Scriptural and Early Christian Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage

“Not Under Bondage”

Another question people often ask is how we should understand Paul’s instructions regarding an unbelieving spouse in 1 Corinthians 7. Verses 10–15 read as follows:

“And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11But and if she depart [leave her husband], let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away [divorce] his wife. 12But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. . . . 15But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.”

Verse 39 of the same chapter adds,

“The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”

Some people have claimed, based on 1 Corinthians 7, that if you are a Christian with an unbelieving spouse who does not want to live with you, you are free to divorce and marry someone else.

The first problem with that teaching is that it directly contradicts Jesus Christ, who banned divorce with one and only one exception—for a husband to divorce his wife for sexual immorality. The second problem is that Paul actually says nothing of the sort in this passage. Although he is addressing a situation Jesus did not address, Paul never mentions remarriage, and he says nothing that contradicts Jesus.

To start with, let’s look at the different terms Paul uses in this passage as he addresses the responsibilities of a husbands and wives. First he says a wife should not “depart” from her husband; then he says a husband should not “put away” his wife. “Depart” and “put away” are translated from two different Greek words here, and the KJV translators did an excellent job of capturing the sense. “Depart” simply means simply to leave, while “put away” refers to divorce.

Paul, like Jesus, does not permit a wife to divorce her husband, but he recognizes that there may be dire situations where she must physically leave him. Even then, Paul says, she is not free to remarry. Her only options are to remain unmarried or, if possible, to reconcile with her husband.

Next, Paul addresses how a Christian should respond if an unbelieving spouse leaves him or her. In this case, Paul says, a believer is “not under bondage.” In other words, the believing spouse is not bound to pursue the departing unbeliever.

What Paul does not say is that a Christian in this situation is freed from the marriage bond. Nor is he saying the Christian is free to remarry; later in the same chapter, he repeats that a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. Notice that Paul does not say a husband is bound to his wife as long as she lives. All this dovetails exactly with Jesus’ teaching that only a husband may initiate divorce, and only for porneia.

Once again, all the Scriptures on the subject harmonize with each other, with no contradictions. As I have said before, when one looks at what the early Christians believed on a topic, one finds that their view always accounts for everything in the New Testament. When they read the Scriptures, they did not have “problem verses” that must be avoided or neutralized with elaborate explanations. Here, as with other subjects, their interpretation follows the natural meaning of the text and takes into account everything the Bible says on the topic.

“Bound by the Law”

Another passage where Paul addresses these topics is in Romans 7:2–3:

For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.

Under what law is the woman bound to her husband “as long as he lives”? Not under Roman law, which allowed either spouse to divorce, but under God’s law. Just as in the other scriptures we examined, only one thing can release her from that bond:

“. . . but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”

Jesus said anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery, and Paul agrees with this:

“So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.”

Again, the only condition under which remarriage is permitted for a wife is if her husband dies. Abandonment does not free her from the “law of her husband” and allow her to remarry. This is not a popular teaching, but if your heart is honest and open, I trust you can see that this is what the Scriptures say.

The church today is in a state of enormous apostasy. The divorce rate among professing, Bible-believing Christians is the same or slightly higher than that of the world. Instead of obeying the clear instructions of God on this matter, the church has, for the most part, simply followed the world, and when divorce became acceptable in the world, it was soon accepted in the church. This state of affairs is an abomination to God, and Christ will not receive a Bride who refuses to be faithful to His teachings.