What Should I Do About An Unbelieving Spouse?

1 Corinthian 7:12-16

12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Analysis

In 2 Corinthians 6:14 Paul clearly states that a believer should not marry an unbeliever.  “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”  However there are often times when a person becomes a believer after marriage and the spouse does not share the newfound faith.  This is the situation that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 7.

A believer should continue in marriage with an unbeliever as long as the unbeliever desires to remain married.  A Christian should not initiate a divorce.  Even though there may be difficult circumstances, a Christian is still a witness to their spouse as long as they are married.

Likewise, the children of the family are sanctified by the believing parent.  This does not mean that they are saved because they have a parent who is a Christian.  Instead it means that they are exposed to Christianity and have a greater chance of becoming a Christian because of the influence of the parent.

If the unbelieving spouse wants a divorce, the Christian should let them go.  This does not mean that everything possible shouldn’t be done to first save the marriage.  The reconciliation of a husband and wife is always the first goal.

After every resource has been used to save a marriage and an unbelieving spouse still wants to leave, the Christian should let them leave without the guilt of divorce upon them.  They have no control over the decision of an unbelieving spouse.  Likewise, they should not remain in the marriage because of the chance to witness to their spouse.  While this was a viable reason when the spouse wanted to stay, it is not a reason to maintain the marriage.  As Paul says, there is no way to know if a person will lead their spouse to the Lord.

As to whether a believing spouse can and should get remarried, this is a much more difficult question that will be discussed in the article, “Should I Get Remarried?

Should I Get Remarried?

The answer to the question “Should I get remarried?” is even more complicated than the issue to divorce.  A lot of it comes down to how a person ended up single again.  Even then however there are a lot of gaps in what is spelled out in the Bible.

Paul simplified the issue with advice that is not to be taken as a command in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.

“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

Simply put, life is easier as a single person.  However there are more temptations as a single person and if a person cannot control themselves, they should get married.  Of course the implication is that they must control themselves once they are married then.

Widows are free to remarry when their spouse passes away.  Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 7:39.  “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.”

The issue of remarriage gets complicated once divorce is involved.  There are a few things that are clear from scripture.  A person who initiated a divorce should not get remarried with the exception of marital unfaithfulness.  See “Is Infidelity Grounds for Divorce?” for more information about marital unfaithfulness.

In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 Paul writes, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”  Paul does not give the reason a person should not get remarried after initiating the divorce but Jesus does.  In Matthew 19:9 Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”  If a person doesn’t like the words of Paul, the words of Jesus are even more hard hitting and difficult to ignore.

But what about when a spouse leaves?  Is a divorcee an adulterer if they get remarried?  The issue becomes even more difficult with fewer specifics spelled out.  Jesus addresses this issue in Matthew 5:32.  “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

A Christian should not married a person who has been divorced.  Many would argue that there are exceptions to Jesus’ statement but He offers none here or anywhere else.  Because Jesus uses the words wife and divorced woman, it is clear that he is speaking of marrying someone who did not initiate the divorce and is instead a victim of it.

A victim of divorce is perhaps the best way to depict a person whose spouse has left them.  Jesus says that a person who divorces causes their spouse to become an adulterer.  A person is not an adulterer by virtue of becoming divorced.  It would appear that Jesus is making the assumption that most divorced people will get remarried.  To get remarried would cause the divorcee to become an adulterer.  However, from Jesus’ statement it appears as if the guilt of adultery rests upon the one who initiated the divorce because he or she has caused their spouse to become this.  That being said, a divorced person is responsible for their own actions and even though they are a victim of divorce, they are not forced to get remarried.

There is an exception offered as a legitimate reason for divorce.  If a spouse is unfaithful a divorce is allowed.  From the wording of Jesus’ statement it would appear that getting divorced and remarried as a result of marital unfaithfulness is allowed.  The guilt of adultery rests with the spouse who broke the marriage vows.

There is another category of divorcee that is discussed in “What Should I Do About an Unbelieving Spouse?”  In 1 Corinthians 7:15 Paul writes, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”  A believer is not bound to remain married to an unbeliever, if the unbeliever initiates the divorce.

What we have left is an argument from silence.  The divorce is allowed and the guilt rests on the unbeliever who initiated the divorce.  However there is nothing definitively said when a Christian can remarry after an unbelieving spouse divorces them.

The argument against remarrying is that Jesus only gave one exception to divorce and remarriage, marital unfaithfulness.  Because no other exceptions were made we can’t assume that this divorce means that a person can remarry.

The argument for remarriage is that the divorce was allowed.  Likewise, when Jesus spoke, He addressed a Jewish audience who would not have had marriages where one person was a believer and the spouse was not.  By Paul’s day there were many converts to Christianity and it was likely that many marriages had one spouse that had become a Christian and the other had not.  Jesus had no reason to include this exception but Paul did 25-30 years later as he addressed Christians in an entirely different situation than Jesus addressed Jews in.

This still leaves a lot that is open for interpretation.  About the only things that we can definitively say from scripture is that a widow or widower is free to get remarried.  On the flipside, a person who initiated a divorce should not get remarried or else they are guilty of adultery.

As for other situations, the advice of Paul rings loudest.  If a person can remain single and not be tempted, they are better off to do so.  If a person feels the need to become remarried they should let their conscience be their guide.  If they believe it is wrong to do so, they should refrain.  Only after much prayer and consultation should a victim of divorce consider remarrying.

Analysis of Matthew 19:1-12

1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4″Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

7″Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Analysis

Jesus acknowledges that not everyone will be able to accept His teaching on divorce.  This does not make it an optional command and that people are excused from following it if they don’t like it.  Instead He is confirming that it exists and that people will continue to divorce because their hearts are hard.

At the time, a man could divorce his wife for any trivial reason, even something such as burning the toast.  Jesus explains that divorce is not God’s will but had been allowed in the law of Moses because of the hardness of people’s hearts.

There are a few lessons from what Jesus says and at least two from what He doesn’t say.  The first is that someone who initiates a divorce and then remarries is guilty of adultery.

The second lesson is a tricky exception to the rule of divorce.  The Greek word that is translated as marital unfaithfulness is porneia.  No one knows the exact meaning of this word although it is understood to be similar to fornication or adultery.  It is the root word where we get the word pornography.  Marital unfaithfulness is grounds for divorce according to Jesus, assuming that this is precisely what porneia means.

What is not said is if a person who has a legitimate reason for a divorce can then remarry.  This topic is discussed under “Is infidelity grounds for divorce?” and “Should I get remarried?

While a person who initiates the divorce is told not to remarry because it is adultery, the fate of the divorcee is not mentioned.  Are they allowed to get remarried because they were not at fault for the divorce?  Jesus addresses this partly in Matthew 5:31-32 and it is discussed here under the topic “Should I get remarried?

Other passages concerning divorce

Malachi 2:13-16

1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 39