Marriage and Divorce

Tonight, we will be examining what Paul has to teach us regarding marriage and divorce. Marriage is hard in this fallen, sinful world.

One statistic I saw this week is that the divorce rate in the United States is 44.6%.[1] Nearly half of all marriages in our country end in divorce. Some people, only looking at hard numbers, say with great joy that the divorce rate is going down, and that is technically true. But I think that declining number of divorces actually masks other greater problems, such as the marriage rate going down simply because fornication has become the acceptable norm.

But this isn’t a new problem. Sexual sin and skewed views of marriage were just as much of a problem in Paul’s day. That’s why he’s addressing the Corinthians’ issues related to marriage. Paul is writing both to instruct, and to correct. He’s writing to a congregation that had both Jews and Gentiles, and both of those groups came into the church with sub-biblical understandings of marriage.

The Jews in the congregation, because it was an Orthodox Jewish belief, would have propagated the idea that you had to be married.[2] And if you weren’t married, you were out of God’s will, and you were to be excluded from heaven.

In fact, in my studies, I found this comical story of the Jewish belief not only in the necessity of marriage, but in divinely-arranged marriages. “It [was] said that a Roman woman asked a rabbi, if your G-d created the universe in six days, then what has he been doing with his time since then? The rabbi said that G-d has been arranging marriages. The Roman woman scoffed at this, saying that arranging marriages was a simple task, but the rabbi assured her that arranging marriages properly is as difficult as parting the Red Sea. To prove the rabbi wrong, the Roman woman went home and took a thousand male slaves and a thousand female slaves and matched them up in marriages. The next day, the slaves appeared before her, one with a cracked skull, another with a broken leg, another with his eye gouged out, all asking to be released from their marriages. The woman went back to the rabbi and said, “There is no god like your G-d, and your Torah is true.””[3] The orthodox Jews believed that people should be married, and being intentionally outside of that pattern is to be disregarding God’s will.

On the other hand, there were many people in Corinth who had a rather growing fascination with celibacy, and they were more concerned with remaining single; they believed singleness was inherently more spiritually virtuous.

In other words, if you were single, you would be able to give to God a higher devotion; you would move to a higher plane of spiritual life if you weren’t married. And there were some who would go as far as to say that sex of any kind was, if nothing else, a misdirection of effort and could be better channeled into acts of devotion to God rather than attachment to a spouse. Some were saying the “truly devoted” Christian wouldn’t marry at all.

And this understanding carried so far that these “truly devoted” Christians were saying, “We ought to get a divorce. In order that we might better serve the Lord, we’ll split up.” Or if they wanted to stay together, “We will withdraw ourselves from all physical affection.” No more sexual relations in our marriage; we’ll just devote ourselves to God and not get dragged into those physical things.

So, all kinds of problems and confusion rule the marital scene in Corinth. And they wrote Paul, asking for answers. Basically, the questions were these: Is marriage a command? Is marriage law? Do you have to be married to please God? Should single people then marry, or is it more spiritual to stay single? And are you a more devoted Christian if you’re not married?

Another question that came out of this is: should married people, who become Christians, then abstain from all sexual relationships? And should a Christian married to a non-Christian divorce that non-Christian in order not to have a mixed marriage and unite Christ with a pagan? These were the questions, and the seventh chapter clearly answers these questions.

Now, several weeks ago we looked at verses 1 to 7, and we saw the general principles regarding marriage. And what Paul said by way of a very brief summary is this: marriage is normal; marriage is for the majority. God has made most of us to marry. Marriage is good, but marriage is not an absolute commandment for everybody.

And we know this because God has, according verse 7, given some people the charisma or the gift of being single, the ability by the Holy Spirit to control their sexual desire. And if that’s what God’s gifted you with, then your singleness is a unique gift from God and ought to be used for his glory.

So, marriage is the norm; it isn’t commanded; it isn’t an absolute, but it is the norm to avoid fornication, sinful sexual involvement. Normally, you should get married. But for some who have the gift of being single, that’s a special blessing of God, and it should be maintained because it puts you in a position to be used by Him in a very unique way.

So, there is the general principle. Marriage is normal. Singleness is the exception; both are a gift of God. Whichever gift you have is something you ought to maintain and cherish as a special gift from God.

And now in our text tonight, verses 8-16, we will see Paul take these general principles from the first seven verses and apply them to 4 different groups of people. But before we get into that, let’s start by reading through our text.

