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Marriage and divorce (2)

July 2013 | by Stephen Clark

Last month we explored the teaching of the Old Testament and Jesus on this and concluded that where marriage ends in divorce for illicit sexual activity, the divorcing partner is free to remarry.

Although Jesus condemned the divorce practice of his day, he accepted the current concept of divorce, which was derived from the Old Testament.

     Furthermore, the exceptive clause in Matthew 19:9 — ‘and I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality,and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery’ — means remarriage in such cases is not adulterous.

Paul’s teaching

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul deals with four types of divorce situation. They are as follows.

1. Those who were divorced before they were converted (v.8) are permitted to marry. The term ‘unmarried’ includes those who were divorced. (The argumentation for this position is complex and is found in my book — below). These are permitted to marry.

2. Where a believer is married to a believer, Paul forbids divorce in such a case: ‘Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife’ (vv. 10-11).

     In Roman law, separation would usually constitute divorce, but Paul’s words indicate that this separation falls short of divorce. He is reproducing the teaching Jesus gave when on earth (‘not I, but the Lord’), insisting that the separating spouse must either be reconciled or stay as she is.

     So Paul, in verses 10-11, is expecting reconciliation and treating staying unmarried as a ‘holding operation’. He is not at this particular point considering the one case where Jesus allowed an exception to his prohibition of divorce.  

3. In verses 12-14 Paul considers a mixed marriage of a believer with an unbeliever: ‘But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him.

          ‘For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy’.

     This was a matter Jesus did not address when upon earth (‘I, not the Lord’) — the marriage of two non-Christians, or a Christian to a non-Christian. Jesus’ teaching was confined to disciples or to Jews during the ‘trans-covenantal period’. But the words, ‘I, not the Lord’, put us on notice that Paul will say something further than already said by Jesus (or by Paul in vv. 10-11).

     In Roman law, divorce could be effected either by consent or by an act of repudiation. In verses 12-13 Paul’s prohibition of the believer divorcing the unbeliever is conditional upon the believer wanting to live with the believer.

     Therefore, if the unbeliever is adamant that he wants a divorce, the believer is not to resist but agree to it. Where the unbeliever is by his conduct indicating his unwillingness to live as a spouse with the believer, the believer is not prohibited from divorcing. The unbeliever’s behaviour amounts to a case of constructive repudiation.

4. In verse 15 Paul deals with the situation where the unbeliever unilaterally repudiates the marriage: ‘But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace’. Here, the believer is not bound.

Not bound

So Paul’s teaching is that the believer is not to divorce another believer. But where the other believer is guilty of illicit sexual activity, the believer may — not must — divorce. This is assumed by Paul, since Jesus allowed it. (In fact, a Roman law passed by Augustus, called the lex Julia de adulteriis,required it.)

     The believer should seek to live in peace with an unbelieving spouse. However, where the unbeliever wants a divorce, the believer is to agree. And where the unbeliever’s behaviour falls below being willing to live with the believer as a spouse, the believer may divorce.

     Where the unbeliever unilaterally divorces, the believer is to accept this. In these cases, the believer is free to remarry. Paul does not explicitly say this, but it follows from the fact that the marriage is broken by the divorce.

     Anything less than this would really be saying nothing more than verses 10-11; but Paul has put us on notice that he is going to go beyond that. Moreover, the words ‘not bound’ in verse 15 must mean ‘is no longer bound in marriage’.

     Where a believer’s behaviour falls below the level of a believer, then there may be cases where that believer has to be dealt with as an unbeliever, in which case verses 12-14 apply. This is not a ‘loophole’ recently invented! For example, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists of the nineteenth century applied this kind of reasoning to 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.

     I believe (and try to show in my book) that Scripture allows divorce and remarriage, rather than just separation, in quite a wide variety of situations.

     I also believe that the Greek behind 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 — ‘Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned’ — indicates that Paul is dealing with the alternatives of seeking a bride or terminating a betrothal agreement.

     In Romans 7:1-4, I believe Paul is dealing with Mosaic law, which certainly did not classify a divorcee who remarried as an adulteress. Rather, Paul is here addressing polyandry. The Mosaic law did not outlaw bigamy, but it did outlaw polyandry. A woman with two husbands would be called an adulteress.


We should be emphasising in our churches the God-given nature and blessings of marriage and also the need to display the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. But what does one do with the following real-life situations?

     A lady who has been physically abused by her husband is kicked down the stairs by him when pregnant and loses her child. She is later converted. Although her husband knows that her grandfather regularly raped her when a teenager, he invites the grandfather to stay on holiday with them. How should she be advised?

     Another Christian woman, with two primary-aged school children, discovers that a video which her husband has left in the living room contains explicit scenes of bestiality. How should she be advised?

     A man who has served time for manslaughter terrorises his wife by holding a loaded shotgun to her head and threatens to blow out her brains. How should she be advised?

     A professing Christian man, highly esteemed in his church, has committed adultery with 15 different women in as many years. The husband of one of them called at the house and threatened to beat the man up in front of the children. What should the woman do?

     The teaching of Scripture is relevant to these cases. Emphasising the importance of marriage and the need to be filled with the Spirit is excellent, but, to deal with these types of cases, we need to be willing to apply the biblical teaching on divorce.

     We are today back in a New Testament situation, where people are converted sometimes from terrible backgrounds. 1 Corinthians 7 is the chapter that will guide us.

The author’s book, Putting asunder:divorce and remarriage in biblical and pastoral perspective (312 pages), is published by Bryntirion Press;

ISBN 1-85049-155-0.

Stephen Clark