Marriage and Divorce
B. If You Are Married to an Unbeliever
During his earthly ministry, Jesus never spoke to this situation. This is an extremely important point. What Jesus said about divorce and remarriage applied only to believers married to believers. So, when Paul gave instructions for believers married to unbelievers, he made it clear that “I speak, not the Lord” (1Cor. 7:12).
There are, according to Paul, two kinds of unbelieving spouses: the one who is “pleased to dwell” with you and the one who is not “pleased to dwell” with you. If the unbeliever is pleased to dwell with you, then you are not at liberty to leave (1Cor. 7:12-13). If the unbeliever is not pleased to dwell with you “and departs”, then you are at liberty to end the marriage (1Cor. 7:15-17). But Paul gave you a standard by which to determine whether or not your unbelieving spouse is really pleased to dwell with you. He said (1Cor. 7:14):
The [pleased-to-dwell-with] unbelieving husband is sanctified by the [believing] wife, and the [pleased-to-dwell-with] unbelieving wife is sanctified by the [believing] husband. Else were your children unclean. But now they are holy.
Now, we all know that God is the only one who can sanctify an unbeliever. No wife can sanctify her sinner husband, and no husband can sanctify his sinner wife. The point Paul is trying to make is that if your unbelieving spouse is truly “pleased to dwell” with you, he will at some point follow you into the kingdom of God. That is the only way given in the Scriptures by which you may judge whether or not your unbelieving spouse is truly “pleased to dwell with” you.
If the unbeliever follows you into sanctification, then he was indeed pleased to dwell with you. On the other hand, if he rejects sanctification, he is not pleased to dwell with you. The issue never gets any more complicated than that.
In the eastern part of North Carolina some years ago, a woman in a Pentecostal church was married to an unbelieving man. He was one of the filthiest, most immoral men in town, and the dear sister was constantly in despair over his lifestyle and the resulting shame and hurt for her and her children. Yet, when she sought direction from the church, she was told to ask her husband if he was pleased to dwell with her. And if he said “yes”, she was told, she would have to remain with him as his wife.
Of course, whenever she asked her wretched husband if he was pleased to dwell with her, he would say yes. So, dutifully, she stayed with the nasty whoremonger, bearing what she thought was the burden of the Lord. Finally, her situation grew so desperately evil that, in spite of being condemned by the church, she left the man. Only when she was taught the truth was she relieved of the condemnation that Christians had heaped upon her aching heart.
In another case, in which I became personally involved, after the fact, Sister Louise (not her real name) was married to an abusive drunken unfaithful sinner. They had both been sinners when they married, but Louise had been converted. The Spirit was telling her all along that she was free to leave, but her pastor was telling her all along that she was responsible for sanctifying her husband. Louise tried with all that was within her to be a dutiful wife and a good mother to her two very small children but nothing she did had any good effect on him at all. If anything, he grew more evil in time.
Sometimes, when Louise was leaving to go to a prayer meeting her little girl would behave very badly, in Louise’s judgment, but at least at those times her husband did help her calm the child down and encouraged her to go on out and attend the meeting. It was several years after Louise’s husband drank himself to death one night, that she learned that her little girl had not been acting badly at all. The child’s protests at her mother leaving her to go to a prayer meeting, she learned, were pleas for help, for the wicked man was molesting her when Louise was gone. If Louise had followed the Spirit instead of the instructions of her foolish pastor, her child may have escaped her father’s cruel abuse.
Louise stopped attending services at that church when she discovered that her pastor, the man who had been advising her concerning her moral duty toward her husband, was himself being unfaithful to his wife. When I met her, she was one of the most wounded souls I have ever known, but she learned that the love of Jesus is greater than anything this world can inflict upon us. Still, how much better her life would have been if she had been taught the truth from the beginning.
The simple truth she learned was this: Paul did not tell the believing spouse that she must stay with her unbelieving spouse if he says he is pleased to dwell with you. That was not what Paul taught. He said you are to stay with your unbelieving spouse if he is pleased to dwell with you. And then Paul explained how you could tell if your unbelieving spouse is pleased to live with you. Of course, a whoremongering husband will say that he is pleased to dwell with his godly wife. With her as his wife, he can go and do as he pleases and not worry about what she is doing in the meantime. Such wicked men too often work together with ignorant pastors to make a precious saint’s life miserable.
