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First Corinthians 7--Marriage and Celibacy, Part 2

Mar 24, 2017

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:8, 9,

8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Here the apostle defends celibacy as an honorable estate, but never does he tell anyone that marriage is less honorable. Paul was not an ascetic, as some were in those days, for he spoke against asceticism or “self-abasement” in Colossians 2:18-23. Some believed that to become spiritual, one had to deny all natural sexual desire, and by this they attempted to subvert human nature itself. This was not Paul’s view.

He made it clear in verse 6 that his preference for celibacy and for remaining single when widowed was a personal preference, not a command of God. Celibacy was not even a path toward greater spirituality.

Paul’s personal motive for remaining unmarried is given later in 1 Corinthians 7:26,

26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.

These were times of persecution, and the distress was soon to become worse, for in the next decade Rome was to outlaw Christianity, making it a religio illicita. Paul mentions only the present condition, but no doubt he already had a foreboding of the future. To be married in such times could be heartbreaking. Rome would soon use the threat of killing or torturing one’s spouse as leverage to get a person to renounce Christ.

Under those stressful conditions, Paul says, “it is good for a man to remain as he is.” However, under normal circumstances, marriage was good as a personal relationship, as well as being necessary to bring forth the next generation.

Apparently, there was a disagreement in the Corinthian church, which Paul needed to address. Some had pushed Paul’s advocacy of celibacy to include everyone and tied it to spiritual motives. Others had argued against celibacy. Both positions were extreme, and Paul brought balance to this teaching.

Divorce and Separation

Some advocates of celibacy may have advocated the breakup of marriages. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11,

10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried [agamos], or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce [aphiemi, “send away”] his wife.

The issue at hand was whether married couples should separate in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality in their relationship with God. We do not know if this had become a problem in the church, or if Paul was anticipating a possible problem in the future. Nonetheless, he tells them that married couples should not separate, for this would break their marriage vow. This was not merely Paul’s opinion, but an instruction from the Lord.

It is unclear whether Paul was talking about divorce or separation. The verse itself does not mention divorce (apoluo), but separation (aphiemi). Earlier versions of the NASB read, “the husband should not send his wife away.” Only later was this changed to “the husband should not divorce his wife.”

Paul did not use the term apoluo (“divorce”) here, although the NASB translators decided to insert their own opinion into the passage. Perhaps they were trying to change the divine law by forbidding divorce altogether, whereas God’s law gives provision for divorce as long as it is done without injustice. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 KJV allows divorce, but specifies that a man must give his wife a written bill of divorce, so that she has written proof of it. That way, she may remarry without fear that her ex-husband might charge her and her second husband with adultery.

As for lawful causes of divorce, the law is largely silent, except in the case of a slave-wife who has been deprived of food, clothing, and conjugal relations (Exodus 21:10, 11). Such causes, no doubt, would also apply to one’s marriage to a freewoman, giving her legal cause to demand a writ of divorce.

For a longer study, see my book, The Bible Says, Divorce and Remarriage is NOT Adultery.

Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11 was in the context of the married couples in the church who may have thought that celibacy within marriage was a pious thing to do, or an acceptable sacrifice to God. Paul refutes this idea, making it clear that this instruction was from God and not merely his own opinion or preference.

We may extend this injunction beyond mere separation to include divorce itself, for this would not go beyond the spirit of Paul’s writing. The important factor is to understand the framework and context of Paul’s discussion. It is not good for married couples either to refrain from sexual relations, whether by informal separation or by a formal divorce.

The Case of an Unbelieving Spouse

Paul speaks next about believers who are married to unbelievers, for some may believe that the injunction not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14 KJV) required a believer to separate from or divorce the unbelieving spouse. Such an injunction, of course, applied to one’s consideration of marriage, not after the fact. 1 Corinthians 7:12, 13 says,

12 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away.

Paul did not think that having an unbelieving spouse constituted grounds for divorce. However, keep in mind that Paul was careful to say that this was his opinion. After all, there may be extreme cases where an unbelieving spouse may do things which would indeed be grounds for divorce. A wife-beater, for example, could hardly be classed as a husband consenting to live with her. To insist upon a wife remaining with such a husband could be a death sentence upon her.

Further, husbands have been known to force their wives into prostitution, or to do other immoral and illegal acts. Such things could indeed be grounds for divorce, and, indeed, this is why God made provision for divorce in His law. He knew that in the corruptible state that mankind finds itself, marriages have a potential for great evil as well as for good.

Herein is the basic difference between an Old Covenant marriage and a New Covenant marriage. The first contains a provision for divorce out of necessity; the second finds no need for divorce, because both parties hear from God and serve Him and each other.

Yet in most cases, an unbelieving spouse loves his believing wife (and vice versa), and apart from some extraordinary circumstance, they ought to remain together. Though the law permits divorce, such a thing ought not to be done lightly or without lawful cause. If we look at the example of God’s marriage with Israel—especially pictured in the story of Hosea—we find that God considered idolatry to be spiritual adultery, and that this constituted grounds for divorce.

Even so, He did not divorce her immediately, but was patient with her for many centuries, enduring all the heartache that men and women on earth experience in such cases. In the end, however, He invoked His right of divorce, based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, giving Israel a writ of divorce (Jeremiah 3:8). Likewise, Hosea divorced Gomer (Hosea 2:2), who was a type of Israel.

In 1 Corinthians 7:12, Paul, in a reverse manner, extends the right of divorce to wives as well as to husbands. By recommending that the believing wife not put away her husband, he acknowledges the possibility of doing so. There are some who think that wives are not permitted to divorce their husbands, as if they have no rights. But as we have already shown, even slave-wives have a right to appeal to the law if they have been deprived of food, clothing, and conjugal rights.

Likewise, Jesus Himself mentioned this right in Mark 10:11, 12. But since the NASB does not seem to recognize the distinction between divorce (apoluo) and putting away, or dismissal (aphiemi), we will quote from The Emphatic Diaglott, which says,

11 And He says to them, “Whoever shall dismiss [aphiemi] his wife and marry another, commits adultery with her. 12 And if she who dismisses [aphiemi] her husband, shall marry another, she commits adultery.

The context shows that Jesus was commenting on the law of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where it was unlawful to “dismiss” one’s wife without first giving her a writ of “divorce.” Divorce was supposed to happen before the dismissal, but too often men violated the law by dismissing his wife without a writ of divorce. This was an injustice, because it prevented her from remarrying, since she was still legally married to the husband who had dismissed her. Hence, if she remarried, she committed adultery, and whoever married her was also guilty of adultery.

In that context, Jesus assumes that wives, too, might dismiss their husbands without proper divorce papers. The sin was not in giving the divorce papers, but in dismissing a spouse without those papers.

We see, then, that both Jesus and Paul mention the possibility of a woman taking legal action against her husband. That, in itself, is not condemned. It is only when it is done in an unlawful manner that Jesus condemns it, and in Paul’s example, a believing wife ought not to dismiss her unbelieving husband—at least not under normal circumstances.


This is part 28 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones