A Look at 1 Corinthians 7:15
A current misconception with regard to divorce and remarriage is the notion that 1 Corinthians 7:15 is “later revelation” which “modifies” or “clarifies” Matthew 19:9. It is argued that 1 Corinthians 7:15 permits the Christian, who is deserted by a non-Christian mate, to remarry on the sole ground of that desertion. On the other hand, Matthew 19:9, which permits remarriage only on the ground of fornication, applies strictly to a Christian married to a Christian and therefore is not to be considered applicable to the Christian who is married to a non-Christian. Several factors make such a viewpoint untenable:
First, the context of Matthew 19 is divorce (Matthew 19:3), while the context of 1 Corinthians 7 is not divorce, but the propriety of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1ff.). Jesus applied God’s original marriage law (paraphrased from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in Matthew 19:4-6) to the question of divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19:9. But Paul applied God’s general marriage law (paraphrased in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11) to several different questions which relate to celibacy and the legitimacy of marriage for widows/widowers, Christian/non-Christians, and singles.
Second, it is fallacious to hold that if 1 Corinthians 7:15 relates to a Christian married to a non-Christian, Matthew 19:9 must refer exclusively to a Christian married to a Christian. Matthew 19:9 was uttered in context to a group of Jews who were seeking an answer to their question concerning Jewish divorce (Matthew 19:3). Jesus gave them an answer that was intended for them—as well as for all those who would live during the Christian age. He appealed to Genesis 2 which resides in a pre-Jewish context and clearly applies to all men—the totality of humanity. Genesis 2 is a human race context. It reveals God’s ideal will for human marriage for all of human history—pre-Mosaic, Mosaic, and Christian. Though divorce and remarriage for reasons other than fornication was “allowed” (though not endorsed—Matthew 19:8) during the Mosaic period, Jesus made clear that the Jews had strayed from the original ideal because of their hard hearts. He further emphasized (notice the use of δε [“but”] in Matthew 19:8-9) that the original marriage law, which permitted divorce and remarriage for fornication alone, would be reaffirmed as applicable to all persons during the Christian age. Prior to the cross, ignorance may have been “unattended to” (Acts 17:30), that is, God did not have a universal law, as is the Gospel (Mark 16:15-16), but with the ratification of the New Testament, all men everywhere are responsible and liable for conforming themselves to God’s universal laws of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. God’s original marriage law was and is addressed to all people (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). Christ’s application to the question of divorce was implied in the original law and is addressed to all people (Matthew 19:9). Paul’s application to questions of sex, celibacy, and non-Christian mates is addressed to all people (1 Corinthians 7). Scripture harmonizes beautifully and God treats all impartially. Thus “to the rest” (1 Corinthians 7:12) cannot be applying to other marriage relationships since Jesus had already referred to all marriages (whether Jew or non-Jew, Christian or non-Christian).
Third, 1 Corinthians 7 does not address different “classes” of marriages. The Corinthian letter was written in response to correspondence previously sent to Paul by the Corinthian (cf. 1:11; 5:1; 7:1; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). Thus, 1 Corinthians amounts to a point-by-point response to matters previously raised by the Corinthians themselves. When Paul refers to the general question of sexual activity/celibacy (7:1), he is alluding to the method by which he is organizing his remarks in direct response to questions asked by the Corinthians. Thus, “to the rest” (7:12) refers to the rest of the matters or questions about which the Corinthians specifically inquired (and to which Jesus did not make specific application while on Earth). These matters (not marriages) are easily discernible from what follows. The “rest” of the questions would have included the following:
Should a Christian husband who has a non-Christian wife sever the relationship (vs. 12)?
Should a Christian wife who has a non-Christian husband sever the relationship (vs. 13)?
Are Christians somehow ceremonially defiled or rendered unclean by such a relationship (vs. 14)?
Are children born to such relationships ceremonially unclean (vs. 14)?
Is a Christian guilty of sin if his or her non-Christian mate severs the relationship (vss. 15-16)?
Does becoming a Christian mean that one should dissolve all conditions and relationships which were entered into before becoming a Christian (vss. 17-24)?
What should be the sexual and/or marital status of virgins and widows in light of the current period of distress (vss. 25-40)?
All of these questions may be answered in light of and in harmony with Jesus’ own remarks in Matthew 19. Jesus did not specifically make application to these unique instances. He did not address Himself to the application of God’s general marriage law to every possible scenario (specifically, to the spiritual status of a Christian married to a non-Christian). Yet, His teaching applies to every case of marriage on the question of divorce.
