1 Corinthians 7:12-16

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 7:12-16

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 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. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?


In this section, Paul gives advice for marriage between those who believe and those who do not. It is notable that this is advice and not commands, because Paul clarifies “I, not the Lord.” Looking first at verse 12 in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(12) But to the rest.—Up to this point the writer has alluded only to Christians; he has spoken of the duties of unmarried persons, of widows, and of those already married. There still remains one class of marriages concerning which differences of opinion existed—viz., mixed marriages. In a church like Corinth there would have been, no doubt, many cases where one of the partners was a heathen and the other a Christian, arising from the subsequent conversion of only one of the married couple. This subject is treated of in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. The words are emphatically, “If any man have already a wife,” &c. The case of a Christian marrying a heathen is not alluded to. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, the marriage of a Christian to a heathen is forbidden.

Speak I, not the Lord.—The Apostle has no word of Christ’s to quote on this point, it being one which did not arise during our Lord’s life. (See Note on 1 Corinthians 7:10.)

It is to be noticed that the Apostle, in giving his own apostolic instruction on this point, does not use the word “command,” which he applied to our Lord’s teaching, but the less authoritative “speak.”

A wife that believeth not.—That is, a heathen. In some modern religious circles this whole passage has been used (as also 2 Corinthians 6:14) as if by “unbeliever” St. Paul meant a careless Christian, or one who, in modern phraseology, was not “converted.” The Apostle is referring under this designation to heathens, and the only case to which his teaching could now or ever apply would be when two heathens had been married, and subsequently only one had embraced the Christian faith. It is to be noticed that both here and in 1 Corinthians 7:13 the being “pleased to dwell” is put only in reference to the partner who is a heathen, for the Apostle takes for granted that after the instructions he here gives to the Christian partner, no such desire for separation will arise on the part of a Christian.

The comment clarifies that this advice is not a tacit approval of marrying outside the faith. The advice is intended for men or women who have converted after already being married. Paul advises the new Christians, under these circumstances, to remain married if their spouse will consent to continuing on with them. The reasons why are what follow. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 7:13

Let her not leave him. The verb is the same as in the clause rendered “let him not put her away.”

1 Corinthians 7:14

Is sanctified; literally, has been sanctified, the status has been rendered (so to speak) theoretically clean. By the wife; literally, in the wife. The bond is still holy; its holiness rests in the believing wife or husband. The reasoning would remove any scruples which Jewish Christians might derive from Deuteronomy 7:3, etc. By the husband; rather, in the brother. The liberty implied by these remarks, contrasting so strongly with the rigid rules laid down in the days of Ezra (Ezra 9:1-15.; Nehemiah 9:1-38.) recall the change of dispensation. Uncleani.e. not placed in immediate covenant relation to God. But now are they holy. This does not necessarily imply that they were baptized as infants, but only that they were hallowed as the fruit of a hallowed union. See the remarkable words of Malachi (Malachi 2:15). “If the root be holy, so are the branches” (Romans 11:16).

This statement from Paul is also in keeping with his earlier statements. If a person’s body is a temple of God, it is possible to defile that temple by lying with a prostitute. It follows, though, that if a man and wife are one flesh, and one of those persons becomes a temple of God, then the unbelieving spouse would receive some benefit by being joined to a holy temple. In turn, also, the children of such a couple would be better off with their parents married than divorced. But what happens if the unbelieving spouse leaves a newly converted spouse? From Ellicott:

(15) But if the unbelieving depart.—Supposing, however, the desire for separation arises from the unbelieving partner, how is the Christian partner to act? If the married life, for example, be made intolerable by the unbeliever urging the believer to join in such religious acts as conscience cannot approve, the Apostle’s previous commands for continued union do not hold good: a brother or a sister, in such cases, is not bound to insist upon the continuation of the union. “Let the unbeliever, if he so desire, depart.”

This permission is in no way contrary to our Lord’s permission of divorce on only one ground, for the Apostle has carefully reminded his readers that our Lord’s command does not apply to the case of a marriage between a believer and a heathen. In ouch cases we have no command from Him.

