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) is 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 send his wife away. (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 send his wife away. (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 ]


40 thoughts on “Unmarried or Divorced

  1. Interesting, Joe! I’m going to have to reread this and really soak in all the details you’ve pointed out for us. But the bottom line is very powerful! Thanks so much for all the theological clarity you go to for us, my friend. You are truly a man on a mission and an amazing scholar of God’s word!

  2. NT scholars have divided opinions, but most seem to think agamos refers to widowers or men who never married. Since the word apolyo (or apoluo, “send away,” or “release”) is the standard term for divorce, Paul could have used it if that was what he intended. At least one NT commentator does agree that agamos may refer to divorced persons as well as those who were never married (David K. Lowery in Bible Knowledge Commentary).

    • Yes, but apolyo is a verb, not a noun or adjective. Yes, Paul could have used it, but it is more cumbersome and would not have fit the sentence structure as well. Also, given the cultural view of divorce as being enacted by the husband, it would have been difficult to use a single instance of the action verb apolyo to express either a man who had put away his wife or a woman who had been put away by her husband in the same clause.

      More importantly, we can better ascertain the intended meaning through context clues of how the same author used the same word in other sentences in the same passage.

      In verse 11, especially, there really cannot be any doubt that agamos is intended to mean divorced. In this verse, ‘divorced’ is the only meaning that can reasonably be assigned. What else could Paul possibly mean, speaking of a woman who has left her husband and is no longer married? She is divorced, right?
      joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

      • Actually, Greek nouns and adjectives are normally built from verbs, so an adjectival form of apolyo could have been used here.

        Verse 11 clearly calls for reconciliation to one’s living spouse, whereas verse 8 speaks to agamos (masculine, “unmarried men”) and widows, probably encouraging Christians whose spouses have died to remain single, if possible. If they don’t have enough self control, they are permitted to remarry.

        Your line of reasoning in this post really needs support from Greek scholars.

        • In regard to verse 11, surely we can at least agree that ‘unmarried’ means ‘unmarried.’ It does not call for reconciliation. It calls, rather, for either reconciliation or remaining unmarried (divorced).

          In regard to verse 8, the fact that this same word is used specifically in reference to a woman in 50% of it’s NT usage, seems to clearly indicate it is not limited to masculine use. Also, Strong’s Greek Lexicon confirms that the word agamos is used ‘even of women’ http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G22&t=KJV
          joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

        • I guess my real question, Brother Hal, is if you are taking the position that Paul’s use of agamos is limited to widowers and/or men who have never married, then help me understand how that definition of agamos can possibly apply to its use in verse 11:

          (but if she does leave, she must remain agamos, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

          How can the definition “widower or man who has never married” possibly apply to it’s use in this verse?
          joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

          • Most of the commentators I checked prefer agamos (widowers) and chrea (widows) because the one appears to be the masculine counterpart in this sentence. It is true that a masculine noun/adjective often is inclusive, but since both masc and fem are present in this sentence, that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

            Some believe agamos may have been the normal term for widowers, although in 11 it clearly is an adjective describing simply the state of being unmarried (divorced, in that case). So no one believes agamos is limited to widowers or men who never married, but this particular sentence seems to call for it.

            By the way, Paul does speak of being “loosed” in v. 27 (but in that case, he may be speaking of breaking off an engagement).

            This is a notoriously thorny passage, and a lot has been written on it.

            • You said, “So no one believes agamos is limited to widowers or men who never married, but this particular sentence seems to call for it.”

              I would say, that this particular sentence seems to call for it ONLY if one is trying to force the sentence to conform with one’s predisposed expectations.

              If one starts with the assumption that anyone who has divorced is forever forbidden to remarry (possibly based on misunderstanding verse 11 of the same passage), then, yes, one would find a need to limit the use of agamos in this sentence, accordingly.

              If, however, we follow the context clues within the passage, based on the normal expectation that Paul means the same thing by agamos all four times he uses it (all in the same passage), we arrive at a completely different understanding.
              joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

    • Also, Paul’s meaning in the use of the word ‘agamos’ cannot possibly be limited to ‘widowers or men who never married,’ because two of the four instances in which it is used (verses 11 and 34) are clearly referring specifically to a woman.
      joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

      • Richard L. Pratt has a helpful discussion of this whole passage and its possible meanings in Holman New Testament Commentary, I & II Corinthians. Of course, this notoriously tricky passage is discussed at length in many other commentaries and articles, as well.

