Marriage and the Gospel
Marriage and the Gospel
1 Corinthians 7:10-24
by William Klock
Last week we looked what St. Paul had to say to about sex within the marriage relationship. Today I want to look at the middle part of chapter seven. Paul continues to address what’s basically the same problem, but switches gears. He was addressing the problem of those who denied sexual relations to their spouses on the grounds that it somehow defiled their perceived “super-spirituality”, but the problem went a step further. There were some who wanted to divorce their spouses on the same ground – basically claiming they were too spiritual to be married. And so the rest of the chapter is Paul’s response to them – his attempt at clearing the air of all their wrong ideas and putting their focus back on the cross of Christ. Remember that’s Paul’s focus throughout the book – the cross.
But before we get into the text I want say that in studying this passage over the last few weeks, it’s driven home to me the danger of mishandling Scripture. When the Bible speaks, we need to let it speak for itself. Too often we approach it in the wrong way and force it to say things that it really doesn’t. We pull passages out of context and make them say things that they don’t – or maybe they do say that, but in missing the context we miss the whole point. That’s certainly the case with the way the modern church takes these verses. Bishop Sutton addresses this in his book on divorce and remarriage in pointing out that Christians often come to these passages asking the question: “Is it okay for me to get a divorce?” But in doing that we miss the point – we miss the larger context of what Paul is saying here. We might better come to the text with a problem marriage and ask: “Is it okay for me to stay married?” There’s a difference. Asking if it’s okay for me to get a divorce puts me first. Asking if it’s okay for me to stay married puts someone else first and shows a desire to do what’s pleasing to God and what puts his Kingdom and his Gospel first – what puts the cross first. Look at verses 10 and 11:
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
He transitioned from sex to marriage in the last couple of verses we looked at last week where he advised the widows and widowers to remain as they were and for everyone to see both singleness and marriage as gifts from God. In that case he tells the widowed, “Before you go getting remarried, consider which state allows you to best serve the Kingdom.” Now he addresses the married – and specifically the women who thought that because they were supposedly super-spiritual, they needed to divorce their Christian husbands. He appeals to Jesus’ teaching that appealed to God’s creation of Adam and Eve and his institution of marriage as a permanent state. We looked at that passage about a year ago in our study of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:32 Jesus says:
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
It’s one of those few times when Paul, to makes his point even stronger, doesn’t just rest on his own authority as an apostle, but appeals directly to the teaching of Jesus. “The wife should not separate from her husband…and for that matter, the husband should not divorce his wife.” He warns: “If you do separate you’ve got two choices: either stay unmarried or be reconciled with your spouse and remarry.
Here’s one of those places where we go hunting for a rule that we follow to the letter and not be in the wrong – and where we totally miss the point when we do that. I know Christians who have take this passage as justification for getting divorced, and then they simply take the line, “I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m not guilty of adultery, because I haven’t remarried.” They’ll do the same thing with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet the overarching point Jesus and the Apostle are both getting at isn’t really about divorce and remarriage – it’s about living the Gospel and about being people who live out God’s redemption in a visible way in their lives is. We’re told throughout Scripture that Christians are to be peacemakers and reconcilers, precisely because through the cross and through the blood of Jesus, God has been a peacemaker and reconciler to us. The issue of divorce comes into it simply because under most circumstances, a divorce means that we’re not being living witness of what God has done for us.
Remember that last week we looked at Ephesians 5, where Paul very clearly shows us how one of the most important purposes of marriage is to teach us how to model redemption. He told the husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and he told the wives to submit to their husbands just as the Church, the Bride of Christ, submits to him. If husbands love their wives it makes it a lot easier for the wives to submit and if wives submit it makes it a lot easier for husbands to love, but that doesn’t mean that loving and submitting are any more contingent on our spouse doing his or her part than Jesus’ love for us is contingent on our doing the right thing. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
That’s the foundation on which every Christian marriage is supposed to be built – and if we build on that, then my first thought is for my spouse, not for me. I look at marriage as treating my wife or my husband as Jesus has treated me – doing good not because it’s deserved, but because it models the love of God – in fact sometimes even doing good because it’s not deserved. If both husband and wife are committed to that principle, then divorce isn’t even an option – and if for some reason it somehow happens anyway, the husband or wife continues to seek to model redemption to the estranged spouse – seeking reconciliation and asking not “What’s the best thing for me?”, but “What’s the best thing for my spouse? What best models the love of Christ to him or her?”
