NOTE: I have just released a book which compiles (and edits and expands) these posts. It is called “Disqualified? What the Bible Says about Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry.” It is available on Amazon.com. The Kindle version will be released in the next couple of days – not sure what the hold-up is there. This book reviews the biblical evidence on divorce and remarriage, beginning with the cornerstone in the Old Testament – the twin principles of God’s intent of marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman and the understanding of the brokenness caused by sin. It then lays the foundation with an examination of the passage in Deuteronomy 14:1-4 which necessitates a “grounds” for divorce. Jesus builds the structure in his teachings, reiterating the intent of God’s creation – lifelong covenant – but also establishing the divorce exception as a grounds for divorce. Then Paul puts the finishing touches on the structure with his extensive teachings in 1 Corinthians 7, adding abandonment as a second grounds and dealing with other significant issues. I also address the issue of abuse and how that should be handled. Having surveyed the biblical evidence, I then turn my attention to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, examining what the phrase, “Husband of one wife” means, and give advice both to the divorced who want to serve in the church and to churches dealing with this issue.
If you are reading these posts, I think you will find the book “Disqualified?” helpful.
Robert K. Merton is credited with naming and popularizing the “law of unintended consequences.” Our actions can not only accomplish their intended purposes, but also produce consequences we did not intend or anticipate. As the sovereign purposes of God are carried out in this world, there are sometimes consequences that arise that must be dealt with, problems that, at least on a human level, could not be foreseen. As the gospel spread in the Roman world, lives were changed by the power of God, but there was some fallout as well, some issues that had to be addressed.
One of those issues arose in marriages in Corinth, and perhaps elsewhere. As the gospel went forward, often only the husband or the wife came to Christ. This caused unexpected problems in marriages. Christians have a new purpose in life, a new outlook, new attitudes, new standards of behavior and new ways of relating to one another. Evidently, not all the lost spouses appreciated the changes Christ was making in their husbands or wives. An idol-worshiping husband might be offended when his wife actually identified his gods as false and wanted to destroy those idols to serve this Jesus. A wife, happy in her pagan ways, might not be thrilled to be the object of her husband’s evangelistic efforts.
And it may have been that some Christians were wondering if it was somehow sinful for them to share their lives and their beds with someone who did not share their Savior. Could someone have heard the story from Ezra in which God commanded the Israelites to divorce their Canaanite wives and deduced that God was not pleased when his people were marriage to the lost. Maybe some even thought that it was ungodly to remain in an unequally yoked marriage.
I was incumbent upon Paul to address this subject and these issues with the Corinthians and he does just that in 1 Corinthians 7. It is not only the most comprehensive teaching of Paul and of the New Testament on divorce and remarriage, but is the pinnacle of the entire Bible on the subject. It puts the finishing touches on the foundation laid by Moses and the structure built by Jesus Christ.
This passage is also the subject of great debate, because in it, Paul goes beyond what Jesus said, breaking new ground along the way. He addresses issues that were not present when Jesus was teaching his disciples and goes into details far beyond what Jesus taught.
Paul’s Radical Departure from Previous Teachings
Paul’s teachings here are in line with the rest of the biblical teachings on the topic, even if they greatly expand upon them. But there is one area in which they are a radical departure from the teachings of previous passages. Under the Jewish law, the idea of a woman divorcing her husband was unthinkable. Men divorced their wives but wives did not initiate divorce. Since Jesus ministered in a Jewish community, he only addressed the concept of a man divorcing his wife. But Paul talks not only about men initiating divorce but wives seeking divorces from their husbands. In Greek culture, both were permissible and Paul dealt with divorce initiated from either side.
Basic Premise of Marriage and Divorce
This passage shares a basic premise with the other two key passages (Deuteronomy 24 and Jesus’ teachings view as a whole). Marriage is meant to be permanent and it honors God when his people expend themselves fully in preserving and improving their marriages. God’s will is that marriages last a lifetime and if we will obey his commands on marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33 is the most extensive) and walk in the Spirit, marriages can not only survive, but thrive.
More than once, as I have been counseling couples whose marriages are in distress, I have felt this overwhelming sense that it would just be easier to tell the couple to cut their losses and move on. But we who serve the living God cannot give up so easily on the first institution he created. There is not a marriage that cannot be saved if both the husband and wife seek God’s glory and rely on God’s power. We approach marriage from a supernatural perspective, as a work of God.
Of course, this passage also recognizes the same thing that Moses understood and Jesus stated. We live in a world of sinful hearts and broken lives. Because of human sin, marriages sometimes fail and die. One person, walking by faith, can expend themselves in fidelity to a marriage but cannot stop the other from giving up and walking away. It is only blatant sin, rebelliously clung to that sometimes necessitates divorce. ‘‘Incompatibility’’ is not a marriage problem, it is a spiritual problem. Its cure is repentance and persistent love, not divorce.
Paul’s teaching both honors God’s original intent for marriage and recognizes the reality of the effects of sin.
Paul begins the chapter discussing marriage in general, the rights of husband and wife over each other’s bodies and the importance of meeting one another’s sexual needs. He then discusses the value of living single. He admits that each has their own gift from God – some to be married and some not. But Paul delineates the advantages of the single life. Then, in verse 10, Paul turns his attention to the issue of divorce.
The Basic Command – 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
Paul first gives a general rule that is simply an interpretation of Jesus’ earthly teaching. He makes this clear by claiming that it comes from the Lord, not from him. Christians should not initiate a divorce. As is common throughout this passage, there are slight differences in the rule that Paul gives to men and to women.
To the married 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. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
Paul tells wives that they should not separate from their husbands, and if they do separate, they should either remain single or seek reconciliation with their husbands. Men were given no leeway. They were not allowed to divorce their wives. This is not, as some have asserted, a command against all divorce, because Paul has referenced the Lord’s teaching which allowed divorce on the basis of adultery, but would go on in this passage to give another exception to the permanence of marriage. Paul’s point here is more general. God intends for marriage to be permanent and a Christian husband or wife should not seek to end the marriage. It is simply not the act of a follower of Jesus Christ to seek to end a marriage. A Christian has some freedom if the other party breaks the marriage covenant, but should not be looking for a way out of marriage.
Why is there a difference here (and later) between what a husband may do and what a wife may do? Why is a husband commanded not to divorce his wife, but a woman is given some wiggle room? She may separate from her husband, but may not divorce him and marry another. Why is the wife treated differently from the husband? Paul consistently assigns leadership in the home to the husband and calls the wife to submit to her husband as to the Lord. Since Paul gives greater authority to the husband, the husband also has greater responsibility to set the tone for the marriage. Under no circumstances may he be the one to break the bond of marriage. On the other hand, since the woman lives under the man’s leadership, she is given permission to separate from him and live as a single man, if in some way he is abusing the authority God has given him. Note that she is given the freedom here only to separate from her husband, not to end the marriage.
Abusive Teachings on Abusive Marriages
Far too many preachers have told women involved in abusive marriages to cruel husbands that God wants them to stay in the marriage. This passage says differently. A woman whose husband abuses authority is free to live apart from him. It is not biblical to tell abused and mistreated women that they are required to remain with their abusers.
One more note here. Some have pointed to the prohibition on remarriage here as another universal command, but such is not so. The situation here is a separation, not a divorce. The wife may separate from her abusive husband, but the marriage remains intact. When a marriage actually ends in divorce, there is a freedom to remarry assumed in that – a point that will be developed later in the passage. Remarriage is assumed when a divorce happens on biblical grounds, but is not permitted at other times.
So, Paul lays down his basic principle, that marriage is meant to be permanent and that Christians are not to break the covenant of marriage even if they did not know the Savior when they made the covenant.
Paul Addresses Specific, Difficult Situations
After laying the foundation, Paul then turns his attentions to several difficult situations that a believer might face in applying this truth. In verse 12, Paul makes it clear that he is breaking new ground here, dealing with topics Jesus did not address. There are three situations which Paul addresses here. The first two are problems that arise when a person becomes a believer and is married to an unbeliever. The last situation deals with divorce that takes place before a person is saved.
Situation #1: The Unbeliever Stays – 1 Corinthians 7:12-14
Ezra 9-10 notwithstanding, a Christian married to a non-Christian is not required to seek a divorce. Paul says that if the lost spouse wants to stay, let him (or her). In a very special way, the presence of one Christian in a family sets the whole family apart for God. One saved person in a family becomes a beachhead through which God can invade the entire family.
To the rest 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. 1 Corinthians 7:12-14
My dad was saved out of a religious but largely unsaved family. Over the years, many others in his family came to Christ. He was the agent of God who “sanctified” his family. This passage does not say that a spouse or children are somehow saved because a family member comes to faith in Christ. Faith in Christ is a product of the Spirit’s work, not inherited in a family. Here, the word “made holy” ought probably to be translated as “sanctified.” It means to set apart for God. One saved family member is the pathway through which God can work in other’s lives. Believers should not divorce their unbelieving spouses to pursue spiritual purity, but should seek to stay in those marriages as agents of God’s grace in the home. When one member of a family or one partner in a marriage is saved, it sets apart the whole family for the activity of God.
