1 Corinthians


5. Celibacy, divorce and marriage, 7:1-40

iii] Divorcing an unbelieving partner


Paul now addresses the issue of divorce. Unlike his instruction to "the unmarried and widows", he begins with the Lord's instruction, rather than his own opinion. Paul draws on the Jesus' teaching, as preserved in the gospels, namely, divorce is not an option for a believer, only reconciliation, cf., Mk.10:6-12. Addressing the problem of finding ourselves with a pagan wife or husband, a situation which stretches the boundaries of church fellowship, Paul gives his opinion as to how Jesus' teachings might apply to that situation. A believer should not divorce a pagan partner just because they are an unbeliever, but at the same time, they are not bound by the union if the pagan partner chooses to leave; it is not possible to force God's blessing on anyone. Paul goes on to give a powerful reason for not separating, a reason which goes to the heart of the divine nature of marriage. The one-flesh union of marriage does not cause defilement to a believer who has a pagan partner, the opposite is the case, the partner is sanctified, as are the children. The reason for this lies in the nature of God's design of the one-flesh union; it is designed as a blessing from God, not a curse, designed for "peace", harmony and human enrichment.


i] Context: See 7:1-5.


ii] Background:The Enthusiasts / Ascetics in Corinth; See 7:6-9. Within the Roman Empire there was a general suspicion of Eastern religions. Christianity was initially viewed as a Jewish sect and so was at least tolerated. When it intruded into the institution of Roman marriage, a highly regulated institution in Roman society, there was bound to be trouble.


iii] Structure: Divorcing an unbelieving partner:


Jesus' teaching on divorce as it relates to

the issue of separating from an unbelieving partner, v10-11;

First application:

It is not appropriate to divorce on account of unbelief, v12-13;

First validation:

A believer is not defiled by the unbeliever,

the unbeliever is sanctified by the believer, v14ab,

    epei ara, "otherwise", the children would be defiled, v14c:

Second application:

It is appropriate to separate from an unbeliever

when the partner ends the relationship, v15a;

Second validation:

Marriage is for peace and harmony, not conflict, v15b;

    gar, "for", you cannot guarantee a partners salvation, v16.


iii] Interpretation:

Again, Paul addresses a question bothering the Corinthian believers, something like: Should a believer remain in a marriage with an unbelieving partner? It would not be unreasonable for a wife to conclude that divorce was the better option, given Biblical precedents, eg., Ezra 10:3, 19. A believer would also feel some concern toward the scriptural warnings that they should not associate with an immoral person, cf., 1Cor.5:9-13. Findlay argues that pagan husbands are divorcing their spiritual wives and so Paul's exhortation is that, where possible, the wives should resist divorce and seek reconciliation. If ultimately the unbelieving partner wants out of the marriage, then, in that circumstance, divorce is acceptable. On the other hand, where the pagan partner is happy for their spiritual partner to remain in the marriage, then remaining is the best option. By remaining in the marriage, a believer brings a blessing both to their partner and their children, namely, a "sanctified" state.

We can only guess, but if the ascetics are driving this issue, then they are probably promoting an extreme version of abstinence, namely divorce? If this is the case, then the thrust of Paul's argument is in line with the teachings of Jesus - a wife should not separate from her husband. But maybe it's the legalists / nomists who are driving the issue, in which case Paul affirms the moral law, but adds a qualification, "I and not the Lord" - remaining in a difficult marriage with a pagan aligns with the teachings of Jesus and brings with it a blessing to both the partner and the children, BUT ..... v15ff.

It does seem that Paul's rule-of-thumb, "remain as you are", is reflected in his advice at this point - given the present circumstances (the end is nigh, v26), best leave things as they are and focus on eternal verities. Given that Paul always qualifies the rule, it is obviously little more than a guideline; a piece of wise advice. It is possible, although unlikely, that "remain as you are" is another maxim circulating in the Corinthian congregation. If this is the case, Paul's argument is a "YES, I agree ........, BUT .....", with the weight of the argument falling on the qualification.