Fourth, the specific context of 1 Corinthians 7:15 relates to the person who becomes a Christian, but whose mate does not. The unbeliever now finds himself married to a different person (in the sense that his mate underwent a total change in thinking and morals, and began to live a completely different lifestyle). The unbeliever consequently issues an ultimatum, demanding that his mate make a choice: “either give up Christ, or I’m leaving!” Yet, to live in marriage with an unbeliever who makes continuance of the marriage dependent upon the believer’s capitulation (i.e., compromise of Christian responsibility or neglect of divinely-ordained duty) would amount to slavery (i.e., “bondage”—being forced to forego the Christian life). But neither at the time the marriage was contracted, nor at the present time, has the Christian been under that kind of bondage (such is the force of the perfect indicative passive in Greek). God never intended or approved the notion that marriage is slavery. Christians are slaves only to God—never to men or mates (Matthew 23:10; Romans 6:22; Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:24; Philemon 16; 1 Corinthians 7:15). So, Paul is saying that, though a believer is married to an unbeliever (and continues to be so), the believer is not to compromise his or her discipleship. To do so, to back away from faithful loyalty to Christ, at the insistence of the unbelieving mate, would constitute a form of slavery which was never God’s intention for marriage. To suggest that δεδουλωται (“bondage, enslaved, reduced to servitude”) refers to the marriage bond is to maintain that in some sense and in some cases the marriage bond is to be viewed as a state of slavery. But God does not want us to view our marital unions as slave relationships in which we are “under bondage.” Yes, if our marriage is scriptural, we are “bound” (δεο—1 Corinthians 7:27,39; cf. Romans 7:2), but we’re not “enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15). So Paul was not commenting on the status of a believer’s marital status (i.e., whether bound or loosed). Rather, he was commenting on the status of a believer’s spiritual responsibilities as a Christian in the context of marital turmoil generated by the non-Christian mate and calculated to derail the Christian’s faithfulness to Christ. Paul was answering the question: “How does being married to a non-Christian affect my status as a Christian if he/she threatens to leave?” He was not answering the question: “How does being married to a non-Christian affect my status as a husband/wife (with the potential for remarriage) when the non-Christian departs?” Jesus already answered that question in Matthew 19:9—divorce and remarriage is permitted only upon the basis of your mate’s sexual unfaithfulness. Paul, too, spoke more directly to this question back in verses 10-11 when he ruled out remarriage.
Summarizing, though God’s marriage law is stringent (for everybody), and though God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), nevertheless, there are times when an unbelieving mate will actually force the believer to make a choice between Christ and the unbelieving mate. To choose the mate over Christ—to acquiesce to the non-Christian mate’s demand to compromise one’s faithfulness in any area of obligation to God—would be to subject oneself to, and to transform the marriage into, a state of slavery (i.e., “bondage”). Yet, the believer is not now and never has been in such enslavement. Thus, the believer must let the unbeliever exit the relationship in peace. The believer must “let him depart”—in the sense that the believer must not seek to prevent his departure by compromising his loyalty to Christ. Of course, the Christian would continue to hold out hope that the marriage could be saved. If, however, the non-Christian forms a sexual union with another, the Christian is permitted the right to exercise the injunction of Matthew 19:9 by putting away the non-Christian solely on the grounds of fornication, freeing the innocent Christian to marry an eligible person.
Fifth, one final factor to consider. Verses 17-24 cannot be requiring an individual to remain in whatever marital state he or she is in at the time of conversion. Paul uses the examples of slavery and circumcision to show that, merely because a person becomes a Christian, he is not absolved of his pre-Christian circumstances. If he is a slave prior to baptism, he will continue to be a slave after baptism, and should not think that becoming a Christian gives him the right to shirk his legal status as a slave. Such is why Paul instructed Onesimus to return to his position of servitude (Philemon 12). So, Paul was encouraging the person who becomes a Christian, but whose mate does not become a Christian, to remain in that marriage rather than think that becoming a Christian somehow gives him or her the right to sever the relationship with the non-Christian mate. Being married to a non-Christian mate is not sinful in and of itself (see Miller, 2002). But Paul was not placing his stamp of approval upon relationships, practices, and conditions that were sinful prior to baptism and encouraging Christians to remain in those relationships. Such would contradict what he later tells the Corinthians concerning unequal yokes (2 Corinthians 6:17) and repentance (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). He was referring to relationships and conditions that were not sinful prior to baptism. Christians still have the same obligations to conduct themselves appropriately (i.e., according to God’s laws) within those pre-conversion situations, though they have now become Christians. Such instructions apply to any relationship, practice, or condition that was not sinful (i.e., in violation of Christ’s laws) prior to baptism. But this directive does not apply to any practice or relationship that was sinful prior to baptism (i.e., adultery, homosexuality, evil business practices, etc. cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
May God grant us the humility and determination to conform our lives to His will concerning marriage—no matter how “narrow” it may seem (Matthew 7:14). May the church of our day be spared any further harm that comes from the promotion of false theories and doctrines which are calculated to re-define God’s will as “wide” and “broad” (Matthew 7:13). May we truly seek to please, not men, but God (Galatians 1:10).
Miller, Dave (2002), “Be Not Unequally Yoked,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=431&topic=37.