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Some advocates of celibacy may have advocated the breakup of marriages. Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:10, 11,
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried [agamos], or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce [aphiemi, “send away”] his wife.
The issue at hand was whether married couples should separate in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality in their relationship with God. We do not know if this had become a problem in the church, or if Paul was anticipating a possible problem in the future. Nonetheless, he tells them that married couples should not separate, for this would break their marriage vow. This was not merely Paul’s opinion, but an instruction from the Lord.
It is unclear whether Paul was talking about divorce or separation. The verse itself does not mention divorce (apoluo), but separation (aphiemi). Earlier versions of the NASB read, “the husband should not send his wife away.” Only later was this changed to “the husband should not divorce his wife.” The earlier version was more accurate.
Paul did not use the term apoluo (“divorce”) here, although the NASB translators decided to insert their own opinion into the passage. Perhaps they were trying to change the divine law by forbidding divorce altogether, whereas God’s law gives provision for divorce as long as it is done without injustice. Deut. 24:1-4 allows divorce but specifies that a man must give his wife a written bill of divorce, so that she has written proof of it. That way, she may remarry without fear that her ex-husband might charge her and her second husband with adultery.
As for lawful causes of divorce, the law is largely silent, except in the case of a slave-wife who has been deprived of food, clothing, and conjugal relations (Exodus 21:10, 11). Such causes, no doubt, would also apply to one’s marriage to a freewoman, giving her legal cause to demand a writ of divorce.
For a longer study, see my book, The Bible Says, Divorce and Remarriage is NOT Adultery.
Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 7:10, 11 was in the context of the married couples in the church who may have thought that celibacy within marriage was a pious thing to do, or an acceptable sacrifice to God. Paul refutes this idea, making it clear that this instruction was from God and not merely his own opinion or preference.
We may extend this injunction beyond mere separation to include divorce itself, for this would not go beyond the spirit of Paul’s writing. The important factor is to understand the framework and context of Paul’s discussion. It is not good for married couples to refrain from sexual relations, whether by informal separation or by a formal divorce.
Paul speaks next about believers who are married to unbelievers. Some probably believed that the injunction not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14, KJV) required a believer to separate from or divorce the unbelieving spouse. Such an injunction, of course, applied to one’s decision to marry, not after he or she has actually become married. 1 Cor. 7:12, 13 says,
12 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, let him not send her away. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away.
Paul did not think that having an unbelieving spouse constituted grounds for divorce. However, keep in mind that Paul was careful to say that this was his opinion. After all, there may be extreme cases where an unbelieving spouse may do things which would indeed be grounds for divorce. A wife-beater, for example, could hardly be classed as a husband consenting to live with her. To insist upon a wife remaining with such a husband could be a death sentence upon her.
Further, husbands have been known to force their wives into prostitution, or to do other immoral and illegal acts. Such things could indeed be grounds for divorce, and, indeed, this is why God made provision for divorce in His law. He knew that in the corruptible state that mankind finds itself, marriages have a potential for great evil as well as for good.
Herein is the basic difference between an Old Covenant marriage and a New Covenant marriage. The first contains a provision for divorce out of necessity; the second finds no need for divorce, because both parties hear from God and serve Him and each other.
Yet in most cases, an unbelieving spouse loves his believing wife (and vice versa), and apart from some extraordinary circumstance, they ought to remain together. Though the law permits divorce, such a thing ought not to be done lightly or without lawful cause. If we look at the example of God’s marriage with Israel—especially pictured in the story of Hosea—we find that God considered idolatry to be spiritual adultery, and that this constituted grounds for divorce.
Even so, He did not divorce her immediately, but was patient with her for many centuries, enduring all the heartache that men and women on earth experience in such cases. In the end, however, He invoked His right of divorce, based on Deut. 24:1-4, giving Israel a writ of divorce (Jer. 3:8). Likewise, Hosea divorced Gomer (Hosea 2:2), who was a type of Israel.
In 1 Cor. 7:12, Paul, in a reverse manner, extends the right of divorce to wives as well as to husbands. By recommending that the believing wife not put away her husband, he acknowledges the possibility of doing so. There are some who think that wives are not permitted to divorce their husbands, as if they have no rights. But as we have already shown, even slave-wives have a right to appeal to the law if they have been deprived of food, clothing, and conjugal rights.
