12. The Relationship Between Spirituality and Sexuality (1 Cor. 7:8-16)
As I was driving home from a funeral, I happened to notice a billboard advertising the services of a lawyer or group of lawyers. I may have missed some of the small print because I was trying to watch the road, but the billboard read something like this:
Imagine that! It is easier to take care of a failed marriage by divorce than to handle a traffic violation. I am sure divorce is not as easy or as cheap as this sign might lead us to believe, but the reality is that divorce can rather readily be obtained. I wonder how many people pass by that sign and say to themselves, “For a mere $25, I could solve my problems.”
Christians are now resorting to the divorce courts nearly as often as those who profess no faith at all. A few years ago, divorce was looked down upon by our culture. Now divorce is accepted. It may even be accurate to say that divorce is advocated as the better way for those whose marriages are a mess. The church used to oppose divorce. Then, in some “exceptional” cases, it came to endorse it. Now it seems, divorce is simply accepted as a fact of life.
Moral conditions in Paul’s day are at an all-time low. In some circles at least, divorce is more the rule than the exception:
But at the time of Paul, Roman family life was wrecked. Seneca writes that women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married. In Rome the Romans did not commonly date their years by numbers; they called them by the names of their husbands. Martial the Roman poet tells of a woman who had ten husbands; Juvenal tells us of one who had had eight husbands in five years; Jerome declares it to be true that in Rome there was a woman who was married to her twenty-third husband and she herself was his twenty-first wife. We find even a Roman Emperor Augustus demanding that her husband should divorce the lady Livia when she was with child that he might himself marry her. We find even Cicero, in his old age, putting away his wife Terentia that he might marry a young heiress, whose trustee he was, that he might enter into her estate, in order to pay his debts.77
It is not surprising that the subject of divorce arises in this epistle. The city of Corinth is morally corrupt. Immorality is common practice and generally accepted. Immorality is not shocking to the saints. They somehow are able to embrace a man living immorally with his father’s wife (chapter 5), and Paul finds it necessary to prove that having sexual relations with a prostitute is wrong (chapter 6). Where there is immorality, divorce is not far behind. In addition to immorality in the church at Corinth, divisions and rivalries are also commonplace (1:10ff., etc.). Is it any wonder that division takes place within marriages? If one Christian has no hesitancy to take another to court (6:lff.), should we be shocked that a marriage made in heaven is being dissolved in the law courts?
If divorce is only regarded as the “lesser of two evils” in Corinth, that is bad enough. But a segment of the church goes so far as to view divorce as the spiritual thing to do. Some Corinthian ascetics hold that sex is dirty, even within marriage. The next step is to look upon marriage as evil, something not unheard of in the churches (see 1 Timothy 4:3). If sex and marriage are unspiritual, does this mean that a “spiritual Christian” should seek to be loosed from the bonds of marriage? And what of those who find themselves married to an unbeliever? Paul has written in chapter 6 that the union of a Christian with a pagan prostitute has very serious spiritual implications (6:16ff.). Is a Christian sinning every time he has sexual intercourse with his unbelieving spouse?
Our text is penned by the Apostle Paul to correct the misconceptions and false doctrine some Corinthian church leaders are teaching and some Corinthian Christians are embracing regarding sex and marriage. Paul addresses three different groups in verses 8-16. In verses 8 and 9, Paul writes to those who are unmarried. In verses 10 and 11, the apostle addresses those marriages in which both partners are Christians. Finally, in verses 12-16, Paul writes to those Corinthian Christians whose mates are unsaved.
Paul’s words in verses 6-16 are spoken from three different perspectives, which the apostle clearly identifies, and which we need to keep in mind as we attempt to interpret and apply them. First, Paul speaks from the standpoint of his own personal convictions and preferences in verses 6 and 7. He begins by saying, “But this I say by way of concession, not of command” (verse 6). He then goes on to express that he wishes that all men were as himself. Paul is single as a matter of personal conviction. He desires that all might remain single, like himself, but he knows better. He does not speak with apostolic authority, and those who do not follow his advice are not regarded as disobedient to a divine command. This same perspective is carried on in verses 8 and 9, where Paul reiterates the potential benefit of remaining single and yet urges single saints to marry rather than to burn.
Second, Paul speaks as an apostle of Jesus Christ, who is simply repeating the instructions of the Lord Jesus in verses 10 and 11: “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, …” (verse 10). Paul is simply reiterating Jesus’ teaching on divorce when he instructs both the Christian husband and the Christian wife not to initiate divorce.
