In the last essay we studied 1 Cor. 7:1-7, which discussed the situation of married Christians. Then at verse eight Paul shifts his attention from married Christians to the “unmarried and widows.” Since Paul mentions “widows,” who obviously were unmarried, in addition to the “unmarried,” that indicates that Paul has a more limited group in mend when he used the term “unmarried.” In other words he didn’t mean all unmarried people. When he comes back to the subject of the “unmarried” in verse 25, he uses the very specific term “virgins.” Thus that may be the more limited group Paul had in mind.
There is a wrinkle connected with the term “widows” as well. Fee makes a case for translating it “widowers,” rather than “widows.” And he suggests that it might include divorced people as well. In any case, verse eight confuses many, because it seems to differ from what we see in verse seven. However, we do not yet have the total context. In order to get that total context we must jump ahead in the passage to verses 25-40, where Paul comes back to the subject of the unmarried.
When we do that, we see that verse 26 introduces the main contextual consideration. This verse is extremely important, because if we miss its message, we will miss the proper understanding of what Paul is saying in the entire chapter. The reason he is giving such radical advice to people is “because of the impending crisis” (NRSV), or “present crisis” (NIV). In other words, Paul sees something happening, or coming in the near future, probably serious persecution. And he gears his advice to that situation. In verse 28 he tells them that those who marry will face “distress” (NRSV) or “many troubles” (NIV). The Greek literally says that they will have “affliction in the flesh.”
Coming back to verses eight and nine, Paul is telling the widows, widowers, and divorced, that they should remain single under these difficult conditions. But he literally says, as the NRSV translates, “But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.” In other words some of these people were not practicing self-control. Presumably they were among those who were going to prostitutes. Thus it would be better for them to marry than “to burn.” Now he may have meant, as the NRSV and NIV translate, “to burn with passion,” but he also could have meant burn in judgment. The context favors the former, because God’s judgment is not found anywhere in the context.
Now then, in verses 10 and 11, Paul speaks to yet another group; namely, Christians married to Christians. We know that Paul is speaking to Christians married to Christians in these verses, because he speaks to “the rest” of them in verses 12 through 16; and “the rest” turn out to be Christians married to non-Christians. Thus we conclude that verses 10-11 contain Paul’s advice to Christians married to Christians. And his main concern is divorce.
The word translated “separate” in verse ten has to mean “divorce,” because in verse eleven Paul declares that a separated woman is to remain single, or else be reconciled to her husband. Thus Paul interpreted the Lord to be saying, in respect to married believers, that divorce is not permitted. But if it does occur to a woman, she is not to marry someone else. She is to hope for reconciliation to her husband. This principle also would apply to men.
Now a subtlety must be brought into the discussion at this point. In Paul’s day, there was no such thing as legal separation, as in our culture. The only way an abused woman, for example, could legally separate from her husband was by means of a divorce. And Paul, who is dealing with practical realities, is seeking to preserve Jesus’ teaching about the ideal in a non-ideal situation. Paul keeps the spirit of Christ’s command; but at the same time, he provides a means of protection for a believing wife who needs it.
The conclusions in respect to two believers are these. First, Paul follows Jesus’ teaching that divorce is not permitted. Paul does not mention the exception that Jesus put forward; namely, sexual immorality on the part of one of the spouses, but he evidently was assuming it. Second, if a divorce does occur, marriage to someone else is not permitted, because Paul saw the marriage bond as permanent until death breaks the bond (7:39; Rom. 7:1-3). Again, there would be an exception in the case of sexual immorality on the part of one of the spouses, which also would break the bond. Third, apparently there can be an additional exception. A person can “separate” because of an intolerable situation such as abuse. But because that would not break the marriage bond, the remarriage prohibition holds in this situation. Fourth, if the offending spouse marries someone else, then the remaining spouse is free to remarry, because sexual infidelity has entered the picture and the marriage bond is broken. Fifth, the permanence of the marriage bond, held by both Jesus and Paul, explains why they considered remarriage, apart from sexual infidelity, to be adultery. And finally sixth, Jesus and Paul never raised this teaching to a legalistic law. Neither divorce nor adultery is the unforgivable sin.
Next, in 7:12-14 Paul continues his discourse on divorce by discussing the case of a believer married to an unbeliever, where the unbeliever does not want a divorce. Obviously, in this situation, the unbeliever is in control. The believer is bound by the marriage bond and cannot divorce his or her spouse. Therefore if the unbeliever does not want a divorce, the believer must remain in the marriage. The pagan spouse does not contaminate the marriage. On the contrary, the believing spouse sanctifies the marriage.
Notice that Paul carefully distinguishes between what Jesus taught and what he is teaching. It does not mean that his teachings are less authoritative than those of Jesus. Rather it means that Jesus did not leave a teaching on every aspect of life, and Paul did not want to leave a false impression that all his teachings came from Jesus.
Notice in verses 15-16 that the situation is different for a believer married to an unbeliever, where the unbeliever wants a divorce. Again the unbeliever is in control. The divorce should be granted. This principle apparently holds no matter how the situation came about. That is, whether the believer unwisely married an unbeliever, or the believer was converted after the marriage, doesn’t matter. Paul makes no distinction at this point.
Scholars debate whether or not divorced believers in this situation are free to marry someone else. Some argue that they are, because of Paul’s statement in verse 15 that when an unbeliever divorces a believer, the believing spouse “is not bound” (literally “has not been enslaved”). But the context clearly teaches that the marriage bond can be broken only by death or sexual immorality.
It is important to realize that verse 16 can cut two ways. Sometimes unbelieving spouses are converted because of the witness of their believing wife or husband. That is an encouraging thought. On the other hand, that frequently that does not happen. As Dr. Victor Hamilton, a colleague of mine, has said, “Marriage is not intended primarily as a missionary institution. Don’t count on saving your spouse.”
Finally, notice that Paul says nothing about the situation of two unbelievers. God does not expect unbelievers to be able to maintain the New Testament standard. The New Testament standard is for believers, who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them.