1 Corinthians 7:10-16 – Divorce

Translation and Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 18 Jan 2008


10. Now to those who have been married, I exhort – not I but rather the Lord –

            a wife not to be separated from a husband.

                        11. But if she has already been separated,

                                    let her remain unmarried

                                    or be reconciled to her husband.

            Also a husband is not to dismiss a wife.

12. And to the rest I say – I not the Lord –

            if any brother has an unbelieving wife and she is pleased to make a home with him,

                        let him not dismiss her.

            13. And if any wife has an unbelieving husband and he is pleased to make a home with her,

                        let her not dismiss her husband.

                                    14. For the unbelieving husband has been made holy by his wife

                                    and the unbelieving wife has been made holy by the brother

                                                (otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy).

            15. But if the unbelieving man divorces himself, let him be divorced;

                        in this the brother or sister has not been bound,

                        yet it is in peace that God has called us.

                                    16. For what have you known, wife, if you will save your husband,

                                    or what have you known husband, if you will save your wife?

Introduction – Divorce stories

With divorce rates like they are today, I’m sure everyone knows someone who has been through the heartache of a divorce. I am reminded of:

Bible’s Previous Teaching on Marriage and Divorce

Before we look at I Cor 7, let us start with a survey of the Bible’s teaching on marriage and divorce up to this point:

·         Genesis 2:24 ASV  Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

·         Malachi 2:14-16 …Jehovah has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion, and the wife of your covenant.  15  And did he not make one, although he had the remnant of the Spirit? And wherefore one? He sought a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.  16  For I hate divorce, says Jehovah, the God of Israel...

·         Marriage was permissible with some Gentiles but not others:

o       Deuteronomy 7:1-6  When Jehovah your God shall bring you into the land where you will go to possess it, and will cast out many nations before you, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite… these seven nations… you shall make no covenant with them… or make marriages with them… For they will turn away your son from following me, that they may serve other gods…  5  But thus you shall deal with them: break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.  6  For you are a holy people unto Jehovah your God…

o       Deut 21:10-13 When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and Jehovah your God delivers them into your hands, and you carry them away captive,  (11)  and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and thou hast a desire unto her, and want to take her to thee to wife;  (12)  then  you shall bring her home to your house...

·         Responsibilities of marriage: Exodus 21:9-11  And if [a slave owner] espouse [an Israelite girl sold into slavery] unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. 10  If he takes another to himself; he must not diminish her food, her clothing, or cohabiting with her.  11  And if he does not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing [she becomes free from slavery without having to pay a ransom].

o       According to David Instone-Brewer, senior research fellow in rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge, Jewish marriage certificates discovered near the Dead Sea listed these three marriage responsibilities, so it was commonly understood that the neglect of these duties constituted a breach of the marriage covenant and were grounds for divorce.

·         The O.T. on Divorce: Deut 24:1-4 “When a man takes a wife, and marries her, then it shall be, if she find no favor in his eyes, because he has found a thing of lewdness in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorcement, and give it into her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hates her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and give it into her hand, and send her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, who took her to be his wife; her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife...

o       In an October 2007 Christianity Today article entitled “What God has Joined” David Instone-Brewer offers the following explanation of what led up to the Pharisee’s question to Jesus about divorce in Matt. 19 (cf. parallel passages in Mat 5:32, Mar 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18):

o       “A few decades before Jesus, some rabbis (the Hillelites) had invented a new form of divorce called the ‘any cause’ divorce. By the time of Jesus, this ‘any cause’ divorce had become so popular that almost no one relied on the literal Old Testament grounds for divorce.

o       “The ‘any cause’ divorce was invented from a single word in Deuteronomy 24:1. Moses allowed divorce for … literally, ‘a thing of nakedness.’ Most Jews recognized that this unusual phrase was talking about adultery. But the Hillelite rabbis, wondered why Moses had added the word ‘thing’ or ‘cause’ when he only needed to use the word ‘immorality.’ They decided this extra word implied another ground for divorce - divorce for ‘a cause.’ They argued that anything, including a burnt meal or wrinkles... could be a cause!…

o       “Another group of rabbis (the Shammaites) disagreed with this interpretation. They said Moses' words were a single phrase that referred to no type of divorce ‘except immorality.’

o       “These opposing views were well known to all first-century Jews. And the Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood. ‘Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause?’ they asked. In other words: ‘Is it lawful for us to use the “any cause” divorce?’

