In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul addressed a particular situation brought about through the conversion of one person within an existing marriage. Becoming a believer in Christ introduces massive issues into any marriage. And sometimes those issues are irreconcilable.
The believer and the unbeliever serve different masters, believe radically different things, live fundamentally different ways and are heading to eternally different destinations. They are not small things. This is not a situation that Jesus addressed in the gospels and Paul concedes that. Nevertheless, as an apostle his words carry the same authority as Jesus’ teaching. This is a situation that has happened in our own church situation and, God willing, as people are brought to faith through courses like Christianity Explored we will continue to face in the coming years.
The action to be taken by the believing partner is dictated by the attitude of the unbelieving partner. The believing spouse should not be the one to initiate a divorce if the unbelieving spouse is happy to remain. Paul’s instruction to the newly converted partner was to stay married and not to leave. The need for this advice was caused by a defective view of defilement rampant in the Corinthian congregation. Apparently some in the congregation were suggesting that an unbelieving spouse contaminated the purity of the believer. But Paul says the transferral works in the other direction. The unbelieving partner does not defile the cleanness of the believing partner, but the holiness of the believing partner sanctifies the uncleanness of the unbelieving partner. Clearly this cannot mean that an unbelieving spouse automatically gets saved because their partner professes faith. He means that they have massive advantage of having a Christian life lived out in front of them. Paul supports his assertion by comparing the marriage situation to that of the family. Having believing parents is a positive thing for kids. They’re not saved by their believing parents but they are set apart. There is a striking lesson for those of us in Christian marriages. Even in this situation the enormous incompatibility introduced by conversion is not a sufficient reason to initiate divorce? Incompatibilities are really just differences. And rather than them being catastrophic to a marriage, they can provide opportunities to grow in our loving service of one another.
The situation in a ‘mixed’ marriage is different if the unbelieving partner wants out. In that situation the believing spouse can allow divorce. In all likelihood the unbelieving spouse will leave and seek sexual fulfilment elsewhere. So, once again sexual immorality severs the marriage bond. If the unbelieving partner can no longer stomach the faith of his or her spouse and they decide to quit then the Christian can let them leave. They can do this with a clear conscience and no doubt with a heavy heart but they are not sinning. The reason to let them leave is that there is no guarantee that they will become a believer by staying. There is no promise from God that if we marry an unbeliever that they will get saved. In the first instance this will apply most directly to those of us with unbelieving husbands or wives. If they’re keen to stay, and we pray that they are, remain in your marriage. They’ve come under the influential witness of a godly partner and so the last thing you should do is leave. But if they want out then you are no longer bound to that marriage and should co-operate with their desire to walk away.
In (39) Paul explicitly prohibits the marriage of a believer to an unbeliever. And perhaps as we think about the stresses of this situation we can appreciate why. So let me say to you ‘don’t marry a non-Christian’. It’s not that they’re worse sinners than us, they’re not. It’s that they’re unbelievers. And that introduces a level of tension into the marriage that you can do without.
The single girls amongst us are more susceptible to this than the men. Perhaps that’s a matter of statistics. There are more single Christian women in the church than single Christian men and so most men can in general expect to find someone willing to have them. But I think it’s also an issue of idolatry for the women. Being married is the thing that many worship. It’s the thing that they think will make them happy and bring fulfilment. If we believe that lie then we’ll make a decision that we may regret for the rest of our life. Perhaps not for the first five years when he’s keen to accommodate to your faith out of love for you. But after that, perhaps when the kids come along and there’s less slack in teh system. Decisions about how you spend your Sundays, how you raise the kids and how you sepnd your money will have a less Christian shape to them. We need to believe God’s word on this. There’s something worse than being unhappily single for the rest of your life, and that’s being married to an unbeliever.