Late yesterday evening, the L. A. Times reported an increase in divorces as the U.S. economy recovers. While the populace at large looks to the government and economy indications for their freedom from what they might call enslavement, allow me to revisit the topic from a biblical perspective. Are Christians allowed in any case to divorce, separate, or remarry? By “allowed,” I mean permitted on grounds of the tenets which the Christian faith holds.
Sadly, I have personally witnessed the emotional and spiritual damage done to Christians by other Christians when it came to “teachings” and “limitations” for those who have been divorced. True, there is much disagreement between varying stripes of Christianity on the matter of marriage troubles and what to do with them. Biblical Christianity, as opposed to traditionalists, holds a circumstantial stance on the topic; and one can study no clearer passage than 1 Corinthians 7. At the outright, let me state that God does not expect a woman or man to stay in a relationship where one fears for life or is subjected to violence. In these cases, separation is necessary but hopefully only for a time–while the offending party gets help. As one will read, God is very understanding, but what He cannot condone is divorce for “just any reason,” as was the case in Jesus’ day under the manipulation of Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:32, 19:8-11; Mark 10:1-12).
That said, let’s examine 1 Corinthians 7.
The Corinthian church was known for its moral dilemmas, due to their newness to the Christian faith and due to their enduring persecution from non-Christians. The first 6 chapters make that clear. Also, the immediate context (1 Cor. 7:1) indicates these believers had written questions to Paul about relationships, especially about sexual relationships. Think for a minute what those questions could have been based on Paul’s inspired answers.
- Is sex OK for Christians? What are the general rules of the game here? We heard it is a good thing if we don’t have intimate contact. | Answer: 1 Cor. 7:1-5
- What about us divorced and widowed people? Do we have to stay unmarried? Not having sex is really difficult, you know… especially when everyone else has a husband or wife, and all I can say is: “I used to.” | Answer: 1 Cor. 7:6-9
- What about we who are married & both are believers–because we are Christians now, does that mean our marriage (which was made before our belief) is somehow dissolved? Ooh, and what should we do if we have marriage problems as believers? | Answer 1 Cor. 7:10-11
- What about those of us who are married but our partner is not a believer? Should we divorce the unbeliever because we’re Christian now? What if the unbelieving partner is leaving us? Do we go with them? Or should we stay? and, if so, do we remain single forever? | Answer: 1 Cor. 7:12-16
- What about the betrothed (engaged) in times of persecution? Should we cancel our engagement if we have become believers? | Answer: 1 Cor. 7:25-26
- How should the father and the fiancé of the engaged girl think in times of Christian persecution? How should young singles think about marriage in times of Christian persecution? | Answer: 1 Cor. 7:27-38
- So, if we hear you straight, widows get a carte blanche pass? | Answer: 1 Cor. 7:39
Distinctions: (in Speaker)
By using the various colors (below), I am not suggesting that some of the text is God’s Word and other portions are not. Indeed, all of the text is inspired by God through Paul. The best way to put it is God allowed Paul to state Paul’s opinion as an inspired and wise Apostle. Paul is, therefore, careful to declare when it is Paul’s opinion and not the Lord Jesus’ command. He uses this pattern throughout the entire passage of 1 Cor. 7. In other words, where Paul speaks as Paul, one may take it or leave it so long as he knows he is either taking or leaving sound wisdom (skill) for living life. No Christian should feel guilty or be made to feel guilty for exercising his prerogative on these points of opinion; which is the import of “But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, as a parenthesis in the matter of marriage, is devoted to expounding this very important truth of Christianity. God wants people to follow his call and realize their place is where God calls them, no matter what other people think or say.
Furthermore, Paul follows each of his own statements with a “But.” These “But” statements cannot be ignored or dismissed, since they are from the Lord, and so, are as authoritative as a command.
Distinctions: (in Terms)
In the beginning of 1 Cor. 7, unmarried is placed together in classification with widows. This grouping indicates a class of people who can do nothing about their (un)married status as it already stands: the divorced are divorced and the widowed are widowed; nothing can change the fact that they have been divorced, and nothing can change the fact that they have been widowed. The best Greek lexicons will tell the reader that unmarried means, “not married, single, celibate, an unmarried one–male or female.” But, it is also worth noting that in ancient Greece and Rome and even in Western culture (up until the Western sexual revolution), “to marry” referred more to the sexual act of intercourse (the consummation of marriage) than toward evoking thoughts of legal status in one’s mind. To be sure, we look to the context for gaining the sense (connotation) of the word. Later in the passage (1 Cor. 7:11), the same word is used for a woman who is divorced. Furthermore, Paul makes a distinction between unmarried and “virgin” or “betrothed/engaged” in (1 Cor. 7:34). From these contextual clues and from the meaning of the word, unmarried should refer herein to someone who was once married [consummated] but is now, literally “un-married.” Whatever the case, the Christian should not look to the class grouping of the divorced and widowed wishfully.
