Thursday, September 15, 2011

Divorce and Remarriage According to Paul: Understanding 1 Cor. 7:10-11

It is no secret that divorce is a problem in our culture. It really isn't divorce that is the problem, rather it is our view of marriage that is the real problem. This cultural trend of the great downgrading of marriage has made significant inroads into the church. 1 Cor. 7:10-11 is a text that has been terribly misunderstood by many people and this misunderstanding has resulted in devious behavior toward the marriage covenant by many professing Christians. Having worked through this text, I would like to share my considerations and inquiry with those of you who read this blog. Here is the text in the NAS:
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (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.
There are three different interpretations of this text that predominate in modern culture. Some see this passage as dealing with legal separation. They contend that Paul allows a wife to separate from her husband without sinning as long as she does not divorce him. She has two options at her disposal they say. She can reconcile with her husband or, if she prefers, she may remain single without the possibility of remarrying another. Exegetically speaking, this view fails to rightly define the Greek word translated separate in this text. The word χωρισθῆναι from CHORIDZO in the context of marriage in the NT unambiguously means "divorce." Moreover, the historical context does not support this interpretation of the text because this culture was completely unfamiliar with our modern practice of separation. The Corinthian Christians would never have understood Paul to mean "legally separate" in the sense that we understand it because such a status did not exist at this time. If a wife separates from her husband against his will, she is engaging in wilful sin. Finally, the mandate given throughout Scripture that wives are to submit entirely and completely to their husbands as head of the home would be completely nullified. Paul would never extend permission for anyone to sin. This same Paul wrote, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." (Eph. 5:22) And again, "Wives be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord." (Col. 3:18) "encourage the young women to love their husbands." (Tit. 2:4) "Be Subject to their own husbands." (Tit. 2:5) Peter wrote, "In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands." Peter actually added that wives should do this even if their husbands are disobedient to the word. Paul wrote once more, "A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. (1 Tim. 2:11) This same Paul wrote in this very same chapter in v 39, "A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord." Paul was so convinced of this that he repeated in elsewhere, saying, "For the Married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living." (Rom. 7:2) The idea that Paul is allowing a wife to separate from her husband against his will in this passage is contradictory to everything else Paul wrote about the role and disposition of the marital relationship. If a woman can ignore the binding nature of the marriage covenant in her submissiveness, then it would seem there are no limits to her libertarian freedom. The idea of submission collapses into absolute freedom. The Bible itself becomes indefensible as a reliable source of ethical values, brimming with self-contradictions. Hence it follows that this interpretation does not pass the test of the analogy of faith. It wrongly defines the word separate, imposing a modern definition in place of the one the Corinthians would have understood. Finally, it ignores the historical context of Paul's instructions, failing to recognize that legal separation did not exist at this time.

A second interpretation of this passage holds that Paul is allowing a woman to divorce her husband as long as she does not remarry. At least this interpretation gets the meaning of the word "separate" correct. However, it has little more than this to commend it. The idea is that a woman may divorce her husband, but only if she agrees to remain permanently single or reconcile with her husband. She can never remarry. This view does nothing to hold the idea of marriage in the right perspective. It is not remarriage that is the problem. It is the ungodly view of marriage that is the problem.  This view fails for all of the same reasons the first view failed. In order to understand this, a review of Jesus' own view of marriage should help.

In Matthew 19:1-10, we find the two schools of Hillel and Shammai approaching Christ on the issue of divorce. The school of Hillel claimed that one could divorce their spouse for the smallest of reasons while Shemai held that divorce could only occur for major transgressions. The Pharisees asked the question if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all. Jesus immediately referred to the very beginning of marriage in the Garden of Eden and retorted that man is not to separate or divorce what God has joined together. In other words, marriage is permanent. The Pharisees then questioned, why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce. Jesus retorted that Moses PERMITTED divorce and only because of the hardness of man's heart. This however, is NOT God's design. Then he thunders, "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." Why? The reason you commit adultery when you remarry is because the divorce was not permitted to begin with. The only way the divorce is allowed is in cases of sexual immorality. This is Jesus' view on divorce. Now to demonstrate that the disciples got this right, they responded that if this is what the relationship between the man and wife is like, it is better not to marry at all! Jesus said, you are correct, but not everyone can accept that lifestyle. Jesus' view on divorce is clear. Marriage is permanent and only sexual immorality can provide grounds for terminating it. Remarriage was assumed. The idea that a man would remain single was unimaginable in Christ's day.

