1 Corinthians Bible Study (Correcting Corruption) The Marriage Rules

1 Corinthians 7:12-24, When Married To An Unbeliever


The apostle Paul continues to answer questions the Corinthian church has regarding marriage and sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 7. Verse 12 the apostle Paul says that he is addressing, “the rest.” Who are “the rest?” Paul has already addressed the unmarried (7:8-9), the married (7:10-11), the divorced (7:11), and widows (7:8). So who can “the rest” be? Verse 12 explains to us that we are dealing with a believer who is married to an unbeliever.

Now we need to ask why this would be a question for the Corinthians? Why wouldn’t these Christians just assume that the marriage laws applied to them the same way? We need to understand their background and culture to help us understand why they are having a problem. In Greek homes, wives were expected to worship the gods of their husbands (Baker, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 104). One can immediately see the problem that would arise. We have a married couple and if the wife became a Christian, she would be expected to worship the gods of her husband, which she could not do as a follower of Jesus. In the same way, if the husband became a Christian, the wife would be expected to worship the Lord which she may not be willing to do. Not only was this an issue in the Greek culture, but it also was an issue in the Jewish culture. In Judaism, marriage to a non-Jew was not considered a valid marriage (Baker, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 104). We see this played out in a practical way in Ezra 10 where we see the Jewish husbands putting away the foreign wives they had married. So in Corinth we have this mixture of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians and they do not know what to do now they have come to Christ but the spouse remains an unbeliever. What should they do? This is what Paul must address. This is why Paul begins in verse 12 by saying, “I, not the Lord.” Paul is not teaching his opinion. This is the authoritative, God-breathed teaching of the Lord. What Paul is saying is that Jesus did not address this issue when he was on the earth. One cannot turn to Matthew 19 to get the answer to this question like one could regarding verses 10-11.

Do Not Divorce (7:12-14)

Paul’s direction concerning this situation is not surprising. Do not divorce. Paul tells both the wife and the husband that they are not to divorce their unbelieving spouse (7:12-13). Once again we are able to see the practical truth that God’s marriage laws apply to all people for all time under all covenants. The two have become one flesh (Genesis 2:24), even though they were both unbelievers and one has now come to Christ. God has joined them together and they are not to separate (Matthew 19:6). Now Paul must explain why this is the case in their circumstance. Isn’t this wrong that they are married to an unbeliever? Isn’t this a sin because they do not have a Christian spouse? Paul explains in verse 14.

In verse 14 Paul states that the unbelieving spouse is made holy because of the Christian spouse. We understand that the apostle Paul cannot be saying that the unbelieving spouse is saved because he or she is married to a Christian. Paul does not say the spouse is saved. In fact, in verse 16 Paul is offering the possibility that the unbelieving spouse may eventually be saved. But the unbelieving spouse is not saved because of the marriage. Holiness did not mean salvation in the Old Testament. The point Paul is making is that the purity of the marriage is not contaminated by the unbelieving spouse. The spouse is not defiled. The spouse is not to be considered contaminated or unclean. The relationship is not impure. Paul proves his point by saying that this kind of thinking would mean that your children were unclean also. But they are not unclean. They are not defiled. The simple point is that there is nothing sinful about this relationship. Stay in the marriage. Do not divorce, even if your spouse is not a Christian.

What If They Divorce? (7:15-16)

But the apostle Paul recognizes that not all of these unbelieving spouses will consent to remain in the marriage. Some will want nothing to do with Christianity. There will be wives who will refuse to worship the true God. There will be husbands who will be unwilling to see their wives not worshiping their family gods. If the unbelieving spouse is unwilling to stay but divorces, Paul says “let it be so.” There was nothing the Christian could do about it. The situation then is the same today. If a spouse is going to divorce you, you do not have some way to stop that. But Paul explains further in verse 15.