1 Corinthians 7, starting in verse 8:

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.

10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

12 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. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 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. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you[b] to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Paul begins this section by addressing the first of the groups, which is the unmarried. The unmarried. This group would have included those that had never been married, and those who were divorcees, and those that were widowed. To this group, Paul says it is good for them to remain single, like he is.

If you’re single, that’s good. If you’re widowed, that’s fine. If you’ve never been married, or if you have been divorced, so be it. You can stay that way. Don’t listen to the perhaps Jewish contingent of the congregation that says to be single is to be outside of God’s will. That’s wrong. Marriage is a good gift, but so too is singleness.

And our interpretation this passage about the unmarried ought to be controlled by what Paul says later in this chapter in verses 32-35. Paul says there that singleness is not only NOT a status necessarily outside of God’s will, but that the unmarried person has certain benefits that a married person does not. A married person, Paul says, is concerned with pleasing a spouse. But a single person is not encumbered by such concerns, and is thus able to secure undivided devotion to the Lord.

I’ll talk more about singleness in subsequent sermons, but for now, the principle for us to see in Paul’s application here is that singleness is not a defect or a curse, it is a gift from the Lord, just like marriage is. And as it is a gift, it is not a problem that needs fixing.

However, Paul is not ignorant of our physical makeup, nor ignorant of different temperaments among different people. Thus, he gives further instruction to the unmarried in verse 9 that helps those who need it. He admits that there are some unmarried people who struggle with self-control, who even burn with passion, and those people ought to get married, Paul says.

Singleness is not necessarily a permanent assignment. And one of the ways that God shows you that you ought to be married, is that you are unable to control your passions. And this burning doesn’t merely mean an occasional longing for a companion, or even the kind of standard battle with lust that every person might encounter. Rather, I think we ought to think of this language of burning with passion to mean an all-encompassing, thought-controlling type of experience. If you are single, and you find your thoughts and your battles for holiness centered around the sins that could be helped by having a partner, then this is likely the Lord telling you to find a spouse.

But, if you are able to find contentment in the Lord while single, then praise God for that gift, and seek to use that gift for what it is: a divine enablement to minister in ways that a married person couldn’t as easily do.

Marriage is good, and singleness is good. Neither is deficient, and neither is more inherently holy. Both should be used to serve God.

Now, moving on to the second group that Paul addresses, let’s look at verse 10 and see what he says to the married Christians. The married Christians. Paul says,

10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

Paul gives these words, and prefaces them with “Not I, but the Lord,” which indicates NOT that Jesus’s words are in any way in opposition to Paul’s words. Rather, it means that regarding the situation in verses 10 and 11, Jesus had already given instruction during his earthly ministry. For example, Jesus speaks about marriage and divorce in Mark 10, Matthew 5, and Matthew 19. And in all three of those passages, the overwhelming thrust is clear: stay married. Don’t divorce. Don’t leave.

And that’s what Paul encourages of believers. But in Corinth, there was something different going on. As we mentioned in a previous sermon, believers in Corinth were arguing that celibacy was really the way to go. If you were really holy, if you really loved Jesus, then you wouldn’t distract yourself with earthly things like marriage and physical intimacy. Therefore, if you really want to be holy, you will separate from your spouse, perhaps even divorce them. That was the lie that Satan had planted, and that had taken root.

But what that lie does, is it ignores specific revelation from God regarding his thoughts about divorce. Scripture is clear that God Hates divorce. He hates it. God says in Malachi 2, “I hate putting away.” “I hate divorce.” He condemned the Israelites for it. He says, “You have done treacherously against the wife of your youth. You’re divorcing one another.”

And yet, here, in Corinth, it is evident that some had already done just that. Disregarding God’s design for marriage to be a life-long commitment, they had separated.

Look again at verse 11, “But if she does separate” –that language assumes that somebody in Corinth had already done it. Too late; it’s already happened. What are the consequences? “Let her remain” – what? – “unmarried” – single the rest of her life – “or be reconciled to her husband.” Only two choices if Christians divorce: they either stay single all the rest of their life, or they come together again to reconcile.

Now, let me add a footnote. Very important footnote. Paul here is not dealing here with a case of adultery, or any other kind of sexual immorality. That is foreign to his discussion. In cases of adultery, Jesus makes clear that divorce was allowable among Christians. Where one Christian commits an adulterous act, God allows for a breaking of that marriage bond. Matthew 5:32, “I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except for the cause of fornication” – and that can be sexual sin of all kinds – “except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery. And whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery.” Except for fornication, no divorce. But in the case of fornication, God says divorce is permissible. Not necessary, but permissible.

