Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:10–24
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
12 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. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 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. 15 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. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each one was called, there let him remain with God.
As we noted last Sunday morning, the 7th chapter of 1 Corinthians is the most extensive discussion of the marital relationship found within the New Testament. It is here where the Apostle Paul addresses many of the issues that provide for us a Christian theology of marriage. Even so, the writer does not address every issue related to the marital state. We emerge from this chapter still having questions that can only be answered by considering the entirety of the Bible’s teaching on the subject.
Nevertheless, it is necessary for the church to receive and understand the instruction that is given to us here. While the apostle’s teaching is personal, it is first and foremost meant to be corporately applied by the church as a whole. That is because it addresses a number of specific circumstances that are likely to be found wherever and whenever Christians gather together in corporate assembly. Therefore, as you read through this chapter, you will doubtless find it speaking directly to you through some of its verses.
In our message last week, we saw Paul placing his apostolic “stamp of approval” upon the marriage of a man and a woman, citing how it served as a deterrent to the ever-present “temptation to sexual immorality.” And while that alone is never a sole reason to wed, both Paul and we understand that God has created us to crave intimacy.
Beginning in verse 8, we noted that the writer began addressing specific groups of people within the church, starting with those who were widowed. His counsel to them was that they should remain unmarried following the death of their spouses unless they were unable to bridle their sexual passion, in which cases “they should (re)marry” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
As we press further into this chapter, we find him addressing two additional groups within the church—those who are married to fellow-believers, and those who are married to unbelieving spouses—and then closing out this section by adding a word of general counsel for every believer. We must acknowledge that questions dealing with marriages between two unsaved spouses are not addressed in this chapter. Frankly, they are not Paul’s concern here. His words are for the church, for fellow-believers, those who have committed their lives to following Jesus Christ. In fact, if you are with us this morning and you have never been to the cross, the Bible actually has only one message for you. That is to acknowledge your sin before a holy God, turn from it, and trust the One who gave His life for You in order that you may be forgiven and become a part of His family.
The subject before us is “divorce,” and how it relates to God’s people. The specific question that seems to have been put to Paul by the Corinthian church was whether divorce is ever permissible for the Christian. So, the apostle begins to write in verses 10 and 11...
Regarding divorce between believers (verses 10-11)
There we read, “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.”
We notice right away that Paul defers to the teaching of Christ in giving this word of apostolic counsel. By parenthetically adding, “not I, but the Lord,” he is referring back to what Jesus had to say on the matter of divorce. The 10th chapter of Mark records that instruction so let’s turn there and read verses 2 through 12:
“And Pharisees came up and in order to test (Jesus) asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’
“And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’”
I find it interesting that in responding to a negatively-stated question related to divorce, our Lord responds by positively affirming marriage.
The principle Paul lays down in 1 Corinthians 7 is in keeping with these words of Jesus: Christian wives should not “separate” from their husbands, and Christian husbands should not “divorce” their wives. The reason for the switch of verbs from “separate” (“κωριζω”) to “divorce” (“αφιημι”) in these verses is unclear, since the two Greek words were considered synonymous and appear to have been interchangeably used. Any distinction we make between the two words within the context of marriage in our day should not be read into Paul’s intended meaning. Most commentators agree that both words refer to “divorce” and not the modern concept of “legal separation.” Paul is arguing that within a marriage of two believers, the Lord has said that “divorce” should not—must not—happen.
But if it does happen, there are only two options: “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.” The word (“καταλλασσω”) means “to be brought back into favor with one another.” In other words, the marriage is to be restored. There are no other choices left open to the Christian who initiates a divorce against his or her spouse. And we’ll see why later. Both Jesus and Paul then agree that Christian marriages are not to end in divorce.
But what about so-called “mixed marriages,” when one partner is a believer and the other is not? Paul addresses that next in verses 12 through 16. Here we find his counsel...
