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Saturday, October 27, 2012


Is the Bible sufficient to deal with divorce?

Did God say enough about divorce and remarriage?  Peter declared of God, “his divine power hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3, ASV).  We could surely hope for more, since there are such a bewildering variety of relational scenarios that become issues in church fellowship and, at the same time, we have merely a handful of Scriptures that directly address this topic.  Since Jesus declared that improper divorce and remarriage will implicate people in sin, it is imperative that we understand these limited Bible verses correctly.  So, did God say enough about divorce and remarriage?

A crucial interpretation, a crux interpretum, for the issue concerns the so-called “Pauline privilege” in 1 Cor. 7.  Jesus appeared to give only a solitary reason for divorce and remarriage:  “…but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matt 5:32, ASV).  The parallel passages in Mark (10:11-12) and Luke (16:18) do not even allow this exception![1]  However, Paul clearly appears to offer yet another, additional exception when he writes:

But unto the married I give charge, yea not I, but the Lord, That the wife depart not from her husband (but should she depart, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband); and that the husband leave not his wife.  But to the rest say I, not the Lord: If any brother hath an unbelieving wife, and she is content to dwell with him, let him not leave her.  And the woman that hath an unbelieving husband, and he is content to dwell with her, let her not leave her husband.  For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.  Yet if the unbelieving departeth, let him depart: the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us in peace (1 Cor. 7:10-15, ASV).

If Paul is allowing a divorce (and remarriage) for the cause of desertion by an unbelieving spouse, then this would seem to be a “privilege” that Jesus had not granted.  Did Paul grant such a privilege?

It was my privilege to study this passage in a Greek independent study class under professor Jack McKinney at Harding University.  This paper reflects the conclusions of that research.  My aim in this presentation is to make this research available to a wider audience and to give it expression that is both meaningful and helpful.

Corinthian Competition

Paul wrote to a church with a very diverse membership.  Corinth was a place where cultures might collide:  Greek, Jewish, and Roman.  As in all Pauline churches, Jewish Christians had to share a pew with Gentile Christians.  Gender brought another dynamic.  Then there were distinctions of education, wealth, and social status.  Some Christians were slaves; others were slave-masters.  As if this were not enough, the Holy Spirit distributed gifts (as He always does) in an uneven manner; some had one gift, some had another.  Relevant to this discussion, we might imagine a mix of single, married, and divorced/remarried among the Christians.  And Paul had the tough job of uniting this diversity in Christ Jesus. 

In this mix, there was a battle for social supremacy.  One Christian sought to outdo the others, to set himself or herself above the others as spiritually superior.  Since the church social structure might even allow a reversal of the social order dictated by secular culture, we might imagine the jockeying for position to be all the more intense.  For example, an uneducated Gentile slave, who normally occupied the bottom rung of social standing, might find himself in a church-leadership role over slave-owning, wealthy, and Jewish Christians!

There is evidence that Corinthian Christians were also eager to get hitched to the star of leading Christian teachers.  The identity of one's baptizer became a mark of status.  And, relevant to marital status, it was well-known that not only Paul, but Jesus himself, embraced the single life in their dazzling walks with God.  The notion that marriage was a spiritually inferior state could be easily asserted and defended.

One scholar[2] is said to have identified the central focus of 1 Corinthians in a small, Greek preposition:  “huper.”  Its basic meaning is “over and above, beyond, more than.”  Imagine a church in which each individual Christian is striving to be “huper” all the others!  Paul wrote to them, “Now these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to go beyond [= “huper”] the things which are written; that no one of you be puffed up for the one against [= “huper”] the other” (1 Cor. 4:6, ASV).

The marks of this social striving are all over the first Corinthian letter.  It would be a mistake to see the shifting of topics through the epistle as having merely academic interest, as though Paul were just setting forth a “catechism” of Christian teaching.  Paul openly states that he writes this letter, in part, because of word he had received from certain “whistle-blowers” in the church (those from Chloe’s household, 1:11).  As Paul flips from one topic to another, the undercurrent through them all is a church divided over “huper” Christians trying to climb over one another.

