Again, as far as contextually and thematically, this was not written to give us a treatise on divorce and how to handle it. At least it’s not a response to Dt. 24.1-4 again, but it is a response to specific questions which unfortunately have little transference to our era. Therefore the text doesn’t really help us much, but here it is, since it does help a little. We have to keep in mind that Paul is here answering specific questions. We just don’t know what the questions were; we only have the answers. We can tell that the Corinthians held some incorrect beliefs (again, of which we are not fully informed) about marriage and Paul is writing to straighten them out. Obviously the principles of Paul’s writing are of value to us, but we must try to discern between the unchanging underlying principles and his comments to their immediate situation that have little to do with us now—not an easy task, or without debate, unfortunately.
We need a few background items:
1. The ordinary type of Roman marriage was legally defined by consent to be married, which made getting a divorce easy for either party: a husband or wife had only to make known the wish not to be married anymore; and divorce, it appears, was common during the empire. A stricter type of marriage was available, but it was unpopular.
2. The three provisions of food, clothing, and love were understood literally by the Jews. The wife had to cook and sew, while the husband provided food and materials, or money. They both had to provide the emotional support of marital love, though they could abstain from sex for short periods. Paul taught the same thing. He said that married couples owed each other love (1 Cor. 7.3-5) and material support (1 Cor. 7.33-34). He didn’t say that neglect of these rights was the basis of divorce because he didn’t need to—it was stated on the marriage certificate. Anyone who was neglected, in terms of emotional support or physical support, could legally claim a divorce.
Divorce for neglect included divorce for abuse, because this was extreme neglect. There was no question about that end of the spectrum of neglect, but what about the other end? What about abandonment, which was merely a kind of passive neglect? This was an uncertain matter, so Paul deals with it. He says to all believers that they may not abandon their partners, and if they have done so, they should return (1 Cor. 7.10-11). In the case of someone who is abandoned by an unbeliever—someone who won’t obey the command to return—he says that the abandoned person is “no longer bound.”
Anyone in first-century Palestine reading this phrase would think immediately of the wording at the end of all Jewish, and most Roman, divorce certificates: “You are free to marry anyone you wish.”
3. Their culture had a completely different perspective on sex than ours does. An idea common among Greek thinkers was that sex was fine as long as one did not get tied down with marriage. On the other hand, the Essenes and other religious sects, along with some philosophers, advocated celibacy or the rejection of marriage, but also thought that sexual release with prostitutes was acceptable since it would not tie a person down. Multiple sex partners was both common and accepted in the Greek and Roman world, though adultery was definitely wrong. Prostitutes were always at the ready, and no stigma went with hiring them.
So as we saw in Deuteronomy and Matthew, we see here: divorce was common in Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures. Many believed in easy divorce, but some believed that there should be just cause, and those allowable causes were few and not to be taken lightly. And, of course, remarriage was acceptable after divorce.
What are the questions Paul is answering in 1 Corinthians 7? (by our best guesses)
1. The new Christians seem to think that now that they are Christians they were free from all social institutions that bound them (v. 10: the acceptance of Christ involved the severance of all social ties), and since (they believed) the Lord was coming back very soon (29, 31), there was an urgency of evangelism and discipleship, and marriages should be deserted to spread the gospel. Also, marriages should be deserted because they just got in the way of our spiritual lives (“We can be more holy if we’re single!”). And those who were not married absolutely should not marry—the time is short!
2. Most first-generation Christians were converted after marriage, which had generally been arranged by the parents with no concern for faith issues. (It’s not that they had been disobedient in marrying outside of the faith.) They wanted to know if they should stay in those marriages.
Paul answers them:
Marriage isn’t evil, and celibacy doesn’t make anyone morally or spiritually superior. Nor is marriage automatically expedient. Singleness may have some advantage when it comes to ministry (more time to devote to the Lord), but marriage also has some advantages (a moral outlet for the lust factor). So don’t make changes because of your faith. If you’re single, that’s OK, and it has some real benefits (32). But if you’re married, stay that way; your faith doesn’t demand that you exit the marriage. In contrast, your faith commits you to a responsibility to each other. Plus, we need to avoid the immorality of the culture around us, and often faithful marriage is a good solution to that issue.
An important biblical teaching shows up in verse 3: The husband and wife should fulfill their marital duty to each other. This verse possibly gives an unchanging, underlying Biblical principle of marriage, divorce, and remarriage: divorce is allowed for “just cause”—the grounds of which seem to be:
• Adultery (in Dt. 24.1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
• Emotional and physical neglect (in Ex. 21.10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Cor. 7)
• Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Cor. 7)
Jewish couples listed these biblical grounds for divorce in their marriage vows. In our culture we reiterate them as love, honor, and keep and be faithful to each other. Jewish marriage contracts stipulated a number of duties for the husband and a number for the wife; one major duty required of the husband was intercourse. Paul views intercourse as a mutual obligation. (It is interesting in verse 4 that Paul writes of the equality of the sexes in marriage—an completely counter-cultural idea.)
