8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
10To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
12To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
One of the most curious enigmas that I have seen repeatedly over the years that I have been involved with basketball teams is the phenomenon of big men that were centers and forwards that believed deep down they had the gift to be a point guard. I have known countless number of big men who, whenever they had the opportunity, tried to act on the court as though they had the skills to dribble and distribute the ball the way a smaller guard usually does. The problem is that for most of these players, they had no business trying to perform those skills. They should have learned to stick to the things for which they were gifted.
There is an element of this same principle running through this section of Paul’s letter. Paul wants the Corinthians to recognize the gifts that God has given each one of them and to appreciate the situations in which He has placed them. This could be a difficult task for a people who were trying to figure out what it meant to come out of the pagan world and live holy lives. To make matters more difficult, they were being bombarded within the Church by those who taught that permanent celibacy was a virtue and from outside the Church that unmarried people were worthless.
The NIV’s translation of verse 8 is probably misleading. The word translated ‘unmarried’ should probably be rendered as ‘widowers’. This would mean that Paul is addressing widows and widowers in 8 and 9 rather than two groups (this makes sense because he will directly address those who have never been married later in the chapter). This also gives us a strong clue that Paul was a widower as he says it is preferable, in his opinion, to remain as he is, which we can presume he means not remarried (this view is bolstered by the fact that Paul, before becoming a Christian was a Pharisee, and it was virtually unheard of in the first century for a Pharisee to be unmarried). Paul wants them to understand that in their old, pagan lives there was little to no redeeming value in remaining unmarried, but in their new life in Christ there can be a new sense or value to the single life. Verse 9 is often easily misunderstood to mean that Paul was giving a concession to those who could not contain their passions. Here, Paul is using ‘self-control’ in the same manner that he does in Galatians 5:23, by which he means the Holy Spirit-empowered directing of one’s self. He is not telling them to fight their urges and if they can’t then give in quickly before they fail. He is telling them to recognize the gift that God has given them, whether it be the gift of remaining single or the gift of the married life, and to embrace and appreciate it. If they do not have the Spirit-given gift of self-control and singleness then they should by all means get married rather than burning with passion, trying to force themselves into a life for which they have not been gifted.
With those who were once married already addressed, Paul now turns to matters concerning those who were presently married. We would do well to remember that this letter was written to a people who were struggling with the concepts that sex and marriage should just be avoided all together, that it would exalt the soul and keep the body from sin. The command of verse 10, then, must be read in that context. God had created and ordained marriage and these Corinthian Christians should not buy into any sort of teaching that told them it was good to leave their spouses and focus on Christ. They must realize that God was pleased with marriage and that it was a gift, not something to be discarded, yet this is not a universal prohibition on divorce. Paul would not, for instance, say that a woman being beaten by her husband should stay in that marriage. The fact that Paul uses a wife as the example, probably demonstrates that he was directly addressing a specific question about a specific Christian woman in their community. It was not God’s will for her to leave her husband, particularly for spiritual reasons, yet if she had, she should not, under these circumstances remarry someone else. Paul then universalizes this principle with the phrase, and a husband must not divorce his wife.
Paul then moves into advice that he has for those that are married to unbelievers. Two things must be considered here before we continue. The first is that even though Paul does give a command of the Lord in verse 10, he gives instructions for someone who does not follow this command. Nowhere does he say that this act would keep that person from being a Christian, but she must deal with the consequences of her actions. Paul’s reason for this is that, for him, Christianity is about learning to exercise discernment to think and act in a Christ-like manner. The Christian life is not simply the replacement of the Old Testament Torah with a new law based on the teachings of Christ. As Christians we must learn to think like Christ, not merely follow a list of rules. The second thing to be considered is what to make of passages when Paul says that what he is writing is from him and not the Lord? Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit to write letters that would become and should be considered Holy Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16). Paul does not mean this is just his own opinion; he is offering the Spirit-inspired word of God. He merely means that what he is saying did not come directly from Jesus; it is new teaching for a new situation, although still based on the foundation of teachings and life of Christ. What he writes here, then, is not something Jesus said to be obeyed without question or the need for thought (there are very few instances of that in the New Testament for the reasons just stated), it is wise Christian advice and principles. Principles, however, that we must undertake to apply to our lives because they have been ordained as Scripture by the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s basic point is that Christians should not leave a marriage to a non-Christian spouse. The Corinthians were a group of people that were trying to figure out how to come out of paganism and lead holy lives. The fear of some was that their non-believing spouse would defile them. Paul assures them that this is not the case. Rather than the non-believer defiling the Christian, the influence of the believing spouse can actually have a purifying and saving effect on their marriage, and ultimately on the non-Christian. He also assures them that their children will not be automatically defiled by living with a pagan, they can still be set apart (holy) for God’s purposes (this does not, of course, mean that they were automatically saved). This ray of hope for the Christian married to a pagan does not mean that it is good or wise for an unmarried Christian to take this principle and run into a marriage with a non-Christian. (Nor should someone stay in an abusive marriage because of this principle.) This is advice for people already married, not a license for those who are not. Marriage is a good thing in God’s sight as it points to His love and relationship with His people, and thus, glorifies God. It should not be entered into lightly or ended lightly. Paul ends with a bit of necessary common sense, assuring them that if the non-Christian spouse wanted to end the marriage, they should not feel under any obligation to remain married. The ultimate principle by which they should live, one that would have the biggest impact on those around them, was to attempt to leave in peace under all circumstances.
The Corinthians lived in a confusing time and culture when they would need a great deal of humility, discernment, and conviction to live out the Christian principles of love and peace in difficult circumstances. We also live in confusing and difficult times and need the same sort of humility and patience with ourselves and with others to live out these same principles.