1 Corinthians 7:27-28 – A Limited Case for Divorce and Remarriage

The issue of divorce and remarriage continues to be hotly debated among evangelical Christians, and this has led to a great deal of confusion.1 Scripture supplies two allowances for believers to divorce their spouse which are: being abandoned by an unbelieving spouse (1Cor. 7:15), and unrepentant sexual immorality by the spouse (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:4-9). It should be mentioned that although sexual immorality by one’s spouse allows for divorce, it does not demand it (Matt. 18:21-22; 1 Cor. 7:10-11; Eph. 4:26-27, 29-32; 5:22-23). The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that there is a limited allowance for divorce and remarriage found in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28. Specifically, it allows for those who have been divorced prior to conversion to remarry and by extension those believers who have been divorced because an unbelieving spouse abandoned them. Stated another way, in Corinth the situation was unique and does not provide a blanket approval for all divorce and remarriage.

It is clear that Scripture permits divorce and remarriage, but it is questionable that 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 supplies permission to do so. Scholars differ on their interpretation of this passage. For instance, Craig Keener believes the verses which mention those “released from a wife” refer to divorced men.2 Thus, the argument goes that divorced men may take advantage of Paul’s permissive statement in verse 28 “if you marry, you have not sinned.” John MacArthur also interprets the verses to refer to permission for men to remarry who were divorced prior to conversion.3 Yet, one must examine the surrounding contextual argument which Paul is setting forth. He begins chapter seven by proposing marriage as a deterrent for sexual immorality and issues proper guidelines for sexual relations in a marriage relationship (vv. 1-7). The apostle makes the statement that he desires all believers to be unmarried, but he makes clear that this is not a command (vv.6-7). It must be acknowledged that Paul realizes that being single is not for everyone (v. 7b). This sets forth a Pauline principle of blessing being found in singleness.

Next, Paul deals with the unmarried and the widows (vv.8-9). The word translated (unmarried) is from the root word agamo~, which generally referred to men and women who were single.4 He encourages those who are single and the widows to remain single (v. 8). Again, the apostles suggests singleness as a more desirable choice. Yet, he repeats that singleness is not for everyone and encourages those who have strong sexual desires to marry (v. 9).

In the next section, Paul instructs married believers to remain married to their unbelieving spouse unless the unbelieving spouse deserts the marriage, in which case they are free to divorce and remarry (vv. 10-16). This provides a second allowance for divorce and remarriage- abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. In such cases believers are not bound to the marriage relationship.

Following his instruction to believers who are married to unbelievers, the apostle addresses a variety of issues which include circumcision and slavery (vv. 17-24). In Corinth there were some who were circumcised, uncircumcised, slaves, and free men. Upon accepting Christ they were uncertain what to do about these preexisting life-situations. Paul declares that even though so many things have changed because of their relationship with Christ they should not force a change in their status because ultimately such things were irrelevant (vv. 19-20, 24).

After addressing these life-situation issues, Paul speaks of what virgins are to do (vv. 25-38). The question had arisen in Corinth about whether believers should seek to marry or not. Since this was not a situation faced by Christ during His earthly ministry, the apostle acknowledges that Christ did not speak directly about the issue but Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) gives his view about what is proper (v.25).5 He issues four reasons why virgins should remain unmarried: the present crisis (v.26); Christ’s return (vv.29-31); undistracted devotion to Christ (vv. 32-35); and increased happiness (vv. 39-40). Therefore, he says “because of the present distress: it is fine for a man to stay as he is” (v. 26 HCSB). The context clarifies what is meant by introducing the categories of married and unmarried (v. 27). The real issue is that Paul tells those who are “bound” (dedesai – 2nd person singular perfect passive indicative)6 not to seek to be “loosed” (lusivn – noun, feminine singular accusative)7 and then tells those who are “loosed” (lelusai -2nd person singular perfect passive indicative)8 from a wife not to seek a wife. It is clear that a man who is bound to wife refers to a married man9, which also means that for a man who is married to seek to be loosed means he would seek to divorce his wife. Yet the pertinent question is, does Paul refer to divorcées in his second question, “Are you loosed from a wife?”

The words translated “loosed” in the verse are both from the same root word. One is a noun form and the other is a verb form. So, if one is consistent is consistent in translation within the verse, one would conclude that Paul is instructing married men not to divorce and divorced men not to remarry. Where this becomes problematic for some is that verse 28 declares that those who have been “loosed from a wife” may marry and not sin by doing so. The question is, does this refer to divorcées? Keener and MacArthur believe so because they understand the two forms of the word translated “loosed” as referring to divorce.1011 Admittedly, MacArthur is more restrictive in his interpretation as noted earlier.