Third, Paul speaks as an apostle of Jesus Christ, but of matters on which our Lord did not give instruction in verses 12-16: “But to the rest I say, not the Lord, …” (verse 12). As I understand Paul’s words here, he is saying that he speaks only for himself, and not for the Lord. Paul is saying that his teaching here is apostolic instruction, with full apostolic authority. The difference here is that the subject matter was not taught by our Lord. Paul speaks for our Lord, but he is not repeating instructions which the Lord gave His apostles while on earth. The reason is quite simple. The Jews cannot conceive of a mixed marriage, the marriage of a believer and an unbeliever (or, at least, between a Jew and a Gentile). In Jerusalem and the land of Israel, such a possibility would sound incredible, so why would anyone teach those in a mixed marriage about marriage? But in Corinth, mixed marriages are inevitable after Paul and others proclaim the gospel. No doubt most of these mixed marriages occurred because one of the two unbelieving partners is saved after the commitment of marriage has been made.
With these thoughts in mind, let us listen carefully to Paul to learn what he has to say about marriage and divorce. His words are just as applicable to our own day as to his.
But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).
Paul’s words here must be understood in light of the overall teaching of the Bible on marriage and celibate single life. The Lord Jesus, a defender of the sanctity of marriage, says this on marriage and staying single:
9 “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:9-12).
The Jews of Jesus’ day take divorce lightly. They see it not as a kind of necessary evil, but as a right. The only differences between liberal and conservative Jews on divorce are over the reasons for a divorce. The liberal Jews feel divorce can be granted for virtually any reason (see Matthew 19:3). Conservative Jews feel divorce is not quite so easy to obtain, nor can the basis for a divorce be so trivial. Jesus shocks them all with His conservatism, even His disciples.
Jesus refuses to allow His opponents to control the agenda. They do not ask Jesus about the morality of divorce; they only want Him to reveal His views on what grounds are sufficient for a divorce. Jesus refuses to concentrate on the exceptions, but rather dwells on the rule. God never commanded men to divorce. At the very most, God reluctantly allows men to divorce for very limited reasons, due to the hardness of men’s hearts. Jesus goes back to the garden and sets before His questioners God’s ideal for marriage: One man, married to the same woman, for life. What God joins together, no man should dare to separate.
The disciples of our Lord are shocked. They seem to have no idea that Jesus takes such a hard line on divorce. If this is the way it is—that a man should not really enter into marriage thinking he can get out of that union by means of a divorce—then maybe one should not marry at all. Maybe a man should remain single. Jesus does not correct His disciples for reaching this conclusion. Instead, Jesus actually encourages the disciples along the line they are thinking. Jesus makes it clear that His words will not be accepted or applied by many, but that some have, and others will take His teaching seriously. Some men are born as eunuchs, and thus sex (and by inference, marriage) is not a likely alternative. Other men are made eunuchs by men. Perhaps unwillingly, some men are castrated and prohibited from the pleasures of sex and the joys of marriage. But there is a third group, a group which Jesus clearly commends—those who voluntarily choose the celibate lifestyle, not for their own selfish reasons, but for the sake of the kingdom of God. Those who are able to accept and apply this same commitment are encouraged to do so. Jesus, like Paul in our text, advocates staying single as a way of serving God, which some should embrace.
One perspective is that some who are single should contemplate making this a permanent state. But Paul also gives what may initially appear to be contradictory counsel to Timothy, who is ministering to the saints in Ephesus:
11 But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, 12 thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. 13 And at the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. 14 Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; 15 for some have already turned aside to follow Satan (1 Timothy 5:11-15).
While Paul gives instructions concerning the permanent support of a very select group of elderly widows in verses 3-10, he specifically prohibits supporting younger widows in verses 11-15. Instead of instructing young widows to stay single, he encourages them to remarry. His logic seems to flow in this manner. If permanent support were provided for younger widows (something like welfare or social security today), then many would be “tempted” to stay single. To be supported by the church, they would rightly feel obliged to make a pledge to stay single (not unlike the vow a nun takes in the Catholic church). As time passes, this young woman would begin to feel the tug of her sexual passions (verse 11). In the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 7, this young widow would begin to “burn.”78 When a certain Mr. Wonderful comes along, this woman would be tempted to despise her commitment to Christ and to break her vow, thus bringing condemnation upon herself. Further, fully supported by the church, some young widows would be tempted to become busybodies, since they would have a lot of time on their hands. They have neither a family to care for nor a job to consume their time and energies. And so, Paul instructs, let younger widows marry.
Here we have the two extremes. On the one hand, the single life is commended, by our Lord and by the Apostle Paul. On the other, marriage is commended, both by our Lord and by Paul. How can we reconcile these seemingly conflicting instructions?
A similar apparent contradiction is found in the words of our Lord concerning discipleship. On the one hand, Jesus invited men and women to follow Him, to become His disciples. On the other hand, Jesus almost seems to discourage potential followers from becoming His disciples. Both appear to be happening in this text in Luke’s Gospel:
57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).