        • I’ll try to take a look at Pratt’s.

          Honestly, though, I have read several commentaries on this passage, as well as dug up definitions in several lexicons. And I haven’t found most of the commentaries to be very helpful (the one very helpful exception is Rubel Shelly’s ‘Divorce and Remarriage’ which started me digging in this direction).

          Most of the commentators seem to approach the passage from a perspective of preassumed expectations of what they expect Paul to say, then assign limitations of word usage based on their own predispositions. It all seems very circular reasoned with total disregard to contextual use of terms.

          You’re right…I am not a Greek scholar. And, yes, I do feel a little weird publicly addressing a topic in which I seem to find myself in disagreement with well known scholars.

          I am, however, quite good at contextual reading of text and use of context clues to ascertain an author’s intended use of terms. And I am unwilling to accept answers that disregard context…especially when a clear answer may be found that does not violate contextual use of terms.

          I think it’s safe to assume, when a word is used only four times in the entire NT, and those four times are all by the same author in the same passage, that the word can reasonably be expected to mean the same thing in all four uses.

          If we take the word agamos to mean “a widower or man who has never married” that definition can only be reasonably applied to two instances, with the other two instances requiring drastically different assumed meanings.

          If, however, we take Paul’s use of the word agamos to mean ‘divorced’ that one definition can be applied to all four sentences in which the word agamos is used, and the sentences make sense.

          Check it out and you’ll see what I mean.
          joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

  3. Joe,

    I think the dogmatic approach to sin in divorce can stem from a poor interpretation of what the authors of NT said. Thanks for sharing this… Your study of this word is just one example.

    I think the church can spend too much time concentrating on the “sin of divorce” which can be very complex instead of shepherding the hart of the divorced person and if needed help them in reconciling their relationship with their loving father. That’s where many well meaning Christians fail.

    A simple example: when there is a “no fault” divorce due to the two parties not being able to reconcile differences the church would frown… and in some cases maybe rightly so. But the problem is if the person was sinning and resulted in a divorce but has repented and as Jesus stated “go and sin no more” then who are we to judge? I understand this is a simple example I’m giving for a broad array of situations but the bottom line is the church spends way too much time dragging people’s past up to define it as sin. Forgetting the scripture “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” but thanks be to God regardless of any past sins we have committed Jesus has made a way to reconcile and like the old hymn says where sin had left a crimson stain he washed it white as snow!!! Now that’s something to celebrate! Right?

    All of that aside if you consider all scripture on sin, forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation it only helps to prove your point. If the divorced person has sinned and been forgiven then remarries who are we to judge? If his grace isn’t enough for that situation I think we are all in big trouble.

    Thanks for sharing!


    • You said, “I think the dogmatic approach to sin in divorce can stem from a poor interpretation of what the authors of NT said.”

      I agree. Also, I think that poor understanding often comes from asking the wrong questions. If we approach a passage asking legalistic questions expecting to find inflexible rules, that is what we are likely to find…even if it was not the author’s intent.

      It’s not about trying to understand and follow a complex system of rigid legalistic rules. It’s about passionately pursuing godliness in all situations, while seeking direction through the Holy Spirit and reading of scripture.

      And yes, even when we do sin, God’s grace covers our sin. That does NOT mean we should disregard pursuit of godliness. We must not fall into the lazy cheap-grace mindset of saying, “Oh well, I may as well go ahead and sin, since God’s grace covers it anyway.”

      Our mindset should be of pursuing godliness in the present and future while accepting His grace and forgiveness for past sins.

      BUT…neither divorce nor remarriage are necessarily sinful…and we must avoid the trap of pursuing legalistic righteousness rather than passionate godliness.

      Thank you, Michael, for the thought-provoking comment!
      joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

  4. Interesting essay, and I do agree that Paul was both contextually consistent and explicitly clear that remarriage after divorce – for a man, at least – was and is not a sin.

    One can use inductive reasoning to say the same for a woman, and certainly this would be consistent with Jesus’ teachings, but I’m not sure that proof by induction is entirely appropriate for the Pauline interpretation.

    It would be a stretch to call him a misogynist, but he did hew to the cultural milieu of the time in defining women’s roles in the first century church.

