1 Corinthians 7:5-16 (Divorce and Remarriage, Part 1)


(1 Cor 7:5 ESV) Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Paul seems very strict. He grants an exception, but only for prayer and only by mutual agreement. And in the modern world, how often does a husband or wife want to pray so much and for so long that sex needs to be given up?

Well, the fact that we pray so little and so poorly demonstrates how far removed we are from the mind of Paul. Paul surely spent hours a day in prayer.

I think most readers easily conclude that Paul would make exceptions for disease, travel, and the like. Paul is no legalist. Rather, he is trying to make a point. He is dead serious in insisting that Christian spouses meet one another’s sexual needs. This was for many Corinthians a dramatic change from their former lives.

(1 Cor 7:6–7 ESV) 6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

Paul next makes clear that marriage is not a command. The Jewish rabbis insisted that all adult males marry, but Paul saw the world differently. His priority was serving God and his mission.

(1 Cor 7:8–9 ESV) 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Paul now introduces a theme that runs throughout the chapter: It’s better to be single than married. He later gives his reasons:

(1Co 7:26 ESV) I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.

(1Co 7:28b ESV) Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.

(1Co 7:32-34 ESV) 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.

In short, Paul speaks of a temporary time of distress and the more permanent need to be fully devoted to Christ in his mission. We’ll return to these verses when we get there. For now, it’s enough to realize that Paul’s thinking is heavily driven by circumstances, particularly famine:

Bruce Winter has suggested that the present crisis being experienced in Corinth was “dislocation in the city’s life caused through a series of acute grain shortages and the attendant social unrest.” He cites evidence for grain shortages in the East during the forties and fifties in Eusebius, Pliny, Suetonius and several strands of non-literary evidence. Tiberius Claudius Dinippus was curator of the grain supply in Corinth during this period, an office only filled in times of famine. Such famines invariably caused serious social upheaval. Garnsey claims that “the fear of famine rather than famine itself was enough to send people on the rampage.”

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 335.

(1 Cor 7:10–11 ESV) 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.

“Charge” is strong language. “Command” would be a good translation. And Paul makes a point to reference the words of Jesus as his source. Contrary to what many suppose, Paul isn’t saying that this teaching is inspired, as opposed to the rest of the letter. He is saying that Jesus has addressed this question, and he is following the teachings of Jesus.

“Separate” means divorce. He is not speaking of the Western invention: a legal separation. Rather, in Paul’s mind, you are either married, and therefore granting one another conjugal rights, or you’re not married. There’s no in-between “separation” as exists under American law. This is obvious from the phrase “she should remain unmarried.”

Paul does not reference the exception for fornication mentioned in the Gospels. But neither is he intending to be entirely comprehensive in his statement. He’s speaking in generalities.

(1 Cor 7:12–13 ESV) 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.

Paul is now addressing a situation not dealt with by Jesus. What if a woman is married and she is later converted but the husband is not? If we think of the church as a continuation of Israel, she might consider herself bound to leave him.

In Ezra 10, Ezra required the Jews who’d married foreign women to divorce their wives. Is a Christian married to a non-Christian like a Jew married to a non-Jew? If so, Ezra would seem to give the rule.

Paul concludes that Jesus was not addressing this situation, but he comes to the same conclusion: in general, divorce is not allowed.

(1 Cor 7:14 ESV) 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.

“The unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife” sounds very strange to us. He’s not a believer. In what sense is he holy?

It’s hard to say for sure, but I think Paul and the Corinthians are thinking in Jewish categories. If a Jewish woman marries a Gentile, the marriage is forbidden and thus considered null among the Jews. A child of such a marriage is a mamzer and prohibited from entering the Temple, a synagogue, or marrying a Jewess (other than another mamzer). Might the same rule apply for Christians married to non-Christians?

Paul rejects this kind of thinking. The husband is “holy” in that the marriage to him remains valid and is not null. Therefore, a child of such a marriage is legitimate and not barred from any church activity.

N. T. Wright comments,

Paul’s response is a striking example of how the Christian gospel stands the old negative codes of purity on their heads. As with Jesus’ healings, in which he touched lepers and other unclean people and, instead of being infected with their diseases, infected them instead with God’s new life, so Paul believed that holiness could be more powerful than uncleanness. The relationship would not need to be damaging for the Christian. The unbelieving partner would be regularly within the reach of God’s love in Christ, shining through the believing partner.

Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.

(1 Cor 7:15-16 ESV) But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved [or bound]. 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?

Again, legal separation in the Western sense was unheard of to Paul. “Separates” means divorces. And the Christian spouse is free to remarry.

