Marriage, Sexuality, Divorce

Paul has been addressing sin and personal offenses in the local church at Corinth. If one in the church is living in sin, particularly sexual sin, the congregation is to exile that one. If anyone is simply personally offended, there is to be unconditional forgiveness because being personally offended causes us to treat others badly and to wrong and defraud others—being offended causes us to live in sin and be unjust. We are not married to our sin but to Christ. Yet, because sin is so present in the world, each man is to have his own wife. Paul continues his marital instructions in the present pericope.

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1 Corinthians 7:10-17

Τοῖς δὲ γεγαμηκόσιν παραγγέλλω, οὐκ ἐγὼ ἀλλὰ ὁ κύριος, γυναῖκα ἀπὸ ἀνδρὸς μὴ χωρισθῆναι— 11 ἐὰν δὲ καὶ χωρισθῇ, μενέτω ἄγαμος ἢ τῷ ἀνδρὶ καταλλαγήτω—καὶ ἄνδρα γυναῖκα μὴ ἀφιέναι.  

12 Τοῖς δὲ λοιποῖς λέγω ἐγώ, οὐχ ὁ κύριος· εἴ τις ἀδελφὸς γυναῖκα ἔχει ἄπιστον, καὶ αὕτη συνευδοκεῖ οἰκεῖν μετʼ αὐτοῦ, μὴ ἀφιέτω αὐτήν·  13 καὶ γυνὴ εἴ τις ἔχει ἄνδρα ἄπιστον, καὶ οὗτος συνευδοκεῖ οἰκεῖν μετʼ αὐτῆς, μὴ ἀφιέτω τὸν ἄνδρα.  14 ἡγίασται γὰρ ὁ ἀνὴρ ὁ ἄπιστος ἐν τῇ γυναικί, καὶ ἡγίασται ἡ γυνὴ ἡ ἄπιστος ἐν τῷ ἀδελφῷ· ἐπεὶ ἄρα τὰ τέκνα ὑμῶν ἀκάθαρτά ἐστιν, νῦν δὲ ἅγιά ἐστιν.  15 εἰ δὲ ὁ ἄπιστος χωρίζεται, χωριζέσθω· οὐ δεδούλωται ὁ ἀδελφὸς ἢ ἡ ἀδελφὴ ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις, ἐν δὲ εἰρήνῃ κέκληκεν ἡμᾶς ὁ θεός.  16 τί γὰρ οἶδας, γύναι, εἰ τὸν ἄνδρα σώσεις; ἢ τί οἶδας, ἄνερ, εἰ τὴν γυναῖκα σώσεις;  

17 Εἰ μὴ ἑκάστῳ ὡς ἐμέρισεν ὁ κύριος, ἕκαστον ὡς κέκληκεν ὁ θεός, οὕτως περιπατείτω· καὶ οὕτως ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις πάσαις διατάσσομαι.

On divorce (v. 10-11)

But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

When Paul gives this instruction about marriage, he clarifies that the instruction comes from the Lord and not him. What he means is that the Tanakh, the Old Testament, gives this explicit revelation about divorce (cf. Malachi 2:16). In doing so, Paul affirms the Old Testament teachings and upholds them as binding for New Testament Christians. Wives are not to leave their husbands. Husbands are not to divorce their wives. Why? God hates divorce, period. Paul makes no qualifications, here.

Often, when people think about divorce, they want to try to justify it by quoting from Matthew’s Gospel as if Scripture were there so we could justify ourselves by its words. Consider Jesus’s teaching about divorce:

When Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there. Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined 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 no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:1-9).

When the Pharisees asked about the legality of divorce, Jesus answered by defining marriage according to Genesis 1-2—between one man and one woman in covenant relationship under God. Then, they asked Jesus why Moses commanded to give her a certificate of divorce. Jesus revealed their misappropriation of the Law by showing that divorce was not commanded but permitted. It was not permitted because divorce is okay. It was permitted because of the hardness of the human heart. Jesus revealed the cause of divorce, which was not immorality but the hardness of the heart of the one seeking the divorce. So, whoever seeks a divorce commits adultery.

We also see the exception clause, which many people today appropriate to justify their divorces. “Except for immorality,” here a word (πορνια) referring to any kind of sexual promiscuity, skewed sexual identity, or unnatural sexual orientation. The exception clause does not suddenly change the nature of divorce. Divorce is absolutely unlawful. Whoever divorces is in danger of blatant adultery. There is one exception regarding adultery (not the lawfulness of divorce), the reason provided in Deuteronomy 24— Deuteronomy 24:1 clarifies that the reason for the permitted divorce was that a person found some type of indecency, referring specifically to promiscuity or unfaithfulness (cf. Numbers 5:12, 28; Deuteronomy 22:13-21), in his or her spouse. Divorce is, then, always sin. Not all divorce, though, is adultery. This is confirmed by Jesus’s qualification, “and marries another woman.” All divorce is sin against God. Not all forms of divorce are adultery. So, we should not use the exception clause to justify divorce.

What about cases of abuse? Is it a sin to divorce an unfaithful spouse? Marriage is a covenant relationship. Sin does not have to be committed to address sin. In other words, two wrongs do not make a right. There are ways to address abuse and unfaithfulness without divorce such that the one in sin is sanctified—which is one purpose of marriage on this earth. Consider the prophet Hosea, whose marriage to an unfaithful woman depicted God’s relationship with national Israel. Hosea was to remain faithful to her and redeem her like God redeems His people despite their unfaithfulness. Have we not abused God? Have we not been unfaithful? Still God’s love and blessings are steadfast. We have not lost our salvation, have we? If marriage is a picture of God’s covenant faithfulness to His people, there are no acceptable grounds upon which to seek out a divorce. God hates divorce because He is ever faithful despite the unfaithfulness of His people. Marriage is a picture of redemption, not selfish desire, lust, or offendedness.