Matthew 19:9, same thing. “And I say, whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and marry another commits adultery.” The only ground that Jesus ever gave for the dissolution of a marriage was sexual immorality. And when that occurs, there is the right to divorce.

So, Paul’s words here are clear, and in accord with what Jesus taught. Marriage, especially between believers, ought to be a lifelong commitment. And, only in certain situations, only under tragic and extra-ordinary circumstances, should divorce be considered as an option for believers. That’s what Paul says to married Christians, which is our second group.

Next, the third group that Paul addresses in this section is the Christian who is married to an unbeliever who is willing to stay. A Christian who is married to an unbeliever who is willing to remain married. This is verses 12-14:

12 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. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.

Paul opens this section with a strange sounding phrase, (I, not the Lord), which again simply indicates that Jesus didn’t speak directly to this issue. It doesn’t mean that Paul’s words are any less authoritative, nor even less is he saying that his words are in any way in opposition to Jesus’s words. It is simply an acknowledgement that this is a complex and perhaps difficult situation that Jesus did not directly address.

He says that if a Christian brother is married to an unbelieving wife, or if a Christian sister is married to an unbelieving husband, and that unbelieving spouse is willing to live with them, then there should not be a divorce.

You can imagine this situation in Corinth. A woman comes to faith, and yet she’s married to a pagan. He’s going out and worshipping at the idolatrous temples there in Corinth, he’s taking part in their hedonistic rituals. And the woman comes up to you and asks, “can’t I just divorce this heathen and find me a nice Christian man to marry? Think of the children. Think of the spiritual good that this divorce would free me to do.”

But Paul’s words are clear. If he’ll stay, keep him.

And we know that Paul says in verse 39 that mixed marriages, that is between a believer and an unbeliever, are prohibited when they can be prevented. So, can’t we say that if a person comes to Christ, that he or she is in a mixed marriage, which is a problem, and so should seek to get out of it?

No, says Paul. If the unbelieving spouse will submit to remaining married, then so should the believer.

But Paul, you said in the last chapter that we are one with Christ, and that we can’t join our body with a prostitute because we would become defiled by becoming one with a sinner. Doesn’t that mean that my mixed marriage is sinful, and that I will be defiled by staying in it?

Interestingly, Paul answers that question by affirming the opposite. Not only should the believer remain with a consenting unbeliever, the believer is not only NOT defiled, but actually has some sanctifying effect upon the unbelieving spouse. Verse 14:

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.

Now, Paul isn’t saying that the unbelieving spouse or the children are automatically converted simply by the presence of a single believing parent in the home. You don’t become a Christian by simply being married to one. Conversion isn’t based on proximity to a believer.

What he’s talking about is a category of spiritual influence, of spiritual sanctification, that is distinct from personal and salvific sanctification, and yet is a genuine setting apart. John MacArthur calls it “Matrimonial sanctification,” and that’s kind of a helpful category.

Paul is saying that merely by having one Christian spouse in the home has the effect of making the whole household holier. Sin will have less effect; the effects of outward rebellion will be in some measure impeded by the presence of one Christian spouse in the home.

Let me make a couple of applications from this verse. This means that if you are an unbeliever, and you are married to a Christian, you ought to thank God for that, and for your spouse’s influence on you and your home. You may not believe, but your home is the beneficiary of divine blessing and mercy, in some measure, because of the presence of your Christian spouse. You may not believe, and your eternal destination to hell hasn’t changed, but in this life you are the beneficiary of divine grace overflowing from the life of your spouse. You’re not as far down the path of sin as you might have been, had it not been for the presence of your Christian spouse.

And if you are the believing spouse who is married to an unbeliever, be encouraged that God can and does use the presence of his people for the good of our unbelieving loved ones. To get uncharacteristically autobiographical for a moment, I would not believe today if it were not for the faithful presence of women in this exact situation. My grandmother was a believer, married to an alcoholic unbeliever. But she was a faithful Christian presence that led my mother to be saved. And my mother is in a strikingly similar situation that her mother had. And yet God used the faithfulness of my mother in my own conversion.

And I have seen first-hand how the presence of a believing spouse can serve as a sanctifying force in the life of an unbelieving husband. Rather than the believer being defiled by a mixed union, the unbeliever is somehow reigned in. And sometimes, God decides to grant his glorious grace through such a mixed union.

