Against Divorce between Christians (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul offers a commandment against divorce between Christians.

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.

Notice several things about these two verses:

First, they state a commandment. Paul writes, “I give this command” (regarding divorce), then he immediately qualifies it by saying, “not I, but the Lord.” As “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1:1), Paul has authority to command the consciences of followers of Christ, if for no other reason than because his life is lived in imitation of his Lord’s (4:16, 11:1).  But on the issue of divorce, he need not appeal to his own authoritative teaching because Christ’s teaching was well known to the Corinthians: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11; cf. Matthew 5:32, 19:9; Luke 16:18). According to the Matthean passages, divorce was permissible in case of adultery. And 1 Corinthians 7:15 also seems to allow divorce in case of abandonment. Aside from these exceptions, however, and especially in marriages between Christians, divorce is not an option.

Second, these verses are countercultural. In its 2007 report, The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, the National Marriage Project reports: “For the average couple marrying for the first time in recent years, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation remains between 40 and 50 percent” (page 18). The divorce statistics for Christians are not much better. According to the Barna Group, “when evangelicals and non-evangelical born again Christians are combined into an aggregate class of born again adults, their divorce figure is statistically identical to that of non-born again adults.” Unfortunately, the Christian norm of lifelong fidelity within marriage is countercultural to both our society and the church.

Third, these verses are contextual. We must remember that in these verses Paul is dealing with extreme ascetics at Corinth who advocate celibacy even within marriage (see my comments on 7:1). Evidently, some of these people even went so far as to advocate divorce as an aid to ascetic practice. Because in marriage, each spouse possesses, has obligations to, and holds authority over the other’s body (see my comments on 7:2-5), divorce in itself was a sin, a breach of marital mutuality. But if Christians separated or divorced (in Greco-Roman culture, these terms were functional equivalents), they should not compound the original sin with remarriage. Rather, they should remain celibate or reconcile with their spouses, for remarriage was tantamount to divorce.

Extreme asceticism is not a temptation in modern America. Extreme libertinism is, however. When couples divorce, there is little sanction against extramarital sex or remarriage. But Christian marriages should be different. As Gordon Fee asks: “If the Christian husband and wife cannot be reconciled to one another, then how can they expect to become models of reconciliation before a fractured and broken world?”

If—on divorce or any other issue—Christian behavior is indistinguishable from non-Christian behavior, is it really Christian?

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