A brother or a sister.—That is, a Christian. In such cases, when the unbelieving partner wishes to depart, let him or her do so. The Christian partner is not, under such circumstances, bound by the marriage to continue together. Their doing so might destroy that very peace in which (not “to peace” as in the English) God has called us.

This situation brings back to mind the idea of *abuse* within a marriage. We know that Jesus permits divorce in cases of adultery, though He prefers if possible that the couple remain together. Paul here states that in instances where an unbelieving spouse leaves a believing spouse, divorce is acceptable. Does physical abuse fall under the umbrella of abandonment? From baptiststandard.com:

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses the subject of divorce. While he strongly urges against divorce in most circumstances, in 7:15, Paul says a believer who has been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse is free to divorce and remarry—the believer is not “under bondage in such cases” (NASB).

However, a close reading reveals Paul parallels Exodus 21:10-11 with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 7. Spouses must not deny one another their conjugal rights (7:2-5), must not abandon or neglect each other (7:10-16) and must provide for each other (7:32-35).

Andrew Naselli summarizes: “Since Paul repeats the requirements of Exodus 21:10 and since Exodus 21:11 allows for divorce when those requirements are not met, the principle still applies: divorce is legitimate when those requirements are not met—that is, when one breaks the marriage covenant.”

Naselli also points out the New Testament’s two explicit “grounds for divorce … come from separate texts. So we cannot interpret either text to mean ‘This ground for divorce is the only one’ without contradicting the other text. Similarly, the texts do not require us to conclude that there are two and only two grounds for divorce.”

What then are the biblical grounds for divorce? Considering all of Scripture, we can say divorce is permitted—but not required—following violations of the marriage covenant: adultery, serious neglect, abandonment and abuse.

The article above places physical abuse under the purview of a failure to adhere to the Exodus marriage covenant, and this is the majority view among Christians. The tension lies in the concurrent desires to simultaneously see marriage succeed, even in these cases, while also desiring to protect the abused party. Every situation is different.

Exoduse 21:10-11 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

The Catholic Church states overtly that civil divorce under the circumstances of abuse is permissible, but places additional requirements for anyone wishing to remarry within the Church:

Can. 1153 §1. If either of the spouses causes grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or to the offspring or otherwise renders common life too difficult, that spouse gives the other a legitimate cause for leaving, either by decree of the local ordinary or even on his or her own authority if there is danger in delay.

The canon does go on to state that once such a danger has passed, common life should be restored, but given the unique difficulties of abuse cases (e.g., promises to reform are all too often broken), an abused spouse may wish to allow an independent specialist such as a priest or a psychologist to determine if and when it is safe to resume common life.

The Church considers civil divorce in such cases to be the ecclesial equivalent of a legal separation and tolerates civil divorce sought for just cause (such as to ensure personal safety and/or the safety of children) to settle estate and child custody arrangements. The divorced person is still considered validly married and may not remarry in the Church unless and until an annulment is granted.

The goal is thus to promote reconciliation but not to make it difficult for an endangered person to seek out help and safety.

Verse 16 is somewhat unclear in its meaning. From Ellicott:

(16) For what knowest thou, O wife . . .?—This verse has been very generally regarded as a kind of modification of the previous one, as if the Apostle suggested that it might be advisable not to let the unbelieving partner depart from the marriage union when he so desired, in any case where there was even a chance of the believing partner effecting his or her conversion. The true meaning of the passage is, however, precisely the opposite. The Apostle declares that the remote contingency of the unbeliever’s conversion is too vague a matter for which to risk the peace which is so essential an element in the Christian life. If the unbelieving partner will depart, do not let any thought as to the possible influence you may exercise over his religious convictions—about which you cannot know anything, but only at most vaguely speculate—cause you to insist upon his remaining.

Some historical results, arising from the view that this is a suggestion of the good which may result from such union being continued, are interestingly alluded to by Stanley in his note on this passage:—“This passage, thus interpreted, probably had a direct influence on the marriage of Clotilda with Clovis, and Bertha with Ethelbert, and consequently on the subsequent conversion of the two great kingdoms of France and England to the Christian faith.”

