TEXT : 1 Corinthians 7:12-16
TITLE: Married to an Unbeliever ?
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?
We come to yet another difficult issue within the realm of marriage: marriage to an unbeliever.
Last week we saw in our text (vv 10-11) that Christians are not encouraged to divorce at all , and if a Christian gets divorced they should not remarry, for in that process they would become adulterers. Paul does not speak about the exception clause (divorce permitted in the case of marital unfaithfulness/adultery) that we find in Jesus' teaching (Matt 5:31-32 ; 19:1-9).
I need to pause here and remind you of a basic fact - something that is very likely in Paul’s mind as he writes this. He is writing to a church. He addresses them as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” (1:2). He is writing to professing believers. There is a big difference between a believer and an unbeliever, and there is a big difference in the expectations that we may have from a believer when compared to an unbeliever.
An unbeliever is not likely to listen to the Word of God or godly counsel . He/ she will do as they please and as they think . If this marriage no longer suits them , they will go ahead with the divorce , not thinking about God, nor of His will for a marriage covenant .
The believer however is a man / woman under the rule of God. They take His Word seriously. They know that God is committed to truth (incl. the truth about marriage). They know that God has empowered them to live a godly life (2 Peter 1:3): “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence…”). They know that He calls them to work out their salvation by making choices based on truth and not on fallible feelings.
So, we can see what Paul is thinking here : there is never any need for two professing Christians to get divorced : they have God’s Word and God’s help promised to them . Unbelievers have no restraining and enabling help from God .
With that thought in mind he proceeds to another scenario. Here is a Christian man/ woman married to an unbeliever. This may happen when a wife or a husband becomes a Christian in the course of their married life - and their spouse does not.
[Incidentally , the matter of marrying a non- Christian is clear from the Scripture: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” ( 2 Cor 6:14-16). We cannot address this right now.]
Let’s get back to the likely scenario. In Paul’s day, when the gospel was forcefully advancing throughout the gentile world (just as the prophets had said) there were many households that believed . But there may also have been numerous instances when only a married man believed, and not his wife or when a married woman believed – and not her husband.
Now what? It appears as if there were those in the Corinthian church who were arguing that, just as sexual relations would contaminate a marriage (see 7:1), so they might have thought that an unbelieving spouse would contaminate a marriage.
What is Paul’s counsel to such a thought?
Note once again that Paul begins his thoughts on this subject with these words: "I, not the Lord" (v.12). What he is saying here is no less authoritative, for I remind you again that as an apostle he was uniquely equipped as a messenger from God to convey the mind of God on a given matter accurately (cf 7:25 & 40). What he is saying here is that he has no specific commandment from Jesus in this regard for the Lord Jesus never addressed this specific matter in any of His teachings. But Paul nevertheless has the mind of Christ in this matter.
v.12. He says as a matter of first principle what he has also said before: “if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” And … “ If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.”
The principle is that no marriage ought to have an exit strategy! You are like two people trapped on the 10th floor of a high rise building with the lower stories burning. The only options are these: fight the fire together or die together!
This principle is even true when a Christian is married to a non Christian. You, the Christian partner should not seek divorce. The principle of covenant marriage still holds true for you and God regards the vows made in His presence and before many witnesses and the sexual union entered into, as binding in His sight.
Remember the problem which the non Christian partner has. He/she will not admit to being held accountable by God, even though they may have made a marriage oath in His name, and so when he/ she believes that the marriage is over, they will not act on truth but on feeling. They will not be committed to working on the marriage relationship but will be committed to finding a way out of the relationship. We will deal with this matter in v.15.
But right now focus with me on vv.13 &14: 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.
Here Paul teaches the believing partner that they themselves have no reason to leave their non Christian spouse. In fact, he gives the believer some substantial encouragement: 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.
What is he saying here? He is saying that the presence of one Christian (saved) spouse makes the marriage holy (or “sanctified”)! How is an unbelieving spouse “made holy”? How is the status of the children affected by the believing parent? We can rule out one option – that Paul is speaking of salvation. In v. 16 he specifically states that the unbelieving spouse is unsaved.
What does he mean then?
