One of the most difficult issues in the church is the one concerning marriage and divorce. For this reason, I'd like to review some principles and teachings about marriage and divorce found throughout the Bible, up to and including Paul's teaching on the subject in I Corinthians 7.
There are many things that you may or may not agree with here and that's OK. I offer these points as a summary of my own studies over the years, studies that I am continually adding to.
The Base Model
It is interesting to note that marriage is the first social unit established by God. In Genesis 2:22-25 we see five elements of this union.
The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
- Man and woman are the same in nature, both created by God and expressly made for each other.
- The marriage unit consists of only one man and one woman. This is the model blessed by God (not two men, two women or three women and one man, etc.)
- The union of a man and his wife supersedes the union of these people with their parents. When men and women marry, their new relationship takes priority over their relationship with parents. The marriage bond does not eliminate the parental bond, it takes priority over it.
- The marriage union is exclusive (one flesh) and cannot be entered into by any other individual, in any way. I believe that this includes artificial insemination by a third party for childless couples.
- Within marriage, human sexuality can be expressed freely and completely without shame, guilt or embarrassment.
In this passage no exceptions, punishments or prohibitions were further added because there was no sin and thus no need. The marriage model in Genesis is stated in completely positive terms because man was still perfect and without sin.
The Mosaic Model
Once sin enters the world, mankind is weakened to the point where everything is affected, including marriage.
- Where mutual respect and honor were once assured, there is now violence and disrespect, even slavery.
- Where formerly there would be a natural development of new families from existing ones, there is jealousy and possessiveness.
- Where fidelity and sexual exclusiveness is the norm, impurity and adultery become widespread.
- Where lifelong relationships are assumed, broken marriages and abandonment take place.
As a response to this, God, through Moses, allows certain laws to be put into place in order to mitigate or keep at a minimum the damage in marriage caused by sinfulness.
In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, one such law permitted a husband to legally divorce his wife if is she was sexually unfaithful.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.
In this passage Moses also protects the woman from being unjustly passed around from man to man by forbidding the original husband from re-marrying her. The law said you couldn't remarry your ex-wife! This establishes sexual sin as a valid reason to divorce, something not mentioned in Genesis because this sin did not exist then. Notice the development of teaching to address new problems and circumstances.
The Gospel Model
It's interesting to note that many people think Jesus added the exception of adultery or fornication to the teaching on marriage and divorce. People call it the "exception clause" in Matthew 19:9:
…whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality and marries another woman commits adultery.
Jesus added nothing new to what had already been written in the Law. He merely clarified the interpretation that some scribes were giving to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Some were saying that you could divorce your wife for any reason, so long as you did the paperwork; and some said, no, the Law said you could only justify divorce when there was sexual immorality.
Jesus responded to the argument by reminding them that God still held them to the original model as their basis for marriage and that, according to the Law, only sexual immorality was a just cause for divorce.
There are many other issues regarding marriage but this is the only one that Jesus addressed during His ministry. Later on in the epistles, Paul will discuss other subjects.
The Apostolic Model
There are many things that the gospel writers did not record in the gospels that were later written about in the epistles:
- Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)
- Various Gifts (I Corinthians)
- Organization of the church (I Timothy)
Many new ideas that don't contradict or confuse established ones not found in the gospels are discussed in the letters of the Apostles and this is in accordance with what Jesus had told His Apostles would eventually happen.
I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.
- John 16:12-15
Jesus would continue to reveal His will and purpose to the Apostles concerning their work and the church through the Holy Spirit. I say this because in I Corinthians 7 there is information about marriage which is not contained in the gospels but helps us deal with the problems encountered by people in situations not addressed by Jesus, but very common.
This teaching Paul obviously received from the Holy Spirit in order to respond to the question that Christians had at that time (they needed information not found in the gospels). I'll summarize the main points Paul makes about marriage in chapter 7.
Celibacy and Marriage are Both Blessed by God
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
- I Corinthians 7:1-9
It seems that some thought that being celibate was a higher calling than being married but were feeling bad because they couldn't manage it. There may even have been some who were married and were trying to abstain from sex in order to please the Lord.
