What does this mean?
Context and background
Let us begin by opening our Bibles to 1 Corinthians 7. As we skim through chapter 7 we are reminded that the topic of chapter 7 is marriage. The Corinthians have apparently asked some questions about God’s law regarding marriage and Paul is taking the opportunity at this point to address these questions. Verses 39-40 read, “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. But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment–and I think I also have the Spirit of God.” (NKJV)
Three possible answers
What we will notice is that there are three scriptural answers to this question. To answer this question what we will do is look at the reasons for the position and against the position. Then we will draw some concluding remarks and leave the decision in your hands. In each answer, there are some difficulties in the answer. What we will look for is the answer with the least amount of difficulties. Unfortunately the phrase “only in the Lord” is unique to this place in the scriptures. We cannot go to another place in the New Testament and read the phrase “only in the Lord” to know how to apply the statement. If this had been the case, the answer would be much simpler. Further, the phrase “in the Lord” has a number of meanings in the New Testament. We will note these meanings later in our study. Therefore, there are three possible and scriptural answers that we will concern ourselves with. (1) widows can only remarry Christians. (2) widows could only remarry Christians because of the present distress, but does not apply now. (3) “in the Lord” means to marry according to the law of God. Let us now deal with each of these three positions.
“Widows Can Only Marry Christians” position
Arguments in favor
This is the majority view. Nearly every commentary and scholarly work I picked up said that what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 7:39 is that a widow is only authorized to marry a Christian. The NIV translators were so sure that this is the meaning of the verse that they translated the verse differently to reflect this opinion. The NIV reads, “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.” This is clearly an interpretation of the verse since all other translators render the phase “only in the Lord.”
The greatest advantage to this position is that it is simple and straightforward. When reading this verse alone, it is the most natural answer to the passage. Further, the phrase “in the Lord” can refer to being a Christian. Romans 16:11, “Greet Herodion, my countryman. Greet those who are of the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.” Here Paul is clearly speaking to those who are Christians. To make the argument stronger, in 1 Corinthians 7, the very same chapter of the verse in question, Paul uses “in the Lord” to refer to Christians. Notice 1 Corinthians 7:22, “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave.” With this information before us and no other study done, it is easy to see why many would understand this passage to mean that a widow must only marry a Christian. If this was all that there was to the study, I would agree with the position present. However, let us notice the many difficulties that are presented by accepting such a viewpoint.
Let us begin with the most logical of arguments. No where in the scriptures do we read of any limitations upon whom a person may marry in regard to if they are Christians or not. In the very beginning, God commanded man to leave father and mother, be joined to his wife and the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Jesus teaches this principle himself in Matthew 19:4-15. This is general authority for all people to become married, unless there is specific prohibition, as we find in Matthew 19. But there is no specific prohibition against a Christian marrying a non-Christian. Many will misuse 2 Corinthians 6:14 to say that Paul is discussing marriage. But Paul is not discussing marriage and to make this passage a law that Christians can only marry Christians is something God never said.
Further, such an argument violates the very commands Paul gave earlier in 1 Corinthians 7. In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 Paul answers the Corinthians question about some of them being married to unbelievers. He does not tell them that being married to unbeliever is sin. In fact, Paul teaches the opposite. Christians married to unbelievers are to remain in marriage (7:12-13). Further Paul says that by being married to the unbeliever he or she may become a Christian (7:16). To say that a widow must marry a Christian violates Paul’s teaching here that the marriage is sanctified if married to an unbeliever.
If a widow marrying an unbeliever is a sin, then what must one do to repent of the sin? Put away the unlawful marriage. How else could a person repent of this action if it is a sin to marry an unbeliever? The only answer is through divorce. Is this what God has told us to do? Is this what we will preach to people that Christian widows must divorce unbelieving spouses? Again, this is in clear violation of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. Paul said if the unbeliever is content to dwell with the Christian, DO NOT DIVORCE.
What would be the logical argument to teach that widows must only marry Christians, but all other Christians do not have to? How can we justify teaching that there is logical sense for widows to marry Christians and not have all other Christians marry Christians as well? If God would command it of widows, why not for the rest of us? Some argue that it is better for widows to marry Christians. But that is true of all people. Others argue that widows needed to marry a Christian so the widow would be taken care of. But this is true of all Christians also.
If Paul was teaching widows to get remarried to only Christians, why did he not say that in his other letter regarding widows and marriage? Turn to Romans 7:2-3. In this passage Paul gives the exact same instructions as he does in 1 Corinthians 7:39 except he says nothing about marry Christians. Did Paul give a different command to the Corinthians than he did the Romans? Turn to 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Here Paul gives the instructions for widows in Ephesus. In verse 14 the younger widows are told to get remarried so that they will be taken care of. Nothing in this passage says that widows are to only marry Christians. Did Paul give a different command to the widows in Ephesus than he did in Corinth? No. We must be misunderstanding what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7 since all of these difficulties arise from this position.
