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Thinking Biblically about Marriage and Divorce

March 5, 2023

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 7:1-16

Thinking Bibically about Marriage and Divorce

1 Cor 7:1–16 – Being God’s People: 1 Corinthians – Daniel Baker – Mar 5, 2023


Reading 1 Corinthians 7:1–16.

Sometimes to get your bearings you use a compass.

  • It helps you find out where NORTH is, then you can figure out the rest.
  • But it’s not true in every part of the globe.
  • Something called the Bangui (bong-gee’) Magnetic Anomaly.
  • Named for Bangui, city in Central African Republic—center of Africa.
  • It’s a magnetic anomaly. A place where “north” on your compass keeps changing. “True north” is in a permanent state of flux.[1]
  • What’s due north today, won’t be in the future.

That seems like a fitting picture of our culture when it comes to marriage and sex, the topic of our sermon today.

  • Whatever our culture says is NORTH today when it comes to marriage and sex feels very up for grabs. NORTH a decade ago is now SOUTH.

And changing the rules with marriage and sex is no small thing.

  • It doesn’t lead to more happiness and more holiness.
  • It leads to the opposite.
  • That’s our day: Confusion about marriage and sexuality—and rising rates of anxiety and depression to go along with it.[2]
  • The way to find more happiness and holiness is live life the way God designed for us to live it.

Which means our day is not so different from the ancient city of Corinth, about 40 miles southwest of Athens. Like other Roman cities of the time, its morals were fluid and loose and due north was hard to find.

And then in about AD 51 the gospel came to Corinth. There had been Jews there, but now the gospel of Jesus Christ came through the apostle Paul.

Corinthians were saved and a church was planted. This young church had to figure out how to live holy lives in a very unholy culture.

It’s clear that sometimes they understood very clearly what Paul taught, and sometimes they rejected it or got confused.

Series, “Being God’s People.” Now in chapter 7. Being God’s People means thinking rightly about marriage and sexuality.

In this part of the letter he also has seven verses on divorce—verses 10–16. They are important ones, because they fill out the teaching of Jesus to give us the NT perspective on divorce and remarriage.

The elders have been working through our understanding of divorce and remarriage, and these verses were a large part of our discussions.

  • Most of what I say this morning will feel familiar.
  • But some of it will be new.
  • Please feel free to talk to any of the elders about it.

What is God after in these verses? I believe he’s after happy and holy marriages. Marriages that will endure and endure well.

Sermon: (1) Marriage and Sex (7:1–5); (2) Marriage and Singlehood (7:6–9); (3) Marriage and Divorce between Believers (7:10–11); (4) Marriage and Divorce Between a Believer and an Unbeliever (7:12–16)


I. Marriage and Sex (7:1–5)

Remember how Paul ended chapter 6: “So glorify God in your body.” Chapters 5–6 had a lot to say about sexual immorality. Now he continues that theme—but in marriage.

7:1 – The Corinthian church had questions in reply to Paul’s earlier letter (5:9).

  • Quotation marks mean Paul quoting their view.
  • Literally, “good for a man not to touch a woman”—Euphemism as ESV makes clear.
  • Corinthians reacting to some version of the Roman culture around them.
  • Typical that men had sex with their wives to have legitimate children, but sex for pleasure with other women.
  • These new Christians were confused about how marriage and sex go together.

His response to this issue is pretty forceful. To understand it, remember Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)

Marriage and being “one flesh” go together. You don’t have a complete marriage without the two becoming “one flesh.” You aren’t to have “one flesh” outside of a marriage. That’s what 1 Cor 6 told us.

You aren’t to have marriage without experiencing “one flesh.” His point here.

  • This is one of God’s solutions to the sin of “sexual immorality.”
  • 1 Cor 7:2, “because of the temptation to sexual immorality,” “one flesh.”
  • In 1 Cor 7:5, “don’t deprive one another” except for a limited time—so Satan won’t tempt you.

He goes even further in 1 Cor 7:3–4 and talks about “rights” we owe to each other in this area (1 Cor 7:3). And then, our spouse has “authority” over our body.

These are really strong words. Need to be careful how we apply them.