Paul tells them that people, being who they are, need to be married, and when they are they should give themselves fully to one another in sexual union (only abstaining by mutual consent and only for a short time). Paul tells them that celibacy has its advantages but is only for those who have been given the ability to live this way by God. Marriage is God's gift to man in order to deal with and find satisfaction for normal human sexual desire without sinning.
Keep the Lock in Wedlock – 7:10-24
In the next section Paul addresses two groups concerning marriage break-ups.
Vs. 10-11 – But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
Christians married to each other should remain that way.
This was a necessary teaching because among Greeks and Romans there were many classifications of marriages. Slave marriages were considered non-binding (not legal) and couples could be split-up and sold separately. Marriages between slave and free were seen as loose associations and easily dissolved.
Paul is saying that as Christians, regardless of their position in life, if they were married it was binding before God. He also specifies that if they are separated they have two choices: to live like unmarried, meaning not to engage in any sexual union with someone else as what would be expected of a Christian single person; or return to the marriage.
These two options did not involve sin. This is what Paul is trying to explain here (what can we do in difficult situations and avoid sinning). This is completely in line with Jesus' teaching. Paul says that married Christians should not divorce for any reason they wish. He doesn't mention the exception of fornication but it is assumed that they know about Jesus' teaching on this. They want clarification about their situation.
Christians married to non-believers.
Vs. 12-16 – But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away.
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
If the non-believer is willing to live with the believer in peace despite their faith difference, then remain married. There may have been some who thought that as Christians they may have been obliged to cut off their relationships with non believing (pagan) spouses as did the Jews who divorced their foreign pagan wives at God's command in Ezra 10. But Paul sees this as a different case not subject to laws that governed who the Jews would and could not marry in the Old Testament. Jewish Christians may have had some sensitivity to this idea but not Gentiles to whom much of this teaching is directed. He even says that such unions are sanctified (blessed/legitimate) because of the presence of the Christian in the marriage.
If the non-believer leaves, let him/her go. It seems that by his answer some believed that if they remained loyal to the relationship, they might save their partner in some vicarious way. But Paul tells them that they have no control over this once they've been abandoned, so they should just let go and live in peace.
The word Paul uses "…not under bondage…" (verse 15) is a word that denotes slavery. The idea is that in the event of abandonment, the Christian is no longer enslaved, bound or tied to the other individual or the marriage. In this entire passage Paul has been talking about marriage and divorce so his meaning here in context and in word is very clear. If abandoned, the Christian is freed from that marriage without committing a sin.
Now just in case there are some who think this is a new teaching or new interpretation of I Corinthians 7, I want to remind you what Alexander Campbell (an early leader of the Restoration Movement and great biblical scholar) wrote,
"..it seems to me that in all cases of voluntary desertion on the side of the unbelieving party, the marriage covenant is made void and the believing party is to the deserter as though they had never been married."
(Millennial Harbinger V5, P72)
Other early Restorationists like Walter Scott and writers such as R.L. Whiteside also held to this view. Let us remember that the base model is always the one we work with, but through Moses, Jesus and Paul, God responds to and deals with the outcomes of marriages that have been attacked by sexual sins, human weaknesses and desertion. I acknowledge that there are different points of view on these issues but this is the conclusion I have come to on what Paul teaches in I Corinthians 7.
Lest we forget the original point: Paul points out three important things concerning the questions that the Corinthians are asking about marriage:
- Both marriage and celibacy are blessed.
- The base model is always to stay married, but if your unbelieving spouse leaves you, let him go, you are not bound.
- Marriage is normal, but being single and dedicated to the Lord has many advantages.
In those times there was great persecution of Christians and so to marry meant the possible risk to home and family from attack. Paul prepares those who marry to be ready for the suffering they may have to endure. He also reminds those who are able to remain single that a life wholly dedicated to God has many joys and blessings:
- Less worries about worldly things, no burden of family.
- Greater freedom to serve and know the Lord.
- Freedom to go and do things on behalf of the kingdom (i.e. missions).
It depends on the place God has put you, but the choice of either life (celibate or married) will have its challenges and blessings.
There are many questions surrounding marriage, divorce and re-marriage. Paul deals with some specific cases here that were troubling the Corinthian church at that time.
In the end, God calls on us to live faithfully with our partners until death. He gives instructions for when there are problems but this is always the ideal. There are times when divorce is justified, but remember that it is never without sin, pain, sorrow and guilt – even if you are the victim.