If the unbeliever is willing to stay in the marriage, the believer should not end the marriage on the grounds of religious incompatibility, but should stay and attempt to demonstrate the love and power of Christ to the rest of the family, to live the gospel and share it. Evangelism starts at home. Salvation does not vitiate the marriage vow, but empower the family to begin experiencing the grace of God. Christians, empowered by the indwelling presence of the Spirit, should be agents of reconciliation.
Situation #2: The Unbeliever Goes – 1 Corinthians 7:15-16
The believer is not permitted to initiate a divorce on religious grounds, but Paul recognizes that not all who are exposed to the gospel place their faith in Jesus Christ. Many, including spouses, reject the Savior. What is the believer to do if the unbeliever leaves? This is the new ground Paul is breaking in his teaching. Both the Law and Jesus Christ addressed Jewish audiences who shared a religious background. Of course, Jesus would not have needed to deal with something like this. But now, Jesus does address it, inspiring Paul’s message by the Holy Spirit and instructing believers on how to respond if the unbelieving spouse decides to end the marriage and walk out. Some unbelievers will simply not accept the spiritual changes that have gone on their believing spouse’s life and insist on leaving. What are the redeemed to do?
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? 1 Corinthians 7:15-16
Could his instruction be much more clear? If the unbelieving partner leaves the marriage, the believer is free from the marriage vows. In this case, no restriction on remarriage is given. Paul recognizes that the unbelieving spouse is breaking the marriage vow and if one partner breaks the vow the other is not bound to it. If the unbeliever leaves, the believer is free to remarry a believing spouse.
Paul tells the Corinthians that God has called them to live in peace. Of course, that does not mean that any time a marriage becomes conflictual for a time, a believer is free to draw the curtain and walk offstage. That would stand against everything that has been taught throughout scripture on divorce. What it does recognize is the same principle that Jesus referenced. In a fallen world there are times when nothing you do is enough. No matter how hard you try to build your marriage, your spouse breaks the marriage covenant through adultery or by abandoning you. Paul is saying that a believer does not have to spend the rest of their lives beating themselves up over the other partner’s sin and infidelity. A believer’s responsibility is to do all he or she can to preserve the marriage and then to accept the outcome. This interpretation of verse 15 is bolstered in verse 16 when Paul explains that even though a marriage and home is “sanctified” by the presence of a believer, there is no guarantee of a spouse’s salvation. Salvation is not ours to grant, but an act of God’s grace that each person must respond to in faith.
In verse 16, Paul describes the believer as “not enslaved” or not “bound” to the marriage when the unbeliever leaves. Romans 7 talks about how a woman is ‘‘bound’’ by the law of marriage. It compares this to being bound by the law, enslaved to sin. When we die to the law, we are free from that which bound us, free to serve the new way of the Spirit. Just so, a believer is not bound to a marriage that the unbeliever leaves. The believer is freed from the marriage just as if the spouse had died. Though every attempt ought to be made toward reconciliation, it is clear that the believer may not be able to save the marriage. In that case, the believer is absolutely free to remarry.
There are several conclusions I would take away from this passage. Paul is clearly adding a second divorce exception to the law of permanent marriage. Moses, Jesus and Paul all agree in their teachings with the concept of a permanent marriage. They also realize that we do not live in perfect world and therefore exceptions have to be made. Jesus delineated one of those exceptions as adultery (a life of immorality). When a man and wife marry, their bodies belong to one another and are not to be shared with anyone else. To do so violates the marriage vow. The marriage is over because the adulterous spouse has broken it.
Paul, in verses 15 and 16, adds another exception. A marriage requires presence. If the unbelieving spouse walks away, the marriage vow is broken by that act of departure. Like adultery, abandonment ends a marriage and frees the believer to move on with his or her life to the glory of God.
The second and more fundamental point here is the biblical view of marriage revealed in verse 16. If a divorce takes place on a divinely approved basis, it ends the marriage, just as death does and frees the innocent party from the marriage vow. The believer is no longer bound by the covenant of marriage because it has been broken by the other party. This will be a significant point when we examine the phrase “husband of one wife.” If a man is divorced on biblical grounds and remarries, he is the husband of one wife, and one wife only. He is not bound to the first marriage covenant, because it was broken by the other. Therefore, while he may have been married twice, in God’s eyes he is only the husband of one wife.
