I am writing this because I know of some Christian leaders who instruct divorcees who have since remarried another, to separate from their second partner, causing much turmoil and guilt for many, especially women–not surprisingly. This is wrong.
Sure, we must not treat any sin lightly. God hates divorce and true repentance and humility is necessary. Let us beware of self justification which is deadly! But neither should we turn hurting, confused and distressed people away with harsh words not seasoned with gentleness, love and grace, leaving them condemned and without peace.
So what about the situation where one of the married partners is not a believer? Let’s look at this matter and how the apostle Paul deals with this In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7, beginning at verse 12 . . . . .
But to the rest I—not the Lord—say, if any brother has an unbelieving wife, and she agrees to live with him, let him not leave her. The woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he agrees to live with her, let her not leave her husband.
Paul admits he has no word from Jesus here—he finds it necessary here to go beyond Jesus’ words.
The word ‘agrees’ in verse 12, is the Greek suneudokei The NKJV has ‘is willing’ but the original word carries the idea of a mutual agreement (the prefix sun means ‘together’). Paul’s theme of gender equality /mutuality—so radical in the Ancient World— that we see in verses 2 to 5 of this section is continued here and also in the next statements of Paul . . . .
V14. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.
In a peaceful household the unbelieving partner is blessed indeed. Paul expresses the hope here which he repeats again in verse 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? The unbelieving partner who remains has the best opportunity to be saved along with the children.
V15. Yet if the unbeliever departs, let there be separation. The brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us in peace.
Paul recognises that some will opt out. The words ‘departs’ and ‘separation’ comes from chōrizō, and is translated ‘put asunder’ in Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:9. Men and women can put asunder what God intends to be permanent. Technically this means the deserted spouse who remarries commits adultery! Yet Paul appears to say here that wilful desertion by the unbelieving one sets the other party free. That can only mean ‘free to remarry’ though Paul’s ‘best’ is to remain single.
The Greek word dedoulōtai translated ‘under bondage’ comes from douloō, ‘to enslave’. It is a much stronger word than the word Paul uses for marriage in verses 27 and 39 and in Romans 7:2. Paul thus advises freedom for the deserted Christian believer rather than continuing enslavement in a difficult union. Can two walk together unless agreed?
Paul sees God’s calling to peace as an important matter. There is no sanctification or peace in a household of chaos, or enmity, of fighting and brutality. The believer is not bound to the unbeliever if he or she leaves.
Christians must not by their advice, commit someone to suffer a ‘marriage’ in a lifestyle of slavery. Such a marriage is no marriage at all. God has called us to peace, insists Paul (verse 15).
If Paul can encourage enslaved people to be free from slavery (see verse 21), surely a battered wife or an enslaved husband may take this opportunity to be set free and is free to marry in Christian community without condemnation.
It is clear that a marriage between a believer and an unbelieving monster is contrary to the spirit and intent of God’s calling of peace in marriage—a clear case of the need to depart from an unequal yoke (2 Corinthians 6).
Paul is silent about the impossible situations which many traumatised women find themselves locked in today, many of whom are such committed believers that divorce is the very last resort, even when they are suffering unimaginable abuse and the children are in constant physical, psychological and/or moral danger.
If it is better to marry than to burn, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians here (see verse 9), then surely it is better to un-marry than to daily face threats, cruelty, beatings, enslavements, and even death.
In all situations, the believer must humbly seek the Lord and wait on God for wisdom which is promised freely.
Beware deception of attempting to justify oneself! We are justified only, entirely, and to the uttermost, by Jesus’ death.
To be continued . . . . .