Options in a Mixed Marriage

Reasons against divorcing an unbelieving spouse

In discussing mixed marriages, Paul says.

14 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. . . .

16 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 Corinthians 7:14, 16

The two reasons for staying married derive from God's fundamental purposes in marriage.

  1. The unbelieving spouse might be saved. In other words, God wants the marriage to hold together so that the Christian testimony, example, and love of the believing partner will eventually win the other to Christ. Then, they will enjoy a much closer relationship, reaching even to the spiritual dimension of life, and they will approach the complete love and companionship which is God's first purpose in marriage.

  2. The unbelieving spouse is sanctified, the result being that the children of the marriage are holy. Both "sanctified" and "holy" mean "set apart." Paul does not mean that the believer's faith somehow saves the unbelieving spouse as well as their children. In verse 16, the spouse's salvation is not a reality, but a hope. What Paul means is that both spouse and children are set apart as recipients of divine grace that they would otherwise not receive. The spouse lives daily in the presence of a Christian, mingles with other Christians, and perhaps even comes under the influence of preaching. A child in the same home has all these benefits plus, in many cases, the benefit of being instructed in the things of God.

    The children of an intact mixed marriage are not just holy. They are also not unclean. The probable meaning is that God does not reckon them sinners, but regards them as free from sin until they reach spiritual adulthood. Thus, if they should die, they certainly go to heaven.

The proper response when the unbelieving spouse is discontent

The unbelieving partner in a mixed marriage may well resent being bound to a religious fanatic and may seek a divorce. What then?

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.

1 Corinthians 7:15

Paul advises the believer to avoid strife by accepting the divorce.

It does not follow that the believer in this situation should be altogether passive. The believer should seek by every reasonable and peaceful effort to prevent the divorce. After all, divorce is akin to suicide. A loving husband or wife would energetically intervene to keep a spouse from killing himself. So also, a loving husband or wife should do the utmost to prevent a spouse from committing moral suicide and familycide. Efforts should include (1) concessions, to the extent that good conscience allows, (2) convincing expressions of love and of desire for reconciliation, and (3) straight-talking about consequences. The believer should also cooperate as little as possible in the legal process leading up to divorce.

But Paul states emphatically that opposition to divorce should not go to the point of fighting. The believer must not indulge in recriminations, hard feelings, bitterness, and accusations.

Status of the Christian after his or her partner has left

In the verse just quoted, Paul says that the forsaken believer is "not under bondage." Many readers sorely misinterpret these words, because they do not grasp Paul's view of marriage. That view clearly stands out from many other statements in the same passage.

7 For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.

8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.

9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

1 Corinthians 7:7-9

25 Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.

26 I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.

27 Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.

28 But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you.

1 Corinthians 7:25-28

32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:

33 But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

1 Corinthians 7:32-33

So, when Paul regards a divorced believer as "not under bondage," the freedom he envisages is not freedom to remarry, but freedom from marriage.

Some readers complain that if Paul is not granting the right of remarriage, his choice of words is certainly misleading. But it is misleading only to someone whose bias in favor of this right clouds his understanding of clear teaching. Before verse 15, Paul has already dealt with the question of remarriage, in verses 10 and 11.

10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:

11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.

1 Corinthians 7:10-11

He says plainly that a Christian woman deserted by her husband should not remarry. Presumably, the same rule applies to a Christian man spurned by his wife.

Furthermore, in the three texts quoted earlier, Paul explains why such a person should not remarry. He observes that marriage entails many cares and obligations that distract a believer from wholehearted service to the Lord. He affirms unequivocally that it is better to be unmarried than married.

Guidelines on Separation

General rule

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul lays out the Christian duty of someone caught in a difficult marriage. On the Lord's authority, he says that a wife should not "depart" from her husband (v. 10) and a husband should not "put away" his wife (v. 11). Paul is alluding to the Lord's dictum, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6).