The final view on this text happens to be the one that I hold. It is impossible to rightly interpret 1 Cor. 7:10-11 unless you understand what Jesus Himself taught about divorce. Why? Because Paul references Jesus' teaching on the subject in v. 10. He says, to the married I give instructions, not I but the Lord. That is to say that Paul is quoting Jesus on divorce. We have seen what Jesus said about divorce. Contrary to what some liberal scholars think, Jesus' teaching on divorce is unambiguous. These same scholars will try to tell you that you can't know anything for sure. I'm sorry, but that is simply not the Christian worldview. First, Paul says that a Christian woman and a Christian husband are NOT to divorce their spouse. That is a commandment. We also saw that the wife is commanded throughout Scripture to submit to her husband in all things. These are commandments. The husband is commanded to love his wife like Christ loves the church. Divorce violates all of these commandments! Who can argue that a husband that divorces his wife is NOT loving her like Christ loves the church? Moreover, who can argue that a woman who divorces her husband is not loving him and submitting to him as Scripture commands? These are not the only sins that divorce involves. Therefore, the next clause, the parenthetical clause cannot possibly mean what many people think it means. Paul says if a woman divorces her husband, she must remain single or reconcile with him. Many interpret Paul's instructions to mean that if she does divorce him, she has a choice. She can reconcile or remain single. They think Paul is neutral here. He leaves it to the woman. Okay, don't divorce, but if you do, then remain single or be reconciled to your husband. Such a view contradicts the teaching of Jesus which strictly forbids divorce except for immorality. Therefore, Paul cannot be saying what many people think he is saying. How should we interpret Paul then? First, we should understand that Paul is writing to a church that does not have a Bible, yet! He is in the process of giving them one. Divorces are already taking place for all kinds of reasons. This is a period of transition. Unless you recognize that, you are already in jeopardy of not understanding Paul. If a woman has divorced her husband, she must either remain single or if possible, reconcile with her husband. The only plausible interpretation of this verse is that if a woman has divorced or husband, she must either remain single or reconcile. If reconciliation is impossible because the husband has moved or remarried, then her only choice is to remain single. If reconciliation is in fact possible, Paul expects her to reconcile with her husband, thus, correcting the wrong. Unless we understand Paul in this way, we end up with serious contradictions in Scripture. We end up saying that even though Jesus said NO DIVORCE except for sexual immorality, we can divorce as long as we don't remarry. Such a view undermines the permanency of marriage and mocks Christ's point regarding the design of marriage from the beginning.

We know that Jesus unequivocally condemned divorce for any reason other than immorality. We know that wives are bound to their husbands for life. We know that wives and husbands are commanded to love one another. We know that wives are to submit to their husbands. These things we know without question. The parenthetical phrase in 1 Cor. 7:11 must be interpreted in light of everything else we know about divorce and the marital relationship. Since that is true, the only way to understand Paul here is that divorce between Christians is prohibited except on the ground of immorality. If a Christian has divorced their spouse without grounds, they must reconcile where it is possible. If reconciliation is impossible, they must remain unmarried. Paul even commands Christians NOT to divorce their unbelieving spouse if they are content to dwell with them. How much more must Christians not engage in the evil practice of divorce.

In my next blog, I intend to deal with the question of how to deal with a professing Christian that has divorced their spouse without biblical grounds and how the leaders should deal with that person. How does one repent of an unbiblical divorce?

"People live what they believe; everything else is just noise!"


  1. Hi Ed,

    Interesting post, I just read "BOEREWORS TO BAKLAVA, GENTILE TO JERUSALEM" written by a South African chap. The book is refreshing, but his chapter on divorce and remarriage makes a lot of sense, and it's easy to read. My first impression is that we in todays world have no idea of what the word, "covenant" really means.

    the link is:

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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