Regarding divorce between a believer and an unbeliever (verses 12-16)
Those are the ones he addresses as “the rest” in verse 12. It appears that when the Gospel was preached in Corinth, very often one married partner would have responded favorably and trust Christ, but the other would not have. We can see how this would have created potential difficulties within the marriage, just as it does in our day whenever a Christian has an unbelieving spouse. The result would have been a “mixed” marital situation in terms of faith. What the Corinthian believers wanted to know is if they should seek to dissolve the marriages when such a condition existed. Is it possible for a husband and wife to maintain their marital bond when the matter of faith divides them?
Notice the contrast with verse 10 with how Paul introduces his comments in verse 12. Here he says, “I say (I, not the Lord).” What the apostle is not implying is that the counsel he is putting forth is in any way contradicts what Jesus taught. Instead, speaking with apostolic authority, he is about to tell us something that Jesus did not previously address during His ministry on earth...namely the subject of “mixed marriages.” Paul’s words, then, are as much a part of Scripture as if Jesus had personally spoken them. They are no less divinely-inspired and no less authoritative.
Let’s begin with a couple of broad observations. First, this passage is not suggesting that it is permissible for a follower of Christ to marry an unbeliever. As one writer has aptly stated, “marriage was never meant to be a mission field.” Verse 39 of this same chapter makes clear that Christians are to marry “only in the Lord.” Admittedly, some Christians violate this command and, more often than not, find their marital circumstances difficult from the beginning. But when a believer does marry an unbeliever, the following principles apply.
So secondly, as Paul will argue in this section, so-called “mixed marriages”—those that have brought together a believer and an unbeliever are essentially treated as “Christian marriages.” That is because believing partners are said to “sanctify” their non-believing mates, as well as their children. Thus, the unbelieving partner has been “set apart” by God to be under the influence of the Gospel in a unique way...that is, through his or her believing partner. That is what Paul has reference to when he writes that the “unbelieving husband...(or) wife is made holy” because of the other. The believer, in effect, becomes a “channel of God’s grace” to the unbelieving spouse and their children. It is the very essence of the apostle’s teaching in these five verses, therefore, that the believing partner is not to initiate divorce proceedings.
Apparently some of the Corinthian believers who received the Gospel were now considering their marriages to be “unclean” because they realized that they were living with an unsaved partner. John Calvin and other early reformers were quick to point out, in agreement with Paul, that the normal course of marriage—even among unbelievers—was still good in this life, even if it did not possess the blessing of being sanctioned for God’s glory. Therefore, divorce was never to be considered the preferred course.
“No divorce” is Paul’s prescription. Christians are not granted an “opt out clause” for their marriages. That is the general principle which governs all of the other marital situations addressed in this chapter: Christians are not to initiate divorce.
In order to emphasize this, Paul adds verses 15 and 16. Some have labeled this Paul’s “exception clause,” but that is not the best way of stating it. The apostle is not granting an “exception” to his prohibition against divorce, but is citing a situation in which the unbelieving partner seeks to end the marriage. Until one of the partners had come to Christ, a “comfortable” though non-Christian environment had existed within the home. But now things have changed. A “Christian” influence now pervades, and despite attempts to preserve the marriage by the believer, the other “wants out.”
Paul’s counsel is found in verse 15: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” That word (“δουλοω”) means “to be under the bondage of someone.” What that would seem to imply—and you need to know that not everyone holds this view, even though I am persuaded that it is the biblical one—that the believing spouse is thus free to remarry.
Having said that, let me emphasize that such a situation is not the ideal. “God has called you to peace,” Paul adds. And verse 16 is instructive: “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” The plea here is that the marital relationship be preserved and not be dissolved. The questions Paul asks in this verse are not aimed at prohibiting marriage, but rather of keeping it in tact. They are written optimistically, not pessimistically. “How do you know,” he asks, “whether your mate may yet come to faith because of your Christian testimony and example?”
