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This article represents the findings of a study conducted a group of Bible teachers in the ICOC fellowship of churches. The group was called at that time, “Kingdom Teachers.” It consisted of the following members: Steve Kinnard, Douglas Jacoby, Marty Wooten, Sam Laing, Andy Fleming and Gordon Ferguson. We were asked to study this challenging subject and present something of a position paper, The study lasted about two years and was finished and published in February 2001. Although it was something of a position paper, it was no more than the best thinking of the group working together in collaboration. Each church leadership had to decide what they agreed with and disagreed with, and further, how to apply the conclusions in their own situations (or not). Another more recent study has been done by our “Teacher Service Team,” and since I (Gordon) am no longer a part of that team, I will seek a copy of that paper and post it on this website.

Introductory Matters

The issues regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage do not appear as broad as we teachers thought in the beginning of the study.  We reached our conclusions much more quickly and easily than first imagined.  Having said this, we recognize fully that this issue is not a simple one, nor should it be addressed lightly.  Applying the biblical teaching on divorce/remarriage to the myriad situations people get themselves into is often fraught with difficulties.  It is one whose application has become more and more pressing as our growth has included those with divorced backgrounds or in challenging marriages already.  As the kingdom has expanded, the complexity of the issues has followed suit.  Our mode in this study has been to not only wrestle with the issues, but to reach some unifying conclusions that can be shared with leaders in the movement.  Otherwise, we fall into the plight of advising one thing for divorced people in one church and another in a different church.

At least two potentially disunifying factors have been present in the movement in past years. First, our individual religious backgrounds have caused some of us to want to question things more because we have preconceived conclusions.  We must learn to deal wisely with difficult issues that are not easy to harmonize, especially those in the more challenging realms of application.  It is going to take patience and a willingness to study more deeply to avoid jumping to legislative (and often legalistic) conclusions.  Second, a desire for quick resolution can cause us to take lightly something that God takes very seriously.  Quick fixes are often appealing, but over time they will come back to haunt us.  Doing things God’s way is not normally the easiest way in the short term, but in the long term, it always pays dividends.

Even if people divorce for biblically correct reasons, the damage is there for life, and we cannot take it lightly.  Due to the complexity of the issue, having an overview of many passages to get a clearer picture is paramount.  This subject is not like that of baptism, where one verse may clearly state the bottom line and others on the subject merely amplify it.  To gain a biblical view of divorce and remarriage we will begin with the pertinent OT passages and then proceed to the NT passages that directly shed light on the issues that we are facing today.  Our focus will be on societies characterized by monogamous marriages; therefore, the issue of how to deal with polygamy will not fall within the scope of this study.

Any study of marriage, divorce, and remarriage needs to begin with God’s view of divorce, which is stated clearly and succinctly in Malachi 2:16: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Here Malachi warns husbands to stay faithful to the wife of their youth.  Obviously, this was a problem in their culture.  Why stay faithful?  Because God hates divorce.  Any study of divorce and remarriage must recognize where God stands on the issue: God hates divorce.  Since he does not take our vows lightly, neither can we.  In Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, we read:  “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.  Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake.’ Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?”  Proverbs 2:17 describes the wayward wife as one “who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.”  Obviously, marriage vows fall into a realm of utmost seriousness before God.

We must continually keep in front of our people both God’s ideal for marriage and his view of divorce. Church members should not view divorce as an option. In our premarital counseling, we must stress that God hates divorce.  As a movement, we have done an exceptional job of helping those married within the church to stay married.  We must maintain this high standard.

Old Testament

The revelation of God began with the creation of man, followed quickly by the institution of marriage, since “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  God’s ideal for marriage was clear – one man for one woman for life.  Verses can be multiplied to show the exalted view of marriage in the mind of God.  In fact, God often used the relationship between husband and wife as the best description of his covenant relationship with his chosen people (Isaiah 54:5-8; Jeremiah 3:14; Hosea 1-3).