Jesus does want men and women to be His disciples, to follow Him. But He does not want half-hearted followers. He knows our hearts, and how easily we can be turned from the path of discipleship. He knows the difficulties and demands of following Him. And so when He invites people to follow Him, He clearly sets out the demands of discipleship. He discourages the faint-hearted from starting on a course which they will not complete. Thus, He both invites people to follow Him, and He discourages people from following Him. The result is that those who do follow Him are more likely to endure, for they have counted the cost of discipleship.
The same is true of purposing to stay single. The Bible encourages some to stay single, as the most effective way to serve God. Yet the Bible also discourages men and women from staying single, knowing that many who commit themselves to such a life will not keep it and will bring condemnation upon themselves. The result is that those few who choose to follow Christ by staying single are those who are most committed to doing so, and thus are the most likely to persevere in their commitment to a celibate single lifestyle.
The satisfaction of our God-given sexual desires within the context of marriage is wholesome and good. There is no intrinsic merit in the suppression of sexual desire. If sexual fulfillment (a definite “good”) is voluntarily set aside for the purpose of ministering to others, even as our Lord did, then celibacy is better. If one’s service as a celibate is one of constant preoccupation with sexual desires, marriage is the better way. It is surely better to marry and be sexually pure than to fall into sexual immorality.
I am convinced that Paul’s words here are not intended to keep most Christians from marrying nor to place a stigma on those who do. Yet they have great value for every Christian who is not yet married. While it is less true today than in times past, marriage has been considered the norm, and any who did not get married felt a strong pressure to do so. The implication of Paul’s advice here is that no Christian should assume that marriage is the path God would have for them. Both the benefits and the liabilities of marriage should be carefully weighed. Can a couple say with genuine conviction that God has led them to marry and that their marriage will enhance their ministry rather than restrict it? There would be fewer divorces among Christians if couples gave more consideration to the cost and commitments of marriage before saying, “I do.” While some Christian young people may be reluctant to admit it, strong sexual passion is a very good reason for marriage, but let them be certain to marry a godly mate.
Before leaving these verses, let us consider the practical implications of what Paul has just said. He certainly indicates that marriage is not sin. In fact, marriage may be instrumental in keeping a saint from sin. Remaining single can be a very beneficial means to serving God, for those who have the self-control to handle their sexual passions. Yet it can prove to be a temptation greater than some can handle, if they lack sufficient self-control.
Paul’s teaching is liberating in the sense that it removes the social stigma some feel if they remain single. In my college days, this stigma created what was known as “senior panic,” the phenomenon which occurred primarily among senior class single women who saw no immediate prospects for marriage. To those who are single, Paul’s words mean they can rejoice in the freedom being single gives them to serve God. Neither those who are single, nor those who are married, should see themselves as any more spiritual than the rest. Whether single or married, we are to serve the Lord and to seek His glory. Being single or being married should be viewed the way Paul looks at living or dying in Philippians 1. Either option has its benefits and blessings. Consequently, there is no need to agonize over one’s marital state, but rather we should seek to serve the Lord, whether married or single.
When I counsel with couples who are looking toward getting married, I like to challenge them to consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul puts marriage into perspective in this chapter. He makes it clear that marriage is neither unspiritual, nor is it heaven on earth. Marriage is a liberty which some Christians will exercise to the glory of God, but which some Christians may forego to the glory of God. Marriage is not the key to happiness, to significance, even to spirituality. A person who thinks they cannot be happy without marriage is the man and woman who should seriously consider staying single as an option. The one who will most benefit from marriage is the one who does not feel compelled to marry to find happiness or joy in this life. In the Christian life, it is the one who gives up his life who gains it.
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away.
There are two distinct groups in Corinth who need counsel regarding the Christian and divorce: (1) Christian couples, where both husband and wife are believers in Jesus Christ; and (2) “mixed marriages,” where one of the two partners has come to faith in Christ after marriage. Verses 10-11 address the first group. It may be that the ascetics who so forcefully condemned sex (see 1 Corinthians 7:1) also forbade marriage. This is most certainly the case in Ephesus:
1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
This may also be the teaching in Corinth, which is held by some. If this is the case, it is easy to see why Paul must speak to the Christian couples in Corinth concerning divorce. If staying single is what it takes to be spiritual, then does this mean Christian couples should terminate their marriages? If such action is considered spiritual, does this provide an easy (even spiritual) out for those who are weary of their marriage? Divorce is certainly a culturally acceptable option in Corinth. Paul’s words to Christian couples regarding divorce are clear, concise, and authoritative.
Paul’s words on divorce can be summed up by several statements, enumerated below:
(1) Paul’s teaching on divorce is not his own, but that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever we make of Paul’s other statements, nothing could be more clear in verses 10 and 11 than that Paul teaches with the authority of our Lord. Paul is teaching what Jesus taught. Those who like to read Paul’s instructions as those of an eccentric bachelor dare not do so here.
