Skip to main content

Paul's Teaching Concerning Divorce (I Corinthians 7:10-24)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: Marriage as Covenant

In our modern 21st century world, more people need to be told about Henry Ford's sage advice when asked on his 50th wedding anniversary about his rule for marital bliss and longevity. He replied, "Just the same as in the automobile business, stick to one model."

This good advice from Mr. Ford is, more importantly, a commandment from God as well. Marriage in the Bible is seen as a lifetime covenant relationship. When the Bible mentions a covenant, it’s referring to a strong, solemn agreement between two parties. However, biblical covenants are very different from the kinds of agreements we make nowadays.

For one thing, a covenant in Bible times made the two into one. When two or more parties make a covenant, they are joined together and identified with each other.

A covenant involves promises. People don’t just join together at random: the agreement usually includes some kind of practical application. Sometimes it means not harming one another (Genesis 31:50). Sometimes it means protecting one another (1 Samuel 20). Sometimes it is agreeing not to obliterate a weaker people group (Joshua 9:15). And in some cases, it can have everlasting consequences.

Covenants between parties are often made to last for multiple generations. And they are spiritually charged. They call God to witness their union and promises.

Because of all this, covenants are not easily broken. In biblical times, animals were often slaughtered to demonstrate what would happen to the person who broke the covenant. So, to break them was considered a very serious thing to do. For instance, when Saul broke a covenant that his forefathers swore to the Gibeonites, God punished Israel with a three-year famine. ( II Samuel 21:1-2).

God, Himself has made covenants in Scripture and has never broken any of them. Further, it is His intention that His people be keepers of covenants as well, and that would include the covenant of marriage. So, is it any wonder Jesus, and later Paul the apostle, took the marriage vows extremely seriously?

As we turn to I Corinthian 7:10-24 we get Paul's teaching on divorce. He is in the middle of answering some questions put to him by the Corinthian believers. And he has just gotten finished talking about the subject of sex and celibacy as a married and a single believer.

We see in that section that some were given the gift of a spouse and had an obligation to come together sexually with them regularly in order to keep from being tempted by the world around them and to build intimacy with each other. Some, on the other hand, had the gift of singleness like Paul. They didn't have a spouse. They were to be celibate and devote themselves totally to the Lord's work. Both these lifestyles were seen as equally valid ways to live but not all could live like Paul. So they were told to seek to be married rather than burn with passion.

Now, in turning to the subject of divorce, Paul seems to be answering the questions posed by those who somehow saw singleness as a superior lifestyle. The Corinthian Christians wondered if it might be more spiritual to be single and if they should break up existing marriages for the cause of greater holiness. Paul answers their question straight from the heart of the Lord: absolutely not!

Let's look at this passage to see what we can learn from this in our lives today. In order to understand Paul's reasoning, however, we have to see the influences that led him to this strict understanding of the marriage bond. These influences include his understanding of the Genesis account of creation as well as Jesus' strong views of marriage and divorce.

I. Paul's Understanding of Creation

Paul, like Jesus Himself, looked at marriage from the perspective of creation. Out of all the creatures in creation, man as male and female were the only ones fashioned in the image of God. And together the man and woman were to be fruitful and multiply and be co-regents over the earth to rule and subdue it (Genesis 1:27-28).

God created Adam first, before the woman. However, out of all that God made, there was not found a creature suitable for the man. And God said in Genesis 2:18 that:

"It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him."

Then from the rib of Adam, God formed Eve, as his perfect companion. Adam's response to seeing his wife was:

"This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man." (Genesis 2:23).

It is in the next verses that we see the intended permeance of the marriage bond. It says:

"For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed." (2:24-25).

Scroll to Continue

The marriage relationship was here established as the first human institution upon which society is based. The idea of 'joined' here carries the sense of a permanent indissoluble union between a man and a woman. The one-flesh speaks of a complete unity of parts making a whole. So the marital union was to be complete and whole with two people. It also implies here sexual completeness. One man and one woman constitute the pair that will ultimately reproduce, with a child being the result of that union.

Because of these Scriptures, permanent monogamy has been seen as God's design and it is how Paul viewed it.

But, of course, creation isn't the only influence that Paul had on his view of marriage. This was also the view of His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus was Paul's major influence.

II. Paul's Understanding of Jesus' Teaching on Divorce

By the time Jesus and Paul came on the scene, there were some who took a more liberal view of marriage and divorce. While it was never commanded by God, divorce became something regulated by the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

The law required a 'bill of divorcement' to be written and given to the wife by the husband. This law was intended by God to be a protection for the divorced party. Here is what Jay Adams says in his book entitled 'Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible.' He states:

"The bill protected the one who received it from false accusations, misunderstandings, etcetera, and clearly set forth her status as unmarried."

Sadly, this law, which was meant to protect the wife, led to later rabbis in the first century allowing divorce for almost anything. While other Jewish rabbis only allowed divorce because of the unfaithfulness of the wife. It is this conflict that brought about Jesus' most extended teaching regarding marriage and divorce. In Matthew 19:3-12 some Pharisees asked Jesus something in order to test him. They asked:

"Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" (19:3).

Here is Jesus' answer:

“Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND HIS MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no person is to separate.” They *said to Him, “Why, then, did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND HER AWAY?” He *said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."

So, Jesus' view is that the only legitimate reason for divorce is when the spouse commits sexual immorality which is sex with anyone else other than one's spouse.

