This article is literally the heart and core of a proper understanding of God’s revelation on unequally yoked divorce. Largely because the church almost universally understood this passage to say the opposite of what Paul actually taught here. In order to really grasp the profundity of what is being said, consider that if the previous statement is true, that the church has yet to rightly understand Paul’s true meaning, then to rightly understand God’s revelation here, after centuries of it being hidden, is as if a new revelation is being given. But no new revelation can be given, yet one can be discovered hidden beneath the shroud of presumption and the doctrine of man. Seeing 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 as Paul intended it to be understood works in perfect union with his more explicit command in 2 Corinthians 6:14 through 7:1.
This article principally concerns itself with 1 Corinthians 7: 12-16, but first we want to have Paul’s subsequent clarification of this passage to the same churches fresh in our thinking. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6 verse 14 through chapter seven verse 1, the great apostle commands every believer to get out from under all unequally yoked relationships. Many prefer to argue that Paul is instructing believers not to enter into such relationships, which is, of course, an implicit command, but the explicit command is to remove yourselves from all such relationships. This is seen in the very context. The final verse commands believers to “let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit…” As every believer comes into Christ’s body defiled and polluted by sin, they must cleanse themselves from all defilement. The whole process of sanctification is one of cooperating with the Holy Spirit as we “put to death the deeds of the flesh”. We come into Christ yoked to every kind of defilement. The remainder of our earthly lives is spent separating ourselves from every kind of evil and defilement as we grow in obedience and holiness.
The New Testament’s Explicit Command On the Subject of Being Unequally Yoked In Marriage
“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with and unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.’ Therefore, ‘COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE,’ says the Lord. ‘AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN, and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty. Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (II Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
How any believer can read, study and meditate upon this biblical mandate and still be uncertain about where God stands on His children being bound together with unbelievers in any relationship is incomprehensible. Nevertheless, most Christians do seem to equivocate in their understanding and obedience to Paul’s command here. With such strong and convincing language how is this possible? Certainly for every relationship other than the marriage relationship the only answer can be that sin continues in the believer and they simply fail to fervently obey God’s command to their own shame and great loss. Repentance is called for on a daily basis.
Paul’s straightforward command for unequally yoked relationships in Second Corinthians 6 is obscured for the marriage relationship by the misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. As with all misinterpretations, this causes these two passages to contradict one another. Rather than taking a closer look at Paul’s instructions in his first letter, expositors have solved the contradiction by claiming the misinterpretation of the first letter means that the clearer command in the second letter cannot possibly apply to marriages.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones begs to differ as he taught that 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is directly applicable to marriage and only to marriage, so certainly he strongly disagreed with the commonly held view. Why is Lloyd-Jones assumed to be correct while the multitudes are considered wrong? The interpretation of the multitudes creates a contradiction in God’s Word, and Lloyd-Jones understood this and was willing to take a stand against the throngs so that he would not be guilty of this critical error. The contradiction does severe damage to both texts. Lloyd-Jones built the bridge half way by understanding Paul’s direct command in 2 Corinthians 6:14, but he never completed the other half of the bridge. He corrected the common error applied to this text, but he was unable to unravel the quagmire that was the man-made doctrinal interpretation for 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. We see that early scholars jumped on what appeared to be an obvious understanding of Paul’s meaning, which conveniently agreed with their own desired understanding. With each successive generation it has become harder to see beyond the “obvious understanding”.
I remember the occasion during an adult Sunday School lesson when I quoted Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “Bad company corrupts good morals.” My assistant pastor literally said the words, “but it doesn’t have to” as he was defending his unbiblical argument. My dear friend forgot the four words preceding this biblical truth, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.'” Whether it is the Biblical proclamation that “bad company corrupts good morals” or the Biblical command, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers” we must not contradict the Word of God by saying, “but it doesn’t have to” or “not true for every believer”.
Some have argued that since Paul does not mention marriage in 2 Corinthians 6:14f it cannot be applied to unequally yoked marriages. Such logic would necessarily mean that the passage does not apply to any relationship since no specific type of relationship was mentioned. Lloyd-Jones understood this passage to apply directly to marriages because it is marriage above every other relationship that binds two people together to become one complete person.
So the proper understanding of 2 Corinthians 6:14f, in the light the ubiquitous presence of such commands in the Old Testament, is this overarching rule or command that God prohibits his children from being bound together with unbelievers. One cannot simply exclude marriages but should, as Lloyd-Jones has done, argue all the more so in marriages (Martyn Lloyd-Jones consistently refused to speculate upon any doctrine into territory that he believed God did not speak. In the last two pages of his final chapter of Christian Marriage it is obvious that he logically could not imagine how an unequally yoked marriage could function as Christ and His church. But Lloyd-Jones did not think God revealed any solution for unequally yoked marriages except that the unbeliever commit adultery freeing the believer from the marriage bond). I would have loved to have had the opportunity to show Lloyd-Jones 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 in it’s proper light. I think his logical mind would have grasped Paul’s true meaning.
Since God’s ubiquitous commands against unequally yoked marriage in the Old Testament, which has been carried forward into the New Testament by Paul, cannot properly have any normative exceptions it is Paul’s teaching in First Corinthians 7:12-16 that must be understood in such a way so as not to contradict the unassailable command in the second letter. Sooner or later the believer must fearfully obey God’s command and importune the unbeliever for release. As Christians they must do so in the most loving and kind way, but importune for release they must.
The Heart of the Matter
Now the time has come to take note of a sharp contrast between the biblically ubiquitous command of 2 Corinthians 6:14 and the entirely unique doctrine in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. We understand that Paul’s teaching here is unique because he introduces these instructions with the phrase, “But to the rest I say, not the Lord…” (1 Corinthians 7:12). Paul makes it clear that the instructions he is giving here are not from the Lord’s direct teaching during the time when Paul was taken up into the third heaven, nor did he find these instructions anywhere else in the scriptures. Nevertheless, Paul’s instructions, introducing a new doctrine, are inspired by the Holy Spirit, which means that they are divine in origin.