(2) Paul’s teaching here is addressed to Christian couples, those marriages in which both husband and wife trust in Jesus Christ.
(3) Paul’s teaching in these verses is mutual—what he teaches the husbands, he applies as well to the wives. Paul is not a chauvinist here (or elsewhere). He repeatedly states that what is good for the husband is good for the wife, and vice-versa.
(4) Paul teaches both Christian husbands and Christian wives that they are not to initiate a severing of their marital union. This statement requires some clarification and expansion. No Christian mate can control the actions of the other. Thus, it is possible that one mate may forsake the marriage, even though he or she is a believer. Paul speaks to each in terms of the sphere of their control and responsibility. They, on their part, are not to sever the marital union. This initiation of a severance is not to be taken in a narrow sense. Paul is not just forbidding the Christian spouse to file for a divorce first. He is not just prohibiting one mate from packing up and leaving the other. He is instructing each mate to do everything in his or her power to keep the marriage alive and well. A mate who disobeys Paul’s teaching in the previous verses may withhold sex from the other partner and thus tempt him or her to be unfaithful, or to initiate the divorce. We should never be the cause of our partner’s departure.
Further, when Paul forbids terminating the marriage, he forbids both separation and divorce. All too often, I hear Christians acknowledge that divorce is forbidden, and then proceed to encourage someone in a troubled marriage to separate. Their thinking is that divorce is one thing, and separation is quite another. I believe Paul clearly differs. Paul employs two different terms in verses 10 and 11, when he forbids the termination of marriage. In the NASB, the first term is translated “leave,” with a marginal note which indicates the literal meaning is “depart from.” The same term occurs at the beginning of verse 11. This same word is employed by our Lord in His teaching on divorce: “Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6, emphasis mine). But when Paul speaks specifically to husbands at the end of verse 11, he employs a term which is rendered by the expression, “send her away” (with a marginal note indicating the alternative, “leave her”). In the vernacular of our times, Paul is forbidding women both separation and divorce.
In Paul’s day, it may be technically true that both women and men could obtain a divorce. Practically speaking, however, I am convinced it is much easier for the husband to divorce his wife than for the wife to divorce her husband. In my opinion, the woman’s escape from an unsuccessful marriage would often be by simply leaving, without any divorce. The husband would more likely, more easily, and more frequently be the one who divorced his wife. Either way, Paul does not distinguish between separation and divorce.
I have seen a number of Christian couples separate, and I must say that it is not only unbiblical, it is counter-productive. Separations do not pave the way for reconciliation; they pave the way for a divorce. Quite frankly, those who separate are happier apart. Life is easier. The tensions and conflicts are removed, but the problems with the relationship are not solved. Very often, the mate that separates justifies their actions by insisting that they don’t intend to divorce, but nearly always this is the outcome. All too often, separation is employed as a bargaining tool, as a means of forcing the other partner to do what the separating partner dictates.
Paul sees a marital union where the two partners live separately as a broken union, and even worse, as a broken vow. So does our Lord. In the words of our Lord, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” To live apart is to live in disobedience.
A question may now be in your mind: “Is it never permissible to leave, even when the wife is in physical danger?” It may be permissible, even advisable, for a wife to temporarily leave, so as not to expose herself or her children to physical harm from an abusive (often when drunk) husband and father. Leaving for the evening or for the night is not the same as separation, however. The motive must be carefully considered. Very often, the danger is not as great as feared or represented. Abuse has become a “lion in the road” for many, a compelling excuse for disobeying God’s command. It may be that the wife should call the police. Certainly she should follow the teaching of Matthew 18:15-20. But too often the “violence” which seems to justify the wife’s separation is the result of provocation on the part of the “abused” partner.
(5) In these verses, Paul mentions no exceptions to his prohibition on terminating marriage. Paul’s words are clear and emphatic to Christian couples: “Don’t divorce and don’t separate—period!” He gives no exceptions here. This does not necessarily prove that there are no exceptions, no reasons why a Christian can divorce. It does underscore the fact that divorce is, at best, the exception to the rule, and Paul is here emphasizing the rule. It is much the same in Matthew 19, where the scribes and Pharisees quizzed Jesus on the reasons for divorce. Jesus knew that His questioners had made the exception the rule, and thus he refused to talk about exceptions, but rather stressed the ideal, as viewed from the original marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God intended a man and a woman to be joined together as one flesh for life. What God has joined, let no man separate. So it is with Paul. In a city and a church where divorce is not only permissible, but where some think it “spiritual,” Paul does not wish to emphasize the exceptions to the rule. Even where divorce may be an alternative, it is only permitted as a kind of necessary evil, given the fallen state of sinful men.