Conversely, D.A. Carson and William Heth12 believe that the verbal form translated “loosed” refers to a betrothed man who had not yet married his betrothed.13 Therefore, Paul is teaching betrothed males not to proceed to the stage of marriage because of the four reasons mentioned earlier: the present crisis (v.26); Christ’s return (vv.29-31); undistracted devotion to Christ (vv. 32-35); and increased happiness (vv. 39-40). They believe that Paul is referring to virgins and betrothed males because of the immediate context (vv. 25-38).14

Does one give more weight to the larger context (vv. 1-40) and to consistency of translation within the verse (v. 27) or the immediate context (vv. 25-38)? Carson and Heth prefer giving more weight to the immediate context of the passage and therefore interpret the “loosed” to refer to the betrothed. But, Keener and MacArthur ascribe more weight to the larger context (vv. 1-40) and to a consistency of translation within the verse (v. 27) thus viewing the “loosed” as divorcées. So, which is the most likely interpretation?

Paul has set forth the principle of remaining in the state each believer was found when he believed in Christ. Further, he proposes it would be more beneficial to remain unmarried.15 Yet, these general principles do not solve the interpretive problem of whether the “loosed” refer to divorcées or virgins and betrothed men.16 So, one must investigate further to arrive at a conclusion. In examining the passage Paul begins in verse 25 by addressing what virgins are to do and deals almost exclusively with this issue through verse 38. He also specifically addresses widows in this section, but it is by far a lesser focus (vv. 39-40). The first paragraph in this section outlines how virgins and the unmarried are to approach marriage in view of their present circumstances (vv. 25-31).17 After the apostle provides suggestions for these two groups he instructs them that being unmarried will provide them with a greater opportunity to serve Christ without distraction (vv. 32-35). He continues this consistency of thinking when he advises betrothed men not to seek the next step of marriage if they are able to remain sexually pure in a single state (vv. 36-38). Again, Paul is setting forth the principle of the blessings of singleness. He is most concerned with instructing the single Corinthians to maintain undistracted devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. One must recognize that the apostle clearly mentions that if the betrothed man chooses to marry his virgin he has not sinned.18

The larger context of chapter seven must be considered in this discussion (vv. 1-40). Paul is instructing new believers how to conduct themselves as Christians. These new believers were found in various life-situations when they believed the gospel. Some were ready to abandon their life-situations because they were now followers of Christ. Paul writes to caution them about abandoning all areas of their former lives. He teaches that married couples are not to deprive one another sexually (vv. 1-7). The apostle then advises the unmarried and the widows to remain single, but if necessary they may marry to remain sexually pure (vv. 8-9). Next, he addresses married male and female believers by instructing them not to divorce (vv. 10-11; Matt. 5:32; 19:3-9). Paul begins to address a situation which had arisen in Corinth when one spouse converted to Christ and the other did not (vv. 12-16). The believing spouse was not to divorce the unbelieving spouse, unless the unbeliever abandoned the believer. In such a case, the believer was free from the marriage (“not under bondage in such cases”). The Corinthian church knew that a believer was not to marry a non-believer (2 Cor. 6:14-18) and were prepared to divorce their unbelieving spouses. They are commanded not to do so.

Following this, Paul addresses the issues of slavery and circumcision (vv. 17-24). The new believer is not to undo/do things in his life which are unnecessary. Instead, he is to obey God’s Word in the life-situation in which he was saved (vv. 19-20, 24). Then Paul speaks to the issue of virgins, the unmarried, and widows (vv. 25-40). He informs them that they will be better off remaining single. But, if they do choose to marry they have not sinned. In the larger context of the chapter, the “unmarried” appears to refer to those who were divorced prior to conversion and were currently unmarried. It would also apply by extension to those believers who had been abandoned or would be abandoned by an unbelieving spouse. Those who were currently “bound to a wife” had entered into marriage at a time in the past and were still married at the time of Paul’s writing as indicated grammatically (dedesai – 2nd person singular perfect passive indicative, “bound”). Those who were currently “loosed from a wife” had been released from marriage at a time in the past and were still currently unmarried at the time of Paul’s writing (lelusai – 2nd person singular perfect passive indicative, “loosed”). Paul began to address what virgins and the betrothed were to do now that they had converted to Christ (v. 25) and what he appears to do is to present a general principle, which encompasses individuals outside of the categories of virgin and betrothed (vv. 26-31). As a result of the current circumstances in Corinth he tells the married to remain married (“do not seek to be released”) and the divorced (“released from a wife”) not to get married (v. 27). He has already prefaced this statement with the principle of remaining in the life-situation in which one is found (vv. 8, 17, 20, 24, 26). As one considers the principle of remaining in the life-situation in which he was found upon conversion, in relation to those individuals who have been “loosed from a wife” one must recognize that such men have been divorced prior to conversion. The principle would also apply to those who had been abandoned or would be abandoned by an unbelieving spouse (vv. 12-16). Paul encourages those men who were divorced prior to conversion to remain unmarried, so they would be able to serve Christ without distraction (vv. 26-27, 32-35). Yet, if such men do marry they have not committed sin (vv. 27-28). Paul distinguishes between virgins and the divorcees in his allowance for marriage (vv. 27-28).