But this doesn’t just apply to marriage. In fact, the reason it applies to marriage is because it’s the basic relational principle in the Body of Christ – in the Church: reconciliation. Living out redemption and being a reconciler is what every Christian is called to do in every relationship of life. No Christian is ever permitted to blow somebody off, to resent them, to treat them badly, or in any other way to be estranged from them or at enmity with them. Any time a Christian fails to reconcile, or at least do everything from his or her end to facilitate reconciliation and to restore full fellowship and friendship, the Gospel message loses. How can we tell the people out in the world that Jesus loves them unconditionally when we in the Church can’t model that same love? That goes for our friends and acquaintances here and even more so for those of us who are both brothers and sisters in Christ as well as being husbands and wives in Christian marriage. To use this passage as justification for getting a divorce and simply not remarrying is to totally miss the point.
Now in verses 12 to 16 he addresses a problem that isn’t covered by Jesus’ teaching: what if your spouse isn’t a believer?
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) [he appealed to Jesus’ teaching in the last part, now he’s making it clear that this is his teaching – although that makes it no less authoritative for us.] that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
He’s dealing with a very different situation, but do you see how Paul’s still resting on the same principle of putting the cross, the Gospel, at the centre of the situation?
If these people who thought that they were “super-spiritual” and that marriage or sex with their believing spouse was defiling, imagine what they thought of marriage to an unbelieving spouse. And yet Paul brings the same Gospel principle to bear here that he does with two believers who are married. Here’s a situation that has the potential to cause all sorts of problems for a believer. The unbelieving spouse might be a bad influence on the family and might be hard to get along with. Certainly, not being a Christian, he or she isn’t going to have the Spirit working inside them to help them deal with sin – and that’s going to make living together, loving each other, and reconciling with each other more difficult sometimes. We can come up with all sorts of reasons why it would be “good” for a believer to divorce an unbelieving spouse. But Paul puts it all in Gospel perspective again. It’s like he’s saying, “Don’t think about it from the perspective of what’s good for you. Think about it from the perspective of what’s good for your spouse. If you love your spouse – which you should – isn’t your greatest desire for them to come to know Christ the way you have?”
You see, we forget that. Whether we’re dealing with an unbelieving spouse or an unbelieving friend or acquaintance, too often our first response is to get angry over some offence done to us and to turn our backs on them. We’ve been wronged and we want justice! Too often we’d be happy to see them rot in hell. Sometimes we self-righteously look at the whole world that way. We condemn a world that already stands condemned before God, forgetting that its only hope is the message of the cross. That’s why back in chapter five Paul told us, we need to worry about keeping the Church pure, not so much the world. The world is doing what the world does, because it hasn’t been purified by Christ. That’s just the way it is and we can’t expect unbelievers to act like believers when they haven’t first been grafted into Christ by the Spirit. The world’s only hope is the Gospel – and that’s what we in the Church are supposed to be showing to them. Did Jesus hate the world for doing him wrong? No. He loved the world and died for it. Can we do anything less?
And so while we might be temped to look at the situation one way, Paul turns it around and shows us the situation through the lense of the cross, “It’s not that your unbelieving spouse defiles you. Consider that you, as a believer, make your unbelieving spouse holy. And consider that your children, through you, are covenant children.” Now Paul isn’t introducing the doctrine of “justification by marriage.” You can’t become a Christian by marrying one. What he’s doing is drawing on language from the Old Testament – the same language he uses in Romans 11:16: “If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.” He’s talking about Israel there. Israel was not yet converted as a people, and yet Paul appealed to the fact that the nation as a whole had sprung from a root of belief – men like Abraham and Moses – and because of that the whole family – the branches — was still in some way set apart, still part of the covenant even if they were lacking belief. Paul’s hope was that because in this special sense they belonged to God, that the nation might one day come to faith. We use similar language in talking about baptism. Baptising your child doesn’t guarantee faith anymore than circumcision in the Old Testament guaranteed faith, and yet giving our children the sign and seal of God’s covenant gives them the special status of being set apart for God – of being holy in this sense that Paul talks about the unbelieving spouse.
Think about it. What better place is there to be an evangelist than in your own home? And that’s how Paul wants us to look at it. It’s not that marriage to an unbeliever isn’t without its challenges, but the primary perspective of the Christian in dealing with unbelievers is always Jesus’ great commission to take the Gospel to them. In the midst of the challenges, Paul calls us to remember: It’s not about me. It’s not about my rights. It’s not about me being comfortable. It’s not about me getting what’s mine. It’s about me living out my faith in the place where God has put me and sharing the Gospel in word and deed – being Christlike – right where I am and being a witness to the people or person closest to me. God sends some people to the farthest reaches of the world and to primitive cultures to spread the Gospel and in other cases he makes our own home the mission field.
