We have a problem and we as a church need your advice.
We understand that as Christians we are united with Christ, both as a church and individually. We know that as Christians Christ is our head and that we are united with him through his death and resurrection. We also know from scripture that men and women are united to become one flesh when they are married. That in marriage husbands and wives represent Christ and the Church. However, this leaves us with a problem. We have some amongst us that have recently accepted Jesus as their Lord. Now, these same men and women are currently married to non-believers. Since these new converts are now joined with Christ what are we to think regarding their marriages? If they are joined to their husbands or wives then surely are they not joining the ungodly with Jesus’ body? We were going to recommend that they all get divorced to ensure that none of our new believers can be ‘tainted’ by their husbands and wives who are unbelievers.
Yours in Christ,
If you received this letter how would you respond? Although this fictitious letter was not what Paul received, this is the problem he faced. The believers had a question regarding ‘the rest’ as Paul coined them. In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 he responds,
12 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. 13 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. 14 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.
15 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. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
As I have spent time preparing Sunday’s sermon on this text one thing is very present in my mind, this is not an exclusive 1st century problem. One does not need to look far to find churches that are full of Christian men and women whose husbands or wives do not believe. Because of this the Corinthians were asking, “How can I be joined to Christ as a new creation and yet at the same time still be joined to one who is not joined to Christ? Should we divorce them to remain pure and joined to Christ?” Paul’s answer is an amazingly freeing word for the man or woman whose husband or wife does not believe. Paul enables the believer to follow Christ and be obedient to their Lord regardless of their own marital situation. There are ultimately two situations the believer could face and Paul addresses each one.
(1) Believer’s husband or wife is willing to remain married. Then the believer should not divorce. Paul deals with the question regarding being joined with a non-believer as a part of the body of Christ by explaining that the believing husband or wife sanctifies the unbelieving husband or wife. By being sanctified it does not mean that they are saved through the husband or wife because salvation comes through Christ, not through our wife or husband. So why does Paul mention being sanctified? The Corinthians were worried that the believer would be ‘polluted’ by the unbeliever, but in fact, as John Calvin notes, “The godliness of the one does more to ‘sanctify’ the marriage than the ungodliness of the other to make it unclean. Accordingly a believer can live with an unbeliever with a clear conscience.” (Worth noting that Calvin was only speaking within a previously formed marriage, he was not allowing Christians to marry non-Christians)
(2) Believer’s husband or wife does not want to remain married. Then the believer should let them divorce. Do not be quick to think that today’s divorce rates are that much worse then what was going on in the Roman days. In fact divorce was such a common occurrence that Seneca the Roman commented that “[women often] mark the years not by changing censors but by the acquisition of a new husband”! It would have been probably the norm for the unbelieving spouse to take offence at the Christian and get a divorce (reminder: it did not need to be a mutual agreement).
Paul says that both of these results, remaining or divorcing, are acceptable. However, he goes on to say that the believer should live in peace as God has called them to. He is not arguing that the believer should live in peace by divorcing from the marriage, but rather the believer should try to leave in peace within the marriage so that hopefully the divorce will not happen. Why do we not want the divorce to happen? Because of verse 16! Now I hear you say, ‘but verse 16 is very pessimistic!’ But that is not how it must be translated or understood, in fact many commentators understand it as being optimistic! Paul is saying ‘try to live in peace within your marriage because you never know, you might be the very tool which God uses to save your husband/wife.’ While you are still married you have the most amazing opportunity to be Christ to your wife or husband. You can witness to them like no one else can. When they hate, you can show love. When they push you down you can serve them more. When they treat you bad, you can treat them good.
This passage brings an incredible sense of hope to the believer who is in one of these situations. It brings the freedom to live life without their spouse if that is the outcome, but it also gives the freedom to remain in a marriage and serve God in that situation.
However, this passage gives those of us who live in a Christian marriage also a challenge. There are some seriously challenging questions that come to mind.
- How can we help those in our churches who are in these situations?
- What can we do to include the unbelieving spouse into the church?
- Am I praying for the unbelieving spouses in our church?
- What judgements have we cast upon those in these situations?
Of course there is more then just these few thoughts. But, that is for Sunday’s sermon!