This is the basis for Paul's answers in I Corinthians 7. He alludes to the Lord's teaching right off the bat when he says in verse 10 to the married couples:

"But to the married I give instructions, not I but the Lord...."

III. Paul's Teaching on Divorce

In understanding Paul's teaching on divorce, we must realize that nothing that he says contradicts the clear teaching that the Lord Jesus already had given. When he said that the Lord said something, he meant that Jesus actually dealt with it while on earth in his teaching. Later, in verse 12 where he talks about a brother who has a wife who is an unbeliever, he tells the Corinthians:

"I say, not the Lord."

This doesn't mean that Paul is disagreeing with Christ. It simply means that Jesus never dealt with this topic while doing His earthly ministry specifically. Paul was an apostle and was led by the Spirit. What he said was the Lord's view of this matter which came from Paul's lips rather than having come directly from the lips of Jesus at the time of His earthly ministry.

The first part of Paul's teaching, in verses 10 and 11 comes directly from Jesus. That is, if a wife is married, she shouldn't leave her husband. But if she does, she should remain unmarried. And the husband should not divorce his wife. Paul here was assuming the exception clause of marital unfaithfulness since the teaching was directly from Jesus who added the exception.

However, in verses 12-16 Paul, by the influence of the Holy Spirit, adds another exception clause after a call to remain in the marriage if at all possible. There were people who got saved but their spouses didn't. Paul's teaching on that is that if the unbelieving wife, in this case, consents to live with the Christian man then he should not divorce her. The same is true of the unbelieving husband. Paul says that there is a sanctification process that takes place here. This doesn't refer to the salvation of the unsaved spouse. It means that the unsaved partner is set apart for a temporal blessing because the saved partner belongs to God.

Paul also says that the sanctification of the continued marriage keeps the children from being 'unclean.' Rather, in the marriage, they are now holy. Paul indicates that the presence of one believing parent exposes the children to blessing and brings protection. In other words, the presence of even one saved parent will protect the kids from undue harm spiritually. The blessings that they may receive may also include the salvation of the children as well.

Then, in verses 15 and 16, Paul introduces the exception clause to remaining in the marriage. He says this:

"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. 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?"

Notice that Paul uses the terminology here that a person is no longer in bondage if the unbelieving spouse leaves. This same terminology of being bound is used of the spouse whose husband has died in Romans 7:1-3. And she is free to remarry. So, it is a safe assumption that this is what Paul meant here as well.

In verses, 17-24 Paul begins an extended teaching on contentedly remaining in the place where the God has assigned you until the Lord moves you to another place in life. Some wanted to change their marital status, some were called as uncircumcised Gentiles and they felt that God wanted them to be circumcised. Some wanted to dissociate from Judaism and were wanting to have surgery to be uncircumcised. This apparently was a thing back then that some rabbinic literature even talked about being a possibility.

Still, others were called to the Lord as slaves. Paul says not to worry about it, but if you can gain your freedom, then do it. But if not, the slave is already the Lord's freedman and the one who is free is Christ's slave. Paul's conclusion is:

"Brethren, each one is to remain with God in the condition in which he was called." (24).

The bottom line is that no matter where one is in life, the Lord has allowed it and a person can bring glory to Him in whatever situation in which you are placed. And that includes being married or being single. For the married person that means learning to live with and love your spouse as God intends you to do rather than bailing out when things get hard.

One other thing that might help us understand Paul's teaching on divorce isn't found in this passage, but he did talk about it. Paul viewed the marriage bond as being a picture of Christ's relationship with the church. The husband is said to be the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23). Christ loved the Church, the Body of Christ so much that He gave Himself for it by His death on the cross (Ephesians 5:25). We could never imagine Christ casting out the people whom He bought with His blood and paid for with His life. Neither should one consider casting out your spouse whom you covenanted with for life.


As we summarize Paul's teaching on divorce, it becomes apparent that He took marriage very seriously just as God Himself does. Marriage is a lifetime covenant and commitment to one person until death do you part, instituted by God Himself at creation. And very few things qualify as reasons that this covenant is to be broken. Fornication, or marital unfaithfulness, and desertion by an unbelieving spouse are the only two that are found in Scripture.

For those who are married, may you ask God to help you to work on your marriage and to make it all that He would have it to be for His glory. That is especially true for all those who are contemplating divorce.

If you have already been divorced for unbiblical reasons and remarried to someone else, then do know that God forgives and allows you to move on from this point to make your current relationship all that it should be. Because of Christ, we are new creatures that have the ability to become what God intended us to be in the first place.

Sadly, many in the church tend to judge some sins more harshly than any others and, for some reason, see divorce as an unforgivable sin. And some go out of their way to point out that Jesus said that remarriage after divorce is adultery. They forget that He said, as well, that the one who looks with lust at a woman has also committed adultery with her in his heart. We need to realize we are all sinners, saved by grace and that only those who are without sin should be the first to cast a stone at others. Not that we can't point out sin to help people change. But hypocritical judging of others is always wrong.

We need to help and encourage each other to listen as we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit leading us in the right direction. May we not rely on our own power but ask God daily to give us the strength to live holy lives and to have healthy marriages. And God will give us the power to do it.

Let us thank the God who gave us the covenant of marriage by doing all that we can to remain faithful in our own marriages, if we have a spouse, and pray for the relationships of others with whom we come in contact.

Then when we've done all that we can do, in the end, may we say by our words and by our actions: "To God be the glory!" For it is by His grace alone that we have the power to live a god-honoring life, whether we be single, or whether we be married.

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

Related Articles