Old Testament legislation regarding marriage and divorce shows clearly that God is deadly serious about fidelity in marriage and the sanctity of the marriage covenant.   An Israelite man was not allowed to marry certain of his close relatives, a former wife that had since re-married then divorced,[1] or any Gentile women (excluding captives of war).[2]  If a newly married woman was found not to be a virgin, she was to be stoned to death,[3] as were a man and a woman who slept together while she was already betrothed to another man (if it happened in the countryside then only the man was killed and the woman was presumed innocent).[4]  If a man seduced a virgin who was not pledged to be married, then he had to pay the bride price and marry her (if her father was willing) and could never divorce her.[5]  Illegitimate children (born outside of marriage) had to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord.[6]

In spite of the seriousness of the marriage vows, God did allow divorce.  The best known OT passage regarding this is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which reads:

       If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, [2] and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, [3] and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, [4] then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

Here a man is instructed that if he finds something indecent (‘erwat dabar) about his wife, then he can give her a certificate of divorce (seper keritut).  This certificate gave her the right to remarry.  The teaching of Jesus helps us understand that God allowed divorce under this legislation because of the hard-heartedness of humanity (Matthew 19:8).  Men were leaving their wives and abandoning them without any rights or privileges.  This legislation was apparently designed to force the husband to count the cost soberly before divorcing his wife (since he could later not remarry her) and to establish some rights for women in this unjust environment.  God loves justice.  His heart for his people allowed divorce to be established in the Mosaic code to meet a practical need.

The “indecent” thing found in a wife has been much debated.  In Jesus’ day, two schools of thought predominated.  One group believed the indecency was immorality and the other believed it to be almost anything displeasing to the husband.[7]  Since God hates divorce, it surely could not have been anything trivial.  On the other hand, although it must have been directed at something very serious, it seems likely that it was not full-blown immorality, since that was punishable by stoning.  Regardless of the exact identification of the indecent behavior, the passage clearly demonstrates that in some situations, something less than God’s ideal was allowed by way of concession.

Therefore, all divorce allowed by God is concessionary in nature which shows that God has both an ideal will (no divorce) and a concessionary will (divorce under certain circumstances).  Under God’s concessionary will for marriage also fall both polygamy and concubinage.  Regardless of how our sensibilities may be shocked by these OT practices, God did allow them.  Polygamy was regulated but not prohibited.  Some of God’s most outstanding OT heroes had multiple wives and concubines.  Solomon was condemned for marrying foreign wives but not for marrying multiple wives (1 Kings 11:1-6, Nehemiah 13: 26).  These observations alone should militate against our becoming too rigid in dealing with marriage, divorce and remarriage in the New Testament, since in the OT period God’s concessionary will was considerably broader than his ideal will.

The contemporary applications of the latitude of God’s concessionary will are not always easy to identify. When the Israelites were called back to God after the Babylonian captivity, those who had married foreign women were required to send the women (and their common offspring) away.  This was not called divorce in the passages, and would probably best be described as annulment (Ezra 9-10).  A period of time was allowed during which unlawful relationships were identified and repentance effected.  Nehemiah, on the other hand, although he rebuked the erring Israelites, apparently did not require them to divorce. The different approaches of these contemporaries, Ezra and Nehemiah, along with the “grace period” allowed by Ezra, are factors to take into account as we lead the people of God into a fuller appreciation of God’s position on divorce and remarriage.  Rigidity and dogmatism are unsavory qualities generally, but they are especially dangerous when trying to discern appropriate practical applications in sensitive areas.

New Testament

The primary NT passages regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage are the following:  Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; and 1 Corinthians 7.[8]  In order to compare the Synoptic accounts, they are included at this point, beginning with the simpler passages in Mark and Luke.

