Art Toombs Ministries 

Online Bible Commentary

Permission for Divorce

1 Corinthians 7:12 But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 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? (NKJV)

In the preceding passage Paul has addressed the subject of marital separation between two Christians. God permits this separation, with the goal of reconciling the marriage. Now in this passage he addresses marital separation when only one party in the marriage is a Christian.

Paul prefaces this commandment by noting that Jesus did not specifically address this situation during His ministry on earth (v. 12a). This is likely because Jesus did not approve of such a marriage. He did not believe that two people should be “unequally yoked” in marriage (2 Cor. 6:14).

However, Paul’s writings are “the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). So his writings in this passage are commandments of the Lord even though they may not have been specifically taught during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Also, we must remember that Paul was in “Arabia”, the desert east of the Jordan River, for three years consulting not with “flesh and blood” (Gal. 1:7). This leads us to believe that he may have been under the consultation of Jesus during this time, where more teaching may have been revealed.

In this passage, Paul commands that a Christian should not divorce a non-Christian spouse just because he or she is not a Christian, as long as the non-Christian continues “to live with” their Christian spouse (v. 12b-13).  

Christians are sanctified, set apart for the Lord. Now Paul claims that a non-Christian married to a Christian is also “sanctified” (v. 14a).

The non-Christian is not sanctified in the same way as the Christian, however. The non-Christian has been sanctified by the Lord in their role as being “one-flesh” with their Christian mate (Genesis 2:24). Their children are sanctified in this same way because they are the product of this union (v. 14c).

In the last two verses of this passage, Paul distinguishes the difference between marital separation between two Christians and marital separation between a Christian and a non-Christian. When two Christians are separated Paul calls for the Christians to reconcile the marriage.

On the other hand, when a Christian and a non-Christian are married Paul allows for the Christian to let the non-Christian “depart” the marriage, if that is their wish (v. 15a). The Greek word translated here “depart” is the word chorizo, which means “depart, put (away), or separate”.

If the usage here is “to separate or to put away”, the meaning would not necessarily dictate which partner physically left the other. The non-Christian could “put away” the Christian and the Christian would have to be the one to physically leave the house. For example, the non-Christian main bread winner of the house could cause the separation by ordering their Christian mate to leave. It is not who physically left the other, but rather who caused the separation, as indicated by Paul’s words “willing to live with” (vv. 12,13).

Therefore, if the non-Christian causes the separation from the Christian, the Christian “is not under bondage” (v. 15b). The Christian is permitted to divorce the non-Christian. And the Christian is free to remarry.  

“God has called us to peace” (v 15c). There is no peace because we do not know if the non-Christian will ever come to Christ, or if they will just be a force to keep us from coming closer to Him (v 16).

In summary, God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). However, He permits divorce, and remarriage, if a mate is unfaithful (Mt. 5:32). Here Paul gives a second permission from God to allow a Christian to divorce. They may divorce, and remarry, if their non-Christian mate separates from them.

This issue is complicated by the fact that we do not always know if our marriage partner is really a Christian. Only God knows the human heart. We must bathe this issue in prayer, over time, when determining if we should divorce our mate who has separated from us. Often their actions will reveal their true identity and will give us God’s answer to this difficult question.