Does 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 give people permission to divorce, as long as they do not remarry?
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.
It is easy to see why this verse could be interpreted as giving license for Christians to divorce, so long as they then remain single. But a closer look reveals that this verse is actually in keeping with the Bible’s consistent teaching on divorce and remarriage.
To start, understand what that teaching is. God designed marriage to last as long as both partners are alive (Romans 7:2). Jesus taught this in Matthew 19:8, which affirmed the teaching of Genesis 2:24. Because of that, divorce was not God’s plan for marriages.
But because of sin in the world, God does allow for divorce under two circumstances: adultery and abandonment. If a husband commits adultery, then the wife can divorce her husband without fear of God’s displeasure, since it was his act of immorality that actually broke the bounds of marriage (Matthew 19:8-9). In the same way, if a believer is married to a non-believer, and the non-believer abandons the believer, then the believer is free to divorce—again, it was the act of the other spouse that effectually severed the marriage—the divorce is just the paperwork (1 Corinthians 7:15).
In any case where divorce is permitted by God, so is remarriage (in fact, Paul even encourages it in 1 Timothy 5:14). In other words, there is no such thing as ‘punitive singleness,’ or a situation where a Christian could get an unbiblical divorce, but remain in church fellowship as long as she doesn’t get remarried.
What then of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11? Doesn’t Paul say “if she does [get a divorce], she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”?
This should immediately bring to mind the main point 1 Corinthians 7: singleness is a virtue. There is no shame in being single, especially if a Christian is determined to live without a spouse so that their time, attention, and money can be singularly focused on the kingdom of God. In 7:10-11, Paul is simply applying that same standard to those who have already divorced. He is repeating his main point, which is that he wants single people (weather divorced, widowed, engaged or single) to seriously think about the virtue of singleness (see 1 Corinthians 7:1, 8, 17, 20, 26-27, 32-35).
But there is a new wrinkle in 7:10-11: namely “if she does” get divorced. She shouldn’t, but what if she does? Does Paul’s allowance here open the door for an unbiblical divorce, so long as it is followed by perpetual singleness? Again, the answer is no.
In this section it seems that Paul is talking about believers and unbelievers divorcing. That is clearly the context here (consider verses 12-16), and the church to whom Paul was writing was made up of first-generation believers. Commentators say that apparently some believers were divorcing their unbelieving spouses out of confusion—now that they were Christians, shouldn’t they separate from the world? Basically, they didn’t know what to do so they were doing all kinds of things, including divorce. The Corinthian church had it all: sexual immorality at communion, pagan gibberish as worship, and even actual lawsuits against each other. That they had unbiblical divorces should not be surprising.
Remember, the Corinthians didn’t know what to do, because 1 Corinthians hadn’t been written yet. Paul is writing to people that apparently thought that in their divorce they were doing the right thing, but they were mistaken. He is saying that if a wife had already gotten her unbiblical divorce, then she needed to go back to their estranged spouse, if at all possible (if the husband was a believer, and if he would take her back). But Paul is also aware that some eggs cannot be unscrambled, and so if it’s not possible, then a person with an unbiblical divorce should remain single (presumably because a subsequent marriage would actually be adulterous; cf. Matthew 19:9).
In other words, this is exactly what Jesus taught in Matthew 19.
How does this principle apply today? In a sense, it is an expired command. It applied to people who had yet to be taught that divorce was sinful. I assume there might be some missionary contexts where it applies, or maybe a situation with a new convert who simply doesn’t know what the Bible teaches—I’m not saying that it’s likely, but that it is possible that someone in this circumstance might exist. But Paul is not giving someone today a license to pursue an unbiblical divorce so long as they then remain single.
To reiterate: divorce is bad and unbiblical, unless it occurs because of adultery or abandonment. In those cases, the aggrieved spouse is free to remarry. But if a spouse pursues an unbiblical divorce, she should be subject to church discipline, and treated like an unbeliever, and she cannot point to 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 as giving her the option of an unbiblical divorce, as long as she stays single. Had she lived in the first-century church before the New Testament, that would be understandable; today it is just simply an act of sinful rebellion against God’s design for marriage.
If someone does pursue an unbiblical divorce, they too should be subject to church discipline, and if they are unwilling to repent, they should be put out of the church—in which case they probably will not be too concerned about Jesus’ or Paul’s teaching on remarriage anyway.