To clarify the issue further, the immediately preceding sentence (v. 10, 11) finds Paul prohibiting divorce for two believers bound in Christian marriages when he says, “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband…” (v. 10). So then, Paul clearly states that the Lord directly and/or through scripture revealed to him the Christian rule that two members of the body of Christ must not divorce (short of pornia), but whether or not an unequally yoked Christian should divorce their unbelieving spouse and under what rules they must follow were not divinely spelled out prior to Paul’s passage here to the Corinthians. Paul was equally clear that he was left to piece this issue together for himself using his knowledge of the Word, his wisdom and eminent logic to come to his conclusion, “But to the rest I say, not the Lord…”
So then, even with the great apostle’s candid, unguarded transparency much of the church seems to miss the elephant in the room. Paul was teaching the Corinthians that the same rule does not apply to equally yoked and unequally yoked marriages. If the same rule applied to both, then he would have had no need to separate the two distinct marriages as he so clearly does. Though this distinction is unmistakable in the text it has been almost entirely obscured by two monumental man-made doctrines even as our Lord Jesus argued against, “Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7-8). The two precepts of men that obscure Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 are: First, Roman Catholicism declaring marriage a sacrament. Second, the misappropriation of the scriptural use of marriage as an analogy for the relationships between God and Israel and Christ and His church. Sadly, time does not allow elaboration here, but the following poem elucidates the horrible outcome:
False Doctrines Bloom from the repeated sowing of false seeds.
Seed by seed,
Garden by garden,
Pasture by pasture,
The lie spreads until it is unimpeachable.
UNDERSTANDING THE DISTINCTION HERETOFORE LOST FOR CENTURIES
In First Corinthians chapter 7 verses 10 and 11 Paul declares by divine decree that an equally yoked Christian couple is prohibited from a marital divorce (assuming fidelity/Christ’s pornia clause); if a separation occurs then reconciliation to one another is their only marital option. Then in verses 12 and following he turns his attention to unequally yoked marriages. Paul begins in verse 12 by saying that no such divine decree exists for unequally yoked married couples. Paul makes this clear at the beginning of verse twelve. Since this instruction is lacking elsewhere in scripture Paul provides it here for the Christian church. Paul is not only inspired by the Holy Spirit, but he himself is uniquely qualified for such a task.
Here in verses 12 through 16 Paul makes use of a conditional clause in his instructions to unequally yoked believers as to the necessary condition to maintaining a marriage to an unrepentant person. This conditional clause means that unequally yoked marriages that abide by the clause continue and marriages that do not must divorce. Paul says that the believer unequally yoked in marriage must stay married if, and only if, Paul’s condition is met. If the condition is not met, then the believer must not remain in the marriage to an unbeliever.
It is a great tragedy that the church, due to the tradition of men, has misunderstood the condition that must be met for the believer to stay in the marriage to an unbeliever. It is monstrous to even consider that the church has historically forbidden what God permitted, even commanded, when the condition was unmet.
So then, having the letter-perfect understanding of this necessary condition is the key to knowing the heart and mind of God on this issue. It will also bring both texts from First and Second Corinthians into perfect agreement unlike the heretical method that excludes existing marriages from God’s prohibition against being unequally yoked, which has been the fallback position of a majority of theologians on this doctrine.
THE CONDITION FULLY EXPLAINED
Paul’s condition, properly understood, must pacify God’s displeasure with the child who remains bound in marriage to an unbeliever. Without the consent of the unbelieving spouse the believing spouse, by remaining in the marriage, transgresses God’s prohibition in 2 Corinthians 6:14f. It is critical that the reader fully understand the significance of the first two sentences in this paragraph. Second, Paul’s necessary condition must be fully understood by ministers of the Word of God before they can faithfully and accurately apply it to the thousands of believers who must navigate these dangerous waters and who desire to land safely in the perfect will of their heavenly Father.
According to Paul, the believer must not divorce their unbelieving spouse as long as the following condition is met:
I Corinthians 7:12-13 “she/he (the unbeliever) consents to live with him/her (the believer)”.
And if this all important condition is not met:
Paul says in verse 15, “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us/you to peace.”
So then, here is Paul’s condition: If the unbeliever “consents to live with” the believer, then the believer must not divorce the unbeliever. The failure to seek the intended meaning by asking the right question(s) in order to actually know the heart and mind of God regarding any biblical text will result in a failure to have learned what scripture actually instructs. Indubitably, knowing the intended meaning of the verb “consents to live with” is absolutely necessary to understanding Paul’s prohibition to divorce ones unbelieving spouse.
Allow a brief example: John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Yet the very same Son of God said at the end of His Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…”for “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23). So then, the reader must ask a question of the biblical text in order to be certain that the meaning God intended is the meaning the reader understands. Here is the question that would need to be asked of John 3:16: “What does ‘whoever believes in Him’ actually mean?” Until this is accurately and biblically (consistent with the rest of Scripture) understood the otherwise simple phrase cannot bear the full force of the meaning intended by God, and a person may go throughout an entire lifetime taking their salvation for granted only to hear Jesus say at the great judgment, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” What an eternally tragic day that will be for perhaps millions of careless people.
In like manner, a very important question must be asked of the biblical text in which Paul provides a condition that, if met, means that a Christian is prohibited from divorcing their unbelieving spouse, but if the condition is not met, means that the Christian is disobeying God’s command against being unequally yoked in their marriage. In other words, without the condition being met the believing spouse ought to divorce their unbelieving spouse. So, once again, here is the question that must be asked and answered fully to be sure God’s meaning is perfectly understood: “What does ‘consents to live with’ actually mean?” Since verse 15 says, “if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases”, many have made the mistake of thinking that since the Word “leaving” marks the failure to keep the condition set forth, then “not leaving” must be the meaning of the condition. Paul’s use of the phrase “consents to live with” is pregnant with meaning. Jumping to the conclusion that “not leaving” is all that Paul had in mind is a catastrophic blunder. To do so is also entirely unnecessary as Paul lays out in the immediate context just what this condition does actually mean.
