The question, “Can a Christian divorce an unbeliever?” is frequently asked.
“For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14).
The aim of this article is to discover Paul’s intended meaning as he used the word “sanctified” to instruct the Corinthian believers. It is universally understood that Paul is not using the word “sanctified” in the most common New Testament usage. The sanctification wrought by the Holy Spirit must of necessity follow justification for these two must never be separated. In his book titled “Christian Marriage” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “The first principle is that there is nothing which is so utterly unscriptural as to separate justification and sanctification.” So clearly Paul has a different use in mind as he uses the word “sanctified”. Additionally, Paul does not refer to the Holy Spirit as the agent of sanctification but rather the believing spouse is the agent or instrument of sanctification.
To understand Paul’s use of the word “sanctified” it is paramount that we first understand the meaning of the word itself. The word sanctify has five significant aspects in its definition. First, sanctification is to set apart for holiness; a separation from everything unholy. Second, it carries the idea of freeing from sin or purifying. Third, being sanctified imparts or imputes inviolability including the idea of a social sanction. Forth, to impart or impute sacredness or a moral sanction such as Moses permission for divorce. Finally, to be sanctified means to make productive of holiness, which is to say having the quality of character and the power of ability for producing holiness in abundance.
The Prevailing View vs. Paul’s Intended View
To our knowledge no great divide has ever formed over what Paul meant when he used “sanctified” here. This actually surprises us however, and we suspect this has been the case due to indifference more than to universal agreement on the usage here. It is likely that most expounders of this passage focus on verses 12 and 13, which answer the big question: Can or must a believer divorce their unbelieving spouse? All should agree that understanding Paul’s use of the word “sanctified” is critical when he says, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband”. Since no controversy over Paul’s use of “sanctified” has ever taken root and the result has been a misapprehension of his meaning, then a controversy must now take place in order to rediscover Paul’s Christian rule or law. Though controversy is loathsome the forfeiture of truth is too high a price to pay for peace and unity. We will first endeavor to explain the prevailing understanding, and then we will offer the understanding of the word “sanctified” that Paul indubitably intended to convey. Fortunately, in the immediate context Paul’s meaning is crystal clear. Nevertheless, theologians have misunderstood Paul’s meaning because they were not looking for it, and they were not looking for it because they were content with the common understanding that was built upon four significant factors. First, there are two jolting biblical statements of which one’s initial and difficult to shack impressions are monumental. With no time to discuss them here they are “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16) and “whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). A deeper look into both passages quickly reveals that neither can rightly be used to prohibit biblically sanctioned divorces and remarriages, yet they have been for centuries. Even understanding the full meaning, both , and particularly Jesus’ words, are jolting. Second, presuppositions built upon these jolting statements. Third, divorce doctrines get built with these presuppositions used as the standard of truth. All related scriptural passages had to conform to these presuppositions and the subsequent divorce doctrine (Hopefully the reader caught that this is backward.) Forth, man-made laws were added, which codified the false doctrines. Two significant examples: Roman Catholicism made marriage a sacrament, and nations made laws prohibiting divorce following the lead of the Church.
The Prevailing View: A “Christian Card” Included in Nuptials Packet
The prevailing understanding of Paul’s use of the word “sanctified” is comprised of the third and fourth aspects of sanctified as defined above. The third imputes inviolability and social sanction, while the fourth imparts or imputes sacredness or a moral sanction. According to those who hold this view it is enough to have inviolability, and moral sanction. The nature of both of these aspects of “sanctification” is such that they must be imparted or imputed, which leads to the question, “by what or whose power and authority are these aspects of sanctification being imparted or imputed? In other words, if the only sanctification the unbelieving spouse has is imparted or imputed carrying with it a moral sanction and inviolability then he/she cannot be expected much less required to be set apart for holiness, they are not actually purified, and they absolutely will not have the quality of character and the power of ability for producing holiness in abundance. What or who has the authority to provide the unbelieving spouse a “Christian Card” so that they can be accepted in all Christian circles without fear of being assailed (called out for their unrepentance and ungodly behavior among the people of God)? Paul states that the sanctification comes from the believing spouse: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband…” (1 Corinthians 7:14). At least the spouse is the agency through which the sanctification comes, but a believer cannot disobey the command against being bound together with an unbeliever and suddenly gain the power to sanctify their unbelieving spouse through their own sin. No, what the prevailing view believes is that marriage is the power that sanctifies the unbelieving spouse through the believing spouse.
