While Israel was in captivity due to their many sins, the people lived among the foreign nations for so long that they became lax in following God’s commands. A major factor contributing to this came from their mixed marriages – Israelites marrying foreigners who brought their religious practices into the union. You might expect the problem to be widespread among the common people, but it was the leading Jews, the rulers, and the priests who were foremost in marrying foreigners.
“When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, "The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass." So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive, and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice” (Ezra 9:1-4).
This was shocking because the priests were specifically forbidden from marrying women of other nations (Leviticus 21:14-15). They were doing the very thing that God warned them no to do.
“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, 'The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one end to another with their impurity. 'Now therefore, do not give your daughters as wives for their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons; and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your children forever.' And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this, should we again break Your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed us , so that there would be no remnant or survivor? O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!" (Ezra 9:10-15).
The deed was particularly atrocious because their captivity came about because of intermarriages with foreigners. God had warned the people not to pick up the practices of the people of the land who were cast out of Canaan (Leviticus 18:24-30). Certain nations had become so sinful that they were to be utterly destroyed within Israel’s borders in order to prevent their corruption from influencing Israel (Deuteronomy 20:17-18). Hence, God commanded that Israelites were not to marry seven specific nationalities.
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the LORD will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly” (Deuteronomy 7:1-4).
Joshua repeated this warning as well, “Or else, if indeed you do go back, and cling to the remnant of these nations - these that remain among you - and make marriages with them, and go in to them and they to you, know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations from before you. But they shall be snares and traps to you, and scourges on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land which the LORD your God has given you” (Joshua 23:12-13).
Children of mixed parentage were excluded from ever becoming Israelites. Descendants of certain nations could never become Israelites. “One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you” (Deuteronomy 23:2-4). “Illegitimate” does not refer to a child born out of wedlock, as it does today, but it refers to a child born from a forbidden (illegal) marriage to certain nationalities.
Before going further, let me be clear that we are not talking about people who gave up their nationality to become Israelites, such as Rahab or Ruth. We are talking about people who continued to consider themselves members of another nation while married to an Israelite.
It was the sin of marrying into these nations which lead to Solomon’s downfall. “But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites - from the nations of whom the LORD had said to the children of Israel, "You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods." Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David” (I Kings 11:1-4). And now in Ezra’s day, after reaping the sorrows brought upon them by this sin, the remnant was repeating the error.
An Attempt to Remedy the Situation
To counter what was happening among them, the people who returned made a vow, which included promises not to intermarry.
“Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly. And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, spoke up and said to Ezra, "We have trespassed against our God, and have taken pagan wives from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this. Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise, for this matter is your responsibility. We also are with you. Be of good courage, and do it."” (Ezra 10:1-5).
“Now the rest of the people - the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the Nethinim, and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, everyone who had knowledge and understanding - these joined with their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse and an oath to walk in God's Law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes: We would not give our daughters as wives to the peoples of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons; if the peoples of the land brought wares or any grain to sell on the Sabbath day, we would not buy it from them on the Sabbath, or on a holy day; and we would forego the seventh year's produce and the exacting of every debt” (Nehemiah 10:28-31).
It was a vow they did not keep (Nehemiah 13:23-29). It had gotten to the point that Hebrew was no longer spoken in Israel. The children of these mixed marriages were growing up speaking other languages. Notice that Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites' marriages were particularly mentioned because these were the ones God said through Moses not to marry. Nor could any claim ignorance. The people knew these particular marriages were wrong.
“On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God, because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel” (Nehemiah 13:1-3).
They had broken their oath to God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7). So Nehemiah forced the people to renew their vows. The end of the book of Ezra lists those who refused to put away their foreign wives and children. For their sin, they were marked forever.
Nehemiah and Ezra’s campaign to restore Israel to righteousness lasted for centuries (John 4:9), but as typically happens, the people went overboard (Acts 10:28). Doing what God said wasn’t enough, they had to go beyond what God required. Thus, it wasn’t enough to avoid marry people of certain nationalities, they refused to even talk to or socialize with anyone from any other nationality. As you can suspect, this radical practice even affected the church (Galatians 2:11-16).
All of this is necessary background to understand a passage that has confused many people over the centuries that is located in I Corinthians 7.
The Question of Mixed Marriages for Christians
In I Corinthians 7, Paul begins to address a series of questions sent to him by the church in Corinth. Chapter 7 deals with marriage questions, chapter 8 deals with idols, chapter 12 to 14 deals with spiritual gifts, and chapter 16 touches on the collection. We don’t have the specific questions sent to Paul. We only know the topics covered by Paul’s responses to those questions.
- I Corinthians 7:1-9: Paul’s advice is that, generally, it is better to remain single than to marry. That suggestion is tempered by the current persecutions faced by Christians (I Corinthians 7:26). Paul emphasizes that this advice is not practical for all people. For the majority of people, whose sexual urges would lead them into temptation if they attempted to remain single, Paul tells them they ought to marry and that those in marriage need to understand that satisfying sexual desire is one reason for marriage. To marry and then deny a spouse sex is not fair to the spouse.
- I Corinthians 7:10-11: Paul answers the question of how long a marriage should last. He lays down the general rule that marriage is for life. A spouse is not to leave the marriage. If a spouse does leave, he is to remain unmarried or be reconciled to his spouse.
- I Corinthians 7:12-16: In this section, Paul addresses the questions about mixed marriages.
“But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” (I Corinthians 7:12-16).
“To the rest” can refer to the rest of the marriage questions started in I Corinthians 7:1. Thus, Paul would be saying that he can handle the rest of the questions by the following statements. Or, he could be contrasting groups. Verses 1-11 dealt with unmarried and married Christians, now he is going to focus on the last group, Christians married to unbelievers. It is the second possibility that most people feel Paul is stating.
