1 Corinthians 7:12-16
May 6, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 13:50 in the audio file.
Or, God’s Will for Mixed Marriages and Divorce (and Remarriage?)
Life is messy. That’s too passive. People mess up their lives. Regularly. Badly.
People marry one another. Two people making a multitude of bad choices multiplies the mess. When two people multiply and make more people, the mess increases by a factor of sin.
God gave His Word so that we might know how to behave. God gave His Son so that we could get out from under our burden of guilt, and hope that broken relationships might be fixed. God gave His Spirit so that we might live in peace with one another.
Sometimes in the middle, between the making of messes and the grace of God that cleans up messes, men get the idea that they can help the process along. Men should obey, that’s true. But men don’t have the wisdom or the power to clean themselves up or to clean up their spouse. Christians with good intentions can make things worse in many directions.
The Corinthians were trying to sweep up dust by kicking broken bricks around the floor, trying to lift their holiness to a higher level without using their hands. They also thought Paul would approve. He didn’t, and 1 Corinthians 7 corrects a bunch of their misdirected attempts.
They thought, at least some of them did, that sex messed up marriage, so spouses should stay out of bed. Paul said not having sex would mess up marriage (verses 1-5). They thought that being single was ideal, and probably used Paul as an example. He said being single was good with contentment, and it was not good for everyone (verses 6-9). They thought that being single was so spiritual that separating from one’s spouse would be better. Paul reminded them of the Lord’s teaching about divorce. Separation from one’s spouse can’t be more pleasing to God because separation doesn’t please God (verses 10-11).
Thankfully, we don’t need to guess how to please God.
Now Paul comes to a final group in the church in verses 12-16. He addressed the unmarried and widows, the married, and now “the rest” who are the rest of the married but who are in a mixed marriage, that is, where one spouses is a believer and the other spouse is not. Paul is not talking about who to marry, he’s talking about those who were already in covenant when either the husband or the wife came to Christ.
If the Corinthians were leaning toward divorce from a Christian spouse for sake of holiness, how much more would divorcing a non-Christian spouse make sense? Paul himself said that the sexual relation is a joining relation, and sexual immorality joins the Lord to immorality. Isn’t this joining Christ to the immoral?
The Corinthians believed they knew better about being holy. Paul reveals God’s will for mixed marriages, and divorce, and remarriage. There are two parts to the paragraph, both involving consent, both necessary to hold together.
Paul doubles the imperative for both directions in verses 12-13 and then provides a reason in verse 14.
To the rest addresses another group of married couples (so, not the unmarried), but unlike the married in verses 10-11, these verses address any brother who has a wife who is an unbeliever and also any woman who has a husband who is an unbeliever. This is a mixed marriage.
Marriage is hard, because gravity pulls things down, and a man and woman often hit their heads trying to pick things up, or complain that the other one isn’t helping enough. There is always a lot to do and decisions spiral around the house like dandelion seed. Even those marriages where both spouses worship the same God and share the same convictions on the authority of God’s Word have troubles. Mixed marriages are notorious examples of conflict.
The Corinthians presumed that physical contact with a believing spouse was bad for Christian living, how much more so daily contact with an unbelieving spouse. As Paul told them, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). And you’re sleeping with leaven?
Reading Ezra might confirm their position. Ezra condemned the Israelites for taking pagan wives and commanded them to divorce (Ezra 10, especially verses 10-11). Solomon provides another example since his wives turned his heart away from serving the Lord.
What does the Lord say to a Christian with an unbelieving spouse? Well, the Lord doesn’t say anything, not directly. Paul begins this paragraph, To the rest I say (I, not the Lord), unlike in verse 10, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord).” This is not actually a big deal. The charge in verses 10-11 comes directly from Jesus’ teaching. The instruction in verses 12-16 come directly from the Spirit’s inspiration. The Lord, Jesus, never taught first-generation Christians who became Christians once they were already married.
Paul’s instructions are not subjective, they are given by the Spirit. Even though there wasn’t a map already drawn, that doesn’t make these directions merely Paul’s personal opinion. If you are here, here you go.
He says, if the unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believing spouse, the believing spouse should not divorce. Paul says it to the brothers, he says it to the women. If the unbeliever is willing to stay together, God’s will is to stay together. Don’t divorce.
He could have said marriage is good because God instituted marriage. God made marriage to be permanent (Genesis 2:24), Jesus affirmed it (Matthew 19:5), and the previous paragraph repeated it.
But Paul reasons from a different angle, an angle that highlights their concern. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. We also don’t need to be confused by this.
Being made holy cannot mean being “saved.” Verse 16 describes salvation as a possibility (whether likely or unlikely, as we’ll see), but made holy is a present reality based on something done. This holiness, or “sanctification” (NASB), is not a personal or moral improvement. It does not make the unbeliever pleasing to God. It does, though, put the unbeliever in a position to receive blessing overflow that God gives to the believer.
Blessings abound wher’er the believing spouse does her successive meal preps run. The power position belongs to the Christian, whether husband or wife. Being the head of the house can’t make the non-Christian wife know the joy of submission, but it can make the prospect of submission more appealing. Not being the head of the house may be more challenging, but Peter told wives married to unbelieving husbands that they could win their husbands “without a word” by Christian conduct (1 Peter 3:1-6).
