Divorce is always a tragedy no matter how civilized the handling of it, always a confession of human failure, even when it is the sorry better of sorry alternatives.” Most of us will agree with this observation made in a Time magazine essay on divorce. But what shall we say about the unhappy marriage, sometimes called “holy deadlock”? Is it better than a happy divorce? Psychologists, marriage counselors, and judges are asking questions like this. Regrettably, the answers are not being supplied by articulate evangelicals. Most evangelicals say they oppose divorce under any circumstances. This is most unfortunate, because the Bible does not take an inflexible stance on the question.

Paul in his first Corinthian letter gives detailed instructions on how the problem should be handled in the church. In First Corinthians 7:10–16 Paul’s treatment of the divorce question depends upon who is involved. He discusses (1) the divorce of two believers (vv. 10, 11), (2) the divorce of a believer and an unbeliever where the unbeliever does not want a divorce (vv. 12–14), and (3) the divorce of a believer and an unbeliever where the unbeliever wants a divorce (v. 15). Paul does not deal with divorce involving unbelievers. God allows them divorce for the hardness of their hearts. But with Christians, the hardness of the heart has been remedied. What about them?

Divorce of two believers. Paul speaks first of divorce involving two believers: “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband” (1 Cor. 7:10). Paul mentions the command of the Lord, recalling for us what Jesus taught in the Gospels. Jesus was unalterably opposed to divorce for Christians.

Paul was aware, however, that a Christian husband or wife out of fellowship with Jesus Christ can make marriage intolerable for the other partner. I know of an evangelical minister who had an outwardly successful ministry, a talented and devoted wife, and grown children, and who was discovered to be a homosexual. Even after he was discovered, he persisted in his perversion. His wife was opposed to divorce, but she could not live with him.

Undoubtedly Paul had run into similar situations in Corinth. He advises the wife that “if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Cor. 7:11). The divorce law in Paul’s day did not provide for legal separation in which a woman could live apart from her husband and not be divorced from him. Fortunately the law today does provide for legal separation. The Christian who needs the protection of the law may take this route as an alternative to divorce. Legal separation provides protection but leaves the door open for reconciliation. The door to reconciliation must always be left open because Christians have in Christ the means of solving their problem.

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Since there was no legal separation in Paul’s day, Paul had to advise a specialized use of divorce. In fact, he does not use the same word for divorce that Jesus used (apoluo), undoubtedly to guard against contradicting what Christ taught about divorce. Paul says that the Christian wife may “depart” (koridzo) from her Christian husband, but she must remain unmarried. “Depart” means divorce, else why would Paul say “let her remain unmarried”? Divorce with this condition is really the same as our law of legal separation. By attaching this condition to divorce, Paul keeps the spirit of Christ’s commandment and at the same time provides protection for the believing wife until a reconciliation can be effected with her husband.

If a believer’s professing spouse divorces and remarries, what then? Reconciliation is impossible. In such a case I believe that the abandoned believer is free of the burden to remain unmarried because the purpose of remaining unmarried, the hope of reconciliation, has been eliminated. He has fulfilled the spirit of the command.

I use the word “professing” with design. It seems to me that a Christian sometimes places himself under the rules pertaining to the marriage of two believers when the behavior of the spouse raises serious questions about his professed Christianity. The Apostle James must be taken seriously here. A true faith is demonstrated in a changed life.

Divorce of a believer and an unbeliever where the unbeliever does not want a divorce. Regarding this second situation Paul says: “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him” (1 Cor. 7:12, 13).

Since the Lord had not given instruction in the case of marriage between believers and unbelievers, Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, does. The language is clear: If the unbeliever does not want a divorce, the believer is not to sue for divorce. It may be asked, then, what the believing wife should do if the unbelieving husband mistreats her. The principle of verses 10 and 11 may be applied in such a case. The woman may secure a legal separation for her own protection, but the door to reconciliation must be left open so long as the unbeliever wants reconciliation.

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This may seem an excessive burden to place on a Christian—to require him to remain with an unbelieving spouse. Paul states why he must: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14). Whatever is involved in the “sanctifying” role of the believer, this much is clear: the believer exposes the unbeliever to a Christian influence that is bound to have an effect on the unbeliever and may ultimately result in his salvation. Paul says in verse 16, “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?”