We should also allow that aspects of the pagan culture at Corinth would have drifted-in to add flavor to this competition in the pew.  Some pagan cults esteemed virgins (unmarried) over married, esteemed one philosophic teacher over others, or perhaps even esteemed women over men.  Paul’s discussion of gender roles probably is a reflection on this influence in the church, and it helps us to understand why he speaks to Christian women with such exasperation, “What?  was it from you that the word of God went forth?  or came it unto you alone?”  (1 Cor. 14:36, ASV).  Some imagine Paul to be misogynistic when he works to put Christian women in their place.  A more sympathetic reading sees the apostle struggling to bring order to a church driven more by selfish competition than by loving cooperation.  Women are not immune from the competitive impulses to jump “huper” others in the social group. 

This dynamic turned also on aspects of marital status, and we might imagine a live impulse in the church, an impulse not originating with God, which suggested that to be unmarried was spiritually superior to being married.  It even looks as though some were ready to divorce in order to gain superior spiritual standing in the church!  This brings us to an important reflex of Corinthian competition.  In the clamor for social status, some were looking to change their social position for one deemed more honorable.  The strategy was to jump from one status to another:

·         A Christian who was a slave might seek the status of a free man.

·         A Gentile Christian might seek to become Jewish (i.e. be circumcised).

·         A Christian gifted by the Spirit to be a prophet, might seek instead to speak in tongues.

·         A married Christian might seek a divorce, to become unmarried.

Such strategies may seem silly from our cultural vantage point, since we are accustomed to people jumping social categories, and seeing people often rise or fall in social standing.  The child of a poor factory worker in the U. S. may become the president of a major corporation or university.  We need to see that such moves in Corinthian culture were of tremendous consequence, and such status-jumps were often impossible in the larger culture.  This situation drove Christians to seek whatever “lever” they could seize upon to vaunt themselves into better positions in the church social group.

The interpretive key to 1 Corinthians 7

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is specifically addressing being single or being married (or being divorced).  More broadly, however, he is addressing the issue of competition for status.  Paul’s wisdom must be appreciated for the profound simplicity of his strategic response.  Essentially, Paul takes a stand against “category-jumping.”  He urges Christians to understand that God does not admit the same advantages/disadvantages on which human cultures might focus.  So as an authoritative apostle, Paul sets forth a simple rule.  To ensure that no one at Corinth misses it, he states it plainly four times in Chapter Seven:

·         “Howbeit each man hath his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that” (1 Cor. 7:7, ASV).

·         “Only, as the Lord hath distributed to each man, as God hath called each, so let him walk.  And so ordain I in all the churches” (1 Cor. 7:17, ASV).

·         “Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called” (1 Cor. 7:20, ASV).

·         “Brethren, let each man, wherein he was called, therein abide with God” (1 Cor. 7:24, ASV)

Paul forbids Christians to category-jump in order to achieve status.  Why?  In the first place, such social maneuvering disdains God’s role in creating the initial social position of each person.  It neglects to consider that God may have a purpose that must be played-out as things stand.  It also neglects, as we will soon see, that the status-gains, that we seek, may not equate to an advantage before God.  God may see that the ladders, on which we may climb to better one another, are actually leaning up the wrong trees!  We may “get over on one another”, but God has not placed His fruitful blessings nor His approval at the top of the climb.   

Notice that Paul views a Christian’s conversion in terms of a “calling” from God.  Our conversion is our response to that Divine call, which comes to us in and through the Gospel.  At the beginning of the epistle, Paul declares, “For behold your calling, brethren, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:  but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong…”  (1 Cor. 1:26-27, ASV)[3].  If God accepted us as we were—whether male or female, married or single, slave or free, Jew or Gentile—why would we seek to change that status that was ours when He called us?

Paul refers the Corinthians back to their conversions and urges them to continue, now united with Christ Jesus, in the same status as then.  This is a general rule, and not a set-in-stone law:  “Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called  As we will see, Paul will make three uses of this rule:

1.  The rule will be enforced:  Paul will sometimes forbid any category-jump from the condition in which a person was called. 

