January 28, 2021

Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 7: Paul

corruin.jpgDivorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 1
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 2: A Map For the Road
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 3: One More Question
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 4: The Law and The Prophets
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 5: Jesus
Divorce, Remarriage and The Gospel 6: More Jesus

One of the struggles that I notice among contemporary Christians is how to adequately come to terms with the context of Paul’s letters. As the kids would say, these people had issues…and Paul was trying to help them deal with those issues. Do we have the same issues? Were Paul’s words to his first century churches meant to carry on, throughout history, to other churches and other cultures and contexts? Or is Paul’s specific advice so conditioned by what was going on at the time, that we should be cautious in how we apply his words?

When we say that the letter to the Corinthians is “God’s Word” for us now, do we mean that the Corinthian’s situation is part of God’s Word? What about things Paul believed- like the impending end of the age- that may have shaped his answers? If your view of inspiration is all about the words, then these matters don’t enter into the picture. If your view of inspiration is- like mine- about how the text communicates the Final Word, Jesus Christ, then these situations have to be considered and examined as we hear these texts on the subject of divorce.

For this reason, I have included two sections from Paul’s words to the Corinthians regarding marriage, singleness and divorce. The second passage makes the overall mindset of Paul more obvious. I think it is important to take note of this for one reason: In his discussion of divorce, Paul does not return to Genesis as Jesus does, but he makes a pragmatic argument based largely on his understanding that the end of the age has arrived and there ought to be no changes in “life status” in view of the impending end of all things.

1 Corinthians 7:10-17 10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 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. 16 Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife? 17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.

1 Corinthians 7:26-35 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

At the outset, we can see that divorce was part of the conversation in the church at Corinth. It was part of the Greco-Roman culture in which the Corinthian church existed. One reason that Paul may have been dealing with this question is that Roman culture had given women more legal options for divorce. The situation in a city like Corinth was different from first century Israel. Leaving a husband was not unthinkable.

Paul’s preaching of the Gospel resulted in conversions among women. Some of them were married to men who were not Christians. Timothy, Paul’s protege, may have come from this kind of family, where his grandmother and mother were Christians, but his father was not. It is not surprising, considering the possible interpretation of some Christians of Paul’s rhetoric of loyalty to Christ, that there were women in the Corinthian church who wanted to divorce their husbands on the basis of a difference in what God they worshipped. Maybe they read Ezra.

Paul addresses this situation, and advises that no one divorce anyone, but instead realize the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit that extends over unbelieving spouses and children. It is possible Paul saw the impending end of the age as an opportunity for more conversions. Paul doesn’t want to see divorces in the Corinthian church, and he advises against it in every instance except one: If the unbelieving spouse abandons the marriage, then the remaining spouse is not “enslaved” to remain in a non-existent marriage.

What’s particularly interesting in this passage is what Paul does not say.

Paul doesn’t say that divorce is prohibited in every instance. There were situations where divorce was allowed. Paul mentions abandonment of the marriage as one allowance. If we assume that he is also aware of Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew regarding sexual immorality, then we now have multiple reasons for divorce stated in the New Testament.

Paul doesn’t say that remarriage is prohibited. He says that in his church plants he teaches one should not marry, remarry or make any other major life change in view of the impending “crisis.” The time is “short,” according to Paul. The world is passing away. Scholars disagree on what Paul is referring to in these verses. I find it a bit difficult to assume that Paul is not thinking eschatologically in this passage. I believe Paul has the events of II Thessalonians 1 in mind: judgement is about to erupt at the end of the age, and a new age- the Kingdom of Jesus Christ- is coming. Stay in the calling you are in as this new age dawns.

Paul doesn’t say that abandonment is the only situation where divorce is allowed. I realize this is an argument from silence, but I will return to what I have asked in earlier posts: What about physical abuse? What about sexual abuse? What about saving one’s life and the safety of children? I think it is fairly obvious that Paul knows there are multiple reasons that divorce and remarriage may occur. This doesn’t mean that Paul always views divorce as right, or that divorce and remarriage are not part of broken and sinful human relationships. It does mean that there were divorced and remarried persons in Paul’s churches who were part of the congregation. (See my comments on I Corinthians 6:9ff)

What about Paul’s reasoning? It is important that Paul is saying- obviously!- that he is being stricter than necessary on his view of divorce and remarriage because of his eschatological conviction that the world is coming to a crisis. If Paul had said, “No divorces or remarriage because of Genesis 1-2,” we would not be surprised. Instead, he gives two reasons for avoiding divorce: one eschatological and the other missional/evangelistic. He says “this is my rule,” and I believe that is different than, “this is the only rule in every situation.” His eschatological concern and conviction about a dawning new age impacted his understanding of divorce and remarriage in Corinth.

I mention this not to suggest that Paul is not aware of the marriage passages in Genesis 1-2, but that he is aware of the brokenness of marriage in Genesis 3, the allowance of divorce in the old covenant and the allowance of divorce by Jesus. Paul’s approach to divorce in Corinth is discouragement in a context where divorce and remarriage are allowed, and where divorce and remarriage would not have caused someone to be put out of the church.


  1. Jeremiah Lawson says

    The question of whether the time is short is eschatological seems to be a thorny one. I’ve heard and read people say it just means the present crisis without explanation or that none of the terms Paul used in referring to the time is short had any eschatological import. And yet Rom 13:11-12 makes it hard for me to think Paul is somehow only referring to a situation specific to Corinth. Why is it that “the time is short” can be used as a reason to make a case for not marrying in 1 Corinthians and not also in Romans? Calvin’s statement that “the time is short” simply means that life is short also seems, practical as it is in many ways, to not quite explain things.

  2. ddickens says

    I am of the camp that Paul misunderstood eschatological matters. I don’t believe that God “let him in” on it. (I think in terms of Jesus talking about no-one knows.)

    I think I am comfortable putting Paul’s statements about time being short in the realm of “his opinion” part of the Bible instead of “his revelation” part. Just because a Biblical figure says something doesn’t mean that Biblical figure is speaking truth. We assume that because Paul’s letters are pastoral in nature that all, or nearly all, of the statements are “authoritative”.

    Most people only give way on the explicitly personal messages and the points where Paul illudes to something being just his opinion. I think my first step toward a more Christ-like view of the Bible (instead of a Pauline view of the Bible) was allowing myself to see more of Paul’s person in his letters.

    Sorry, I guess this is sort of an aside. But Paul’s statements about marriage and divorce have only meant much to me in how he applies Jewish tradition/law to non-Jews.

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