The church has taken a serpentine path in order to arrive at its position on this doctrine, which is responsible for a significant percentage of the likely hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unequally yoked marriages through the centuries. If contradicting the command against being unequally yoked was the only problem with this view it would be enough to reject it. The purveyors of the prevailing understanding of Paul’s use of the word “sanctified” would, most of them, claim to agree with the clear biblical teaching that God forbids both the getting and the being unequally yoked, yet they argue that believers can sanctify their being unequally yoked by getting married. And what is it that makes this amenable in the minds of these godly leaders? This illogical comprehension prevails because of a wrong understanding of Paul’s use of the word “sanctified”.
Consider the logic of this prevailing understanding that the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse, which in turn makes the marriage sanctified in the eyes of God. This creates a contradiction in God’s Word. Consider two equations:
Believer + Unbeliever = Divinely Forbidden Unequally Yoked Relationship
Believer + Unbeliever + Marriage = Divinely Sanctioned Sanctified Relationship
Where would the institution of marriage have gained such power? Of course the answer would be from God who instituted marriage. If God had given marriage the power to sanctify unequally yoked marriages, then why was God so adamantly uncompromising in both testaments about believers not being bound together with unbelievers especially in marriage? Such illogical thinking would mean that God’s children can enter into marriages with the godless person of their choosing and all such marriages will mystically engender the sanction and blessing of God notwithstanding the fact that it is He who forbids them. This false doctrine is a monstrous lie that has done great injury to countless Christians through many centuries. If the institution of marriage had the capability and the charge to overcome unequally yoked relationships then God would not have given the Israelites so many warnings against taking foreign wives and giving your daughters to foreign men in marriage. Scripture ubiquitously warns that unequally yoked marriage leads to idolatry, which is why God has always remained steadfast in prohibiting all such unions.
This was not at all Paul’s meaning of “sanctified”. In his letters to the very same Corinthians he said: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole…clean out the old leaven…”, “ I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one”, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves”, “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife”, “Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals”, “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed.” “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 an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” ‘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’” (1 Corinthians 5:6, 7, 11, 13, 9:5, 15:33, 16:22, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Paul’s words inspired by the Holy Spirit manifest that God could not possibly be the author of this despicable view. God does not sanctify or bless the marriage union between a believer and an unbeliever—He forbids it! God set righteousness and lawlessness against each other—Marriage has neither the power nor the authority to overturn such. Neither does marriage have the means to make light and darkness fellowship together. Neither can marriage bring Christ and the son of destruction into harmony. God forbid! Marriage has neither the design nor the charge to make a believer and an unbeliever share communion. Marriage does not sanction idols being set up in the temple of God. May it never be! It seems unthinkable that the church fathers have allowed this to stand and yet, God forgive them, they have indeed done this very thing.
This prevailing understanding of Paul’s use of the word “sanctified” in 1 Corinthians 7:14 creates many other significant difficulties with only enough space here to mention them: First, it provides no benefit for the believing spouse, but a rather enormous burden, even a mill stone. Second, sanctification, unlike justification, is never instantaneous, but rather a process to which one must cooperate. Therefore, this view fails to recognize the necessity of the unbelieving spouse cooperating in this sanctification. Third, this understanding makes an allowance for an extremely wicked spouse to reside comfortably under the “sanctification protection” of the believing spouse. Any actual sanctification is neither expected nor required. Additionally, no provision or condition is made to limit the unbelieving spouses’ degradation. Forth, this view happily calls kosher that which is vile and non-kosher. Viewing sanctified in this way is essentially superstitious as though a thing were so simply because somebody has said it is so notwithstanding the reality or facts to the contrary. Fifth, understood this way Paul’s use of the word “sanctified” has little to no precedent in the bible. Sixth, this view conflicts with God’s command against being bound together with unbelievers. Seventh, this view endangers the family and the local body of Christ by bringing wicked unrepentant people into the place of worship. Eighth, this view makes the household divided against itself. Ninth, this view endangers the children from such unequally yoked unions. Matthew Henry said the children of these unions will receive an undue influence from the unbelieving parent because both are unregenerate. Finally, the church can actually discipline these godless spouses for their unrepentance and put them out of the church (although sadly they most often do not), but the spouse has no such liberty or authority to do the same in their marriage under this understanding.
Paul’s Intended View: An All-Encompassing Influence
Certainly a good number of the great students of the word of God, over the centuries, have discovered the truth that we see in this text, but it is continually denied and lost by the vast majority of the church due to her disobedience and the sins of the flesh. Those who happily obey this great truth here quickly lose all hope and expectation that the masses of believers will follow suit—they cannot imagine a scenario where the vast Christian church will rise up to so high a level of obedience when a rather high cost is required from the believers who most need to obey.
