November 10, 2016

Punitive singleness and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11

by Jesse Johnson

Image result for divorce

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.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Vinod Anand S

    Hi Jesse, thanks for the article. I absolutely agree with you. Can you also tell me what to tell to those who justify divorce in case of physical abuse in the marriage? One of my acquaintance quotes Malachi 2: 13 – 16 to justify his divorce. I read those verses but they do not speak anything about the divorce in the case of physical abuse.

    • Hey Vinod. In the case of physical abuse there is the practical (call the police, seek safety, don’t put yourself in danger, etc) then the spiritual. Assuming the person claims to be a believer, you confront them in their sin. If they don’t repent, bring a witness. If they don’t repent, get the elders involved. If they don’t repent, the person is put out of hte church, and treated like a non-believer. And if they are still physically abusive, then it is a situation where the non-believer refuses to live with the believer, and “in such cases the believer is not bound to the marriage because God has called you to live in peace.” (1 Cor 7:15). Hope that helps.

      • Vinod Anand S

        Thanks Jesse for taking your time to respond to my questions. Sorry, I didn’t elaborate the issue in my last question. He actually got divorced and remarried now. In his case i am not sure if, what you said about the spiritual steps has been followed. It happened sometime back and I didn’t know anything about it. All I know is his side of the argument. So what’s his stand in the local church and his involvement?

        • Well, the million dollar question is “was it a biblical divorce” which would require the steps above to be followed. So that is *the question.

          • Vinod Anand S

            Thanks Jesse. Much helpful!

  • Karl Heitman

    PUH-pleez tell me you’re going to post something on, um, the thing that’s going on right now!?

  • 4Commencefiring4

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I was pretty much with you until the last paragraph: How, exactly, would someone who has divorced for unbiblical reasons “repent” of it? Or–since I’m not clear on what you have in mind with the word “pursue”–do you just mean someone who is considering that prospect, but hasn’t pulled the trigger yet?

    • That’s the point of verse 10-11. They’d repent by going back to their spouse. If their spouse hasn’t remarried (which he/she would be within his/her rights to do) they could be reconciled. **COULD** being the key word. At this point its helpful to remember that Paul is giving principles to apply, not rules that govern all possibilities. I think the principles are exhaustive enough to cover just about every possibility though. That’s where wisdom comes in.

  • Ben

    Thank you for this post.
    How would you think about the following situation:
    A couple I know got married 6 years ago and some signs of charismatic dreaming were obvious. Thinking wasn’t permitted, so they made their way and got married, everything seemed to go like in a dream. First child, second child. She is clever and has good income possibilities, she calls her husband the head of the family while she is the neck and turns him the way she wants him to be. He is easy to manipulate, not very clever, not able at all to fill a very simple administrative sheet but he is very gifted in his work with autistic children. She wanted to see him as a manager of some film projects. The dream worked but the reality caught them and when she finally saw he couldn’t be the one she wanted him to be, she began to suffer and decided within a six month period that he isn’t the right husband for her and in her freedom in Christ she could go her way. Sadly, the local church didn’t do their job and understood her, gave their blessing to the divorce. He became very legalistic and doesn’t help to make the situation better, she feels confirmed and the war starts now about the kids. He tries everything not to enter the war, but if he doesn’t react he will loose his children where he feels also responsible. He still sees her as his wife and is faithful to her.
    Now my question: Since she behaved wrong and broke the covenant she is to be treated like a unbeliever. Since you said that if unbelievers leave their spouse the believer is free again to marry, does this situation fall in this case?
    Thank you for your opinion.

    • Ben–This sounds like a very specific circumstance, so I can’t really give definitive counsel without knowing the church/the people and other details. With the caveat that there maybe more details you and I don’t know, or that the church knows, or that some of our details may be wrong…here is what I’d say. In a situation where one “Christian” divorces another, absent sexual immorality, that “Christian” should be put under church discipline. If the church fails to do that, the “innocent” party in this should go to those elders and ask why not. If it is something along the lines of they just don’t care enough to do that, then he should go to a different church, and ask his elders there what he should do. Again, with all those caveats above, I’d counsel him to remarry (did I mention a whole bunch of caveats?).

    • Ben–This sounds like a very specific circumstance, so I can’t really give definitive counsel without knowing the church/the people and other details. With the caveat that there maybe more details you and I don’t know, or that the church knows, or that some of our details may be wrong…here is what I’d say. In a situation where one “Christian” divorces another, absent sexual immorality, that “Christian” should be put under church discipline. If the church fails to do that, the “innocent” party in this should go to those elders and ask why not. If it is something along the lines of they just don’t care enough to do that, then he should go to a different church, and ask his elders there what he should do. Again, with all those caveats above, I’d counsel him to remarry (did I mention a whole bunch of caveats?).

  • Alf

    the reason for divorce is NOT adultery (μοιχάομαι = moichaó), but fornication (πορνεία, ας, ἡ = porneia). How do you think now?

    • There are entire journal articles/blog posts and even books written on that question, so a good answer is outside our scope here. But the short version is that “porneia” is a broader term that is inclusive of adultery. We might use it the same way in English–“they broke off the engagement because they couldn’t abstain from sexual immorality.” Or, “The wife finally left him; she had enough of his sexual unfaithfulness.” It obviously means “adultery” by context. Hope that helps.