Today, I want to discuss 1 Corinthians 7. As a precursor to the discussion, this text is often dismissed as Paul's mere opinion, as opposed to being revelation coming to him from God. This is a common misunderstanding of what he is saying here. Paul is using the Gospel of Mark, and perhaps, the tradition passed down to him concerning what the Lord Jesus taught in His earthly ministry on the subject at hand. When he says that the Lord says this, and I say this, it is not a contrast between what is revelatory and what is mere opinion. It is the distinction between what the Lord has taught already about the subject and what Paul now needs to say further about it. Hence, he states that he considers the fact that, although the Lord did not comment on the situation between believers and unbelievers and whatnot, he has the Spirit of God to guide him in the matter, and hence, what he says is from God. With that understanding, the passage is as follows.
1Cor 7:1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.
3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband [does]; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife [does].
5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.
7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.
8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion].
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband
11 (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
12 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her.
13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away.
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.
15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such [cases], but God has called us to peace.
16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.
18 Was any man called [when he was already] circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised.
19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but [what matters is] the keeping of the commandments of God.
20 Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.
21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.
22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave.
23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.
24 Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that [condition] in which he was called.
25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife.
28 But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.
29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none;
30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess;
31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;
33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,
34 and [his interests] are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and [to secure] undistracted devotion to the Lord.
36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin [daughter], if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry.
37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin [daughter], he will do well.
38 So then both he who gives his own virgin [daughter] in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.
39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.
What is often neglected in the study of this passage is noting the topic which Paul is addressing. His subject is not divorce. His subject, instead, is marriage. Specifically, he is answering the question, “Is it alright to get married, and if so, in what cases is it alright?” Failure to understand that will be a failure to follow the passage well.
There are four groups mentioned:
(1) The unmarried
(2) The widows
(3) The believer who has divorced
(4) The believer who has been divorced by an unbeliever
There is no category for a believer who has been divorced by a believer, likely because it is presumed by Paul that the believer will comply to the command of the Lord Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that believers are not to divorce.
Hence, he argues that those who have never married, virgins, and widows are all free to marry, even if he thinks it would be better if they simply remained single as he is. Those who are not free to marry are those who are already married in the eyes of God, including those who have secured a legal divorce (“legal” in the sense of the civil law court). But we’ll explore that further.
Right now, it is important to note a few things about the words used in the passage, as it can get tricky, which leads to the confusion that many have in somehow seeing Paul as allowing for remarriage after divorce in this passage.
The first thing to note is that the unmarried in v. 8 are not the same group as those who become “unmarried” by divorcing his or her spouse in v. 11. It is clear that Paul distinguishes them by (1) shifting from instructions to the one group to the other, (2) calling the man to whom the divorced woman was married “her husband,” even while she is “unmarried,” and (3) giving them the exact opposite command than the unmarried people in v. 8 who are allowed to marry by telling the unmarried divorced that they are to remain single or be reconciled to their spouses (i.e., they are not to remarry other people). (4) The unmarried in v. 8 provide a chiastic structure and inclusio to the passage, where it becomes clear that the unmarried are those who have never been married (i.e., virgins).
vv. 1-2 It is good to remain unmarried/not to touch a woman, but it is permissible.
vv. 3-6 Married couples need to fulfill their sexual obligations to one another, i.e., to “touch one another” = have sex with one another. This is a good that helps the individual(s) without self control fight the urge to enter into illegitimate sexual activity.
v. 7 But Paul wishes that everyone were able to be single as he is.
vv. 8-9 It is good for the unmarried (or “never married”) and widowed to remain single, but they are free to marry.
vv. 10-11 The married are to remain married, and even if divorced, are to remain single or seek to reconcile.
vv. 12-24 If a married believer is divorced by his or her unbelieving spouse, he or she is not obligated and can let him or her leave in peace, but if the unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believer, a divorce is not to be sought by the believer.
vv. 25-38 (a) It is better for virgins to remain single, (b) but they are permitted to marry.
vv. 39-40 (b’) Widows are free to marry, (a’) but it is better for everyone to remain single.
From this, we can see the parallel between the unmarried and widows in v. 8 and the virgins and widows in vv. 25-40. There is no parallel between the unmarried, who are told that it is permissible to marry, and the divorced, who are told that it is not permissible for them to marry again.
Now, we need to make an important point before we go any further. The principle of Scriptural interpretation needs to be guided by the clear versus the unclear. Paul’s prohibition is clear, even if other words in the text are not. Hence, one should not rely on the possible meaning of a word later on in the text to argue against the clear meaning. So if an unmarried divorced person is still married to his or her spouse in the eyes of God, even if not in the eyes of the state, then that is the rule to which other obscure statements must be reconciled. And that doesn’t even deal with what Christ said about divorce and remarriage yet. At the end of the day, we must reconcile what is said here with what Christ has said about the subject.
Now, it needs to be understood that there are a variety of words for “divorce,” precisely because divorce is a concept not encapsulated by a single word. Hence, numerous words are used for it, but they all, in some way, describe a leaving/abandonment and unwillingness to fulfill the divinely sanctioned covenant made with the spouse any longer. Therefore, I’m not going to quibble over the various words used for divorce, as it is a waste of time and a bad application of lexicography to do so.
Instead, the words to pursue here are those that are often confused with one another, even though conveying different concepts, namely, the words deō (vv. 27, 39) and douloō (v. 15). Marriage is clearly described as a state of being "bound" in vv. 27 and 29 by the word deō. There is no dispute there. The question is whether the word douloō in v. 15 refers to the believer’s obligation to stay married or the actual one flesh union created by the marriage covenant that deō clearly describes. In other words, is the believer bound to stay married to the unbeliever by forcing the unbeliever to remain married, even against the will of the unbelieving spouse, or is douloō conveying the idea that Paul has exclusively used the word deō for, implying that the believer is not really in a one flesh union with the unbeliever anymore after the unbeliever legally divorces the believer in the eyes of the state? I would argue the former for a few reasons:
(1) The clear teaching of both this text and the other texts in the New Testament is that a spouse is bound/married in the eyes of God, as one flesh with his or her spouse, until death occurs in one of the partners. Paul repeats this clearly in v. 29.
(2) Paul gives his reason for letting the unbeliever go and citing the believer’s non-obligation to keeping that spouse as a result of our being called by God to live in peace. This has little to do with not being bound so that one can remarry and everything to do with not forcing the spouse to stay or causing trouble in order to prevent him or her from leaving. Hence, the non-obligation is not about remarriage to another person, but about letting the unbeliever go peacefully without a fight.
(3) This group is yet again distinguished from the groups that are told they are free to remarry. Paul actually says nothing about remarriage here, only divorce. Because of this, the only thing to say about remarriage is what carries over from the rest of the passage. The rest of the passage argues against remarriage if one is bound to a living spouse, whether a civil divorce has been granted or not. Hence, a new teaching that contradicts all that, when the passage does not even mention remarriage, is ignoring the context.
However, having said that, it also needs to be noted that this group deals only with an unbeliever leaving a believer. The instructions for believers has already been given, and they prohibit divorce in general and remarriage in the absolute. Hence, believers cannot apply the abandonment passage to believers. To do so is to ignore the context that conveys to whom the instructions are given, and the careful separation of these groups by the Apostle Paul.
Finally, douloō is used instead of deō for a reason. If Paul wanted to argue what I have above, the only thing he can do is change the word for obligation and attempt to communicate the same principle as the Lord throughout, i.e., that remarriage after marriage is only permitted to widows and widowers. There is no other way for him to convey this. However, if he wanted to convey the same concept as deō, i.e., bondage in the sense of the one flesh union in marriage, it is very confusing for him to have used a different word that can mean something quite different in this context.
A further note needs to be said of douloō. Lexicons will often cite its use in the passive as referring to marriage, but, in fact, they are getting that concept solely from this passage. The Perfect Passive Indicative is only used here and in 2 Peter 2:19, where it clearly does not refer to marriage, but obligation and enslavement. In fact, this is what the word always means in both the LXX and NT. If we remove the Perfect and Indicative elements, we see the word never used in this way either. In fact, this would be the sole use of the word in this manner if it refers to the marriage covenant in the sense that Paul is saying the believer is no longer married in the eyes of God to the unbeliever (i.e., the sense that deō would have clearly conveyed in the context). In fact, Paul always uses deō, not douloō to convey the concept of being bound to the marriage covenant (see also Rom 7:2).
So what you have now is people arguing a meaning of the word douloō that it never carries elsewhere and would contradict everything that Paul says here and elsewhere about the marriage covenant, not to mention it contradicting the teaching of Christ from which Paul draws his argument.
That last point should also be noted. Paul is teaching from what Christ Himself said about divorce and remarriage. That is to what the “not I, but the Lord” statements refer. Paul is not saying he has revelation from Christ on some things but other things are just his opinion. The whole text is inspired. He is saying that the Lord, in His earthly ministry, said this about divorce and remarriage, but He did not address this or that subject which Paul is now addressing. That is an important point, since this would link the two teachings together directly, providing the Gospel of Mark (not Luke or Matthew yet) context for what Paul is saying.
In case he was misunderstood, Paul states the binding principle of marriage, which was taught by the Lord in His earthly ministry, very clearly:
A wife is deō ("bound") as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (v. 39)
It would seem from this, therefore, that remarriage is never permissible as long as the spouse is alive. However, does the text state that divorce is an option? Paul seems to be operating on the assumption that civil divorce (a legal divorce recognized by the state) should be distinguished from what actually breaks a marriage in God’s eyes, which he explains is only death of one of the partners.
Hence, although there are situations when a civil divorce is inevitable due to the unwillingness of an unbeliever to remain with a believer, remarriage is not an option, lest Paul contradict the principle given by the Lord in the Gospel of Mark and the tradition that underlies it.
However, he seems to also make a concession that separation, even for life, might be warranted in extraordinary cases. I say this because of two things: (1) by prohibiting the divorce of two believers, he then goes on to say that if such is not obeyed, those believers are definitely not to get remarried to others. They are to either remain single or be reconciled. Those are the only options given to them. (2) I think this is brought out by his negating the infinitive rather than using an imperative here. I think Paul is trying to say that divorce is not permissible as the norm, but in extreme cases, if one absolutely must separate, remarriage is not an option. Remember, Paul is talking about the circumstances under which one can and cannot marry. Marriage is good. Those who have never married or are widows are free to marry. Those who have been married, but are divorced, are not free to marry. And it’s better for everyone to simply stay as he is in order to avoid further complications in the eschatological mindset, but as long as he or she falls into a group where marriage is permissible, he or she is free to marry.
Now, that is what the passage actually argues if we allow the clear to guide the obscure. Whether one sees it as an absolute teaching or not depends upon one’s hermeneutic, but any teaching that does not see it as normative needs to deal with, not only this passage, but also the teaching of Christ upon which this passage is based. If the New Testament should show itself to be in harmony on the subject, as opposed to the a priori judgment that it is contradictory or fluid, then one must ask why it would not be normative.
That’s it for this installment. Next time we’ll look at Paul’s analogy in Romans 7:1-6.