Paul's Instructions Regarding Marriage (1 Corinthians 7)
In establishing the Lord's law regarding marriage, (one man, one woman, for a lifetime), and noting the one exception to that law (fornication), the question is sometimes asked, "What about what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:15?"
The verse reads, "But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace." Some have taken this to be a privilege granted by Paul to the Christian to remarry if she (or he) is deserted by her/his unbelieving mate. The "Pauline Privilege" has been added to the Lord's "exception" of Matthew 19:9 as another just reason for divorce and remarriage.
Further, some have gone so far as to say that verses 27-28 of the passage, "But even if you do marry, you have not sinned", allow for anyone who has had a divorce to remarry without guilt. It should be recognized that such manipulations of the text are motivated by a desire to set aside the restrictive teaching of our Lord in his ministry on earth, and are the byproducts of ungodly influences in our day and culture. The text does not justify these conclusions. In fact, not only would these contradict Jesus' teaching, but they make other statements by Paul in the same context nonsensical.
Earlier in Paul's epistle, he had indicated the danger of the ungodly influence that existed at that time in that culture. The Corinthians had come out of sinful practices, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God" (cf. 6:11). He again and again called them to resist and separate themselves from ungodly influences, "Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened" (cf. 5:7). We too need to recognize the ungodliness that is around us, and to consider the teaching of God, not with a view to find excuse for our practices, but with an open and honest heart.
Our culture is tolerant of divorce for any reason. It is common for Christians to have family and friends who have divorced and remarried. Christians who have divorced and remarried from time to time petition for membership in a local fellowship. There is tremendous pressure to compromise, and a desire to find some scriptural rationale for making Jesus' teaching less restrictive. Some do this with Paul's missive to the Corinthians. Concerning the practice of twisting Paul's words, Peter said, "and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16). It is freely admitted that Paul's teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 is not the easiest material to understand. However, it is understandable. To twist it is to endanger the soul.
Understanding the General Context
The first step to understanding the teaching of verse 15 is to get the general context of Paul's teaching in the chapter. Before giving a general overview, however, we note a specific passage in the chapter, verse 39, which parallels exactly our Lord's teaching in Mark 10:11-12. Note the two passages:
Though different words are used, the rule is established by both: One man, one woman, for a lifetime. Any understanding of Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 must be understood in the general context of this rule.
In the chapter, Paul is evidently answering questions that had been asked him by the Corinthians, "now concerning the things of which you wrote to me..." (vs. 1). While the fact that we do not have the original questions makes the treatise a bit more difficult, a careful consideration of Paul's teaching allows us to understand his words.
The first nine verses of the text gives the Corinthians some answers to general questions they had asked concerning marriage. In this section, Paul revealed that celibacy was good, and perhaps to be preferred at that time. At the time of his writing, there was a "present distress" which would make it difficult for those who were married. Paul wrote in verse 32, "But I want you to be without care." A good parallel to this is found in Jesus' warning to his disciples concerning the fall of Jerusalem in Matthew 24, "But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!" (vs. 19). Of course, it would be wrong for us to conclude that celibacy in general is better than marriage. The Bible clearly teaches otherwise (cf. Gen. 2:18; Heb. 13:4). Even Paul speaks highly of marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33. Paul was simply seeking to spare the Corinthians in a difficult time.
Regardless, the inability of some to curb their sexual desires made evident the need to for some to marry, and Paul gave instructions for both man and wife to give themselves to one another because, "it is better to marry that to burn with passion" (cf. vs. 9).
In Verses 10 and 11, the apostle Paul gives his inspired commentary on the teaching of Jesus. "Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord." Because of Jesus' teaching on marriage, it was obvious that "A wife is not to depart from her husband", and "A husband is not to divorce his wife." This states yet again the divine principle, one man, one woman, for a lifetime.
In stating the principle, Paul recognized that some would divorce anyway. (It seems the problem of willfulness in our day was mirrored among Christians of that time). In such cases, you will note that Paul expressly states that there is no right to marry another. "But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband" (vs. 11). She has only two options, to remain single, or to return to her husband. It is important to note the further teaching of Paul in light of these verses. Whatever he is saying, he is not saying that a Christian has the right to divorce and remarry.
1 Corinthians 7:15
Understanding the one exception to the Lords law concerning marriage (one man, one woman, for a lifetime) is fornication, we again come to the question, What about what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:15? The verse reads, But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. The contention is made that the phrase a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases indicates their right to remarry if deserted by an unbelieving spouse.
Note first Pauls statement in verse 23 of the text, You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Obviously, Paul does not have in mind here physical slavery, rather spiritual slavery. The liberty we have in Christ enables us to live for God, no matter the constraints others would place upon us. Jesus said, And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28). Our first allegiance is to God, not men. It is in light of this principle that Paul makes his statement. Some might take Pauls teaching on marriage to put the believer in an untenable situation. In effect, You say that Gods laws on marriage demand you stay with the unbeliever. Am I obligated even if my spouse is unwilling to live with a Christian?
Consider the alternative. If there is no exception to Pauls instruction to stay with the unbeliever, the believer would be forced to renounce his faith to save his marriage. Paul says that such an action is not merited. The believer is a slave to God, not men. If an unbeliever is unwilling to stay with the believer, on account of his faith, then the believer is not obligated (not under bondage) to remain in that relationship let him depart... In effect, Pauls instructions are, as per verse 23, Let him go, because you are not enslaved to the unbeliever you are enslaved to Christ.
Such an understanding of this statement by Paul is not only indicated by the context (and greater context of New Testament teaching), it is also borne out by the Greek. The term translated not under bondage (dedoulotai), is the perfect passive indicative form of the Greek term (douloo). What might not be readily apparent in the English is evident in the Greek. A contrast is found here between what is not, was not, and never has been (not under bondage), and what is and always has been (God has called us to peace).
It is important to note that according to the Greek the believer never has been in bondage to the unbeliever. Those who take the position that a Christian is free to remarry believe the phrase not under bondage has reference to the marriage bond. The Greek does not allow this. Then, the idea would be that in the past bondage existed, but is not present now. The Greek demands that it never has been so. We ought to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 5:29).
When Jesus said, except for fornication he was not establishing an exception, rather the only exception. Those who seek to add a Pauline privilege to Jesus exception have no standing in scripture.
Concluding Thoughts from 1 Corinthians 7
Again, noting the context, the only instructions given to those who have separated is to remain celibate, or reconcile. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. Nowhere in the context of 1 Corinthians 7 is there any indication that anyone who has divorced has the right to marry another.
In verse 39 Paul clearly states the marriage law A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. As we have stated again and again, the law can simply be summarized in the phrase one man, one woman, for a lifetime. Further, scripture allows only one exception to that rule, except for fornication.
Without casting aspersion upon any individual, we note that societal trends do not jibe with scriptural teaching on divorce and remarriage. Jesus taught the sanctity and lasting nature of the marriage relationship, and our culture and law allows for divorce for any cause. Jesus placed a stigma on divorce, and our culture embraces it without question. As the Corinthians were influenced by their culture, so too Christians today can allow their thinking to be influenced by the ungodliness that is presently in this world.
Though a cursory reading of Pauls teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 might seem to cast doubt on the plain declarations of Jesus, a careful study reveals the agreement between Paul and Jesus on this important subject. We must be careful, lest we as others, twist the apostles teaching to their [our] own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.
As the various positions regarding divorce and remarriage are examined, the plain truth of Gods word must always be kept before us. God established the bond between man and woman in marriage, and set the parameters of the relationship. One man, one woman, for a lifetime. It is Gods law. We must heed it.