2.  An exception to the rule will be allowed:  Paul will, under certain circumstances, allow a Christian to jump categories.

3.  The rule will be merely encouraged:  Paul will sometimes encourage Christians to remain in the condition of their calling, but will allow them to make the choice whether to change, or not.  The matter, in such cases, is purely discretionary, though Paul will offer his opinion (and he too has the Spirit!).

Applying this rule in Chapter Seven

This rule is the key that unlocks the interpretation of the entire chapter.  Paul will address various issues related to the single or married status of Christians.  He will apply the rule in each of the three ways noted above.  Either he will enforce it, or allow an exception to it, or Paul will encourage a Christian to remain as they are while allowing him or her to agree or disagree with him.  In fact, using this method, one can make a chart or outline of the entire chapter by dividing the contents into these three categories (give it a try).

The rule and its three applications show clearly in 7:17-24, where two illustrations are provided by Paul.  The first illustration is circumcision (vs. 18-19) and the second is slavery (vs. 21-23).  What is striking is the arrangement of Paul’s writing in this section.  Two statements of the rule (R) are placed as book-ends, before and after the two illustrations (I).  Another statement of the rule is placed between them.  So the pattern looks like this: 

R—I1—R—I2—R

This section falls in the middle of a larger discussion of marital status (whether single, married, or divorced).  Why would the topics circumcision and slavery arise here?  Do they not seem out of place?  I would suggest that they are placed here only for their illustrative value.  They are graphic demonstrations of ways that people, in that cultural environment, might jump from one social category to another—and might do so in order to gain status.  They give Paul an opportunity to press his new rule in appropriate applications.  It is significant that these two illustrations allow Paul to demonstrate the three applications of the rule:  enforcement, exception, and encouragement:

--categories of circumcision/uncircumcision[4] (first illustration) are enforced.  Paul does not permit one to gain status by jumping these categories[5].  This admonition is perfectly at home in the Paul’s apostolic mission to join Jew and Gentile in a unified, universal church in Christ Jesus.  Paul will allow no advantage to either side over the other; they stand equal before Christ[6].

--categories of slave/free (second illustration) are first given an exception.  Paul will allow a slave, who has the opportunity, to gain freedom, “Wast thou called being a bondservant?  Care not for it: nay, even if thou canst become free, use it rather[7](1 Cor. 7:21, ASV).  A slave given the opportunity to category-jump into freedom is encouraged to take it.  But then, perhaps considering situations in which such a jump is not even possible (since freedom cost money), Paul encourages both slave and free to remain in their present state in view of God’s holding both statuses in equal value before Him.

So, Paul’s rule is enforced, excepted and encouraged in the two illustrations, and the rule is expressed three times in the immediate context.    

The purpose of Paul’s rule

The purpose of Paul’s rule is stated in 7:32-35.  Paul wants Christians to live lives of “unhindered devotion” to the Lord.  He is aware that the wants, needs, and desires of a spouse can come into competition with this devotion (“No one can serve two masters”).  Paul is doubtless reflecting the concern spoken by Jesus, when He declared, “If any man cometh unto me, and hateth[8] not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, ASV).  The present form of the world (which includes the marriage relationship) is only temporary, and Paul wants Christians to be prepared to enter life that is not temporary.  His specific instructions to the single and to married Christians in this chapter always bear this concern. 

 

Instructions to single and married Christians

The chapter opens with encouragement, both for the single and for the married, to remain as they are.  The rule is thus encouraged.  Yet, Paul is willing to allow single to become married if sexual urges cannot otherwise be controlled.  The rule is thus excepted.  Turning to the married, Paul allows no more than temporary separation of sexual relations between husband and wife, and this for prayer.  The rule is thus enforced.  Turning again to the single (v. 6), he makes it plain that they are free to choose as seems best.  Even Paul’s personal example as a single Christian will not override their prerogative to choose.  He sums up instructions to both groups with the first statement of his rule:  “Howbeit each man hath his own gift[9] from God, one after this manner, and another after that” (7:7, ASV).

