Summary: Should one remain married to an unbeliever? Is divorce okay?
We come to yet another emotional topic – marriage to an unbeliever. Though it should be evident to every Christian that one ought not to enter into such a relationship, nevertheless some do. Some get married believing, or rather making themselves believe, that their loved one is a Christian. Some people become believers after marriage, creating an “unequally yoked” marriage. Whatever the case, such a situation has existed since the beginning of the Christian church. What, then, should a Christian do?
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.
Paul, so far, has addressed cases in which both married partners are believers. There are others (“the rest”) who present another scenario – believers married to unbelievers. Should they remain married? Doesn’t it seem logical that believers sanctified in Christ should not be yoked to unholy unbelievers? Paul, remember, addresses them as “saints,” i.e., those who are set apart for Christ. Surely then, to remain connected with spouses who in effect are “unclean” would be to defile themselves. What then does Paul have to say to that?
Stay married. He does, however, recognize the different factors involved and makes some concession. This is why he makes special note to say that he, not Christ, speaks to this matter. Jesus, speaking only to Jews about marriage, did not have occasion to teach about this situation. This is an important note to make. It reminds us that both Jesus and Paul were speaking to specific circumstances. In neither case were they giving instruction intended to apply to all scenarios. That needs to be kept in mind. Certainly there are principles they teach that apply to different circumstances, but we must be careful not to presume that “one size fits all.”
Note the caveat for remaining married. It is if the unbelieving spouse consents to remain married. Paul is addressing only the issue of being unequally yoked. By itself it is not a reason to separate and the same rules that apply to marriage between believers remain. He then gives his reasons which also would address their concerns: 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.
What is Paul talking about? How is an unbelieving spouse “made holy,” or “sanctified” as other translations have it? 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 verse 16 he specifically states that the unbelieving spouse is unsaved.
To understand what Paul means we have to think like Jews; i.e., we have to think with a covenant mindset. In the Old Testament we learn that God called a people, Israel, to be for him a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). By virtue of being descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, every Jew was made part of this nation that was set apart for God from among the nations. Was every Jew saved? No. Many were faithless and turned to idols; many were wicked. All (as are all individuals) were under the wrath of God needing an act of grace to redeem them. Nevertheless, God made a covenant with a people that distinguished them from the other nations and gave them certain benefits. Paul recounts these benefits in Romans 3:1-2 and 9:4-5.
We need to grasp this thinking to understand the mind of Paul and of the early church. We moderns think individualistically. We have trouble making connection how our status is interlinked with the status of others, even within our own families. For ancient cultures such connection was assumed. Recall the story of Achan in Joshua 7. Israel loses a battle against Ai. The Lord tells Joshua the reason: Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Actually, only one man – Achan – had done this, but God speaks of the nation Israel doing it. Note further what happens. Achan is revealed as the culprit. But when it comes time for punishment by death, his whole family is included with him. You and I immediately think that such a thing is not fair. Achan is the sinner; he alone should pay for his crime. The Jews may have mourned for the family, but it would not have occurred to them that such a punishment was unfair. The family makes up a whole unit, not a collection of individual units. Indeed, when they confront Achan, they complain that he brought trouble on them from the Lord. They don’t think to complain to God for unfairly punishing them for Achan’s sin. They think corporately, not individualistically. They see themselves as part of a whole.