So then, what does the condition “consents to live with” mean? First, let us look at what this condition does not mean. The great Apostle does not mandate a negative condition but a positive condition, which is to say that the unbeliever cannot meet the condition simply by failing to do something (e.g. fail to leave) but he/she actually has to successfully fulfill a divine requirement. Merely staying does not satisfy meeting a positive condition because it cannot be distinguished from the failure to act at all. Thus the condition does not read: ‘If the unbelieving spouse refuses to leave or refuses divorce, then the believing spouse cannot do so either.’ No, no the unbelieving spouse must not merely be stubborn, unyielding or even virtually comatose in order to meet this condition, but rather he/she must do something. How absurd it is to think the unbeliever can meet God’s condition by doing nothing.
A brief aside before returning to the meaning of Paul’s verb “consent”. Many verbs can have both an active and a passive fulfillment. In Christ’s redemptive obedience to the Father Jesus actively fulfilled God’s positive commandments on our behalf by serving God and not sinning against God’s commandments. Jesus also passively fulfilled redemptive obedience to the Father by permitting or allowing himself to be put to death in our stead. It cannot be said that Christ’s passive obedience to the Father was one of inactivity, detachment and apathy. The passage in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 indicates both active and passive consent to live with as well.
So then, what does Paul’s condition mean? Merriam Webster defines consent as being in concord in opinion or sentiment. And concord is defined as ‘a state of agreement or harmony. It is an agreement by stipulation, compact or covenant.’ So in essence, the old marriage covenant of two unrepentant sinners sharing their lives together has been ended by one becoming born-again (died and resurrected with Christ), and a new covenant being laid out here by Paul must take its place. Death ends the marriage covenant, and the believer died in Christ. It is no longer he/she who lives but Christ who lives in them. If the unequally yoked marriage is to continue, then it must do so under a new marriage covenant set out here by Paul. Hopefully the reader is beginning to understand why Paul begins his instructions on this entirely new doctrine for unequally yoked marriages with his phrase in verse 12, “But to the rest, I say, not the Lord…” He did not get this from any Scripture. He did not get this from a revelation of the Lord Jesus. Also, if any passage in the Bible strictly prohibited marital divorce, including Christ’s teachings, with which Paul was entirely familiar, Paul certainly would have simply quoted it and moved on to other doctrines.
So then, the unbelieving spouse may consent to the new covenant, but is by no means required to do so. Right minded people do not consent to covenants or agreements without first inquiring into the conditions of consent. The reader will see that Paul provides the conditions that the unbelieving spouse must consent to in the immediate context. On the other hand, the believing spouse is required by Paul’s command to abide by the decision of the unbelieving spouse. If the unbelieving spouse consents to Paul’s conditions, then the believing spouse will have neither need nor divine permission to divorce the unbelieving spouse. On the other hand, if the unbelieving spouse refuses or fails to “consent to live with the believing spouse” both actively and passively, then the believing spouse has divine sanction and should divorce the unbelieving spouse in obedience to God’s command against unequally yoked marriage, and as Paul says here, “The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
Paul has laid out the conditions of this consent and they are about to be reviewed; nevertheless, Paul’s new doctrine on divorce for the unequally yoked believer in the Christian era should be coming into view for the reader. If the unbelieving spouse will not positively consent to this harmonious, distinctly Christian union, then the believer “is not under bondage in such cases.” What kind of bondage could Paul possibly be referring to if not this unequally yoked marriage? And if the believer is not under bondage to their unequally yoked marriage, then divorce is the correct action. Remarriage only to a believer is then allowed.
Can a Christian divorce their unbelieving spouse? Yes, if he/she fails to give his/her consent as Paul lays it out so incontrovertibly in this text. Note: It is the believing spouse who is not under bondage to the old marriage covenant if consent to God’s conditions are unacceptable to the unbelieving spouse. In other words, God provides no option for either married partner to stay in the relationship if the unbelieving spouse refuses consent to God’s conditions, which are found in the immediate context and will be shown shortly. The unbelieving partner can consent to God’s condition(s) or he/she can fail to consent and become divorced from the believer.
The believing partner can expect a harmonious Christian marriage partner because the unbelieving spouse has successfully consented to Paul’s condition, or they must separate themselves from the marriage all together because the unbeliever has refused consent. The believing spouse must follow and obey God’s Word here and actively pursue divorce if the unbelieving spouse fails to consent because the unbeliever is unlikely to obey God by leaving when their own failure to consent takes place. They, in essence, become a squatter that does not belong–expecting them to vacate their position is foolish. In obedience to God’s command the believing spouse must evict (divorce) the unbelieving spouse for failure to consent to live with.
The Greek word σᴜνεᴜɗoҡεῑ is translated into English as ‘consents’. The prefix σᴜν is a marker of accompaniment and association. The word σᴜνεᴜɗoҡεῑ means to join in approval or agreement with consent to or in harmony with the person to whom one is joining. What has taken place in an unequally yoked marriage is that God has taken a married couple and removed one of the two people from death to life, from darkness to light, and the unbelieving partner must then consent to God’s terms (as Paul lays them out for the first and only time) by approving and agreeing with the new life of their believing spouse bringing harmony and peace into the marriage.