    I realize that verses 9 and 10, quoted above, do seem to cover divorced women as well as widows in the “better to marry than to burn ” aphorism, but it does beg the question as to whether “widow” was indeed a gender-specific term at the time. If so, an alternate reading would suggest that it was OK for divorced men and women whose husbands had died to remarry, if they absolutely had to, but that divorced women were excluded my omission. (It’s my understanding that a man whose wife died was expected, and indeed enjoined to remarry, preferably a member of his late wife’s family.)

    It may be more consistent with the cultural context (and with Paul’s seeming prejudices) to say that Paul would have allowed divorced me to remarry, but that he would have taken a very dim view of divorced women doing the same; I have the feeling he would have seen them as “used” or damaged goods, fit only for a life in the cloister.
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser recently posted…LOVE-U: E for EmpathizeMy Profile

    • Hmmm…

      There were certainly some double-standards and gender-based inequalities in the first-century Mediteranean cultures…something we are certainly not free of in modern Western Civilization.

      However, I believe there has always been…and continues to be…an overarching principle of equality in application of both justice and mercy. There are many examples, both biblically and historically. One reference is Paul’s statement in Galations 3:26-29:

      For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

      You may be thinking of Paul’s statement in verses 10-11 of 1 Corinthians 7, which some see as forbidding women to remarry after divorce. I think I’ll post on that next week. I think the meaning of these two verses becomes much clearer once we better understand the primary message of the overall passage, with correct understanding of terms, based on contextual interpretation of usage.

      Thank you, Andrew! Your comments always give me pause to think… 🙂
      joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

  5. From what I have seen of many Greek “scholars” is that they can get so lost in syntax and etymology that they forget the purpose of what they are reading. And I have also seen in many commentaries that you can pretty much determine which side a commentator will take on some issues by simply looking at the theological background of the commentator. Instead of looking for truth, so many get a preconceived idea in their head and translate based upon that preconception. This is something they told us to try to avoid in hermeneutics.

    I think also, Joe has a more balanced approach. Yes, language is important, but just as important hermeneutically is context. You can’t just concentrate on one without considering the other. In fact, I tend to lend for credence to context because, as Joe pointed out here, it can clarify the particular use of language choices.
    Wendell G recently posted…Hello world!My Profile

    • Thank you, Wendell!

      I have a lot of respect for you, and your opinion is very encouraging to me.

      I have a question for you…something that occurred to me as I was studying for next week’s post on verses 10-11 of this chapter.

      Could it be that Paul intentionally used the word agamos rather than apolyo because agamos was a MORE specific word for divorced?

      One of the issues being dealt with in this passage was one of people separating from their spouse to devote themselves to prayer (I picture this rather like joining a convent while still married).

      The word apolyo was a common verb that was used to mean more than legal divorce. It was also used to mean to set free, to send away, to leave, etc.

      However, agamos is talking specifically about not being bound by the legal bond of marriage.

      With apolyo, it seems to me there could have been confusion as to whether one was speaking of separation without divorce (one of the issues being addressed in this passage) or legal divorce. The term agamos is clear, at least on the point of legal divorce versus separation without divorce.

      What do you think?
      joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

      • I think that view has merit. Paul tended to be very precise in his terminology and arguments (though some may argue that point) and that assertion would certainly fit with his style.

        It is so hard to get into the head of an original author so often times context and consistency are very important clues.

        • “It is so hard to get into the head of an original author so often times context and consistency are very important clues.”

          Yes…especially with differences in language, culture, historical time and geographical location…not to mention reading responses to questions without the benefit of reading the questions…

          Thank you, Wendell!
          joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

  6. Joe,
    I have read your article several times and the responses. I believe that people who do not want to agree with what you have said have it so deep in their minds of what they have been taught, they can’t see daylight much less truth. I once had some of those same notions.

    I believe with all my heart that I have been divorced for cause due to abuse and now am unmarried. I believe if the Lord chooses, He will send a non-abusive godly man my way some day. If He does, I hope that I won’t be at the airport when my ship comes in.

    • Yes, paradigm shifts are difficult, especially on topics we have studied and internalized deeply.

      My wife often reminds me (and I am thankful for her reminder), “Joe, don’t forget that until a few years ago you saw it the same way and would likely have argued the other side.”

