May the Believer Deserted By an Unbeliever Remarry?

By Jerry R. Earnhart

Who can treat lightly or with indifference the trauma of divorce? Hearts ache and break. Bearing one another’s burdens, in such cases, is a must (Gal. 6:1). Beyond the inevitable pain of a failed relationship, divorce can also affect one’s future right to remarry. Jesus says, “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committed adultery” (Matt. 5:32).

By and large, the Jews throughout their history were “stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears” (Acts 7:51; cf. Jer. 6: 10). In their blind perversion of many a commandment (cf. Mk. 7:13), they managed to suppress true love for God and their fellow men (cf. Matt. 23:14). In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly makes an issue of this void.

He mentions, for example, a popular male posture toward divorce only to challenge it as being devoid of real love and concern. Jesus was not the first to note this treachery and sound the alarm (Mal. 2:13-16). Having totally misconstrued Deuteronomy 24:1-5 as divine approval of divorce for practically any cause, many a husband in Israel apparently saw his responsibility toward a disfavored wife to be limited to the provision of legal divorce papers (Matt. 5:31). These self-deceived men were oblivious to the fact that they were aiding and abetting other people in the commission of crime, i.e. adultery (Matt. 5:32).

Jesus directed his warning in Matthew 5:32 primarily to the distant accomplice in this crime, namely to the husband who puts away his wife for a cause other than fornication. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to gain valuable instruction from Jesus’ description of the offence itself and of those immediately involved in it. At least three points seem especially significant.

First, the loveless act of the husband in no way diminishes the guilt of his put-away-spouse and the man who marries her. It is rather the gravity of their offence in this second marriage which so effectively demonstrates the culpability of the first husband in his calloused unconcern. However eloquently our emotions might protest, one thing remains clear here. Desertion does not justify remarriage, it can only foster adultery.

Second, one can commit adultery in the act of getting married. From the biblical perspective, i.e. in the Jewish culture of the first century, “to marry” meant to celebrate a wedding feast. The focus of that celebration, as a “natural and integral” part, was upon the coming together of the bride and bridegroom in sexual union. Getting married was not an occasion for legalities. Couples entered into binding contracts at the time of betrothal. From that point on they belonged to each other as husband and wife, although they were yet to be married, i.e., yet to be joined together sexually in the celebration of the wedding feast (cf. Gen. 29:15-30; Matt. 1:18-25). The put-away-woman of Matthew 5:32 does not commit adultery by contracting another marriage, but rather by getting married, i.e., by joining herself sexually to another man, legal formalities notwithstanding.

Third, a person can commit adultery without becoming unfaithful to a marriage covenant. Since “whoever” of Matthew 5:32 cannot be limited to divorcees, even a never-before-married-man can commit adultery in the act of getting married for the first time, namely when he marries such a put-away woman. Adultery has an inherently sexual meaning (cf. Lev. 18:20 with 20: 10 and Prov. 6:29 with 6:32). Here it denotes the sexual relationship with one who is “legally,” but not “rightfully,” a spouse according to Divine purpose.

The principles of Matthew 5:32 apply today, as they did then. However innocent such a put-away spouse might be, celibacy is the only God-approved option apart from reconciliation (cf. 1 Cor. 7:11). Neither we, nor the one in that condition can afford to ignore or deny this burden. Since truth and reality have a way of surviving without our approval, we best shoulder the burden together. Besides, we not only have the assurance of God’s staying power in bearing up under difficulties (cf. 1 Cor. 10: 13; 1 Pet. 5:7; Phil. 4:13), but also the promise of good fruits of that exercise (Jas. 1:24; etc.). Becoming a “eunuch” for the sake of the kingdom of God is not only possible but, if necessary to please God, will prove to be “good,” as well (Rom. 12:2).

Not only do the principles of Matthew 5:32 apply today, but they apply to all such put-away-spouses. This author is aware of no convincing evidence for an exception. Some brethren, however, are convinced that an exception does exist. They believe that God makes a distinction between a believer deserted by a believer and a believer deserted by an unbeliever. Does the believer deserted by an unbeliever indeed have privileges which the believer deserted by a believer does not have?