[2] Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” [3] “What did Moses command you?” he replied. [4] They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” [5] “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. [6] “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ [7] ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, [8] and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. [9] Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” [10] When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. [11] He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. [12] And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:2-12). “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

In Mark’s account, we see that a man or woman who divorces their mate and marries another commits adultery (against her, in the case of the man divorcing his wife).  The presupposition is that they are divorcing for the express purpose of remarrying, since divorce is allowed by concession in some situations, as is remarriage.  Luke adds that the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  What was Jesus dealing with?  He was addressing legalistic, hard-hearted people who went by the letter of the law and not by its spirit.  These are people who had lost the meaning of the heart of God’s law and had turned it into rules and regulations.  Taking the marriage vows lightly was never acceptable to God.  Hence, these accounts state unequivocally the ideal divine marriage law with no exceptions noted.  Now consider the accounts in Matthew that seem to include exceptions (highlighted in the passages below) of a concessionary nature.

     [ 31] “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ [32] But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).

    [3] Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” [4] “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ [5] and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? [6] So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” [7] “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” [8] Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. [9] I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” [10] The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” [11] Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. [12] For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:3-12).

The question naturally arises about why these exceptions are included in Matthew (i.e. 5:31, 19:9) and not in Mark or Luke. First, we must remember the principle that all relevant passages on a given subject have to be studied, not just isolated ones.  Especially is this principle true when some passages on a topic are general in nature while related ones contain detailed specifics. For example, the biblical doctrine of salvation stated in John 3:16 is absolutely true, but can be easily misunderstood unless we consider other more detailed passages which elaborate on the need for repentance and baptism.

Perhaps more significantly, we cannot leave out an important part of determining doctrine in the early church as well as providing practical direction to the early disciples – the revelatory ministry of the Spirit.  It is clear that the gradual formation of the canon would have left many theological and practical gaps in many parts of the early church.  For instance, the early church functioned a considerable amount of time without the benefit of Paul’s writing on the important distinction between faith and works.  Yet, there was still the expectation to be faithful disciples and to live by faith and not by works.

During the time the canon was being written, the Spirit was actively communicating through unrecorded prophecy and revelation, filling in the theological and doctrinal gaps.  It would take some time before the canon would have been sufficiently completed to clear up any doctrinal misunderstandings.  As applied to the issue of divorce and remarriage, since there is one Spirit, we can trust there is one teaching on divorce which the Spirit made known through his prophets and inspired people during those times of confusion.  The Scriptures that appear somewhat contradictory to us would assumedly have been clearer to the early writers in that the necessary assumptions surrounding those passages for a conciliatory understanding were intact as the Spirit revealed the necessary information in all the churches.

The simplest answer for us today regarding the “exception passages” in Matthew is that Matthew recognized a growing problem in the church over the divorce issue and included it in his gospel to expand and explain what Mark and Luke stated more generally.  Similar examples can be found involving other biblical subjects, and were it not for the controversial nature of this issue, we would likely not even feel the need to take the time to explain the principle in any detail.

Matthew Examined More Closely

Jesus was always more concerned with the effect of our behavior on our relationship with God and with other people than with legal perfection. When a man divorced his wife he thereby placed her in a difficult and hard position in the world (women of that day did not have the employment opportunities available in today’s society) and virtually forced her to re-marry to protect herself.  To Jesus, this was a great offense.  The wording of Matthew 5:31-32 seems to indicate that his words are more condemning of the man’s actions in placing his divorced wife in the situation of compromise then they are of the woman for re-marrying.  However, he makes it clear that she sins when she re-marries.

Many religious folk have exhibited a strong tendency to force Matthew’s apparent exceptions to be aligned with Mark’s and Luke’s lack of exceptions rather than vice versa.  In other words, they are uncomfortable with accepting any divorce and remarriage.  A similar tack is taken regarding 1 Corinthians 7:15, which appears to allow divorce and remarriage when an unbelieving mate deserts one who is a disciple.  Even if this most rigid position is avoided, the issue of whether a “guilty party” can remarry ushers in even a greater challenge.  There are a couple of factors that likely have contributed to this emotional reaction against allowing divorce and remarriage of the guilty party for sexual unfaithfulness.  First, there is the concern that such an option promotes a strong temptation to engage in adultery for the purpose of getting out of a less-than-ideal marriage relationship, and secondly, a failure to regard marital unfaithfulness as a sin from which someone can truly repent and be trusted enough to remarry.

Those so inclined would allow someone to remarry who murdered his wife and repented, but someone who commits adultery may not be offered the same opportunity.  If this track is followed, once a person is “put away” for the sin of immorality, no hope is offered of overcoming the sins that led to the adultery to the point of entering another marriage relationship.  Some have justified this position by maintaining that the consequences for sin are sometimes great, yet with no solid biblical evidence for such an extreme position, the consequences for imposing such a position on God’s people would seem even more consequential and discouraging.  If the guilty party cannot remarry, it cannot be that the guilty party is still joined to the now divorced partner.  When the union is broken for one, it is broken for the other.  Therefore, if the guilty party does not have the right of remarriage also, it must be because penance in the form of lifetime celibacy is demanded.

There are two circumstances that allow a divorce and remarriage to take place:  1) marital unfaithfulness (porneia) which, from the definition of the Greek word, would include sex with another person, and 2) desertion by a non-Christian spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15).  In the latter case, a strong implication that the deserting spouse would inevitably be involved with other relationships is reasonable but not stated.  Jesus addresses the situation of his day by telling the men within his community that there is only one reason (parektos logou – “except for the reason/word/matter”) for divorce.  The sole reason to give a certificate of divorce is porneia, meaning sexual unfaithfulness.  To divorce her for any other reason is to make the divorced woman an adulteress.   Because of the socio-economic situation of first century Palestine, the woman would be forced to find another husband to support her.  Since she was divorced illegitimately, she would become an adulteress and anyone who married her would become an adulterer.

Another example of Jesus’ teaching in this area is found in John 8: 1-11, the well-known story of the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus did not enforce upon the woman the teachings of Deuteronomy 22:22-24; instead he dealt with the hypocrisy, hard heartedness and self-righteousness of her accusers.  Instead of the prescribed stoning, he admonished the adulterous woman to leave her life of sin.  A study of Jesus’ teachings and their emphases will reveal a pattern: he stands against legalism, harshness and binding burdens on people that hinder them from entering the kingdom of heaven; he upholds justice, mercy and right relationship.

For most sins, repentance means something like this:  “What I did was wrong; I wish I had never done it; if I had it all to do over, I would not have done it; and I will never do it again in the future.”  Even if one committed a sin like murder, he would have no further recourse but to honestly repent, and we would then have to accept such a person back into our fellowship. Our best approach with some divorces and remarriages that are difficult to sort out should probably follow the same reasoning.  Since those who come into the kingdom with remarriages after a divorce (or divorces!) not based on scriptural grounds are accepted as they are, then those who as disciples sin by unscriptural divorces and remarriages and who later repent of this should be accepted “as they are” as well. Since we do not demand a change in the marital status of those coming into the kingdom with unscriptural divorces and remarriages, how can we fail to follow the same logic with, and extend the same mercy to, disciples who sin in this same way and later repent? This may be unsettling to us, but can we do otherwise and be consistent? Some cases become so tangled that leaders can do no more than point out the appropriate Scriptures, give their best advice and leave ultimate judgment in the hands of God.

1 Corinthians 7 – Preliminary Considerations

Before we proceed to discuss divorce and remarriage, a related teaching of this chapter is both obvious and striking: some people should remain unmarried simply on practical grounds.  In our movement, we have often used Genesis 2 to stress the need for marriage to the point that harmonizing Paul’s admonitions here becomes somewhat challenging.  In other words, we have been reluctant to encourage permanent singleness in the way that Paul did.  We have tended to make people feel guilty (subtly and unintentionally) for not getting married.  We very much need to address this issue and remove the stigma of remaining single.

Paul and Barnabas gave up their right to be married in order to serve in the ministry unencumbered (1 Corinthians 9:5).  Where are the single evangelists among us who remain single without feeling pressured to marry?  Yet no one can question Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:33-34 that “a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided.”  The issue becomes even more significant when we are considering church plantings in dangerous places.  Clearly the unmarried evangelist would have a huge advantage over a married one.  Considering 1 Corinthians 7:34, it would probably only be fair and reasonable to include that a sister might remain single to better serve “full-time” in some ministry of the church as well.