I believe that is what words, “God has called you to peace” at the end of verse 15 have reference to. The 19th-century British pastor and professor, J.B. Lightfoot, in commenting on this phrase, writes: “The Christian is not so enslaved by such an alliance (that is, marriage) that he or she may not thus be set free. But let the liberation be the work of another. Do not foster dissensions, do not promote a separation. Do nothing to endanger peace.” Think of it this way: if the believing partner departs a “mixed marriage,” the influence of the Gospel would leave with it. Therefore, the goal is to keep the union in tact.
Christians are given no permission in Scripture to actively pursue divorcing a spouse. Although the command is quite clear, our motives often are not. Believers who are married to unbelievers must constantly examine their hearts and evaluate their own motives, and not even allow themselves to subliminally push for divorce. Should they be deserted and subsequently divorced by their unbelieving partner, they are free to remarry...but only to another Christian. And, to be clear, believers are never in turn to leave their unbelieving spouses because they may be in those marriages as the conduit that the Lord will use to lead their mates to salvation.
Moving on to verses 17 through 24, they at first glance would seem to have little or no association with the first two sections of this passage which we have just examined. But “upon further review” they actually provide assistance in helping us understand what has already been said. It is here that Paul speaks...
Regarding contentment with the calling of God (verses 17-24)
Verse 17 begins with words that link this paragraph with what has preceded them. The term “only” (“ει μη”) might just as readily be translated “nevertheless.” Remember, the context of this entire chapter is marriage, and Paul is not deviating from that topic here.
You don’t need to read too carefully to notice that references to God’s “call” (“καλεω”) are prominent in this section. We see it eight times. This reminds us of the priority of the divine “call” in salvation. We do not choose God, He chooses us...and, to use Paul’s word, He “assigns” to us our circumstances in life.
I don’t often quote from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Scriptures, but I appreciate the way he links this paragraph with what has just preceded it. He renders Paul’s thoughts in verse 17 this way: “Don’t be wishing you were someplace else or with someone else. Where you are right now is God’s place for you. Live and obey and love and believe right there. God, not your marital status defines your life.”
The essence of that command will be repeated in verse 20 and again in verse 24. In support of what is actually the main point of the entire chapter—that is, that a Christians “should remain in the condition in which he was called”—Paul gives a couple of examples or illustrations. Let’s first read verses 18 through 20:
“Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”
This has to be one of the more remarkable statements that Paul ever made. It is hard for us to imagine the horror with which a fellow-Jew would have responded. That is because not only did circumcision “count,” it counted for everything. It was, after all, the “sign of the covenant” between God and His people (cf. Genesis 17:10-11) and, therefore, of their special standing with God. What would seem to be a ludicrous example is given in order to illustrate that this principal transfers to the desire some may have been entertaining to be “de-married.” But Paul is suggesting, by way of comparison, that neither marriage nor the single state are “anything” compared to the greater responsibility of “keeping the commandments of God.” Thus, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”
Switching metaphors in verses 21 through 24, we similarly read:
“Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each one was called, there let him remain with God.”
To “remain” in one’s calling does not mean that a person should not adapt to or even alter one’s course as the circumstances of life unfold. More importantly, however, is that they “be at home” in their faith regardless of their situations and standing in life. It isn’t that Paul is against making changes to one’s circumstances, as the second half of verse 21 makes clear. Rather he is responding to the opinion that such changes will somehow enhance one’s calling to live as a Christian. Just as there was no need to alter one’s ethnic or social status in order to live a life pleasing to God, so there was no need to change one’s marital status. And this is what the apostle sought to make clear.
One’s outward state is secondary to his relationship with the Lord. Regardless of his or her position in life, the believer lives in the reality that he or she belongs first and foremost to Christ. The Christian has been “bought with a price.” In fact, our “calling” in Christ and our station in life are not unrelated. The Lord calls people to Himself from every walk of life because He seeks to reach people from every walk of life. We must live with the principle that we are where the Lord wants us to be until He clearly calls us elsewhere. Therefore, to borrow a contemporary idiom, we are to “bloom where we are planted.”