  • These words are also like having a driver’s license, a car, and the keys to that car. A license to drive doesn’t mean you can run over people.
  • Read Paul’s words alongside other words on marriage:

Train the young women to love their husbands. (Titus 2:4)

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25)

We also misuse his words if we turn our obligations into DEMANDS on others

  • They’re written as OBLIGATIONS we owe to our spouse.
  • Turning them into DEMANDS makes the train go off the tracks.

Love itself is like that. We’re called to “love one another.” If we turn our obligation to love into a DEMAND FOR LOVE, things get messed up.

Now because God places the obligation on both spouses, a spouse can appeal. Or ask for help from a wise Christian friend. Or a pastor.

It’s clear in these opening verses that marriage is to help with sexual purity.

  • But temptations don’t stop when we’re married.
  • We still need to fight.
  • The devil doesn’t leave us alone just because we got married.

Application? If you’re married, re-read the OT book The Song of Solomon.

II. Marriage and Singlehood (7:6–9)

Read 1 Corinthians 7:6–9.

We won’t spend as much time on this second point, because Mike will develop Paul’s thinking on singleness more next week. Here we’ll make a few points.

“It is good” to be single (1 Cor 7:8). He doesn’t explain why in these verses. But later in the chapter he’ll unpack this a bit more.

  • Marriage brings “worldly troubles” for the married (7:28), and the “the appointed time has grown short” (7:29).
  • “Unmarried...anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (7:32), but “Married...anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife” (7:33).

Here he refers to a “gift” (1 Cor 7:7) – a charisma – “Gift” to be single and content. Or you have the “gift” of marriage.

He ends this section going back to the issue that started his discussion: “better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7:9) – one of the practical benefits of marriage is that it helps protect against sexual immorality.


  • I know you can’t make marriage happen.
  • You might feel you don’t have the gift and yet be single. If that’s you, there’s grace to glorify God where you are.
  • There’s also a word here not to delay marriage unnecessarily—Don’t have a long list of things you want to accomplish before you get married.
  • Now, if being spiritually mature is on that list, then, yes, work on that.

III. Marriage and Divorce Between Believers (7:10–11)

To set up this part of the passage, I want to go back to the teaching of Jesus, because it’s in the background of the whole thing. Paul is building on his teaching and in no way contradicting it:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24; Mark 10:7; Matt 19:5)

“So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matt 19:6; Mark 10:9)

“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matt 19:9)

Read 1 Corinthians 7:10–11. Now he presents three categories of divorce.

One thing to see right off the bat is what he means by “separate.”

  • Used four times in this passage—7:10, 11, and twice in 7:15.
  • “Separate” means “Leave the house with the intention of divorce.”
  • A better translation for our day is “Divorce by leaving the house.”
  • It’s synonymous with desertion or abandonment.
  • In the ancient world you could file a writ of divorce, or you could simply walk out the door with no intention of returning.
  • Either method was a divorce.
  • Here’s why we know what Paul means.
  • First is 7:10–11: Do not separate, but if you do “remain unmarried.”
  • Result of the action is making the woman “unmarried.”
  • Second reason is that throughout the passage “separate” and “divorce” are used interchangeably—7:10–11 done by the woman; 7:12–13 both spouses said to “divorce”; 7:15 it’s done by the man or the woman.
  • Third reason is the teaching of Jesus. When Jesus teaches on marriage and divorce in the gospels, he says,

“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matt 19:6; Mark 10:9)

So, when you see the word “separates” in this passage, think “divorce by leaving the house.”

Paul’s going to speak to two kinds of marriage situations. The first is MARRIAGE BETWEEN TWO BELIEVERS.

  • His basic command is don’t file for divorce, don’t divorce by leaving the house.
  • This is his “charge” or “command.”
  • And when he says it’s “not I, but the Lord,” we know he’s standing on Jesus’ teaching when he says that.

He’s not speaking to the issue of adultery.

  • Paul is assuming the teaching of Jesus on adultery, that it gives ground for divorce.
  • Paul like all Jews—even Greeks and Romans—at the time would have believed that adultery was grounds for divorce.
  • But if there is no adultery, his command is clear, don’t file for divorce, don’t divorce by leaving the house.

But he’s aware that it will happen.

  • If believers divorce, they should “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.”
  • This is not Paul allowing divorce or condoning divorce.
  • He says right here not to.
  • But if it does happen, they should “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.”

What Paul is saying is radical for his day—and radical for the church today.

