1 Corinthians 7: Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage

Who doesn’t ask about this topic? I have two small studies packed with Scripture that I have been teaching for a number of years that I hope adds a bit to the discussion on this vital topic! The first study is from the Hebrew Scriptures on marriage and divorce, and includes the passages in the Gospels where Jesus taught on the subject. The second study was Paul’s words to the Corinthian church.

We must be careful with this study. In many cases I find believers jumping from Deuteronomy 24 to Malachi, Matthew and Corinthians as if the Bible was set in one time with one audience. That’s a dangerous way to interpret the text. Each passage must be set in its own time and place, with principles extracted in each place to build a proper view of God’s intention for us. It can be confusing, but it needn’t be. If these aren’t clear enough, post a question and I will do my best to explain:

 Can I stay single? Is that more holy? What about marriage, is it always for life? Is divorce the unpardonable sin? Can I remarry if I was divorced? Who doesn’t talk about this subject in our modern world? Today we will walk through God’s principles on each subject!

Key Principle: God writes the rules for what is best for us. Divorce can occur Biblically, but it is carefully regulated. Remarriage is not always automatic!

Review Letter: Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church directly responded to three types of church issues in the first century church:

  • Issues that he heard about from a friend concerning their divisions and struggles as a congregation (1 Corinthians 1-4);
  • Issues that were the worst kept secret in the first century churches about morality problems of the Corinthian believers (1 Corinthians 5-6);
  • Answers to a series of questions the believers wrote to Paul concerning (1 Corinthians 7-16).

Review Themes: On our way to the questions that Paul answered concerning marriage and divorce, Paul addressed three other issues:

1)The believers at Corinthwere caught up in “misplaced affection” for their leaders and fighting in divisions representing differing ways of viewing issues. Paul wrote: “It is not the MEN we follow, but it is the MESSAGE. That deserves our first allegiance. (1 Cor. 1-4)

2)Their misplaced affections were also evident in their misplaced VALUES. They were boastful of their acceptance of open immorality, proud of their LOVING SPIRIT. Paul wrote: “It is not the LOVE that is our first commitment, but the TRUTH. (1 Cor. 5)

3)The believers were further demonstrating their misplaced values in accepting the STANDARDS of the world. The issue was the taking of another brother to the city courts to be judged by godless men. Paul wrote: “It is not the standard of the WORLD we use, but the judgment of the WORD we trust.”

Paul then turned his attention to the question list sent to him by the church at Corinth. Commentators have longed to have that list, but we can only surmise what their list was composed of. What does help is to:

1)Cut the text into the portions that seem to address differing questions; and

2)Understand the problems that Corinth had in that time. One way to cut the text is using the phrase that seems to suggest an answer to a new question appears to be the words “Now concerning” seen in 7:1

  • 1Co 7:1 Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
  • 1Co 7:25 Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.
  • 1Co 12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.
  • 1Co 16:1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches ofGalatia, even so do ye.

Within the first question (7:1-24) there appears to be several different groups involved in the questions they asked.

There were five groups of people at Corinth Paul needed to address:

1. There were unmarried.

2. There were married of one of the four types of marriage available under Roman law. To understand them, let’s first look at the four types of marriages that various Corinthians were engaged in according to Roman law of the time.

A)     Contubernium: “tent marriage” mating of slaves for desired characteristics of a new breed.  This was non-contractual as slaves were considered property.

B)      Usus: “common law marriage” accomplished by one year together.  This practice was common, though not legally contractual.

C)      Coemptio en manum: “pleasurable service women”  – the purchase of a woman from her father, particularly to fulfill his debt.  This may be a “second mate” for the purchaser.  In some cases, the woman was free to leave the house after several years of “pleasurable service”.

D)      Confarretio: a contractual public ceremony from which we get our own.

3. Then there were divorced and alone.

4. There were widowed and alone.

5. Finally, there were divorced and remarried coming to Christ.

Paul’s words are often applied in our time by people unfamiliar with the real subject of the writings. Paul wasn’t writing to the Church in the C21st, but Corinth in the C1st. It is about what THEY were going through. The PRINCIPLES are relevant for us, but the issues were more complex than a first glance gives us.

PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE: Before we look closely at our passage, let’s take a minute and review what we know about marriage in the Bible up to this point: The Bible relates four PRIMARY PURPOSES for marriage:

A)      Procreation – (Keep the race going) Gen. 1:28; Ps. 127.

B)      Pleasure – Proverbs 5; I Cor. 7:4.

C)      Provision (of helper) – Eph. 5:25 – 32.

D)      Picture – in OT as YHWH andIsrael, cp. Hosea; in NT as Christ the Church, Eph. 5.

PRINCIPLES OF MARRIAGE: The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament Law) include some fifteen passages that speak about divorce.  Of these passages, we can derive FOUR PRINCIPLES CONCERNING MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE that appear to be clear:

A)      Permanence Principle:  God’s original intention was that marriage be one man for one woman, PERMANENT until the death of one of them.  This was His ideal (Gen. 2:24).

B)      Purity Principle:  God’s stated desire for every man and woman was that their relationship be PURE by each covenanting faithfulness to one another (Ex. 20:14).  This purity was to extend into their thought life, as they were not even to foster a desire for another’s spouse (v.17).

C)      Principle of Practice:  Divorce was a Biblical practice, insomuch as God himself placed regulations on it in some cases.  In one special event He commanded it (Ezra 10), when the marriages were specifically forbidden by Him beforehand (cp. Lev. 7:1-5). [ “..she is not my wife, I am not her husband…” Hos. 2:2]  Though He hated the sin which caused the hardness and ended in divorce (Mal. 2), God did acknowledge this practice (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8) and regulate the procedure of the PRACTICE (Dt. 24).