“I, not the Lord, say” means that this is a topic that Jesus did not deal with while on earth, so Paul must explain it in full. This is in contrast to verses 10 and 11 where the Lord had addressed the topic and Paul could refer back to the Lord’s statements to confirm what he is teaching.
The rule is that there is no need for a Christian to end a marriage simply because they are married to a non-Christian. Now, where would the Corinthians get such an idea? Think back to the situation in Ezra and Nehemiah and realize that the early church had many problems with Judaizing teachers. The isolationism of the Jewish religion was being felt by Christians. And they probably thought they had good reason. If the problem of mixed marriages was the corrupting influence of the non-believing spouse then won’t the best solution be to end the marriage and thus the influence? Paul’s answer is, “No.”
The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the Christian. This is not saying that an unbeliever becomes saved by marrying a Christian. One rule for understanding a passage is that if a particular reading leads to a contradiction, then we know something is wrong. Sanctification, meaning that a person is set apart for salvation is done through Jesus (I Corinthians 1:2), it comes through faith in Jesus (Acts 26:18), and it comes by being washed (baptized) (I Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26). Marriage is not a means by which a person is set apart for salvation.
But sanctification can be used in different, though related purposes. It is not limited to only sanctification in the sense of salvation. It can also mean being set apart for a God-approved purpose. For example, the Sabbath day was sanctified (Exodus 20:8). That doesn’t mean the day was saved, but it does mean it served a special purpose that God established. In the same way, gifts to God could be holy or sanctified (Exodus 28:38). And in the New Testament Paul talks about food being set apart for a God-approved purpose (I Timothy 4:4-5). Therefore, it makes more sense that Paul is saying that the marriage between a believer and an unbeliever is sanctified. The union created with an unbeliever is sanctified – set apart for a God-approved purpose – because of the Christian.
If a person wanted to argue that a marriage must be dissolved because the union is unholy (as per Ezra and Nehemiah), then the logical result of that argument is to conclude that the children of that union must also be considered unclean by the same reasoning. Some translations use the word “illegitimate” in Paul’s argument in the sense of saying that the marriage didn’t really exist and therefore the children were born out of wedlock. But the word Paul uses is “unclean,” and I believe Paul is alluding to Deuteronomy 23:2. Paul is stating that if a person claims the marriage between a believer and unbeliever to be unholy because it is mixed, then the idea must be coming from the Old Law. But the Old Law also said that children of unholy marriages could never be a part of the covenant, even to the tenth generation! Thus the natural conclusion is that if a marriage must be dissolved because it is “unholy,” then the children are “unholy” and they can never enter into a covenant relationship with God. In other words, if there is such a thing as unholy marriages, then there are people who cannot become Christians solely because of their lineage.
But like before, this leads to a contradiction with what we know. Christ died for all men, not some men (II Corinthians 5:14-15). One purpose of the New Covenant was to open the way for the Gentiles – all Gentiles – to enter into the covenant (Ephesians 2:11-13). Besides, we know that God wants all people saved (II Peter 3:9).
So working backward, if the children can be set apart for a purpose of God – that is, to become Christians – then the marriage is also fulfilling a purpose of God (Malachi 2:14-15). Therefore, there is no requirement that a Christian must divorce a non-Christian spouse.
But What If the Non-Believer Doesn’t Want to Remain in the Marriage?
A person who isn’t a Christian isn’t motivated to keep the laws of God. This doesn’t mean that the non-Christian isn’t going to be held accountable to God’s laws. Man’s duty has always been to keep God’s commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Even the lost will give an account of themselves to God (I Peter 4:4-6). If the lost were not accountable to God’s laws, then there would be no reason to teach them the Gospel. But even those who reject Christ will be judged by Christ’s words (John 12:48). When Paul charged that all people are under sin (Romans 3:9) this could only be true if all people were breaking laws they were accountable for following (Romans 5:13).
So are non-Christians accountable to Christ’s marriage laws? The answer is clearly, “Yes.” How can we know this for certain? Because they acknowledge their acceptance of those laws by their actions. Hebrews 13:4 points out that everyone holds marriage in honor.
“For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel” (Romans 2:12-16).
Even today people recognize that a person can’t have a new spouse without first dissolving the first marriage, thus they prove they recognize the bounds of marriage and the obligations that accompany it.
So what did Paul mean when he said, “a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases”? The word translated here is the one for slavery. Though we talk of the marriage bond, marriage is never viewed as a form of slavery in the Bible. References to the marriage bond is a very different Greek term than the one being used here for slavery.
Paul is stating that if the non-believer departs, the believer is not a slave to the non-believer. In fact, there is a subtly lacking in our English translations that are present in the Greek. This is because Greek has more modes of speech than English. When Paul said “not under bondage” or “is not in slavery” it is in the perfect tense. In Greek, the perfect tense is used to indicate something that has been true in the past and continues to be true to the present. In other words, Paul said that a brother or sister was a slave before marriage and continues not to be a slave at the present time.
Therefore, the Christian is not forced to keep a marriage going when the non-Christian wants to leave. To do so would cause discord, but God called us to peace. But note carefully that Paul said nothing about having the right to remarry. While divorce is discouraged, if a non-believer insists on leaving, then “even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband” (I Corinthians 7:11).
You Just Never Know
A mixed marriage is not an ideal marriage, but you just never know. “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” (I Corinthians 7:16). The odds are in a mixed marriage that the unbelieving spouse will pull a Christian into unfaithfulness. But there is always the hope that the Christian can influence the non-believer for good (I Peter 3:1-2). But such depends heavily on the steadfast faith of the believer (II Peter 3:17-18).