One of the big questions regarding marriage is if it is okay to divorce. In our society it is simply assumed that divorce is acceptable for any reason. People declare “irreconcilable differences” and file divorce at an alarming rate. Is this what God had in mind for marriage? While the laws of our country may allow divorce for any reason, what does God say about it? In 1 Corinthians 7:8-11 the apostle Paul addresses the unmarried and the married and gives directions for how they must live.
To The Unmarried and Widows (7:8-9)
Paul begins by addressing the unmarried and the widows. Immediately there are frequent questions and controversy about who is being addressed. Who belongs in the “unmarried” category? Paul’s addition of “widows” to this group helps us understand who is in view. If the apostle Paul had only said, “To the unmarried,” we would be compelled to understand Paul referring to any person who is single. But because the apostle Paul says “and the widows” we are compelled to reconsider who “the unmarried” are. The unmarried must refer to people who have never been married. If Paul meant all people who are single, then saying “widows” is redundant. Rather, Paul has in mind those who have never been married and also those who have lost their spouse because of death. To say this another way, the apostle Paul is referring to people who have a right to marriage. In Genesis 2:24 God gives every person the right and privilege to one marriage. Many want to include the divorced in this category of “unmarried,” but as we will see in verses 10-11, Paul does not have them in mind at all in verses 8-9 (which we will examine in greater detail in a moment). Thiselton agrees that this Greek word translated “unmarried” can be used to denote those who are have not yet married (Thiselton, 104).
Paul instructs the unmarried and the widows to remain as he is. The ESV, NRSV, NIV, and NLT add “remain single” which is the likely meaning. Is Paul saying that it is better to live a single life over getting married? As we noted in the last lesson, I will strongly contend against this interpretation. God declared that the one thing that was not good in his creation was that man was alone. God is the giver of the institution of marriage. Paul cannot be arguing that there is a higher spirituality or morality in being single over being married. This would contradict how the rest of scriptures describe the blessings and benefits of marriage. We must remember that the apostle Paul is dealing with issues and questions that are coming from the Corinthians church. Unfortunately we do not have their questions before us. But we are able to assume some of the questions and issues the Corinthians had by examining how Paul responds. Verse 8 gives us a sense that there is a question about living a single life. There is a question about living single being acceptable before God. We must remember that we are not dealing with societies that lived the single life, but were encouraged and recommended to marry. This was even stronger in the Jewish culture where rabbis were expected to be married. Again, we are reading counter cultural teachings to the first century. Paul declares that it is good to be single as he is. It is acceptable before God. It is morally good before God. There is nothing wrong with living the single life.
We should emphasis this point because our culture has had a long track record of this kind of thinking, especially in the church. There is nothing wrong with someone who is not married. Single people, particularly single Christians, do not need to be asked repeatedly when they are going to get married. They do not have to be married. It is good that they are not married. They can live a full, acceptable, God-pleasing life being single. I believe this is the point Paul is communicating to the Christians at Corinth who are under similar pressures and therefore have questions about remaining single.
However, Paul makes something very clear. Being single means exercising self-control over your physical desires. This verse is a very important verse to show that sexual relations before marriage and outside of marriage is utterly condemned by God. The single life means the celibate life, according to the Lord. If you do not want to accept that life, then marriage is the only place where those desires are to be fulfilled. “To burn” was a familiar and common metaphor for lust with widespread use in Jewish and pagan sources. This is why all the translations add “to burn with passion” or “sexual desires.” Therefore, the apostle Paul reminds them that marriage is the answer for those desires and one must not be overcome with their lusts and passions while trying to live the single life and lose their soul over it. As we noted in the last lesson, Paul is not saying that the purpose of marriage is to fulfill your desires. So if you can’t control yourself, get married. That is not his point. His point is to remind what is at stake in living as a single. Being single you must maintain sexual purity and exercise self-control. Marriage is the only lawful place for physical desires to be satisfied.
To The Married (7:10-11)
Now Paul turns his attention to the married and gives directions for them. Notice that what Paul says he is teaching is the very same thing that Jesus taught when he walked the earth. The charge that he is giving in these two verses is nothing new. Recall what Jesus taught:
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3–6 ESV)
Notice that this is exactly what Paul declares in verse 10. “The wife should not separate from her husband.” Notice also verse 11: “The husband should not divorce his wife.” When we read Paul’s command not to separate, please do not think of our legal separation status today. In those societies there was no such thing as a separation. Once you left, you were divorced. You could not be separated but still married like you can today. Divorce and separate are the same meaning in the New Testament, as seen in Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:6. “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” The word “separate” also was a word used in the secular writings in that time for divorce also. Don’t divorce!
God does not follow the culture or the laws of the land. God does not care what our laws say about marriage, divorce, or remarriage. The world needs to hear this teaching. Marriage is to be for life. Do not divorce. Enter into marriage as a covenant that will not be broken as long as you live. You actually say those words in your vows to your spouse and before God when you get married. You said in your vows, “Till death do us part.” This is a serious vow and it is God’s intention for marriage. Do not divorce. One man and one woman for life is what God created in marriage in Genesis 2. Jesus confirmed that teaching in Matthew 19. Paul confirmed that teaching here in 1 Corinthians 7.
Notice again the equality Paul has regarding husbands and wives. The rules are exactly the same. Thiselton notes, “Divorce was frequent and very easily executed in Roman society of the day, especially when a man wanted to divorce a woman” (Thiselton, 105). In Jewish society, women divorcing men was rare, but was more common by comparison in the Greek and Roman society. But with God, men and women are equal regarding the rights for marriage. The rule of our Lord is do not divorce.