o       “When Jesus answered with a resounding no, he wasn't condemning ‘divorce for any cause,’ but rather the newly invented ‘any cause’ divorce. Jesus agreed firmly with the second group that the phrase didn't mean divorce was allowable for ‘immorality’ and for ‘any cause,’ but that Deuteronomy 24:1 referred to no type of divorce ‘except immorality.’

o       “This was a shocking statement for the crowd and for the disciples. It meant they couldn't get a divorce whenever they wanted it - there had to be a lawful cause. It also meant that virtually every divorced man or women was not really divorced, because most of them had ‘any cause’ divorces...

o       “Jesus... wasn't rejecting the Old Testament; He was rejecting a faulty Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. He defended the true meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. And there is one other surprising thing he didn't reject: Jesus didn't reject the other ground for divorce in the Old Testament, which all Jews accepted…. [namely the] three rights… of food, clothing, and love…”

·         God himself implemented a divorce: Jer 3:8 ASV  And I saw, when, for this very cause that backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a bill of divorcement, yet treacherous Judah her sister feared not; but she also went and played the harlot… with stones and with sticks…” i.e. Israel’s idolatry nullified her covenant relationship with God.

The Situation in Corinth

·         Seneca reported that few women seem "to blush at divorce," and many "reckon their years not by the number of consuls but by the number of their husbands. They leave home in order to marry, and marry in order to divorce" (De Beneficiis 3.16.2).  Quoted by Thiselton

·         We see from Tacitus that divorce in the Julio-Claudian period and the time of Nero was widespread and readily enacted for a wide range of reasons including social aspiration and personal taste (Agricola 6.1) Quoted by Thiselton

·         In Corinth there was a situation not as common in Jewish Palestine where Jesus taught, in which two pagans had married, and, as a result of evangelism, one had become a believer in Jesus and was seeking to obey God’s word, and the other didn’t even believe in God. There must have been some concern on the part of the new Christian as to how much becomes new when you become a Christian. If it means death to my old self, does it also annul my non-Christian marriage? Is living with a non-Christian defiling me?

·         Another issue in Corinth was apparently the philosophy that the physical relationship of marriage was somehow dirty, unholy, and unclean. For this reason the group that was advocating depriving  each other even while married may have also started encouraging married Christians to divorce. This is evident by the vocabulary Paul chooses in I Cor 7:

o       The standard words for divorce in Greek were aposthsion and apoluw, but the words Paul uses in this chapter are corisqhnai and afihmi, both words not generally used in the Greek O.T. or even in the NT to describe divorce, but rather generally to describe separating yourself from what is unclean and unholy.

o       As you may recall from Matthew 19, when Jesus said that whoever divorces his wife except for immorality commits adultery, His disciples took this to an extreme and said that maybe it is better not to marry at all, and it is possible that there were teachers coming through Corinth who were taking this to an extreme and telling Christians to get divorced.

o       Perhaps they were using verses from Isaiah out of context to promote divorce:

§         Isa 55:7  Let the wicked forsake his way, and a man of iniquity his thoughts, and let him turn to Jehovah and He will have compassion on him

§         Isa 52:11 Turn away! Turn away; go out from there. Do not touch uncleanliness. Go out from the midst of her. Purify yourselves, bearers of the vessels of Jehovah.

§         Perhaps Paul chose to use these words “separate,” “forsake,” “unclean,” and “holy” in his rebuttal in order to speak to this misunderstanding of the sanctity of marriage.

The main command: Do not get divorced (vs 10-11)

·         The wife (v.10) is not to be separated/divorced/ depart from/leave her husband.

o       This verb is passive in Greek so I favor the passive “be separated from.”

o       And a husband is not to put away/divorce/dismiss his wife (v.11)

o       Interesting how Paul painstakingly states the same principle for both men and women throughout chapter 7, indicating that men and women are equal before God’s law and are both of ultimate value.

o       This is the main message: Don’t get divorced if at all possible.

·         Paul says that this command comes from the Lord, not just from his own apostolic authority (which would have been authoritative enough).

o       This is because the wording in the command “not be separated” comes directly from the only other place in the New Testament where this verb is applied to marriage and divorce, and that is Jesus’ exposition of Genesis 2:24 in Matt. 19:6b “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”

o       We know from the book of Acts, that Paul had talked with the apostles on multiple occasions in Jerusalem, so he could have heard this teaching from them. It is entirely possible that the first Gospel accounts had also been written down by this time in Paul’s life, so he could have read it in Matthew’s gospel.

o       This is not a suggestion from some ancient saint, it is a command from Jesus Himself.

