A couple of weeks ago I started with an article on this topic and promised that I would continue by looking at I Corinthians 7. Outside the gospels where Jesus gave the commands about divorce and remarriage the only other place that deals with this topic in the New Testament is in I Corinthians 7. In this chapter Paul is answering questions that have been submitted to him from the church in Corinth. Our challenge is that he doesn’t state the question before giving the answer from inspiration so sometimes we must guess what the question was. There is a phrase used several times in this chapter that is extremely important. It is the phrase, “But if”. Each time this phrase occurs Paul gives a command or teaching that says, “Don’t do this” and then follows it with “But if you do.” It seems strange to us in many ways for such a phrase to be there. We are used to teachings from Scripture being simply the command to do or not do a thing and if anything follows, it is a warning of what happens when we disobey God’s commands, but that isn’t how this phrase is used in this chapter. Look at it with me.
The first instance is in verses 7-9 where he said he would rather that everyone stay single like he is but acknowledges that all do not have the same gift. Verse 9 follows, “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Obviously, even with the point of preferring one to stay single there is something different about this chapter that we don’t really learn what that is until we reach verse 26 which says that there is some “present distress” they are going through that makes it better for one to stay single at that time. That was never the normal plan of God since it was God who saw Adam alone and said it is not good for a man to be alone. But in their situation he thought it was better to stay single. But even under that present distress if one didn’t have the spiritual gift from God of being able to be single without burning with passion they should go ahead and marry since it would be better to be married where they could fulfill the desires in a right way rather than having lusts in their life. So, this one sets the stage for the other “But if’s” that follow.
In verses 10-11 he said to the married that he had a message from the Lord that they should not separate, but remain as they are. This surely goes back to Jesus words in Matthew 19:6 where he said, ‘What God has joined together let no man separate.” So Paul reasons a wife should not leave her husband. “But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” There it is again. Even with the command of Jesus not to separate, Paul adds, “But if” she does indeed separate then she should follow through by staying unmarried or reconciling. My first thought on reading this is, “Paul, what do you mean, but if, if the Lord has given a command not to separate there is no ‘but if’ to it. Yet there it is in the inspired text that even with the command, if a Christian wife can’t stay in the marriage she can still be the Christian wife by remaining unmarried or reconciling to the husband and he adds the husband isn’t to divorce his wife. Obviously, here there is no sexual immorality involved but two people having trouble living together as husband and wife.
Paul then turns to another situation where a Christian is married to an unbeliever and he immediately says on this situation he doesn’t have a command from the Lord but will speak as one of God’s inspired servants. He isn’t saying this is not something inspired but that Jesus hadn’t spoken to this point so he speaks as the Lord’s apostle to the topic. His first point is that the Christian is to remain in the marriage with the unbeliever if they are willing to stay in the marriage. It would be better for the children and you will have a sanctifying affect on the unbelieving mate. Then comes the next “But if”. “But if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.” So, the believer is to stay if the unbeliever is willing but if the unbeliever leaves or abandons they aren’t bound in that marriage or relationship any longer. The question often arises, does he mean that they are free to marry someone else? The answer to that seems obviously to be yes, that if they are no longer bound to the other person, then they are single and have the right to marry.
The next section of the chapter is introduced with a couple of illustrations on the theme of “Remain where you are called.” He first used the illustration of circumcision and said if you were called to Christ as circumcised don’t try to become uncircumcised and if you came to Christ uncircumcised don’t be circumcised since circumcision means nothing in our spiritual life but obeying God is what matters. Then he used the illustration of slavery and said if you were called as a slave not to worry about it because you were free with the Lord “But if” you can get your freedom then do so. If you are free then don’t become the slave of men. Remain where you are called.
Then he applied the point he had first illustrated in two ways. In verse 25 he applied it to virgins by saying that he had no command from the Lord on the matter but again would speak by inspiration from God on the topic and said the virgin should stay single, due to the present distress. Verse 27-28 “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. BUT IF you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life and I am trying to spare you.” There it is again. His principle was, REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE CALLED. But in both applications to the one who is single having never married and the one who is single because of divorce he followed with, “BUT IF YOU MARRY, YOU HAVE NOT SINNED.”
The point I want us to see is that some things that are taught in Scripture, such as in this chapter are for the good of people and offer us the way that is best for us, yet doing it a different way didn’t mean that the person sinned. Too often we read this chapter and see the things that are said not to do and stop with that point. Thank God, the Holy Spirit didn’t allow Paul to stop at the point of telling everyone it was better to stay single. Also, if you have been divorced and someone has told you that the only way you can be saved is to stay single or to not have sex with the one who is your wife, you have been lied to. God actually says that for one to live in a marriage without sex is to put themselves in a place where they are more likely to tempted and led astray by Satan because of their lack of self-control.
By the way, it should stand out that when Paul took what Jesus said and applied it to the Christian couple married to each other and turned immediately to speak of other situations like a Christian married to an unbeliever and said that he didn’t have a word from Jesus on that matter, it should let anyone recognize that what Jesus said on the topic didn’t apply to every situation and marriage in the world. Remember Jesus said to the twelve, “I have more that I want to tell you but you aren’t ready to bear it. I will send the Holy Spirit to you and he will guide you into all truth.” Instead of trying to strain passages like I Corinthians 7 through Matthew 19 or Matthew 5 it should be the other way around in light of what Jesus said on the subject.