Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson 17: 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 (ESV)
A Not So Fragile Bond
God’s universe is made up of very basic types of building materials. They are held together by bonds to make up different kinds of things. Objects we see and use every day are bonded together by things like glue, cement, nails, and screws. And thanks to an amazing miracle blend of modern chemistry and physics that holds much of our world together: Duct Tape.
The things we glue together are also made up of more basic things bonded together in some way. When I used to put together plastic model air-planes, I glued molded plastic parts together. On a more basic level, the parts are made up of plastic molecules. The molecules are made up of basic atoms such as Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen. The atoms are made up of packets of energy concentrated into protons, neutrons and electrons. And things like protons are concentrations of different types of quarks.
The sub-nuclear glue that holds the quarks together works very well, but only at close ranges. Protons don’t just fall apart, but can rapidly trade identities with neutrons. The protons and neutrons are held together by nuclear bonds which are very strong. If that energy was easily released common every-day things might spontaneously explode as if they were huge nuclear weapons. Thankfully God made those bonds to be very reliable. The atoms or molecules are held together by chemical bonds. Since they break apart and come together more easily we can make things like plastic, styrofoam, computer chips, and gummy bears.
There are also relationships that bond people together. There are business relationships that keep customers faithful as long as they get good, affordable products or services. There are friendships and alliances that last as long as people get along well.
However, there is a bond between people that God intended to last a life time unconditionally. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman, that’s rightly ended only by death. It’s designed to hold together in poverty or wealth, in sickness or health, for better or worse.
That does not mean marriage is easy, or that the bond isn’t obliterated at times. But we are not left to decide for ourselves what breaks that union. God’s word gives us detail about how marriages should be maintained and sustained. It also explains what situations sometimes break that very strong bond.
As we saw in the last study, marriage was instituted by God. It was made to represent the covenant union between God and his people. On the human side, it was designed to serve three main purposes:
1. Husbands and wives are to be helpers to one another in their daily duties and challenges.
2. Children are given a stable environment in which to be born and raised.
3. It provides a moral way for the physical desires of men and women to be satisfied.
It’s not just a temporary romantic, economic, or convenient agreement. It’s the glue God designed to hold the foundations of human society together. This God-instituted bond is very strong and should not be broken. Sadly, our fallen nature is often very weak. At times our faithfulness to that bond can be broken.
In Corinth, as it is in most non-Christian societies, marriages were believed to be ended easily. They could get out of their vows to their partners whenever they simply wanted to. It’s important for God’s people to preserve this union to the best of their ability, for God’s glory, for the stability of society, and for their own happiness. But there are times when God provides for ending things when sin destroys what should have been preserved.
to remain together in this covenant bond.
10. To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband
11. (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
Jesus explained this in Matthew 19:6 when answering questions about divorce. He said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
All through Scripture marriage is defined as the life long covenantal union of one man and one woman. No couple has the liberty to end their union by mere choice, or to just leave one another.If they do, they are still married in God’s eyes, and must live morally as singles, or be reconciled with one another.
When one partner dies, the living spouse is free to marry again. That’s directly stated in verse 39. But in our fallen world, God’s ways are commonly rejected. Marriages are entered as if they were temporary unions lasting only while both parties are happy. They are just as easily abandoned when the feeling of happiness fades away. Divorce was then and is now an accepted way of life for the world. But God’s word doesn’t present it that way.
The Bible recognizes that some things do destroy a marriage. They so horribly disfigure what marriage is that the bond is obliterated. One such thing is adultery. It’s an abandonment of the most basic marriage vow.
The world has a very different set of values about morality and marriage. Adultery is defended by some as if it’s a normal and sometimes healthy thing to do.
The internet and social media just like the printed page can be amazing tools for God’s Kingdom and glory. But they can also be abused. There are websites and apps that provide a service to married people who want to cheat on their spouses. Some give tips on how to keep your affair a secret, how to come up with effective lies and cover stories, and they secretly match up married people up just like singles dating services.