(6) Paul does not mean for us to view the first part of verse 11 as an exception, although many Bible students interpret his words as an exception. Someone is sure to object to my contention that Paul makes no exceptions in this passage. It may appear that this is exactly what Paul does when he writes,
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband),…
Some view this parenthetical statement in verse 11 as a kind of exception to what was written in verse 10 and the latter part of verse 11. We are told that Paul knew some would not (or could not) keep this command.79 In answer to the hypothetical question, “What if I do get a divorce, anyway?,” Paul is thought to have responded, “Then at least remain single, or be reconciled to your husband.” I find it difficult to accept this view even though the translations of both the NASV and the NIV seem to reflect it.80 Why does Paul make such a strong statement forbidding divorce for a Christian couple only to parenthetically undercut his instruction by suggesting an alternative course of action for those who decide not to obey? I cannot believe Paul is saying, in effect, “Don’t ever divorce; but if you do anyway, then don’t remarry unless it is to your estranged mate.”
This is exactly the kind of logic we strongly protest today. When our children are taught sex education in the public schools, at best they are told, “Don’t have premarital sex, but if you do, use a condom.” We argue that advocating the use of condoms is accepting and even advocating premarital sex. I agree. And I would point out that viewing Paul’s teaching in verse 11 as an exception also encourages the divorce which Paul has just prohibited.
There are at least two solutions to the problem of interpreting Paul’s words at the beginning of verse 11. First, we can stress the passive voice of the verb “to separate” (Greek, choridzo) so that the initiative taken is by the other mate: “If it should happen that you are divorced (by the other), then don’t marry again; or be reunited with your mate if possible.” A second possibility is to see the grammatical construction as exceptional, and stress the fact that this separation or divorce is not a hypothetical possibility for the future, but a historical fact: “But if she is separated from him she should either remain unattached or else be reconciled to her husband” (Phillips); “But if she be already separated from him…” (Conybeare). The latter solution is held by a number of biblical scholars, including Bishop Ellicott: “The apostle, in case such separation should already have taken place, anticipates the difficult question which might then arise by parenthetically remarking that in such a case the woman must not marry again, but ought to be reunited to her former husband.”81
It is easy to understand why such a question has arisen in the church. What about those who have already divorced? It is too late to avoid a divorce. So what should they do now? Paul’s words are intended to help such people make the best of their situation. They should not remarry, for that would be adultery. They must remain single or be rejoined to their former mate.
Paul’s position on divorce is but a reiteration of our Lord’s teaching on the subject. Among Christians, divorce should not even be considered as an option. Granted, divorce is permissible in the case of immorality, but it is never something in which God delights; it is something God tolerates, due to the hardness of men’s hearts. Divorce is not a license for the wicked to sin by forsaking their vows and their mate; it is a protection for the “innocent” partner, making legal provision for their remarriage. If the other partner chooses to disregard biblical teaching, they may pursue a divorce, which is beyond the obedient Christian’s control. If the disobedient partner divorces and marries another, I believe both Paul and our Lord would agree that the “innocent party” (or at least the offended party) has the freedom to remarry for two reasons: (1) the marital union has already been broken by the other party’s adultery, and (2) remarriage to the partner who initiates the divorce is impossible once that partner has married another (Deuteronomy 24). Like Jesus, Paul would have every Christian seriously consider the possibility of living the single life. If one marries after this consideration, it should be based on a clear conviction that the marriage will promote God’s purposes and enhance the ministry of both (compare Matthew 19:10-12 with 1 Corinthians 7:1, 6-9, 25ff.):
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
12 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. 16 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?
The “super spiritual” ascetics must have a hand in this matter. They might be willing to grant that a marriage between Christian mates should (or at least could) be maintained (preferably without sex—see 7:1-5). But for a Christian to be married to an unbeliever is another matter. How can a Christian remain in a marriage union with an unbeliever? Does the Old Testament Law not forbid mixed marriages? Does Paul not teach the same (see 1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18)? How then can a Christian be married to an unbeliever?
There is a great deal of difference between entering into a marriage with an unbeliever—and staying in a marriage where one’s mate is an unbeliever. Paul’s teaching elsewhere speaks to those who have not yet entered into an unequal yoke.82 Here, Paul speaks to those who are already married. The assumption is that there was not an unequal yoke at the time of the marriage, as both were unbelievers. Now, one has come to faith in Jesus Christ, and the result is that the marriage union is not the same. But the principle which should guide the believer who is married to an unbeliever while unsaved is three times repeated in the following verses:
Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17).
Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:20).
Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:24).
In contemporary terms, marriage is a pre-existing condition. Such conditions as those in which one is found at the time of conversion should be maintained as a believer.83
Paul gives pointed application to this principle in verses 12-16. In verses 12-14, Paul urges the believing marriage partner to do all he or she can to preserve the marriage. This is because the teaching of the ascetics is exactly opposite the truth. The believing partner and the children of this mixed marriage are not defiled by the presence of the unbeliever. To the contrary, the unbelieving partner and the children of the union are “sanctified” by the presence of the believing partner.
