Divorce and Remarriage in Light of 1 Cor. 7:10-16

Divorce and Remarriage in Light of 1 Cor. 7:10-16
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 10:37am

QUESTION: I am trying to help two believers who are in marriage counseling. She wants a divorce, but he does not. He wants to know what he is supposed to do if she divorces him. I told him that the Scripture that applies best to this situation is 1 Cor. 7:10-15. I suggested that even though she claims to be a believer, she is making a lifestyle choice that is contrary to God’s Word and therefore acting as if she is an unbeliever; so I think this text would apply. She is the one sinning in wanting the divorce, not him. Even so, he should try to do all he can to save the marriage, but he can no more keep her from leaving (because of free-will) than God could keep us from rejecting His offer of salvation. I am still not sure how this would affect remarriage. So here are my questions:
(1) Is 1 Cor. 7:10-15 applicable to a believer (acting as an unbeliever) who wants to divorce another believer (who doesn’t want the divorce)?
(2) What should I say to the latter about remarriage? Does he need to wait until she remarries (or has sexual intimacy with another man) before he could initiate another relationship?

MY REPLY: The situation you describe is heart-breaking. In all my years of teaching and writing on ethical issues, I have found the subject of divorce and remarriage to be the most complicated. In answer to your first question, it is not possible to consider the deserting spouse (1 Cor. 7:11) to be transformed from a believer into an unbeliever by the act of desertion alone. This goes against my best understanding of grace and of what is involved in falling from grace. One sin does not separate a believer from Christ. All of us are still sinners in many ways. If, as a result of counseling by pastoral leadership, the deserting spouse clearly accepts the fact that she is sinning but displays a rebellious “I don’t care” attitude, this might be construed as a rejection of the Lordship of Christ, which is a major component of unbelief.

In answer to your second question, I believe the original marriage bond is not broken until one of these two conditions occurs: desertion, as in 1 Cor. 7; or sexual immorality (porneia), as in Matt. 19:9. This is true even if a legal divorce has been granted. This means that the first of the ex-spouses who engages in sexual activity (either within a new marriage or not) actually breaks the bond. From that point on either party is free to remarry without (further) sin. The innocent party (in this case the husband) is indeed the victim of his selfish wife’s selfish choice, and must remain unmarried until one of these things occurs. That’s my best understanding.

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: I ran across this quote on the subject: “Scripture presents two clear violations of the marriage covenant (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6): desertion (which violates the command to “bond”) and adultery (which violates the command to be “one flesh”); breaking of these are legitimate grounds for divorce (and thus remarriage). Where there has been no such rupture, remarriage after divorce is not an option. When possible, however, reconciliation is the ideal.” Now, if I read this correctly, it seems that the writer is saying that if one marriage partner chooses to leave the marriage and not to reconcile (i.e., desertion), then that partner would be in violation of the marriage covenant and would thus create a legitimate divorce in God’s eyes, leaving the other partner with a clear conscience for remarriage. Would you agree with this?

MY REPLY TO THE FOLLOW-UP: The writer is correct that desertion is a valid grounds for divorce (AND remarriage). In this quotation, however, what the writer omits is that Paul’s instruction about this in 1 Cor. 7 specifies that the deserting spouse is a NON-BELIEVER. You have to ask yourself, why does he limit this to a non-believer? Is he saying that this grounds does not apply if the deserting spouse is a believer? This is how I have always taken it.

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Divorce and Remarriage in Light of 1 Cor. 7:10-16 — 2 Comments

  1. Can you please clarify the statement “If, as a result of counseling by pastoral leadership, the deserting spouse clearly accepts the fact that she is sinning but displays a rebellious “I don’t care” attitude, this might be construed as a rejection of the Lordship of Christ, which is a major component of unbelief.” Are you saying that a Christian who knows she is sinning and does it anyway might not be a believer? How can a rebellious attitude be construed as a rejection of the Lordship of Christ?

    • Yes, but the key word is “might.” Sometimes our (known, willful) sin is a result of the weakness of our spiritual nature, and we do things we know are wrong. But we still hate the wrong and hate ourselves for doing it (see Romans 7:14ff.). This is not necessarily a spirit of rebellion. On the other hand, sometimes our sin is the result not of weakness but of a mindset that says, “I know this is wrong, but I am going to do it anyway, no matter what God says about it.” One of the conditions for salvation is the acceptance and confession of Jesus as Lord of one’s life (Rom. 10:9-10). To accept Jesus as Lord means we have promised to submit to his will: “Not my will but thine be done.” What matters is the commitment of the heart. When facing any such temptation to go against the will of our Creator, Savior, and Lord, we must ask ourselves questions such as this: Whose will do I really WANT to do here: the will of Jesus my Lord, or my own will? Whose happiness am I more concerned about: mine, or God’s? Do I really think of myself as a slave of Jesus my LORD–a word that literally means “owner”? Or do I reserve the “right” to go against the will of my Lord when I think “my way” is better? The point I am making here applies not just to the divorce issue, but to sin in general. The Christian life is a process of growing in the strength of our commitment to Christ’s Lordship. Someone wrote a beautiful poem that traces this growth from “all of self, and none of Thee,” to “some of self, and some of Thee,” to “less of self, and more of Thee,” and finally to “none of self, and all of Thee.”

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