I know of one situation in which a man brought a woman into his home to live, while his wife was living there, too – and still that believing wife was told by her pastor she had to stay with him! Such women need to be taught that God is not pleased for His daughters to live in such degrading conditions.
These are just some of the stories that I could tell. As I said in the beginning, there are few areas of life in which pastors themselves inflict more pain by ignorance of the truth than in the area of marriage and divorce.
"If the unbelieving depart," wrote Paul, "let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such a case" (1Cor. 7:15). The word “bondage” here, as in other places (i.e. 1Cor. 7:39; Rom. 7:23), means “bound” in a legal sense; that is, not permitted by the law of God to marry another. So, what Paul is teaching is that if your unbelieving spouse leaves you, then you are free to pursue life as you will, either alone or with a mate in Christ. You are no longer bound by God to your marriage with that unbeliever.
The sole reason God would even want such a marriage to continue would be to save the unbeliever, anyway. If he does not value the mercy being shown to him, then let him go. I have heard the never-remarry-under-any-circumstance teachers interpret Paul’s phrase, “not in bondage”, to mean that the believer may no longer be obligated to perform the ordinary duties of marriage, but he or she is still bound to that marriage and may never remarry. This is contrary to both Scripture and reason.
If “bondage” in Romans 7:2 means you are forbidden to marry another, as it clearly does, then “not under bondage” in 1Corinthians 7:15 must mean the opposite; that is, you are free to marry another. There is no reason for us to try to squeeze any other meaning out of that easily understood phrase.
But I want to give to the word “depart” a wider definition than the Reader may have in mind. I believe that if an unbelieving spouse gambles away the family’s money, he has departed. I believe that if the unbelieving spouse physically abuses the believer, he has departed. I believe that if the unbelieving spouse sexually abuses the children, he has departed. And I believe that if the unbelieving spouse commits any other crimes of equal seriousness, or breaks the vows upon which any legitimate marriage is founded, he has, in fact, departed. And “if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such a case.”
That said, let me re-emphasize the fact that you must give time to your unbelieving spouse, even if he acts badly to your godly lifestyle. If you both were sinners when you married, then you have become someone he did not marry, and that is not his fault. You must be patient. Any truly just person will, under such circumstances, give the unbeliever time to adjust.
Sometimes, the misbehaving spouse is not actually resisting the call of God. He is simply testing you to see if the change in you is genuine or if it is just a “phase” through which you are passing. God may give the unbeliever years to come to Him, especially if the believing spouse fails to be the faithful witness he or she should be. You must stay close enough to Jesus to be able to discern if and when your heavenly Father tells you it is time to move on.
But leaving is not ever the first option. And permission to leave the unbeliever will probably never be given if you fail to treat your unbelieving spouse with love and dignity. Your hope must be for your marriage to succeed, to the glory of God, and for your spouse to come to know the peace of Christ.
The instructions given to saints concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage work for our benefit only as we follow them in charity and good faith. God has called us to peace. “So far as your part is concerned,” Paul taught, “live peaceably with all men.” This commandment applies most of all to your relationship with your spouse.
As we have seen, the will of God concerning the moral conduct of His children is unquestionably clear. We need not belabor the point. The cloudiness comes when ignorant men lay burdens upon God’s saints which are not of the Lord, “thinking to do Him a service.” Many believers are married to unbelievers today and are not being told the truth as to either their responsibilities or their options. As a result, many are ashamed to feel what they feel, to think what they think, and to do what, in many instances, the Spirit of the Lord is leading them to do. The truth about your marital responsibilities as a believer married to an unbeliever, and the knowledge of your options, will set you free to live happily, according to the will of your very good heavenly Father.
Marriage between a believer and unbeliever should never take place. If you are a child of God who has rebelled against the will of your heavenly Father and married an unbeliever, you have sinned. In some such cases, it could be that the only way to repent is simply to get out of the ungodly marriage, as God once forced certain Israelites to do after they rebelled against God’s commandment to abstain from marrying Gentiles (Ezra 9, 10; Neh. 13:23-31). But only God can tell you if that is His will in your case.