THAT'S A GOOD QUESTION
Larry Ray Hafley
From Texas: "It is agreed that Christians should marry Christians, but does `only in the Lord' in 1 Cor. 7:39 mean only a Christian?"
"The wife is bound by the law as long. as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:39). This text and its phrase "only in the Lord" has claimed the energies of Bible students through the years. It is a difficult text in some respects. I do not profess to have all the answers. (I do not even know all the questions!) But with an open mind and Bible we can approach this passage with a sincere desire to know the will of the Lord. When we have dug around the foundations, when we have excavated and mined the precious ore and metal of Divine truth, let us resolve to preach and practice what we have learned.
(1) The Context: In 1 Corinthians Paul spends space responding to items written to him, "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me" (1 Cor. 7:1; cf. 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 15:35). We do not know what they had written to him, but the circumstances the Corinthians displayed may have prompted and provoked his utterance, "It is good for a man not to touch (marry-LHR) a woman." To avoid sexual immorality' one should marry. Not everyone could be celibate as Paul.(1 Cor. 7:2-9).
Next, Paul discusses Christians married to unbelievers (1 Cor.7:10-16).Had the Corinthians asked him about this? Possibly. Then he comments on maidens, "Now concerning virgins" (1 Cor.7:25). Again, it is likely the Corinthians had asked him about this matter. Thus, this topic with its attendant advice and admonition continues through verse 38. The "So then" of verse 38 is a conclusion of the thought commenced and introduced inverse 25. In verse 39, he refers to the married status. Inverses 10-16, he urged those married to unbelievers not to leave their companions. In verse 12, he says, "Let him not put her (the unbelieving wife-LRH) away." In verse 13, he says, "Let her not leave him (the unbelieving husband-LRH)." In verse 39, he summarizes the substance of what he stated in verses 12 and 13. "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth."Well, Paul, suppose her husband is dead? "But if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to marry whom she will; only in the Lord." That is, this time, under the circumstances of the "present distress" (vs. 26), you must marry a believer, a Christian, one who is in the Lord.
In this context, Paul is considering a particular situation. Where this circumstance does not obtain, the order cannot be enforced. One should not generalize a specific. Paul goes on to say in verse 40 that he believes a widow should remain unmarried. Why? Because of the "present distress" (vs. 26). Do brethren today encourage widows to remain unmarried? Do we tell widows today they will be "happier" if they remain unmarried? No, but Paul did. If brethren are consistent in their general use of verse 39 when they say every widow in all ages and situations is always bound to marry a Christian, then they should first advise every widow to remain unmarried. If they bind verse 39 in all ages, at all times, why not verse 40? But why did Paul tell the widows then they would be "happier" if they did not remarry? Because at this time marriage was under the handicap of that "present distress." Under similar circumstances, the same advice should be given today as was given in verse 40, but when that condition is not prevalent, the advice is not extended. Likewise, with verse 39. If a widow marries after her husband dies, let her marry only a believer due to the "present distress," and the "trouble in the flesh" (vs. 28).
(2) "In The Lord:" The expression "in the Lord" is used several times in 1 Corinthians (1:31; 4:17; 7:22; 7:39; 11:11; 15:58). Each time it refers to a sphere or location. It has reference to place and not to manner.
Conclusion: Some in Corinth wondered and inquired, "Should we put away our unbelieving mates?" And Paul replied, "No, live with them if they be pleased to live with you; however, in the present distress, in this difficult period, if your mate dies and you marry again, marry only a believer. Although, in my judgment, one would be happier, better off, if they just remained unmarried."
Truth Magazine XIX: 19, p. 290