St. Paul on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7

June 12, 2015

Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians is a treasure trove.

As I’ve been preaching my way through Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Gordon Fee’s New International Commentary on 1 Corinthians, from Eerdmans, has been a treasure trove of insights. One example is his commentary on chapter 7, in which Paul applies Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, along with his own pastoral judgment, to an issue that was as commonplace in ancient Corinth as it is in much of the world today: divorce and remarriage.

As Fee points out, the questions that Paul’s people were asking about divorce and remarriage are not at all the same questions that we ask. Some Christians in Corinth were seeking divorce—not in order to get remarried later on, or even to remove themselves from domestic strife—but to be single, celibate, and unhindered in their devotion to the Lord. (As if we had that problem today!)

Some Corinthians believed that marriage and sex were obstacles in their relationship with God, so they wanted to remove them entirely. As Paul says, quoting one of their slogans back to them: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

In my last sermon (which I’ll post soon), I showed that Paul rejects this slogan without qualification. Even if husband and wife take a break from conjugal relations in order to commit themselves to prayer, for instance, it should only be for a brief period. It’s also likely that some of the Corinthians who were getting divorced were the same ones soliciting prostitutes in chapter 6. For most people, Paul argues, the temptations to sexual immorality associated with remaining single and celibate are too great.

So, Paul says, don’t get divorced, at least in most cases. He is aware of Jesus’ strict teaching on the subject (see verse 10) and applies it to a situation that Jesus doesn’t address: an unbelieving spouse wants to divorce the believer. Paul says in that situation, the believer shouldn’t work to reconcile the relationship. The believer, in that case, is free to divorce.

But is that believer then free to remarry? The Catholic Church has interpreted it that way. My ESV Study Bible notes interpret it that way. Most Protestant churches… well, you know their sad story of unconditional permissiveness on the subject. This so-called exception to Jesus’ strict teaching is often called the “Pauline privilege.” One can divorce and remarry not only in the case of sexual immorality (as most interpreters have Jesus saying), but also when one has an unbelieving spouse who wants divorce.

Then, in a daring feat of hermeneutical gymnastics, we apply this privilege of remarriage to many other situations that neither Jesus nor Paul describes.

I now agree with Dr. Fee, however, that Paul isn’t addressing remarriage in this passage—at all. To not be “enslaved,” for Paul, means to not be bound to reconcile the marriage, not to be free to remarry. As Fee says, it isn’t that Paul rules out remarriage in such cases, it’s just that he doesn’t refer to it.

Remember: the Corinthians aren’t interested in remarrying—that’s our contemporary question, not theirs. They want to get divorced and stay divorced in order to serve the Lord unencumbered.

So where does that leave us on the vexing question of remarriage? Two things need to be pointed out, Fee says:

First, Paul does not speak to the question of remarriage at all. If that is one’s concern, then it must be wrestled with in the much larger context of Scripture; and the answer is not clear-cut. In many cases such marriages are clearly redemptive. Even if it is not the ideal situation, God still redeems our fallenness, whether it be individuals or broken marriages. On the other hand, there is nothing redemptive in remarriage that is simply an excuse for legalized lust. Second, the real point of the passage needs to be given a fair hearing. When a married man or woman hears and responds to the call of the gospel but the wife or husband does not—at least at the same time—let the new believer consider the spouse sanctified, that is, also set apart for he gospel. And then let the believer so live that in due time they might “save” their wife or husband. That at least is the Good News this passage sets before the world.[†]

† Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 338-9.

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