And yet most of us know from our experience sharing the Gospel, not everyone wants to hear it. Now let me be clear. If someone is offended, it had better be the Gospel message itself that offends – not us, not how we act, not how we live, not how we present the message – it should be the Gospel itself that offends. And so Paul grants that there may be some unbelieving spouses who choose to walk away from the marriage because of the offence of the Cross. Maybe an unbelieving husband can’t stand the fact that his wife will no longer participate in sinful activities that she used to. Maybe a wife devoted to a false religion refuses to live with her husband who has become a Christian. It can play out in different ways, but Paul says, if that happens, “let it be so.” He says, if you find yourself in that situation as a believer, “you are not in bondage to maintain the marriage that your spouse wants to dissolve.” Now that part of Paul’s teaching here is clear.
The problem we have is that Christians have come to take this verse as a passage that tells us it’s okay for the believer to remarry if his or her unbelieving spouse leaves them. That was always my own position and this is the verse that’s always quoted. But as I was studying this passage what I realised is that that’s not Paul’s point. In fact, the verse doesn’t even address the issue of remarriage. I do think that we can conclude that it’s okay for the person to remarry in this case, but we have to conclude that from what Scripture teaches elsewhere about marriage as a covenant relationship. The problem is, again, that we run into a problem in life, we often come up with a solution independent of what Scripture teaches, and then we thumb through the Bible looking for some verse – any verse – that justifies our decision. That’s wrong. If instead we would dialy steep ourselves in prayerful study of God’s Word – all of it – and not just when problems comes up and we need a solution, we’d be less likely to do so much picking and choosing the way we do. When we start using the Bible as little more than a rule book we’re not much better than the Pharisees who might have followed the rules, but missed the whole point.
And so Paul takes us back to the point. After telling us that it’s okay to let your unbelieving spouse walk, he reminds us: God has called you to peace. He uses the same language in Romans 12:18 saying that God has called us into the way of peace. It’s a Jewish concept. Understanding that they were to be a light to the Gentiles, and so “for the sake of peace,” the Jews understood that they were called to act on behalf of the less favoured and even on behalf of the Gentiles, for the purpose of showing them what it meant to follow God. Friends, that’s evangelism: to live out the peace that God has given us through Jesus and to pass it along to others. “After all,” Paul says, “you never know if you might be the means God uses to bring your husband or wife to repentance and faith in Christ.” Are you going to live at enmity with your spouse? Are you going to insist on your rights? Are you going to be a Gospel hypocrite? Or are you going to live with your spouse in such a way that he or she sees the light of Christ in you?
The Corinthians weren’t used to thinking about things like sex and marriage in terms of the cross and I don’t think we are either. Maybe the reasons are different. They were getting divorced because they thought that marriage was beneath them. I’m going to guess that’s not our problem, but regardless of the reasons and despite the facts that our specific situations play out a little differently in 21st Century Canada, we still struggle with the same problem of being discontent with where God has put us. So to answer their objections he gives two examples. Look at verses 17 to 24:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slavewhen called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Brothers and sisters, this is what it looks like to live with your focus on the cross. It doesn’t matter if your background is Jewish or Gentile – if you were born with special privilege or not. It doesn’t matter if you were born into slavery or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re single or married, married to a believer or an unbeliever, never-married, divorced, or widowed. God, in his sovereignty, has allowed you to be where you are right now. Paul tells us in Romans 8: And we know that for those who love God all things work togetherfor good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” And God knows what’s good for us far better than we can ever know. Sometimes what’s good for us means being put in a situation where we’re forced to give up our rights and the things we want for ourselves so that our eyes will be opened to the things of God – so that our perspective will be changed from thinking about what I want, to thinking about what’s best for the Kingdom. Paul goes on in the same chapter, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined [predestined to what?] to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” To be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, that we might be his brothers and fellow heirs, and ultimately transformed so that we can carry the message of the cross to the world around us – and even sometimes to the unbelievers in our own house. That’s God’s priority.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father we thank you for the clarity of your Word, for the authority that you’ve given to your authorised spokesmen, the apostles, for the understanding of life that this represents, and for the grace you give to us to help us live out the Gospel in such a way that others see the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross as they look at us. We ask this in his name. Amen.