Purely on practical grounds, many disciples should be advised against remarriage, or at the very least, not be encouraged to remarry.  Among this number would be divorcees that come into the kingdom with terrible track records in previous marriages. Another group that should think long and hard before remarrying are those who are divorced and have older children still at home. These disciples hope that an additional parent will help them in raising their children, but they may instead find themselves in the middle of horrendous marital and family strife.  When both potential partners are in this situation, entering into a “blended family” status may invite dire consequences.  Another category in which marriage might be a very unwise choice would be the case of older singles with personality and character qualities that would make adjustments in marriage very challenging.

Getting married, according to Paul, is not always the ideal.  Marriage is neither commanded nor absolutely forbidden.  Putting undue pressure on people either way is not biblical or practical.  Remaining single may be the wisest choice.  On the one hand is the need to be kingdom-focused in a way that marriage does not allow, and on the other hand are the practical issues that make marriage for some downright difficult and perhaps disastrous. Great wisdom is needed in giving advice in this arena.  Some do not want to get married but should, while others want to marry who should not.  The person’s own conscience is an important factor in deciding whether to marry or remain single, as indicated by Paul’s comments in verse 37:  “But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin – this man also does the right thing.”  In summary, if we improved our advice regarding contracting marriage in the first place, we would lower the number of seriously dysfunctional marriages among us.

1 Corinthians 7 – Examined More Closely

Now let us begin considering the specific passages in 1 Corinthians 7 relating directly to our subject.  In verses 8-16, Paul addresses those in three different marriage categories: the unmarried and widows; marriages in which both partners are disciples; and “mixed” marriages in which one partner is a disciple and one is not.  The advice and applications vary in each.

He begins with the unmarried and widows (verses 8-9), who are said to be better off remaining unmarried.  However, if they did not have the gift of celibacy, it was better to marry than to burn with passion.  This passage cannot be construed to mean that lust is excused for single people, nor can it be used to justify hasty marriages.  Further, it cannot be used to excuse breaking up a marriage in which one partner is incapacitated (i.e. poor physical or mental health) or unavailable (in jail, for example).  Any of these interpretations would violate many other passages.  The setting that lay behind this advice (the “present distress” of verse 26) is mentioned as a practical reason for remaining unmarried.  Others have already been mentioned in the introductory comments to this section.

In verses 10-11, the “married” are addressed.  A comparison of these verses with those immediately following them will demonstrate that the “married” referred to here are both disciples. (Note also that these verses are commands and not concessions, in contrast to the previous verses, which give the unmarried the right to marry without sinning.)   Paul states that he is not giving this command, but the Lord is. When Paul says that the Lord has already spoken to this situation, he must have had in mind the Lord’s teaching recorded in Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18.  Therefore, these passages in the gospel accounts must be viewed as covenant legislation (where both marriage partners are in a relationship with God) not universal legislation.

If either spouse leaves, then both disciples must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to one another.  Neither disciple is allowed to remarry.  While God’s ideal will is here stated clearly (no separation), the very mention of separation shows that God allows this concession as long as no remarriage to other partners takes place. In some rare cases, church leaders might counsel or approve, albeit reluctantly, ongoing separation between two married disciples without church discipline being applied.  Paul’s statements have to be harmonized with the exception clause in Matthew 19, but the general application was what evidently was the need of the hour in the Corinthian church.  Although the text does not mention other reasons for separation, in certain extreme cases it might be recommended.    However, if both spouses were supposedly disciples, any ongoing sin in the life of either disciple in this situation would be dealt with by counseling, and if need be, by church discipline, resulting in repentance or removal from the church.  If one disciple was disfellowshipped or fell away, the marriage would then move into the category of a believer married to an unbeliever, which is next discussed.