“In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” What does this mean? If you have a NIV, HCSB, NET, NLT, or NRSV I am going to ask you to make some notes in your Bible regarding this verse. Those translations read that “the brother or sister is not bound.” This is not an incorrect translation but can easily communicate the wrong thing. Here is the problem with using the word “bound.” Paul is not using the Greek word that he uses elsewhere to describe the marriage bond. This Greek word douloo is never used in the New Testament to refer to the marriage bond (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:27, 39; Romans 7:2). This is for good reason because this Greek word means, “to enslave, oppress by retaining in servitude.” Marriage is not called slavery. We might call it that but God never calls marriage slavery or being enslaved. Thus, the NASB and NKJV rightly use the word “bondage.” I believe the ESV is the best by reading, “The brother or sister is not enslaved.” Paul is not referring to the marriage bond.

Some have explained this text to mean that the Christian is not bound or enslaved to maintain their marital obligations to the one who has departed. But this answer really does not make sense. The spouse has left. It is impossible to maintain your marital obligations. I do not believe that these Christians were thinking that they were to still try to perform their obligations of marriage even when the spouse has moved out and moved on.

So we are left with asking an important question if we are going to understand this text. What is Paul saying that the Christian is not enslaved to such that if the unbeliever leaves, let him or her leave? Our context has helped us that we have a situation where the spouse will not stay with you because of your faith. What are you supposed to do? What you are supposed to do is let the spouse leave. We are not called upon for forfeit our faith in Jesus to preserve the marriage.

The Greek tense of douloo reflects this understanding. Paul used the perfect tense of the word. The English does not bear out the perfect tense in verbs very well. In the Greek, the perfect tense of the word means “the action was completed at some time in the past, and the results continue up to the present.” To use our sentence in 1 Corinthians 7:15 in the perfect tense we would say that a person was enslaved in the past and continue to be enslaved in the present. Notice that Paul says that the brother or sister is “not enslaved.” Therefore, Paul is saying to the let the unbeliever leave because the brother or sister was not enslaved in the past and continues to not be enslaved.

This confirms that Paul cannot be talking about the marriage bond. He cannot be saying that you let the unbeliever depart because you were not married and you are still not married. What could Paul say about this relationship that the believer was not enslaved in the past to the unbeliever and continues to not be enslaved? Our answer earlier works for the perfect tense. The Christian was not enslaved to forfeit the faith in the past and continues to not be enslaved to forfeit their faith. Just like the laws of the land, we are commanded to obey them. But we are not enslaved to obey them when they cause us to disobey God. We continue to not be enslaved in that way. In the same way, these Christians have unbelieving spouses who are leaving because they are Christians. Paul says to let them leave because you are not enslaved to disobey God in order to remain in the marriage.

“But God has called you to peace.” This returns to his initial teaching in verses 12-13. Do not cause unnecessary strife by divorcing on religious grounds when an unbelieving spouse has agreed to remain in the marriage. God has called you to peace is yet another reason to keep the marriage together. Christians must not be initiating divorces from unbelievers. In verse 16 Paul continues to explain why the Christian should remain in the marriage. You do not know whether you will save your husband or wife. You do not know if they may come to the faith. So have peace in the marriage relationship. To use 1 Peter 3:1, win your spouse over without a word but by your godly conduct.

Please notice that Paul does not authorize remarriage in this scenario. Now that we have established that Paul is not speaking about the marriage bond in verse 15, we must see that there is no authorization for remarriage. As we noted in the last lesson, no one can assume the right to remarriage. Jesus clearly taught that if there is a divorce and remarriage for any reason except sexual immorality, then the remarriage is adultery. The principles of God’s universal marriage laws are not set aside or altered. We will see that Paul will specify when one does have the right to marry when he speaks to the widows in verse 39. He grants their remarriage right there as well as back in verse 8.