1 Corinthians 7:15

Efforts to sustain this view generally point to 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. In this passage, Paul is thought to be giving new revelation which would effectively grant the right of remarriage to a believer deserted by an unbeliever. From the perspective of this author, however, the several inferences drawn from this text to support a right of remarriage for desertion are by no means necessary. These unnecessary inferences not only fail to support the desired conclusions, but necessitate the overthrow of various biblical principles, as well.

No need exists to press Paul’s expression, “But to the rest, I say, not the Lord” (v. 12), to mean that Christ never addressed marriage relationships involving unbelievers. Neither the grammar, nor the syntax, nor the context of that statement requirement requires that we view Matthew 5:32 and 19-9 as not being applicable to mixed marriages. However reasonable such an inference might seem, it is not necessary; and if no, necessary, then it remains mere conjecture.

The Lord did in fact address marriages involving unbelievers. Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 do not limit the “whoever” of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 to believers or covenant people. Rather, these statements amplify and apply God’s general law on marriage (found, e.g., iii Matt. 19:4-6). And they do it in a particular case which, unlike the case of Matthew 19:9, Jesus did not personally address. Obviously, for some brethren at least, this case needed clarification.

Judging from the context, which reflects not only a pronounced tendency toward celibacy, even within marriages (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1,5), but also concern regarding the very legitimacy of “mixed” marriages (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14), some Corinthians may have felt a moral compunction to leave their unbelieving mates. Certainly, remarriage is not an issue in Paul’s discussion of “mixed “marriages. Unless it can be conclusively demonstrated by necessary inference, that Paul here touches on remarriage, then efforts to use this passage to support the right of Christians to remarry after desertion by an unbeliever must be abandoned.

Inferences vs. Necessary Inferences

In the context of 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, the only specific information bearing on this matter at all is found in verse 15. At least three inferences are drawn from this passage in an attempt to demonstrate the right of a Christian to remarry after desertion by an unbeliever. First, it is inferred from the phrase, “if the unbelieving one leaves,” that Paul thus describes a divorce which has been finalized. Second, it is inferred from the term “bondage” that Paul speaks of the marriage bond. Third, it is inferred from the expression “not under bondage” that the deserted Christian in a “mixed” marriage is free to remarry.

All of these inferences are crucial. If, for example, the first inference (namely, that Paul describes a finalized divorce) is either not necessary or invalid because of faulty reasoning, then (according to inferences “two” and “three”) we would have the “impossible” case of a Christian whose marriage bond has been dissolved and is free to remarry before the divorce process is complete.

Building a case around an inference which is not demonstrably necessary is risky, if not fatal business. Some infer, e.g., from so-called “household baptisms” (Acts 16:15,33) that early Christians baptized infants by divine authority. It cannot be demonstrated, however, that this inference is a necessary one. On the contrary, both the context of the accounts of “household baptisms” as well as other passages amply demonstrate that infants could not have been involved in those baptisms. Baptism is predicated upon personal faith and repentance (Mk. 16:5,16; Acts 2:38). Infants cannot believe, as all those in the household of the Philippian jailor did (Acts 16:34). Since not all households are blessed with infants, it cannot be necessarily inferred from household baptisms that infants are involved.

Having reminded ourselves of the danger in building a case upon an unnecessary inference, let us now examine the “three” inferences which some draw from 1 Corinthians 7:15. Are they necessary?

Has the Divorce Occurred?

The hypothetical case which Paul projects in 1 Corinthians 7:15 is most naturally understood as a separation in process. All standard English versions properly render the first verb (Greek, chorizetai) in the present tense: “depart” (KJV), “separateth” (ASV), “leaves” (NASB), etc. Paul does not say, “if the unbeliever has departed,” but rather “if the unbelieving one separates himself/herself” (The Interlinear Greek New Testament, A. Marshall).