Divorce: Paul approaches the subject of divorce with reference to both the teachings of Jesus (cf., Mk.10:6-12) and the law of Moses (note Paul's distinction - only a husband can divorce his wife, a wife separates from her husband). In v10-11 Paul states Jesus' ideal, without reference to the contentious exception, namely, on the grounds of adultery. Adultery is not an issue here, but even so, the exception is problematic, cf., Matt.5:32. Mark 10:11-12 better suits Jesus' idealistic teaching, cf., Lk.16:18. The exception reflects an awareness of the human condition in that marriages fail, regularly fail, and any one of us may experience that failure. When confronted by Jesus' idealistic teaching on the subject, his disciples exclaimed "if such is the case of a man and his wife, it is better not to marry", Matt.19:10, and this because marriages do fail. Jesus' response, and particularly Matthew's placement of the account of Jesus welcoming little children, 19:13-15, indicates that beyond the ideal there lies the reality of the human condition in need of grace. See Notes, Matt.19:3-15. So, on the practical side, Paul leans, not toward Jesus' ideal, but toward the Mosaic law and its recognition of the human condition - our hardness of heart. Where the harmony, "peace", has gone, separation, "a bill of divorcement", becomes a sad but inevitable end.

In the history of interpretation, Jesus' instructions on divorce have been applied literally in the Christian church, with Paul's opinion on the matter treated as if it were just that, an opinion. In the face of the inevitable failure of the marriages of believing church members, Jesus' instructions have spawned numerous pharisaic "get out of jail free" cards, eg., annulment. In my church, the Anglican church, we spend our time trying to determine who is the innocent party (is there such a person?), extending leniency to those who should know better, namely believers, while refusing remarriage to the great unwashed. By this act we trounce the very foundation of ethics, namely love, mercy, forgiveness. The now of the kingdom confronts us with a radical ethic written on the heart. The not yet of the kingdom confronts us with a radical ethic we can only but aim at. Kingdom ethics are not designed for the imperfection of this age; they belong to another age, to a brilliance that transcends this shadow land. Given that "the old Adam retains his power until he is deposited on the grave" (Luther) we would do better, with a nod to the Law of Moses, if we followed Paul's more flexible approach to Jesus' ethical ideals.


Household salvation: Irrespective of the everlasting debate between sacramental infant baptism and believer's baptism (always noting that Jesus didn't baptize anyone!), it is clear that God works in families / households, and this because family (mom, dad and kids +++) is uniquely divine in design. Family is a foundational aspect of creation, covered by a creation ordinance (Gen.2:24), and is the foundation upon which human society is built. So, God affirms the family in all aspects of its existence, including its spiritual existence. This is why, when the Philippian jailer believed, he was saved and his whole household, Acts 16:31, cf., 11:14, 18:8. Of course, a description is not a prescription; God's blessing upon the household of Cornelius and the Philippian jailer is not necessarily prescriptive, but it does illustrate how God works. Paul's statement that a believing partner aJgiazw, "sanctifies", the unbelieving partner, and makes the children aJgioV, "holy", is covered by the indefinite use of the conjunction ei, "to what extent do you know whether you will save" your partner?, v16.

A personal faith in Christ guarantees salvation, but to what extent that salvation extends to family members remains a mystery. I like to think that as long as members of my extended family do not reject Jesus outright they are then covered by my faith. Anyway, that's the way I pray; I include them in my Tardis, and leave the rest to the mercy of God.


What does Paul mean by "has been sanctified"? However we answer this question, the verbal aspect of the perfect tense hJgiastai must be recognized - a present state made possible by a past action. A state of automatic salvation is rather fraught and not usually suggested, although Godet suggested a covenantal status, such that the unbelieving partner is brought under the promised blessings of the covenant. Luther argued that the issue here is sex within a mixed marriage; such "is pure and permitted", otherwise the produce of the union would be unclean. Fee suggests that this state is an easy readiness to be influenced by the gospel, and there is surely some truth in this observation. Garland suggests that Paul is using "sanctified" in the sense of not defiled. The believer's anxiety would be that they are defiled by an unbelieving partner, so also Thiselton. Paul argues that there is no ground for anxiety because the opposite is the case, otherwise the children of a believer would be classified as somehow defiled and such is totally unacceptable. Barnett argues a similar case, but goes further by suggesting that it is more the marriage which is "sanctified" rather than the pagan partner; "God treats their marriage union as holy on account of the partner who is one of God's holy ones", ie., "the marriage is legitimate in God's sight", Fitzmyer (Fitzmyer also sees some undefined benefit from inclusion in God's covenanted people).


Should Paul's opinions on the subject of marriage be weighted equally with the teachings of Jesus? On the one hand we have a word from the Lord on marriage, v10, and then we have Paul's opinions, v12-16. What do we say of Paul's opinions? If we classify them as personal opinions of equal weight to our own, then we have just lost a major source of revelation, and even worse, we have lost the only means of properly understanding gospel tradition - Paul is the exegete of Jesus' teachings. So, we are bound to take Paul's opinions as inspired.

