A few weeks ago, when we were looking at 1 Corinthians 6:9, we made note of the fact that there is a political and religious movement to declare that homosexual behavior is not sinful. One of the goals of that movement is make homosexual marriage legal, and to have people regard gay marriage in the same way that we regard heterosexual marriage. Many opponents of this goal have objected to it on the grounds that this will undermine the very institution of marriage itself.
I have my own reasons for objecting to gay marriage. However, in modern Western culture, the idea that it will undermine our view of heterosexual marriage is just plain silly. The very reason we are even debating gay marriage is precisely because the institution of marriage has already been almost completely destroyed. It wasn’t the gay political/religious movement that did it. It was heterosexual promiscuity and divorce.
As I teach this section of scripture, I recognize that some people might view either the teaching, or me (or both) as judgmental. Some people may feel condemned. After all, roughly half of the adults who hear this have been divorced. But I want to make something clear. This teaching is not to condemn anyone who has made a mistake in the past. This teaching is for you, in whatever situation you find yourself right now. Jesus made it clear that remarriage to someone else after you have been divorced is a sin (except when your spouse committed adultery). Paul reiterates that here. Maybe that’s a sin you’ve committed in the past. If so, confess it, and fully receive the Lord’s forgiveness. And now, don’t do it again. If you’re remarried, Paul and Jesus are telling you to stay married to your present spouse. After all, Paul tells us in verse 17 to remain the situation the Lord has called you into. So if you are remarried now, remain remarried. If you are divorced and single, remain single, or reconcile with your spouse. This word is for you, where you are at today.
It seems obvious to me that as Paul writes this section, he is aware of the teaching of Jesus that is recorded for us in Matthew 19:1-12. Now, it is likely that Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians before Matthew wrote his gospel – but obviously, this teaching of Jesus was widely known before Matthew wrote it down.
This why Paul says in verse 10 that this teaching comes from “not I, but the Lord.” He is saying something that Jesus himself was known to say, and that is that married couples should not separate, and if they do, they should remain single, or reconcile back to each other. This teaching is not complex, and it is not nuanced. It is very straightforward. But it is hard. When Jesus said it, his disciples said, “well then it would be better not get married,” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus’ response to that statement is reflected in all of Paul’s attitude throughout 1 Corinthians 7. Basically, Paul and Jesus affirm that it is a good thing to stay single, but not everyone has that gift from God. Therefore, if you are going to get married, then plan on never getting divorced; and if you go ahead and get divorced anyway, plan on being single again for the rest of your life (or reconciling with your divorced spouse).
The failure of the church to consistently teach this, and of Christians to consistently practice it, are what has destroyed marriage in Western culture. It isn’t complicated. It’s quite clear here and elsewhere in the New Testament. Both historians and long term social research have actually affirmed the importance of this view of marriage. Research spanning decades has demonstrated that children of divorced parents struggle emotionally much more than children in intact families, and that those struggles continue on into adulthood. Children growing up in single parent families are far more likely to struggle at school, to do drugs, to become criminals, to be promiscuous at an early age. Edward Gibbon, the famous historian who wrote The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire attributes much of the eventual demise of Roman society to increasing promiscuity and divorce. In short, marriage is the glue that holds communities and societies together and keeps them healthy.
I submit to you that the only reason our culture is talking about gay marriage is because regular marriage has been all but destroyed, and has become virtually meaningless and valueless.
Paul continues in verse 12 this way: “to the rest I say (I, not the Lord)…” I want to make sure we understand what Paul is doing here. He is not saying that the Lord cannot be speaking through him. But he is making it clear that in this case, he is not referring to specific teaching that Jesus gave while he walked the earth. Therefore, as we read this, we still need to consider it an authoritative teaching given to us by the Holy Spirit as he inspired Paul to write. Paul just wants to make sure he doesn’t attribute something to Jesus that he did not say directly.
By the way, this is another point that speaks to the reliability of the New Testament. Those who want to discredit the Bible like to suggest that the early Christians just made up whatever they wanted to about Jesus in order to accomplish their own agenda. But here Paul does the very opposite.
From 12-16, Paul is writing specifically to disciples of Jesus who are married to people who do not follow Jesus. It is almost certain that he is referring to situations where the couple were already married, and then one of them became a Christian, but the other did not. In verse 39 of this chapter Paul says that after this should you only marry another Christian. Elsewhere gives the principle that we shouldn’t enter into close partnership with people who don’t follow Jesus. And marriage is certainly a close partnership:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For a what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? ( 2 Cor 6:14-16).
It’s a tough thing to share your life with someone who does not agree with you about what life is really all about. It’s hard to be life-partners with someone who does not have the same primary allegiance to God that you have. Sometimes that just happens, when a person becomes a Christian after he is already married. But it is foolish in the extreme to enter marriage when that division is already present.
But obviously, some people become Christians after they get married. Paul says, if the unbelieving spouse is willing to stay, then they should remain together. He points out that there is an influence of holiness that is exerted on the unbelieving spouse. Now, he doesn’t say you should try and make your unbelieving spouse holy. He is saying that simply being with them will bring about that influence. Peter writes about that too, urging wives with unbelieving husbands to win them over by simply, humbly and lovingly letting Jesus live his life through them.
I have known several women who became Christians after they were married. In many of those cases, the husbands eventually started following Jesus too. There is a great deal of hope. I’ve known one or two men who became believers before their wives also. I know only one couple that started out with one of them as a Christian and the other as not, who ended up with both of them following Jesus.
So Paul says, if the unbelieving spouse wants to continue in marriage, by all means do so. The result can be salvation for the unbelieving spouse. The children can be influenced also.
But he also says this:
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. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (v 15-16)
His overall point is that the Lord wants to work with us and through us in the situations in which are living right now. He tells slaves to get their freedom – if there is an opportunity. But if there isn’t one, then he tells them not to let their position in this life trouble them. As I said before, this section is a clear signal that whatever has happened in the past is past. From now on, in your present situation, live as the Lord directs through these scriptures.