Of all the translations this author checked (and he emptied a library shelf in the process), none renders “separate” in the perfect or past tense. Fifteen out of twenty-two versions, including the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, and an English translation of the Peshitta (the ancient Syriac translation), render chorizetai in such a way as to suggest that the process of separating is in its earliest stage, existing only in desire or determination. Consider the following examples from a total of fifteen similar ones:

RSV: “if the unbelieving partner desires to separate. . . “

NEB: “if . . . the heathen partner wishes for a separation . . .”

Berkeley: “In case the nonbeliever wants to separate. . . ” Phillips: But if the unbelieving partner decides to separate . . .”

Weymouth: “If separate. . . the unbeliever is determined to separate . . .”

Such translations reflect an awareness of the contrast between “If . . . he consents to dwell with her” (1 Cor. 7:12-13), on the one hand, and “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves,” on the other.

A look at the Greek grammar in 1 Corinthians 7:15 not only confirms the accuracy of the standard versions, but also adds depth to the impression that Paul is describing an incomplete process, i.e. separation in progress. The Greek word, chorizetai (rendered “depart” in the phrase “if she depart”) is present tense and indicative mood. “. . the present tense expresses incompleted action, which action in any given case may be momentary, prolonged, simultaneous, descriptive, repeated, customary, attempted, interrupted, or begun, according to the nature of the case or the meaning of the verb itself” (A Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament, A.T. Robertson, p. 140). Obviously, from what we have already seen, there is little, if any, evidence among translators of the New Testament that they perceive either the verb or the context to necessarily imply a completed action, i.e. a finalized divorce. On the contrary, they consistently render chorizetai in the present tense.

With these translators, also, not a few exegetes agree. Consider, for example, the following comment on 1 Corinthians 7:15 in The Expositor’s Greek Testament. “But if the unbeliever separates, he may separate – let the separation take its course” (Vol. II, p. 827). A similar note is found in Light From the Greek New Testament by Boyce W. Blackwelder: “In 1 Cor. 7:15 Paul says, ‘If the unbeliever separates himself (chorizetai, present middle indicative), let the separation take its course (chorizetai, present middle imperative). . . ” (p. 74).

There is no evidence that “separate” necessarily implies a “finalized” divorce. That being the case, it cannot be necessarily inferred, either. Without this necessary inference that Paul’s hypothetical case involves “finalized” divorce, “not under bondage” cannot possibly refer to release from the marriage bond. Otherwise, we have the case of a person who isfree to court and marry another, while the divorce from thefirst mate is not yet completed. Are brethren making an argument for remarriage on this passage ready to accept this consequence?

Does “Bondage” Refer to the Marriage Bond?

Now we turn our attention to a second questionable inference drawn from 1 Corinthians 7:15, namely that “bondage” refers to the marriage bond. Since Paul does not mention the marriage bond in this passage, such an idea can only be derived from it by inference. Of course, if this inference is not necessary, because it is not necessarily implied, then we do Paul a grave injustice by putting words in his mouth and thereby implicating him in the approval of remarriage after desertion by an unbeliever.

The expression, “is . . . under bondage,” constitutes one of several English renderings of the Greek verb dedoulotai, from douloo, meaning “to make a slave of, reduce to bondage” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 158). In a specific reference to the word’s usage in 1 Corinthians 7:15, Thayer defines dedoulotai as meaning “to be under bondage, held by constraint of law or necessity, in some matter” (p. 158). According to the same lexicographer, douloo appears eight times in the New Testament, two times in a literal, and six times in a metaphorical sense. Of the five remaining metaphorical usages, none refers to marriage at all, much less to being “bound” by Divine law to a certain partner (cf. Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:39).

Several considerations weigh against the inference that douloo, refers to the so-called marriage bond in 1 Corinthians 7:15. First, according to its usage in other contexts, douloo has no history which would indicate that it refers to the marriage bond here. Second, no Greek-English lexicographer suggests that douloo refers to the so-called marriage bond in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Or has this author missed one? Third, based on the nature of the term douloo, as evidenced by its usage in other contexts, the very appropriateness of using douloo in reference to a release from the marriage vow may be seriously challenged.