The larger context of chapter seven speaks of not abandoning the life-situation in which one was found when conversion occurred (vv. 1-40). In reference to marriage, Paul highlights the benefits of singleness but recognizes all may not be so equipped. Therefore, he instructs the virgins, the widows, and the unmarried. The larger context identifies those who have been “released from a wife” as being individuals who had been divorced prior to conversion and by application those who have been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse (vv. 15, 27). Paul says that such individuals may remarry (v. 28). The purpose of this paper has been to demonstrate that there is a limited allowance for divorce and remarriage found in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28. Specifically, it allows for those who have been divorced prior to conversion to remarry and by extension those believers who have been divorced because an unbelieving spouse abandoned them. Stated another way, in Corinth the situation was unique and does not provide a blanket approval for all divorce and remarriage.

WORKS CITED

Bauer, Walter, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 3rd ed., rev. and aug. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago, Ill: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000).

Büchsel, Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vols. 5-9 Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 Compiled by Ronald Pitkin., ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976).

Carson, D. A., New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, Rev. Ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd Ed. / Edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994).

Hawthorne, G.F., “Marriage and Divorce, Adultery and Incest,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid ( Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).

Heth, William, “Remarriage for Adultery or Desertion,” in Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church: 3 Views, ed. Paul Engle, and Mark L. Strauss (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).

“Another Look at the Erasmian View of Divorce and Remarriage” JETS 25/3 (September 1982).

Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, A. R. Fausset et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, On Spine: Critical and Explanatory Commentary. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

Keener, Craig S. and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

Liddell, H.G., A Lexicon : Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible societies, 1996, c1989).

MacArthur, John, “Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce, Part 6” http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/2341_Jesus-Teaching-on-Divorce-Part-6 COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 Grace to You.

Polhill, John B., “1 Corinthians: A Church Divided,” ch. 12 of Paul & His Letters (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1999).

Quinn, Lance, “Common Questions Regarding Divorce and Remarriage,” article found at http://www.gty.org/Resources/Articles/A377_Common-Questions-Regarding- Divorce-and-Remarriage q=divorce+and+remarriage COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 Grace to You.

Swanson, James, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985).

1William A. Heth, “Another Look at the Erasmian View of Divorce and Remarriage” JETS 25/3 (September 1982), 263-272. Heth has since changed his interpretation to a selectively restrictive view.

2Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 1 Co 7:27.

3John MacArthur, “Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce, Part 6” http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/2341_Jesus-Teaching-on-Divorce-Part-6 COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 Grace to You.

4Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 3rd ed., rev. and aug. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), 5.

5John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983-c1985), 2:519.

6James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), DBLG 1313, #7.

7Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible societies, 1996, c1989), 1:456.

8Friedrich Büchsel Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vols. 5-9 Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 Compiled by Ronald Pitkin., ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976), 4:335-336.

9H.G. Liddell, A Lexicon : Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), 181.

10Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 1 Co 7:27.

11John MacArthur, “Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce, Part 6” http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/2341_Jesus-Teaching-on-Divorce-Part-6 COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 Grace to You.

12William Heth, “Remarriage for Adultery or Desertion,” in Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church: 3 Views, ed. Paul Engle, and Mark L. Strauss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 129.

13D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, Rev. Ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd Ed. / Edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1 Co 7:25.

14G.F. Hawthorne, “Marriage and Divorce, Adultery and Incest,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid ( Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 594-601.

15Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, A. R. Fausset et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, On Spine: Critical and Explanatory Commentary. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 1 Co 7:27.

16Lance Quinn, “Common Questions Regarding Divorce and Remarriage,” article found at http://www.gty.org/Resources/Articles/A377_Common-Questions-Regarding- Divorce-and-Remarriage q=divorce+and+remarriage COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 Grace to You. Quinn states that the “unmarried” were divorced prior to conversion and only they are permitted to remarry. He is one of MacArthur’s associates.

17John B. Polhill, “1 Corinthians: A Church Divided,” ch. 12 of Paul & His Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 240-41.

18D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, Rev. Ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd Ed. / Edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1 Co 7:36.

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11 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 7:27-28 – A Limited Case for Divorce and Remarriage

  1. I HV BEEN SO BLESSED BY UR COMMENTARIES ON THESE VERSES. IT IS VERY INCISIVE AND PRECISE. IT ANSWERED ALL MY QUESTIONS ON THESE VERSES, NOW I CAN ALSO EXPLAIN IT TO OTHERS WHENEVER THE TOPIC ARISES. THANK U AND GOD BLESS U!