In 7:8-9, Paul turns to “the unmarried and the widows”.  By “the unmarried”, Paul may refer to widowers (the male version of widows).  Or, Jim McGuiggan[10] allows that the word may refer to “scripturally divorced” Christians also.  The same encouragement and free choice is allowed them as was allowed the other unmarried earlier.

Now, up to v. 16, Paul turns to married Christians, and he addresses them in two categories:

·         Christian marriages, in which two Christians are joined (vs. 10-11).

·         Mixed marriages, in which a Christian is married to an unbeliever (vs. 12ff.).

It is important to recognize that Christian marriages are “bi-covenantal”:  Christian husband and wife[11] are bound to one another in a marriage covenant, and individually are bound to God through the Lord Jesus in the “New Covenant.”  They thus have perhaps a stronger responsibility to one another, and a shared moral framework on which to build love and trust, not to mention the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  So, Paul’s application of the rule to Christian marriage is an unequivocal enforcement:  they may not separate (= divorce) unless they again reconcile.

The situation is different for a mixed marriage, and so is Paul’s application of the rule.  The rule, indeed, is also enforced when the unbeliever is agreeable to remaining in marriage.  Christians are not allowed to dump the unbeliever, even if they might think this brings them to a more spiritual status.  Paul encourages the marriage to continue on the grounds that God accepts their children as “holy” (= legitimate).  However, what is a Christian to do if their pagan spouse abandons the marriage?  Specifically, when Paul states that, in such cases, the brother or sister is “not under bondage”—not under bondage to what?  Paul gives his answer in vs. 15-16, but there is widespread (and heated) debate on what his answer means.

“Not under bondage”, to what?

Some insist Paul cannot refer to the marriage bond itself, on the principle stated by Jesus himself:  “the two shall become one flesh?  So that they are no more two, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:5-6, ASV).  Driven by this insistence, it is suggested that the brother or sister is not bound, for example, either to pursue extravagant legal maneuvers to preserve the marriage, or not bound to pursue the flighty pagan spouse all over the Roman empire in order to hold the marriage together.  Such suggestions further insist that the Christian remains bound to the marriage, and may not divorce or remarry.  They are forced to conclude this because Jesus gave only one permissible ground for divorce (and remarriage):  fornication. 

There are grounds for dismissing this limitation.  First, Jesus gave one exception (which proves that marriage is not unconditionally binding).  Second, Paul is addressing a situation that Jesus never encountered.  Paul had a word from Jesus to those in Christian marriages in v. 10:  “But unto the married I give charge, yea not I, but the Lord….”  The words spoken in the earthly ministry of Jesus, His “dominical saying” from our recorded Gospels, addressed such situations.  The Jews to which Jesus spoke were in a “bi-covenantal arrangement”; so are Christian marriages.  However, in this new situation Paul is speaking (apostolically, for Jesus) a new instruction, because the Gospel-recorded words do not apply to a covenantally-mixed marriage.  So Paul began instructing mixed marriages in v. 12 by insisting:  “But to the rest say I, not the Lord….”  Paul is speaking, not in quotation of Jesus’ earlier words, but as an authoritative apostle speaking fresh revelation from the same Lord to a new, unprecedented[12] situation.

Let it be suggested that understanding this passage in terms of Paul’s rule offers a better solution.  We might state it this way:  “Yet if the unbelieving departeth, let him depart:  the brother or the sister is not under bondage [to remain in that condition in which he/she was called].”  Paul ended his statement with a blank, or “ellipsis.”  We are simply filling-in that blank with the rule that governs the entire chapter.  It is the key that turns the lock that opens understanding to the entire chapter, so it makes sense to also apply it here—now to divorced Christians. 