Peter says in 1 Peter 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.” Peter links the godly submission of a wife to her husband in marriage as the instrument that God will sometimes use to win over the husband to the faith. And he specifically states the conduct of the wives, apart from words, as the means of their husbands conversion.

Godly conduct in marriage, even a mixed marriage, has a sanctifying, and sometimes even saving, effect upon the unbelieving spouse. May we, as God’s people, be diligent to encourage those believers who persevere in marriage with an unbeliever, may we support, and may we pray for them, as they seek to love the unbelieving spouse to whom God has seen fit to yoke them.

Now, before we leave this verse, let’s look at the end of it for a moment. Paul says, “Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

You could imagine the logic of some in Corinth: “If I remain in my marriage with an unbeliever, won’t my children become defiled?” It is similar to the arguments earlier. If my spouse is an unbeliever, shouldn’t I stop all physical intimacy with him? I wouldn’t want to produce half-breed children, half-defiled pagan and half-Christian children.

Paul’s certainly not saying that.

It is also worth noting that Paul is saying nothing here about baptism. Not a hint of baptism in this chapter. Sometimes Paul is interpreted here as saying something that justifies infant baptism, like the lone believing spouse makes the children holy, and thus worthy recipients of the new covenant sign of baptism. But that has nothing to do with the context of this passage.

Plus, if that logic were consistent, then the unbelieving spouse should also be baptized, because they are said by Paul to be made holy by their believing spouse too. Baptism has nothing to do with this passage.

Paul is saying that the children, just like the unbelieving spouse, are sanctified, set apart, made holy because of the presence of their one believing parent. And, just like the spouse, this sanctification, this being made holy, is not automatically salvific, it doesn’t automatically produce saving faith. But, there is a real, and often immediately evident work of God in the life of the children, where we can tell that the children are much better off because of one believing parent in their life.

And that means, in a very real sense, it only takes 1 believing parent to make a “Christian home.” One believing parent can and does make a genuine and significant impact on the spiritual life and temperature of a home, even when the other spouse doesn’t not believe. Be encouraged in that, and pray that God will use this matrimonial sanctification as a means to bring about saving sanctification in the life of both the unbelieving spouse and the children.

That is the third group that Paul addresses here. Let’s move onto the fourth group. In verses 15 and 16 Paul addresses believers who are married to an unbeliever who wants to leave. Believers married to an unbeliever who wants to separate. Paul says in verse 15:

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. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Paul says that if the unbelieving spouse separates, if they leave, if they initiate the divorce, then let them go. Don’t fight it. Don’t quarrel over it. If he wants to leave, let him leave. You’re called by God himself to peace, and you can’t live in peace if you’re fighting the unbelieving spouse who wants out.

And Paul gives a special word to the believer who is being abandoned by the unbeliever: he says the brother or sister in such case is not enslaved. Is not in bondage. Bondage to what? Freed from what?

The only bondage marriage has reference to is the bond of marriage. You’re free, Paul says, free to remarry. You are no longer under bondage. And that word “bondage” is the word that’s used in Romans 7:2 when Paul talks about a married woman being bound by the law to a husband. Marriage is bondage, in Paul’s vocabulary, and here he’s saying you are free from that marriage.

But some here don’t take that interpretation. Some think that marriage is a permanent union, and even if someone is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse, they are not then free to remarry. But I don’t think that. And I don’t think that because God doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say that here; in fact, he says the opposite. He says the believing spouse that has been abandoned is free, no longer enslaved. If God wanted to say that the abandoned believer is not to re-marry, he would have done it. He did it in verse 11, where he said, “the wife should not separate from her husband 11 but if she does, she should remain unmarried.”

If the unbeliever deserts, if he or she abandons, the marriage is over. It is, in effect, like adultery. It so undermines the marriage vows, that what should be a permanent institution, is crippled, and can be impossible to sustain.

And so, Paul says, let them go. Why? Because God has called you to peace.

But some might argue, how could I let them go? I am going to hang on to him or her until they get saved?

But Paul addresses that too: verse 16: “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”

Your presence in the home CAN have a sanctifying effect, but if you cling to an unbelieving spouse who wants to leave, sometimes the effect can be the opposite. God’s people are called to peaceful lives, and a home that is unnecessarily full of turmoil, fighting, division, and hostility will not be conducive to anyone’s spiritual wellbeing. God’s act of saving is not limited by your presence in the unbelieving spouse’s life, nor is marriage a primary foundation or necessity for evangelism.[4] Let them go and live in peace.