Just what does Paul mean by the term “sanctification”? This is a matter of considerable discussion. It is generally agreed that Paul is not teaching that the unsaved partner is somehow saved by the faith of the other. Some go to considerable lengths to find scriptural grounds for infant baptism,84 a most difficult feat. Paul seems to desire to communicate in general terms that there are spiritual benefits for the one who chooses to remain married to a believing partner, even though this person is unsaved.
The term “sanctify” is often used in a general way, not referring to salvation. In I Timothy 4:5, Paul teaches that foods once prohibited (and still forbidden by some) are “sanctified” by means of the Word of God and prayer (cf. also Acts 10:9-16). In the Old Testament, contact with the “holy” altar rendered the things which touched it holy: “For seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it; then the altar shall be most holy, and whatever touches the altar shall be holy” (Exodus 29:37; cf. Leviticus 6:18). Those who came into close proximity with God’s people experienced God’s blessing: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3); So the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account” (Genesis 18:26). Because of Joseph, Potiphar and Pharaoh were blessed (Genesis 39:5, 47:13-26).
I take it then that the unbelieving husband or wife participates in what might be called the fringe benefits of the salvation of the believing mate.85 If the unbelieving partner were not “sanctified” by the marital union with the Christian, there would be serious consequences for the children resulting from the union. In Paul’s words, “Otherwise your children are unclean” (verse 14). Paul reasons that if marriage to an unbeliever in some way defiles the believing mate, it must also defile the children of that union. But since the unbeliever is blessed in the believer, so also are the children. Remaining married to an unbeliever has no negative connotations for the believing partner or the children, but there are distinct advantages for the unbeliever. There is, therefore, no good reason for the believer to seek to dissolve the marriage. All of this, however, is contingent on the desire of the unbeliever to remain married (cf. verses 12-13). What is the Christian partner to do if the unbeliever wishes to terminate the marriage? Verses 15 and 16 answer this question:
Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, 0 wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, 0 husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:15-16).
Paul makes no attempt to instruct the unbeliever; he only seeks to reassure the Christian whose mate wishes to dissolve the marriage. While the believer should not initiate a divorce, neither should the Christian aggressively attempt to resist it when initiated by the unbeliever. In circumstances where the unbeliever acquires a divorce, the believing partner is no longer under bondage (verse 15). Just what is meant by this is a matter of dispute. Certainly the believer who is divorced is no longer bound to the duties of marriage. So too the believer is no longer under obligation to maintain the marriage. I understand that Paul is saying, beyond this, that the believing partner is loosed from the marriage (especially in the case where the unbeliever remarries) and is morally free to remarry if so desired. If the unbeliever who has pursued the divorce has married another, there is no way the original husband or wife could remarry that one (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). If the unbeliever should wish to be rejoined to the believing partner, there is the question of whether or not that believer should now become unequally yoked to an unbeliever, and to have an unbeliever as the head of the home. I take it that Paul assumes the unbeliever has divorced in order to remarry, and under these conditions, the Christian is clearly free to remarry, “only in the Lord” (verse 39).
The reason the Christian should not “put up a fight” to resist the divorce seems to be twofold: First, the Christian “has been called in peace” (verse 15), and second, forceful efforts to save a mate by resisting divorce are likely to be unfruitful (verse 16). Paul does not say that the Christian is called to peace, as many versions suggest, but that we have been called in peace (the Greek-word is en, not eis). Those who say that we are called to peace may be overlooking the words of our Lord:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).
The gospel often creates adversity and animosity. If the world hated our Lord, it will also reject us (John 15:18-19).
Paul is calling our attention to the manner in which we were brought to the Lord. There is a sense in which our salvation was neither peaceful nor gentle. Paul’s conversion, for example, was not a peaceful experience. He was stopped dead in his tracks and dramatically turned about—converted (cf. Acts 9:1-19). Before we are saved, our spirits may be deeply troubled, convicted by the Spirit of God. Our lives may be in shambles and chaos. God aggressively draws us to Himself. Nevertheless, those instruments through whom the gospel is proclaimed are usually gentle. It is not by means of their forcefulness or pushiness that we are converted. This is especially true when it comes to the conversion of an unsaved mate:
In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. And let not your adornment be external only—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, and putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God (I Peter 3:1-4).
The meaning of Paul’s words comes to this: “If your unbelieving mate is willing to live with you, don’t you in any way attempt to terminate the marriage. There is benefit for all if he remains. But if he or she is determined to depart, don’t create a situation of strife and turmoil, for this kind of setting is not that which enhances your witness. Surely you don’t think that a fight over the divorce will save the lost, do you?” 86
This text teaches us that God takes marriage seriously, and so should we. It is, in part, because God ordained the institution of marriage, and He did so as a permanent union of a man and a woman, a union which no one should separate. We should not initiate separation or divorce because our Lord and His apostles thus commanded us.
