Pain in life is inevitable. Relational pain is inevitable. Sin stinks and its effects devastate. To deny that life is hard, that happiness is sometimes a struggle, that joy is a battle, is to forget that we live this side of heaven. And yet, as I preached last week in the final message from the book of Philippians, in light of the resurrection, Christians should refuse to live without joy. That doesn’t mean it is easy. This post, from Kairos Journal, and tries to live within the boundaries of the realities of pain “this side of heaven” while never forgetting the ultimate source of joy in Christ who has overcome the world.
What if the Unbeliever Departs?
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
1 Corinthians 7:15 (ESV)
It had been a long week for Sarah. A full-time mother, she is also active in women’s ministry at church. Between caring for her husband and children, attending Bible studies, and discipling a younger Christian woman, life is quite busy—but she loves it and is very good at maintaining the balance. Sadly, her husband is not so keen on Sarah’s commitment to Christ and His Church. Sarah was converted shortly after marrying Bill. He tried church a few times, but found the gospel too difficult to swallow. Now he attends irregularly, just to appease her. But he is weary of her “religion.” He doesn’t want be married to a woman who says she loves Jesus Christ, who prays, who cares about the church, and who tries to “convert” him. He wants out. So, last Sunday night after church, Sarah came home to a dark, empty house and a note, “Sarah, I’m leaving you. I can’t live with a Christian anymore. I’m sorry.”
Sarah and Bill may not be real, but unfortunately their story is all too familiar. As one author put it, “The line that divides the new creation from the old can run right through a marriage.”1 The Apostle Paul knew this would happen. In the ancient Church, as the good news spread throughout the Mediterranean world, sometimes whole households were converted (1 Cor. 1:16). But other times households were divided—one spouse was transformed but not the other. Because of the permanency of marriage, Paul’s counsel to the believer was to persevere, remain with the unbelieving spouse2 with the hope that one day the gospel would change him or her (1 Cor. 7:10-14). However, Paul also described a situation where the believer is not obligated to persevere in marriage at all costs.3 Sadly, the unbeliever may be allowed to depart: “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.”
The reason Paul offers for these instructions is that God has called us to peace. According to New Testament scholar Leon Morris:
In this whole matter of mixed marriages the line should be followed which conduces to peace. In some cases it will mean living with the heathen partner, in some cases it will mean accepting the heathen partner’s decision that the marriage is at an end. . . . To cling to a marriage which the heathen is determined to end would lead to nothing but frustration and tension. The certain strain is not justified by the uncertain result. The guiding principle must be ‘peace’ (15).4
Of course, this text does not mean that Christians should not plead with their non-Christian spouses to stay married. There is nothing here, for example, to prevent Sarah from contacting Bill, entreating him to reconsider, and praying that he would put his family first and return to the marriage. She may wish to employ other means to bring reconciliation, including the intervention of mutual friends, family members, and church leadership. But if he persists, Sarah is no longer bound to the marriage.
Abandonment from a marriage is a tragedy churches face far too often. Ministries must be in place to help couples experiencing marital problems. Support mechanisms should be devised to support believers and their families when they are abandoned. But, the greatest challenge is neither to be too permissive about divorce nor to go beyond what Scripture teaches about it. Christians, especially church leaders, need this revelation from Paul’s pen to help sort all this out.
|1||Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 360.|
|2||Unbelievers are those who (1) have never embraced Christ as Savior, (2) repudiate the gospel, or (3) profess faith but live in a state of persistent sinful behavior without repentance. In the quote below, Morris’s references to the “heathen” are references to the unbeliever.|
|3||In fact, Paul says that in such cases the believer “is not enslaved” (Gk. ou dedoulotai, literally, “is not in bondage,” from the verb deo, which means “to be in bonds,” “to knit,” “to tie”). “The implication,” says F. F. Bruce, “is that the believer in such a case was in a state of what amounted to widowhood.” See F. F. Bruce, I & II Corinthians, in New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 70.|
|4||Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), 111.|