Text - 7:10

Advice to those married to a non-Christian, v10-16: i] The Lord's instruction on the issue of divorce, v10-11. It is interesting that Paul directs the Lord's word to the wives. Was the problem of being unequally yoked one which affected some of the married women in the congregation rather than any of the men? Were they the ones promoting divorce?

de "-" - but/and. Transitional, "Now, to the married ..."

toiV ... gegamhkosin (gamew) dat. perf. part. "to the married" - [i command, charge] to the ones having been married. The participle serves as a substantive, dative of indirect object / destination. As to Jesus' instructions on the issue of divorce.

ouk ..... alla "not..., but ...." - not [i], but [the lord]. A counterpoint construction.

mh cwrisqhnai (cwrizw) aor. pas. inf. "[a wife] must not separate" - [a wife] not to be separated. The infinitive introduces an object clause / dependent statement, commanding, explaining what Paul commands; "that a wife must not separate from her husband." The wife separates from her husband, rather than divorces him, since under Mosaic law a wife cannot divorce her husband. She separates, and under later regulations, the husband is bound to divorce her, if certain prescribed circumstances are met.

apo + gen. "from" - from [man, husband]. Expressing separation; "away from."


Although we properly treat this verse as part of the Lord's instruction on the issue of divorce, the first part is more like a direct application. If a married woman separates from a husband she has only two options, given the Lord's instructions on divorce, either she remains unmarried, or she reconciles to her husband. Collins suggests there is only one option; she is not to marry in order that she might be reconciled to her husband, although it is a stretch to give the particle h], "or", this sense.

de "but" - but/and. Here adversative.

ean + subj. "if" - if [and = indeed, as the case may be, she is separated from her husband, then let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to the = her husband]. Introducing a conditional clause 3rd. class where the proposed condition has the possibility of coming true.

tw/ andri (h droV) dat. "to her husband" - to the husband. Dative of association / accompaniment; "let her be reconciled with her husband."

mh afienai (afihmi) pres. inf. "[a husband] must not divorce" - [and a man, husband] not put away = divorce [a wife]. The verb paraggellw, "I command, charge", still applies such that the infinitive introduces an object clause / dependent statement of indirect speech expressing what Paul commands, namely "that a husband must not divorce his wife." This is a ditto for the men. Note the change from "separate" to "put away", as noted above.


ii] Paul's instruction on the issue of divorce as it relates to an unbelieving partner, v12-13. The fact that a believer finds themselves unequally yoked is not a ground for divorce. "Now with respect to those other married members who find themselves with an unbelieving partner, either a pagan or a Jew, and for the sake of their Christian walk (given that a believer is only to marry "in the Lord", v39) are considering divorce, my advice is, and this is my advice, not a direct command of the Lord, if your partner wants the relationship to continue you should not seek a divorce."

toiV .... loipoiV adj. "to the rest" - [but/and] to the others [i say, i not the lord]. The adjective serves as a substantive, dative of indirect object. A strange expression probably identifying "the others who are facing the situation of being married to a pagan and think it appropriate to divorce them."

ei + ind. "if" - if, as is the case for argument sake [a certain brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing, agrees to live with him, then let her not abandon, put away = divorce her]. Introducing a conditional clause 1st. class where the condition is assumed to be true for argument sake.

oikein (oikew) pres. inf. "to live" - to dwell, live. The infinitive introduces a dependent statement of perception expressing what she agrees to, namely, to live with him.

met (meta) + gen. "with [him]" - Expressing association.

mh afietw (afihmi) pres. imp. "he must not divorce [her]" - he must not abandon [her]. The NRSV "he should not divorce her" is a bit soft.


The syntax as for v12.


iii] A reasoned support for not divorcing an unbelieving partner, v14.

gar "for" - Introducing a causal clause explaining why it is unnecessary to divorce an unbelieving partner (due to defilement??).

hJgistai (aJgiazw) perf. mid./pas. "has been sanctified" - [the unbelieving man / husband] has been sanctified / made ritually pure. The perfect expresses a past act with ongoing consequences; they were sanctified / made ritually pure and are that way now. "The husband now belongs to God", REB (in what sense??). See note above.

en + dat. "through [his wife]" - by / in [the wife, and the wife has been sanctified] by [the brother]. Instrumental, expressing means, "by means of, through", but also possibly local, incorporative union, or even both; "by his association / union with his wife."