I often think of this verse in church prayer meetings where women with unbelieving husbands faithfully come to pray with the church for the salvation of their husbands. Nowhere have I seen such a concern for the lost. Indeed, the unbelieving husband is placed in a unique position by the believing wife.

Divorce of a believer and an unbeliever where the unbeliever wants a divorce. Paul’s instruction here is: “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace” (1 Cor. 7:15).

A great deal of argument has centered on the word “depart.” What does it mean, divorce or separation? “Depart” is the Greek word koridzo, the same word used in verse 11. In verse 11 the word clearly means divorce, else Paul would not have made the condition of no remarriage. Paul uses the word “depart” to mean divorce with or without condition. In verse 11 he speaks of divorce with the condition of no remarriage. In verse 15 he speaks of divorce with no condition attached. This is the clear meaning of “a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.” In the case described in verses 10 and 11, the brother or sister is under bondage: no remarriage. In verse 15, the brother is not under bondage: remarriage is allowed.

Paul does not elucidate the circumstances of verse 15. He does not say whether it applies only to a person saved after marriage or also to a believer who unwisely marries an unbeliever. Paul’s teaching applies to the situation as it stands at the moment of divorce: an unbeliever wants to divorce the believer. It matters not how it came to be that the believer is married to the unbeliever. If the unbeliever wants a divorce, the believer is free.

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One further word should be said about this. Paul’s instructions in this passage must be considered in light of the variety of divorce laws in the United States today. Many times the unbeliever may desire to depart but find himself unable to secure a divorce under his state law. He may ask the believer to sue for divorce in such a case. Would such a divorce be scriptural?

The answer is found in the spirit of what Paul is saying. Does the unbeliever want freedom? If he does, the believer may grant that freedom. The only reason to maintain the marriage bond is to bear witness to the unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:13, 14). If the unbeliever does not want to remain in the presence of the believer, there is no reason to maintain the bond.

It may be, therefore, that by legal technicality the believer must file for divorce to grant the unbeliever the freedom he desires. In such a case the believer would be fulfilling the spirit of First Corinthians 7:15.

Objections to this stand on divorce will certainly be raised. A frequent objection is, “What about the children of divorce? They will be hurt.” Unfortunately, marriages that are kept together “for the sake of the children” rarely benefit the children. In his book Children of Divorce, Dr. J. L. Despert says that it is not legal divorce that damages the children but emotional divorce. The marriage is held together for the sake of the child, but the child is made to live in an atmosphere charged with tension. Dr. Despert says, “As long as the child knows that his parents love him and will continue to take care of him, he can accept the fact that they both no longer live with him” (p. 77).

Psychologists at the University of Washington have found that divorce is not as damaging to the children of divorce as is commonly supposed. Their study shows that as a group, adolescents in broken homes show less psychosomatic illness, less delinquent behavior, and better adjustment to the parents than do children in unhappy, unbroken homes (New York Times Magazine, Feb. 14, 1965). Of course, the ideal is a happy, unbroken home, but that ideal is not always possible.

The child may feel guilty about the breakup, but the parents can minimize the child’s feeling of guilt and assure him that he will not be abandoned. The parents should calmly explain the situation to the child and not let him find out from quarrels between them or from the neighbors. The child must be told that the divorce means the end of stress, not the end of contact with him.

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The mother may say simply, “Your father and I can no longer live together happily, but that doesn’t change the feelings we have for you. Even though your father won’t live with us, he will continue to love you and will never stop being your father.”

The father may explain, “What has happened was between your mother and me and had nothing to do with you. You had no part in our unhappiness or our decision to divorce.”

The whole matter may be summed up in this way: though the Church may permit the legal separation of believers with the hope of reconciliation, it can never encourage the divorce and remarriage of believers. They have the means in Christ of fulfilling the original pattern of marriage: the two shall be one flesh.

In the case of marriage between a believer and unbeliever, the Church may permit divorce and remarriage. Paul says that God has called us to peace (literally, “in peace”). When a person accepts Jesus Christ as his Saviour, he has peace with God, and peace ought to mark all his earthly conduct. Insisting on the continuation of a marriage when the unbeliever does not want it contradicts this spirit of peace.

Divorce is a tragedy, but there are times when it is preferable to an unhappy marriage.

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