A Conversation about Divorce

Written by Drew on April 11th, 2008

Now that about half of all marriages end in divorce, Christians are faced with tough questions as they try to reconcile Christ’s teachings with a culture that is less than serious about its marriage vows.

Few passages in the New Testament address divorce and remarriage, but those that do are quite clear regarding God’s will in the matter. One of the passages that stirs up more questions on divorce than perhaps any other is 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, with special emphasis on the so-called “Pauline privilege” in verse 15. Some contend that Paul permits remarriage under any circumstance, saying that divorcees are not “enslaved” or “under bondage.” But a careful reading of the statement in context will show that this interpretation does not suit the passage at large.

Paul uses a familiar literary device in 1 Corinthians 7 that can be found throughout his letters whereby he anticipates questions or concerns on the part of his readers and addresses them as if they were asked while he was writing the letter. In essence, he is having a conversation with an imaginary student. If we read his thoughts on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 with this perspective, we will understand God’s will on the matter.

The conversation goes something like this:

Student: “Paul, I know that you are single, and I have even heard you say on occasion that its easier for a person to devote his life to God when he does not have a family. Should I leave my husband?”

Paul: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband…and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Student: “But what if she does? Can she marry another?”

Paul: “If she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:11).

Student: “My husband is not a Christian. I want to give my life to the Lord, but I feel that he is a bad influence on me. Should I leave him and remain single?”

Paul: “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. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him” (1 Cor. 7:12-13).

Student: “But my husband is already talking about leaving me. We have so many differences that I fear it will impossible for us to work them out. Will God judge me if my marriage falls apart? Will I be placed in a state of perpetual sin through no fault of my own?”

Paul: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (1 Cor. 7:15).

Clearly, Paul is not discussing grounds for divorce and subsequent remarriage. He is responding to an entirely different issue–that of a Christian who has been abandoned by her spouse. A “Pauline privilege” would put Paul in conflict with what the Lord has already said on the matter. Remarriage following a divorce is allowed only when the divorce took place on the grounds of sexual immorality (i.e., unlawful sexual intercourse) (Mt. 5:31-32; 19:9).

An interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15 which allows remarriage under any circumstances will not work in the context. If that is the interpretation, this is what we make Paul to say in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15.

Married couples should not divorce, but if they do, they should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to one another.

If marriage does not work out, and a couple gets a divorce, the former partners are no longer bound to each other. They are free to remarry, no matter what.

Was Paul saying nonsense? Only if we try to project unlimited remarriage privileges on his statements. A better approach is to acknowledge the concerns of Paul’s original audience and interpret his words accordingly.

 

6 Comments so far ↓

  1. Anonymous says:

    Amen Drew. On any subject, we must let the Bible provide it’s own commentary and it will never contradict itself. Any apparent contradiction would require a more reasonable interpretation on our part. There are other examples but none more divisive or controversial than your post. Again, your diligent study evidences itself.

    Rick Nichols

  2. Matthew says:

    I am not disagreeing with your conclusion or reasoning, but we must be careful about believing we know the other side of the conversation, when we have only one side of the phone recorded. The teaching here is clear with the questions given, a great tool for people to help understand, but these are attempts to get to the original questions, that have not be recorded.

  3. Kevin W. Rhodes says:

    The questions are implied by the nature of the answer. The fact that Paul was answering questions is actually part of the record of 1 Corinthians. Chapter Seven began this section of the book with a series of questions about marriage.

    Great job, Drew.

  4. Matthew says:

    The idea of Paul using questions is not in dispute in this article or comments concerning the article. The dispute or comment is dealing with assuming too much knowledge in knowing the right wording of the questions. These questions might have been the completely correct questions that Paul has in mind, word for word. Everyone here is certainly smarter and more intelligent than I am on these issues. Also, I have not studied these issues in depth, so these could be the perfectly worded questions Paul had in mind as he addressed them in this letter. But before I accepted these as the perfectly worded questions Paul had in his mind, I want to be careful in speaking with the Bible is silent. Second of all, the first question and the second question, if connected, and they might not be, seem to miss the general discussion of Paul.

    Student: “Paul, I know that you are single, and I have even heard you say on occasion that its easier for a person to devote his life to God when he does not have a family. Should I leave my husband?”

    Paul: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband…and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

    Student: “But what if she does? Can she marry another?”

    Paul: “If she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:11).

    It seems that value of singleness is in mind in these two questions. The second question of “But what if she does? Can she marry another?” is not the right question because the question is already answered in the first response to the value of singleness. The person is not thinking about remarrying, but leaving a husband or wife to be single to serve the Lord. If singleness is in view, the second question seems to miss the general discussion of Paul. The person is not thinking about remarrying, they are thinking about leaving to be single again. But this is on the assumption that there is unity in these two questions. They could not be attached as strongly as one might think in the context. Once again this seems to highlight the point of the difficulty of assuming the perfect wording of the questions that have not be revealed in the Gospel. In the desire to be sound in the faith, and to highlight the first comment that I made, so people do not think I am questioning if Paul used the rhetoric device of picturing a question, but to simply state that assuming the perfect wording of the unrevealed questions that Paul is answering is a difficult pursuit to claim to have complete knowledge on since are only listening to the answers to the questions. Anyway, you are certainly more knowledge and brighter than I would ever claim to be. These are just some of my ignorant thoughts in this issue.

  5. Drew Kizer says:

    Matthew, if the Bible student does not understand the questions implied in Paul’s words, he cannot understand what the apostle is saying. It took no imagination on my part to construct these questions.

    For example, the one you seem hesitant about is the question, “But what if she does [divorce her husband]? Can she marry another?” I didn’t dream this question up. It is implied by the parenthetical statement at the beginning of verse 11: “But if she does [divorce her husband], she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” Paul was very specific about her options at this point because he knew then, as any preacher would know today, that remarriage would be foremost on the divorcee’s mind.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Russell Smith says:

    Yes, this is a huge issue, I believe. So many folks cite the “Pauline Privilege” when making the way out of a marriage or when giving terrible advice.

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