Mixed Marriages (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)
Some husbands and wives have a hard time agreeing on much. One lady wrote to Dear Abby and said: “My husband burns the hairs out of his nose with a lighted match. And he thinks I’m crazy because I voted for Goldwater.” Anne Landers said that one of her most unusual letters concerned a man who went and hid his wife’s dentures so he couldn’t go out and vote for a Democrat.
It’s hard to be married to someone and have deep, deep disagreements. I think of James Carville and Mary Matalin. Carville is a Democratic consultant and is largely responsible for Bill Clinton’s election in 1992; it was he who came up with the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” Matalin was a chief strategist for the Bush campaign in 1992; she spent some time recently working in the office of Vice President Cheney, and she is a current campaign consultant for Fred Thompson. I must confess that I would absolutely love to be a fly on the wall when it’s supper time in that household. However, Carville and Matalin appear to have a very successful marriage and they seem to love one another deeply. No, they will probably never agree on politics, but they still, at least from appearances, have a successful marriage.
Being married to someone from a vastly different political perspective is one thing, and being married to one with a vastly different religious perspective is another thing altogether. There are some very sound reasons not to marry outside the faith. The Words of Scripture urge us not to do so. Moses told the children of Israel that when they entered the Promised Land, they should not marry the heathen there. He says: “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly” (Deut 7:3-4). I know that’s Old Testament, but the reasons God warned against mixed marriages then is just as valid today: if we marry outside of Christ, we open ourselves up to the opportunity to being dragged from the faith. Heaven and hell are too serious to open ourselves up like that. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6: 14-16: “Do not be equally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light and darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God.”
Sociological research also warns us against marrying unbelievers. In a study of why people switched denominations, the researcher discovered that a good plurality of those who switched from the denomination of their birth switched to the denomination of their spouse. Eighty-four percent in another study were able to achieve oneness in where they worshiped. In yet another study, thirty-four percent of people who switched denominations said the most important factor in doing so was their spouse’s influence. Each of those three studies was done in denominational groups and had denominational presuppositions. Yet, the data are valid for us: If we marry a non-Christian, there is a good possibility we may end up being a non-Christian ourselves.
Paul addresses the problem of mixed marriages in the passage before us. Granted, the situation Paul addresses was vastly different from the situation today. There were not various denominations then; thus, “unbeliever” refers, not to someone who believes in the Lord Jesus but is in error, but one who was a pagan. That fact may impact our understanding of this text. The people to whom Paul wrote were first-generation Christians; thus, many, if not all, of them were married prior to their conversion to Christ. There are still some who fit that bill, but there aren’t all that many.
What does Paul have to say about mixed marriages?
The Believer Stays, vv. 12-13.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) 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.
Paul now speaks to the rest. As we mentioned last week, Paul speaks to three classes of individuals: the unmarried, the married, and those married to an unbelieving spouse. Paul has already addressed the first two classes, and now he turns to address the final group.
He, not the Lord, says these things. The Lord never addressed this issue in his flesh. In a very real sense, he had no need to do so, for this specific situation could not have existed while Jesus was in the flesh. Only after the establishment of the church did this situation arise, and Paul now, speaking with Jesus’ authority, addresses the issue. It was quite common in antiquity for speakers to qualify and expand on what other speakers had said; Paul is basically doing that here. He says, in essence, “Jesus didn’t address this issue in his ministry, for this wasn’t an issue then. It’s an issue now, and I’ll speak to it with my apostolic authority.”
If any Christian has a spouse who is an unbeliever, the believer must not divorce the unbeliever. This whole text is about keeping marriages together, and it makes perfect sense, in light of what Paul has just written, for him to say that the believer must not divorce the unbeliever. “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” (vv. 10-11). Divorce is the option ONLY in cases of sexual immorality (Mt 19:9). As long as the unbeliever is content to stay with the believer, the believer stays.
The Believer Sanctifies, v. 14.
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.
Why should the believing spouse stay with the unbelieving spouse? We don’t have the letter the Corinthians wrote to Paul asking these questions, but it seems possible that the brethren at Corinth were saying that since they were now converted to Christ they should leave their unbelieving spouses. Paul says, “No, stay with the unbelieving spouse, because you have sanctified him or her.” The verb here is in the perfect tense and means “has been sanctified,” not “is sanctified.” The word translated into English as “sanctified” or “holy” means that “separated for God’s service”; in the New Testament, the word is most often found in Hebrews where the term often carries the Old Testament idea—sanctifying people and things for use in the tabernacle or temple. How is it that unbelieving spouses are sanctified by the believer? This cannot refer to salvation. Not only does that idea run counter to the rest of the NT, but it also runs counter to this text: “Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?” (v. 16). What Paul means is that the unbeliever has come under the influence of the Gospel. We’ll leave that thought there for the moment, for Paul is going to come back to the idea at v. 16.
The believer has also kept his children holy. The Romans debated the status of children resulting in marriages of mixed social status. “What are we supposed to do with children if someone of a higher social class marries someone of a lower class?” Likewise, the Jews debated what they were to do with children of religiously mixed marriages. You recall that became an issue with Timothy—his father was a Greek and his mother was a Jew—so Paul circumcised him. Again, this means that the believing spouse has influence for good over his or her children.
The Unbeliever Separates, v. 15.
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.