There is another reason why marriage is so important. Marriage is a symbol of something much greater. If you remember the story in the Book of Numbers (15:32-36), a man was caught gathering wood for the fire on the Sabbath. The people inquired of Moses as to what they should do. I do not think it was because the Law was unclear, but rather because they may have thought the punishment for such an act was too severe. Moses instructed the Israelites to stone the man. Why was God so harsh as to require a man’s life for gathering wood? The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant. To break the Sabbath was a capital crime because it symbolized the breaking of the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.
In the same way, marriage is a symbol.
22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body. 31 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see to it that she respect her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33).
How spiritual it seemed to the ascetics of Corinth to forsake their marriages and to live the life of a celibate. The only problem is that marriage is a divinely ordained institution, an institution God ordained at the beginning of creation, an institution whose true meaning and significance was not realized until after the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (this is why Paul calls it a “mystery”). The way Christians conduct themselves in marriage is a picture to the world of the relationship of Christ and His church (those believers in Christ who make up His body, the church). For one to forsake his or her mate is to portray a false message of Christ’s faithfulness to His bride, and the faithfulness of the bride to Christ.
Some pride themselves for not obtaining a divorce, while looking down upon those who are divorced. Such pride is ill-founded. Let me indicate two reasons why this is so. First, divorce is not always the result of sin; it is sometimes the result of righteousness. Verses 14-16 speak of a divorce which is initiated by the unbelieving partner in a marriage. The implication is very clear that the reason the unbeliever is departing from the marriage is that the other partner is a believer. The unbeliever no longer wants to remain in the marriage because of the righteousness of the other partner. We dare not think or imply that wherever there is divorce there is sin on the part of both partners. Neither partner is ever free from sin; but there are divorces that are the result of righteousness, and not of sin, at least on the part of the believing partner.
Second, a marriage that merely exists, but which lacks the love, intimacy, and joy of a godly marriage, is an offense to the One who first instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden. Quite frankly, there are all too many marriages like this, both outside and inside the church. The marriage may be legally intact, but the relationship is virtually dead. Divorce is like a death certificate—it pronounces someone to be legally dead. A decree of divorce pronounces a marriage to be legally dead. There are a good many marriages around—even in the church—which are functionally dead, even though they have never been legally declared dead by a certificate of divorce. While divorce is often a sin, a sub-standard marriage is likewise a sin. Our Lord intended Christian marriage to reflect the love and intimate relationship which exists between Jesus Christ and His bride, the church (the body of all true believers). Texts like Ephesians 5:22-33 spell out the responsibilities of both the husband and the wife, so that the spiritual union of Christ and His bride may be displayed through the earthly relationship of a husband and his wife. When a marriage is dead or dying, it reflects badly on our Lord and His relationship with His church. This is a most serious offense. Let no one take pride for having avoided divorce who has likewise avoided striving in the power of the Spirit to manifest Christ in their marriage.
Don’t be so sure that your marriage is as healthy as you think. Many of those with whom I have dealt in this ugly matter of divorce have not had so much as a clue to the desperate condition of their marriage—until it was too late. How is your communication with your mate? Are you able to talk frequently and openly with your spouse about deeply personal matters? Or is your conversation just over routine things—what’s for dinner, who’s picking up the kids, and so on? Complacency and taking the other for granted is lethal to a marriage. Do not assume that your marriage is going as well as you would like to think.
Our text challenges those who are single. Many of those who are single are “unhappily unmarried.” They have not chosen to live their lives to the glory of God by remaining single; they are single because no one has made them a better offer (of marriage). Paul challenges every single person to be content in their single state. The single person should not see marriage as the key to happiness or fulfillment, just as the married person should not see the single life as the key to happiness. People who are content with their present state are those who have the greatest freedom to choose marriage or the single life, and who can be content with either, knowing that in either state, they can serve and glorify God. The one who is desperate to marry is in danger of jumping at anything, of grasping at any straw. The one who is content as a single will take a more careful look at the possibility of marriage, knowing it is not something which they must have to be happy and fulfilled.
The fact that marriage is a permanent commitment which is not meant to be broken should cause every person considering marriage to enter into that union as a life-long covenant. If, as our Lord’s disciples reason, it is better “not to marry,” then this is just one more cause for considering the bonds of marriage most carefully. And if divorce is not God’s “escape hatch” for unhappy marriages, and permanence is the standard, this should provide a strong incentive for every Christian to strive to make their marriage work, and if it is not working, to endeavor by God’s grace to mend and reconcile the relationship. Being married is something like owning a car: If you can’t replace it, then the only option is to maintain it.