Paul Lays Out God’s Conditions of Consent For the Unbelieving Spouse
Now, as stated earlier, the immediate context (Verses 14-16) shows how Paul lays out God’s conditions to which the unbelieving spouse must give consent in order to maintain the marriage relationship to a child of God. God’s first condition to which the unbeliever must consent is to become set apart from the world and toward conformity to the believing spouse even as the believing spouse has been set apart from the world and toward the holiness of God. Verse 14 says, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband…”
A Sanctification Similar to Cornelius In Acts 10: Fearing God While Yet Unsaved
Sanctification is, by nature, a cooperative behavior or activity. The unbelieving spouse does not receive a superstitious blessing of sorts for merely squatting in the home of a child of God or for merely having their name on a marriage license. In order to remain married to the believer the unbeliever must actively cooperate with their believing spouse in this sanctification. This mindset, which is short of salvation, is very much like the God-fearers: Gentiles who attended the synagogue and followed the teachings of Judaism but who were not full-fledged Jews because they were not circumcised. So then, a failure on the part of the unbelieving spouse to consent here does not equate to leaving and divorcing, which would actually be the outcome of a failure to consent. Failure to “consent to live with” here means that the unbelieving spouse refuses cooperation with the believing spouse to become a God fearing couple–he or she refuses to live like the God-fearers lived.
By conforming to the holiness that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the believers life the unbeliever is admitting that God’s ways are greater than man’s ways and will to the best of their ability not impede but rather reflect the changes brought about by the Holy Spirit in the believing spouse. The vast majority of Evangelicals who very regrettably hold a Semi-Pelagian or Arminian view of the gospel (though repudiated twice as heresy by the church fathers) will misdiagnose the spiritual condition of the unbelieving spouse thinking them to be in Christ. But that simply is not the case because they have not “received a faith of the same kind as ours” (2 Peter 1:1). Their will must be favorable to the Christian religion and they desire the blessings of heaven, yet they lack saving faith and the changes that accompany it. So then, consent here means that the unbelieving spouse will work at conforming to the godliness their believing spouse is exhibiting rather than being bad company that corrupts the good morals of their believing spouse. They desire the grace of God necessary to follow the ways of the Lord, which makes them Christian moralists, but they will not cry out for God’s grace of forgiveness and the righteousness of Christ for they love their sin more.
God’s second condition to which the unbeliever must consent is to help bring up the children in the fear and admonition of the Lord “for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy” (Vs. 14). So then “consents to live with” means that the unbelieving spouse will not interfere or steer the children in any direction other than being raised in the fear of the Lord. The unbelievers words and deeds must be consistent with Christian virtues, again following the pattern set out by God fearing Gentiles. Perfection cannot be obtained by the believer or the unbeliever, but both must be working toward the goal of seeing the children all submit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the glory of God in their salvation. Often the unbelieving spouse is in a dead religion such as Catholicism or is an atheist and their desire is to raise their children in their own belief system or with no guidance whatsoever. Paul is teaching believers that such behavior does not meet the condition “consents to live with”. Thus, divorce and remarriage in the Lord or remaining single are the only obedient options for the believing spouse.
In fact, once an unequally yoked marriage exists the only way for the children to be holy is for the unbelieving spouse to meet all the conditions of consenting to stay. If the unbelieving spouse leaves (a bad outcome to be sure), then sadly the children may be raised in both homes or they could be raised only in the home of the unbelieving spouse. If the unbelieving spouse refuses to consent but also is allowed to stay in the marriage (an even worse outcome), then according to Matthew Henry the unbelieving spouse will have an undue influence upon the children as both have unrepentant hearts. In addition, the children will live in a house divided. Either way the children will be unclean. So then, the only “sanctification” in the life of an unbeliever that can make their children “holy” is if they consent to conform to the sanctification they see in their believing spouse.
God’s third condition laid out in the immediate context is that the unbelieving spouse is consenting to a peaceful and harmonious Christian marriage. Paul says in verse 15, “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.” Clearly if the unbelieving spouse cannot consent to living in peace with the believing spouse, then the believing spouse is to live in peace after divorcing the unbelieving spouse. Either way peace in the life of the believer is God’s expectation.
Paul traditionally opens his letters with a greeting of Grace and Peace. He certainly did so in both of his letters to the Corinthian believers. Paul does this because grace is the source of the Christians’ faith, and peace is the end or purpose of the Christians’ faith. Peace is so much more than the interval between two wars or between fights. Peace is the union after a separation or reconciliation after a conquest or quarrel. Peace is the wall coming down because a separation is no longer necessary—the two have become one. Once peace becomes a priority the need for the grace of God becomes evident. When the unbelieving spouse consents to strive to be one with the believing spouse he/she will feel their overwhelming need to cry out to God for grace. Man cannot have peace with others and he will not even be at peace within himself if he has not first been reconciled to and at peace with God, which necessitates the need for God’s grace. The unbeliever must consent to a peaceful and harmonious Christian marriage.
God’s final condition provided in the immediate context is that the unbelieving spouse will consent to the gospel of repentance and faith in Christ Jesus. “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife” (Vs. 16)? Consent here refers to something short of salvation. This final aspect of the condition does not mean that the unbelieving spouse must be saved (the marriage would no longer be unequally yoked), but it does mean that they must not reject the gospel as the only way to come out from under the wrath of God. They fail in their “consent to live with” if they become an enemy of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So then, once the unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believing spouse in the four ways laid out by Paul, then the believing spouse is free from the guilt of being bound together with an unbeliever as God prohibits with such strong language in II Corinthians 6:14-7:1. We certainly have hope that the unbeliever who consents to these four conditions will soon see their sin for what it is and cry out to God for forgiveness at which time they would join their spouse as a recipient of the grace of God–two saints joined together in marriage is indeed a beautiful relationship.
The believing spouse has the responsibility to be patient and assist their unbelieving partner as they are called to consent to the demands Paul lays out. They must place their trust in the plans that God has made for them and for their spouse. And if at any time the unbelieving partner refuses and rebuffs God’s prescribed plan of consent to live with the believing spouse, then the believer needs to recognize their failure to consent to live with them for what it is and they must begin asking the Lord for the wisdom and timing to pursue an honorable divorce so that they will not be guilty of being bound together with an unbeliever. It is for this very circumstance that Paul said, “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases” (Vs. 15). So then, the answer to the question, “Can a Christian divorce an unbeliever” is a very solid yes.
