My spouse and I are regular podrishioners of WHC. We recently viewed Pastor Greg’s “Divorce and Remarriage “ sermon and fully agree with his grace-filled conclusion. [Also check out Greg’s sermons on this topic here and here.] But we’re troubled by one verse Greg didn’t comment on: “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (I Cor 7:39). This passage seems to contradict the many passages Greg alluded to. Can you please share your interpretation of this passage and how it can be reconciled with passages that seem to allow divorce and remarriage?
Thanks for the great question! Here is my take.
Often in Scripture (and human discourse in general) we find statements made that reflect general truths but that are qualified elsewhere (or sometimes in the immediate context), whether by the author who made the statement or someone else. For example, Paul several times says things like “as all were dead in Adam, so all shall be made alive in Christ” (e.g. Rom.5; I Cor 15:22). But elsewhere Paul and others give teachings that seem to indicate that some will ultimately be lost, which I interpret as annihilation (e.g. 2 Thess 1:9). While I can’t help but hope I’m wrong and that it turns out there was a way for God to save all, I don’t yet see a way to claim any confidence about this in light of this second class of scriptures. So the way I currently reconcile these apparently contradictory sets of statements is to conclude that all people ARE redeemed in Christ UNLESS they chose to reject this truth and thus believe and live as if it were not true. In other words, in Christ God gave a saving bear-hug around EVERYONE, but because he’s a God who will not— cannot!—coerce people to be saved, people remain free to refuse the hug, if they so chose. And that ultimately means they are forever forfeiting eternal life.
I’d say the same thing about I Cor. 7:39. According to God’s original design for marriage, the general truth is that a spouse is bound to their partner for life. Only death should end the marriage covenant. But as we all know, in this world of broken people—including broken Jesus-followers—God’s design for marriage isn’t always accomplished. And here is where all the other passages in Old and New Testaments that reflect God’s accommodating will, allowing divorce and remarriage, become important.
In fact, earlier in I Cor 7 Paul encouraged women who were married to unbelieving husbands to stay in the marriage, if the husband would allow it, in order to “sanctify” them and their children (viz. keep the door open for them to come into the kingdom). But he then says that if the husband chooses to divorce her, the woman is “no longer bound” (7:15), using the same term he uses to refer to the way a wife is “bound” as long as her husband lives. So it seems to me that Paul is qualifying his statement in 7:39 in the very context in which he gives it.
Not only this, but Paul encouraged single people to remain single as he was, but he added that if they “burn with passion,” they are free to marry (7:9). Given that Paul said these divorced women were no longer “bound,” it seems reasonable to assume that this encouragement would apply to these divorced women as well. (And, of course, Paul addresses this only to women because in that culture only men had to right to divorce their wives. Today we’d apply these teachings to both.)
I hope this helps with your question. If you find a better interpretation of this passage, by all means please let me know.