What we learn is that we are not in a contract. A contract is like our cell phone service. They provide you a service and if you are happy with your service you stay with them. But if you do not like what they are doing, then you move to another carrier and stay with them as long as we are happy. This is a contract and today many treat marriage as a contract. It is a sinful attitude. Your marriage vows were not that you would love each other as long as the other person did certain things for you. You did not say that you will take out the trash as long as she does the dishes. She did not say that she would make dinner as long as you make a lot of money. You did not enter into a contract. You entered into a covenant. You said you were staying in the marriage regardless of what the other person does. You said that you in for richer or poorer, for health or sickness, or for any other circumstance. If you are living in a cardboard box, we are in it together. That is a marriage covenant. This is what God modeled for us in covenant. God loves us and is in this for our good, even when we are complete sinners. We are in covenant in marriage also.
What To Do If Divorced
Paul continues in his directions recognizing that divorce will occur. This does not mean that divorce is lawful before God. If divorce was lawful, then he would not have said in this paragraph: do not divorce. Wives don’t divorce your husbands and husbands don’t divorce your wives. Verse 11 is not granting permission for divorce but instructing what one is supposed to do if divorce occurs. Divorce is a sin, but a person is not free and clear if one gets a divorce. God has governed what must be done.
If a person gets a divorce, the person must remain unmarried or be reconciled to the spouse. That is God’s law. Notice that a person does not get to marry again. In our world we just assume remarriage for all reasons. But that is not what God commanded. God said that if you do divorce, you have only two options. You must either stay single or your must reconcile to the spouse you married.
What About Unbelievers?
Now we need to deal with a common response to this teaching. It is often quickly pointed out that the apostle Paul wrote this to Christians, which he did. Therefore, they will say that this teaching does not apply to unbelievers. Therefore, if you are divorced and remarried a bunch of times before coming to Christ, it does not matter. But once you come to Christ, you must remain in that marriage. Let me show you why this is completely wrong. Yes, this teaching was given to Christians. But Paul says that what he is teaching what the Lord taught and is nothing new, which we read in Matthew 19:6. When Jesus gave his command, he was speaking to the Jews. Did Jesus’ teaching only apply to the Jews? No. This teaching was for all people, as Paul uses it also for these Corinthian Christians. But we must press this further. When Jesus gives his teaching in Matthew 19, was he only giving the law for Israel or those under the Law of Moses? No, because look at the basis of his teaching. Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24, which goes all the way back to creation. Who was God giving marriage to in Genesis? These marriage laws were not given to Christians, because Christians did not exist yet. Nor were these marriage laws given to Israel because Israel did not exist either. God gave these laws to Adam and Eve, and therefore to all of humanity. It does not matter if you are a believer or unbeliever. God’s marriage laws are universal and apply to all people at all times. This is what Jesus is saying. This is what God’s law was from the beginning: one man and one woman for life. Therefore, what God joins together, people are not to separate.
What Happens If The Divorced Remarry?
Now we need to answer a question that Paul does not deal with but is commonly asked. What does it mean if I am divorced and I did remarry? God commanded to not divorce. But you did. God commanded if you did divorce, then you are not to get married again or be reconciled to your divorce spouse. But you did not follow that either. You got married to someone else. What does God say this means? Turn again to the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:9
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 ESV)
Jesus says that if you divorce your spouse and marry someone else you have committed adultery. The only occasion where you have not committed adultery is if your divorce was for the cause of sexual immorality. Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount.
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32 ESV)
Notice if you were married, got a divorce, and marry another person you have committed the sin of adultery. Also, notice that if your spouse divorced you and the divorce was not for sexual immorality, then if you get married you are also committing adultery. Both the person who caused the divorce and the person who was divorced are committing adultery if they remain. This explains why Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 7:11 that if you are divorced, you must remain unmarried or be reconciled. To get remarried means you are committing adultery if the divorce was not for sexual immorality.
Our Lord teaches us something very important. Remarriage is not a right. Remarriage is not granted to all people. Being single does not mean you have the right to get married. This is why we must understand 1 Corinthians 7:8 when Paul speaks of the “unmarried” as those who have the right to be married, not just people who are single. Not all single people have the right to be married.
Is My Marriage Still Sinful?
There is one more issue we must address at this point. Some will say agree that the divorce was wrong and the remarriage was wrong. They will agree that adultery was committed when they remarried, just as Jesus said. But now we are married. Can we stay in our marriage relationship? Is this marriage sinful or can we repent and remain in the marriage? Paul’s teaching to the Romans is instructive at this point.
For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Romans 7:2–3 ESV)
Notice that the person who was married who leaves for another is considered an adulteress as long as the spouse lives. Notice that she is not called an adulteress until she repents. The picture is that she is still bound to her husband while he lives. Again, this is why Paul said if you divorce, you must remain unmarried or be reconciled. This is why Jesus said that if you marry again you are committing adultery. You are still bound to another person. Repentance and sorrow is a very good start but you are still in an unlawful marriage. You are still an adulterer or adulteress as long as the spouse lives. Therefore, the law given by Jesus and Paul must remain. You need to return to an unmarried state or reconcile with your former spouse to no longer be an adulterer or adulteress.
I recognize the complications that this can create. I am happy to speak in private with any person about their marital condition to help know how to apply these marriage laws. I recognize that we can make some pretty complicated situations and it can be hard to know what to do to be right before the Lord. We want to help you with this. Please meet with us so that we can help you understand how to apply the word of the Lord to your life situation.
Please consider that we must never reject the teaching of our Lord, no matter how difficult the command may be. The Lord is the master who has saved us from our sins. We must submit to his marriage laws. He created marriage for us and we are governed by those laws. Please do not resist the Lord but serve him and submit to him.