Likewise, Jesus Himself mentioned this right in Mark 10:11, 12. But since the NASB does not seem to recognize the distinction between divorce (apoluo) and putting away, or dismissal (aphiemi), we will quote from The Emphatic Diaglott, which says,
11 And He says to them, “Whoever shall dismiss [aphiemi] his wife and marry another, commits adultery with her. 12 And if she who dismisses [aphiemi] her husband, shall marry another, she commits adultery.
The context shows that Jesus was commenting on the law of divorce in Deut. 24:1-4, where it was unlawful to “dismiss” one’s wife without first giving her a writ of “divorce.” Divorce was supposed to happen before the dismissal, but too often men violated the law by dismissing their wives without a writ of divorce. This was an injustice, because it prevented her from remarrying, since she was still legally married to the husband who had dismissed her. Hence, if she remarried, she committed adultery, and whoever married her was also guilty of adultery.
In that context, Jesus assumes that wives, too, might dismiss their husbands in an unlawful manner—that is, without proper divorce papers. The sin was not in giving the divorce papers but in dismissing a spouse without those papers. To dismiss without divorce papers violates the rights of the dismissed spouse.
We see, then, that both Jesus and Paul mention the possibility of a woman taking legal action against her husband. That, in itself, is not condemned. It is only when it is done in an unlawful manner that Jesus condemns it, and in Paul’s example, a believing wife ought not to dismiss her unbelieving husband—at least not under normal circumstances.
1 Corinthians 7:14 concludes,
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified [hagiazo] through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified [hagiazo] through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy [hagia].
Some interpret this to mean that an unbeliever will be saved if he or she is married to a believer. It is certainly true that the virtuous life of the believer may influence the unbelieving spouse to come to Christ, but the marriage certificate in itself does not justify any unbeliever. All are justified by faith alone.
So what was Paul saying? The answer is found in the last part of the verse about their children. He was contrasting holy children with illegitimate children—those born outside of marriage. The Greek word translated “holy” is hagia. It is the same as “sanctified.” Just as the marital status legitimizes the sexual relations between husband and wife, so also does it legitimize their children.
While pagan couples may legitimize their marriage relationships at pagan temples and by ungodly governments, believers’ marriages are legitimized by God Himself, making the relationship “holy.” In cases where couples are unequally yoked together, the believers were not to dismiss their unbelieving spouses. God still recognizes such marriage, as long as at least one of them is a believer. For this reason, their children are also legitimate according to God’s law.
1 Corinthians 7:15 says,
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.
To “leave,” in this case, means to leave one’s marriage. Unbelief in itself is not a cause for divorce. In other words, believers should not divorce their unbelieving spouses. But if the unbelieving spouse does not want to remain married to a believer, he or she should be allowed to leave. Do not fight it, because “God has called us to peace.” A divorce should be granted, as the divine law allows.
Divorce is not a sin, unless it is done without cause or for frivolous reasons. Further, of course, even beyond the legal issues, one should be led by the Spirit in all things. If one acts within legal rights, but with carnal motives and leading, rather than by faith, it is still a sin, because “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 7:16, 17,
16 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? 17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches.
In other words, Paul’s counsel was that a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever was an opportunity for the believing spouse to manifest Christ to the other and thereby perhaps save him or her.
The leading of the Spirit is addressed in verse 17. The phrase, “as the Lord has assigned to each one,” refers to the divine plan that is unique to each person. It is unique because “God has called each” in a unique path. No two people are fully alike, so we should all be careful not to judge others by the different path that God has chosen for them.
This is Paul’s directive, not only to the Corinthian church, but to “all the churches.”
Paul then turns to related issues regarding the various paths and callings that God has given to people. Jews come to Christ, having been circumcised, while Greeks come to Christ in uncircumcision. Some come to Christ as slaves, others as freemen. Some come to Christ after they are married, others as singles. Whenever a person comes to Christ, the situation changes, and the person must then follow the leading of the Spirit according to the state in which he or she was at that moment in time.