The Problem of ‘The Rest’

Dear Pastor,

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,

The Church

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!


Submitting Wives and Loving Husbands

Ephesians 5:22-33

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:22-33 is a passage which gets under the skin of many in today’s western context.  Any who agree with it are seen as ‘old fashioned’, ‘chauvinistic’, ‘sexist’ and many other derogatory terms.  So what often happens is people attempt to soften the intent of the passage to appease the reader.  The writer or speaker will take verse 21 of chapter 5, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”, and argue that the Greek participle for “submit” links it to the following verses (which is true).  Therefore, the command of submission is a mutual one.  Paul commands the wife to submit because she will generally struggle in that area.  In the same sense Paul commands the husband to love because he will find it hard to show love to his wife.

The problem with this view is that it does not take seriously the curse put in place by God at the fall.  When God cursed Eve he said, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen 3:16)  When we consider this curse we quickly begin to see that Paul’s commands can be seen as a response to the curse that is upon humanity because of their sin.  The woman’s desire for her husband is not to be understood as a sexual desire as some have tried to argue, but rather, as a desire to control her husband.1 The husbands response to this desire will be to rule over her.  This ruling carries the idea of the husband controlling the wife in order to ensure this doesn’t happen.

As Christian’s this is not to be how we act, rather Paul commands the wife to fight the sinful urge to ‘desire’ the husband’s headship by voluntarily submitting herself to her husband as to the Lord (v 22).  This submission is rooted in the very essence of the wife’s relationship with Christ, when they submit to their husband’s authority they also submit to the authority of Christ.  Paul, however, does not stop their.  He also addresses the husband, he commands the husband to fight against his sinful urge to ‘rule’ over his wife by loving her as he loves himself. No husband can love his wife as he loves himself and at the same time rule her with an iron fist.  Paul’s intent is for Christian husbands and wives to live out Godly marriages that fight against the result of the fall.

The other problem is that there is an analogy and comparison in the text.  Wives are to submit as the church submits to Christ.  Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church.  Therefore, any changes you make to the command from Paul also changes the command to the church.  If Paul is not commanding wives to submit to their husbands out of a role set up by God, then the church does not really have to submit to Christ.  If husbands are commanded to love because they find it hard to do, then where does that leave Christ’s love for us?

Is it easy for a wife to voluntarily submit to her husband in “everything” (v 24) the same way that the church is called to submit to Christ?  Or is it easy for a husband to selflessly love his wife to the same extent that Christ loves the church?  No and we cannot in and of ourselves do it.  The only way that we can attempt to live up to these commands is by coming to the Lord and asking for his help and for strength.

Only when Christians start living out their marriages the way God intended will we begin to see a turn around in the state of marriages in our churches.  We need to stop taking lessons from the world on marriage and start using the guide which God has given us; his word.

1 For a good discussion on the understanding of ‘desire’ in Genesis 3:16 see Susan T. Foh’s work in “What is Women’s Desire?” in the Westminster Theological Journal.