In this passage the apostle Paul gives spiritual counsel to 3 groups of believers: the unmarried, believers married to believers, and believers married to unbelievers. Admittedly there are some difficult and thorny problems in this section of Scripture when it comes to interpretation, but the rewards of careful study here give light on this difficult issue. The church has struggled with understanding and applying Paul’s counsel in this section for hundreds of years. I guess we’ll contribute our 2 cents to the whole!
God’s Will Regarding Marriage For Various Believers
1 Corinthians 7:8-16
Last week we discussed God’s will concerning sex in marriage. We saw that God’s will is for the husband and wife to give themselves fully to one another sexually in marriage. This week, we are going to look at God’s will regarding marriage for various kinds of believers. We are going to look at 3 different groups of believers: the unmarried, believers who are married to believers, and believers who are married to unbelievers. Let me warn you that this text is fraught with difficulties of interpretation, and even the best commentators do not always agree with one another. So, let’s tread lightly praying for help from on high.
1. An Unmarried Believer:
A. Who are they? John MacArthur in his commentary espouses the view that these are believers who have been divorced. He arrives at this conclusion by comparing vs.8,11, and 34. In vs.8, the unmarried are distinguished from widows. In vs.34 they are distinguished from virgins. Well, then if this is an unmarried person but is not a virgin or widow, who can he be? Vs.11 – someone who has been divorced. He believes 7:8-9 tell us what God’s will concerning marriage for the person who has been divorced before becoming a Christian. He may be right, but several problems arise with this conclusion. First, we are never explicitly told that the “unmarried” are divorcees. There are other good options as to what the term means here. Second, if this does refer to a divorcee, the text never tells us when they were divorced (before conversion or after) or to whom they were married (believer or unbeliever). It seems to me that we must read too much into these verses to come to this dogmatic conclusion. However, if this is the true interpretation, it informs us that believers who were divorced before becoming Christians are allowed to remarry after they are saved.
Another commentator, Gordon Fee, believes the “unmarried” refer to male widows, or widowers. His reasoning is that when Paul links unmarried and widows together, it is because unmarried are the male counterparts of widows.
A third suggestion is that unmarried is simply a broad general term for all unmarried people. Widows would merely be one subset of the unmarried.
B. Paul’s Counsel: It is good and desirable for them to remain single like Paul was. However, they are not commanded to remain single, but may remarry, especially if they do not have self-control and burn with passion for sexual fulfillment.
2. A Believer Married to a Believer:
A. How do we know this is a believer married to an unbeliever? Vs.12 address the rest and mentions a believer having an unbelieving wife. Thus, 7:10-11 are addressed to married Christians.
B. Not I, but the Lord: This means that Paul is referring to something that Jesus had taught during His earthly ministry. Mt.19:3-9.
C. The wife should not leave her husband: It may have been the case that some Christian wives in Corinth have come to the conclusion that it is more spiritual to live a celibate life, and so wanted to leave their husbands and live as single women. What does it mean for the wife to leave her husband? The ESV translates it as “be separated from her husband.” Is this referring to a separation where the 2 parties are still married? No! Vs.11 makes it plain that for her to leave means that she is now divorced.
D. Paul’s Counsel: Actually, this is really Christ’s counsel in Mt.19. Neither partner may divorce their spouse. This is God’s ideal, but Paul was realistic. He knows that God’s ideal will not always be followed in real life, so he adds, “but if she does leave she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” Notice the word must. This is not simply good advice. It is a divine commandment. A believer may know that it is not God’s will for them to divorce their spouse (I hate divorce – Mal.2:16). But, in their weakness, they may find the marriage so intolerable that they go through with a divorce anyway. What then? They are not permitted to remarry, except their former spouse. Divorce among believers is bad, but remarriage is even worse. Jesus says the person who remarries, except for immorality, commits adultery. In other words, if there has been no sexual immorality by the believer’s spouse, for him/her to divorce the spouse and then remarry is to go on committing adultery, for the two are still married in God’s sight. Sexual immorality is the 1 exception that Jesus gives; in that case divorce and remarriage are permitted. But what if your spouse divorces you and then they get married? Are you still bound to remain single your whole life? I don’t think so, because their remarriage now is sexual immorality, releasing you from the marriage covenant.
