1. 1 out of 2 ain’t good
Hands up if someone in your immediate family has been affected by divorce or separation? Someone in your wider family? Someone you know?
Strange to be speaking about divorce and separation statistics just 30 hours after marrying Tim and Dee. But current statistics suggest nearly 1 in 2 marriages end in divorce or separation. When you think God made marriage to be enjoyed for a life time our society doesn’t have a good experience.
And I know what it is like. My parents separated when I was about 14. My memory is I woke up one morning to find my father had left. Walked out. Gone to Perth - as far away as he could go and still be in Australia is what I figure. It was confusing, and was and still is painful. I sometimes miss my father a lot. My parents were nominal Christians if that. But unfortunately merely being Christians is no guarantee of a divorce free marriage.
What does God have to say about marriage, about divorce, about separation? We need to be able to show compassion for those who may be suffering, without compromising the truth of what God says? Tonight we touch on one of the main passages, although it is not the only passage. Tonight may be a sensitive issue for you - so let’s pray for God’s wisdom and help.
2. Another problem in Corinth
Over the past weeks we’ve seen some of the problems of the church of God in Corinth. We know that some of the Christians in Corinth were striving so hard to be spiritual they denied the physical - which is the opposite of so Australians. We saw that last week when it came to sex, some of the Christians thought they should not be involved in sexual relationships, even with their own spouse, for that was too physical and detracted from the spiritual. Now, as we look further in 1 Corinthians 7, there seems the suggestion, at least by some, that they should get out of their marriages altogether so they can focus on being more spiritual, or perhaps serve God free of the shackles of marriage.
And there appear to be two groups of people involved - Christians married to other Christians, and Christians married to non-Christians. And Paul writes to both groups to correct their misunderstandings. Let’s see what he says:
a) to those married to Christian spouses (vv10-11)
In vv10-11 Paul addresses those in the congregation who are married to Christians. His command is there in v10, and it is a command for which he actually appeals to the direct teachings of the Lord Jesus on this matter (so Mark 10:11 = Matt 19:9; Lk 16:18 = Matt 5:32) - a wife must not separate from her husband, and v11 - a husband is not to divorce his wife.
Marriage is serious business. God is serious about relationships. God expects us to be as well. Our commitment to a relationship with another person in marriage is a picture of the relationship between God and his people. And God expects us to honour our commitment of marriage until our spouse dies. v39 which we don’t look at tonight says then that the remaining spouse is free to remarry.
But for marriages where both spouses are still alive, Paul’s command is for the two spouses to remain married.
But.... If one separates or divorces (and the scholars suggest there was not really a notion of just being separated in the first century such as we have now) then v11, they are to remain unmarried or be reconciled to their spouse.
This is an exception. An exception because we live in a world of sin. A world where the ideal does not always exist, and is often not attained. A world where even marriages can be unsafe places to be. And it was the case in the OT as well. So in Deut 24 a man is permitted to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her out of the house. But in Matt 19:8 Jesus says the only reason why this was allowed was because of the hardness of people’s hearts; that is because of sin. It is not the way it should be, it is not the ideal which God set in place in Gen 2.
But now we live in a world of sin, and so back to 1 Cor 7 - Paul says there is an exception, but it is only that an exception. The rule is - no divorce. Paul’s aim in allowing any exception is to work towards reconciliation. That is God’s way. His people are to reflect his character - people who seek reconciliation, and model it to a broken world.
To the Corinthians who were wanting to separate from their spouses, and I presume they were mostly women, for it is women who are mentioned here first by Paul, Paul says - no divorce. You must stay married. This is what is honouring to God, this is what is spiritual.
I think as we come to apply this today - we are still in the same situation. To those Christians who are married to other Christians the God-honouring solution is to stay married and treat each other as God desires within that marriage. God doesn’t see it as a matter of convenience which suits now, but may not suit in the future. Pre-nuptials shouldn’t be seen in a Christian marriage. So think very seriously before you enter into a marriage. You may be worse off being unhappily married than being unhappily single.
But because we too live in a sinful world, even Christians are not immune from problems within their marriages. The last resort may be separation. This may be a compassionate and loving response. Personally I would counsel this where abuse is involved either of the spouse or children, and nothing else has worked. But with the aim of working towards reconciliation. Separation is not part of God’s plan, but a way to limit the damage done by our sinfulness. And it is a question of trust - do we trust the power of God to make this broken relationship new and vital?
ILLN - I heard a lovely story the other day of a lady who had been divorced form her husband for almost 30 years. He had been abusive and an alcoholic, and she felt enough was enough. Neither of them re-married although this lady had been in another relationship for a while, but then she heard that her ex-husband had changed and was single. He looked her up after hearing that she was still unmarried, and the end of the story was that they got back together.
Paul gives an exception but the aim of the exception is to allow work to be made towards reconciliation.
It should be noted that Paul here doesn’t talk about a spouse who commits sexual immorality, which is the one exception Jesus gives in Matt 5, because that was not the issue for Paul. From Jesus’ teachings I take it a marriage is broken through sexual immorality, the covenant of marriage is broken, and divorce would then reflect this reality. But divorce is never a command. The godly response rather is confession and repentance and change, and forgiveness, as God works to bring people back together. Divorce may be allowed, but it is certainly not commanded. The preferred response is reconciliation.