As Instone-Brewer notes, “Jewish marriage was based on a concept of bondage — both husband and wife were bound to keep the obligations outlined in their marriage contract, and divorce required a certificate of freedom for the wife.” Not bound here refers to freedom to remarry. Instone-Brewer explains: “The only freedom that makes any sense in this context is the freedom to remarry … [A]ll Jewish divorce certificates and most Greco-Roman ones contained the words ‘you are free to marry any man you wish,’ or something very similar.”

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 302.

If marriage is a triangle — with God at the apex and the husband and wife at the base — a three-party contract, why isn’t a Christian bound in this case? Why is the Christian spouse free to remarry when divorced by a pagan spouse? And why is the rule stricter when a Christian leaves? Why should that make a difference?

Obviously, Paul reads Jesus differently from how we read Jesus. As a result, many Church of Christ commentators have refused to accept the conclusion that the Christian spouse may remarry, but Paul’s words are very clear. “Not enslaved” or “not bound” means “no longer bound by her commitment to her former husband.”

As the NET Bible translators comment,

The argument for this view is the conceptual parallel with vv. 1Co 7:39-40, where a wife is said to be “bound” (a different word in Greek, but the same concept) as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is “free” to marry as she wishes, only in the Lord. If the parallel holds, then not bound in v. 1Co 7:15 also means “free to marry another.”

More importantly, in Roman law, the wife could not prevent her husband from divorcing her. She could not insist on the marriage. She did not need to consent to the divorce. And so, if she is “not bound,” the only thing binding her was the marriage that has now been dissolved. She is no longer married, and therefore she is no longer bound to honor a non-existent marriage.

(More to come.)

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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.
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11 Responses to 1 Corinthians 7:5-16 (Divorce and Remarriage, Part 1)

  1. Regarding 1 Cor 7:14, one of Thayer’s definitions of the word sanctify (G37 hagiazo) is to cleanse or purify externally.

    Of course, Paul is not teaching that the unbeliever is “saved” due to the marriage. Instead, they have chosen to remain with a person whom they know is going to follow the teachings of Christ. While they may not be a Christian themselves, they find it acceptable to associate with their Christian spouse and undoubtedly come into contact with other Christians on a frequent basis. They are “cleansed externally”, if you will, in the sense that they are deciding to live in an environment where they will be exposed to the Gospel and the good influences of their spouse.

    We tend to become like the people we associate with. The unbeliever (and the children) will thus be “sanctified” by choosing to remain married to a person whom they know before hand will not compromise their principles. It is no guarantee (vs 16) that the unbelieving spouse or children will become Christians, but it certainly increases the chance that they will.

    For example, if the unbeliever has a tendency to engage is some sinful activity, but knows the believing spouse will not consent to such behavior and go along with him, the unbeliever may abandon the sinful activity. This doesn’t make the unbeliever a Christian, but nonetheless he has altered his behavior towards a more godly lifestyle.

    Even if the unbeliever’s behavior isn’t altered significantly, the unbeliever is still exposed to a godly atmosphere that surely will have some positive influence on him. It may just alter his behavior for the better.

  2. David Himes says:

    Few topics tend to turn us into legalists as quickly as the matter of divorce & remarriage.

    And, while I respect the quality of your exegesis and commentary, I think you miss an important consideration.

    The covenant between God and man is not one of rules. It is a covenant of devotion. God promises to make us righteous, based upon our willingness to devote / submit ourselves to him and love one another the way Jesus demonstrated love towards us.

    I believe in every matter, the only questions to ask are:

    1. Do we remain devoted to God, seeking to submit to his will for our lives in every way (regardless of our success or failure in the execution of that devotion/submission)?

    2. Do we seek to love one another the way Jesus loved us, willing to give our lives for each other?

    Paul’s guidance in the passages you cite, illuminate how the answers to these questions should play out in real life — but they are not rules that MUST be followed. They also demonstrate how difficult it can be for us to live out these admonitions.

  3. Dwight says:

    One of our biggest mistakes is approaching the scriptures from our Western perspective when we ought to be approaching from the Jewish perspective since God set the Jewish perspective from His Law. The covenant was a contract just as marriage was seen to be…but all contract means is a binding agreement between parties.

  4. A preacher once said to me, as he was defending a very “hard line” on D&RM, that Paul would never have used the slave family of words to refer to marriage.

    Yet, he spoke of himself (and all of Christ’s disciples) as slaves of the one they obey. If that describes our relationship with Jesus, who is also called “the bridegroom” in several places, then why not use the language of slavery for marriage in that we are “bound” to our spouses in a holy covenant. To depart from that tie is indeed to divorce – and to free one from the tie of the marriage.

    Of course God hates divorce, and there is never a divorce without sin on the part of at least one, often both partners in the marriage. Yet, this is not the unforgivable sin, nor does it require that one remain single the rest of his/her life, as Paul goes on to elaborate later in 1 Corinthians 7.