Before we finish, I think it is wise to address this category of abandonment a little further. Many theologians have concluded from scripture that adultery and abandonment are the two categories of biblically-permissible divorce. And I think it is generally helpful to have those categories, but that we also need to see that the application of those categories can be very difficult.[5]

It is also worth saying that this passage, indeed the entire chapter, has been used for great harm. On the one hand, some try to use this chapter to dominate or manipulate their spouse into doing things they don’t want to do. This is sinful, sub-Christian behavior and inconsistent with a godly profession of faith. But on the other hand, some have used this text in the other direction, seeking to biblically-justify escaping a marriage that they no longer want by alleging their spouse to be guilty of abandonment of their marriage vows.

These can be very complex issues, which is why God has ordained for wise and discerning pastors to be involved, along with the rest of the body. We need wisdom to walk rightly in these situations. Wisdom to know how to rightly apply these texts.

For example, we may be asked:

  • What constitutes abandonment?
  • Is it merely the physical desertion of the spouse to another geographic location?
  • How long does it take for the absence to count as desertion?
  • Does abandonment go into other categories, like unwillingness to financially support?
  • What about physical endangerment?
  • Does physical violence, or even the threat of physical violence constitute abandonment?
  • Does emotional abandonment and manipulation justify divorce?
  • How do we discern if any of these are the actions of a struggling, but repentant believer, as opposed to the actions of an unrepentant unbeliever?

Furthermore, you could imagine scenarios where applying the principles of this passage are muddled by cultural circumstances, or even outright sin. What if a woman in an Islamic country comes to faith, but her polygamous husband does not? What is she to do in such a situation?

These are all complex questions that require great discernment and wisdom. If you have anything in your marriage, anything that is pressing you away from your spouse, anything that causes you to question their commitment to Christ, to you, or to your wedding vows, anything that makes you fearful of your spouse or their actions, please come talk to someone. Talk to your pastors, talk to your deacons, talk to your Women’s ministry team, talk to any one of our staff.

We want to help you think through these issues. There is no way that I could address every particular aspect of every different situation from the pulpit, and so please come talk with us and let us walk with you through these difficult situations.

Marriage is intended to be life-long, and when marriage becomes a crushing burden or an overwhelming disappointment, you need the body of Christ to come along side you to help carry the load, and to point you back to Christ.

And that’s where I will return us this evening, back to Christ. God’s word teaches us that everything Paul says in this passage is true and good. Christ himself shows us that singleness is not a curse, nor that it inhibits our spiritual impact for the kingdom, nor that it reveals some sort of defect within us. Christ also teaches us the depth of devotion that should mark us in marriage.

His love for his bride was such that he was willing to die for her. He gave up everything for her, that she might be forgiven her sins and made pure again. And so we can be encouraged. We can be encouraged that divorce is not the unpardonable sin; Christ died for those that divorced unjustly, just like he died for the unfaithful, and the selfish, and the self-righteous.

We all fail to be the spouses we are called to be, and yet God sent his son to die in our place. He’s born the punishment we deserved, and poured out his very own spirit that we might be renewed, that we might grow in our ability to be the faithful husband and the faithful wife that we are called to be.

And we also need to be reminded that no marriage is outside of God’s redemptive power. The most broken relationships can be restored through God’s grace. The coldest marriage can be rekindled to genuine heartfelt devotion, if God were to act. So, we need to remain prayerful, remain humble, remain hopeful, and trust in God through it all. God is in the business of reconciling former enemies, and He has the power to do it, so that through it all, His name would be praised.

And if you haven’t heard of this good news before, or if you’re remaining in your unbelief, hear the words of scripture. Know that today can be the day that you taste of true salvation, true faith, true forgiveness, and freedom from guilt and condemnation. Trust in Christ, the son of God, and you too can be saved from eternal punishment for your sins. Come to Christ, the one to whom all marriages point, and you can have eternal union with the savior of your soul.


[1] (accessed 10/19/2021).

[2] Some of this contextual summary is taken from John MacArthur’s sermon “Divine Guidelines for Marriage” on the same passage, preached December 7, 1975. (accessed 10/19/2021).

[3] (accessed 10/19/2021).

[4] MacArthur.

[5] Helpful in thinking through these issues is the PCA’s report on Divorce and Remarriage: (accessed 10/19/2021).


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