·         By the way, since Paul refers people to Jesus’ command, and since Jesus’ teaching clearly says that divorce is acceptable in the case of immorality, Paul cannot be construed to be contradicting Jesus’ teaching when Paul says we must not divorce. Adultery remains a legitimate grounds for divorce, although Paul doesn’t mention it explicitly here. Paul’s concern has more to do, not with couples who are dealing with adultery, but rather with couples that aren’t being intimate at all because they think it’s unholy.

·         Marriage is good and is worth preserving!

Two Exceptions: Ex Post Facto and Unbeliever Abandonment (vs. 11ff)

·         Of course we live in a messed-up world and no matter what the ideal is, people will fall short of it, so God gives a word through Paul in v. 11 to those who have already gotten divorced and then later in v. 15 gives a word to those who will get divorced in the future through no fault of their own.

·         Isn’t God gracious to still think of us and give us His word even after things haven’t gone ideally?

·         We have already seen in Exodus that one ground for divorce is the neglect of food, clothing, and love – and it needs to be a gross neglect, something you can prove in court beyond a shadow of a doubt. The kind of neglect that means your ability to stay alive and have children are genuinely threatened.

·         And we’ve already seen from God’s actions toward Israel in Jeremiah 3 and Jesus’ discourse in Matt 19 that adultery destroys a marriage covenant and is legitimate grounds for divorce.

·         But what about those people who divorced for some other reason?

o       What about all those people who got a “for any cause” divorce in Jesus’ day and then found out that Jesus didn’t think it was a legitimate cause for divorce?

o       What about the Christians who had been deceived by the false teachers in Corinth who taught that it was better to divorce and live a celibate life than to be married to an unbeliever?

o       What if the damage of a destroyed marriage relationship is already done?

o       Paul says in v.11 that you have two options in this case:

1.      Remain unmarried:
– it’s wrong to interrupt a marriage, but it’s worse to commit adultery by wrongly remarrying.
– Remember Jesus said “whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery”
– You can still serve the Lord effectively and be happy in an unmarried state.

2.      Reconcile:

·         The great Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson comments that this word “reconcile” originally meant “to trade coins” and that it connotes a “perfection” or “completion” of the process.

·         If you have caused offense, apologize for it and give whatever is necessary to make things right by your spouse.

·         2 Cor 5:18-20 “…God… reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

3.      Now, what if a person has divorced without a Biblical reason and has gone on to marry someone else and is an adulterer in God’s eyes?

·         This is not the unforgivable sin. God still offers forgiveness of your sin if you will put your trust in His provision for the forgiveness of sin – the death and resurrection of His son Jesus, and if you will submit to the authority of Jesus in your life from here on out rather than doing your own will.

·         The pain and problems in this life that naturally come from divorce will not necessarily go away when you get right with God, but they can become less.

·         You don’t have to divorce from a second marriage – even that marriage can be good; I’ve seen God bless at least one such marriage with children and a 25th wedding anniversary!

·         The other situation in which there might be a divorce is when a non-Christian spouse decides to leave their Christian partner. (vs. 12-16)

o       This is what Paul means by “the rest” at the beginning of v.12 (cf. Eph 2:3) – couples that are still together but are experiencing the stress of one partner having been converted and the other one not being a Christian.

o       This is not a situation that was explicitly addressed by Jesus, so Paul says that He is now speaking on his own, not quoting Jesus. This does not mean this is not authoritative.
ILLUSTRATION: Saying that Paul’s advice is not authoritative would be like a private in the army refusing to follow an order given by a Captain and saying he’ll only obey it if the General issues the order!

o       Having different faiths is not grounds for divorce, says Paul.

o       This can work as long as the unbeliever is “Pleased to dwell/willing/consents to live with/lit. is of a good will together to cohabitate with” the believer.

o       Strife within the marriage over religious differences can however reach a point where there has to be a separation:

1.      In the O.T. there was provision for believers to initiate a separation if their spouse was tempting them to be involved in idolatry: Deut 13:6 If your brother… or your son… or the wife of your bosom, or your friend… entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods…” you shall not consent to him, nor hearken to him; neither shall your eye pity him… neither shall you conceal him, but you must surely kill him… stone him to death with stones, because he has sought to draw you away from Jehovah your God… This death sentence could only be done in Israel where the civil government enforced the worship of God, not in Paul’s day in the Graeco-Roman empire, and not in our day either. But in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day they carried this out in the form of banishment from the community of God, and that is the kind of thing that the church can do today through church discipline:

2.      Ezra 9:1 …the princes drew near to me, saying, “The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.” So Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:23ff) had to get them to divorce – they couldn’t stone the foreign wives under the Persian rule then either. The point was not so much that the wives were foreign as that they were drawing God’s people away into idolatry.

