Summary: Are divorce and remarriage okay?
Are divorce and remarriage okay? I suppose of all the questions that have been raised by the letter of 1 Corinthians, this is the one that draws the greatest anticipation as to how it will be answered. Other questions are controversial and spark ardent debate. We may even enjoy the debates. But not this one. There is little fun to be had in this discussion.
Most likely everyone in this room has been affected by divorce. Perhaps you are divorced. Perhaps your parents are divorced or your children. Few people can boast of an extended family in which there are no divorces – a brother or sister, uncle or aunt, cousin. And probably no one can say they have no friend or acquaintance who has been divorced or affected by it. In a society in which half the marriages end in divorce (and evidently the figure is nearly the same in the church), we are all touched by it.
So what is going to be said? Did you who are divorced sin? Has God removed his blessing from you? Have you sinned by remarrying? Can you remarry or is that denied you for the rest of your life? Others of you may want to know if divorce is an option for you. Are you stuck in a bad marriage? Would you be sinning to leave? Would you be cast out of the church?
Others of you want to know if I am going to fudge on the issue. Am I going to cave in to the modern values I so often preach against? Am I a softy who excuses sin or a hardliner who holds tightly to the law? Which will it be? I’ll tell you what I am going to try to be and that is a pastor who speaks to your troubles in this area. Divorce is not an academic issue. Very little else causes the upheaval and pain that it causes, unless one adds the troubles that lead to divorce in the first place.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
This is a rare occasion where Paul specifically attributes a command from Jesus. He does so, not so much to give the charge added weight, but because in verse 13 he will address an issue that Jesus did not have occasion to do so. For what he is about to say, however, he is merely reiterating what the Lord has made clear: do not break up a marriage.
The wife should not separate from her husband… and the husband should not divorce his wife. In both instances, Paul is speaking of divorce which was simple to obtain. If one thinks no-fault divorce laws make divorce too easy in our society, consider that all that was needed in the Roman Empire during Paul’s day was for the married couples to separate. No legal document was needed. Typically, the circumstance would be for the woman to separate by leaving her husband, or the husband to send her away, which is what the Greek term for “divorce” literally means. There was no legal “separation period” that preceded divorce.
It is important to remind ourselves the context in which Paul is speaking. He is not writing a paper on the subject of divorce. He is responding to a situation in Corinth. From 7:1-5 we know that some married persons believe they should abstain from physical relations with their spouses. It most likely has something to do with thinking that they now live in a “new age” marked by the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that they personally have risen to a higher spirituality that puts them above such carnal relations. It seems that at least some of them are considering divorce so they are freed from such bonds, and thus may concentrate on the spiritual life. This certainly makes sense in light of Paul’s admonition that they must maintain conjugal relations while married. If divorced, they no longer have such an obligation. Paul says, No. That’s not an option either. If you are married, you must remain married.
We then want to ask our questions. What about adultery? What about abuse? Those are not the issues presented to Paul. There is the issue of marriage to an unbeliever, and he will address that.
He does address the related issue of remarriage: 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband). That Paul speaks specifically of the woman is further indication that in Corinth the predominant situation is the wife leaving the husband. One may ask why women who leave their husbands to be more spiritual would need to be told not to marry. It is for the same reason couples who make a hasty decision to get married need to be told not to divorce. What seems good on the spur of the moment changes once the action has been taken. The instruction here applies to both wives and husbands.