A final clarification is necessary here. The careful reader may note that Paul does not use a language suggesting that these four clauses are conditions of the unbelievers’ consent to stay, and we would agree. Paul is providing the four clauses to show Christians what the effects or outcome of the unbeliever’s consent will look like for the believer. The only way to arrive at the outcomes Paul describes in verses 14-16 is for the unbelieving spouse to consent as we have demonstrated in this article. These holy effects as seen in the marriage and the family define and explain the conditions of consent without which such outcomes would not be realized.
By electing to pen the expected outcomes of consent instead of the conditions of consent, Paul has actually provided greater weight to his instruction. Had he laid these four outcomes down as conditions, then unbelieving spouses could more easily follow the letter of Paul’s instructions without actually meeting the spirit intended. The only way for the believing spouse married to an unbeliever to have peace, harmony and holiness in their marriage and family is for Paul’s four outcomes to be mandates in the conditional clause “consents to live with”.
In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 Paul demonstrably portrays God’s intent to protect His children from unequally yoked marriages. And 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is the exclamation point showing God’s children the magnitude of this doctrine: “Do not be unequally yoked to unbelievers.” Ironically, the historical understanding on these two Biblical texts forces the passages themselves to be unequally yoked to one another. Now, rather than contradicting one another these two biblical texts, originally intended for the Corinthian churches, can be understood as being in complete harmony with one another as well as with the rest of God’s Word.
Heavenly Father, I ask that you will open the eyes of those who cannot see and revive your church in our day.
January 1st, 2023 at 12:25 PM
So if a spouse says they believe in God but lives a sinful life with no evidence of salvation an unbelieving spouse?
January 1st, 2023 at 12:26 PM
Is an unbelieving spouse*
January 1st, 2023 at 5:35 PM
Please read article: “What is an Unequally Yoked Marriage” and you will have your answer. I’ve emailed you personally and if you have any intention of seeking a divorce based upon my answer here, you really should interact with me significantly more via email or phone calls first. Divorce is far from easy and one should never be entered lightly. I am sure you know this already. When a spouse is unsaved AND guilty of treachery, it is highly likely that a believer should divorce this unbelieving spouse.
Christ’s Continued Blessings,
July 28th, 2021 at 11:15 PM
I hope you might have some time to respond to my comment. Thank you for your insight into this topic, it’s something that has been bothering me for a long time given the current church’s stance. I was raised in a God-fearing home and have always loved the Lord. However, I think through a lack of understanding/rebellion, at 30yo I married a non-believer. That was four years ago and it’s been a slippery slope ever since. I couldn’t understand why I developed serious anxiety/depression/physical sickness until God gave me a revelation one day after I separated from my husband. I had been in turmoil about getting right with God and not being a luke-warm, fair-weather friend to him.
My husband has always been sincere, kind and willing to wait for things to change for the better between us, but has a hardness towards God no amount of discussion or prayer seems to change. My parents have been gentle in steering me towards everything you’ve discussed in your post, but I couldn’t quite reconcile it all with the “consenting to live with” part of scripture you discuss. Your article has completely changed that for me and has given me such respect for my parents who I see weren’t blinded to the truth like I was (from countless sermons I’ve watched which have all suggested there’s no way out of a marriage like this). What I’d like to know is how do I bring up this 4-point “consent to live with” conversation with my husband, who I’ve been back living with for the past few months. I feel like a ghost of my former self, simply watching life pass me by. The only time I ever feel peace is when I read the Word and pray. My husband and I agreed we couldn’t have children together because I want to raise them in the Lord (no compromise) and we could at least foresee there being contention between us in future given his atheistic/agnostic/zero spiritual upbringing.
I’m sure that implies he already doesn’t meet the “requirements”, but for me to leave again and truly end this ungodly marriage I need to talk to him about it in more depth so that he fully understands and can make the choice for himself. I’m really afraid. Any suggestions about how to chat to him would be most appreciated.
July 29th, 2021 at 10:03 AM
My Beloved sister in the Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the Lord’s and you belong with a man who is in Christ as you are in Christ. Psalm 133:1 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to live together in unity!” It is our Lord Jesus who said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Your conscience aches for your obedience in this matter. We are able to love the unrepentant because they too are made in the image of God. Like us they are image bearers of their creator, which means that they can have some of the great qualities that come from God, but like Satan they hate God and rebel against Him. Your unrepentant husband does not need you in his life to be happy. He will marry again (hopefully not another Christian) and he will be happy. You, on the other hand, need to be bound together with a man of God. You cannot marry or be married to anyone who is outside of Christ. Believers continue fighting sin because our bodies have not yet been redeemed (Romans 7 & 8), so even Christian marriage is difficult. Marriage to an unbeliever is impossible. It is outside of the will of God. Knowing what you now understand, if you were currently single and would not marry an unbeliever including your husband, then you should not be married to him now. God’s word says, “Do not be bound together with an unbeliever” (2 Cor. 6:14). It does not merely say do not get bound together with an unbeliever. Your BEING bound to this man each day is disobedience to God. Your conscience aches because you are in sin that you cannot repent of as long as you care more about the feelings of a man who hates God than you do about staying in daily fellowship with God Himself.
You have no idea the misery you and your husband will experience if you do not act in obedience to the Lord’s command immediately. I speak with people responding to my blog who are deeper into their unequally yoked marriage than you (having children) and they are so unbelievably miserable. Their children have turned against them and their spouse encourages the children to scorn them for their silly belief in God. They are tormented hourly by their entire immediate family.
If you had a beloved Christian sister and she wrote the following words to you what would you advise her to do?
“I feel like a ghost of my former self, simply watching life pass me by. The only time I ever feel peace is when I read the Word and pray. My husband and I agreed we couldn’t have children together because I want to raise them in the Lord (no compromise) and we could at least foresee there being contention between us in future given his atheistic/agnostic/zero spiritual upbringing. I’m sure that implies he already doesn’t meet the “requirements”, but for me to leave again and truly end this ungodly marriage I need to talk to him about it in more depth so that he fully understands and can make the choice for himself.
