This morning, we pick back up in our study of I Corinthians, and we’re in the middle of chapter 7 where Paul is discussing some matters related to singleness, marriage, divorce and remarriage.
If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you may recall that I shared some advice with you from a couple of children on whether it is better to be single or married. This morning, I want to share some more wisdom with you. A group of children was asked the question, “What is the best age to get married?” Tom, age 5, said, “Once I’m done with kindergarten, I’m going to find me a wife.” But Judy, age 8, had a very different answer. She said, “Eighty-four, because at that age, you don’t have to work anymore, and you can spend all your time loving each other in your bedroom.”
And Randy, age 8, offered some advice to men on how to have a better marriage. He said, “Be a good kisser. It might make your wife forget that you never take out the trash.”
Well, the apostle Paul also has some advice regarding marriage and we’re going to take a look at that this morning. In our text, Paul is going to give instruction to four different groups of people – those who are unmarried, those who are married to Christians, those who are married to non-Christians who want to stay married, and those who are married to non-Christians who want to leave the marriage. So, let’s jump right in.
Beginning in verse 8, Paul first gives instruction to….
1. Christians Who Are Unmarried
“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (I Corinthians 7:8-9)
Paul gives instruction here for those who are unmarried (that is, those who have never been married) and those who are widows (those who have previously been married but their spouse has died). Paul says, “It is good for them to remain single, as I am.”
And this is the same thing that Paul said in verse 7 that we looked at a couple of weeks ago. In a culture that believed that everybody ought to be married and if you’re not married, then there’s something wrong with you, Paul lets us know that being single can be a good thing. Don’t feel like you have to get married. Don’t give in to the pressure of people around you who keep asking, “So when are you getting married? You’re not getting any younger.”
Paul lets us know that there’s nothing wrong with being single. And if God has called you to a life of singleness, where there’s a sense of satisfaction, a sense of peace with that, then embrace your singlehood. And he says, “That’s a good thing.”
In fact, in many ways, it is easier to serve God if you’re single (Paul is going to talk more about that later in this chapter). But Paul makes it clear that you should only remain single if you’re able to remain celibate. And, as I said before, not everyone can live like that. So, Paul says, “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
It is difficult to serve the Lord as a single person if you’re always battling sexual temptation. You’re not going to live a happy, fulfilled life serving the Lord that way. So, it’s better to just go ahead and find you a good Christian man or woman and get married instead of living a life that’s filled with the struggle of constant temptation.
But what if you’re already married? If Paul says that being single is such a good thing, what should those who are married do? So, beginning in verse 10, Paul gives instruction to…
2. Christians Who Are Married to Christians
“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” (I Corinthians 7:10-11).
I want to address this phrase “not I, but the Lord”. A little bit later, Paul is going to say, “not the Lord, but I”. And it almost sounds like Paul is saying, this is what God has to say over here, and over here, this is just my advice. But that’s not what Paul is saying.
When he says, I’m going to tell you something, it’s not I, but the Lord, he’s saying, the Lord has already talked about this. During his earthly ministry, Jesus has already said something about this issue.
And then when Paul says, “I’m going to say something, not the Lord”, he’s saying, “Now I’m talking about some things that Jesus didn’t specifically deal with.” So, we know, for example, that Jesus had something to say about celibacy and marriage and divorce. But Jesus never talked about things like what do you do if you’re married to an unbelieving spouse and that spouse wants to stay or wants to leave. Jesus never talked about any of those issues. But Paul does.
So here in verse 10, Paul says, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord).” In other words, this is something that Jesus has already talked about. “The wife should not separate from her husband.. and the husband should not divorce his wife.” Those two words “separate” and “divorce” both mean exactly the same thing in this passage. Paul is talking here about divorce.
So, did Jesus ever have anything to say about divorce? Yes, he did. In Matthew 19, Jesus was answering a question brought to him by the Pharisees, and he referred back to Genesis chapter 2, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, be joined to his wife. The two shall become one flesh.”
And then Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:6). Jesus went on to say, “Don’t divorce your spouse for any reason other than unfaithfulness.” So, Paul tells us that Jesus has already talked about this and Jesus made it very clear that a wife is not to divorce her husband, and a husband is not to divorce his wife.
But what if one of them does depart? And it may be that what was happening in Corinth relates to the earlier verses in this chapter that we looked at a couple of weeks ago. You may recall that there were apparently some Christians in Corinth who were convinced that sex is a bad thing. And so, even if you were married, you were more spiritual if you abstained from intimacy in the marriage relationship. And so, perhaps one of the partners might say, “I want to be more spiritual so I’m going to abstain,” and, in order to do that, they might separate themselves.
And if that’s what they choose to do, then Paul says, “That person should not remarry.” And it’s easy to see why he would say that. If that partner is leaving the marriage to abstain from sexual relations, there’s no good reason to remarry. Don’t hook up with another partner. Stay single.