On covenant community (v. 12-17)

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, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. 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.

Now, Paul makes a new clarification. This is his teaching, not the Lords. Wait… Is this okay? Is it good for Paul to offer his own teaching rather than simply teaching the Scriptures? God’s hatred for divorce was explicit. The marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian was not addressed in the Law because there were no Christians. There were national Jews who were not to intermarry with the raging heathen nations, which is not the same thing. I have too often heard some use the instruction not to be unequally yoked (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14) inappropriately to refer to mixed racial marriages or to marriage in general. While I believe it is not a good idea for a Christian to be married to a non-Christian, 2 Corinthians 6:14 is not about the marriage relationship but the church operating as the world operates. So, Paul needs to define some inexplicit doctrine. He does so by applying, not appropriating, the Old Testament truths about God. This I say, though it is not explicit in Tanakh. 

If a Christian is married to an unbeliever, the Christian is to remain faithful. Do not leave and do not cause the other to leave. God is interested in covenant faithfulness. Why? The unbelieving spouse is sanctified through the believing partner. How can one be sanctified if he or she is not a believer? Is an unbelieving spouse saved because he or she has a believing partner? If anyone is not a covenantal theologian (e.g. dispensational), he is left to try to figure out how this works—most likely concluding that the sanctification is merely temporal and familial. But, sanctification is a word unique to the biblical canon. It is an appropriation of the Greek ἅγιά, meaning holy. The adaption, ἡγίασται, literally means “holyfied.” In this context, to be sanctified does not mean to be made complete or to receive some kind of temporal blessing but, instead, to be set apart as holy to God—holyfied. In this sense, the unbelieving spouse is designated by God as part of the covenant community, the visible church. He is not saved but does receive covenant community status on this earth through marriage for God’s glory. This unbelieving spouse might even look and act Christianly, have biblical knowledge, develop a Christian sense of morality, and consider himself to be part of Christ’s church, yet remain unbelieving and without eternal life. There is a difference between being a Christian and knowing Christ.

This is how children are also holy. They are holyfied through their believing parents—which is nearly impossible to explain apart from the covenantal view. For instance, the some children under the umbrella of their parent’s faith. If the parent is a believer, the child not yet having reached the age of maturity is covered and set apart as holy. If not, the child is not. What a bleak outlook and hopeless for children. Since the verse refers to covenant community, the local church, we know that children in believing households are counted as members of the covenant community with their parents. Here, three things are confirmed for us:

  • The covenant community, local church involvement, is in view.
  • Belief in Christ is marked by one’s participation in covenant community, the local church.
  • The household family is to be involved in the covenant community, the local church, together—even unbelieving spouses and children.

The local church is the holyfied people of God gathered together in covenant with Christ. Marriage and family play an essential role in that gathering—the holyfication of God’s covenant people. Not everyone in the local church has eternal life, but everyone in the local church is part of the covenant community of faith.

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.

Though believers do not seek out divorce or push their spouses out the door, the unbeliever is not explicitly under the Law of God. The world has its marriage and divorce that it has defined for itself. God’s marriage is not like that of the world. Christians do not leave their spouses. We should question our salvation if we are so unfaithful. 

If the unbelieving spouse leaves, the believing partner is to let him go. Why? God has called us to peace. There are two implications to consider. 1) God has not called the church to stir up the world but to live at peace in the world. 2) In this picture of apostasy, we see that there is a difference between being part of the covenant community and having salvation. Apostasy, then, is not leaving Christ. It is leaving the covenant community of faith. Apostasy is not a departure from salvation but a departure from visible covenant inclusion. Divorce is a picture of apostasy. Divorce is a breaking of a covenant, not a marriage. For, one cannot be married (united by God) and ever be separated (cf. Matthew 19:6). Just as there is a difference between the agreement on paper and marriage, there is a difference between inclusion in the covenant community and salvation. Marriage is permanent. Salvation is permanent. One can break a mere agreement or profession. God has called those who are saved to peace, not hatred or war, toward covenant breakers (cf. 5:10, 13).

So, even during pride month, we are to practice peace toward covenant breakers. It is not up to us to try to wrangle the world. Let them go. They are apostate. Be faithful to the God of your salvation and let Him judge those outside the covenant community according to His will. His judgments are fiercer than ours anyway.

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? Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.

Paul employs a rhetorical question to provoke the thoughts of spouses whose partners apostatize. No spouse knows whether their unbelieving partner will ever become a believer. Neither missionary dating nor marriage are good ideas. If your spouse is an unbeliever, you do not need to spend every moment trying to convert him or her. Paul reveals the effectual calling of God here, a doctrine we refer to as predestination. It is the Lord who calls each one into the kingdom and we do not know whether or not someone else will be called. Inclusion in the covenant community is conditional for some. Election is unconditional. Further, we see the doctrine of foreordination. It is the Lord who assigns the circumstances of each one’s life. Because God alone is the one who saves and works all things together, Christians are content no matter their circumstances. When we understand the providence of God, we are content. Understanding God’s providence is the secret to a contented, happy life. Walk according to the election and ordination of God. This is how all Christians in all local church are instructed to walk out the faith that has been given to them. Once again, Paul connects a person’s walk with God to his or her covenant involvement in the local church. Once again, we see that contentment is the key to humble and godly living. As far as the world goes, we see again that we are called to peace. Peace precedes justice.

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