In the Old Testament sexual infidelity was a capitol offense. Adultery required the death of the guilty parties. The innocent spouse was free from marriage because of the other’s execution.
In the time of the New Testament, Israel wasn’t legally able to execute anyone. Under Rome, only the state could put someone to death as a penalty of the law. For example, this is why the Sanhedrin needed Pilate’s permission in the crucifixion of Jesus.
This left the innocent spouse in a difficult situation in cases of adultery. Infidelity obliterated the marriage bond and God considered it broken. But if the spouse still lived, the innocent partner would be stuck in a relationship that according to God’s law should have been ended. There needed to be another solution to preserve the intent of God’s law.
Jesus introduced a different way that preserved God’s moral law. He said in Matthew 19:9, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The word immorality means that one married partner was sexually active outside the marriage. Jesus made it clear that adultery freed the innocent party from marriage.
The innocent person could be set free from the destroyed bond by a court of law. Divorce did not end the marriage. Adultery did. The divorce merely recognized and certified the court’s judgment that the marriage had been destroyed.
This not only set the innocent spouse free from a destroyed bond, it also preserved the truth marriage was instituted to represent; that unfaithfulness has no place in the relationship between Christ and his church, and so it shouldn’t be tolerated in our marriages which represent that union.
The guilty partner was treated as if he or she had been put to death for his crime. The innocent party was set free to marry again, but only if he or she followed the same rule God gives to singles; they should only marry in the Lord, that is: to another believer.
12. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.
13. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.
14. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
16. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
As the gospel started to spread to people who weren’t Jews, families were effected. God’s covenant nation was not just one race of people any more. There were many gentiles from pagan backgrounds who became Christians.
In some homes one spouse become a believer while the other did not. There were also some cases where a Christian married an unbeliever, even though God’s word said they should not.
Since unbelievers have different values about marriage, the unbelieving spouse might see it perfectly acceptable to abandon the believing partner and end the marriage.
This presented a fairly new problem for the church: What would they do about abandonment if the guilty party wasn’t a member of the covenant community? The courts of the congregation had no authority to deal with him or her. The authority of God’s word and the pastor’s counsel would mean nothing to him.
The duty of the believing spouse was to remain together if it was at all possible. Believers are forbidden to abandon their spouse since marriage is a vow for life before God. When there are problems, their duty is to obey their God given marriage obligations regardless of the spiritual condition of the partner.
If the unbeliever abandons the Christian, the bond was considered broken. Since the courts of the church had no jurisdiction, there was nothing that could be done. So, if an unbeliever abandons a believing spouse, the innocent partner can be set free from the bond of marriage. This means they are free to marry another person as long as it’s a believer. In cases like that the church court could grant a divorce to certify by proper authority that the marriage ended and determine who was the innocent party.
But there must be an actual separation or abandonment. This means that one party actually leaves the marriage relationship. The word here in the original text is the Greek word, “choritzo” (χωρίζω). The meanings in the best lexicons are: “divide, separate, take away, depart, go away”
This could be that he or she physically leaves and goes about living as a single person. It could also mean that he or she refuses to continue in the marriage by refusing to recognize the marriage vows, or demanding an end to the relationship.
The party being abandoned must have made a reasonable and sincere effort to restore the troubled marriage and the guilty party refused over time to cooperate. The Presbyterian Church in America position paper on marriage and divorce says, “Paul views desertion as the destruction of the marriage which the Christian spouse was unable to prevent.”
A mutually agreed upon separation or divorce is not abandonment. Couples who simply say that love has gone out of their marriage or that they both want to end the marriage, find no support from Scripture.
God’s word has a different solution for homes where the love has gone out. Both husbands and wives are commanded to love their spouses.
Love in Scripture is far more than a fleeting romantic feeling. It’s something we are expected to do as commanded. It’s behaving toward another person to treat them as God tells us to. The feeling is the blessing that comes to couples who work to obey God by being loving.
