Divorce and 1 Corinthians 7:15
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 8:12pm
QUESTION: I have some questions about the meaning and application of 1 Cor. 7:15, which says, “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace” (NKJV). First question: If the unbeliever leaves, and the believer is not bound, does that give the believer the freedom to secure a divorce and then marry a committed Christian? Second question: A Christian is married to a person who begins abusing him or her, perhaps associated with drinking or using drugs. In this kind of situation, is the Christian ever justified in securing a divorce and then marrying a committed Christian? When Jesus says “except for marital unfaithfulness” in Matthew 19:9 (NIV), does abusing one’s mate constitute “marital unfaithfulness”?
ANSWER: Many have assumed that Matthew 19:9 states the only legitimate (Biblical) basis for divorce. Here Jesus says, “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” (NKJV). Here Jesus says that “sexual immorality” is a valid ground for divorce and remarriage. The Greek word is porneia, which is translated variously as “fornication” (KJV), “immorality” (NASB), “unchastity” (NRSV), “marital unfaithfulness” (NIV), and “sexual immorality” (NKJV). It has almost always been interpreted as referring to adultery. Thus adultery is a legitimate grounds for divorce.
Many, including myself, understand that the Apostle Paul, with divine authority, introduces a new valid, Biblical basis for divorce in 1 Cor. 7:15 (quoted in the question above). This takes account of a new kind of situation that arose once the church began to spread via missionary and evangelistic activity, namely, the existence of a marriage in which one spouse is a believer and the other one is not. This is a circumstance Jesus (“the Lord,” 1 Cor. 7:10,12) did not address during his earthly ministry, but Paul now with full apostolic authority gives us God’s will on this matter. Where such a marriage exists (e.g., through the conversion of one spouse but not the other), Paul says the believing spouse must continue to live with the unbeliever as long as the latter is willing to continue that arrangement (1 Cor. 7:12-14).
In verse 15, however, Paul says that if the unbelieving spouse does not want to continue the marriage, the believing spouse is (morally) free to agree to a dissolution of the marriage. The Christian spouse is “not under bondage” is such a case. This “bondage” refers to the marriage bond in the sense of being bound by God’s law of marriage to one’s spouse (see v. 27; see Rom. 7:2). Abandonment frees the believing spouse from that bond. Thus in answer to the first question above, my answer is YES: if such abandonment occurs, the believer is free to consent to a divorce or even to pursue divorce proceedings, and then is free to be remarried (to a Christian, of course).
However, regarding the second question above, I do not believe 1 Cor. 7:15 applies to this kind of scenario. There is no suggestion of abandonment here, nor is it specified that the abuser is an unbelieving spouse. The questioner brings Matt. 19:9 into this picture, asking if Jesus’ reference to “marital unfaithfulness” might include such abuse. The answer here is also NO. The word Jesus uses in Matthew is porneia, or sexual immorality in particular. The translation “marital unfaithfulness” is too general; porneia specifically has to do with sexual misconduct. It is a general term that does refer to adultery, but is not limited thereto. It could include such things as child sexual abuse, incest, homosexual behavior, and even pornography addiction. One could possibly argue that if the marital abuse includes marital sexual abuse such as marital rape, then such abuse could be counted as porneia.
Is there no relief, then, for a spouse who is enduring severe mistreatment? In reference to the second kind of scenario given in the query above, I would apply 1 Cor. 7:10-11. Here v. 10 says a wife must not leave her husband, but then v. 11 says “But if she does depart”–indicating that v. 10 is not absolute and may allow for a separation or even divorce in the kind of abuse situation described above. BUT here is the qualification: even though leaving under these circumstances may involve a divorce, a remarriage is not allowed (“she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”).
I know this sounds unfair (the “remain unmarried” part), but in a world of sin many things that happen to us because of others’ sins are unfair, e.g., being injured or having one’s child killed by a drunk driver, losing one’s job because of another person’s lies, being robbed of one’s life savings by a conniving crook, or being deprived of spousal support because the spouse committed a crime and is in prison. We must be careful not to resort to “situation ethics” in such difficult circumstances, or to make exceptions to God’s stated rules on our own authority.