Some people take an approach to marriage that flatters everyone. In other words, it is assumed that everyone wants (deep down) to be a godly husband or a godly wife, and that the only impediment to this marital bliss is ignorance. That ignorance, it turns out, can be remedied with this book, this seminar, this or that tape series. But this is a fundamentally humanistic view of the situation, and not surprisingly, it is very naive.
And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. But 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. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? (1 Cor. 7:10-16).
Many have been confused by St. Paul’s language here, assuming that with his “not I, but the Lord,” and “I, not the Lord” he is claiming that one part of his letter is inspired and the other part is not. But what he is actually doing is referring to the teaching the Lord gave us during His earthly ministry (vv. 10-11) and his own apostolic teaching. The Lord’s teaching presupposes two covenant members. But a new situation had arisen as the gospel spread out into the Gentile world, and that was the problem of mixed marriages (vv. 12-13). We are taught here that simple unbelief or idolatry on the part of a spouse in itself is not grounds for divorce in the new covenant. If the unbeliever is “pleased to dwell with” the believer (suneudokeo), then there should be no divorce. This is a hard teaching, and the believer might object. “Paul, think about the kids! Won’t this make the children of such a union unholy?” The answer is no; the children of such a union are hagia, saints (v. 14). But if the unbeliever is not pleased with the godliness of his spouse and leaves, then let him leave. The Christian is not under bondage in such cases. God has called us to peace, so this should not be an occasion for fighting (v. 15). Someone else might say that they “cannot allow the unbeliever to depart” because she still wants to be used as an instrument of his salvation. “But how do you know,” St. Paul replies, “whether or not that will happen?” (v. 16). Leave such things in the hand of God.
The Westminster Confession of Faith has a gloriously insightful phrase in talking about marriage and divorce. It says that when it comes to issues of the heart like this, ungodly men are apt “to study arguments.” In other words, debates over the lawfulness of divorce are likely to produce a good deal of logic and text-chopping—and this can happen in both directions. Men and women who want to absolutize marriage run into trouble, and men and women who want to relativize everything run into trouble as well. Marriage is a covenant, and covenants can be broken. Marriage is not an absolute. Marriage is a covenant ordained by God, and so God is the only one who sets the boundaries. What God has joined together let not man put asunder (Matt. 19:6). With regard to the absolutizing of marriage, a man who is willing to share his wife with another man is in high rebellion against God. With regard to the relativizing, a woman who wants to leave her husband because he doesn’t meet her deepest emotional needs is also in rebellion.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS?
We have no right to marital happiness. We have the grace and privilege of joy in the Lord, but this is quite a different thing (Phil. 4:4). This may sound odd to us, but it is only because we have been pounded with secularist propaganda since we were very little. Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, and our troubles vary. Some of us have trouble with our health, others with finances, others with difficult neighbors, and still others have family or marriage troubles. When this happens, God is not wronging us. And when we fail to recognize this, our attitude about it often does not help correct the problem, but only fosters more discontent. In the transactions between God and man, man is never shortchanged.
At the same time, St. Paul recognizes the fundamental incompatibility between light and darkness. And he fully realizes that a godly spouse will quite possibly drive off an ungodly one. When this happens, he says, don’t worry about it. The believer is not bound in such circumstances. And not bound means not bound. When a covenant member is the ungodly spouse (in this sense), the result of such overt rebellion will be church discipline, after which they are judicially and covenantally to be treated as an unbeliever. Many times, tender-hearted Christians have to learn to hear the words of the apostle here. “Let them depart.” As stated earlier, marriage is a covenant union, and not a mystic union.
REBELLION IN PRINCIPLE:
Although God is perfect, He is not a perfectionist. And in this passage, the apostle is arguing against a perfectionism that wants to be holier than God. In the course of this he says that an unbeliever, remaining in that unbelief, is not to be divorced provided they are pleased to remain in what the Bible would consider a recognizable marriage. This means that a believing wife or husband is required by Scripture simply to accept the idolatry of their spouse. Now that idolatry could get to a level where divorce was required. Consider the detestable practices of the Canaanite wives in Ezra 9-10. But we are talking now about child sacrifice, adultery, and so on. We are not talking about ordinary Joe Non-Christian. Now an ordinary pagan (pleased to dwell with his Christian wife) could be quite an ordinary trial to a godly wife. He might curse and swear while working on his car in the garage. He might eat lunch at Hooters every Friday. He might lose his temper and stomp out of the house sometimes. Be content, St. Paul would say. But also remember that relationships (including relationships like this one) are never static. They change and develop over time. The godly spouse, living in contentment, will be equipped to deal with it.