That’s Paul’s word to Christians who are married to Christian spouses. But what if I was a non-Christian and married a non-Christian and then I got converted? That would have probably been the case for at least some of the Christians in Corinth, after all it was a rather young church. Do I have to stay married to this non-Christian? Paul writes to these people in vv12-16, they are what he calls ‘the rest’.
b) to those converted after marriage to a non-Christian (vv12-16)
In essence the same principle applies - stay married to them if they are willing to stay married to you. So vv12-13 - READ.
Paul says I am not quoting Jesus at this point, for in his recorded words Jesus never talks about such mixed marriages. Probably it wasn’t such an issue in Israel in his time. But just because he is not quoting Jesus, doesn’t mean this is not God’s word. It is. This is Paul speaking by the Holy Spirit. It is the word of God to his people in Corinth, and it is still the word of God to his people in 2003.
Paul’s principle which he will develop in later verses as we’ll see next week is this - stay as you are. If you became a Christian after you got married and your spouse is still willing to live with you, then you must stay with them. The covenant of marriage takes priority over any problems of potential unbelief.
As Christians we think it would be easier for a non-Christian if the person they married became a Christian, but we don’t realise what it may be like. Listen to this testimony from a non-Christian whose wife became a Christian after they were married - READ Prior. There may be good reasons why the non-Christian spouse may want to leave, but that is to be their choice - not the choice of the Christian.
And Paul says there is actually a good reason for staying with them, and working at the marriage - Look at v14 - READ.
It is a strange sounding verse isn’t it. What does it mean? It means that the action of the Christian wife and her witness has a sanctifying influence on her husband and on her children. And likewise with Christian husbands and non-Christian wives. It doesn’t mean they are saved - v16 precludes that. But somehow, the belief of the Christian spouse is more significant than the non-belief of the spouse.
Some of the Corinthians perhaps thought that being married to a non-Christian would somehow corrupt them, and make them unclean. Or perhaps that having sex with a non-Christian spouse would somehow defile them.
Paul says the opposite is true - the non-Christian partner is sanctified. Mixed marriages are almost like Christian marriages, and provide more opportunity for the salvation of the non-Christian spouse. And the children of such a marriage are made holy. They are within God’s people, speaking from a human point of view, just as a child of a Jewish parent was considered part of the Jews. If the Corinthians were right, and marriage made them unclean, then their children would be unclean, they would be outside God’s covenant. But Paul says this is not so.
As God is at work in that family, so the holiness of one parent somehow extends to the other parent and to the children - not making them saved by association as it were, but as one writer put it, ‘the moral and spiritual impact of the life of the believer on the rest of the family, makes other members set apart in a very special place... as God’s object of devotion’. Or ‘God looks on family units where at least one spouse is a Christian, as special recipients of his blessings. They can learn God’s word, see Christian living modelled and make decisions for Christ.’ If this is true we need to make them feel more like insiders than outsiders. William Barclay put it ‘the unbeliever is brought into contact with the realm of grace.’ Sometimes people today joke about staying together for the sake of the children. When one partner is a Christian this has a lot of truth about it.
So the principle is stay as you are. But what if the non-Christian partner really wants to leave. Paul says the Christian spouse is not bound, which I take it means bound to the marriage. He or she can let the other partner go. Desertion opens up the grounds for divorce, and re-marriage, for it breaks apart the marriage relationship as well. But again the ideal would be for reconciliation. This exception is real, it is allowed, but it is not ideal. God’s call rather is to try and live in peace. To try to maintain the marriage, because v16 you just don’t know whether it may result in the saving of the spouse. (NRSV - wife, for all you know you may save your husband)
If you ask Christians whether they think Christians can divorce and re-marry you probably get one of 4 replies
- no divorce is allowed, and so no re-marriage is allowed. Marriages are indissoluble. This was the view of our former Archbishop Donald Robinson.
- or, people can divorce but can never re-marry
- or divorce and re-marriage are only allowed on the grounds of sexual immorality or desertion, to the innocent party, because both of these break the covenant of marriage. Many evangelical Protestant Christians hold to this.
- or finally that divorce and re-marriage are allowed on a number of grounds.
We need to be careful. In this passage Paul’s concern is not to regulate divorce, but to encourage Christians to keep honouring God even if they are married.
The Corinthian question is different to our question. For them the issue was - can I dissolve my marriage? Answer - no. Our question often is - can I remarry? Answer - this passage doesn’t tell us.
Principle is really - remain as you are. And more on that next week.
In conclusion then - Christians need to uphold and value marriage. We need to see divorce or even separation as a very last resort. We need to be serious about taking into account the effects of divorce or separation on children.
As a church we need to
- work hard at encouraging and supporting those we know going through marriage difficulties - talk to those you are close to, ask them the hard questions, show your love for them;
- we need to encourage counselling, especially for the males, for our pride often prohibits us from seeking help from anyone else;
- we need to promote marriage enrichment courses, and there are many good ones around;
- We need to pray for the power of God to be at work in the lives of all those who are married that they may continue to live lives which honour God.
- We need to say God hates divorce, and the factors which cause divorce.
- And we do need to say separation, divorce and remarriage are not unforgivable. God is a God of reconciliation. Jesus died to pay for all our sins, whatever they are or may be. God’s forgiveness and cleansing, cleansing from guilt and shame and a sense of failure, are available to those who have gone down the road of separation and divorce for whatever reason. God always offers us a fresh start, through his Son the Lord Jesus who is always totally committed to us. LET’S PRAY