An atheist/agnostic cannot meet the requirements Paul provides. You are blessed to have a black and white case. Run as fast as you can into the arms of the Lord. Your husband has no choice to make. The choice Paul mentions is not whether or not the unbeliever wants to stay. The choice is whether or not they can live as Cornelius lived prior to his conversion (Acts 10). Cornelius was a god-fearer for years before God actually saved him. This does not mean that he earned his forgiveness. By no means. But the only way you could remain married to your husband and have peace in your spirit is if your current husband was a god-fearer who adored the God of the Bible. Those immature in the faith do not know that this kind of person exists, but they do. They love the ways of God, but they have yet to be born-again. Your husband will never understand because he is in darkness. If you wait for a husband in darkness to understand before you will be faithful to God’s commands in this situation then do you wait for the world of those in darkness to all understand your thoughts and behaviors before you are faithful to God in all things? Those who are not in Christ can know nothing of the things of God. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor 2:14).
The only explanation you owe your husband is that you are under a command of the Lord to not be bound together with an unbeliever. He need not understand. You can tell him you love him. You can tell him you are sorry. You can tell him that your conscience cannot bear to remain in a marriage to someone who is not in Christ. He need not understand. You can tell him it isn’t fair to him that you were either ignorant or rebellious at the time you both fell in love and married. He can either blame you or not; it makes no difference. But in the eyes of God you are not married to this man. After you separate and file for a legal divorce you can refuse to date if you wish. Watch your ex husband to see if he moves on to another woman or if he does business with God. If God comes down upon him and saves him, then and only then you could remarry him and live together in the Lord. But either way you are free to remarry but only in the Lord. You are under no obligation to wait for his salvation. You are obligated to serve the Lord. You are not married to this man in God’s eyes. You ought to petition the Lord for His will in the timing of seeking a godly husband. If you do not have the gift of celibacy, then begin seeking a godly man right away. Just do it God’s way.
Finally, ninety-eight percent of those who claim to be Christians are formal Christians only, which is to say that they are not born-again. They have not been regenerated. If you marry a formal Christian instead of an atheist you will be right back where you are now. Once married to them it will become evident that they are not in Christ. Do not make this mistake. John in his first letter said, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). John is referring to ten characteristics of every true believer that he delineates in the previous four and a half chapters. Don Whitney has written several marvelous books on how to know you are a Christian. You must know how to tell who is and who is not in Christ, otherwise how could you obey the command, “Do not be bound together with an unbeliever”?
I am always available if you require additional discussion. My heart aches because I am fearful for you that you will remain seated when it is appropriate to stand to action now.
Christ’s Continued Blessings,
August 29th, 2020 at 11:20 PM
a brother in Christ.
Do you mean that a Christian can divorce his/ her spouse if he/ she decides to remain a non-believer deliberately. It was just clear in the scripture that it should be the non-believer to decide to leave. Not the Christian to evict the non-believer. If the non-believer decides to remain in the marriage, the believer can’t do anything. Does this mean the believing spouse has to piss the non-believing spouse for her to finally leave? Please correct me if I am wrong. And also we don’t have divorce in our country.
August 31st, 2020 at 10:32 AM
The answer to your question is in the article. Reading the article while having your bible open to 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 and reading the biblical passage over and over again will help you see the truth. You are far better off finding the answer in the article where it is discussed thoroughly. As you read the article, ask your question over and over again in your mind while you examine the article and you will find that the article clearly has the answer to your question. It is illogical to think that God would make the unbelieving spouse the decision maker. Your words, “the believer can’t do anything” is an unthinkable idea. And no we do not “piss off the non-believing spouse” because loving them and showing them mercy, grace and empathy is the Christian response to unbelievers. The hint you need is in the word “consent”. The unbeliever is required to give consent as Paul enumerates it. Failure to consent in this way is a refusal to live with the believing spouse.
If you live in a country where divorce is not available, then you do your best to move to where it is legal without deceiving your spouse, you work to make it legal, or you accept the imperfectness of this life and continue to live for God all the while loving your godless wife. If you are forced, in essence, to stay in an unequally yoked marriage I would encourage you to limit your wife’s ability to drag you into sin. Bad company corrupts good morals. Godless relationships, alcohol, spending habits are some of the many ways a godless spouse can drag a Christian into sin. Pray for your wife that God will save her from her unrepentant condition. Do not worry about anything; instead take your concerns to your heavenly Father. God will give you the ability to endure the worst this world can do to you, and He can limit the evil that His children must suffer.
My heart aches for you dear brother,
April 25th, 2018 at 8:20 PM
Thank you for your reply Joe. I am eager to be truthful and hear God clearly in our discussion. First, to answer your questions. 1. I believe a person is saved through repentance of sin(which includes turning from sin through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit) and the commitment to believe in Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As a note my husband has told me recently he has not felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness because God knows what his sins are. 2. I can not tell you how long I have been saved. I was raised Catholic but never made a verbal confession of faith, that I can remember, until after I left the Catholic Church at around the age of 27. As a teen and young adult I sought God more deeply yet it waivered as drinking was starting to become a problem. When I drank in my marriage it was 2-3 days a week, always at home, after the kids went to bed. I do not fit your “classic” description of the alcoholic as I didn’t drink daily or always to drunkenness however I used it as an escape and had tremendous trouble stopping. To this day my family and friends, especially my husband do not feel I had a problem but if you know anything about addiction, the addict knows when there is a problem. Depression has been a struggle from the time I was a very young girl. Medication allowed me to function quite well as an adult however it was always still there to a degree. Diagnosis was dysthymic depression. My kids have told me they rarely remember me drinking. In my depression I was an unmotivated mom to a degree but very involved in activities and church with them. I think they would tell you I was sad and short tempered frequently. Neither my husband or I believed in physical punishment except for the occasional spanking. In my late 20’s I began to earnestly seek God. At the age of 34 I began attending a Protestant Church where My relationship and knowledge of God started to deepen. Being encouraged to read His word, and know it, was new to me. That is when my walk and intimacy with God began to flourish. My husband attended occasionally. Of our three children only one appears to be saved. He loves God with his whole being and has since he could talk. I joke he came out saying Jesus, not crying. One is a lover of Science and the other won’t believe in a God that allows so much pain. I made consistent effort to give my children the limited knowledge I had of God. I am counting on God’s promise to restore the years the locusts have eaten, should my unsaved children be willing.