  • In Paul’s day it was common practice with divorces—whether Greco-Roman or Jewish divorces—for the divorce certificate to say, “You are free to marry anyone you choose,” or with Jewish ones, “You are free to marry any Jew you choose.”
  • The same language he uses in 1 Cor 7:39b at the end of the chapter: “She is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
  • But Paul is saying if the divorce is not legitimate then there is no remarriage.
  • If there is no lawful divorce, then there is no lawful remarriage.
  • Only a legitimate divorce frees someone to have a legitimate re marriage.

For the elders, one of the implications of 1 Cor 7:10–11 was new.

  • His counsel to the couple to "remain unmarried" seems to imply that they "remain unmarried in the church."
  • But if they are remaining in the church that means they were not removed by excommunication.
  • This means divorce itself is not the line where you practice church discipline and perhaps remove someone by excommunication.
  • This doesn't mean divorce is not forbidden—it is. But divorce doesn't automatically trigger church discipline like adultery might.

But what about modern-day separation, if it’s not the same as “separation” in this passage?

  • g., in NC you have to be separated a year before divorce.
  • At one level, this type of separation is a good thing—it slows things down.
  • Slows things down, keeps people from being hasty.
  • But sometimes it’s not a good thing—becomes practicing for divorce.
  • At Cornerstone the elders feel there is a place for a “strategic separation”—time of separation to work on personal issues and then the couple comes back together.
  • Over the years as elders, we’ve experienced both—separations that helped and ones that didn’t.

What if you had a sinful divorce in the past and weren’t free to remarry but you did anyway?

  • Repentance doesn’t mean divorcing 2nd
  • Repentance means owning your sin and seeking forgiveness in Christ.
  • Grace in the gospel: “Christ died for our sins.”
  • Own your sin, confess your sin, confess to the right people, seek forgiveness in Christ.
  • Then be a great spouse in your marriage.

IV. Marriage and Divorce Between a Believer and an Unbeliever (7:12–16)

Read 1 Corinthians 7:12–16. Now he’s speaking “to the rest,” those in the church who are married to an unbeliever. Also called “unequally yoked” (2 Cor 6:14) or a spiritually mixed marriage.

Remember, this is written to a new church in a missionary context. The church is only a few years old—and there was no church in Corinth prior to this!

  • The gospel came to Corinth for the first time.
  • Likely in some marriages, one spouse converted but not the other.

In such a marriage, Paul addresses two different situations: (1) a spiritually mixed marriage where the unbeliever STAYS; and (2) a spiritually mixed marriage where the unbeliever LEAVES.

When the unbeliever STAYS, his advice is forceful and clear—at the end of 7:12 and 7:13, “Let him not divorce her!....Let her not divorce him!”

And then he gives encouragements to the Christian in this really difficult situation.

  • The “unbelieving” spouse is “made holy,” and so are the children “holy” (1 Cor 7:14).
  • This is language borrowed from the Old Testament temple passages.
  • In the Law of Moses, if you were “unclean” you could not enter the temple.
  • Those who were not Jews could not enter the temple. They were unclean.
  • Paul is saying to the Christian in this situation, “You are not unclean because of your spouse and children. Your marriage is not illegitimate. Your children are not illegitimate. They are free to enter the gathering of the people of God.”
  • He’s not saying they’re saved—see 1 Cor 7:16—just that the Christian in this family is no second-class Christian. And the family can join the church at worship.

And then another encouragement in verse 16: Maybe they’ll get saved! Really clear in the CSB, Christian Standard Bible:

Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife. (1 Cor 7:16)

Now this isn’t Paul promoting “evangelistic marriage”—remember 1 Cor 7:39, where he says to marry only “in the Lord.”

Then another situation in 7:15: Spiritually mixed and unbeliever leaves.

  • In this case the Christian is married to a non-Christian and the non-Christian leaves.
  • Paul says the Christian in this case “is not enslaved.”
  • “Is not enslaved” is literally, “is not bound.”
  • This is the language of 1 Corinthians 7:27, 39 and Romans 7:2–3.

Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. (1 Cor 7:27)

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Cor 7:39)

Paul is saying in 7:15 that innocent spouse is free from his/her obligations to the spouse who has abandoned him/her.

  • Divorce, then, is allowable, and remarriage to another is allowable.