In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul moves on to address those he terms “the rest.”  Contextually, it is evident that this marriage is comprised of one disciple and one non-disciple.  We would have to assume that one partner became a disciple and the other did not, as is often the case today.  This passage should not be regarded as an example of a Christian marrying a non-Christian, because that is ruled out by other passages, including verse 39 in this very chapter.  Note that Paul says that he, not the Lord, is speaking to this specific situation.  This means that the Lord’s teaching noted above was to be applied to those in the kingdom. Now, however, Paul, as an inspired apostle, is making an application that became necessary as the church was spreading, especially into Gentile culture.  In passages like John 14:26 and John 16:12-13, Jesus prepared the apostles for additional revelation they would receive to meet needs that would arise in the future.  Obviously, the situation in Corinth constituted such a case.

If the non-Christian is willing to live with the Christian, the Christian must stay in the marriage.  It should be noted that the non-believer is willing to live with the disciple as a disciple.  In other words, the non-Christian must be willing to allow the Christian spouse to practice his or her Christianity.  Obviously, a disciple could apply the definition of “willing” in an unreasonable manner by insisting that absolutely no tension be produced by the religious differences present in the home.  Such a position would not only be impractical, but it would also be quite unbiblical.  It is important to remember that 1 Peter 3:1-6 is a continuation of the admonition to be submissive in less-than-ideal situations.  No disciple can expect an absence of tension when his or her spouse is governed by a very different standard.  But they can expect that an unbelieving spouse be “willing” to live with them as they serve Jesus on his terms.  Wisdom is vital in attempting to apply biblical principles in difficult situations, necessitating the seeking of much advice from spiritual leaders.

But a highly significant issue in the passage is what it means to no longer be bound (verse 15) – what is the bondage?  It would seem clear that the marriage bond is in view, and all of the kingdom teachers agree that this is the case. If the unbeliever departs, the believer is no longer bound, but if the unbeliever is content to live with the believer, the believer is still bound.  Many commentators feel compelled to harmonize this passage with the gospel accounts, which would necessitate ruling out the possibility of divorce and remarriage.  But Paul himself makes it clear that the situation here being considered is different from the situation and the teaching in the gospel accounts (“The Lord, not I;” “I, not the Lord”).  If mere separation were in view, the directions would be the same as for two married disciples as in verses 10-11.

Paul writes in verse 14 that the unbeliever is “sanctified” through the Christian mate.  This, of course, does not mean that they are thereby saved – it merely means that God recognizes the marriage as valid and they can remain in it.  If it were not thus recognized, then the children born into it would be “unclean” (illegitimate).  Since Paul was answering the questions about marriage raised by the Corinthians (verse 1), they evidently were wondering if a Christian/non-Christian marriage was acceptable to God as a lawful relationship. Here Paul says “yes.”   Perhaps they mistakenly applied a teaching like that found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 to the marriage bond itself.

Verse 16 most likely is saying that the Christian should accept the departure of their mate and the subsequent divorce it will bring, rather than try to hang on to a lost cause in the hopes of saving the mate.  If the unbeliever leaves, they are demonstrating their lack of openness to the gospel by the very act of leaving. The breakup of a marriage is always tragic and the Christian should always do everything within reason to avoid a breakup. A disciple must focus on the principles of 1 Peter 3 in seeking the most righteous solutions, not on trying to justify getting out of a marriage.  Exhibiting an arrogant attitude violates both 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Peter 3.  If we are doing all we can to make the marriage work and the unbeliever leaves anyway, so be it, but our conscience must remain clear.

A question regarding the identity of the unbeliever naturally arises when a disciple falls away.  Does such an apostate qualify as an unbeliever in this context? Yes, they do. One who falls away can certainly be prone to become a persecutor of their mate, and desertion is not uncommon for such a person.  In the case of a believer who leaves the church under any circumstances, we will have to strive to maintain gracious attitudes toward them if they decide to return after messing up their life considerably, including by marrying again.  What if they are single when they are restored, but their former spouse is remarried already? Can the restored disciple now be allowed to marry another disciple in the church?  This issue may be a thorny one, but the righteous approach is to allow this person a new beginning.  If they leave the kingdom and later get restored, they return under the same status they entered originally – with a clean slate.


