What does 1 Corinthians 7 actually say about marriage to unbelievers?

I’m continuing my little series of articles looking at what 1 Corinthians 7 actually says about sexual ethics.  Remember that the starting point has been a question about abstinence.  Is it a good thing for men to abstain from sexual relations with women?  It is In this context that a question comes up about situations where a believer is married to an unbeliever? This could be an issue for a significant number of people in a young/new church where growth had been mainly through conversions as was the case in New Testament churches.  There was no guarantee that couples and whole families would be saved together, though when it was, there was great cause for rejoicing.

What then should you do if your spouse doesn’t follow you in faith? This might be seen as one example where a Christian would be wise to follow the abstinence approach by separating from their partner.  If their partner did not follow Jesus, didn’t that make them unholy and if unholy, unclean?  If  Christians were forbidden from being unequally yoked, then shouldn’t they unyoke from an unequal marriage partnership and if they were forbidden from one flesh relationships with prostitutes then surely the same applied to permanent relationships to idolatrous husbands or wives.

Paul’s response is to say that the believer should not divorce their unbelieving spouse, if their husband or wife was willing to remain married to them (v12-13). His reasoning is that the believer does not need to fear their marriage and family being contaminated, infected with the uncleanness of idolatry of their spouse because in fact, things work the other way.  Their spouse is made holy by the relationship with them.  He says that this is obviously so because their children are also holy and not unclean (v14).

It is worth pausing to think about what Paul means here because it’s not the easiest of verses.  I think it should be clear that by “holy” or sanctified, Paul does not mean “saved.”  The word is being used relatively in a specific context.  The unbelieving husband or wife does not get to benefit from their spouses’ faith and get eternal life on a kind of 2 for 1 basis. Verse 16 makes it clear that you cannot be sure that you will be able to save your unbelieving partner.  This also means that the children are not included within the elect on the basis of one parent’s faith, contra some paedo-baptist arguments.  Rather, Paul is saying “look you don’t treat your children as ‘unclean’ so that you are unable to love them, unable to touch them.  You, rightly hold them close, they belong to you, they are part of you. So, in the same way, you don’t have to fear contact/relationship with your unbelieving spouse.”

However, whilst the Christian in the marriage is not free to break of their obligation to their unbelieving spouse, Paul says that the unbeliever themselves may chose to leave the marriage.  If this happens, then the believer is free, no longer under a marriage obligation. In other words, the church should recognise the divorce and they should not insist that the Christian is subject to their marriage vows any longer (v15). This is important because the Christian may feel burdened with guilt, may see it as their responsibility to lead the other to Christ, or may even misunderstand the comments in verse 14 about sanctification and think that their faith is covering their spouse.  Paul says that you just do not know what will happen.  Salvation is the Lord’s responsibility (v16).

It is important as with the other cases we’ve looked at to be clear about what Paul is and is not saying.  He is not saying that it is okay for Christians to date and marry non-Christians.  I would be straight down the line on this.  A believer should not go out with or marry a non-believer.  Paul is not giving an excuse for this. In fact, he deals pretty firmly with one of the most often given excuses for such relationships, the hope that the believer can lead their boyfriend or girlfriend to faith.  You simply do not know if this will happen.

However, there will be situations where Christians and non-Christians are married. Paul’s primary concern is where the couple were already married when one of them became a Christian.  However, we can by extension include situations where a Christian has married an unbeliever and later realised their error.  In such cases, the obligations and ties are now in place.  The point of 1 Corinthians 7 is that we shouldn’t go getting ourselves bound by obligations that compete with the Gospel.  Once those obligations are in place we should keep them.

So, a Christian should not seek a relationship with an unbeliever.  However, if they are already married, then they should keep their side of the commitment.  They should fulfil their obligations and they can do this, not in a dry, rule keeping way. They can continue to hold their spouse close and love them.  If their spouse choses to leave them, then that is their choice.  The Christian is free to divorce, to legally recognise what has happened in practice.  My understanding of Scripture’s teaching on divorce is that they are then free to remarry.

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