My question is this: In I Corinthians 7:15 the apostle Paul instructs us, “Yet if the unbelieving departeth, let him depart: the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases: But God hath called us in peace” (ASV). Do we understand this passage to teach that a believing spouse who is divorced by an unbelieving spouse, because of the Christian profession of the believing spouse, is no longer under marital obligation to the unbelieving spouse and is hence free to remarry?

A second question which follows this one is, have the Protestant Reformed Churches ever addressed this matter on synodical level, or is there merely a “general sense” in the churches, what their view on this question would be?

I thank you in advance for taking the time to answer this question.

Mark L. Brooks

Valencia, PA

Answer:

I Corinthians 7:15 does not teach that the desertion of a believer by his unbelieving mate dissolves the marriage and frees the believer to marry another. The notion that such is the meaning of the passage rests upon a misunderstanding of the words, “is not under bondage in such cases” (which is also the translation of the KJV). Men read the phrase as though it were, “is not (any longer) bound (namely, to the deserting mate) in such cases.” To be “under bondage” and to be “bound” are two different thoughts and two different words, both in English and in the Greek of the New Testament; and it is inexcusable that interpreters of Scripture confuse them. Paul does not say that the deserted believer is not “bound” to his former mate in such cases, as though God had now dissolved the bond that He made when He joined the two in marriage. But the apostle says that the deserted believer is not “under bondage.” This refers to the spiritual state of the believer who has been abandoned by his wife. He need feel no guilt or shame over his marital condition, such as might cause him to live in constant fear of God’s condemnation of him because he is not living with his wife, or such as might even cause him to try to get the woman back at the expense of his confession of Christ. Not being under bondage in the text is not a ground for remarrying, but a ground for letting the unbeliever depart.

That not being under bondage describes one’s spiritual state before God is borne out by the words in the text that express the opposite of being under bondage: “but God hath called us in peace.” Peace is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the right to remarry, but the spiritual state of a believer who lives in the enjoyment of God’s favor, regardless of the most miserable circumstances of earthly life.

If Paul taught in verse 15 that desertion is the dissolution of marriage and the granting of the right to remarry, he would have flagrantly contradicted what he would write a few verses later. For in verse 39 he stated in clearest and sharpest language that married people are “bound” (not: “under bondage”) to each other for life, and that death, and death only, gives a married woman the liberty to marry another.

The teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter XXIV, VI, that “nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage . . . ,” is corruption of the Biblical truth of marriage, with deadly serious consequences for those who carry it out in their practice.

Marriage is a life-long bond. The deserted believer, although not under bondage, is very definitely still bound to the woman who has deserted him (as verse 39 establishes beyond any doubt). He is not at liberty to marry another.

Our young people must reckon with this solemn fact when they date and marry. It is possible to marry an unbeliever in haste, only to repent in the leisure of a long, lonely life, because the unbeliever departs. But it is also possible that a believer is deserted by one who gave every evidence before marriage of being a believer, but who proves herself an unbeliever by deserting. The comfort of this believer is the Holy Spirit’s purpose in the text. It simply has nothing whatever to do with the subject of the grounds for divorce and remarriage.

As for synodical decision by the PRC on the explanation of the passage or on desertion’s being a ground for divorce and remarriage, there is none, except insofar as the declaration that marriage is a life-long bond (not only between two believers, but also between a believer and an unbeliever) may have been made in connection with another aspect of marriage and divorce. It is historically true, however, that the Reformed churches, at least those whose roots are in the Netherlands, have not regarded I Corinthians 7:15 as affording a ground for divorce and remarriage. In this, they differed from Presbyterian churches, which supposed that they found in the text the “Pauline privilege.”

—DJE