An important lesson lies in Paul's choice of terms. He avoids the usual word for divorce (the one used in Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:7-9, and Mark 10:11-12, for instance) and employs more general language that can refer to either divorce or separation. What he is teaching, in essence, is that, based on the principle that marriage was meant to be indissoluble, the rule for separation is the same as the rule for divorce. Neither is right in the eyes of God. Whether by divorce or separation, a Christian must not break the conjugal union that God Himself forged with the intent that it should be permanent.

Proper course if an illegal divorce or separation has occurred

The same passage, 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, tells the believer what to do under these circumstances. A woman who has left her husband should seek reconciliation. And if attempts to heal the breach fail, she should stay unmarried. Presumably, the same duty falls on a man who has left his wife. He should not remarry, but should seek reconciliation with his wife.

Paul is saying that even if a marriage seems damaged beyond repair, the estranged man and woman, recognizing that God has mated them for life, should work at fixing it. The person who has initiated separation or divorce should reverse himself.

Grounds for separation

Separation is justified if and only if a spouse is guilty of criminal behavior endangering the members of his family. In a properly functioning society, every criminal would be sequestered not only from his family, but from everyone else, until he had demonstrated an ability to live peaceably with others. But in a highly flawed society, such as ours, the authorities do not always intervene as they should to protect helpless families from an abusive member. A Christian with an abusive spouse might have no recourse to protect oneself and one's children except to leave the home. But it is important to limit the right of separation to cases of undoubted criminal abuse. Criminal abuse includes assault or threatened assault with intent to kill or injure, sexual abuse of children, and use or threatened use of force to gain unprotected sexual relations if the aggressor has contracted AIDS or another venereal disease.

The Bible never gives abuse as grounds for separation because it assumes that society will deal with abusers under criminal law.

Invalid excuses for separation and divorce

One invalid excuse is adultery, which we have already discussed. In their desperation to flee problems, people plead many other excuses as well. But the Bible rejects them all.

  1. In my counseling experience, I have known people argue for separation or divorce with the excuse that the spouse has—by bad temper, or drinking, or some flagrant sin problem—so poisoned the atmosphere of the home that living there has become unbearable. But none of these offenses violates criminal law. Thus, bad as they are, they are not exceptions to the rule against separation. And they certainly are not exceptions to the rule against divorce. God in His wisdom regards ending a marriage as worse. A broken home in the long run is more detrimental to spouses and children than an unsatisfactory home. I am reminded of the man who liked to beat his head against the wall. In counseling such a man, I would not tell him to remove the wall. Good counsel never proposes a greater evil to eliminate a lesser evil. Abortion is not the remedy for an unwanted pregnancy. An atom bomb is not the remedy for a poor street plan. So also, separation and divorce are not the proper remedies for marriage to a difficult spouse. It is easy to underestimate what can be accomplished by proper remedies. These include the untiring demonstration of a sweet spirit, the constant readiness to help and forgive, and, above all, prayer.
  2. Suppose a man lapses into a coma and seemingly will never recover, or contracts a severe physical or mental impairment requiring permanent hospitalization. A degree of separation from his wife is then inevitable. But consider her plight. The marriage has become a great burden, turning normal life into an unattainable dream. Does she have a right to end the marriage that seems to be ruining her chances of happiness? The answer is, no. The promise was, "'Til death do us part." Even in a state of complete debilitation, the man needs his wife to look out for his interests, to caress him, and to speak soothing words of love. So also, a husband retains an obligation to his wife although she becomes severely afflicted.
  3. Suppose a spouse loses the capacity for sexual relations. Is a divorce justified? No, the promise was, "'Til death do us part." Marriage is more, much more, than sex. Though sexual relations cease, the love between man and wife is still uniquely fulfilling, and absolutely indispensable to the welfare of both individuals.
  4. Suppose a man announces to his wife that he has decided to prospect for gold in Antarctica. But she will not or cannot accompany him. Ought they seek a divorce? Certainly not. The wife's duty is to go with her husband, if at all possible. If she cannot go, they both have a duty to preserve the marriage. While apart, they must try in every way to nourish their love and hasten their reunion. Separation for the sake of employment is not the kind of separation that Paul forbids. Separation violates the law of God only if it is the result of conflict.