D)      Principle of Presumption:  The Hebrew Scriptures PRESUMED that remarriage would follow a divorce (Dt. 24: 1-4), and regulated this practice to show the gravity of divorce, and minimize the continual damage to others.

JESUS REITERATED: While in public ministry Jesus twice also spoke on the subject of divorce (Mt. 5:27 – 32 and Mt. 19: 1 -12; cf.  Mk. 10: 1-12).

A)      He reiterates the PERNANENCE ideal as being “from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8), and rejects that Dt. 24 was an “easy out if the paperwork was proper” (Mk. 10:4).

B)      He asserts again the PURITY standard as “thought life” issue (Mt. 5:27, 28) and not just an outward standard.

C)      He acknowledged that the PRACTICE of divorce was regulated (“epitrepo” means allowed – Mt. 19: 7,8), but this was only due to the hard heartedness of sin.  Even in cases where God allowed divorce, He limited the circumstances which were allowable.  Jesus appears to limit the “uncleanness” of Dt. 24 to the specific moral uncleanness of immorality (Mt. 19:9).

D)      Jesus also PRESUMED that divorced people would remarry (Mt. 5:32).  It is because they would that He warned that others would suffer from the sin of one couple!  Remarriage was not always sin, but was sin in cases where the divorce was not on Biblical grounds (note the context of Mt. 5:32). [note:  Talmudic Law reflects that the betrothal period of a remarriage was shorter than the normal betrothal of 9 to 12 months.]

Let’s look closer and you will see that Paul addressed six problems that separated the various issues a Corinthian was dealing with:

  1. 7:1-5 Addressed a “Coemption en manum” pleasurable service for the believer that may have asked, “Can I do this as a believer?” Response: Sexual pleasure should be cared for in the confines of the marriage. Timeless Principle: Part of basic component of marriage as God designed it was the joining of all the cares of the other to your heart. Every need they have you should care about. You must also care about those needs above your own.
  2. 7:6-9 Offered Paul’s best advise on the issue of singleness. If you lose your partner, it may be better not to remarry, as singleness has its benefits. Timeless Principle: There is a cost to marriage; you divide control of your heart and your body.
  3. 7:10-11 Appears to turn the attention to the “married” by USUS (Common law). The problem is, if I am saved having been common law joined, should I leave the marriage? Paul cautioned- “Stay together!” Yet, if the other decides to leave for a time, wait for them. He is NOT telling every divorced person to remain unmarried, because this would have violated Dt. 24:2. Timeless Principle: Your salvation does NOT rewrite all the relationship rules of your life. (African man with seven wives; Arab with 3 wives).
  4. 7:12-17 “To the rest” appears to refer to the legal and ceremonial Confaretttio married, as opposed to the “other marrieds” of v.11. The problem is this: What if two were married, and one gets saved? Does the saved one leave? Paul wrote: “No! But if THEY choose to leave, you are free to go on. Yet, you may desire to wait for them for a time. If they moved into another relationship, Dt. 24 says the first man was disqualified from “recalling” her. Timeless Principle: UMBRELLA PRINCIPLE – Believer sanctifies home environment and brings blessing to even the lost around them!
  5. 7:18-20 Addressed the issue of ‘INTER-ETHNIC marriage’. In this specific case, the issue was Messianic Jewish believers marrying non-Jews. Because each were told to uphold their walk in Messiah in different ways, Paul cautioned AGAINST the idea. This was true of this specific case, but the principle holds: “There is a cost to marrying beyond your natural boundary!” It is not unbiblical in the case of interracial marriage, but it is more challenging.
  6. 7:21-24 Appears to address those in a CONTUBERNIUM (tent marriage for breeding) but also applies to the pleasure service of Coemptio en Manum marriages. The problem was this: “If I am a slave, am I guilty of the sexual unions?” Paul exhorted: “If possible, get out of the situation as quickly as possible!” The timeless principle is important for us: “There may be a time between what God wants for you and the obligation you now have!” Don’t feel guilty, be resolved and prayerful.

What does this passage teach us about what God wants from a believer today?

  • Your physical pleasure is for your marriage, not the internet, the magazine, etc. God intends you to share your needs with your marriage partner.
  • There is a cost to marriage that a single person need not bear.
  • Your salvation does not rewrite the relationships of your life. You must patiently be a testimony for God in a difficult time of growth in your spiritual development.
  • There is an umbrella blessing when a believer is present and walking with God.
  • Some marriages will face greater challenges because of the differences in race or ethnicity of those involved. We should face this up front in the union or not proceed.
  • You may know that God wants something more for you in the future, but be required to settle for a time of waiting. That’s not compromise if you are fulfilling your word from before you were saved.

Key Principle: God writes the rules for what is best for us. Divorce can occur Biblically, but it is carefully regulated. Remarriage is not always automatic!

3 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 7: Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage”

  1. Leslie McFall has an interesting way to deal with the so-called exception clause in Matthew 19:9 that appears to allow for divorce and remarriage for marriage unfaithfulness.
    He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall’s paper at morechristlike.com/except-for- fornication-clause-of-matthew-19-9/ Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.

  2. McFall’s positions are, generally pretty sound. The translation issue is a verifiable issue, but not that significant in my view. His translation was:
    “Now I say to you that who, for example, may have divorced his
    wife—he may not have divorced her for fornication—and may have married another woman, he
    becomes adulterous by marrying her. And the man having married a divorced wife, he becomes
    adulterous by marrying her.” Remember, under the law the one who was caught up in adultery was to be stoned. Marrying her after she fled from such a situation or being the one who caused her sexual sin (being the adulterous partner) was unlawful. In my view, Jesus was dealing with the unlawful recovery of Herod Philip’s wife by Antipas – the issue that John the Baptizer was executed for commenting on. Does that make sense to you?

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