Remain In The Condition You Were Called (7:17-24)

Now most people stop right here in the study as if Paul was done speaking to the Christian who is married to the unbeliever. But please notice in verse 17 that Paul did not change his audience. Paul is very clear in the paragraph when he changes the group he is speaking to. In verse 8, “to the unmarried and widows.” In verse 10, “to the married.” In verse 12, “to the rest.” Notice that verse 17 does not offer a new teaching or new group. The next group does not appear until verse 25, “Now concerning the betrothed.”

Therefore, when Paul writes for these Christians to remain in the condition they were called, he speaking to these Christians who are married to unbelievers. They were not to change their marriage condition because they have come to Christ and are married to unbelievers. The apostle Paul uses two illustrations to prove the need to stay in that marriage to an unbeliever.

First, Paul uses circumcision (7:18-20). If you were circumcised when you came to Christ, then you were to remain circumcised and not try to remove those marks. If you were uncircumcised, you were not to seek circumcision. Being circumcised or uncircumcised does not matter (7:19). In the same way, a Christian married to an unbeliever is not an issue and a Christian was not to change that condition (7:20).

The second illustration is to use slavery (7:21-24). If you were a slave when you came to Christ, do not be concerned about it. You can be a slave and be a Christian. If you were free when you came to Christ, you can be free and be a Christian. Paul says that these things do not matter for the earthly slave is free in Christ (cf. Galatians 5:1) and the free person on earth is a slave to the Lord. We belong to the Lord, regardless of our physical condition or situation. Therefore, remain with God in the condition you were in when you came to Christ (7:24). The point, again, is that the Christian is not to divorce the unbeliever but remain in the marriage. This is the context of this paragraph. To insert any other marital situation is to insert something that Paul did not have in mind.

Many try to use these verses to teach that you can remain in whatever marriage you are in when you came to Christ. So whatever your marriage situation, you stay in that marriage you were in when you came to Christ. We have already studied why this cannot be possible in our previous study, “Is Divorce Okay?” There is nowhere that we can turn to in the scriptures to teach that something that is a sinful situation while an unbeliever now becomes acceptable when one becomes a believer! How can a situation that is sinful before coming to Christ now be acceptable after coming to Christ? It does not work. Coming to Christ does not make everything we are doing acceptable. We are forgiven of our sins when we come to Christ, but we are repeatedly called in the New Testament to change our lives, put on the new self, and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. God never says that your sinful ways are now acceptable because you are now a Christian! We cannot continue in sin thinking that grace will abound (Romans 6:1). Being a Christian means that we are dead to the life of sin, not continuing in sinful circumstances (Romans 6:1-8). Paul is not speaking about sinful marriages in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 and telling them to stay in those marriages. Paul is telling Christians married to unbelievers to stay in those marriages because (1) the spouse is not defiled (7:14), (2) you were called to peace (7:15), (3) you may save your spouse (7:16), and (4) being married to unbeliever has no bearing on your salvation (7:19,21).


We must be careful students of the scriptures. Just because we have numbers or headers in our Bibles does not mean that the thought or argument of the author has stopped. Be careful students. In this paragraph we see a continuation of what Paul started in verse 10. God’s law is that people do not divorce. We are granted one marriage for life. There are rare exceptions to this rule in the New Testament, but being married to an unbeliever is not one of them. You are to stay married to the unbeliever. But if the unbeliever leaves you because of your faith in Christ, then let it be so. It is not what God wants, but you are not called and have never been called for sacrifice your faith in Christ for your marriage.

Let me end by saying that it is important that we see more of this attitude. Christians cannot cave into the wishes of the spouse when it comes to our faith and our service to the Lord. If your spouse does not want to come to worship, you go anyway. If he or she does not want to pray, you pray anyway. If your spouse does not want to go to a Bible study, you go anyway. If you spouse does not want to teach or serve in the kingdom, you serve anyway. You have never been enslaved to forfeiting your work in God’s kingdom for the maintaining of the marriage. If anything, you need to show that your faith in the Lord trumps all things so that they can be won over without a word. Please be encouraged to continue to serve the Lord faithfully, even when your spouse is not being faithful to the Lord.

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