Divorce & Remarriage

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 send his wife away. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

Too often, this passage is wrongly used as a rigid doctrinal proof-text that divorce is never an option for a Christian and that all divorced Christians must remain single for the rest of their lives. Reading the paragraph in isolation of the surrounding passage, one could get that impression.  Read in context, however, we see that is not at all Paul’s intent.

In this passage Paul is addressing specific questions asked by the church at Corinth. He is not addressing generalized mandates to apply to all relational situations, but rather pastoral input in regard to specific questions about specific situations.

We are not privy to the questions in the preceding letter from the Corinthian church. However, from Paul’s responses we can glean a general idea what the questions were about.  Apparently, they included questions about whether a single Christian should remain unmarried, whether a Christian married to an unbeliever should divorce to marry a Christian, and whether a married Christian should live a celibate life apart from their spouse.

The Corinthian Christians were, apparently, quite sincere in these questions. As zealous new converts living in a pagan culture, they took seriously Christ’s admonitions to count all other relationships as of no value in comparison with our relationship with Christ…and were determined to demonstrate their commitment to Christ.

In the first seven verses of the chapter, Paul focuses on physical marital intimacy, encouraging married couples to “stop depriving one another” (verse 5).  Paul then shifts his focus from intimacy within a marriage to legal marital status.  In verses 8-9 (see previous post) Paul tells the divorced and widowed that it is best if they remain unmarried, but that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

In verses 12-16, Paul turns his attention to those who are married to unbelievers, explaining that their spouse’s lack of faith is not reason to divorce, and that they should live together in peace and harmony, if possible.  However, realizing that may not be possible, he instructs in verse 15, “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.”

Verses 10-11 transition from the need for Christian couples to live together in marital intimacy to the question of what a Christian married to an unbeliever is to do. In these two verses, Paul addresses separation and divorce specific to both situations…continuous separation from a spouse and divorce for the purpose of marrying another.

In looking at verses 10-11, we must first recognize that this is not a rigid edict for all divorced Christians to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives.  This is clear from the preceding verses 8-9, in which Paul specifically told the divorced and widowed that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

What is Paul’s intent, then, in verses 10-11?

First, notice the legal marital status. In the first half of the sentence, the woman is very clearly married.

But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband…

As Paul exhorts her to be reconciled, if possible, she is still married though separated. We know this, because Paul refers to her husband.  Married women have husbands.  Unmarried women do not have husbands.

…but if she does leave…be reconciled to her husband…

For comparison, refer to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where the former husband is referred to as former husbandnot as husband.

So, Paul is exhorting a married woman who is separated from her husband to, if feasible, be reconciled to her husband.

Paul never exhorts a divorced woman to be reconciled to her former husband. Click To Tweet

Yet, even as Paul exhorts the separated wife to reconcile with her husband, he also recognizes that reconciliation may not be feasible, in which case he advises divorce.

…(but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband)…

Unmarried means un-married…for a married woman to become unmarried, she must first divorce. So we see that Paul is clearly giving instruction against continuous marital separation.

Paul instructs to either reconcile or divorce…don’t remain married yet separated. Click To Tweet

Interestingly, many Christian counselors give advice in direct opposition to Paul’s instruction. Some advise abused women to separate from their abusive husband while prohibiting divorce.  Others advise that even after a divorce, she should still try to reconcile.  In contrast, Paul instructed married women to reconcile if feasible, and if not feasible to divorce.  He is quite clear that she is not to remain married and separated…a stressful state of limbo that is emotionally unhealthy for both parties, as well as any children involved.

Now, what about the phrase remain unmarried?  Too often, remain is read as eternally remain…and rigidly interpreted to mean a Christian who has divorced must remain unmarried for the rest of their life…that they can never marry someone else.

This erroneous interpretation completely ignores the whole purpose of divorce. Divorce is granted for the purpose of legally dissolving the marriage relationship leaving neither party in obligation to the other (reference Deuteronomy 24:1-4).  Where there is no covenant there is no concern of violation of covenant obligation.  Someone who is unmarried has no spouse to remain faithful to, and therefore is free to marry.  We can see this clearly illustrated in this same passage, where Paul clearly states that those who are unmarried (divorced) or released from a wife (divorced) are free to marry.

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. (verses 8-9)

…Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned… (verses 27-28)

So, we know Paul did not intend this as a life-long edict to never marry again. However, recognizing that one of the apparent questions being addressed had to do with divorcing an unbelieving spouse to marry a Christian, the meaning becomes clear.  Paul is saying that they must not divorce for the explicit purpose of marrying someone else.  He also references this as being in keeping with the words of Christ.

But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord…

To me, this is a clear reference to Christ’s words in Matthew 19:9 (and other similar passages).

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.

In referencing Christ’s words in this manner, Paul also gives us the benefit of further commentary on Jesus’ meaning. I have posted elsewhere on the Matthew 19 passage.  However, Paul’s reference within this passage aids in understanding that Jesus also was speaking against divorcing for the explicit purpose of marrying someone else, not a life-long edict against ever marrying again.  Only someone who is in a marriage covenant can violate their marriage covenant.  Where there is no marriage (divorced) there can be no violation of marriage commitments.

Paul did not directly address abuse in this passage. However, in how he has applied godly principles to pastoral counseling we can see he clearly leaves open a godly avenue of escape from an abusive marriage.  He clearly advises divorce for marriages where peaceful reconciliation is not feasible.  He clearly advises against extended separation without divorce.  He clearly allows that marriage at some time after divorce is not sin and is preferable to undue temptation.

