1 Corinthians 7: Does “Not Under Bondage” Allow Remarriage? Part 2

1corinthians Is remarriage permitted?

Now, the next question — although it’s really the same question — is whether the Christian may remarry. I mean, if the couple is “unmarried,” it follows that they may marry because they’re not married — unless Paul were to say otherwise. And there are several other reasons that the text says that the innocent Christian divorced by a pagan spouse may remarry —

1. Paul uses douloo to mean “bound.” It’s the verb form of doulos, meaning slave or bond-servant. Obviously, Paul is using it metaphorically. If “enslaved” doesn’t mean “can’t remarry” and can’t mean “must refuse to consent to the divorce,” then what on earth is the sense in which he or she might be enslaved? What is he or she being freed from? I’ve heard it argued that the Christian isn’t enslaved to resisting the divorce, which is nonsense. In the American system, it’s possible to resist a divorce and fight at length over child custody and property rights. Actually, there now really is no defense to a suit for the divorce itself, just how to split the children and the money — but there used to be. For centuries, it was often the case that the other spouse had to agree to the divorce absent proof of adultery, for example. And so it’s easy to see how Western readers could take “not under bondage” as “free to consent to the divorce.”

But this just wasn’t remotely close to the way divorce was practiced in ancient Corinth. Here’s how a Corinthian pagan husband divorced his wife.

A man could divorce his wife simply if he didn’t like her anymore. All he had to was get a document from a magistrate. There is no record of one ever being denied.

Or as stated in another source,

The Manus Marriage custom ended in the 1st century BCE and the Free Marriage divorce emerged. With this, the reasons for any divorce became irrelevant. Either spouse could leave a marriage at any point. Property during a marriage was kept separate under Roman Law, and this left only the dowry in common. In cases of adultery, husbands got to keep a portion of the dowry, but without the involvement of adultery women would take most if not all of their dowry with them, as well as their personal property. However, the woman had to get permission from the government to have a divorce while the man could simply just kick the woman out of the house.

2. A pagan or Jewish divorce always granted the right to remarry. (The Torah prohibited a divorce is certain narrow cases, but never prevented remarriage.) That was very nearly the definition of a divorce. The whole point of divorcing someone was to free both spouses to remarry.

3. The Gospels had not yet been written. Had Paul wished to convey the idea that “You are no longer married but you may not remarry because in God’s eyes you’re still married, but it’s a marriage where you are no longer one flesh,” well, he would have had to explain it. The audience to whom the letter was written would have been astonished at such a thought. (Would anyone seriously argue that the Corinthians had been diligent students of the sayings of Jesus at this point in time? Paul had just written chapter 6 to explain that consorting with prostitutes is a sin!)

4. “We are called to peace” is, according to Instone-Brewer‘s review of Jewish literature on marriage and divorce, a rabbinic expression often used to express a solution not directly found in the Torah and based on pragmatic grounds. Paul is basically making the point that Jesus has not spoken directly to this circumstance, but this is what the practicalities of the situation lead him to conclude. Therefore, we cannot seek to import Gospel teachings into a setting that Paul says is not governed by the words of Jesus. Remember, the discussion begins with, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)” (1Co 7:12 ESV).

5. Imagine a Christian husband whose pagan wife refuses to follow him in following Jesus. Roman law treats the children as the husband’s property, and so the husband has the children but no mother for them. There is no split custody agreement to negotiate. And they need a mother. Moreover, no Christian husband would dare allow his children to be raised by a pagan. It would have been unthinkable. He does not have the gift of celibacy and he needs a wife.

Some men (myself included) just aren’t going to be happy without a wife. Many a divorced man finds the single life unbearable. So if he can’t remarry, what “peace” does Paul have in mind? Remember, peace in the biblical sense is not so much the absence of conflict as the setting of things right[2]. What’s been set right now that his wife is gone and is not coming back? And his children need a Christian mother. For children without a mother, what’s been set right by disallowing remarriage by the innocent Christian father? Where is the shalom in this setting?

