When we struggle to understand the Bible it can be helpful if we are able to discern patterns of biblical reasoning. Such patterns do not prove any one interpretation, but they may add weight or clarity to an interpretation. 1 Corinthians 7 is a challenging passage that has resulted in significant disagreement in the church: does it authorize remarriage if a spouse abandons us? John Piper is one who argues it does not. While reflecting on 1 Corinthians 7 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), I noticed what might be an example of parallel biblical reasoning in both texts. Of course, this does not resolve so challenging an issue—the discussion will continue. Even so, I hope it prompts us to discover other examples of biblical reasoning that will help us hear God more clearly in many contexts. Perhaps even this one.
I have no space here to fully exegete this text—others have done this. But let us consider just Paul’s argument from verses 10 to 16. Verses 10–11 sit like a header: do not get divorced, but if you do, do not remarry, unless that is to reconcile to and remarry your former spouse. Then in verses 12–13, he tells believers in mixed marriages (a believer and unbeliever) that this applies also to them: do not divorce even your unbelieving spouse. Then there follow three steps that display Paul’s reasoning. Paul gives two reasons for staying married, sandwiched around one key command regarding what to do if you cannot. First, the unbeliever is ‘made holy’ when they remain married to the believer (verse 14). Second, the unbeliever may be saved if the believer remains married to the unbeliever after they leave (verse 16). Third, in between, is Paul’s instruction on what to do if the unbeliever wants a divorce: ‘you are not enslaved; you are called to peace’. What does that mean? We should understand that this is not the same as ‘not bound’ (verse 39)—a different word and context. Instead, Paul is helping the divorced-believing spouse to know how to respond to a painful situation. The question is: ‘Is it up to me to stop them!?’ No. That is, such a believer is ‘not enslaved,’ so ‘peace’ (in this context) means that you may let them go without thinking it is up to you to force them to stay. I would paraphrase it this way: ‘Be at peace, for you cannot control another person.’ Is Paul implying that they are free to remarry? Not if the context of verses 10–11 governs this text, but not all agree. Perhaps the parable of the Prodigal Son may help here.
You know the story, so I will not repeat it here (look at Luke 15:11–32). It seems to show the same three steps of reasoning. At the surface, while the relationships are distinct, father-son is not husband-wife, yet both are core relationships deeply tied to the Gospel; we are both sons of the Father and bride of Christ! Also, both involve a pattern of being together as a family, then separating, and then returning. If the reasoning is parallel to Paul’s it may look like this. First, it is implicit that the father would have known that his difficult son benefitted from staying with the family. Even in his rebellious state, being in the family offers protection to him: food, clothing, shelter, and the love of his father. Almost all parents eagerly desire their rebellious children to be with them to be safe, even in their rebelling. This is not unlike the ‘made holy’ of 1 Corinthians 7:14. For the rebellious (unbeliever) to be inside a Christian family is to enjoy both closeness to God and a measure of spiritual protection, though this is distinct from salvation. But this rebellious son, like the unbelieving spouse of 1 Corinthians 7:15, is determined to go. Should he force him to stay? How strange that the Father allowed this rebel to leave! Instead, faced with the determined and foolish intentions of his son, the father was (strangely!) at peace. He was neither enslaved by his desire to keep his son close nor did he try to use the bond of family to do so. He did not ‘enslave’ his son with the truth that he had no right to leave. He let him go. But that was not the end. This father waited and watched for his son’s return. We could imagine that he prayed and sought God for his son—though that is not in the parable. Could it be otherwise? And as in 1 Corinthians 16, when his son did return, he did not merely greet him or even simply feed him. Instead, he was able and ready to receive him into the family through his repentance. This son was saved. Who could have known!? ‘For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?’ Paul’s three steps of reasoning for the mixed marriage that faces divorce, may follow the parable of the Prodigal Son.
If this observation is true, then not only does the ‘header’ of 1 Corinthians 7:10–11 argue against remarriage, but the similar biblical reasoning of the Prodigal Son may add some weight to that understanding. Surely, it does not settle the case. Even so, it may offer encouragement to those who face this tragedy: let the Believing Spouse pray unceasingly, waiting in hope for God to discipline and return their Prodigal Spouse in repentance. Saved! Then the believing spouse is free to welcome them home.
Rick Shenk, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Theology