It’s kind of hard to decide how to parse this passage because it keeps jumping between subjects. But I thought since I talked about marriage last time, I’d keep with that topic here.
And here, Paul re-emphasizes Christ’s ideal for marriage. He says,
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. (10-11)
Here, Paul is drawing from Jesus’ own words when talking to the Pharisees. Jesus said to them,
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (8-9)
I won’t get into details concerning Jesus’ words here because I’ve already done that here and the two succeeding blogs.
But the point Paul is making here is that marriage was intended to be permanent, and that’s how we ought to view it. He says again in verse 39,
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives.
Which of course goes both ways. A husband is also bound to his wife as long as she lives. And so as much as it depends on us, we need to work to keep our marriage alive.
But what if it doesn’t depend on us? Paul addresses that in verses 12-16.
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. 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. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
This is pretty straightforward, so I’ll just make a few comments here. First, when Paul says, “I, not the Lord,” I don’t think he’s saying his words aren’t authoritative. What he’s saying is that Jesus never specifically spoke about this situation where an unbelieving spouse desires to leave the believing spouse. And so Paul says, “Since Jesus didn’t address that situation, here’s what I as his apostle, say to you.” And as an apostle, I believe his words on this topic are authoritative. If an unbelieving spouse desires to leave you, let them leave. God will not hold you responsible for that.
Second, just because your spouse isn’t an unbeliever doesn’t mean that you should automatically leave them. By staying with them, God’s hand is on your family, and it gives him more room to work in the life of your spouse and your children, because God can work through you. “Sanctified” here doesn’t mean saved, but “set apart.” And I think when any family that has a believer in it, God takes special notice of that family to work in their lives.
Finally, notice that Paul emphasizes in verse 39 that if you’re a single Christian, you should only be marrying a Christian. He speaks specifically to widows here, but it only makes sense that he is speaking to all singles. You should only marry a person that belongs to the Lord.
Sometimes people think, well, if I marry a non-Christian, I can witness to them and they may be saved. But Paul tells the believer to let an unbelieving spouse go if the unbeliever wishes to leave. Why?
How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (16)
Answer: we don’t. There are no guarantees. And if you marry an unbeliever, I have seen many cases where the believer ends up miserable. Marriage is tough enough when believers are married. But when two people have fundamental differences in their faith, it can cause even more hardship. And so it’s best to avoid that kind of relationship from the beginning.