Preaching professors would likely look at this outline and have a heart attack. In the other three points of this sermon, I have “The Believer” and then a word beginning with “s.” That makes things much, much easier to remember. Here, however, I have “The Unbeliever” and a word beginning with “s.” That totally disrupts the flow of the sermon. I know it does, and that’s really the point. The believer stays in the marriage: period. The unbeliever, on the other hand, can leave if he desires, and the believer is not bound to attempt to keep the marriage together.
If the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The ESV has “let it be so,” while both the KJV and NIV translate this as “let him depart.” In Greek, the idea is permissive: “If he leaves, let him go. Don’t try to stop him.”
Why should the believing spouse allow the unbelieving spouse to go in such circumstances? “In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” Much ink has been spilled over this passage. What exactly is meant by “is not enslaved”? Does that allow the believer to remarry? Does this simply mean that the believer is not under obligation to attempt to keep the marriage together?
Before we answer those questions, we need to think seriously about the meaning of the Greek term for “enslaved.” In the Greek New Testament, this term is used seven times, and it always means to make a slave, either literally or figuratively. In Acts 7:6, Stephen uses this term to refer to the enslavement of the Hebrews by the Egyptians. In Romans 6:18, Paul says that Christians have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. In Romans 6:22, Paul says that Christians have become slaves of God. In 1 Corinthians 9:19, Paul says that he made himself a slave to all that he might win people to Christ. In Titus 2:3, we find that older women are not to be slaves to much wine. In 2 Peter 2:19, Peter says that whatever controls a person, he is enslaved by it. Thus, in the New Testament, the term in the text before us is always used of slavery either to individuals (Egyptians, God, or people we are trying to reach) or to sin.
What does that have to do with this text? We should expect that Paul tells us precisely to what the believer is not enslaved. Paul does that in this passage; notice carefully: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” In other words, the believing spouse is not enslaved to the unbelieving spouse. The believer does not need to seek reconciliation.
What about remarriage? The idea that the believer would be free to remarry runs contrary to the entire tenor of this passage; Paul is saying throughout, “It’s best if you aren’t married, but if you are, stay married. If you divorce, stay single.” Some people would point to v. 39 as evidence that the believer could remarry. The apostle there declares: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” The Greek term for “bound” is different in v. 39 than in v. 15. It is unfortunate that some translations put the same word in the text. The word in v. 39 means “to tie up” or “bind,” and is used of tying up animals, casting people into prison, or being bound to a law. Here, the idea is of being bound to God’s law of marriage; a marriage is binding only as long as both spouses are alive. In fact, v. 39 seems far more consistent in saying that the partners cannot remarry unless death occurs.
What if the other partner remarries? Is the believing spouse then free to remarry? There are many people who would answer affirmatively, for adultery has then taken place. However, Jesus answers, “No!” Notice carefully what Jesus says: “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:9). Jesus says that the innocent party must put his or her spouse away for sexual immorality, not find evidence of it after the fact and claim grounds for remarriage.
Why should the believer allow the unbeliever to go? “God has called you to peace.” The peace and happiness of our homes should be paramount for those of us in Christ, and God has called us to peace. How can a believer have peace in his or her home if the unbeliever will not allow it? Some of you are married to unbelievers, and I don’t know all the details of your home life, but it seems to me that each of you has peace in your home. But, can you imagine what life might be like if your spouse hindered your work in the Lord? You try to get the children ready for Sunday school, and he comes running through the house screaming, “You’re not taking my children over there to be brainwashed by those bunch of hypocrites.” You’re sitting at home preparing a lesson to teach in class, and your wife comes through and says, “You’d better stop it. I’ve got a lawn which needs to be mowed, a sink which needs to be fixed, and a million other things to do, and you’re sitting there ready that book of superstitions.” If the unbeliever gets fed up enough with our behavior, we’re to let him or her go to restore peace to the home.
Before we leave this part of the text, I think it’s important to pause and remember that this Epistle arose out of a real-life situation, the situation in Corinth. Corinth was a city in the ancient world known for its paganism, and the riot at Ephesus in Acts 19 demonstrates what can happen when pagans stop making money because people are coming to Christ. There were also a good number of Jews in the city, for Paul began his proclamation in Corinth with them (Acts 18). The Jews caused problems for Paul. The Corinthians Jews “opposed” and “reviled” Paul (v. 6). The Jews tried to have Paul arrested, but Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia wouldn’t have it. So, the Jews beat Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and Gallio did nothing (vv. 12-17). Is it impossible to think that the Corinthian Christians were facing persecution at the hands of their spouses? Paul speaks to that situation and says, “You stay put and endure, but if the unbeliever leaves, accept that so you can leave in peace rather than persecution.”
The Unbeliever Saves, v. 16.
Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?
Paul understood and wrote that conversion of an unbelieving spouse is not a guarantee, but it is a strong possibility. “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives” (1 Pet 3:1).
A good example in the home can go a long way in bringing the unbelieving spouse to salvation. A little boy had gone out with his mother for a long day of shopping. At the end of the exhausting day, the mother and son had all their packages rung up by a salesman who gave the little boy a lollipop. The mother said, “Son, what are you supposed to say?” Without missing a beat, the little boy said, “Charge it.”
That little boy had learned from his mother, and if we are living faithfully in front of our spouses, they will learn from us. What kind of example are you living in front of others? Do you need to come this morning and follow the example of those at Pentecost to be saved from sin, and begin living by the example of Jesus? Do you need to come and ask for our prayers that you might live by Jesus’ example more faithfully?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.