one’s vows. It is preferable, given the legal issues and complications presented the couple by such a situation, for them to simply restate their vows to each other. Remember, the Bible does not know of wedding ceremonies with vows being spoken by the bride and groom. In biblical times such commitments were made at the time of the engagement. But I agree with Heth that a recommitment to the canons of covenant need to be made after a “sundering” offense. By the same line of argument, a (legal) divorce need not be entertained if the guilty party repents. But, I would argue that one should take place if the guilty party refuses to repent.
Heth is persistent in his refusal or inability to separate the legal and moral issues in an understandable manner. Thus “bond’ and “marriage” on the one hand and “dissolved” and “divorce” on the other are continually presented in confusing juxtapositions.
In conjunction with this treatment of Charles, Heth cites P. P. Levertoff and H. L. Goudge to prove the “absurdities” of the view that adultery dissolves the marriage bond. The first is that a man “may cease to be married and yet be unaware of the fact” The second is that “it makes adultery … the one way to get rid of a marriage which has become distasteful, and so it puts a premium on adultery.” (“The Gospel according to St Matthew,” in A New Commentary on Holy Scripture (N.Y.. Macmillan, 1928), p. 174.)
The first “absurdity” shows confusion on the part of its framers and of Heth. It is the same confusion noted above. They cannot distinguish between the legal entity of marriage and the moral bond of marriage. It does seem absurd that a person might have no legal bond to his seeming partner and not know it. Though in fact an article in the newspaper recently noted just such an instance. A man divorced his wife without her knowing it. He lived with her until he died and then the cruel deed became known in the reading of the will. Fortunately a sensible judge rewarded her the estate in spite of the man’s treachery. Such a ruling would be entirely in accord with the Old Testament Law on the treatment of rejected wives. Crazy as it seems, such “absurdities” do occur.
Far more common is the partner in a contract who carries out his terms of the contract not knowing that the party of the second part has breached the contract. The treacherous usually do not advertise their treachery! In such cases it is indeed true that the covenant has been broken and the innocent may remove all legal encumbrances as soon as they know the facts. It is the same in marriage as in business in this regard. There is nothing “absurd” or uncommon about this sort of situation.
The second “absurdity,” or a similar type of challenge to covenants was discussed in chapter 3 of this book, when wife-abuse was under discussion. It may seem like a way out of a bad marriage to sin, whether by adultery or by abuse. But that just shows the poor judgment of sinners. Their record is dirty before God, Who will defend the innocent In view of that, I am not so worried about them getting away with it. Second, this book has already argued more than once that the guilty party must make his peace with God (“unfinished moral business”). We paraphrase Paul in saying, “Should he sin that happiness abound?” Rhetorically not. But be assured happiness will not abound to such a man, and we need not change the rules of marriage just to stop such a wanton sinner from destroying himself or his marriage. This seems to be the logic of Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
475 Cf. Chap. 4.
476 I do not wish to make more of this point than necessary. There is, for example, a whole nest of questions surrounding the propriety of substitution of what seems to be a lesser penalty for one more severe. But that is not my task at this moment. I need not decide that issue for my earlier arguments to hold true. I will say that insofar as restoration of the death penalty would have included change of the laws of foreign powers. It seems unlikely the God would have required that of the Jews.
477 Chap. 2.
478 Cf. chap. 1.
479 E.g., Lenski, I & II Corinthians, p. 331.
480 It could be argued that to put her in jeopardy regarding temptation is a moral matter. If it really is such, then I think the latter interpretation, i.e., desire for security, sufficient in itself to carry the overall interpretation offered here.
It is most interesting that the word chosen by Paul to express unbecoming behavior (askamoneo) is very closely related to the term used by the LXX translators in Deut 23:14 and 24:1—the “unseemly thing.” Insofar as the term in 1 Cor. 7:36 does not imply immoral behavior but only behavior that could result in non-moral behavior, I believe that it supports my interpretation of the behavior in Deut 24:1 as not immoral either. I note further that, in the case of Deut 24:1, the problem behavior of the woman might lead to the breach of the husband’s marriage vow to properly care for his wife—he might physically abuse her. The resulting concession is intended to protect her from that abuse. Here in 1 Cor. 7, another concession is being made: to inhibit the virgin’s potential fornication (resulting from her being seduced as a biologically needy woman), Paul prompts her guardian to let her get married. Both passages have the better interests of the woman in view—an interesting parallel!
481 This parallel may suggest that Paul was in possession of the common source for both Matthew and Mark. Thus, in turn, suggesting that Paul meant to harmonize all his teachings with the “exception clause,” which from all dependable, historical evaluation was included in that common source.
482 It is the case, as well, that this section is parallel to 7:27, where divorce, as I have argued earlier, is a very likely implication of “released.” This in turn implies that the divorced and the widow are in the same category-a point made by the Old Testament law regarding priests, and one I have noted on more than one occasion.
483 Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 142.
484 See Rom. 7:3.
485 It is also worth pointing out that Heth/Wenham are confusing in their use of “legal” in their argument If a divorce writ does not free from “legal” obligation, what, pray tell, does? They must mean “moral” bond.
486 Cf. Chap. 4 in its treatment of the “Abraham reference” in Mal. 2. See also my discussion of this verse in Chap. 8.
487 Here, Paul presumes that the death penalty is proper, vis-a-vis the later substitute of divorce. This could indicate that he is speaking literally of the Mosaic Law in v. 1 when he says he speaks to those who know the Law. He could be referring to the Law even as distinct from the “prophets,” for whom divorce was the norm.
488 Interestingly, all the early Church Fathers agree with my view that Jewish law in the days of Jesus held a husband morally bound to divorce an adulterous wife. (See Appendix F.)