6. What does “You are not enslaved” mean coming from a Jewish rabbi? It’s clearly an allusion to the Exodus, the defining event in the history of Judaism. Their national character was largely defined by knowing that God had freed them from slavery. What did it mean to be enslaved? Well, it meant that pagans controlled how they lived their lives. Therefore, Paul is telling the innocently divorced Christian spouse that he or she will not have his or her life controlled by the pagans. The pagan spouse may have left, but that doesn’t mean that the pagan gets to decide whether the Christian spouse and parent will be married or whether the spouse’s children will be reared in a household with two parents. Who would feel freed from the slavery of a former spouse if the former spouse could prevent a remarriage by refusing to marry again?

There are cases in the Churches of Christ where an embittered former spouse vengefully abused a former spouse — a Church of Christ member — by refusing to remarry and keeping his affairs secret so that his ex-wife could not remarry. And the ex-wife’s church unwittingly aided and abetted the vengeance by telling her she’d be damned if she remarried. Who would argue that such a woman would be “not under bondage”?

7. Throughout chapter 7, Paul advises his readers in various marital states that they may remarry but that he recommends against it. He does not advise a single group that they may not remarry as a matter of obedience to Christ. Surely, Paul intended to answer that question as to those divorced by pagan spouses but in all innocence. I think the answer is plainly found in “Let it be so” and “You are not under bondage,” as well as “But we are called to peace.” But for those who disagree, the answer is also plainly given both earlier and later in the chapter. As we’ve just covered, the subject is divorce, and Paul does not pretend that a divorce does not dissolve a marriage. In fact, he declares those divorced to be “unmarried.”

(1Co 7:10-11 NET) 10 To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord – a wife should not divorce a husband 11 (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife.

“Married” is gamos (actually, it’s the verb form gameo) and “unmarried” is agamos. Those who are divorced are unmarried. Back in v. 8, Paul gave the rule for the agamos — unmarried.

(1Co 7:8-9 NET) 8 To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them get married. For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.

If Paul doesn’t answer the question in v. 15 by “Let it be so” and “You are not under bondage,” then he answers it in verse 9. Of course, as I explained earlier in this series, he gives the very same answer in v. 27 (“But if you do marry, you have not sinned”). And I’ve responded to the objection that v. 11 might contradict the teachings of these other verses in that same post.

8. Paul summarizes his conclusions regarding a widow near the end of the chapter as follows:

(1Co 7:39 ESV) A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

Notice the parallels: “bondage”/”bound” and “free”/”not enslaved.” And in this instance, the use of “free” clearly means freedom to remarry. “Free” translates eleutheros, meaning “freeborn.” Thayer’s translates,

1. freeborn; in a civil sense, one who is not a slave

It is the perfect synonym for “not enslaved.” What does it mean to be freeborn/not enslaved in this context? Paul writes, “She is free to be married to whom she wishes.” __________________________

[2] Paul writes as a Jewish rabbi. When he uses a rabbinic expression, we have to think in Hebrew terms. Thus, in any rabbinic phrase, “peace” means shalom. Shalom carries with it the meaning of things being set right. Hence, the Brown, Driver, Briggs lexicon defines the word as “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace.” As explained in My Jewish Learning with respect to the rabbinic use of shalom,

In the rabbinic texts, shalom primarily signifies a value, an ethical category‑‑it denotes the overcoming of strife, quarrel, and social tension, the prevention of enmity and war. It is still, to be sure, depicted as a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace, but in a great many sayings it appears in a normative context: The pursuit of peace is the obligation of the individual and the goal of various social regulations and structures. The majority of passages on the subject of peace are concerned with family or communal life, that is, with internal peace among the people, and only a minority are concerned with external relations between Israel and other peoples, between nations and states.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians, 1 Corinthians, Divorce and Remarriage, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply