Imagine the church during that time, most of it being new converts. The large majority first generation Christians. They came out of paganism, so they didn’t have a Jewish view of marriage. And the few Jews that were there did not have a much better background.
In Jewish, Greek, and Roman law a husband could divorce his wife for a variety of reasons, and in Greek and Roman law divorce could be initiated freely from either side. One researcher writes, “that the notion of a partner for life seemed almost an innovative concept. “To remain as you are” is no conservative “status quo” ethic, but a radical and high evaluation of Christian marriage.” The Christian view of marriage swam against the stream of culture. It was radical and revolutionary. And still is.
There was in fact no uniform law for marriage across the empire. There was no marriage laws for slaves. Citizens would often just live with different partners, and nobility would often have a wife for the home, and concubines to fulfill his sexual needs. Morality was low, divorce was easy and high. Immorality was rampant. Adultery was widespread.
Seneca a roman author of that time said, “Few women seem to blush at divorce,” and many “reckon their years not by the number of consuls (yearly rulers) but by the number of their husbands. They leave home in order to marry and marry in order to divorce.” So, you can imagine the Christian view of marriage was absolutely radical for this church, and culture shifting – especially his command to “remain as you are.”
In fact by this time you can see how different groups asked different questions according to their situation. 1) The married asked about physical intimacy; 2) the unmarried asked about celibacy; and 3) Christian couples asked about separation; and 4) those married to unbelievers asked for pastoral advice on how to handle their situation. We will look at question three and four today.
Paul here first of all address’s marriage as a whole in verse 10-11, and then moves into the question of marriages to unbelievers in v. 12-16.
Marriage is for holiness – stay married
- The sanctity of marriage for believers
- The sanctity of marriage with an unbeliever
The sanctity of marriage for believers
10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. Here Paul speaks to believers and tells them that a wife or husband must not separate from their spouse. This is a command that the Lord gives. In other words, this is a command we can find back in the words of Jesus while he was on earth. And please note: this is a command. Its not simply a wish or desire but something stronger.
Why? Because Christian marriage is a picture of the gospel. Of the covenantal, unbreakable, eternal love of Christ for his church. And when we enter Christian marriage, we do so to display the love of Christ and his bride to the world. It proves Christs love to a watching world. Jesus did not divorce his wife. He pursued her, he washed her, he sanctified her to make her holy. Marriage should not last just as long as the feeling lasts. We should not love the other person because of the way they make us feel, or because they are so beautiful, or so great. Even though you might think so. The problem is your thoughts might change, but what wont change is the love of Christ. It is a profound understanding of the gospel that allows you to love your spouse.
Again this was radical for their time. One Jewish rabbi from the School of Hillel says about a man divorcing his wife that “He may divorce her even if she has spoiled a dish (meal) for him …” Paul elevates the marriage bond.
After stating that a Christian shall not separate, the questions come up. But what if? And there are so many what ifs… But that is not where we should start? Why, because we start with the love of Christ – and thank God there is no “but what if” when it comes to his love. But Paul here does recognize that although divorce is never condoned, it does happen.
Verse 11 says, “But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” In the case where it does happen in a Christian marriage, she must remain unmarried. Now this is a very hard thing. But it comes down to the question who is our ultimate beloved? If it is Christ, then we will be given the strength to also live as a single person after we have been divorced. God wants us to find our satisfaction, our joy, or contentment above all in him, not in a spouse or children.
Furthermore, Paul is very consistent here. Christians must reconcile with each other. They cannot live unreconciled. Where two Christians are concerned, reconciliation must be worked towards. This includes all brothers and sisters in faith. We cannot live in unity and peace while there are relationships in the church that are unreconciled. He now just applies this rule to marriage. Remember he is here addressing the marriage of two Christians. Not a Christian and an unbeliever. That comes next. How can two people who truly are Christian remain unreconciled. It may be the case that one party proves himself to be non-Christian by his or her consistent, unrepentant behavior, then is different.
The exact thing the Corinthians are asking is denied by the apostle Paul. They are asking if there is divorce between Christians can they become remarried? And it is hard to find a way around this command. The forcefulness of the word “must” is strong. One commentator notes here that “what the woman wanted was precisely what Paul denied to her—another marriage … a divorce to marry someone else.”
Now again whenever someone preaches on this, the questions come up, “But what if…?” But this sermon is for all of us, is our marriage showing daily the reconciliation and the love of Christ. Or is it only going so well, because we are still loving the way the other person loves us.
The scripture gives basic principles so that by our life we prove that the Lord Jesus is absolute Lord of our life – he does not go into all the what ifs.
The sanctity of marriage with an unbeliever
One of the questions that came up was what about divorce and remarriage? The second question that many in Corinth were also struggling with was, “what happens when you are married to a pagan or unbeliever? What is to be done in such a case? Will not the believer be contaminated and compromised by such an incompatible relationship? How can a believer be one flesh with an unbeliever? And what about the children? Will not the children contract defilement from the unbelieving partner? It is exactly to these questions that we now turn to.
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.
Again, what he is saying here by saying “I, not the Lord” is that this is not a direct teaching from Jesus on earth. But this is still authoritative and inspired. By saying “to the rest,” he is speaking to the rest of those who are married, i.e., those who were in mixed marriages.