I will address your suggestion that my husband meets Paul’s four commands for staying in the marriage. I suspect I exaggerated when I suggested my husband spoke kindly to me all the time. He almost always did to his children. He and I argued frequently(I didn’t think so until our oldest son made a comment one day that we were always fighting). My husband was raised with a father that greatly disrespected and verbally abused his wife and although I was pretty good at standing up for myself for many years I allowed my husband to disrespect and shout me down when we did argue. My husband did not stop me from taking the kids to church. He has always greatly resisted the gospel. He has always refused to read scripture with me or his kids, he won’t open the Bible when in church service, and for our entire marriage when I’ve put Christian sermons on tv or the internet he has either told me to turn them off or complained about them, even once, when the kids were home, yelling downstairs for me to shut that “crap” off. He refuses to attend bible studies or form relationships with any men in our church or past churches. His friends and “our” friends have always been non-believers(good people). We have no active friendships as a couple with other church couples or families. On one occasion when our pastor asked him if he could say Jesus was his savior, he said yes Jesus is my savior. He has verbally told me he goes to church and that’s enough for him. He has told me he doesn’t feel the need to read the Bible.
I need to wrap it up here, this is mentally exhausting! I hope I have given you more to work with Joe and I look forward to your reply.
April 26th, 2018 at 1:02 AM
I have read your answers 3-4 times and am also too exhausted to answer well at this hour, but I will try to compose an answer on Thursday. I will say that both of your comments have convinced me that it would be highly unusual if your husband was saved. God’s children love God’s word. Clearly your husband does not. It also sounds like you have a pretty good grasp of the gospel. Repentance does come first…”Repent and believe”. I suspect that you are a recipient of God’s grace and are part of the body of Christ. If both of these are true, then as you know I believe you need to immediately begin praying to ask God to show you the timing of your seeking a divorce. I would caution you to try your best not to find the next husband prior to getting a divorce. These things are not always in our hands, but it will make the whole process go smoother and you will need all the help in the area that you can get. People will turn on you either way if you decide to obey God’s command to no be unequally yoked, but you finding a new husband before your current marriage is cleanly broken will make people certain that you were the unrepentant sinner rather than your husband. The tide is against what I have discovered and teach. I have yet to find many Godly people who will interact with me on this topic. To be fair I have not looked for any yet, but I expect to find closed minds and to have doors slammed in my face–perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised. Marriage is a sacred alter to many, which I think is a crying shame. Marriage is very good because it is from God, but it must not become a source of idolatry. Obviously if and when you remarry you will want to be completely sure that your next husband is truly born-again. Fellowship in marriage is a beautiful gift of God and must be desired above almost all else. As God leads you to ending unequally yoked relationships you must keep in mind that all unequally yoked relationships must end. No close friends, no yoking of any kind with people who are not born-again. Yet we are kind and a friend to sinners otherwise we could not share the good news with them. Also, no unequally yoking yourself to any sinful ways at all. Remove all worldly influences from you. It is difficult to be in the world but not of the world, but that is the mandate that God has given us. By the way, nearly all the TV evangelists are worldly–blind guides leading the blind (most pastors today are as well). I do not know if TV evangelists are who you were referring to, but they are not men of God. Get on the internet and be taught by R.C. Sproul from Ligonier Ministries, and begin listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermons found at MLJTrust.org; both men are now in heaven, but they are a great teacher and a great preacher of the word of God. These two great men of God will guarantee that you are on a good path moving away from the world and closer to God. Well, in my desire to say something to you I have allowed myself to ramble even as I am quite sleepy, so I will say good-night and right again very soon in greater detail.
Christ’s continued blessings, Joe
April 26th, 2018 at 8:12 AM
I’d like to ask your opinion on my belief that God had me stay in the marriage as He knew I was not strong enough to stand on my own and grow in Him, yet. In my work this is something I have seen other women also struggle with. And please know, I recognize that if we divorce I will need considerable time to grieve and process such a painful experience. In addition I know full well God may choose to leave me single as I walk out His purpose for me.
April 27th, 2018 at 12:07 AM
As you said before a second reason for staying was that you believed God’s word bid you to stay as you understood 1 Cor. 7 “If the unbelieving spouse consents to live with”. Nearly everyone understands this text in this way. Therefore, many of God’s people have remained in unequally yoked marriages thinking that they were doing God’s will. You might read again my article on the 3 wills of God and you will have my answer.