We suspect that the great error of the church fathers heretofore has been that the two overarching doctrines under which this discussion has taken place has been Marriage and Divorce without consideration for two even greater and more general doctrines that instruct this subject. Therefore, our goal will be to manifest Paul’s intended meaning of the word “sanctified” as used in 1 Corinthians 7:14 bearing in mind every doctrine that provides direct guidance.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great man of God, taught the necessity of arriving at solutions to problems by taking an indirect approach. He said that people always want to take a direct approach to problem solving, which inevitably results in poor outcomes. The direct approach starts with the problem itself and works for a solution using the immediate circumstances or criteria involved in the problem. He insisted that that is an altogether wrong approach.
On the other hand, the indirect approach requires one to back away from the immediate concern or problem and to begin with the overarching biblical doctrines that apply to the problem at hand. Start with those great doctrines and work back to the problem or question at hand, and the doctrines will guide you to the proper understanding and the best solution. With Lloyd-Jones’ logical methodology it became obvious that the prevailing understanding of Paul’s use of the word “sanctify” was arrived upon using a direct approach. Using what Dr. Jones calls the indirect approach has helped me discover their error and correct it.
Therefore, we will not start with pondering Paul’s meaning of the use of the word “sanctified”, but we will start with the four biblical doctrines or truths that provided Paul with light and guidance as he developed this new doctrine (The reader will recall that Paul said he did not receive these instructions from the Lord—presumably by scriptural or special revelation). Only in the light of all applicable biblical doctrines (Four directly apply) can we understand the meaning of Paul’s new doctrine, which he no doubt developed using the very same four biblical doctrines as his guides.
Paul’s First Guiding Doctrine: SEPARATION
Separation is chronologically first (Genesis 1:4) and it is by far the preeminent of the four doctrines. The other three doctrines that provide guidance in discovering Paul’s meaning are themselves subject to this doctrine. From the time of Adam’s fall God’s children have been instructed to remain separate from the world, and their repeated failure to obey this simple command has been their constant downfall. The failure of the church fathers to faithfully interpret New Testament passages such as Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 7 in such a way so as to bring them into compliance with this command to be separate from the world has created untold harm to the body of Christ. The continual falling away of churches is a direct result of the failure to heed this great doctrine.
Paul’s Second Guiding Doctrine: DO NOT BE UNEQUALLY YOKED TO UNBELIEVERS
This is a subordinate doctrine to the doctrine of separation. It specifies that separation from the world does, in fact, include close relationships between saints and wordlings. Jesus taught through His own actions that being in the world is different from being of the world. Jesus was frequently in the company of publicans and sinners, but He did not do so in order to enjoy the world with them but rather He kept company with them in order to share with them the good news of the gospel—he was being their physician not their partner or their buddy. Saints must follow Christ’s example by constantly calling godless souls to repentance and faith in Christ—we too ought to be physicians of the soul. Christians must be surrounded by and familiar with the unsaved. They must be loving, good, patient and kind at the very least. However, Christians have no liberty whatsoever to become bound together with any unsaved person in any kind of relationship least of all marriage.
In our Lord’s warnings to the seven churches in Revelation Jesus praised the church at Ephesus because they could not “tolerate evil men”, and they tested the teachings of so-called Christians and rejected those who were false teachers. But sadly Jesus had to rebuke the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira for tolerating those within their body of believers who held false doctrines, and He rebuked the churches at Sardis and Laodicea because most of them were no longer believers—both churches were dying because they tolerated unbelievers in their midst.
Paul’s Third Guiding Doctrine: MARRIAGE
Marriage is God’s institution; therefore, God’s word governs marriage. Marriage is subordinate to God’s greater commands of separation and the command against being bound together with unbelievers. Ministers of the gospel should not participate in forbidden marriages. If Christians insist on marrying an unbeliever, then they should commit their sin without the blessing and assistance of the church. Couples already unequally yoked in the church should receive special attention from the church elders through loving instruction including a thorough explanation of the gospel and of the doctrines dealing with being unequally yoked. Unsaved adherents should not be allowed full membership, access to teaching positions, or any leadership roles; however, they are to be loved and constantly attended to until they believe or reject the gospel of our Lord Jesus. “Teach the truth in love.” Churches should work toward helping unequally yoked believers repent of their unequally yoked marriages and get back under the complete will of God [Read: The Will of God Dictates Divorce for Those Unequally Yoked In Marriage].
