Continuing to answer the oft asked question: “Can a Christian divorce an unbeliever?”
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians with words too powerful to be ignored, Paul commands every believer to get out of all unequally yoked relationships. Note: He does not simply prohibit becoming bound together with unbelievers but he prohibits being bound together with unbelievers.
“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.
But for the marriage relationship, Paul’s instructions on the topic of Christians in unequally yoked marriages found in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter seven are universally misunderstood so that they contradict what Paul says here. This too is a sin, yet it has been obscured by one simple phrase being applied to this text: “Paul’s command against being bound to unbelievers does not apply to existing marriages because of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7 verses 12-16”.
However, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said of this passage that it is directly applicable to marriage and only to marriage, so certainly he disagreed with the commonly held view. Sadly, some have argued that since Paul does not mention marriage in this passage 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 is mentioned.
So the proper understanding of 2 Corinthians 6:14f in the light of its ubiquitous presence in the Old Testament and considering the universal and descriptive language that Paul chooses must be that God prohibits his children to be bound together with unbelievers notwithstanding the type of relationship or covenant that binds them. 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.
Therefore, since Paul’s ubiquitous, universal command in the Old Testament, which has been carried forward into the New Testament by Paul cannot properly have any normative exceptions, then 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.
We have 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 know that Paul’s teaching here is unique because Paul introduces his instructions with the phrase, “But to the rest I say, not the Lord…” (1 Corinthians 7:12 Bold mine). 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 heavens, nor did he find these instructions anywhere else in the scriptures. Nevertheless, Paul’s instructions are inspired by the Holy Spirit, which means that they are divine in origin.
To clarify the issue more, the immediately preceding sentence (verses 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…” (I Corinthians 7:10). So 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 couple should divorce and under what rules they must follow were not divinely spelled out previously. 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.
So then, even with the great apostle’s candid, unguarded transparency much of the church has failed to realize that Paul was teaching the Corinthians that the same rule does not apply to both equally yoked and unequally yoked marriages. 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 foresaw, “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, the papist’s declaring marriage a sacrament. And secondly, 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 the 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. Whereas in the case of the unequally yoked married couple no such divine decree exists–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 to instruct the unequally yoked believer as to the necessary condition to maintaining a marriage to an unrepentant person. Paul says that the believer unequally yoked in marriage must stay married if, and only if, a specific condition is met. The great tragedy is 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 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 the vast 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, which without this condition transgresses God’s prohibition in 2 Corinthians 6:14f. Also this 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 here is the condition: If the unbeliever consents to live with the believer, then the believer must not divorce the unbeliever. By and large, people fail to ask the right question in order to actually know the heart and mind of God regarding the full meaning of this condition.
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 fully and biblically 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. 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.
What does the condition “consents to live with” mean? First, it must be clear 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 spiritually 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.
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 invalidated by one becoming born-again (died and resurrected with Christ), and a new covenant being laid out here by Paul must take its place.
Therefore, 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. One the other hand, if the unbelieving spouse refuses or fails to consent, 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).
Is this clear enough? If the unbelieving spouse will not positively consent to this harmonious, distinctly Christian union, then the believer “is not under bondage in such cases.” Can a Christian divorce their unbelieving spouse? Yes, if he/she fails to give his/her consent as Paul says it out. 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 refuse and become divorced from the believer. The believing partner can expect a harmonious Christian marriage partner or they must separate themselves from the marriage all together.
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 if they are going to continue on with God’s holy child.
Paul Lays Out God’s Conditions of Consent For the Unbelieving Spouse
Now, as stated earlier, the immediate context (Verses 14-16) show 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 licence. In order to remain married to the believer the unbeliever must actively cooperate with their believing spouse in this sanctification. It 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 an Arminian view of the gospel (though repudiated twice as heresy by the church fathers) will falsely view this unbelieving spouse as a believer. But that simply is not the case because they lack saving faith. Their will is favorable to the Christian religion, yet they lack saving faith. 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, but they do not personally cry out for God’s grace of forgiveness because they still love sin more than God.
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.
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 so 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, 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.
When the unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believing spouse in all of these ways, 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.
Heavenly Father, I ask that you will open the eyes of those who cannot see and revive your church in our day.