1 Corinthians 7:10–16—Does Paul contradict what Jesus said about divorce?

Problem: This passage from 1 Corinthians talks about a Christian who has an unbelieving mate. At one point, Paul says, “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases” (v. 15). Jesus said in Matthew 5:32 and 19:8–9 that one can divorce a spouse only in the case of marital unfaithfulness. Does Paul advocate divorce or abandonment?

Solution: There is no discrepancy between what Paul says and the words of the Lord Jesus. First, Paul says that if one spouse is a Christian and the other isn’t, and if that unbelieving spouse does not want to leave, the Christian should not insist they do (vv. 12–13). Second, Paul says that if the wife leaves her husband, she should remain unmarried (v. 11). This would also hold true for a husband who leaves his wife.

Also, Paul does not tell the spouse to divorce or remarry if the unbelieving spouse leaves. Rather, he suggests that they remain unmarried (v. 11), undoubtedly in hope for reconciliation. God’s ideal for marriage is one man and one woman united till death (1 Cor. 7:2; cf. Rom 7:1–2). Hence, as long as there is hope for reunion, both partners are obligated to work to that end. This accords completely with what Jesus said about permanence of marriage (in Matt. 5:33 and 19:7–9).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.