Paul is not directly allowing the marriage bond to be broken; rather, he is allowing Christians to category-jump from being married to being single.  And, he probably makes this allowance in view of the fact that the marriage bond is already broken.  It was broken not by some “Pauline privilege”, but by the covenant-breaking abandonment by the pagan spouse.  Jesus, no doubt, also allowed remarriage when a marriage covenant was broken by a fornicating spouse.  Neither Jesus nor Paul broke any marriage; they simply recognized an already-broken partnership for what it was, and attended to the victim.  Jesus allowed remarriage to the innocent party; Paul—as an implication in the permission to category-jump—also would allow remarriage to the innocent party.  If these actions of Jesus and Paul seem strange, they make perfect sense in the dynamics of a covenant relationship.

Is this the correct interpretation?  We find strong support in the context.  First, the interpretation is a function of the larger context, which simply notes Paul’s rule (which governs the entire chapter) and applies it to yet another specific instruction.  Second, it fits like a hand-in-glove with the immediate context and the passage that immediately follows:  “but God hath called us in peace” (1 Cor. 7:15, ASV).  An abandoned spouse would be left in irreconcilable turmoil if the marriage obligation could not be broken.  But Paul offers the broken-hearted Christian “peace” (= relief).  Giving an exception to the rule here, as we suggest Paul does, makes for peace!  There is yet another support for this interpretation.  Paul offers this exception in view of the pessimistic[13] outlook toward any meaningful reconciliation with the departed pagan husband or wife:  “For how knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband?  Or how knowest thou, O husband, whether thou shalt save thy wife?”  (7:16, ASV).  This pessimism makes Paul’s exception to the rule look quite reasonable. 

Paul offers relief that is both pragmatic and compassionate.  The Christian has been abandoned by a spouse that does not share his or her fundamental worldview—belief in God, respect for the Scriptures, and moral conscience that esteems love and faithfulness.  It would be a very uneven distribution of responsibility to shoulder this hurting Christian with the painful consequences of the actions of one of Satan’s people.

Pauline Privilege, or Pauline Protection?

The suggestion that Paul offers a reason for divorce, beyond that single reason offered by Jesus, is sometimes viewed as the offer of a “privilege”.  To those insisting on the strict limitation suggested by the words of Jesus, “saving for the cause of fornication”, this smacks of liberalism, or granting license that Jesus would forbid.  The whole notion of a “Pauline privilege” is seen as repugnant, making one Scripture contradict another.  This line of reasoning is traditionally strong within churches of Christ.

Let it be clearly stated that respect for Scriptural authority and a view of truth, which understands that two true statements cannot contradict one another, undergirds this paper.  As noted above, there really is no contradiction between what was said by both Jesus and Paul, once we understand that each was addressing a different cultural situation.  Jesus spoke to covenantally-homogenous marriages, to marriages that were “bi-covenantal.”  Paul addressed this type of marriage also (and addressed them exactly as Jesus had).  However, Paul also had to address a form of marriage that was forbidden among “the lost sheep of Israel” (to whom Jesus spoke).  Paul went on to give additional instructions to covenantally-heterogeneous marriages, in which a Christian and a pagan were “unequally yoked.”  This was a different situation, calling for different instructions than any Jesus had previously given.  When Paul took up this responsibility, it is therefore a mistake to call his response a contradiction of the Lord Jesus.

Moreover, Paul’s thoughtful response should not be characterized as a “privilege.”  Paul was not merely relaxing the exacting strictures set by Jesus, as though he were merely a “liberal” (after the model of modern liberals who deliberately subvert Christian morals and teaching).  A better characterization will be found by placing Paul’s divorce instruction among other divorce rules and legislation in the Bible.

Divorce Legislation in the Bible

We began this discussion by noting the shortage of passages in the Bible that discuss divorce.  In the few passages we have, there are two emphases that emerge.  First, there are laws or legislations in God’s Word that seek to preserve the marriage bond:

·         In Gen. 2:24 we have every indication that God intended marriage to be a monogamous union of husband and wife that is bound by unending love and faithfulness.  Jesus makes this positive insistence when He grounds His own instruction in this firm determination of God (Matt. 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-10):  “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”.  God wants marriages to succeed.

·         In Malachi, preservation of marriage is addressed negatively in God’s plain declaration of His hatred for divorce (Malachi 2:13-16).  As God is pro-marriage; He is correspondingly anti-divorce.

