GOD’S WORD FOR YOU
1 CORINTHIANS 7:12-13
12 To the rest (the Lord does not speak about this, but I do): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to go on living with him, he is not to divorce her. 13 And if any woman has a husband who is not a believer, and he is willing to go on living with her, she should not divorce him.
Now Paul comes to a possibility that Jesus never addressed in the Gospels because it was not an issue in Israel: A believer might be married to an unbeliever. This was very much a possibility outside of Israel, and here in Greece, in Corinth, it was something that was probably common enough that many of the people were aware of at least one or two marriages like this.
Sometimes people imagine that because Paul says, “I, not the Lord” (NIV) that we have an option here that we can choose to follow or to ignore. I know from experience that this has led small Bible study groups and others to conclude that “everything Paul writes is optional.” But this is the only place in all of Scripture where Paul or anyone else says such a thing. In view of the earlier parentheses in verse 10, it should be clear to everyone that he means that the Lord spoke about that issue (marriage between believers), but that he did not address a case were there was a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. This is why I have translated more freely: “the Lord does not speak about this, but I do.” Paul did not “sometimes” talk this way (an argument one hears), but only this once. Finally it doesn’t matter who says these words in the Bible, Paul or Jesus, because the words are the Word of God, as Peter says (2 Peter 3:15-16). Paul is clearly being humble, by offering his words as merely human advice, but who am I to take something Paul wrote in the Scriptures and relegate it to mere advice?
The case is presented this way: The gospel is preached in a pagan place like Corinth. Some people are brought to faith through this preaching. One or two of those people are already married, and the spouse does not accept the gospel. What will happen now? Paul says: If the unbelieving spouse doesn’t object to this change, then they should remain married.
This test case is like that of a sinner, such as a murderer or a thief, who is married to a believer. If he asks his wife to participate in his sinful acts, she must refuse, as Peter and John confessed: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). If an unbeliever demands that his newly converted wife join him in his pagan beliefs, she is permitted to change her status and divorce him, but if he does not, and respects her different faith, she should not divorce him. Her faith may in fact be a means for him coming to faith later in life.
This case also answers the question of the Old Testament law’s requirement about blasphemy and unbelief when it was uncovered in Israel. It was to be punished with death by stoning (Deuteronomy 13:6-10), and the offended spouse was to be the first one to throw a stone (Deuteronomy 13:9). However, Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses, and Christians are no longer subject to this command to kill one’s own unbelieving spouse. Instead, Paul says, it is sufficient to divorce them and be separate from such a person.
There is also the very real and tragic case, repeated many times in history and without a doubt still happening today in places where the law is corrupt, where a wife (with the consent of her husband) commits adultery with a soldier, policeman, judge, or some other man, in order to save her husband from death or prison. Such things are terrible crimes and wrong in every way. One cannot trade one sin for another, and no one has the right even to permit his wife to commit adultery to save his life. The offending guard or soldier who demands or even suggests such a thing will answer for that sin with his immortal soul, and God will punish his burning lust with neverending flames (Isaiah 66:24). But a man must protect his dear wife’s soul, her guilt and shame, even at the cost of his own life, so that their friendship may continue in heaven, joined forever with Christ. For he does not know what the guilt of that sin will do to her and to her love for Christ.
This passage also speaks to Christians who are seeking a spouse. Notice how agonizing a marriage can potentially be that is between a believer and an unbeliever! It can be so difficult that some in Corinth were considering a divorce rather than to continue in such a marriage. To enter into such a mixed marriage on purpose, without even considering the challenges, could be a path inviting grief, strain on the future marriage, and even temptation later in life. To walk willingly into temptation is certainly a sin, since we pray, entreat and begging God himself not to do this to us (Matthew 6:13). But if the non-Christian is content, willing to marry the Christian spouse and allow that spouse to do all things proper to a Christian, then their marriage “is an outward, physical thing that neither promotes nor hinders faith, and the one partner may well eat with a heathen” (etc.)… and (the) “one marriage partner may now be a true devout Christian and the other an evil, false Christian; still it is not necessary to dissolve the marriage because of piety or malice” (Luther).
May God bless all marriages, but here we ask his special compassion on those marriages between a believing spouse and an unbelieving one. I knew a woman who lived to be more than a hundred, whose husband was an atheist. That man even tried to convert his grandchildren into rejecting their faith when they would spend Sunday afternoons at their home. But in the end, that woman’s patience, love, and steadfast faith opened his heart to the possibility that there truly is a heaven, and a God who both judges and forgives. That man was converted to faith a short while before he died. May this be the prayer and the goal of other men and women married to doubters and unbelievers. For as Mordecai so wisely says, “Who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
Pray for each other, and pray that God would keep your faith strong through his word and through the sacraments. For it is through the gospel of Christ that our faith is made strong.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota
God’s Word for You – 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 Mixed marriages