Paul starts off in 1 Corinthians 7:10 telling us that this is the “Lord’s command” and not his. Why? Well, for two reasons. First, Paul wanted to have a platform of authority on which to build. And secondly, he wanted to speak to the women who had an ability to divorce their husband unlike many of the Jewish women before them. There seemed to be some concern in this letter about the authority of Paul’s personal judgments.
Paul then tells the woman not to “separate” from her husband. There has been some controversy over what this meant, but Matt. 19:6 clears it up very quickly. Matt. 19:6 says, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man SEPARATE.” It makes sense that Paul referencing the Lord’s command would use the same general word for divorce as Jesus.
Paul says next, “But if the woman separates…” This does not mean that Paul is about to slack on the Lord’s former commands. This word in the Greek could be talking about a woman who has divorced her husband in the: past, present or future. Since this is Paul’s response to their former letter (1 Cor. 7:1) it makes sense that some of the Gentile women could have divorced their husband already in which they questioned Paul. Matter of fact, you can pretty much bet your life on it.
Paul then gives a very specific and, shall we say, dangerous message to the women, “remain unmarried or reconcile to her husband”. There are two things to consider here. One, Paul is still referencing the Lord’s command and two, Paul is clearly giving a message to these Gentile woman in Corinth. Although Jesus did not use these words directly “remain or reconcile” but by understanding Matt. 19:9 (in regards to “committing adultery” in remarriage) this message would be fundamentally correct. The women were not allowed to initiate a divorce, according to the Law of Moses, so marriage to a man other than her first husband (while still alive) would have clearly been considered “adultery” to Jesus (Deut. 24:1, Matt. 19:9).
Paul then ends 1 Cor. 7:11 by saying that the man is not to “divorce” his wife. It is important to note that Paul does not tell the men to “remain unmarried or reconcile” as he did to the woman. Paul is simply telling the men not to divorce their wife. But where is the exception clause of Matt. 19:9? And are they allowed to remarry? It is therefore clear that Paul was referencing the “put away” that Jesus spoke of in Matt. 19:9, both by Greek expression (Antiquities of the Jews 15:259) and the intended use of this word in the next two verses (vss. 12-13). Paul talked about the man’s right to remarry in 1 Cor. 7:27-28 by being “bound” or “loosed” from a wife.
“The Greeks would have been divorcing according to Greco-Roman laws, so there would have been no direct use of the Jewish “put away” with a Writ of Divorce, as used in Matt. 19:9.”
Paul then says in 1 Cor. 7:12 this is what I say, “not the Lord”. Paul wanted to be very clear that his next set of instructions is not going to be referencing the Lord’s commands from the Gospels, but as he felt led by the “spirit” (vss. 25, 40). Paul was said to be a man born out of due time. Paul is going to be giving a message on love, grace, forgiveness and mercy as to believing Gentiles not subject under the Law of Moses.
Paul goes on and tells the men/women not to “divorce” their unbelieving spouse if they want to stay. It is important to ask, “why did the Corinthians think it was permissible to divorce a spouse even though they did nothing wrong?” We can see in this chapter that they did have some questions about the practical application of the Law, such as circumcision (vs. 18). 1 Cor. 8:1 Paul goes on and talks to them about the large idol influence in their culture. Therefore, we can conclude, that their unbelieving spouses were definitely influenced by a culture saturated in paganism.
There was also a time of a pagan practicing culture colliding with the Israelite Nation. Ezra said in 9:14, “Should we again break Your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed us, so that there would be no remnant or survivor?” They were eventually commanded to divorce these abominable women and the children that were born unto them (Ezra 10:3). Therefore; 1 Cor. 7:12-14 was obviously a question the Corinthian’s had about being married to unbelieving pagans.
But, it would only be speculation to conclude Paul was talking about Ezra 10:3 if it were not for the following verse in 1 Cor. 7:14, “…otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.” If it were not for the sanctification of the Holy Spirit the Corinthians would have been correct in their deductions. Paul later tells them to, “Therefore, “Come out from among them (unbelievers) and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” Meaning unbelievers are called “unclean” in which they were commanded to not be “unequally yoked” with. Nevertheless, Paul tells them to remain in the situation in life that the Lord called them to walk in (vs. 17).
Paul commands (Imperative) the believer to “separate” from the unbeliever in 1 Cor. 7:15. But, many miss the first part of this verse. The unbeliever clearly “separated” from them first, “But if the unbeliever separates, let them separate…” Paul is not saying if they do not want to live with you then divorce them, or giving the believer permission to put an unbeliever out of the home, but if the unbeliever was already in the process of a divorce (active tense) give them the divorce.
The next part in 1 Cor. 7:15-16 is fairly easy to decipher. Paul tells the believers that they are “Not in bondage” in such a situation. The “such case” in vs. 15 means that Paul is going to give an “exception clause” about staying married to their unbelieving spouse. The difference between Jesus’ “exception clause” in Matt. 19:9, and Paul’s “exception clause” in 1 Cor. 7:15 is Jesus was focusing on the sins of remarriage, while Paul was focusing on the considerations about divorce. Therefore; Paul is only talking about a permission to divorce their unbelieving spouse (apart from the Law of Moses) and not giving permission to remarry (according to the Law of Moses).
But, as many cases, context can be the key to understanding words in the Greek. Paul then goes on in the next verse and shows us what they felt in bondage too, “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” There was obviously some question about staying married to their unbelieving spouses in order to try and save them. Paul wanted to insure the believer that holding onto an unbeliever in marriage did not guarantee their salvation. Paul was releasing them from guilt or sorrow by giving the believer permission to allow the unbeliever a divorce to stimulate “peace” in a rather un-peaceful marriage.
P.S. Although the believers understood Paul’s challenging judgments in this chapter, there was still further question of the death of a husband. Paul uses the word “sleeps” for death in 1 Cor. 7:39. That leads us to believe the woman must have felt bound to a husband that did not taste the second death. Paul told these women you may remarry, but only marry “in the Lord”. Paul later suggests that the young widows remarry due to the weakness of their flesh but older ones to continue to serve the Lord (1 Tim. 5) having been the wife of only one husband.
Scripture was taken from the NKJV.