No other human relationship is like that of marriage, for it pictures the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:22-33).  Both relationships are a great mystery, deeper than human intelligence can fathom.  We must do everything within our power as leaders to preserve the sanctity and permanence of the marriage union.  Our constant focus must be to keep marriages together, even if we have to expend much counseling energy over long periods of time.  God hates divorce but loves harmony and resolution.  If reconciliation between all brothers and sisters in Christ is crucial, reconciliation between estranged marriage partners is even more essential.  The tendency to allow unrighteousness in Christian marriage relationships that would not be tolerated in any other kingdom relationships must cease.  Leaders must exercise their God-given responsibility to not allow Christians to remain in a state of bitterness, resentment, animosity and conflict. Sin must be dealt with and repented of. In some extreme cases, in keeping with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, separation of spouses might be tolerated as a concession to weakness and immaturity. Certainly, leaders would need to exercise much godly wisdom in reaching such decisions.

Marriage or remarriage is not for everyone.  In fact, we have much need to build a biblical mind-set about the practical value of remaining single in a number of different situations.  As we give advice of this nature, two things must be kept in mind: 1) the need to explain the principles behind the advice in specific detail, and 2) the necessity of realizing that advice is just advice.  If Paul as an inspired apostle refused to bind his advice on people, we certainly cannot succumb to viewing our advice as being tantamount to God’s will.

We must always strive to strike a balance between being more legislative than God and being more tolerant than he.  We cannot bind what he has not bound nor loose what he has not loosed.  Being aware of God’s concessionary will in the realm of marriage should cause us to shun legalistic answers to difficult circumstances.  For those disciples in the unfortunate position of having divorced (as disciples) without due grounds (adultery), we must have faith that they will be able to survive without remarriage. Reconciliation is the only alternative allowed by Scripture, but God will be with them in that situation (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Similarly, dating couples where one partner is divorced from a believer (on any grounds other than adultery) should “break up.”

In brief form, the following observations sum up most of the key issues:

  1. At conversion, people are accepted in their present marital status.
  2. Those who leave the fellowship and are restored are also accepted in their present marital status.
  3. Someone in the church whose spouse has been unfaithful has the right to divorce and remarry since the cause of the divorce was immorality on the part of their mate.  Since this sin allows the marriage bond to be broken for the innocent party, the bond is broken for both parties, and hence both can remarry.  Each local leadership will need to decide how to deal with the immorality that occurred.
  4. It is noteworthy that although the leadership of a local church might respond to an isolated act of adultery with no more than a private warning to the one who sinned, the spouse of such a person would be within his/her biblical rights to demand a divorce.  Although reconciliation would always be strongly encouraged, the unfaithfulness may be so devastating that the faithful spouse can no longer stay in marriage with the adulterous partner.  Divorce should always be considered the last possible resort.
  5. Disciples should certainly not divorce one another for other causes, but if they do, they must remain unmarried or be reconciled  (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
  6. If a non-Christian mate leaves a disciple, then the disciple is not bound and can divorce the one who departs.
  7. Any Christian who leaves God is considered an “unbeliever” in light of 1 Corinthians 7:12-15.  If the unbelieving spouse deserts the disciple and is no longer willing to live with them, the faithful spouse can then divorce them.
  8. The need for preventive counseling, including the disciplinary steps of Matthew 18:15-17, should always remain our first and strongest line of defense against divorce.
  9. Though there are definite Biblical commands and principles regarding divorce and remarriage, we cannot underestimate the need for leaders to pray for wisdom and seek advice in order to properly apply them.

[1] Leviticus 20:14, 17, 21; Deuteronomy 22:30; 24:4.

[2] Deuteronomy 7:3, 21:10-14, Joshua 23:12.

[3] Deuteronomy 22:20.

[4] Deuteronomy 22:23-27.

[5] Deuteronomy 22:28-29.

[6] Deuteronomy 23:2.

[7] In view of these two schools of thought, it is interesting to note how Joseph chose to react to Mary’s apparent adultery:

Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly’ (Matthew 1:18-19).

[8] Romans 7:1-4 addresses marriage and remarriage, but only as an example of the general marriage law for the purpose of illustrating a spiritual principle of being released from law.