3. A Believer Married To An Unbeliever:
A. I say, not the Lord: Does this mean that Paul is giving his counsel which is different from that of Jesus?! No! He simply means that Jesus gave no explicit teaching on this during his earthly ministry. Jesus did not deal with the issue of marriages between believers and unbelievers.
B. He/She consents to live with him/her: This is the key. If the unbeliever is willing to remain with the believer who has been converted, then the believer must not divorce the unbeliever. Why?
C. The Unbeliever is Sanctified Through the Believer: Both spouses and children are included. Does this mean that the unbelieving spouse will be saved because he/she is married to a believer? No. “Sanctified” means set apart. The unbeliever has been set apart from other marriages by having the blessing of godly influences in his/her life through his believing spouse. She is praying for him, modeling Christ before him, talking to him about the Lord. Children: this verse does not teach that all children will be saved if they have at least one believing parent. It simply means that they are set apart from the other children of the world, because there are sanctifying influences in their life brought by a believing parent.
D. If the Unbelieving one leaves, let him leave: Earlier Paul had said believers were to stay married to unbelieving spouses if they were willing to stay. The believer may not pursue divorce. Well, here the situation is different. The unbelieving spouse leaves because of the spiritual conversion his/her mate has experienced. What is the believer to do in this situation? Let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases: The believer has wanted to dissolve the marriage. Paul has said NO. But now Paul allows that if the unbeliever wants out of the marriage, then the believer is not under bondage to remain married, but may let them go. Perhaps it would help to look at it like this:
The ideal: Do not divorce your unbelieving spouse
The reason for this ideal: they are sanctified through you
The exception: if they choose to leave, let them leave
The reason for the exception: God has called us to peace (by forcing the unbeliever to remain you are propogating ongoing war between both of you)
The reason for the ideal: This can mean either 1) don’t divorce your unbelieving spouse for they may be saved by your sanctifying influence (14), or 2) don’t force them to stay because you don’t know whether you will ever save them.
The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases: There have been some interpreters who believe this means that if the unbeliever deserts the marriage, it is the same as adultery – the marriage bond is broken, and the believer is free to remarry. That may be the case, but it seems more likely that Paul is merely stating that the believer is not under bondage to try to maintain this marriage if the unbeliever wants to leave. Is the believer free to remarry? The text simply does not tell us. Jesus said the believer is free to remarry if his spouse commits immorality (Mt.19:9). Paul said a widow is free to remarry as long as they marry a believer (1Cor.7:39). However, those are the only 2 explicit references to the freedom a believer has to remarry.
1. In our culture this is a much needed word! In the world, and in the church divorce is rampant. Not only is divorce rampant, but remarriage as well. If we are going to stand as a witness to this world, we must be committed to following the Word of God, whether it is easy or difficult.
2. For our own marriages: Oh, how we need to realize that once we are married, we are married for life! Mt.19:3-9. When Jesus told the disciples this, they said, “if this is the case, it’s better not to marry.” Single people: you need to be absolutely committed to staying married for the rest of your life before you marry. This is not a “let’s get married and see if we like it” kind of arrangement. Married people: you need to invest greatly in your marriage, because you are not free to dissolve it. Thus, work hard at it, and find joy and happiness in it.
3. We need to be willing to speak the truth in difficult situations: I’m going to speak a word here that you will not be comfortable with. I’m not comfortable with it, but I believe it to be the truth. We have seen situations in our own church where 2 believers have divorced, and then gone on to date others. When this occurs, we should not be silent! This is a direct violation of God’s Word, and in the spirit of Mt.18:15-17, we should lovingly confront our brother or sister with the truth of God’s Word. If they persist with going through a divorce and remarriage, the church must exercise discipline. When we gave our lives to Christ, we gave Him the right to rule our lives through His Word. We simply don’t have the right to divorce and remarry for unbiblical reasons, because that is what we think will make us happy. If you are not willing for Christ to rule you, then don’t pretend to be a Christian!
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