by Matthew W. Bassford
From time to time, I receive article requests from brethren who want me to address a particular topic. Sadly, my usual response to these requests is to forget that they have been made and never write about them. However, recently someone asked me about my views of “not enslaved” in 1 Corinthians 7:15, and the subject is important enough that I resolved to break this lamentable trend.
Countless words have been written about this verse, but the differing opinions of commentators can be sorted into two main views. Some think that “not enslaved” means that the believing spouse is not required to keep on trying to make their marriage work when the unbelieving spouse is determined to divorce them. Others maintain that the phrase means that when the unbelieving partner leaves, it dissolves the marriage, and the Christian is free to remarry even if no fornication has occurred.
The appeal of the second position is obvious. I have friends who would be free to remarry if it were correct. However, I feel compelled to reject it for two main reasons.
First, it doesn’t fit with the language of the rest of the verse. “Let it be so” is an instruction not to continue a pointless conflict. Why? To quote the verse’s final sentence, “God has called you to peace.” Christians are not supposed to engage in futile contention, and nothing is more futile than trying to keep a marriage together when the other spouse is set on separation.
Second, if this is an exception to the no-divorce rule of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and the no-remarriage rule of Matthew 5:31-32, it should resemble the other exception, which is found in Matthew 19:9. However, it doesn’t.
As Jesus points out in Matthew 19:4-6, marriage is unique because it creates a one-flesh relationship between husband and wife. This relationship is the essence of marriage. Thus, sexual sin attacks a marriage in a unique way.
Consider Paul’s discussion of sexual sin in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. This context reveals that sexual immorality is unlike other sins in the effect that it has on us and even God. It takes the members of Christ and makes them members of a prostitute. All other sins are outside the body, but fornication is a sin against the body. Finally, sexual sin defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is the body.
When Christians honor their marriages, they are one flesh with their spouses and one spirit with the Lord. However, when they commit adultery, they forsake both of these relationships to become one flesh with someone who shares their contempt for marriage. They have already violated Matthew 19:6 and separated what God has joined together.
Thus, the exception of Matthew 19:9 makes sense. When one spouse is unfaithful to another, the wronged spouse can divorce them and even remarry without sin. After all, the innocent spouse wasn’t the one who violated the one-flesh relationship in the first place.
We see, then, that the Matthew 19:9 exception exists because of the fundamental nature of marriage and adultery. However, no such fundamental justification is present in the text of 1 Corinthians 7:15. If the verse permits a Christian to remarry when their non-Christian spouse leaves, why?
Compassion for the deserted spouse isn’t the answer. There are jerk Christian spouses who walk out on their marriages too. Aren’t their spouses equally deserving of compassion? Certainly, there is nothing like a violation of the one-flesh relationship to which we can point.
I sympathize with the plight of brethren who find themselves forced into a state of lifelong celibacy through no fault of their own. I would imagine that such Christians suffer great unhappiness. This is offensive to our cultural sensibilities. In America, we believe that everyone should get to be happy (though oddly the pursuit of happiness often fails to make people happy). Thus, we want to read our ideal of happiness into the Bible.
However, this has much more to do with the spirit of the world than the Spirit of Christ. After all, the central event of Scripture is the unjust torture and execution of a man who was literally sinless. If anyone deserved to be happy, Jesus did!
Clearly, the life of Jesus was about far more than His earthly happiness, and the same is true for His disciples. He considers abandoned spouses with the same compassion with which He considers all of us, but He says to all of us nonetheless, “Take up your cross. Follow Me.” Even for them, the sufferings of this present age are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come.