Unmarried or Divorced

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. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)

In these two verses, the Apostle Paul is clearly cautioning an unmarried person against marriage, while just as clearly stating that marriage is advisable over excessive lust or temptation. What is less clear (in the English translation) is exactly who is included in the term unmarried.

As used in modern English, the word unmarried has a broad definition of any adult who is not currently married, whether never married, divorced, or widowed.  However, it has a more specific connotation of usually referring to someone who has never married.  This connotation is largely a matter of convenience, as we have other specific words for divorced or widowed.

In reading verse 8, it is clear that Paul does not intend a broad usage of unmarried, because he adds “and to widows,” making it clear that his use of the term unmarried does not include widows.  Most modern English readers tend to then assume the narrower English connotation of unmarried as meaning those who have never married.

However, context clues within the rest of the chapter clearly indicate this is not Paul’s intent.

The word translated here as unmarried is the Greek word agamos, a simple construct of the negative particle ‘a’ used as a prefix acting on the word gamos (married).  Thus the English translators (NASB and KJV) have chosen a very literal translation, unmarried.

There is, however, no reason to expect the adjective agamos to have either the same broad definition or the same specific connotation in NT Greek as unmarried has in modern English.  A narrower definition would logically refer to someone who has divorced.  To become married one must marry.  To become unmarried one must unmarry…divorce.

Agamos is used a total of only four times in the Bible and in each instance is translated as unmarried.  All four occurrences of the word agamos are found in the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians.  Paul is the only biblical author to use this term, and he only used it in this one passage…four times.

Below are the four specific verses in which the word agamos (unmarried) are used (emphasis added):

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. (1 Corinthians 7:8)

(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. (1 Corinthians 7:11)

But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; (1 Corinthians 7:32)

The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:34)

In this chapter, Paul is specifically discussing people of different marital statuses. For various situations, he discusses under what circumstances it is advisable (or inadvisable) to change marital status as well as under what circumstances it would be sinful.

With that in mind, we should expect Paul to be very specific in his word selection for the various marital statuses. In fact, he does make consistent use of specific words. For widow, he uses the word chara.  For married, he uses the word gameo.  For wife, he uses the word gyne.  For husband, he uses the word aner.  For those who have never married, he uses the word parthenos (translated as virgins).  In all of these instances, he makes very consistent use of specific words with clear meaning.

In his four uses of the word agamos, at least one occurrence is clearly referring specifically to a woman who has divorced.  In verse 11, Paul is speaking of a woman who was married, has left her husband, and is now unmarried.  There is no other way to read this than that the word agamos is used in verse 11 to specifically mean divorced.

(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. (1 Corinthians 7:11)

In verse 34, Paul’s use of agamos clearly does not include those who have never married, as he adds “and the virgin.”

The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:34)

In verse 8, as pointed out earlier, Paul’s use of agamos clearly does not include widows, as he adds “and to widows.”

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. (1 Corinthians 7:8)

In each of these instances, the simplest and clearest reading would be to translate the word agamos as divorced.  In verse 11, agamos can only be read as speaking of someone who has divorced.  In verses 8 and 34, agamos is referring to someone who has previously been married, is not now married, and is not widowed.  By process of elimination, that only leaves someone who is divorced.

This proposed translation of agamos as divorced is further supported by the fact that, in this same passage, Paul makes clear consistent use of other terms when referring to widows and to those who have never married.

This begs the question, though, if Paul meant divorced, why didn’t he clearly say divorced, rather than unmarried?

Perhaps he did.

There is no NT Greek adjective translated as divorced.  The two NASB instances of the word divorced are a translation of the verb apolyo, which means to release, to set free, or to divorce.

Since Paul used specific terms to refer to those who were widowed (chara) and those who had never been married (parthenos), it would make sense to use the word agamos to refer specifically to those who had divorced.  In all likelihood, Paul was using agamos as a very specific reference to those who had divorced and was understood by the Corinthian Christians to mean exactly that.

At a minimum, Paul may have used agamos as a broad term intended to include those who were divorced (verse 11).  More likely, he used agamos as a narrow term specifically meaning divorced.  Either way it would be appropriate to read these verses with the word unmarried replaced by the word divorced.  With this substitution, verses 9 and 10 read as follows:

But I say to the divorced 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.

Not only does this reading make a lot more contextual sense, but it also completely agrees with what Paul says in verses 27-28, where he specifically states that a man who has divorced (released from a wife) does not sin by marrying.

…Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned…

As I study this passage, I become increasingly convinced Paul intended the word agamos to be understood as divorced…and he intended to clearly state that it is not sinful for someone who has divorced to remarry.

What do you think?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Wellspring, Redeemed Life ]

 

God of Divorce

picture of a divorce decreeAnd I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. (Jeremiah 3:8)

After Israel’s golden age of the reign of King David and King Solomon, the nation was divided into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom of Judah was composed of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, while the northern kingdom of Israel was composed of the remaining ten tribes.

Over many generations, Israel repeatedly abused their covenant with God, treacherously violating the terms of their covenant…the commandments inscribed on the stone tablets stored inside the Ark of the Covenant. After many years of seeing Israel repeatedly fall into idolatry, worshipping false gods, God finally divorced the kingdom of Israel, allowing her to be conquered and assimilated into other cultures.  No longer a distinct people-group, the kingdom of Israel is now referred to by historians as The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Several decades later, Judah was also conquered and led away to captivity in Babylon. Yet, even in captivity, the Jews (a name derived from the word Judah) remained a distinctive people-group.  Many Jews returned to the land of Israel after the rise of the Persian Empire.  Miraculously, even those who remained scattered across the earth have still largely retained their distinctive race and culture, and many more have returned to the land of Israel since the end of World War II.

In modern church culture, many believers incorrectly speak and act as though marriage is inherently godly while divorce is inherently ungodly…as though all marriages are holy and all divorce is evil. Yet, here God tells us that He, Himself, divorced the kingdom of Israel.  Clearly, since God Himself has divorced, divorce cannot be inherently ungodly.  And since God never acts outside His perfect will, clearly divorce is God’s perfect will for some situations…specificly for situations involving repeated abuse of covenant vows.

Now, some have debated the applicability of this passage, saying, “But God wasn’t really physically married to Israel, was He? Not like a husband and wife who become one flesh?  Isn’t that really more like a metaphor?  And God didn’t really divorce Israel, did He?  Didn’t He eventually bring Israel back to Himself?”

First, we must recognize that Israel was clearly in blood covenant with God. The covenant ceremony is detailed in the book of Exodus, including the terms of the covenant (the Ten Commandments) carved in stone tablets and placed inside the Ark of the Covenant.  And the disbursement of the northern kingdom of Israel is a historical fact…they have not been brought back nor reestablished.  Unlike the southern kingdom of Judah, the ten lost tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel no longer exist as a distinct people-group.

An eternal covenant with God is clearly much higher than a temporal marriage covenant. So, it seems a bit silly to act as though God’s covenant with Israel was somehow less significant than a marriage covenant, or that God’s divorce from the kingdom of Israel somehow didn’t count as a ‘real’ divorce.

But…for discussion’s sake…let’s consider the perspective of those who say God’s reference to marriage and divorce in regard to His covenant with Israel is strictly a metaphor. If that is the case, then it is still God’s metaphor…a metaphor that He Himself chose to describe both His covenant relationship with Israel and the dissolution of that covenant.  Whether a metaphor or not, God still said, “…I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce…”

Nowhere in scripture do we ever read of God saying that He is an adulterer…or that He is unfaithful…or that He has violated covenant vows. Nowhere does God ever say that He has sinned, or that He has done anything ungodly, wicked, or evil.  Not as a metaphor…not as a parable…not as a joke…not anywhere…not once does God ever refer to Himself in a manner that would indicate He is ever anything less than completely holy, righteous and faithful.  Never, in any way, does God ever fall short of His own perfect glory!

And, here, God clearly states that He has divorced.

The only conclusion we can reach is that divorce is not inherently ungodly…it is not inherently unfaithful…it is not inherently sinful…it is not inherently wicked nor evil.

Divorce is, at times, godly…holy, righteous and faithful…otherwise God would not have used the word divorce to describe His own behavior.

Not all marriages are godly and not all divorce is evil. Many marriages are very ungodly…characterized by unfaithfulness, treachery and abuse rather than by faithfulness, love and respect.  For those trapped in such a marriage, divorce is very likely their most godly course of action…and God’s perfect will for their circumstances.

He is the God of godly marriages, and He is the God of divorce from ungodly marriages.  He is the God who redeems and delivers us from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness, and He is the God who draws us into a new covenant with Himself.

Do you know someone who has walked through godly divorce?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Wellspring, Redeemed Life ]

 

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