As for your grieving the loss of a marriage and the separation from a life partner, it will not be as difficult as you might think if it is God’s will. The rejection you will feel from many people and perhaps from the church, any financial hardships, disappointments with lawyers and court matters, and any second guessing you might do will be more painful I imagine. If you cannot fellowship with your husband, then their should already be a significant amount of loneliness in both of you that can only be addressed after you obey God in removing yourself from an unequally yoked relationship. Your husband in time will be better off too because he will be free to pursue the life he most desires. If you make it clear that you are divorcing him in obedience to God’s command not to be unequally yoked, then maybe he will take a serious look at his lack of a genuine relationship with God. Perhaps this could be rock bottom for him so that he cries out to God for forgiveness. When we make right choices about what we should or should not do in any given circumstance we will have no reason for regrets. Acting in a prudent fashion is the only way a believer should live their life. Discovering the will of God and then pursuing obedience to His will as quickly as we can act properly will bring the most joy to the heart and mind of any believer. The key, of course, is discovering the actual will of God and not going down wrong paths, which is why I encouraged you to begin listening to the two men of God I mentioned in my previous comment. I hope you have already listened to one or more of their lessons and/or sermons. I would love to hear a word or two about your experience listening to these men of God teach our Lord’s word. I suspect all of God’s children would flee unequally yoked relationships much sooner and they would do so with the support of their churches if the church was teaching rightly the Lord’s will on this subject. But since the church has made man serve marriage instead of marriage serving man God’s people have been afraid to flee forbidden relationships. Marriage has been idolized and untold numbers of believers are being significantly injured in the process. I know this was the case for me. But God is gracious and though we be injured we shall not perish. All of God’s children will one day be glorified. I would just like to see this doctrine corrected so that future believers can surround themselves with believers and grow quicker than believers do in our current day. Today’s Christians are so polluted by the world that the church is so very weak and sick. Many are praying for the dawning of a new day were the Holy Spirit will break out upon this land anew and the true church will rise up once again. I am still hoping to respond further to your previous post. Perhaps on the weekend.
April 23rd, 2018 at 12:48 PM
Hello Joe, You have garnered my attention and I have read all your articles. I’d welcome your input on my situation. I’ve been married for 28 years to a good and I mean good man. But there is no fruit or evidence of a belief in Christ despite him claiming Jesus is his savior. He has never opened a bible in 28 years, refuses to participate in church or bible studies, or ministry but he does attend church, I’m almost sure only out of fear I will leave him. We raised three children who saw only a mother who was seeking to grow, heal and know a God truthfully. Here’s my issue, it’s clear I didn’t leave early on for two reasons. One I was weak, dysfunctional in my own ways and afraid to be on my own. Two, I held out hope that God would allow things to change and I wanted to obey what Paul appeared to be saying to wives in my situation, that is to stay. For 28 years he worked his tail off for me and his kids, he was at every baseball, track, soccer and softball game and practice. He didn’t drink, do drugs or gamble. He spoke kindly and lovingly to his children and most of the time to me also. He was however completely emotionally absent from our marriage and his parenting. As far as I can tell he has been faithful. He doesn’t have an enemy that I know of. He is adored by all. I have believed that God knew I was too weak to leave that I had much growing in relationship with Him to do. I struggled with addiction and depression. I’ve done the hard work of changing and growth. God is the center of my life and he has transformed me. I now have a life that’s thriving through the power of the Holy Spirit. But I can’t help but believe all the years God had me stay as a form of protection. Had I left I likely would have repeated the same behavior and our kids would have suffered even more with likely poverty, stress and anger. By staying I had a good man who loved his family and wife until I was strong enough to make the commitment to the work necessary to change my life. Can I ask your thoughts on this? We are still married but it is a struggle of tremendous loneliness for me, that I have surrendered over and over to God, asking him to remove the overwhelming desire to have a Christian husband and help me to love my husband sacrificially. Thank you for your time.
April 24th, 2018 at 12:20 AM
Rest assured I will respond. Hopefully within 24 hours. I want to reflect upon your words and pray over them before responding.
Christ’s continued blessings!
April 25th, 2018 at 3:39 PM
I am deeply sorry to hear of the pain that you have felt for so many years. I understand how this type of pain coexists with an otherwise happy life—raising children, attending worship services, reading God’s word and other books that teach a proper understanding of the same, interacting with family and friends, waging the battles of life alongside your husband, etc. As a person trained in counseling I do not need to communicate to you the importance of seeing the whole picture before jumping to conclusions. As I read your comment I fully realize my need of more information before providing any worthy input on your situation. If you could provide answers to my following questions it would help a great deal. Know that our conversations may help many others who are experiencing many of the same difficult decisions that I have faced and that you are still facing. Know also that I am not here to hold your hand as though you are a sickly, pathetic saint. My responsibility is to speak the truth in love, but unfortunately many so-called Christians do not like the truth and they immediately withdraw from those who seek it and who advance the truth. Be bold, be a truth seeker with me and growth will be obtained by all involved.
1. How does a person become saved? I do not mean to ask what Jesus did, but how does Jesus’ work on the cross get applied in one life and not in another?
2. For how many years have you been born-again? Secondly, how did your rebirth come to pass?
3. Do any of your three children show positive signs (not merely hopeful, but actually bearing genuine fruit) of being born-again?
4. To what addiction were you saved from? How did the addiction affect your marriage and family?
5. How long have you suffered from depression and how well was it managed by medication and physical and mental effort on your part? Secondly, how did the depression affect your marriage and family?
Jesus said, “A bad tree does not produce good fruit…the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil” Luke 6:43 & 45.
God’s word always describes unrepentant sinners as wicked and evil. Yes, on a horizontal level they may seem very fine people, but nevertheless, they are wicked as long as they are slaves to sin and death (Romans 5-6).
You say that your husband is not born-again and as a result you are unequally yoked, yet you yourself describe him as “a good man”, who “spoke kindly and lovingly”. As I read your full description of your husband I began seeing a pattern, so I counted and discovered no fewer than 8 of the 9 fruit of the Spirit (Love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) only lacking joy. Clearly unbelievers can have something that resembles each of these, but what you have said actually contradicts what the Lord said. Your words here claim that good fruit has indeed grown off the bad tree of your unbelieving husband. So you either do not understand the doctrine of Total Depravity or you are being politically correct in your description of your husband, or your husband is born-again. If not born-again, then at least he may have actually met the four conditions Paul lays out for the unbelieving spouse in 1 Cor. 7:14-16 (Sanctified, peaceful marriage, raising the kids in the fear of the Lord and does not resist the gospel).
6. So then, could you expound upon this topic in the light of my statements—make clear that which appears foggy?
I look forward to your response.