epei ara "otherwise" - because consequently. This inferential causal construction gives the sense "since in that case" = "if that were not so", Zerwick. The logic of Paul's argument is that if the believing partner in a pagan marriage is made impure by that union then the children are ritually impure, but we hold that they are ritually pure , likewise we should regard the pagan partner is ritually pure, made so by their union with a believer.

uJmwn gen. pro "your" - [the children] of you [are]. The genitive is possessive / relational.

akaqarta adj. "unclean" - impure, unclean (ritually impure and thus unacceptable to God). Predicate adjective.

nun "[but] as it is" - [but/and] now. Circumstantial, rather than temporal; "but given the circumstances, the children are holy."

aJgia adj. "holy" - [they are] holy. Predicate adjective. Rather than unacceptable to God, they are acceptable - sanctified = not impure / ritually pure. "Acceptable" may be a bit strong, although I think not, but to those who do think the word pushes the boundaries somewhat, then the word "dedicated" is used by some translators, eg., Berkeley, or "consecrated to God", Moffatt, Phillips, ... "they are within the circle of God's people", Barclay.


iv] Instruction with respect to an unbelieving partner wishing to dissolve a marriage, v15-16. Where an unbelieving partner wishes to dissolve their marriage with a believing partner (due to their standing as a Christian???), the believer should allow the divorce to proceed. We are not "enslaved" to our union with an unbeliever who may be aggressively pagan, given that marriage serves as a union for peace and harmony, rather than conflict. There is no guarantee that by maintaining a mixed marriage the unbelieving partner will inevitably be saved.

de "but" - but/and. Transitional, introducing a counterpoint; "but if ...."

ei + ind. "if" - if, as is the case, [the unbelieving one departs, separates, then let them depart, separate]. Introducing a conditional clause 1st. class where the condition is assumed to be true. "If the unbelieving partner wishes to separate, let it be so."

oJ apostoV adj. "the unbeliever" - the unbelieving one. The adjective serves as a substantive, nominative subject of the verb "to separate."

ou dedoulwtai (doulow) perf. mid./pas. "is not bound" - [the brother or sister] is not enslaved. The believer is free, but in what sense free? Conzelmann argues that the believer is free to remarry, but Fee argues that the believer "is not bound to maintain the marriage if the pagan partner opts out", so free from a marriage in conflict. Fitzmyer notes that in this passage Paul says nothing against remarriage, possibly indicating it was not a problem, but an argument from silence carries little weight. Still, one suspects, given the human condition and the social difficulties of the time, remarriage of a divorcee remains an imperfect, but necessary option.

en + dat. "in such [circumstances]" - in [the such = such things]. Adverbial, reference / respect; "with reference / with respect to the circumstance where a pagan / Jewish partner wishes to divorce their believing husband / wife, the brother or sister is under no compulsion."

keklhken (kalew) perf. "called [us to live]" - [but/and god] has called, invited [you]. Zerwick suggests "called to faith", the spiritual call of the gospel. Other commentators take this line, Fitzmyer for example, but the word is best taken to mean "invited" and related directly to the following prepositional phrase.

en + dat. "in [peace]" - The preposition here is local, sphere; "in the sphere of peace"; possibly instead of eiV, "into". God has invited us to participate in a sphere of designed harmony under God, for the world at large and particularly for the one-flesh union of marriage. A marriage, devoid of harmony and facing an imposed divorce, is best let go.


An interesting debate developed between Jeremias and Conzelmann over Paul's words on the salvation of an unbelieving partner. Commentators have taken sides in the debate, either optimistic (Jeremias), or pessimistic (Conzelmann). Translations tend to follow either path, eg., optimistic, REB, pessimistic, NIV, RSV. Pessimistic better represents the Gk. although Paul is probably not opting for one or the other because God is the sovereign Lord over such matters.

gar "-" - for. Introducing a causal clause explaining why someone should let their parter go if they are determined to do so.

ti acc. pro. "How [do you know]" - what. The interrogative pronoun is adverbial, accusative of respect; "in what respect", although Thiselton opts for "to what extent", either way, both are better than manner, "how".

ei "whether [you will save]" - do you know woman / wife] whether [you will save the man / husband]. Here introducing an indefinite dependent statement, indirect question; "in what respect have you come to know, O wife (voc.), will you save your husband?" = "whether you will save your husband?" The answer to question is obviously "I have no way of knowing." That being the case, don't make an issue of it. "After all, how can a woman know for certain that she will be the means of bringing salvation to her husband?", Cassirer.

h] "or" - or [what do you know, husband, if the wife you will save]? Comparative use of the particle, here serving to introduce a second comparative question.


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