3.      But in the case we have in I Cor 7, it is the unbeliever who wants to leave for no legitimate reason – no adultery, no neglect, they just don’t feel like staying married.

4.      If this is the case, the believer can let the unbeliever go peaceably and then consider themself no longer “bound” by that marriage.

·         Mat 10:36 “ a man's foes shall be from his own household.”

·         Two reasons are given for allowing the unbeliever to leave:

1.      (v.15) “God has called us in peace

a.       I don’t know why the ESV decided to use the pronoun “you” instead of “us” with the support of only three manuscripts from the 4th and 5th centuries whereas the rest of the Greek (and English) texts of this verse say “us.”

b.      Col. 3:15 elaborates: “…let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, into which you were also called in one body…”

c.       You don’t have to fight and disrupt the peace in an attempt to keep the unbeliever from leaving.

d.      You can be at peace in your mind that everything is o.k. if the unbeliever leaves.

2.      (v16) You are not in control of their salvation

a.       Calvin and some others interpret v.16 as a reason to stay married to an unbeliever – in hopes that they might be saved through your witness.

b.      This is certainly a valid reason to persevere in marriage to an unbeliever, but…

c.       because of the grammatical structure of the verse. I think that v.16 is actually giving a reason to let the unbeliever go – You have no sure knowledge that you will actually save them through your efforts if they stay.

d.      In other words, you are not God; you can’t save anybody and you don’t even know who will be saved and who won’t, so you can leave salvation in God’s hands rather than trying to control your unbelieving spouse.

The Reason: Corporate Holiness (v. 14)

I want to save the exposition of this verse for when we have our next infant baptism because it will tie in well with that…



1)      Honor the sanctity of marriage by considering carefully before you marry:

a.       2 Cor. 6:14a  “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers”

b.      How does he treat his mom? How does she treat her Dad?

c.       Is he able to provide food, clothing, and love? Is she a faithful person?

d.      What do your parents think of this person you are considering marrying? They have a lot of wisdom – even non-Christian parents do.

e.       You’re stuck with whoever you marry, so you want to be singing “I’m happy to be stuck with you!”

2)      Honor the sanctity of marriage by marrying “until death do us part” :

a.       Don’t go into marriage thinking of escaping if things don’t work out.

b.      Avoid divorce if at all possible.

c.       If you encounter problems, get Biblical counseling and all the other help you can get from the church!

d.      Just because your partner has committed immorality or neglected you does not mean you have to automatically divorce. You still have the option to overlook these offenses and maintain the marriage.

                                                              i.      The only time you don’t have the option to overlook the offense is if there is abuse or neglect that is endangering your life or the life of your children.

e.       Quote lyrics of “Love Can Do” (by Michael Smith, Amy Grant, and Wayne Kirkpatrick)
Sometimes love Means we have to stand and fight.
Everybody runs, Everybody hides,
No, this ain't the movies, Now it's flesh and blood, And this thing I'm sure of,

Hey, little girl running out so fast,
Gotta stay put for love to last,
Why you gotta say That love has gone away;
It's not like that.

Everybody hurts when the feelings fade,
If you want 'em back You know you gotta stay,
No running. No running.
Love's coming back, Like only love can do.

3)      Honor the Sanctity of marriage by bringing covenant blessings into your family:

a.       “peace” – v.15

b.      “reconciliation” – v.11

c.       the “holiness” of God – v.14

d.      “good behavior”
1 Pet 3:1 “… they may without the word be gained by the behavior of their wives;  (2)  beholding your chaste behavior coupled with fear… the meek and quiet spirit… Husbands, in like manner, dwell with your wives according to knowledge, giving honor unto the woman… Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tenderhearted, humbleminded:  not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should inherit a blessing.”

4)      Accept your freedom to divorce if all else fails

a.       Get Biblical counsel first and make sure it is a well-considered decision that has received input from many people.

b.      Be thankful for this provision from God and don’t beat yourself up over it.

c.       If you have divorced or been abandoned rightly according to the Bible, you are free to remarry if you wish – or to stay single if you wish. You are free.

d.      But whatever we do, let us honor the sanctity of marriage.