Paul closes out this passage by saying, “So, brothers, in whatever condition each one was called (and here we might insert, whether married to a believer or unbeliever—or as we shall see next week, not married at all) there let him remain with God.” That last phrase is a difficult one to translate in order to capture Paul’s sense. I believe that the New International Version gives us some help here, when it translates it, “as responsible to God.” Paul is simply saying, “Before everything else, including your nearest and dearest relationships, do not let concerns of this life cause you to forget who you belong to.” Christians are to make living for the Lord, not marriage, their primary calling.
The bottom line, therefore, is that it is not one’s circumstances, situations, and station in life that ultimately matter, but being faithful to God in them and through them.
Let’s take a moment to review:
- regarding the question of divorce between two Christian partners, Christian marriages are not to end in divorce.
- regarding the matter of divorce between a Christian and a non-Christian, Christians are not to initiate divorce.
- and regarding contentment with the calling of God, Christians are to make living for the Lord, not marriage, their primary calling in life.
The fact that divorce has in some way touched everyone in this room this morning testifies that we live in a broken world. You may be among those who, after hearing a message like this, feel as if you have “blown it.” If that is the case, then I have “good news” and “bad news” for you.
Let me first give you the “bad news.” The reason that you feel that you have “blown it” is because you have. We all have. That is because we are sinners living in a sin-cursed and fallen world. But the “good news” is that God sent His sinless Son into the world for the express purpose of “reversing the curse,” and redeeming people like you and me who have “blown it”...“blown it” in ways that are even worse than you may have possibly imagined.
But the “good news” gets even better inasmuch as we read in Scripture, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). None of us are able to “turn back to clock” or be granted a “divine do-over” from God. But we can admit the sins we have committed and be willing to turn from them. We can receive His offer of forgiveness and learn to forgive ourselves, as well as those we may have hurt or been hurt by. If you have not done that, I urge you to do that today.
With those thoughts in mind, permit me to draw a few conclusions that I trust will be helpful to circumstances that are represented here today.
First, the ideal goal for those who marry is to marry in the Lord...and to stay married. This applies if you do not have the gift to remain single, which we quickly looked at last week and will explore in greater depth next Sunday.
Second, when problems occur between two believers—as they inevitably do from time to time in even “the best” of marriages—do not consider breaking the marital bond. Instead, do everything you can—which includes seeking counsel and solutions—to protect and preserve the marriage. If the situation becomes such that the unbeliever seeks to end the marriage through divorce—and I stress that is only after every legitimate has been made to keep the marriage in tact—then, and only then, is the believer is no longer obligated to that marriage.
And third, with regard to “mixed marriages,” stay and pray for the salvation of the unbelieving mate. Cooperate, support, and love. Who knows that within the Providence of God, you may be the very instrument God intends to use in bringing your mate to Himself.
Like every good parent, our Heavenly Father does not tell us to do anything that He Himself has not already done. In the Old Testament we read the story of a man named Hosea. He might rightly be called “the prophet of love,” but not love as we imagine or fantasize about it. Hosea was a living parable of God’s love for His people as God revealed and enacted it. The story of this man is amazing. You may recall that he was a prophet who was commanded by the Lord to marry an unfaithful woman and have children with her. It is even more astonishing to think that God loves us in that way. He pursues us at our worst and stops at nothing to woo us to Himself. And once we are drawn into the net of His faithful love, He calls us to love others in the same way...particularly our mates.
In this way, we ourselves become living parables of the relationship that exists between Christ and His Bride. Therefore, He can say to us, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” and “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for me” (Ephesians 5:22 and 25).
Marriage has been decreed by God to be a living demonstration of the relationship that exists between Him and His Bride, the Church. That, more than any other reason, is why our marriages must be preserved and protected. More often than not, we fall short of this lofty standard. Nevertheless, it remains the picture of the covenant love and faithful commitment that the Lord established with His people from the beginning when He united the first couple.
In the words of our Lord Jesus, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).