The Pulpit Commentaries has this to say on verse 16:

1 Corinthians 7:16

For what knowest thou, O wife, etc.? The meaning is as follows:—You may, perhaps, plead that, by refusing to sever the union, the believing partner may convert the unbelieving; but that possibility is too distant and uncertain on which to act. St. Peter does indeed show that so blessed a result is possible; but he is only speaking of cases in which the unbelieving husband did not wish the union to be dissolved. The ancient misinterpretation of the passage (due to neglect of the context and of the argument as a whole) viewed it as an argument for mixed marriages, founded on the chance of thereby winning souls. Most misinterpretations of Scripture have done deadly harm; this one, however, has been overruled for good, and led, as Dean Stanley points out, to such happy marriages as that of Clotilde with Clovis, and Bertha with Ethelbert of Kent.

Both Commentaries note that this verse is not an endorsement of marriages for the purpose of causing conversion. However, as both commentaries note, sometimes that does occur and the impact can be significant. France and England became Christian nations in this way.

Ethelbert of Kent (via Wiki):

Æthelberht (/ˈæθəlbərt/; also ÆthelbertAethelberhtAethelbert or EthelbertOld EnglishÆðelberht [ˈæðelberˠxt]; c. 550 – 24 February 616) was King of Kent from about 589 until his death. The eighth-century monk Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, lists him as the third king to hold imperium over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In the late ninth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he is referred to as a bretwalda, or “Britain-ruler”. He was the first English king to convert to Christianity.

Æthelberht was the son of Eormenric, succeeding him as king, according to the Chronicle. He married Bertha, the Christian daughter of Charibert I, king of the Franks, thus building an alliance with the most powerful state in contemporary Western Europe; the marriage probably took place before he came to the throne. Bertha’s influence may have led to Pope Gregory I’s decision to send Augustine as a missionary from Rome. Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet in east Kent in 597. Shortly thereafter, Æthelberht converted to Christianity, churches were established, and wider-scale conversion to Christianity began in the kingdom. He provided the new church with land in Canterbury, thus helping to establish one of the foundation stones of English Christianity.

Æthelberht’s law for Kent, the earliest written code in any Germanic language, instituted a complex system of fines; the law code is preserved in the Textus Roffensis. Kent was rich, with strong trade ties to the Continent, and Æthelberht may have instituted royal control over trade. Coinage probably began circulating in Kent during his reign for the first time since the Anglo-Saxon settlement. He later came to be regarded as a saint for his role in establishing Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons. His feast day was originally 24 February but was changed to 25 February.

Clovis of France (via Wiki):

Clovis (LatinChlodovechus; reconstructed Frankish: *Hlodowig; c. 466 – 27 November 511) was the first king of the Franks to unite all of the Frankish tribes under one ruler, changing the form of leadership from a group of petty kings to rule by a single king and ensuring that the kingship was passed down to his heirs. He is considered to have been the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled the Frankish kingdom for the next two centuries. Clovis is important in the historiography of France as “the first king of what would become France”.

Clovis succeeded his father, Childeric I, as a king of Salian Franks in 481, and eventually came to rule an area extending from what is now the southern Netherlands to northern France, corresponding in Roman terms to Gallia Belgica (northern Gaul). At the Battle of Soissons (486) he established his military dominance of the rump state of the fragmenting Western Roman Empire which was then under the command of Syagrius. By the time of his death in either 511 or 513, Clovis had conquered several smaller Frankish kingdoms in the northeast of Gaul including some northern parts of what is now France. Clovis also conquered the Alemanni tribes in eastern Gaul, and the Visigothic kingdom of Aquitania in the southwest. These campaigns added significantly to Clovis’s domains, and established his dynasty as a major political and military presence in western Europe.

Clovis is also significant because of his conversion to Nicene Christianity in 496, largely at the behest of his wife, Clotilde, who would later be venerated as a saint for this act, celebrated today in both the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church. Clovis was baptized on Christmas Day in 508. The adoption by Clovis of Nicene Christianity (as opposed to the Arianism of most other Germanic tribes) led to widespread conversion among the Frankish peoples; to religious unification across what is now modern-day France, the Low Countries and Germany; three centuries later, to Charlemagne‘s alliance with the Bishop of Rome; and in the middle of the 10th century under Otto I the Great, to the consequent birth of the early Holy Roman Empire.

This is a lot of significant history, built on a conversion to Christianity at the encouragement of one’s wife.

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