Paul’s Fourth Guiding Doctrine: DIVORCE
Contrary to what we are led to believe marital divorce is not prohibited anywhere in scripture. If divorce was prohibited anywhere in God’s word, then Paul’s instructions in First Corinthians 7 would have simply referred the believers at Corinth to the biblical prohibition chapter and verse and moved on. But that is not what we find Paul doing. Instead Paul wrote a new doctrine to govern divorce for the unequally yoked Christian (The New Testament equivalent to Deuteronomy 24).
So what does God’s word have to say about divorce? The guidelines for the use of divorce are provided in Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 24). The guidelines for divorce for unequally yoked Israelites are provided in Deuteronomy 21:10-14. God divorced Israel because she continued to be unbelieving—God would not remain unequally yoked to Israel. Ezra and Nehemiah commanded divorce for all who married unbelievers (Ezra 9-10). And properly taught God does not hate divorce but rather the abusive use of divorce in Malachi chapter 2, which is also what our Lord Jesus teaches against in Matthew 19. Marriage is a bi-lateral covenant. Whenever the conditions of a covenant are broken the covenant is broken and the innocent party is no longer bound by the covenant. Divorce used properly is nothing more than an acknowledgement that one’s marriage covenant has been broken by their spouse and the innocent party is declaring their separation from that covenant breaker. The typical teaching on forgiveness and restoration is simply unbiblical. Forgiveness is a duty of every believer, but being restored to a covenant breaker is not normative in God’s word. God’s wisdom and word dictates separation from covenant breakers. FYI: Most sins do not rise to the level of breaking a covenant. Two Christians must and will live together continually forgiving one another and coming together in the love of God thousands of times during a lifetime together, but breaking the marriage covenant is committing treachery against one’s spouse…against the very marriage itself.
The mistake is usually made by subordinating the doctrine of divorce to the doctrine of marriage since one necessarily follows the other, but both doctrines belong on the same plain. Marriage unites one man to one woman and divorce separates couples already married. The biblical doctrines of marriage and divorce are governed by and subordinate to the prohibition of being bound together with unbelievers, which is itself subordinate to the doctrine of separation. Understanding these doctrinal relationships should demonstrate how foolish it has been to interpret Paul’s instructions on the doctrines of marriage and divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 independently from the governing light of the two greater doctrines of separation and prohibited relationships to unbelievers.
So Then, How Can The Unjustified Spouse Become Sanctified?
In the light of these four governing doctrines Paul’s meaning of the word “sanctified” becomes clear. The unbelieving spouse must necessarily be set apart from the unbelieving world for holiness. Anything short of this would put the believing spouse at risk of being corrupted. As Paul warned the Corinthians, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). However, this sanctification is not brought about by the Holy Spirit as the believer’s sanctification but by the believing spouse. In order for the unbelieving spouse to be sanctified, as Paul says here, they must be like Cornelius and other God fearers. While Cornelius was not born-again and did not yet have the Holy Spirit the scriptures tells us that he was “A devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2).
Cornelius was sanctified in the way that Paul is saying an unbelieving spouse must be sanctified. The unequally yoked marriage will have the quality of character and the power of ability (Fifth aspect of definition of ‘sanctify’) for producing holiness in abundance when, and only when, the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse in the same way that Cornelius was sanctified by joining the worship of God in the temple. In other words, they will believe the word of God and submit to the body of Christ even though the Holy Spirit has yet to quicken them into the body of saints. Unfortunately, this will appear as a very strange doctrine for those who wrongly believe that a man can will his way into the body of Christ. No man can will or work his way into the body of Christ (Romans 9:16, Ephesians 2:8-9). Unless God performs a quickening work in us we cannot be children of God. We are entirely dependent upon God’s Holy Spirit to breathe life into our spiritually dead bodies. But in rare instances unbelievers can align themselves with the people of God and as did Cornelius fear God and cry out to him until he brings them into the fold.
Being sanctified as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14 is not merely a social sanction that somehow allows light to fellowship with darkness. God forbid! It means that the unbelieving spouse fears God and submits to the ways of the Lord in all ways so that the married couple can live in peace and harmony, and so that the children will be holy.
For a deeper look at Paul’s teaching on sanctification in 1 Corinthians 7 see the article titled: 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 In Context Strengthens the Case for Unequally Yoked Divorce Found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 That the church has failed to see the details Paul provided will blow your mind.