If you don’t want to be married, then stay single. But if you do want to be married, then you need to go back to that person you made a commitment to and be married to them. Those are the only two options.
You may say, “That sounds awfully strict.” It is strict. Let me remind you that you and I are Christians. We are called to a higher level. We are called and empowered by God to live at a higher level than this world does. And so, as God’s children, there are things we do that show that we glorify God in our body and our spirit, which belong to him. It’s a higher standard.
So, Paul says, this is how it is – if you’re married, stay married. You made a promise; you made a commitment. As Malachi says in Malachi 2:14, “She is your companion and your wife by covenant.”
When Sueanne and I got married, we said “till death do us part”. That wasn’t just a nice thing to say. It wasn’t just a cute little catchphrase we threw into the marriage vows. “Till death do us part” means I’m here for Sueanne and she is here for me until one of us dies. Because that has been the Lord’s command from the very beginning.
Folks, it’s not complicated. It is very easy to understand God’s teaching on marriage. Here it is in a nutshell — if you’re married, stay married. God’s intention, his original design is one man and one woman together for one lifetime. And when two Christians are married to one another, God expects both of them to do everything possible not just to stay married, but to make that marriage as good as it can possibly be.
And all of that sounds well and good if you’re talking about two Christians who are married to one another. But what if a Christian is married to a non-Christian? Well, that changes things a bit. So, Paul goes on to give instruction to…
3. Christians Who Are Married to Non-Christians Who Want to Stay Married
There are a couple of ways this could have happened in the early church. It’s possible that you had a Christian who chose to marry a non-Christian, but I don’t that’s something that happened very often.
More often, you had two non-Christians who were married to one another, and one of them makes the commitment to follow Jesus Christ. He or she is baptized into Christ, and now you have a Christian who is married to a non-Christian. And they might say, “I’m not so sure God wants me to be married to an unbeliever. And besides, it would be so much better if I had a wife who’s a Christian, so maybe I should divorce my husband or my wife and marry a Christian.”
So, in verse 12, Paul says, “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.” (I Corinthians 7:12-13)
“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord).” In other words, this is something that wasn’t specifically addressed in the words of Jesus or even in the Old Testament. “If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.”
This unbeliever says, “You know what? Even though you’re a Christian, I don’t want to bail on this marriage. I still love you as my spouse. I want to make this work out. I don’t agree with your religion. I’m not all into that. But I love you and I’m committed to you.” If you’re a Christian, then you stay in that marriage. You don’t leave.
Paul says as long as that unbelieving partner wants to be married, then it’s your responsibility to stay in that marriage and to do everything in your power to make that marriage work. It goes back to God’s teaching on marriage. In a nutshell, if you’re married, stay married. God’s desire is for you to stay in that marriage. And Paul explains why. Maybe God will use you to be a positive influence on your partner, and he or she can also come to know Christ.
Verse 14, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (I Corinthians 7:14)
So what does it mean that this non-Christian spouse is made holy? Well, let me tell you first of all what is doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean they are automatically saved just because one person in that family is a believer. But what it does mean is that they’re sanctified, or set apart, or blessed in a special way because of you.
We know that some unbelieving spouses will eventually become believers through their association with their believing spouses. Peter talked about this in I Peter chapter 3, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” (I Peter 3:1)
But there’s no guarantee that that will happen. Some unbelieving spouses will never change. But, at the very least, these unbelievers come in contact with the gospel and Christian graces in ways that most people in the world will never experience.
It’s a biblical principle that God sometimes blesses an entire household because of one person. We see it several times in Genesis. The household of Laban was blessed because of Jacob. Laban had to admit that himself. He says, you know what, I and my whole family, my flocks, my herds, they’ve all been blessed because of you, Jacob. Just because you’ve been hanging around, I’ve received the blessing.
We’re told that the household of Potiphar was blessed because of Joseph’s presence within it. Remember when God was about to destroy Sodom, Abraham finds out and he haggles with God and eventually gets God to say, “If you can find 10 righteous people in Sodom, that’s enough for me to save this whole city.” That city would be sanctified by righteous people, just like a marriage is sanctified by a believing spouse.
The prevailing thought in Corinth was that the unbeliever contaminates the marriage and Paul says, “No, you’ve got it backwards.” The unbelieving partner does not contaminate the marriage; rather the believer sanctifies the marriage. Because of that Christian in the home, God’s blessings are poured out into that home, and that unbeliever experiences the effects of that. And, in a sense, they are experiencing the blessing and the goodness of God because of that believing partner. And the children are blessed as well.