To understand Paul’s language here we need to understand the Old Testament covenant of God with the Jews. Beginning with Abraham, God called a people (Israel) to belong to Him exclusively. They were to be a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ; 1 Pet 2:9). Every child born into this nation belonged to this holy nation – this household of God, by virtue of being descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob etc. This did not mean that every Jew was saved, just as little as your children are automatically saved when they are born into your Christian household.
Where then is the privilege? Jews were privileged to be born into the most pure atmosphere, the truest form of religion and truth. Paul recounts these benefits in Romans 3:1-2 and 9:4-5. However, in order to truly benefit from these blessings you had to partake of them – and not just count yourself fortunate to be in their presence!
Here’s the point. If only one partner in the marital relationship walks with God, God is there. His holy, sanctifying presence is there. The non believing spouse (and the children) have the benefit of God’s sanctifying presence in their home even if they themselves do not believe. What a blessing it is to have a praying father or mother in the home . How many conversion testimonies are there not because God had listened to the praying pleas of a godly relative! Sometimes it is even the believing child that is the catalyst for their parents conversion.
vv.15,16: 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.
We have seen that from the Christian spouse’s point of view the marriage should be maintained because of covenant oaths. And now we note that Paul does make an allowance for divorce but the unbelieving spouse must take the initiative. If that happens the believer does not have to contest the divorce. Paul’s reasoning is simple: “God has called you to peace”. Therefore, don’t fight and don’t threaten. Let them go in peace. The believer is no longer enslaved (or bound) by that marriage relationship.
What does “not enslaved” mean here? Does it mean that they "are not bound to the marriage" any longer, or does it also mean that they are also "free to remarry?"
It seems that if the marriage is being ended through no fault of the Christian partner, they are free from the bondage of that marriage and thus they are free to remarry, since a divorce means that their partner is now as good as dead to them. Similar language to this is used of the widow in 7:39.
Now some conscientious Christian might say at this point: "If I let them go, I lose the opportunity to see him/her saved !" Paul anticipates this question and that is why he says in v.16 “For how do you know, wife,whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
If a non believing husband or wife wants to leave the marriage you don’t have to hang in there just because you think – “ I feel responsible. I have to stay in this marriage to see them saved.” Paul answers: “ You don’t know whether that will happen. And don’t add to the tension!” Marriage is not primarily an instrument of evangelism. You cannot save. God alone saves!
1. If you are single- remain single. Use this state (if it is a gift) for His glory.
2. If you cannot be single – get married!
3. If you are married to a Christian, divorce is not an option.Stay married and fulfill your marital duties to one another.
4. If you are married to an unbeliever who wants to remain married – stay married. Be assured that your life in Christ will be a blessing to that home.
5. If the unbeliever wants to go - Let them go. God has called you to peace. If you are worried about who is going to show Christ to them don’t worry. God will know what to do.
The major issues in our text are these:
1. Letting an unbelieving spouse leave a marriage when he /she no longer desires to be a part of it. Remember then that you cannot expect from an unbeliever what you would from a believer. He/she is dead in his sins and transgressions. They do not have the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. They can only follow their natural instinct. So don’t expect them to live and respond like a Christian.
Remember also that your sanctifying influence itself is not going to save them. It is only a window through which God lets His light shine into your home. But the darkness of the soul can only be pierced by the effective call from God – that same call from the Lord Jesus with which He called the dead man Lazarus out of his tomb.
2. Remaining in the marriage if the unbeliever desires to continue. Some basic pastoral counsel in this regard:
1. Work on your marriage as you would in any marriage. Marriage is sacred to God and worthy of your greatest efforts. Don’t take your marriage for granted. Remember that you too are sinful and in need of having your mind renewed on many things. Remember also the sinful influences upon your thoughts coming from the world of unbelief. Constantly examine your own sinful heart in the light of Scripture.
2. Seek Christian counsel and prayer when your marriage isn’t doing well, as you would in any other marriage. Do not pursue divorce without the involvement of your church elders. You need the counsel, prayers and help of your elders in such a serious matter.
3. Cry out for God’s grace when you live with an unbeliever. Be assured that your heavenly Father hears you. Make sure that you confess your own sins. Appeal to the cross of Jesus Christ where atonement was made for your sins. Look to Jesus your great Advocate continually and the God of grace will enable you to stay in this marriage until He changes your circumstances (i.e. granting salvation to your unconverted spouse) or calls you home! Amen