Second, there are laws or legislation in God’s Word that seek to protect the victims of harmful marriages:

·         Moses instructed the ancient Israelites to give a “bill of divorcement” to the wives who were let go.  The instruction of Deut. 24:1-4 did not give permission to divorce.  Rather, it assumed an already-broken marriage bond, and aimed merely at protecting the “widow”.  As Jesus said, the legislation was a response to their “hardness of heart”, which was the true cause of the divorce (Matt. 19:8; Mark 10:5).  In that society, divorced women were cut off from all support and left in desperation.  They became victims of their husbands' act of divorce.  According to the Mishnah (M. Gitt. 9:3.), the bill-of-divorce, first and foremost, gave the victim the legal right to remarry.  Moses thus acts to protect a victim.

·         Jesus offered protection to spouses who were victimized by the fornicating behavior of their mates (Matt. 19:9).  Marriage was intended by God to be a “one-flesh” relationship.  Sex outside of marriage violates this fundamental concern of trust, love, and loyalty, resulting in a victim.

Note:  Most Bible versions translate Matt. 5:32 in such a way that seems to bring guilt upon the wife because of her husband's adultery!  The ASV has it:  "maketh her an adulteress."  This seems to me an unfortunate rendering of a rare "pluperfect passive" verb form that might better be rendered, "maketh her a victim of [his] adultery."

·         Paul observes the right of widows to remarry after being “victimized” by the death of their mates (Rom. 7:1-3).

·         Paul offers protection to Christians who are deserted by their pagan spouses (1 Cor. 7:12-16.  Another victim gets God’s protection.

In divorce legislation from Moses to Jesus to Paul, God makes plain His intention to preserve the marriage bond and also makes plain His desire to protect victims.  The two aims are not in conflict with one another.  They are two sides of the same coin:

·         God intended marriage to produce two (not just one) beneficiaries.  Marriage was first instituted in God’s compassionate regard for the loneliness of Adam.  The celebration of relational joy through the OT and NT reflects God’s beneficient intent for husband and wife.  He intends marriage as a blessing, rather than as the curse it sometimes becomes.  The desire to preserve marriage bonds should not be regarded as an attempt “to keep the prisoners in[14]” (roughly the understanding of the disciples in Matt. 19:10— The disciples say unto him, If the case of the man is so with his wife [given the prohibition against divorce], it is not expedient to marry” (ASV).  Marriage intends benefit as a function of Divine design; as F. F. Bruce[15] states: “"Marriage, like the Sabbath, was instituted for man, and not vice versa."  In view of God’s intent to bring a beneficial blessing to His human image-bearers in the institution and preservation of marriage, what becomes of these same bonds, if and when the marriage produces victims instead of beneficiaries?

·         God intended marriage to produce no victims.  If a victim results, God’s design-purpose has been failed.  Over and over, we see Moses, and Jesus, and Paul, legislating in a way to brings protection, peace, and relief to the victims of caustic relationships.  The victimization may be caused by breaking the covenant of marriage (unreasonable divorce), fornication, abandonment, or by the death of a spouse.  God is so concerned to bring us to a beneficial state that reflects His gracious concern, that He will even allow something declared to be the object of His hate:  divorce.  If divorce will spare a victim from further harm and hurt, God can be seen in the Bible to allow it.

In view of God’s clearly defined aims for marriage, Paul’s instruction is better characterized as “Pauline protection” rather than “Pauline privilege”!

Are there other grounds for divorce?

God wants to preserve marriage bonds.  Still, Jesus gave an “out”; Paul gave at least one more.  We noted that God allows divorce when marriage hurts people.  Are there other “hurts” that produce victims to whom God would likewise give relief through divorce?

This discussion calls forth the ancient squabble between Jewish rabbi’s over reasonable grounds for divorce.  Rabbi’s such as Hillel (the liberal) and Shammai (the conservative) argued whether one could legitimately divorce a wife who burned her husband’s food?  We might be tempted to laugh at this, were we all not aware of good marriages that have been tossed over equally trivial causes. Should we consider a husband a “victim”[16] if his medium-rare steak comes to him well-done?  What level of abuse truly qualifies one as a victim? 