      It’s true. I grew up hearing this chapter taught quite differently from how I now understand it…and as I first learned to study the Bible I used commentaries that reinforced that perspective…reasoned opinions of men much more educated than myself…why wouldn’t I believe them?

      …at least until combinations of life events, further Bible study, and the Holy Spirit’s ministry caused me to start digging deeper with less reliance on the commentaries…

      Thank you, Brenda!

      I stand in firm support of your liberty. You have been redeemed from that covenant of marriage to an evil abuser. You are not in relationship with him and have neither legal nor moral obligation to him. He has no authority in your life. You are completely free, in Christ, to live your life according to the leading of the Holy Spirit, including marriage to another man if so led.

      You are completely free!

  7. Hi Joseph! I’m your neighbor at #SmallWonder. What a topic to ponder. You make a very solid case for remarriage after divorce. I’ll have to sit with this a little longer but what you’ve written lines up with my beliefs. Great word/work.

    • You said, “I’ll have to sit with this a little longer…”

      Yes, please do! Don’t take my word for it…dig in and study yourself to see what God has to say to you.

      That’s really my goal, here…to encourage people to study scripture with a fresh perspective.

      Thank you, Lisha!
      joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

  8. I appreciate the depth, research and question you ask to help us to further reflect on Paul’s meaning of unmarried or divorced. As a woman who is divorced but then also became widowed when my former husband passed away, I am interested in learning what God’s word says about all of this. It seems there are no easy answers but as I was reading your post, I felt that Paul could have described divorce in the passage above. It’s a lot to think about and since i am still single I still wonder about the perception of others who are not divorced and how they feel about those who are like me. It has taken a long time to begin to feel accepted and loved by the church community. I will refer back to this post for further reflection and appreciate your words.
    Mary Geisen recently posted…BelongingMy Profile

    • Thank you, Mary, for sharing your story and perspective.

      There are certainly many within the church who prescribe rigid legalistic rules in regard to divorce and remarriage. However, I see God calling us to liberty in Christ and the passionate pursuit of godliness by the leading of the Holy Spirit.

      Blessings to you!
      joe recently posted…Unmarried or DivorcedMy Profile

  9. Hello, When you say, “and he intended to clearly state that it is not sinful for someone who has divorced to remarry.”, are you not forgetting a passage in the same chapter that says, “10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”? Here Paul says that the divorced must remain unmarried!!

    • On the contrary, I specifically included verse 11 in my discussion as one of the four uses of the word ‘agamos.’ In fact, verse 11 is the specific instance where it is very clear Paul was speaking of a divorced woman in his use of the word ‘agamos.’

      Here is another post further discussing this passage (and verses 10-11 in particular): http://josephjpote.com/2015/02/divorce-remarriage/

      Have a blessed day!
      joe recently posted…Narnian AbuseMy Profile

  10. It seems that much of your argument for proving that Agamos means divorced hinges on I Corinthians 7:34. Curious, though, why some translations have this verse very different. If you read the NKJV, it sounds like unmarried = virgin.

    “There is[a] a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband.”

    • I certainly would not say my position hinges on the correct translation of verse 34. If verse 34 were completely removed from the passage, it would have no material effect on my position. LOL! 🙂

      As stated in the post, ‘agamos’ is used four times in this passage…the only four times it is used anywhere in the Bible.

      In one instance (verse 11) ‘agamos’ clearly means ‘divorced.’

      In the other three uses, it is clear Paul does not use ‘agamos’ to mean widowed (verse 8) or virgin (verse 34).

      However, you are correct that the KJV translators seem to leave the door open that ‘agamos’ in verse 34 could mean ‘virgin,’ which is substantially different from the wording of NASB (which is generally considered the more accurate word-for-word translation).

      Sill, if one assumes Paul intended the same meaning for each of the four times he used the word ‘agamos’ (which seems a reasonable assumption) the only logical conclusion is that he consistently used ‘agamos’ to mean ‘divorced’…or at the very least to specifically include those who have divorced.

      Or so it seems to me… 🙂

      Thank you for commenting, Daniel!
      joe recently posted…Simple AnswersMy Profile

  11. Hello. Since I agree with the content of your post, I have nothing to argue with you on, but I would like to nitpick a grammatical. You wrote, “Below are the four specific verses in which the word agamos (unmarried) are used (emphasis added)…”

    The verb after “the word agamos (unmarried)” should be “is” rather than “are”.

    Great article, though. Thanks for posting.

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