There are undoubtedly those who may read this message who have already gone through divorce. You must know that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and you should know as well that our Lord permits divorce in very restricted circumstances. Neither our Lord nor Paul ever encourage anyone to divorce. Having said this, it may be that your divorce was unbiblical. The good news is that God forgives sinners. He dealt graciously with a woman caught in the act of adultery:
3 And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst. 10 And straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 And she said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more” (John 8:3-11).
Paul has just reminded the Corinthians of their past, and that it is past:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
For those who have sinned as unbelievers, the cross of Christ makes us new creatures, with a bright future and a forgiven past:
Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
If we are believers in Jesus Christ and have sinned as Christians, our sins may be forgiven, by simply repenting of them and confessing them to God:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
I must warn you that having heard Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 makes you more accountable for your actions regarding marriage and divorce. The most dangerous sin of all for the Christian is the sin which is willfully committed, on the presumption that God is obligated to forgive us. The presumptuous sin is one which is committed with the presumption that God must forgive us for our sins, even the ones which we are about to do, knowing they are rebellion against God. This is the kind of sin I believe the writer to the Hebrews warns against:
4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame. 7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned (Hebrews 6:4-8).
26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).
Let us then sum up what Paul has said to us in the verses we have considered: Those who are truly spiritual will give serious thought to whether or not they should marry. The crucial issue is not our happiness, but our holiness, and bringing glory to God by serving Him. Christian couples should not think of divorce as an option, as an “out” from an unhappy marriage. Each partner should be committed to the other, seeking to grow together in love and intimacy, thereby glorifying God through their marriage. Those who are married to an unbeliever should do everything they can to maintain the marriage, knowing that this union can be a blessing to the unbelieving mate and the children of that union. If the unbeliever insists upon leaving the marriage, we must not seek to preserve the union by force, knowing that it is God who saves, and that He does so in peace.
77 William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 202.
78 The “burning” of which Paul speaks is most likely the burning of unfulfilled sexual passion. This is a picturesque way of describing the tremendous sexual frustration of a celibate Christian and the distraction from ministry this creates. In II Corinthians 11:29, Paul employs the same term, “to burn” (Greek, puroo), to express his intense concern over the spiritual welfare of another Christian who is led into sin.
Some think this burning in verse 9 refers to the penalty faced by those who try to remain celibate, but as a result fall into sexual sin. There may be evidence to support the fact that the Jews believed the flames of Gehenna were for the immoral. For example, Bruce cites from Jewish sources, “… where the wise men say, ‘Whosoever multiplies conversation with a woman…will in the end inherit Gehenna.’… Or elsewhere, where Rab says to R. Judah as they are walking along a road and see a woman walking ahead of them, ‘Hurry up and get in front of Gehenna’ (i.e. get in front of that woman so that, out of sight, she may also be out of mind).” F. F. Bruce, I and II Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 68. As interesting as it may be, this conception of “burning” does not appear to be what Paul is referring to in this passage.
79 Leon Morris, for example, says that Paul’s statement in verse 11 envisages the possibility of disobedience to this injunction (or perhaps of the action of the husband).” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 108-109.
80 The NIV and the NASV have rendered verse 11 as the grammatical construction would usually be taken. There are exceptions to this, however, and this seems to be the place for one of them. Why would Paul instruct a Christian couple not to divorce, fail to mention so much as one exception, and then give the impression that there is an alternative course of action for any who would choose to disobey his instruction?
81 Charles Ellicott, ed., St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians (London: Cassell & Company, n.d.), I, p. 57. The translation and explanation which I favor can be found in Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), II, P. 523; The Twentieth Century New Testament (Moody Bible Institute), as cited in The New Testament from 26 Translations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967); and W. Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974 [reprint]), II, p. 825. From fn. 2 above, it is evident that Morris also leaves room for this interpretation.
82 I do not understand the principle focus of Paul’s words here to be marriage, but rather to refer to unequal associations with unbelievers in doing the work of God.
83 There are qualifications and exceptions to this principle, but this is the guiding principle, and exceptions are just that—exceptions.
84 Cf. Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1977 [reprint]), pp. 34lff.
85 “But it is a scriptural principle that the blessings arising from fellowship with God are not confined to the immediate recipients, but extend to others.…” Morris, p. 110.
86 The Greek expression used in verse 16 is employed at times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in a way that suggests hope for a positive result, almost with the sense of “perhaps” (cf. 2 Samuel 12:22; Esther 4:14; Joel 2:14; Jonah 3:9). Because of this, some commentators think Paul is encouraging the saved mate to persevere, striving to save the marriage so as to save the lost partner. Bruce, for example, takes this position (p. 70). In the context of this verse, Paul is saying that one ought not resist the departure of the unbelieving mate, so the opposite sense is implied.