To avoid the temptation to call things abandonment that really are not, God makes it clear in his word what conditions must be met. It’s wise to have the Church Officers review the case, and make the determination. Our Confession of Faith concludes it’s section on divorce by saying, “the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.”
What the world allows can’t change what God tells us. Though broad excuses for divorce may have been common in Corinth, as they are today, still God says that marriage cannot be set aside by mere choice.
Paul also makes it clear, that the one doing the abandoning must be an unbeliever. A believer isn’t permitted to be the one to end the marriage except as the victim of adultery or abandonment. To refuse to honor marriage vows is open rebellion against the word of God.
In a situation where both partners had professed faith in Christ, and are members of a local church, abandonment is a chargeable offense against God’s law. The partner wanting to end the marriage should be summoned before the Session. An admonition would be given for that person to obey the obligations of marriage. If that partner, given time and counsel, still refuses to submit to the officers of Christ’s church, the guilty party should be removed from communicant membership and excommunicated. Since God’s word and the authority of the church is rejected, he is considered an unbeliever and his abandonment would be grounds for divorce from the innocent party. If a couple separates or divorces for other reasons than the Bible provides, they are only severing their civil obligations before the law of the state. In the eyes of God they are still married and must remain single.
Since God alone established the binding nature of marriage, only he can say what constitutes a breaking of that bond. Only the sin of adultery, or the sin of abandonment by an unbeliever can free the victim partner from the marriage in God’s eyes, and be able to marry again. A divorce for any other reason is invalid. Such people are not free to remarry. To do so would be adultery.
This passage also teaches us about the family covenant. It says that when married to a believer, the unbelieving spouse and their children are sanctified and holy. This does not mean they are forgiven of their sins and regenerated. The words mean they are set apart by God for special covenant blessings.
There are benefits for them by having a Christian in the home. The children are considered part of the Church family and should be baptized, and the unbelieving spouse has the advantage of being married to a redeemed partner. When even one person in a home loves and obeys God’s word, everybody else in the home benefits from it and is blessed by God. In some cases the unbelieving person might be converted to Christ. Even if this does not happen, their home is a better place with one believer there.
Verse 16 cautions the abandoned believer. They can’t know God’s eternal plan for their unbelieving spouse. The lost are redeemed by the sovereign grace of God. Christians are his messengers and examples of the gospel’s transforming power. By persevering in the marriage as long as possible, and representing the gospel to them, it’s possible that God would use the Christian partner to save the unbeliever through Christ.
But if the unbeliever abandons the believer, there is no reason to grieve that the person is forever lost. God can convert that person in any way he desires at any time. Causing the other person to be saved isn’t the burden of the believing spouse. The duty of the believer is to be obedient to God and loving toward others. Salvation is God’s work using our faithful testimony, but he is not bound to use the Christian spouse as his only messenger.
The implied contrast here with the non-Christian home is also important. In a Christian home, where both partners are believers, there is an awareness that the Bible is God’s word. Both have the Holy Spirit to guide them and help them through marriage problems. Fidelity and concern for the other person should overcome any desire to end the marriage. This is the way the Corinthian homes should behave, rather than following the world’s ways.
The purpose is to encourage believers to preserve and improve their marriages and homes. It gives comfort and instruction to Christians in marriages with unbelievers, however they got into that situation. It clarifies situations where a victim party should be considered free by the church. And it helps us to be able to give sound advice to others struggling in these situations.
By following the instructions in Ephesians 5 and other similar passages, marriages are to be maintained and differences settled properly.
But there’s still another purpose in this passage. Since marriage was instituted to teach us about God’s bond with his Church, we learn that God, as the perfect bridegroom will never be unfaithful to his bride.
If a member of his church serves another God or abandons his commitment to Christ he shows that he was never truly of the bride of Christ to begin with. But all our other faults and weaknesses are overcome by the unfailing love of God. He will persevere with us and be there for us who are truly his.
These two ideas are brought together in Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)