When these vows (the whole list) were broken, it threatened to break up the marriage. As in any broken contract, the wronged party had the right to say, “I forgive you; let’s carry on,” or, “I can’t go on, because this marriage is broken.” Therefore, while divorce should never happen, God allows it (and subsequent remarriage) when your partner breaks the marriage vows.
We also have to remember that from Matthew we learned that in Jesus’ eyes the spiritual institution of marriage was different from the legal/cultural one.
Paul is not changing anything that Jesus taught, though some of the questions he is addressing never came up during Jesus’ ministry, and so we don’t have Jesus’ thoughts on them. Christ had already taught that marriage was sacred, and easy divorce was not an idea that God endorsed, but that divorce and remarriage had been allowed because we are human, weak, and flawed. Paul, like Jesus, pleads for honor, purity, and piety in the marriage relationship which had been so grossly desecrated in their pagan environment. He is also refuting what seems to be the question: Shouldn’t we divorce because we’re Christians now??? The answer is that they would not please God with that action. (It’s interesting that in verse 10 Paul says, Absolutely no divorce!, and then in v. 11 he says, But when you do… This shows us that the realities of our lives can never be fully encompassed in “final” statements.) My take on verse 10, though, based on the context, is that Paul is saying that one’s faith and the call of ministry is not just cause for divorce. He is not forbidding all divorce all the time for any and every reason (the superficial reading), or he would be contradicting Jesus. And in verse 11, he is saying that if faith and ministry is the reason you left your spouse, then go back and be reconciled—it’s not just cause!
In verse 12 he takes up question #2: since we were converted after marriage, should we divorce our unconverted spouses? His answer is: if they want a divorce, then do it—you are not bound, and therefore are free to both divorce and remarry. But if they don’t, you should stay there and do your best to serve God and his kingdom in your situation. Again, don’t use your Christianity as a way to escape your marital responsibilities. This, of course, still all falls under the category of the two partners continuing to keep their vows to each other, as previously mentioned.
Christianity has not made marriage a state of slavery to believers.
There are very interesting possibilities at the end of v. 15: “God has called us to live in peace.” It looks as if Paul takes the principle of “marriage should not be a state of enslavement between the believer and the unbeliever” and generalizes it somewhat with this saying. He is certainly not saying that if you’re not at peace, divorce is OK. But he may be saying that personal peace trumps the retention of the mere formality of marriage, recognizing that the internal death of marriage is a very real possibility. Dwight Hervey Small says, “Divorce may be allowed when spiritual values are at stake. Marriage is made for persons, not persons for marriage, and therefore the person is never to be sacrificed to preserve the marriage. The indissolubility of marriage is an absolute in God’s purpose; but extrinsically, divorce is sometimes seen in the service of Christian peace, indeed sometimes inevitably conditioned by it.”
Small also says, “God has called us all to peace. And those who are married he has called to oneness. He has called them to the possibility of living a life unhindered by such destructive conflicts as sometimes occur to destroy the meaning of marriage. This is especially true when one partner is a non-Christian. But the life which God has assigned to us as believers is a life of peace in the body of believers, encouraging and supporting and building up each other. If one can retain a marriage with an unbeliever and live in peace in the body of believers and with that spouse, good and well. If not, and the partner wants out, this, too, is acceptable. A Christian is not bound to the marital contract in such a situation, but is free to reorder life in its fullest possibilities through another marriage contract. God may be glorified in this new marriage, and a couple may indeed find this their opportunity to fulfill the order of creation for a truly one-flesh marriage. What was impossible to achieve in the first marriage is fulfilled in the second. Believers have an assigned life in the body of Christ.”
To me this makes sense in an age of grace when we don’t really have definitive “rules” about divorce. He makes this point more firm in his illustration of circumcision (v. 19): it is only the inward or spiritual aspect that counts. But this is never to be construed as being lax about marriage or divorce. God’s command counts. In all things we must be totally submissive to the will and guidance of God regardless what is acceptable in our culture. The teachings of Paul corroborate perfectly with the teachings of Christ. We are spiritual beings governed by our relationship with Christ, not by a set of rules. Does Paul advocate divorce? Never, but in hopeless cases we must pursue what is the most wise and most godly solution: “that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (35). But surely the believer ought to be sure that there is no hope before agreeing to break the bond.