Sex, Marriage, Divorce, And Remarriage; And How Long to “Remain”
The background circumstances at Corinth, and a consideration of the linguistic issues in a given passage, are both relevant in assessing the meaning of numbers of passages in the Corinthian correspondence. We have been considering several passages in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 in the light of the interaction of these two factors.
We have seen in chapter 6 that some of the new converts at Corinth believed that they were free to continue to satisfy their sexual wants through promiscuity, in the manner of everyone else around them. Paul points out that all the members of our bodies belong to Christ, and we cannot take the members of Christ and give them to a prostitute: for union with a prostitute is only a “one-body” union, and this conflicts with the plan of God, that our sexuality is to be fulfilled only in the - different - total “one-flesh” union of marriage.
Others of the converts at Corinth had gone to the opposite extreme. Aware of the abuse of sexuality that was practised at Corinth, they had concluded that all sexual activity was wrong, or at least, “not good”, even in marriage between husband and wife. They wrote to Paul about this, seeking his support (it would appear) for this view. Paul rejects the idea categorically and shows how sexual fulfillment in marriage for husband and wife is God’s intention for us.
Others again at Corinth had marriages (or at least, sexual relationships) which, for whatever reason, had terminated. What now was God’s word to them in their situation? Paul counsels against precipitate action. Remain, he advises, as he is.
When this situation has arisen from the break-up of a marriage relationship, then a particular aim is mentioned: reconciliation between the spouses - which of course would become impossible if one of them married a third person. But Paul recognizes that God has given to some people the gift of living a single, celibate life, and to others the gift of being a marriage partner. If persons whose previous relationship has terminated (for whatever reason) should find, after seeking now to live the single life, that this is not the gift that God has given them but that their sexual nature remains a force within them and they need to live as a marriage partner, then Paul’s word to such people is - v.9 - “They must marry”.
How is Paul’s teaching to be interpreted and applied? In his comments on verses 10 and 11, Hodge 113 presents a widely-held view:
The wife had no right to leave her husband; nor had the husband the right to repudiate his wife. But although the marriage bond cannot be dissolved by any human authority, because it is, in virtue of the law of God, a covenant for life between one man and one woman; yet it can be annulled, not rightfully indeed, but still effectively. Adultery annuls it, because it is a breach of the specific contract involved in marriage. And so does, for the same reason, willful desertion, as the apostle teaches in a following verse. This is the Protestant doctrine concerning divorce, founded on the nature of marriage and on the explicit instructions of our Lord, Matt 5:32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18. According to this doctrine nothing but adultery or willful desertion is a legitimate ground of divorce. ... The plain doctrine of the passage before us, as well as other portions of the word of God, is that marriage is an indissoluble covenant between one man and one woman for life, admitting neither of polygamy or of divorce. If the covenant be annulled, it can only be by the sinful act of one of the parties.
Although I have a very high regard for Hodge’s scholarship, on this point I consider that he is completely mistaken, and that this common view is an absolute distortion of what Scripture actually teaches. I have set out my objections more fully in my book Marriage and Divorce: The New Testament Teaching, but it is relevant to summarize the major points here:
Scripture knows nothing of “annulling” a marriage on the basis of adultery or desertion. Jesus and Paul both say that husband and wife must not χοριζω (chorizō, sunder) the marriage relationship that God has joined together. Contrary to Hodge, these things are not “legitimate grounds of divorce”. There are no “legitimate” grounds for divorce. But Paul recognizes in this passage that there are numbers of factors which can destroy a marriage. Not, as Hodge puts it, “breach a contract” or “annul a covenant”, but demolish a relationship.
Now, being a realist, Paul addresses himself in verses 6 to 11 to this situation: what to do after a marriage has ended.
I particularly draw attention to the tacit assumption that is often being made concerning the ex-wife in 7:11, when she is instructed to “remain unmarried”. The assumption is that this means, “for the term of her natural life” - so that all possibility of her ever having another marriage partner is completely ruled out. Or, at the very least, some would say, until her ex-husband dies.
That is to say, on this view, you get one shot at marriage - even if, perhaps, you married in haste before becoming a Christian - and if for any reason that marriage doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter, that was your one and only chance. You don’t get another. All that Paul says in this chapter about not having the gift of living celibate, being subject to overwhelming temptation and sexual pressure, and needing a partner, may apply to you, but you still must “remain unmarried”. Well, that’s how some teachers see it.
How long does Paul say you must “remain unmarried”? Actually, he doesn’t say. What Paul does do, however, is give the reason for it: it is to leave open the possibility of reconciliation. Garland 283 points out,
It may seem that Paul presents the Christian wife with two options: either remain unmarried or be reconciled to her believing husband ... But he directs her to remain unmarried in order to be reconciled with her husband. ... In Paul’s Jewish tradition, a wife who has been divorced and has married another is forbidden to her former husband (Deut 24:4 ...) If there was to be a reconciliation she must remain unmarried.
Now, some situations may be borderline or uncertain. But in the majority of cases a person will be able to know within a reasonable period of time whether there is, realistically, any possibility of a reconciliation with one’s former spouse - whether whatever were the problems between them can be resolved. Paul’s teaching clearly envisages giving this possibility a real chance. His instructions weigh against taking any precipitate action which would rule out this possibility prematurely. But when it becomes quite clear that reconciliation is not any longer a genuine possibility (if it ever was), what is the reason then for being bound to “remain unmarried”? The reason which Paul has given for it no longer applies.
All too often one learns in pastoral ministry of cases where a spouse, in obedience to this verse (as they suppose), will pass up all opportunities of a second marriage and condemn themselves to a solitary life and a lonely old age. But in fact when they have sought for a basis for reconciliation, and have seen beyond question that this can never happen, then they have thus done what Paul in v.11 has instructed them to do.
We need to recognize that while a broken marriage and divorce is a sin of disobedience against the clear word of both Paul and Christ himself, yet it is not the unforgivable sin, and by grace a divorcee can seek and receive God’s forgiveness.
A person should follow Paul’s outlined procedure: first, “remain unmarried” to seek for reconciliation; if this proves impossible, what then? Then they are back in the general situation of ἀγαμοι (agamoi) as described in verses 7-9. They must consider whether they are now being given by the Lord the gift of celibacy, as shown in v.7 - if so, then they are to continue unmarried, as Paul did, v.8. But if instead they find themselves in the situation Paul describes in v.9, and if the opportunity is available, then they must do what Paul tells the ἀγαμοι (agamoi) in that verse: “they must remarry”.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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