Dissolution of Marriage: 1 Corinthians 7:15–16

dissolution of marriage (3)

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This is the last of four posts on 1 Cor 7:10-16. I recommend starting with Paul’s argument in Marital Separation and continuing by clicking the bold links above the footnotes.

d) 1 Cor 7:15–16: Paul continued, writing, “But if the unbeliever separates, let him separate; the brother or the sister is not enslaved in such cases, but in peace God has called us.”

In the Greco-Roman context, separation constituted a legal divorce. The apostle taught that a believer should work to continue the marital union (1 Cor 7:10–14).[1]

However, if the non-Christian spouse refused to remain in the relationship due to the new believer’s allegiance to Christ,[2] Paul advised the Christian to allow the dissolution of their marriage.[3] Likely, nothing could prevent the divorce anyway.[4]

In these cases, God does not require his people to maintain the spousal affiliation.[5]

On the other hand, new converts must avoid the temptation to start living in the Christian world so completely that they shut out their spouses, leaving their partners feeling so abandoned and estranged that divorce occurs.

Instead, new believers should model self-sacrificing love, more committed to the health of their marriages than ever. In that way, only radical prejudice could cause their mates to leave.[6]



Since the foundational definition of marriage in the Bible involves cleaving to one’s spouse (Gen 2:23–24; Mark 10:2–12), adultery and desertion rend asunder the one-flesh relationship (Matt 5:31–32; Eph 5:28–29). In effect, they each dissolve a marriage even before a court grants a legal divorce. An official dissolution merely acknowledges what has already occurred.[7]

Given the Greco-Roman context, being “not bound as a slave” implies both the freedom to divorce and the right to remarry another believer (1 Cor 7:39).[8]

However, this applies only to the innocent party.[9] Paul compared having to live as if one were married after being abandoned akin to slavery.[10]

All Jewish divorce certificates and most Greco-Roman divorce decrees included a phrase such as, “you are free to marry any man you wish,” wording that rabbis considered essential (m. Gittim 9.3).[11]



Concerning other circumstances so damaging that they destroyed a marriage,[12] the rabbis also recognized emotional neglect, cruelty, and humiliation as just grounds for a legal divorce (m. Ketubot 7:1–5).[13]

Since one of the terms in 1 Cor 6:9–11 means “reviler, abusive person” (loidoros),[14] Paul taught that such behavior remains incompatible with the presence of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:19–24). In fact, he advised the church to remove abusive people from their fellowship (1 Cor 5:9–13).[15]

Where abuse or neglect occur, we must consider each case on its own merits to avoid the twin errors of easy acceptance of divorce and a complete lack of forgiveness toward those who end their marriages.[16]

Otherwise, we afflict the innocent spouse with even greater physical and emotional damage.[17]

The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence produced an Equality Wheel and a Power and Control Wheel to help people differentiate between healthy and abusive relationships.[18]

With a desire for reconciliation at the core of our Christian identity, God calls us to adopt a peace-loving approach, for “as much as you are capable, with all people live in peace” (Rom  12:18).[19]

Paul’s words, “For how do you know, wife, if your husband you shall save? Or how do you know, husband, if your wife you shall save?” are somewhat ambiguous.

It remains unclear whether he offered hope that if they stay married, their influence would cause their spouses to embrace the faith, or whether he advised them not to fight a divorce because they have no assurance of conversion.[20]

Although Paul previously observed that unbelieving spouses have been sanctified by being married to Christians (1 Cor 7:14), the Lord does not promise their salvation.[21]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read 1 Cor 7:15–16. How did Paul advise believers whose non-Christian spouses choose to end their marriages? What do adultery, desertion, and abuse do to the one-flesh relationship? How does the PCA Position on Divorce and Remarriage (note 21) reflect Paul’s teaching?[21] In what practical ways can you support people who are experiencing such trauma?







Go to Naked and Not Ashamed (Gen 2:25)

[Related posts include Marital Separation (1 Cor 7:10–11); Concerning Mixed Marriages (1 Cor 7:12–13); Contagious Holiness (1 Cor 7:14); A Transfer of Loyalty (Gen 2:24); Slaves and War Brides (Exod 21:10–11 and Deut 21:10–14); God Hates Violence (Mal 2:13–16); Unity in the Spirit (Eph 5:18–21); Submissive to One Another (Eph 5:21–24); Sacrificial Love (Eph 5:25–30); A Minority Religion (1 Pet 3:1–2); In the Spirit of Sarah (1 Pet 3:3–6); Living Together with Understanding (1 Pet 3:7–9); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Women and Marriage Throughout Redemptive History; or to Chapter 5: A View from the Ground (Genesis 2:4–25)]


[1] Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, 199–200, http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/.

[2] Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 135.

[3] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Rev. Ed., 333.

[4] Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 135.

[5] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Rev. Ed., 334.

[6] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 303.

[7] Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 139.

[8] Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, 201, http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/.

[9] Keener, IVPBBCNT, 1 Cor 7:15.

[10] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 303.

[11] Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, 119, 202, http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/.

[12] Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 139.

[13] Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, 107–8, http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/.

[14] Danker et al., “λοιδορος” (loidoros), BDAG, 602, https://archive.org/stream/greekenglishlex00liddrich#page/902/mode/2up.

[15] Danker, et al., “λοιδορος” (loidoros), BDAG, 602.

[16] Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 142–3.

[17] Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 139–40.

[18]http://www.ncdsv.org/images/EqualitywheelNOSHADING.pdf; http://www.ncdsv.org/images/PowerControlwheelNOSHADING.pdf. Used with the permission of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

[19] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 304.

[20] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Rev. Ed., 337–8.

[21] Keener, IVPBBCNT, 1 Cor 7:16.

[22] According to this theologically conservative denomination, “The Committee believes that when there are words and actions on the part of one spouse that threaten the life of the other spouse and/or children, that the one(s) threatened should be counseled by the Session (elders), or representative thereof, to remove themselves from the threatening situation and the abuser should be urged to seek counsel. Such a procedure will protect those threatened. When the abuser does not cease these words and actions, the Session should investigate whether these words and actions are in effect breaking the one-flesh relationship by ‘hating’ the abused spouse and not ‘nourishing and cherishing’ this one (Eph 5:28–29).  In counseling the abuser, the reality of his Christian faith should be ascertained. When it is determined by the Session that the abuser does not appear to them to be Christian and the abuse continues, the Pauline teaching about an unbeliever leaving a believer should be applied [1 Cor 7:15].” 20th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, “Report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Divorce and Remarriage,” 291–2, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/divorce-remarriage.pdf.