Consider also the biblical word for divorce in 1 Cor. 7. According to BDAG, it means: (underscore mine)
- to dismiss or release someone or someth. from a place or one’s presence
- to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon
- to move away, w. implication of causing a separation, leave, depart from
Please note especially that when the Bible speaks about one party in the marriage departing from another, it is speaking of divorce. This is commonly referred to today as, “I am leaving you,” not as in, “we are separating [for a time]” (i.e. informal separation).
“In Such Cases:” Freedom, Not Enslavement
With the previous contextual background and word study, the reader is fully prepared to settle the matters of divorce, separation and remarriage. Again, it is situational, and again, the Christian should not look to the class grouping of the divorced and widowed wishfully, but the passage deals with people as they are in present circumstances.
1 Corinthians 7:6–16 (ESV)
- Orange = Paul’s Opinion as an Apostle Inspired by God on the Subject
- Blue = The Word of The Lord on the Matter
- Gray = Further Reasoning from the Lord
- Bold = (for clarity) Who is Being Addressed
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows [believers] I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married [both believers] I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband –(but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband)–and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest [mixed house] I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
For the divorced and widowed, God’s clearest indication is: ‘if you cannot exercise self-control, then you should marry.” And, doesn’t this make sense? Why should a divorced or widowed person “burn” with desire for partnership out of loneliness or sexual drive when their situation (which came about before becoming Christian) is unalterable except through marriage? God is not so cruel to say that these should be punished, tortured, etc. What’s more, many sexual sins are eliminated by getting married. It is irrational to think, despite God’s having provided the satisfaction within marriage, that he would expect this group of people to be overtly tempted by their everyday situation of life until they go into excesses?
For the married, God writes through Paul that separation should be avoided at all costs for married believers. It is important to note the IF clause that God gives women. God cares for women tenderly, and he realizes that women are often the victims of abuse. IF your Christian husband is abusing you (i.e. you fear for life), then God allows your separation from him on the condition that you remain unmarried while he is alive, so that reconciliation can happen eventually (1 Cor. 7:11&16). If in that time of separation, the “Christian” husband files for a divorce or takes another wife, then grounds for Christ’s exception clause apply (Matt. 5:32, 19:8-11; Mark 10:1-12). Likewise, the Christian wife is under these same prescriptions from the Lord.
Some will say that Christ’s exception clause applied only for fornication within a time of engagement (under Jewish law–betrothal). But, these faulty interpretations are self-defeating, seeing an engagement/betrothal in Jesus’ day was as binding as marriage itself. So, if the exemption applies to engagement/betrothal, then it also applies to the marriage. Furthermore, any Christian who will not repent of adulterous behavior falls under the restorative path of Matthew 18:15-20 and should be put out of the church and treated as an unbeliever who needs gracious gospel witnesses (1 Cor. 5: 1-5, 10-11). [see also this article by Experimental Theology, Treat Them as a Pagan or Tax Collector ]
For the rest (e.g. those Christians who have an unbelieving spouse), God writes that the believer should let them go their way, if the non-believer desires divorce. This allowance by the unbeliever would indicate an agreement to separate, especially seeing the word for “depart” or “separate” is the same as is used for physical distance. It does not have to apply to legal divorce; but it can, seeing the one using such a strong term would be saying, “We’re splitting up; I’m leaving you,” as in ‘not coming back.’ Every indication, then, is God wants us to lead peaceful lives; that is what he has called us to; so, there is no sense in fighting it out in court or fighting it out by following someone all over creation in order to “make them love” you. You are not enslaved in that situation. You are free; and given both the previous context (1 Cor. 7:6-9) as well as the following context (1 Cor. 7:17-24), each one has the encouragement to be content and the prerogative to love again eventually, if the right believer comes along.
My dear Christian reader, if you have found yourself going through great relational heart-ache, may this study have brought you guidance and comfort and confidence in the loving care of our God.
Dear unbelieving reader, if you are suffering amid relational heart-ache, won’t you consider coming to the God of all Comfort through the Lord, Jesus Christ? He has designed both love and relationships, and then, has created the wisest and quickest paths to our healing when our hearts are broken. If you find a group of believers with the heart described above in this study, then you will know the comfort whereby God has comforted others in your situation (2 Cor. 1:3-7). And, that is something I can commend to you.