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.
Now Paul repeats the admonition of Christ found in several places that divorce is sin. “Separate” does not mean a legal separation in the American legal sense. Rather, in First Century practice, when couples separated, they were no longer married at all. This is made entirely clear in verse 11 which states that a separated wife should remain “unmarried.” Clearly, Paul sees a separation as ending the marriage.
In American and European law, a married couple can obtain a legal separation, meaning that they are no longer expected to live together but are still married in the eyes of the law. In such a case, the “husband” and “wife” are not united or one flesh as described in Genesis 2, nor are they honoring Paul’s command in the first few verses of this chapter to grant one another sexual relations except “for a season.” In Bible terms, a legal separation is a divorce.
Paul recognizes that divorces will occur even though Christ commanded against it. He says in such a case the couple may remarry each other. Amazingly, I’ve heard preachers advise divorced couples that it would be sin to remarry — presumably on a hyperliteral interpretation of Matthew 5:31. Common sense tells you that reconciliation of a divorced couple is highly desirable and certainly not wrong.
This is an illustration of our historical insistence on strictly enforcing our questionable translations of the Gospel passages while utterly ignoring Paul’s teaching in this area. Rather than wrestling with all relevant passages, we’ve chosen to just ignore those passages that are inconsistent with our predetermined conclusions.
Paul says that if a couple is divorced, they should not marry others — they should reconcile or remain unmarried. Here, for the first of several times, we find the NIV translation is less than exact. Paul does not really say “she must remain unmarried.” Rather, he says, as in the KJV, “let her remain unmarried.”
In the Greek, the verb is present imperative middle. Spiros Zodhiates, a premier New Testament Greek scholar, states that an imperative verb “is used to give a command; an exhortation; or an entreaty.” Thus, whether Paul is commanding or merely exhorting must be taken from the context.
The KJV is better than the NIV in leaving the ambiguity in the text for the reader to interpret from context rather than forcing the translators’ opinion on the readers, as does the NIV. For example, in verse 2, “let every man have his own wife” is also imperative, but Paul is not commanding marriage. He is urging marriage if necessary to avoid fornication. In verse 6 Paul makes it clear that this is “not of commandment” (KJV) but only “by permission” (KJV).
Likewise, in verse 12, Paul says that an unbelieving husband should not divorce his wife, and this is also in the imperative mood. Plainly, Paul is entreating — not commanding. He has no authority to command an unbeliever (1 Cor. 5:12). Countless examples could be multiplied.
I’ve been through every present imperative middle verb in 1 Corinthians and many of Paul’s other epistles, and the conclusion is that this tense and voice may be a command or may be a recommendation, and the distinction may only be found in the context.
Now Paul could be urging the divorced to remain unmarried for more than one reason. First, he could be saying that it would be sin for a divorced spouse to marry anyone other than the original spouse. But he could also be urging the readers to remain single for the same reason that he does so in verse 1, verse 7, verse 26, and verse 32 — because he prefers that all Christians who are single for any reason remain single “because of the present crisis” and because “an unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs.” In fact, given Paul’s very strong and oft-repeated emphasis on remaining single, we would be surprised to hear him say anything to the divorced other than an entreaty to remain single.
Which of these possible interpretations is right must be drawn from the immediate context — not the biases of the interpreter. In the next post, we’ll consider other verses in chapter 7 that answer the question plainly.
This legal concept was invented as a device to avoid obtaining a church- or government-granted divorce, often considered sin, while accommodating the reality that it is often unsafe for a wife to live with an abusive husband. Doctrine taught that divorce was wrong, but common sense dictated that the wife couldn’t risk being brutalized — or killed, and so a “legal separation” was invented, creating a fictitious marriage for the sake of doctrine while allowing the wife to leave. The fact that we need to create such a legal fiction to protect our doctrine demonstrates how very questionable the traditional teaching is.