  2. I believe the Bible does NOT allow remarriage– unless your spouse has died.

    “Everyone who puts away his wife and takes another, is a false husband and he who is married to a woman whose husband has put her away, is no true husband to her.” Bible in Basic English (1949/1964 BBE)
    — Luke 16:18

    After he takes another wife he becomes a FALSE husband to the second wife and the man who takes the woman who was put away by her husband is NOT her true husband.

    “For be ye well assured, that so many as are coupled together OTHERWISE than God’s Word doth allow are NOT joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful.”
    -–Book of Common Prayer

    “I Require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it. For be ye well assured, that if any persons are joined together OTHER than as God’s Word doth allow, their marriage is NOT lawful.”
    -–Book of Common Prayer

    “Look at the legalized adultery we call divorce. Men marry one wife after another and are still admitted into good society; and women do likewise. There are thousands of supposedly respectable men in American living with other men’s wives, and thousands of supposedly respectable women living with other women’s husbands.”
    — R. A. Torrey

    R.A. Torrey
    Pastor and graduate of Yale University
    Superintendent of Moody Bible Institute for 19 years

    http://www.cadz.net/mdr.html

  3. I struggle a lot with this whole issue, and though I held to the idea that divorce and remarriage were allowed in the case of adultery and desertion, I have come to a place where my understanding leans more toward the idea that it cannot be undone, and subsequent marriages are considered adultery. I would encourage anyone to check out a blog I have started about this issue:

    http://knowinghisways.blogspot.com/

    I will say that this passage in 1st Corinthians still is one that doesn’t seem to blend well with the idea that it cannot be undone, and I will have to read this post again.

    But the other thought that I find troubling (and I’ve blogged about it) is this idea that Craig Keener has about all of Jesus’ hearers understanding his statements about remarriage being adultery as hyperbole. I have seen the writings of the early church fathers, who seem to be unanimous about the idea that what Jesus said, he meant literally. If Keener is right that his original hearers understood it to be rhetoric, and not to be taken literally, how is it that this was lost so quickly, and for centuries in the church.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful discussion on the issue. I invite others to read my blog, and to post comments or questions, pro or con, as I am interested in trying to develop healthy and productive conversation on this issue.

    Thanks.

  4. The Greeks did not have a word for “widower” like they did for “widow” (there was, apparently, a word, but it was extremely uncommon to use it – kind of like using words like “erudite” (where we would say well-educated) or “lunule” (where we would say the end of your finger nail). It was standard in Greek to use the same word for “unmarried” and for “widower” when referring to a man – context only dictates which (and/or) is meant; perhaps, looking at this business about “now to the unmarried and to widows, I say…” refers to widows and widowers, not to widows or those who are divorced. This would harmonize better with the other parts of 1st Corinthians 7. Just a thought.

  5. Those who are “loosed” refers to those who had been divorced prior to accepting Christ. My argument does not rise and fall on “the unmarried and widows.” Regardless, in response to your proposal that “unmarried” refers to widowers, what do you do with the fact that Paul ends up speaking about “virgins” and those who had been “loosed from a wife” in verses 25-38? The passage is speaking to believers remaining in the state in which they were found when they accepted Christ (7:17-24). This would deal with people who were – unmarried, widows, and loosed from a wife (it is pretty difficult to say that this does not refer to people who had been divorced prior to salvation). Verses 25-28 speak pretty clearly on this issue.

  6. In the verse I was referring to, “to the unmarried and to the widows” the point I was making was that, since there was no word for “widower,” it would make more sense, perhaps, to see this verse as Paul speaking to “men and women who’s spouses had died,” rather than seeing it as referring to “men who were single either by divorce or not ever been married and to widows.” The context of that verse seems to support this idea, don’t you think?

  7. I think that contextually he is merely referring to those who were unmarried and widows. I think that those who had become single through divorce (which occurred prior to salvation – because of the context) are brought into the discussion later in the chapter (vv. 25-28). The verse to which you are referring (v. 8) may not directly refer to those who had become single through divorce but they are certainly brought into the discussion later in the chapter.

  8. Perhaps. I was only making the point about verse 8 when I first posted. I think, though, “have you been loosed from a wife?” could also be argued to be saying “by death.” I do think there are some good arguments for why he might not have been referring to divorce but only to “loosed by death” (for instance, as would be consistent with his illustration in Romans 7, though this is probably not a strong argument – Romans 7 is used as an illustration, and any analogy can break down when pushed beyond it’s intended purpose). But so much of this seems to need to be understood not merely by immediate context but in light of the whole concept as a whole in scripture… and so round and round we go….

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