Further, the statement by Paul in verse 39 would not make rational sense if “only in the Lord” refers to marrying Christians. Paul said that a widow is free to marry whomever she wishes. If a widow can only marry a Christian, then the widow is not free to marry whomever she wishes. It would be like me telling someone that they can go to any college in the United States as long as it is in West Palm Beach. The clause complete invalidates the statement about going to any college. This amounts to simple trickery. If Paul wanted to tell widows to only marry Christians, the simple statement would have been that widows are free to marry in the Lord. But he did not say it this way. He said they could marry whomever they wish. For “only in the Lord” mean marrying only Christians limits Paul’s statement of “marrying whomever they wish” to the point that it is not true.
“Widows Can Only Marry Christians but Applied During Present Distress” position
Arguments in favor
There are many aspects of Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 7 that are said in the light of the present distress that the Corinthians were enduring. We see Paul make reference to this in 1 Corinthians 7:26, “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress–that it is good for a man to remain as he is.” Paul certainly was not teaching that people for all time ought not be married. He said these words in light of the persecution that Corinthians were enduring. In verses 32-33 Paul explains why it is better to not be married during a persecution: “But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord–how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world–how he may please his wife.”
Further, it can be argued that verse 39 was written with the present distress in mind. This can be seen from the flow of the argument given in verse 40: “But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment–and I think I also have the Spirit of God.” Paul said that she is happier to remain as she is. Was Paul saying that all widows are better off not marrying? No, that cannot be since he instructed younger widows to be married so that they would be taken care of in 1 Timothy 5:14. Obviously, Paul is says these words in light of the persecution. It would be better for widows not to get remarried during the present distress the Corinthians would be enduring. It can be contextually argued that Paul commanded widows that if they were going to remain during those difficult times, then they must marry a Christian.
But there are also some difficulties with this position. One problem is that the argument begins to pick and choose what commands were given because of the present distress and what were not. If there is a command that we do not like, then just attribute the command to the present distress. I do not believe we have the liberty to be so free with the commands of God. Unless the passage clearly speaks in such a way so as we know it is referring to the present distress, then we must be careful to simply throw away commands we do not like or cannot explain.
Further, look carefully at verse 39 again. Is there anything in that verse which suggests that this command is referring to present distress? It does not seem to be the case. Further evidence of this is the fact that this principle that is given by Paul is given in other places in scripture. Romans 7:2-3 says the same thing as 1 Corinthians 7:39. Was Romans written in light of a present distress? No, it was not. It is a fundamental principle of marriage that a mate is bound to another as long as one of them lives. That was not a command that was true only in light of the present distress. It is a permanent command of God regarding marriage.
We should also argue from logic. If this command was given because of a persecution, as the position argues, then what benefit would the widow have from marrying another Christian? If Christians are being persecuted, why would marrying a Christian be an advantage? It seems that the opposite is true, that it would be an advantage to marry an unbeliever and possibly be able to avoid the persecution. One who accepts this position must come up with a logic reason why it would be in the best interest of a Christian during a persecution to marry an unbeliever.
“‘In The Lord’ Means According to the Law of God” position
Arguments in favor
The final way to look at this passage is to understand the statement “in the Lord” to not refer to marrying a Christian. Instead it is argued that “in the Lord” means according to the laws of God. There are many scriptures where the phrase “in the Lord” in used in such a way. Ephesians 6:1, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Colossians 3:18, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” These are two clear passages where Paul used the phrase “in the Lord” to refer to obeying God’s will and not to being a Christian. Paul is not telling children to only obey their parents if their parents are Christians. He is telling children to obey their parents because that is God’s will. The same for wives in Colossians 3. Paul is not telling wives to only submit to Christian husbands. He is telling wives to submit because this is the will of God.
Therefore Paul is telling the Corinthians that when a spouse dies, they are free to marry whomever they choose, according to the laws that God has given. In particular, they are free to marry according to the laws that Paul has just stated in chapter 7. Paul has just spent a whole chapter dealing with God’s legislation in marriage. Paul is reminding his readers that these commands are still in effect, even if your spouse dies.
The only objection in my mind to this position is that this position is not the most natural reading of the text. It does seem more natural to understand the passage as referring to marrying Christians. However, we have noted that while this may be a natural reading, it is full of too many conflicts and difficulties. Also, the use of the word “only” in verse 39 is a limiting factor. Paul is placing a limitation upon the widows in some sort of regard. Some argue that the word “only” is limiting the widows to only Christians. But this is not a necessary assumption.
The three positions have been presented. I currently believe “only in the Lord” refers to being married according to God’s law because it has the least amount of difficulties and do not conflict with any other inspired word of God. In fact, in light of all the commands that Paul has given in 1 Corinthians 7, it seems like a natural reading for verse 39 to say that a widow is allowed to remarry whomever they wish, as long as they obey the commands Paul has just given. Everyone in encouraged to study these things for themselves and come to a determination in regard to this scripture. I hope that this study will give you a good head start in helping you come to an answer regarding this passage.