So, if you’re married to a non-Christian, stay married. But what if that unbelieving spouse wants out of the marriage? He or she says, “Yeah, I’m not into your whole religious thing. And I thought I could handle it, but I can’t handle it. I just really want out of the marriage. I don’t want you to spend your time going to worship or helping the poor, or let’s pray before a meal, or look at you with your little Bible. I don’t want to do all that. I’m out of here.” What do you do then? So, in verse 15, Paul gives instruction to…
4. Christians Who Are Married to Non-Christians Who Want Out of the Marriage
“But 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. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (I Corinthians 7:15-16)
That’s why I said earlier that when it says the unbelieving spouse is holy or sanctified, it doesn’t mean they’re saved. They might eventually be saved. The godly influence of the husband or the wife may eventually bring the other one to Christ. But that’s not a guarantee.
In the meantime, there’s always the possibility that that unbelieving partner doesn’t want to stay in this marriage. Paul is saying, “If that’s the case and you’ve done everything in your power, and that partner still leaves, then let ‘em go. God does not hold you responsible for the failure of the marriage if it’s not your fault.”
Now what does Paul mean by the phrase, “You are no longer enslaved” or, as some translations put it, “You are no longer bound”? This was a phrase that showed up in Greek divorce paperwork. It was a reference, not to the legality of the divorce, but to the freedom of remarriage. In other words, if somebody just walked out the door, they were technically divorced. But in order to be legally free to remarry, they were “no longer bound.”
That phrase “no longer bound” means that God has released you from that covenant in order that you might now be free to remarry. Keep in mind, Paul isn’t teaching everything about every single situation of divorce or remarriage here. But, in this specific case, if you’ve done everything in your power to make your marriage work, if you’ve done what you could do, that’s all you can do. And if your partner chooses to check out of the marriage, then you are no longer bound. You’re released, and you’re free to marry someone else.
But what do you do if your spouse who is a Christian walks out? Paul doesn’t address that question here because the assumption in verses 10-11 is that Christians will always be obedient to God’s command and they will stay married to one another because they have made a commitment “until death do us part”. That’s what God has called us to do. But an unbeliever may not be obedient, and unfortunately, sometimes Christians act like unbelievers.
The point here is that when you have done everything in your power with all of your heart to try to make this marriage work and your partner simply will not respond, then that’s all you can do. You don’t leave the marriage, you don’t file for divorce. But, if that unbelieving partner leaves, then God releases you from your commitment to that person.
Now it’s important for us to understand the point that Paul is making and not get lost in all kinds of technicalities. Because what people sometimes like to do is they go into these passages and they try to find all these little technicalities and loopholes so that they can make things work out the way they want them to work out.
For example, God said not to divorce my husband unless he’s unfaithful, so I’m going to make his life as miserable as possible and then when he goes out and commits adultery, I can scripturally divorce him. No!
Leaving a marriage isn’t just when somebody walks out the door. People can abandon a marriage long before the divorce papers are signed. The issue here is, what are doing to make your marriage the absolute best marriage it can be?
And sometimes the reason we try to find these technicalities is so that we can look our Christian friends in the eye and say, “By the way, you don’t need to worry about me. I found a loophole. This is okay with God.”
The danger of legalism is we start to live that way. This passage isn’t about technicalities and it isn’t about loopholes. It’s about the integrity of your heart and your willingness to do everything in your power to try to make your marriage work. And at the end of the day, only you and God know whether you’ve done that. When everything is said and done, you don’t answer to your Christian friends and you don’t answer to me or any other preacher. You ultimately answer to God.
And so, it’s important for all of us to honestly assess in the deepest part of our hearts, “Have I done absolutely everything in my power to make this marriage work?” And if before God, you feel, “Yes, I have, and my partner simply does not want to be married to me,” then God releases you and you’re free to move on. But that’s a matter that you’ve got to deal with before God.
Because, while there may be exceptions, God’s intention for marriage is very simple – if you’re married stay married. And do everything possible to make that marriage as good as it can possibly be.
Paul closes out this section with these words. Verse 17, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.
“Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” (I Corinthians 7:17-24)
It sounds like Paul has completely changed the topic, but I think this is what he’s doing. He’s saying, “Those of you who are single, you keep talking about how you could serve God so much better if you were married. And you married people, you keep talking about how you could serve God so much better if you were single. Stop worrying about what your circumstances, and glorify God in whatever situation you’re in.
It’s like circumcision. You can serve God whether you’re circumcised or not. Or it’s like freedom. You can serve God whether you’re a wealthy Roman citizen or a slave. It’s not about circumstances, it’s about whether you’re willing to glorify God in the situation you’re in.
Stop saying, “If only…” If only I was married, if only I didn’t have kids, if only I had a better job, if only I didn’t have to work so many hours, if only I lived in a better place, if only I was retired, if only, if only, if only.” We need to stop with the “if onlys” and make the commitment right now to do the very best in whatever situation we are in right now to honor and glorify God.
Because, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20)