There is a double-criteria in 1 Corinthians 7:15: (1) One of the spouses is an unbeliever and (2) It is the unbeliever who initiates the divorce.

  • If you have two Christians, then the marriage is in the category of 7:10–11: no divorce except for adultery.
  • If the unbeliever STAYS in the marriage, then the marriage is in the category of 7:12–14: “Let him not divorce her!” “Let her not divorce him!”
  • Only when (1) one spouse is an unbeliever and (2) the unbeliever abandons the believer are you in 7:15—free to divorce and remarry.

As the elders studied these passages, we realized there were layers with this third category. Each of the two criteria has layers to it.

The first critieris is that one spouse is an unbeliever. “Unbeliever” can refer to:

  • A person who never professed faith;
  • A person who has “abandoned the faith” (1 Tim 4:1); or
  • A person who has been excommunicated—their profession of faith lacks all credibility (1 Cor 5:11–13).

The second criteria of is that the unbeliever has abandoned the believer:

  • The basic meaning is physical, literal desertion or leaving the home.
  • But a married couple are not simply roommates sharing space.
  • Marriage is a covenant between two people to live a shared life, to commit to a life of companionship, to choose to love each other, to experience being “one flesh,” living out vows to love and to cherish.
  • But sometimes in a very broken marriage, one spouse can so mistreat the other spouse that his/her claim to be keeping the marriage vows lacks all credibility.
  • The spouse hasn’t left the home, but in a real way the spouse has left the marriage.
  • There’s no shared life, no commitment to a life of companionship, no effort to love the other, no experience of being “one flesh.”
  • Maybe the spouse is giving in to sustained cruelty or reckless drug addiction or abusing children or reviling—verbal abuse.

A spouse can’t simply wake up one morning and declare, “My spouse is not a Christian, and she has left the marriage! I can divorce and marry someone else.”

  • There is a critical role for the church here.
  • In our church this will involve a careful due process led by the elders.
  • But it’s possible that after a process there is a judgment that one spouse is an unbeliever and left the marriage—even if they haven’t left the home.
  • Saying that is easy. The reality is incredibly difficult. Process will be lengthy.
  • Putting it all together:

The Double-Criteria of 1 Cor 7:15:

  1. One spouse is an unbeliever. This means either (1) no faith, (2) abandoned the faith, or (3) excommunicated.
  2. That spouse abandons the believer. This means either (1) literally and physically abandoing or (2) by acting in such a way that his/her claim to be keeping the marriage vows lacks all credibility.
  3. Both must be established by a due process led by the elders.
  4. The possible outcome of this process is allowing the innocent spouse to divorce legitimately and then to remarry legitimately.

There are times when elders will work hard in a careful due process and not be able to make a clear determination about a couple.

  • Who is at fault?
  • Jim Neuheiser, counselor and teacher at RTS in Charlotte spoke to the TFC elders last Nov.
  • He talked about pastoral situations where there simply wasn’t enough information to make a clear judgment on a couple.
  • He said there can be a place where the elders are taking a position of being officially “neutral”—we can’t support or forbid a divorce. We can’t support or forbid a remarriage.

The need for humility. Marriage situations where you don’t have all the details.

  • Always want to give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • It will be rare that it’s your responsibility to make a decision about it, to render a judgment about it.


As I said at the start, if you have questions, talk to one of the elders.

As we close, let’s go back to the beginning, the very beginning:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24; Mark 10:7; Matt 19:5)

And then Jesus’ words:

“So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matt 19:6; Mark 10:9)

Keep it simple. A marriage is a man and woman forming a new home, coming together as one flesh—and then staying together as one flesh. “Let not man separate” what God brings together.

It’s simple—but not easy. There’s a great picture of what marriage is in Andrew Peterson’s song, “Dancing in the Minefields”[3]:

So I'll walk with you in the shadowlands

Till the shadows disappear

'Cause he promised not to leave us

And his promises are true

So in the face of all this chaos

Baby, I can dance with you

So let's go dancing in the minefields

Let's go sailing in the storms....

Oh, this is harder than we dreamed

But I believe that's what the promise is for

Andrew Peterson, “Dancing in the Minefields”

There’s grace for your marriage! There’s grace for your singelhood!

Let’s pray.

[1] See


[3] From his 2010 Counting Stars album.

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