On the other hand, there are situations that are never discussed in Holy Scripture which produce undeniable victims.  I once asked a Christian, who took a hardline approach to divorce, what he would do if a Christian woman came to him, with her lips split and her eyes blackened from blows with fists, and declared:  “My husband did this to me.”  Would he counsel her to forgive him and honor her marriage?  Wisdom argues against it:  “A man of great wrath shall bear the penalty;  For if thou deliver him, thou must do it yet again” (Prov. 19:19, ASV).  Wife-beaters are often repeat offenders, and the results can bring death to the victim—whether quickly or slowly.  Would Jesus consider this poor wife to be a victim, who should be allowed to escape the abuse and to seek a spouse who will benefit her?  Apart from any direct statement in Scripture, I would say “yes” without any hesitation.  This is not because I have authority to speak forth new revelation.  I would affirm her right by applying the principles that embrace the will of God for victims of bad marriages.   

Are there other reasons for divorce?  Perhaps.  I would suggest that we would gain additional insight from careful study of covenant relating[17].  Covenant is not only the essential relational form of marriage, it is the relational form of our relationship with the Creator!  When the “relational dynamics” of covenant are understood, this article will make more sense.  And, it will offer help to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate causes for breaking marriage bonds.  Divorce is too prevalent in our own culture, and we who represent God must reflect His will to preserve marriage bonds wherever possible.

Let me offer a guideline that might be helpful.  Marriage must be understood as sitting atop a foundation.  That foundation allows husband and wife to enjoy trust, upon which they can build a mutually beneficial relationship.  Some relational difficulties may sit atop that foundation, without breaking it.  Therefore, they may be overcome, and the marriage may continue in preservation.  However, other issues strike at the very foundation, so as to break it.  Unreasonable divorce is one (as per Moses).  Fornication is another (as per Jesus).  Abandonment is another (as per Paul).  Domestic violence is another (as per me).  A hurting spouse must make the careful determination of whether or not a hurtful situation so damages the foundation of a marriage that it cannot be sustained and preserved.

Above all, we should work to honor the twin desires God has for our marriage:  both to preserve marriage bonds and to make it a beneficial arrangement that leaves no victims.  In Scripture, God has made this plain in a minimum of Bible passages.  I would suggest that He has given us in these two concerns all the revelation we need to deal with the bewildering array of scenarios of marital trouble.  As always, God honors us with the responsibility to make determinations that honor both of His concerns.  We will honor Him only if we embrace both of His concerns for marriage.