So, Corinthians, you don’t need to divorce your non-Christian spouse in order to stay clean. Your marriage is good (unlike relations with a prostitute, 6:15-17), and your unsaved spouse can’t defile you any more than dirty water can defile soap.
And don’t worry about the kids either. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. This does not mean that your children are “in the covenant” any more than that your spouse is “in the covenant.” But your children are given “holy” privileges such as being exposed day by day to you, to salt and light, to a flesh and blood recipient and conduit of grace.
God’s will for mixed marriages is not divorce when the unbelieving spouse consents to live in marriage. Your covenant and his/her consent require staying together. You are free to bless your unbelieving spouse who stays without fear of being contaminated.
I gave away my position, which is the position of all our pastors. Not all Christians agree, but let’s look at the verses. As in verses 12-14 there is a principle and a reason.
Why didn’t Paul write more words here? He didn’t think he needed to, obviously, and neither did the Spirit move him to. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
This is a different case. Again, in verses 10-11 the case involved two Christian spouses. Starting in verse 12 we see cases of mixed marriages. Up to verse 15 the non-Christian spouse consented to stay and so the Christian spouse should not seek divorce. This is a case of no consent.
Why wouldn’t an unbelieving spouse want the peripheral blessings of being married to a believer? Why didn’t every unbeliever see the glory of Christ and become a disciple? Darkness hates light. The unrighteous get antsy around the righteous. God can and does use those who adorn the gospel to draw His elect to Himself, but not always, and we don’t know who the elect are anyway. If the unbeliever separates, if he or she abandons the marriage, physically and/or then legally, it is a divorce, let it be so. Hate divorce, know that God desires reconciliation, and also hear His word.
Note that the unbeliever takes the first step. Also, if the unbeliever wants to separate it should be because he/she doesn’t appreciate your holiness, not because he/she doesn’t appreciate your hypocrisy. Don’t be a “jerk for Jesus” and claim that it’s because of Jesus.
In the next sentence in verse 15 we see the new legal status. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved, or “is not under bondage” (KJV, NASB). Slavery or bondage to what? Why is this declaration necessary?
It’s the same language Paul uses about being free from the marriage law when a spouse dies (Romans 7, 1 Corinthians 7:39). Paul repeats his, and the Lord’s, commitment to marriage throughout this chapter. The marriage bond is a bond that must be kept. No divorce is the rule, with exceptions in a couple cases.
Jesus gave an exception 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). When a spouse abandons the marriage in adultery, a legal divorce may be an option that recognizes the sexual divorce. Divorce is not required, but it is permitted.
The same is true with the case of an unbelieving spouse who wants out. Do everything in Christ’s name you can to keep him or her, but if he refuses, you are free, and that is more than freedom to remain celibate, that is freedom to remarry. It is still bondage to the law (of marriage) if the believing spouse cannot remarry.
God has called you to peace. And this is true regardless of what the strict law-keepers in the congregation tell you. “No [disgust] on the part of Christians has a right to bind such a believing, deserted spouse” (Lenski).
We could take this verse in one of at least two ways. Either Paul means to encourage believers to trust God by staying in the marriage or he means to encourage believers to trust God by not being anxious about the unbelieving spouse leaving.
For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? Does Paul mean to provoke optimism or realism? “Wife, you can save your husband, stick with it!” Or, “Wife, you can’t be certain you’ll save your husband anyway, so lay the burden down.”
If verse 16 was verse 15, meaning, if verse 16 came directly after verses 12-14, then we would have good reason to take it in the positive sense. “You already sanctify your spouse, it could lead to salvation.” But it doesn’t come after verse 14. It comes after Paul’s consent that without the unbeliever’s consent the believer is not bound. You are not bound because God’s election is unseen to us before conversion, and He does not identify the agent of another’s conversion either. “Let your spouse go, and don’t feel guilty about it because you can’t presume that you would have been used by God to save him.”
This messes up Christians who prefer tidy categories. We don’t hold tension well, but God’s will is written down and shows us different cases. God says, don’t divorce. In many cases, divorce followed by remarriage equals adultery. But those are not the only cases. In certain cases, and such cases they require elders to ask questions and get involved, divorce is allowable and remarriage is also allowable.
How many dysfunctions and difficulties are there to deal with, in our own homes, our extended family, our church body, our work and neighborhood connections?
If you are longing to be free, why? Desire to get free may be why you are in the condition you’re in, but certainly not always. A gracious unwillingness to see your spouse depart is a good unwillingness even if it need not be a immutable position.
Don’t get out too soon for grace to work. There is great reason to be encouraged that God will work. And don’t be bound by a law in conscience when God calls you to peace. There is a weighty freedom that the Lord offers.
The ideal would be to stay together with consent. In this world, that doesn’t always happen.
It’s said about writers that many don’t want to write, they want to have written. Isn’t that true for believers? We don’t want to believe in the unseen, we want to have believed in the unseen, but now we see. We don’t want to hope. That implies that we’re not where we want to be or we don’t have what we’re promised, not yet. But hope that is visible isn’t hope, and it’s not much of a story. He is the God of hope, which means He’s written a lot of pages where you don’t know what’s coming on the next page, and your cheerful, dependent ignorance is makes for a glorious character.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13, ESV