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God’s Word for You

1 Corinthians 7:15 If the unbeliever leaves…

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, February 3, 2023

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. In such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to live in peace.

Speaking about marriage, Paul’s line of thought has been this:

1, For those who are not married, it is good to be single,
2, but not everyone (few, in fact) have that gift.
3, It is better to marry than to suffer and sin if you burn wih desire.
4, If you are married when you come to faith, remain married.
5, but if you separate on account of faith, do not remarry.
6, One’s unbelieving spouse (and children) are holy on your account.

Now Paul comes to the subject of the unbelieving spouse divorcing the believer. It is a common error to cite this passage when a believer desires a divorce: “Oh, he (or she) must have become an unbeliever, since he wants such a sinful thing as a divorce. Let him go!” But to commit a sin is not the same as becoming an unbeliever. A believer who sins is… me. Every Christian must understand this. If your spouse commits what you think is a terrible, unthinkable sin, then take a good hard look in the mirror before you say, “They’re an unbeliever now.” Consider the sins of believers, even heroes of faith, in the Scriptures. Sarah decided to bring another wife into her husband’s bed. Abraham, the model of faith for us all, agreed to this (Genesis 16:1-2). Their sin led to Hagar, their servant girl, to being led (or driven) into adultery, and then being driven out of their home and into the desert until she and her son nearly died of thirst (Genesis 21:14-16). Jacob stole his brother’s birthright (Genesis 25). Moses murdered an Egyptian and hid the body (Exodus 2:12). David committed adultery with his friend’s wife and then had his friend killed in battle to cover up the sin (2 Samuel 11; Psalm 51:1). Solomon, Rehoboam, Jonah, Manasseh, Peter, Paul—all committed terrible sins. All of them probably looked like unbelievers. But they were forgiven. Such people have a place in heaven.

The error in applying this verse stems from forgetting the context. The departing spouse is not merely a sinner, but an unbeliever. In Corinth, the usual case was that both husband and wife entered into their marriage while they were unbelievers. Now, through the preaching of Paul and Apollos, one of them had come to faith in Christ. This was no small change in the marriage! Now the believer has a new frame of mind, a new outlook on life, death, and the resurrection to eternal life. The believer will understand new things about marriage. Marriage is not eternal, but it is only for this life, but the companionship and friendship of marriage can remain in heaven if both husband and wife are believers. More than this, they will share their companionship, friendship, and shared faith with all believers and not only with one another in Paradise.

But there will also be the concern, here below, that the unbelieving spouse is not only not bound for heaven, but on account of their unbelief, they are destined for eternal suffering in hell. Different unbelievers have different reactions to this.

a, Some will be firm and hardened in their unbelief and won’t care.
b, Some will be amused and patient with their spouse’s new “superstition.”
c, Some will be somewhat offended that the believing spouse does nothing about this difference, but the marriage will continue.
d, Some will pretend to go along with the new faith but secretly they will be hypocrites, not believing but showing up at Christmas and Easter and a few other events.
e, Some will not want the marriage to continue.

It is the last group Paul is describing. Let them go. Why, if God gave marriage as a blessing, should we allow the unbeliever to go? Because, Paul explains, God wants us to live in peace. A marriage that is constantly arguing about faith is not a marriage, but a battle. It will be exhausting, it will no longer be a union, and it will be a battle.

Naturally, the believer will want the unbelieving spouse to come to faith. They should not expect that a single one-hour session with pastor will change everything, like taking a naughty boy to the principal’s office might change some behavior. The word must work, and an unbeliever’s heart might be hardened. Faith may take a long time, and a hardened heart might possibly never be softened. We have the example of Moses’ preaching to Pharaoh to remind us of that, for after Pharaoh hardened his heart again and again (Exodus 8:15,22, 9:34) the Lord hardened his heart (Exodus 10:1,20,27).

If the unbelieving spouse leaves, the believer is encouraged: Let him leave. You are not bound. The Lord wants you to live in peace. Professor Toppe says: “Christian spouses do not sin if they experience the desertion and the termination of their marriages…. The deserted party may remarry when all reasonable hope of restoring the marriage is gone. Such hope obviously is gone when the unbeliever enters into a new marriage” (People’s Bible: 1 Corinthians p. 68). And such a believer is comforted many times:

“Let all who take refuge in you, O Lord, be glad; let them sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you” (Psalm 5:11).

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your heart in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 43:5).

“You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy” (Psalm 45:7).

“Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth. Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name. I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths” (Psalm 86:11-13).

Live in peace.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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