a) Verses 10-11 are clearly speaking about two believers who have been married to each other.
b) In contrast, verses 12-15 (and 16) are speaking about a believer married to someone who at this point in time is an unbeliever.
c) It’s a hackneyed assumption that verses 12-15 are about a couple who married when they were both unbelievers, but then one spouse (typically the wife) got converted. However, there’s nothing in the text to indicate its being limited to that specific scenario. This assumption has been passed down for centuries, unthinkingly.
d) Verses 10-11 discuss a believing wife who “separates” from her husband. In that culture and in the original Greek language, separation with intent to end the marriage was identical with divorce. Divorce usually took place simply by one partner separating with intent to end the marriage.
e) Verses 10-11 say that a Christian wife who divorces her Christian husband has two options:
- remain unmarried (notice she is unmarried so she must be divorced; there was no such thing in those days as a legal or informal state of ‘separation’ as distinct from ‘divorce’); or
- be reconciled with her former husband.
The only prohibition is she must not marry a new, different husband. If she is to marry again, she can only take the husband she had before.
f) Verses 12-15 deal with the case of a believer married to an unbeliever.
g) If an unbelieving spouse leaves, separates, or behaves so badly that it pushes the believer away (this is called constructive desertion because the separation is construed as having been caused by the wicked spouse) then the believer is NOT UNDER BONDAGE IN SUCH CASES.
h) Not being under bondage must mean that this kind of believer (one who’d been married to an unbeliever) is not under the prohibition that the other believer was under in verse 11. That is, the believer in verse 15 is not prohibited from marrying a new, different spouse.
i) In summary, Paul contrasts the two cases. In the first case, the believer is under a prohibition not to marry a new spouse; in the second case, the believer is not under that same prohibition, so is free to marry someone new. Paul only makes one stipulation: that they marry ‘in the Lord’ (v 39).
j) Paul makes perfectly clear that he is contrasting these two cases (vv. 10-11, & vv. 12-15) by using the words “for the rest” at the beginning of verse 12. This is a flag phrase which signals that he is giving a new rule. Obviously he is contrasting this rule with the one he gave in verse 11.
k) For many victims of abuse, the key question is: “Is my abusive spouse a believer, or an unbeliever?” Originally in Not Under Bondage I taught that the step-by-step process of Matthew 18:15-17 was the way to work out whether an abusive spouse is a believer or an unbeliever. However, I have since changed my mind on the applicability of Matthew 18 to domestic abuse. I now believe that 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 is the appropriate text to use in disciplining domestic abusers. See my post Church discipline and church permission for domestic abuse: how my mind has changed.
l) If they try implementing church discipline (especially the Matthew 18 formula) for domestic abusers, many churches currently fail because they get manipulated and hoodwinked by the abuser’s phoney repentance — so they do not identify that abuse is happening. Churches very often lack understanding, discernment or backbone to firmly discipline abusers and put them out of the church.
m) If church dicsipline is followed correctly in regard to abusers who profess to be Christians, the abuser should be treated as an unbeliever, regardless of what he might profess to the contrary to his friends and allies. Since the abuser is in fact an unbliever, you are in a situation where verses 12-15 of 1 Corinthians 7 applies, rather than verses 10-11.
n) The reason my argument needs complex explanation is because Christians have deeply misunderstood and misconstrued these passages for centuries. There’s been a lot of dead wood to clear away.
o) My conclusions about 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 were argued by some eminent Puritan theologians, so I’m not on new ground. I believe their interpretation got lost in the church and state conflicts of later centuries, and of course, it was easy to ignore the pro-victim interpretation because, after all, the only people who benefited much from it were victims of spouse abuse, and that means they were mostly women. (It’s no exaggeration to say that domestic abuse is the Cinderella of all causes in the Church.)
p) If you (the victim-survivor) are trying to defend your actions to members of your congregation, you could tell them “My spouse’s conduct eventually pushed me away, and that is the same as if he deserted me, so verse 15 of 1 Corinthians 7 applies in my case.”
q) Even in the case of the woman in verses 10-11 (“let the wife not separate from her husband, but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled with her husband,”) the word separate is a word that in 1st century Greek usage meant divorce just as much as it could mean separation. In fact, it was often used in legal documents to mean ‘divorce’. This is not brought out in our English translations, but it’s true. So the argument “You may separate, but you can’t divorce” is unsound, having arisen from translations that didn’t take into account the usage of words in the first century (and from a bias against women on the part of the translators?).
Final tip for victims: It’s a good idea to brace yourself for the reaction from your church.
Sometimes, you only get a chance to say a few words to fellow Christians who judge or raise their eyebrows at you. Here is an example of a few words you can say: “My husband had been abusing me for the last 8 years. I hadn’t told you before because I was afraid and ashamed.”