[1] Regarding Matthew, it is interesting that his story of Jesus begins with the story of the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary through the Holy Spirit.  The episode threatened to implicate Mary in fornication and adultery (the otherwise universal explanation of how pregnancy occurs apart from the husband/betrothed).  Joseph was initially of a mind to divorce her quietly.  Had Jesus not offered this exception, He would have implicated His own (earthly) father in an improper divorce.  The Gospels that lack this story (Mark and Luke) also lack the exception, “saving for the cause of fornication.”  They give the expression of Jesus’ condemnation of divorce in absolute terms:  divorce and remarriage are wrong, period.  So, before Paul, we already have an exception.
[2] Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938), discussed in Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1970), p. 285.
[3] Gail R. O’Day proposes that 1:26 should be read as a question, rather than as a declarative statement.  In this reading, Paul would locate the Corinthian members as people of significant social standing who are then shamed by the weakness and foolishness of the Cross.  This reading makes excellent sense in context.  See Gail R. O’Day, “Jeremiah 9:22-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:  A Study in Intertextuality, Journal of Biblical Literature 109-2 (1990) 259-267.
[4] There actually was a surgical procedure in the ancient world for reversing circumcision.  In 1 Maccabees 1:14-15 there is a discussion of Jews who wanted to throw off their heritage to embrace Gentile culture:  “So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Greek custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant.  They joined with the Greeks…”
[5] Paul elsewhere allowed circumcision to one Gentile Christian (Timothy, Acts 16:3) while denying it for another (Titus, Gal. 2:3).  As in this chapter, Paul is judicious (rather than pedantic) in applying a general rule.
[6] Elsewhere Paul makes the equivalent statements denying supremacy either to circumcision or to uncircumcision, and declares that what really counts is either “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:2) or “a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).
[7] The expression “use it rather” (ASV) is rare and difficult to translate.  It speaks to a slave having the opportunity for freedom.  But, does it encourage a slave to seek emancipation, or to remain in slavery?  Some translations, like the NRSV, translate in a way that encourages the slave to remain in slavery:  “Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”  One scholar allows the opportunity for freedom and translates it, “by all means use it” (Henry Meecham, The Letter of Aristeas (London:  Manchester University Press, 1935), p. 176.  Similarly, one grammar renders it as "by all means seize (the opportunity)"; see James Hope Moulton and Wilbert Francis Howard, Accidence and Word Formation, vol. 2 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1920) p. 165 (footnote #1).  Yet another grammarian denies alternative translations saying:  "...Corinthian Christians are urged to make use once and for all the opportunity to be free; only with a [“present imperative form of the verb] ought the interpretation to be use your present state to the glory of God."  See Nigel Turner, Syntax, vol. 3 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1963) p. 76.
[8] The Semitic expression of “hate” calls not for spiteful hatred (here, toward loved ones), but for a competition among relationships that grants the Lord victory, hands down.
[9] In the other three statements of the rule, Paul refers to one’s “calling”; here he refers to one’s “gift”.  They are likely synonymous in Paul’s thinking, as in Rom. 11:29:  “For the gifts and the calling of God are not repented of” (ASV).  Paul likely chose the word “gift” while reflecting on the words of Jesus regarding marriage, “Not all men can receive this saying, but they to whom it is given” (Matt 19:11, ASV).
[10] Jim McGuiggan, The Book of 1 Corinthians (Lubbock, TX:  Montex, 1984), p. 96.  He also notes that Paul here shares a common framework with Matt. 19:
1. the honorable nature of celibacy (Matt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:1)
2. the treatment of celibacy as a “gift” (Matt. 19:11-12; 1 Cor. 7:7)
3. prohibition of divorce (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:10ff.)
[11] In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus first addressed divorcing husbands, then divorcing wives.  Here, Paul addresses a wife considering divorce first, leading one scholar to suggest that Paul does this because he is addressing an actual situation at Corinth, in which a Christian wife is seeking divorce, see Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, "The Divorced Woman in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11,"  Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (December 1981), pp. 601-606.
[12] Jews were forbidden to enter marriages with pagans.  Marriage was to be covenantally pure and homogenous.  It might be reasonably inferred that the same restriction applies to Christians on the basis of such passages as 2 Cor. 6:14 and 1 Cor. 7:39.  However, if one spouse in a pagan marriage converts, some time later, to Christianity, Paul would urge the marriage to be kept intact.  The new Christian should retain the pagan spouse.  Paul would forbid divorce, and enforce the same rule as applied to Christian marriages. 
[13] This pessimism stands in contrast to the optimism Peter offers to Christian wives whose pagan spouses “may without the word be gained by the behavior of their wives; beholding your chaste behavior coupled with fear” (1 Peter 3:1-2, ASV).  The pessimism no doubt applies towards the situation Paul addresses because the pagan is assumed to have fled.  It must be noted that not all interpreters see pessimism in Paul’s words, but it makes the best sense here.
[14] Montaigne observed, “"Marriage happens as with cages:  the birds without despair to get in and those within despair of getting out."
[15] F. F. Bruce, Paul:  Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1977), p. 268.
[16] I have trepidation about even setting forth such a question in modern “Oprah-fied” American culture, where “victim-status” seems to be highly esteemed.  In Biblical culture, becoming a victim always brought shame.
[17] I plan to publish on my blog a series of lessons on the covenant relationship.