If you are in an abusive marriage, you have Paul’s blessing to leave and seek divorce. If at some point down the road you feel led to marry someone else, you have Paul’s blessing in that marriage as well.

Your thoughts?


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


16 thoughts on “Divorce & Remarriage

  1. That was the passage in Corinthians of which I was thinking last week, Joe – and yes, taken in context it’s entirely specific to a set of questions. How i wish we knew exactly what the questions were!

    I do agree that Paul built a paradigm by which women could leave an abusive (‘nonharmonious’) marriage, divorce, and remarry; in this I suspect he was very much aided by the Hellenized society of Corinth, which gave women a chance at a new start. I’m not sure it would have been more than theoretically possible in a Torah/Talmud dominated region, and I suspect that under those circumstances Paul might not have given such counsel.

    The T/T-thumpers were not that far removed from being exhorted to kill a rebellious child (Deut. 21:18-21), and were perfectly happy to apply a double standard to adulterers; Paul would not have had much traction, I think, in Christian converts from that crowd.

    So, my thought? Paul was able to take advantage of the Hellenization of certain parts of the Eastern Med, and to get the church started on a foundation of liberal – for its time – thinking. It’s too much to say that Paul was a social reformer, but it is clear that he wanted to build an early church that was completely faithful to the letter and the intent of Jesus’ teachings.
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser recently posted…LOVE-U : U For UnbendMy Profile

    • “It’s too much to say that Paul was a social reformer, but it is clear that he wanted to build an early church that was completely faithful to the letter and the intent of Jesus’ teachings.”

      I agree…and I suspect Paul, himself, would also agree. He often sought to bring Christian love, grace, justice, and respect for the dignity of the individual to early Christian communities, within their own social context. A pretty major task…

      Thank you, Andrew!
      joe recently posted…Divorce & RemarriageMy Profile

    • “These things are hard to write and not always popular.”

      Yes…writing a position that runs contrary to popular interpretations of a well-known passage…is both intimidating and invites controversial critique…

      However, it is also incredibly rewarding when I learn of God using my words to free someone from unnecessary guilt or enslavement! 🙂

      Thank you, David!
      joe recently posted…Divorce & RemarriageMy Profile

  2. Joe,
    Being un-married and at an age where prospects are limited I believe God’s calling must be to remain un-married, at least for now. There are so many people out there that need a ride, help after surgery, a meal when they are sick. It is a great blessing to have the ability to do these things without someone telling me that I am wasting “his money”. I worked (still do) and usually brought in more income than he did, yet it was still all his, when in reality it was all God’s. We would have been living on the street if it were not for God’s generosity.

    I agree with you whole heartedly. If God allows me to meet a godly man at some point, He would allow me to marry. I’m not at all sure that my cat would welcome giving up her side of the bed though. : )

    Great article, Joe.

    Blessings, Brenda

    • Brenda, agreed except in my case, a seventy pound dog must give her approval. 🙂
      Thought it worth making a suggestion toward recovering thinking, ever a work in progress: should you or I decide to marry again, we would never choose a man who would not want to generously share God’s money, much less consider it all his. Because we have paid too high a price for that.

  3. Interesting as always, Joe. I have never connected vv. 8 and 9 “not burn” to the issue of remaining unmarried after a divorce. It makes sense. Paul’s concern is that we not turn to lust (sinning) out of our deprived state (singleness). I’m not sure what I think about all the theological implications on the rest that you’ve unpacked here, but I certainly know you’ve done your homework! Thanks for always giving us something meaty to chew on, my friend!
    Beth recently posted…Comment on How can I cope? SJT Video on resistance to wounds by Andrew Budek-SchmeisserMy Profile

  4. You always have something enlightening to share, Joe. As many times as I’ve read these scriptures and heard them preached, you bring a new light to them. Thank you for your faithfulness in digging in deep to get the true meanings out of these passages instead of just glossing over them as our traditional teachings. Paul (like Jesus) was ultimately teaching freedom, not more restrictions.
    Lisa notes… recently posted…When you can’t repayMy Profile

    • “Paul (like Jesus) was ultimately teaching freedom, not more restrictions.”

      Yes! That’s it exactly.

      Neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever added more restrictive layers of legalistic rules with more convoluted loopholes of exception…nor did they ever eradicate the law given to Moses as erroneous to be replaced with a completely different law…not on any subject.

      So anytime we percieve them as doing so, on any given subject, we can be assured we have misread the passage.

      Jesus fulfilled the law…He did not remove it nor did He add to it. Even His new commandment ‘to love one another’ was already included in the law.

  5. Thank u! I was saved young. Grew up In church associated with Bob Jones university. ( im sure i dont have to say legalist)Married 28 years to an abuser. I just couldn’t live that way any longer n lefted. He divorced me. But how I ve been taught tells me I’m to remain unmarried. I know God sent me someone who told me about cryingoutforjustice. It help me alot but due to what iv been taught I still struggled with whether in God s eyes I am free. When u talked in another article about the covenant God had with Israel n Him divorcing them n also this article I now do believe I’m free. Thank u!!!

    • That’s wonderful, Becky!

      Yes, Christ has called us to liberty in Him, and we are not bound by any old covenants that have been dissolved. Thank God for His glorious redemption and deliverance!

      Thank you for commenting.
      joe recently posted…Healing TouchMy Profile

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