  5. David Himes says:

    Seeing the covenant as a contract is an interesting analogy. One which Jay can certainly elaborate on. However, in the case of the covenant between God and man, there is no termination clause from God. That is, he’s willing to put up with anything we do and still honor his commitment. We can withdraw from the contract, but God refuses to. Further, God will honor the contract, so long as we want it to be there … no matter how many times we violate the terms of the covenant.

    The foundation of the covenant is not the terms, or the rules, or obedience to the terms … the foundation of the covenant is solely God’s grace and our desire to be a part of the covenant.

    In a sense, our conformity to the God’s will is our response to God not withdrawing the covenant from us.

  6. Dwight says:

    I agree partially, covenants existed beyond what the covenant people did. So while we may walk away from the covenant, much like Israel did often, the covenant still existed and was binding. Now God could have ended the conract or covenant, but he chose not to, but He could have. When god destroyed mankind, He started over with Noah making a contract with Him. At times God talked to Moses about obliterating Israel and starting over from Moses, but Moses pleaded for the people. Christ death ended an old testament and started a new testament.
    Now in the case of divorce one of the things not usually mentioned and is often not considered is the fact that when divorce happened both parties were able to remarry, because the putting away (no matter who was at fault) broke the bond of man and wife. This was carried forth into Matt.5. But the putting away was usually done by the husband. In the end God will judge and God will put the unrighteous and unclean away, which is why He is so patient now.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    David and Dwight,

    I’ve heard others argue that the marriage covenant does not require mutual obedience to the covenant because God honors his covenant obligations even when the other party (Israel) is in breach. There are some problems with that theory.

    First, Jesus plainly gives sexual immorality as an exception that breaks the covenant obligation. But when Israel strayed from God, God accused Israel of adultery — even of playing the whore (Hos 4:10-15) — and yet God honored side of the covenant.

    Moreover, God’s commitment is to Israel, the nation, not to each Jew. In honoring his covenant, he allowed the vast majority of Israel to suffer damnation, preserving only a remnant (Rom 11:1-7). Hence, as applied to individuals, God’s covenant was conditional on faithfulness. Those Jews who refused to come to faith in Jesus were not saved. God’s covenant, however, is with the nation of Israel, and so although most Jews ultimately rejected the gospel,

    (Rom 11:5 ESV) 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.

    Hence, God’s covenant with Israel was kept because he preserved a remnant. The same is true of Nebuchnezzar’s destruction of Israel and the corruption of Israel under Ahab and Jezebel. While most of Israel rejected God’s promises, God preserved a remnant.

    (Hos 8:1,14 ESV) Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD, because they have transgressed my covenant and rebelled against my law. … 14 For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds.

    (Hos 9:17 ESV) 17 My God will reject them [the Northern Kingdom] because they have not listened to him; they shall be wanderers among the nations.

    I have no idea how that analogy could even be made with respect to a married couple. How could remnant theology fit a human marriage?

    And, frankly, I’m very uncomfortable with an analogy not found in scripture. In all the passages dealing with divorce and with marriage, never does the author say that a spouse must be faithful to the covenant even though the other spouse is not — because God’s faithfulness is unconditional.

  8. R.J. says:

    I agree that Jesus said that “man must not(instead of cannot) put asunder” and that the term “commit adultery” is in the aorist present tense(it’s an act as opposed to a state). But then how do we explain Paul’s words:

    “A wife must not divorce her husband. But if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”.

    If divorce terminates the covenant between husband and wife, why does Paul forbid remarrying here?

  9. Ted Bigelow says:


    “If divorce terminates the covenant between husband and wife, why does Paul forbid remarrying here?”

    Because Paul is writing of 2 professing Christians in this context. Before either could get remarried to another person, he/she would have to deny the faith and be excommunicated (Mat. 18:17). Likely, Paul is assuming a church faithfully pursuing both the reconcile in alignment with Christ’s teachings.

    If one or both do not repent from the sin of divorce, but still claim to be Christ’s disciples and thus “in the covenant,” they must not remarry another. If they do, they commit adultery.

  10. Dwight says:

    Jay, When God talked to Israel in Malachi he said that he had the right to divorce Israel because of fornication, but he chose not to. They were still under covenant at this point, because He chose not to divorce them and them comitting adultery didn’t not put them beyond God’s covenant with them. This is why in Deut. only divorcing for the cause of sexual immoratilty was cause for divorce & allowed freedom for both partners. If God would have divorce Israel, then they & He would have been free, but this was not what God decided upon. The remnant has nothing to do with marriage, adultery or divorce. Jesus did not give sexual immorality as an exception that breaks the covenant, but it allowed for the breaking of the covenant, Matt.19:9 “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” One had to divorce for the cause of fornication to allow remarriage, otherwise it was adultery, because they were still man and wife, since only the man and wife condition allows for adultery.

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