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First Corinthians: Chapter 7, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

January 19, 2008

After studying this topic on many occasions, and again for this series, I will present my current understanding on the subject. I do not in any way wish to create the impression that I have all of this figured out.

The Corinthian church had written Paul a letter asking questions about the subject of marriage. Paul’s response included teaching on the merits of remaining single; the more general need for people to marry; the expectation for the married to remain married; and how to handle certain scenarios where a separation / divorce has occurred.

1Co 7:1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
1Co 7:2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.

Paul responded that it is good not to marry, for those who have the necessary gift of self control.

For the rest, Paul advised marriage. In the marriage relationship they are to meet one another’s needs, to help each other with self control.

1Co 7:8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
1Co 7:9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Paul then turned his attention to the subject of divorce. Before examining the teachings in the following sections, let’s spend a bit of time understanding the practice Paul was talking about.

In biblical times, divorce carried a somewhat different meaning from today. Divorce was not a legal transaction. It was simply the ending of the marriage relationship by one side or the other. To divorce a wife, a man would simply send her away, or else abandon her. A woman seeking to divorce would simply leave her husband. Under Mosaic law, a man divorcing his wife was required to give her a certificate of divorce. The certificate was not given as a government sanction or recognition of the separation. Rather, the purpose of that document (and what was clearly stated on it) was that the woman had the right to remarry. The separation itself constituted divorce. The certificate was an additional requirement on a Jewish husband, to provide the right of remarriage to the woman.

It will be useful now to do a brief survey of the words used in this chapter referring to the breaking up a marriage:

  • verse 10,11 χωρισθηνα “separate”, “leave”
  • verse 11,12 αφιεναι to put away, leave, divorce
  • verse 27 λελυσαι to be loosed, to be released, unmarried, divorce

It seems that in the original language of chapter 7, all of the above terms were used interchangeably referring to what we now call divorce.

Note that the NIV is inconsistent in the translation of the two occurrences of λελυσαι in verse 27:

(NIV)
1Co 7:27 Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.

Undoubtedly this was because of the difficulty that would otherwise arise in the next verse, where Paul says “But if you do marry, you have not sinned.” Did Paul really say that about someone who had been divorced? Perhaps. The more literal translations (ASV, NASV, ESV, RSV, KJV, etc) all translate the two words the same — but none translate both as “divorced”. Still it is hard to imagine what else to be “loosed from a wife” would mean. It’s certainly a strange way to describe a widower! If Paul had intended to speak only of widowers, making a distinction between widowers and those who were divorced, surely he would have chosen a different term. So the difficulty remains, and honest students of the scriptures need to wrestle with it.

As Paul began to teach how Christians should view divorce, he explicitly stated that what he wrote on this subject was the instruction of God. This was not casual advice, but instruction from the Lord.

(NAS)
1Co 7:10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband
1Co 7:11 (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.

A survey of several translations on these verses shows some subtle but potentially important differences in the translation:

(NIV)
1Co 7:10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.
1Co 7:11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

(ESV)
1Co 7:10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband
1Co 7:11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

(HCSB)
1Co 7:10 I command the married–not I, but the Lord–a wife is not to leave her husband.
1Co 7:11 But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband–and a husband is not to leave his wife.

(KJV)
1Co 7:10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:
1Co 7:11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.

A literal translation of Paul’s words:

1Co 7:10 But I command the ones being married (not I, but the Lord), [that] a woman [is] not to be separated from her husband;
1Co 7:11 but if indeed she is separated, remain unmarried, or be reconciled to the husband; and a husband not to leave [his] wife.

The most striking discrepancy between these translations is whether a person “should” or “must” not separate from a spouse. Either is a reasonable translation based on the underlying Greek grammar. However, since Paul specifically stated that this was instruction from the Lord, it is hard not to understand it as a command. Yet in the very next verse, Paul addressed the scenario of a woman who has separated despite the command. If leaving was sin, common sense would tell us that repentance would require reconciliation–but that is not what Paul said. Rather, he taught that she could either remain separate or be reconciled to her husband. (Paul did not offer as a third option, to marry a different man.) What should we make of that? Perhaps we should recognize that there are circumstances where a person is justified in leaving his or her spouse. Drawing a bright and sharp scriptural line between the justified and unjustified scenarios is a much more difficult task.

The next few verses address the scenario where a Christian is married to a non-Christian. Note that the Christian is expected to honor the marriage as long as the non-Christian is willing. This is not for the benefit of the Christian but of the non-Christian. Perhaps the marriage would result in their salvation!

But if the unbeliever leaves, the Christian is no longer bound.

1Co 7:15 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.

This is what is commonly known as the “Pauline exception”, since some understand this as permission for the Christian to marry another person after the non-Christian spouse leaves. Others believe it means the Christian is no longer bound by the marriage (ie, they are free to be unmarried, and not bound to the unbeliever); otherwise they might have to abandon the church, in order to remain with the non-Christian spouse. Doing that seems unthinkable, and yet perhaps that was at least part of what Paul was saying. So the “Pauline exception” is yet another disputed topic in this chapter.

In either case, the sense of the last part of verse 15 seems to be this: A marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian could produce much conflict and strife. That must not be due to the Christian doing unrighteous things to incite the conflict. But if the marital strife reaches a point where the non-Christian decides to leave, then the Christian is set free from the contentious relationship, to live in peace.

Beginning in verse 17, Paul presents the two opposing forces affecting the decision to get married. On one hand, this life is brief. We should place priority on eternal matters rather than temporal. We should not become engrossed in things of this life. Paul wanted people to have undivided focus on serving God. Perhaps also on Paul’s mind, the Roman persecutions were soon to come down on them, and being married would make the distress all the more severe. On the other hand, the strong spiritual reasons for people to marry have been previously discussed. Not everyone has the necessary self-control to live a righteous life in an unmarried state. Paul’s bottom line on the subject was that marriage is good, and remaining single for the service of God is better.

Paul concluded the topic of marriage with this:

1Co 7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
1Co 7:40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

Marriage is intended to last until death of one partner– “Until death do you part…” After the death of one partner, the other is free to remarry—but only to a Christian spouse. This strongly suggests that Christians in general should only marry Christians.

Thus concludes a very difficult chapter, one that has been battleground for many heated arguments. Through the fog and the heat, what can we take away that is certain and knowable?

1) God hates divorce. (Mal 2:13-16) That did not change between the two Testaments. God clearly instructs married Christians not to divorce. (1 Cor 7:10-11)

2) God recognizes that there will be divorces, so he has instructed us about how divorced Christians should proceed with their lives. Divorced Christians are not to be treated as second class citizens in the church. And certainly this chapter makes it clear that we are not to exclude them from citizenship in the church! Grace, mercy, and peace are to be guiding principles in God’s household.

3) There are some real difficulties in this chapter. Great Bible scholars have disagreed about what is meant by some of these verses. We may prefer a world where everything is black or white, but in this passage are some shades of gray — and some dimly lit areas where it is hard to tell whether it is black, gray, or white.

I’ve encountered a lot of people who think they have the final answer on these subjects. I doubt I’ve ever encountered a mortal who really does. A good dose of humility and mercy are needed when helping people in these areas.

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2 comments

  1. Les McFall has an interested way to deal with the exception clause in Matthew 19:9. He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall’s paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.


  2. The pharisees came to Jesus with a question to test him: “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” Their question specifically related to the Mosaic law (“is it lawful…”) and Jesus’ answer was in that context. Quoting from the NET Bible translation notes:The Pharisees were all in agreement that the OT permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife (not vice-versa) and that remarriage was therefore sanctioned. But the two rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel differed on the grounds for divorce. Shammai was much stricter than Hillel and permitted divorce only in the case of sexual immorality. Hillel permitted divorce for almost any reason (cf. the Mishnah, m. Gittin 9.10).Jesus’ answer confirmed the more conservative Shammai position.Note, Jesus was not instituting a change in the Mosaic law (Matt 5:18). Rather, he was providing what had always been the proper interpretation of it. See Deut 24:1. Note that remarriage was not an issue for the man under Mosaic law. It was permissible to have multiple wives, so he could take another wife whether or not he divorced her.If the nuance about ει μη versus μη was a decisive point in the translation, I think you would find evidence of that in the many English translations available today. But for example, the excellent NET bible translation notes do not even make mention of the question. Not being a Greek scholar myself, I have to defer to those who are.



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