Remarriage, then, is assumed among those who divorce. It is restricted when a wife decides to separate from her husband because living with him is unbearable. She may do so, but she only has two options – she may live as a single woman for the rest of her life or may seek reconciliation with her husband. But if the marriage is ended on biblical grounds, the believer is no longer enslaved (bound) by the marriage vows and is free to seek a believing spouse. Biblical grounds for divorce nullify the marriage covenant and free the innocent party to remarry.
One more observation is warranted here. When churches or pastors try to make blanket and universal policies related to divorce and remarriage, they must almost certainly go beyond what the Bible says. There are basic principles that can be discerned, but the application of these principles usually requires a case by case review. It is difficult to fashion a “one size fits all” divorce policy and remain biblical.
Three Levels of Responsibility in Marriage and Divorce
There seems to be three levels of responsibility here for believers in their marriages. First, believers are to walk in the power of God and seek to make their marriages work. We do not have the freedom to walk away from marriages just because we no longer feel fulfilled in them. We are meant to be marriage builders. The second level applies only to wives who find that living under their husband’s authority is untenable. They are free to live separate from their husbands to escape the situation. But in this case, the woman does not have permission to seek a divorce to end the marriage. She may either live as a single woman, or she may seek reconciliation with her husband. Divorce and remarriage are not options. The final level is biblically justified divorce. Under two circumstances, one from Jesus and one from Paul, a believer may end a marriage and find a new spouse. Both adultery and abandonment break the marriage covenant and effectively end the marriage. The believer did not seek to end the marriage, but is released from the covenant by the other’s sin.
There is one more possibility I would mention. The situation dealt with here involves a believer being abandoned by an unbeliever. Is it possible that the principle used here might be transferable to other life situations? For instance, if a believer were abandoned by someone who was a professing believer, would the principles applied here carry over? Was this passage intended only for a narrow and specific principle or was it an application of a general principle? I cannot speak with biblical certainty, since I am extrapolating from a clear teaching to a situation not dealt with by Paul. But I think the specific principle Paul delineated here might have a broader application. Still, I think it is possible that the principle would apply in such a situation.
While the one who walks out on a marriage may have been a professing believer, the act of walking out on a marriage when the marriage covenant is still in force (not broken by adultery or abandonment) is the act of an unbeliever. Whether the person has been saved or not is something we can never know. But the person who walks out and abandons a marriage is acting like an unbeliever. So, if a professing believer abandons a marriage, it would seem to break the marriage covenant just as if the person was an unbeliever.
A marriage is a joining of two people into one. When one of the two people sins and breaks the covenant, God in his grace releases the other person from the broken covenant. We know that this is true in the event of adultery or abandonment by an unbeliever. I am holding out the possibility that the principle might have a more general application. When one party breaks the marriage covenant and refuses to be reconciled or to work to preserve the marriage, God will grant release to the other party.
In every situation, a Christian who honors and wants to please God will do everything he or she can to preserve the marriage. A godly person never looks for an excuse or justification for divorce, but looks for ways to show love and seek the transforming power of God. Such a person would only take the divorce exceptions as a last resort, never as an easy way out.
Situation #3: Divorce before Salvation-v.17-24
These verses establish an important principle. A person should remain in the marital position he or she was in at the point of salvation. In other words, salvation is a washing away of the past and implies a new, fresh start. All past sin is forgiven and the person is given a second (or third, or fourth) chance by God.
Paul tells believers that “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” Were you married? Seek to make the marriage work. Divorced and remarried? Accept God’s forgiveness and the fresh start of grace. This principle probably also applies to polygamy, though that is not a significant issue in America.
The key point that Paul seems to be making here is that what happens prior to salvation should not be held against that person after salvation. How can someone who is enslaved to sin he held liable for sinning? Divorce that occurs pre-conversion should not be held against a person once they have been redeemed.
In the next post, we will summarize all of the teachings from the passages we have examined.
Part 1 of this series “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: What Does the Bible Say?” introduces the topic and sets forth three different approaches to the topic.
Part 2 of the series, “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: The OT Foundation: Does God Hate All Divorce?”, examines several OT passages that set the foundation of the biblical teaching. It especially examines the Malachi passage that has been interpreted as a general statement, “God hates divorce.”
Part 3 focuses specifically on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the key OT passage on the subject. “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 – Establishing Grounds for Divorce.“
Part 4 focuses on the teachings of Jesus on the subject. “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: What Did Jesus Say?”
Part 5 examines Paul’s teachings on the subject and lays the groundwork for the study of 1 Corinthians 7, the pinnacle of biblical teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage. It especially examines the question of whether Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 7 were just Paul’s opinion or were they inspired scripture. “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: Were Paul’s Views Scripture or Opinion?”