And the answer first that Paul gives, is if the unbeliever is willing to live with you stay. Don’t divorce. This is a command to in a sense love your enemy. Because an unbelieving spouse is part of the kingdom of darkness, and in that sense, he serves the “Prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph 2:2).”
You see we are not the first generation to struggle with these topics and we will not be the last. Now the question is why stay in such a marriage. Well, I am glad you asked, because Paul answers this in the next verses. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.
Wow! This is amazing. And shows the powerful implications of the Christian faith in the family life. Far from being defiled by the unbelieving spouse, like some in Corinth thought, it was just the opposite! The unbeliever contracts sanctification from the believer.
This shows us a few things.
First, it shows the power of the Christian faith and grace. Grace has come into that Home. In a real sense Christ has come into that home. And in that sense this family has front row seats to the power of the grace of Christ at work in a person’s life.
Second it shows us something of the way in which the covenant works. The biggest consideration for staying is the fact that they are in some sense enjoy the sanctifying power of God, albeit not in themselves, at least through another. Today we know that little Lise is sanctified by the faith of her parents.
Obviously, the fact that Paul calls the spouse an unbeliever means that the sanctification is not that of regeneration and actual salvation. He is not saying that the unbelieving spouse is saved because of the faith of one. Though not salvific, this sanctification is, beneficial and gracious in character. It is a blessing of enjoying the grace that is present in the covenant. And even if it does not bring direct salvation, it places the person in the channel of saving grace, and in closeness to the saving grace of God. Marriage may be regarded as an avenue along which the means of grace travel.
Now I want to state unequivocally, that this in no way provides encouragement to believers to marry unbelievers. In fact, Paul is clear. Do not be unequally yoked. In this same chapter he tells widows/widowers to “only marry in the Lord (v 39).” So don’t get any ideas. It is dangerous, as seen throughout the many examples in Scripture from Moses, to Samson, to Solomon.
Nevertheless, the believer who finds himself in a mixed marriage is given the assurance that grace is more potent than sin, that greater is He who is in the believer than he that is in the world. And he says this because the children are holy. It seems like Paul just assumes that the children are holy. And he basically says because of one believing parent the family is brought into covenant relationship.
But Paul says, “Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” Paul says, in effect, "Let there be no hesitancy in such cases and in obeying the divine command to be fruitful and multiply; the children are holy through one believing parent". Again, we see the triumph of grace over the corruption of nature. Do you see how amazing the power of the covenant grace of our Lord Jesus? The children of one believing parent are in the same position as the children of parents who are both believers. There is a solidarity unto life in the family unit. Does that mean all will be saved. No. Does that mean they enjoy covenant privileges by being in relationship with a believer. Absolutely. You cant get around it in this passage.
Paul is saying the children of one believing parent may be baptized! May receive the rich promises of God! This is amazing grace!
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
The famous apologist Justin Martyr tells us a story of such a case in the early church. His Second Apology, addressed to the Roman Senate, tells of the conversion to Christian faith of a woman in whose marriage both the husband and wife had lived “loose,” “unbridled,” or “promiscuous” lives. On becoming a Christian, she changed her lifestyle and spoke to her husband of Christ’s teachings. They became alienated in due course, but despite her deep desire to leave him, her friends advised her to stay to try to win her husband. She stayed, but her husband wanted nothing to do with it, and kept up his licentious loose lifestyle, and in the end she gave him a divorce. Upon this, her husband reported her to the authorities for her Christian faith. This set-in motion a chain of events in which later the new Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, became involved.
It should be noted that there is a striking decisiveness and even severity about Paul's judgment in this eventuality on the unbelieving spouse who walks. It says, "let him be gone". The harshness and terseness of this speaks of the severity of the judgment passed upon the deserting spouse and indicate the absence of any further obligation in the matter of conjugal dues.
The following limitations must be observed.
- Paul is dealing with mixed marriages and not with marriage between two Christians.
- Paul is dealing with the case of willful separation on the part of the unbeliever. This could also be if the believer by his actions shows that he is separating. i.e. Adultery. But he expressly disallows separation or dismissal on the part of the believer. The Christian must not take any initiative in parting from or in putting away the unbeliever.
- The separation finds its root in fundamental religious disagreement between the Christian faith and its antithesis.
Dear church God designed marriage in such a way that we might become holy. It is not first of all for your happiness. If you are going to be depending on your marriage to be always contented and happy in life, then don’t get married, your spouse will not bear the burden that only Christ can give. What Paul does paint for us here, is the picture of Christs love for his church. And grace flows from him to us. He loved us while we were yet enemies. And if we start from the perspective that marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, then we will more fully understand why Paul uses such strong covenantal language here.
And it is beautiful for within this covenant – children are secure. They may see in their mother and Father pictures of the Covenantal love of Christ and the church sealed in the Blood of Jesus. That God is a God that promises to love his own, to wash his own, and to guide and purify his own people, and nothing can get in between that love between Christ and his church. May this be true also of Lisa this day.
So let your marriage be the picture of Christ. Let them aim toward unity In faith. And may the grace of God not only flow through you but also to your children.