The word which Paul clearly uses to refer to the binding obligation of marrage vows is not douloo, but rather deo, found in Romans 7:2 and I Corinthians 7:39. Deo literally means “to bind, to tie, fasten. ” In the two passages above, Paul uses this word in a metaphorical sense which, Thayer says, means “to put under obligation, sc. of law, duty, etc.” (p. 131). Accordingly, two people can be bound (deo) to one another in this sense, i.e. by law or duty, though they live thousands of miles apart for decades.

Inherent in the word douloo, however, is the idea of active service toward that person or thing to which one is enslaved, hence requiring in the case of 1 Corinthians 7:15 (“not under bondage”), freedom from the obligation to actively service the unbeliever in some immediate way, not release from the marriage bond. What service could that be? The clue may be found just two chapters removed.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19, Paul speaks of being under bondage to Jews and Gentiles (“I made myself a slave of all,” douloo). Under the influence of the Gospel (cf. Rom. 1:14,15), Paul brought himself under bondage to the lost, not seeking his own “rights” and convenience, but constantly adjusting himself to their personal and communal peculiarities, so as to save some. When, however, these same people rejected his message, his obligation ceased, being no longer under bondage (cf. Acts 13:44-46, 51; 18:6; Matt. 7:6).

In a similir fashion and by the same Spirit, a believer in a “mixed” marriage brings himself under bondage to the unbeliever, in hopes of saving his spouse (cf. 1 Pet. 3:1-6). Concern for the salvation of the unbelieving mate definitely enters into Paul’s discussion of “mixed” marriages (1 Cor. 7:16). When, however, the unbelieving spouse is no longer content to dwell with the believer and thus initiates the process of separation, the case changes dramatically. In such cases, the believer is no longer under bondage, i.e. no longer obligated for the Gospel’s sake to adjust accommodatively to the departing mate, especially in matters peculiar to marriage.

This concept of bondage not only fits wells with the context of 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, but also accords with Paul’s usage of douloo elsewhere. That being the case, one cannot necessarily infer from Paul’s reference to “bondage,” that he has the marriage bond in mind.

In the case of an unbeliever who is content to dwell with the believer, the believer is under bondage. However, in the hypothetical case which Paul describes, namely when the unbeliever initiates the process of separation, the believer never has been and never will be under bondage in the sense of Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 7:15.

Dedoulotai (rendered “under bondage”) is a perfect tense verb in the indicative mood and passive voice. It is difficult to render dedoulotai in our language because “there is no tense in English which notes the present state resultant upon a past action” (Machen’s Greek Grammar, p. 187). “Its basal significance is the progress of an act or state to a point of culmination and the existence of its finished product” (A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Dana and Mantey, p. 200).

The perfect of douloo reaches back to that point in time when the unbeliever initiated the process of separating and states that from that time forward the believing spouse has not been enslaved so as to be in bondage now. Remember, the unbeliever is in the process either of sending his spouse away or departing himself. That process is in progress, but is yet incomplete. That being true, “not under bondage” cannot mean that the believer is released from the marriage bond so as to be free to remarry.


In cases of divorce, one and the same rule applies to all (Matt. 5:32). A believer in a “mixed” marriage has no privilege which a believer married to a believer does not have. It is proper to draw conclusion from inferences that are necessary, but it is foolish to build a spiritual house on those that are not. May the Lord help us to see the difference and choose the former.

If, as some conclude, believers in “mixed” marriages are, not subject to Jesus’ personal teaching on marriage and-. divorce, then there exists no scriptural grounds whatsoever for them to divorce their mates for fornication, even if those unbelieving spouses in Corinth might have visited the temple prostitutes on a daily basis. Why? Because the only scriptural instruction granting the right to divorce for the cause of fornication is found in that very source, which supposedly does not apply to them, namely in the personal teaching o Jesus (Matt. 5:32 and 19:9). Thus, the believer, having an unbelieving spouse with the daily practice of fornication, would be obligated to remain in the marriage until the unbeliever “departs.” Can you believe that?

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 1, pp. 19-22
January 4, 1990