Was Paul Soft on Divorce?

Because Paul endorsed a gracious policy on remarriage, does that mean he was also soft on divorce? No, Paul was clearly opposed to divorce in general. Earlier in the same chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, he laid down a law on divorce that harmonizes with God’s hatred of divorce:

But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. 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? Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches (1 Cor. 7:10-17).

Note that Paul first addressed believers who are married to believers. They should not divorce, of course, and Paul states that this is not his instruction, but the Lord’s instruction. And that certainly agrees with everything we’ve considered in the Bible so far.

Here is where it gets interesting. Paul was obviously realistic enough to realize that even believers might divorce in rare cases. If that occurs, Paul stated that the person who divorced his spouse should remain unmarried or be reconciled to his or her spouse. (Although Paul gives these specific instructions to wives, I assume the same rules would apply to husbands.)

Again, what Paul writes does not surprise us. He first laid down God’s law regarding divorce, but is intelligent enough to know that God’s law might not always be obeyed. So when the sin of divorce occurs between two believers, he gives further instructions. The person who divorced his spouse should remain unmarried or be reconciled to his or her spouse. That would certainly be the best thing in the event of divorce between believers. As long as they both remain unmarried, there is hope of their reconciliation, and that would be best. Of course, if one of two remarries, that ends the hope and possibility of reconciliation. (And obviously, if they had committed an unpardonable sin by divorce, there would be little reason for Paul to tell them to remain unmarried or be reconciled.)

Do you suppose that Paul was intelligent enough to know that his second directive to divorced believers might not always be obeyed? I would think so. Perhaps he gave no further directive to divorced believers because he expected that true believers would follow his first directive to not divorce, and thus only for extremely rare cases was his second directive even needed. Surely true followers of Christ, if they had marital problems, would do all they could to preserve their marriage. And surely a believer who, after every attempt to preserve the marriage, felt he or she had no alternative but to divorce, surely that believer out of personal shame and desire to honor Christ would not consider remarrying anyone else, and would still hope for reconciliation. It seems to me that the real problem in the modern Church regarding divorce is that there is such a high percentage of false believers, people who have never truly believed in and thus submitted to the Lord Jesus.

It is quite clear from what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7 that God has higher expectations of believers, people who are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, than He does of unbelievers. Paul wrote, as we read, that believers should not divorce their unbelieving spouses as long as their unbelieving spouses are willing to live with them. Once again, this directive does not surprise us, as it lines up perfectly with everything else we’ve read in Scripture on the subject. God is against divorce. Paul goes on to say, however, that if the unbelieving one wants to divorce, the believer is to allow it. Paul knows that the unbeliever is not submitted to God, and so he doesn’t expect the unbeliever to act like a believer. May I add that when a non-believer consents to live with a believer, it would be a good indication that either the non-believer is potentially open to the gospel, or the believer is backslidden or a phony Christian.

Now, who would say that the believer who has been divorced by an unbeliever is not free to remarry? Paul never says such a thing, as he did in the case of two believers who were divorced . We would have to wonder why God would be opposed to the remarriage of the believer who had been divorced by an unbeliever. What purpose would that serve? Yet such an allowance apparently stands in opposition to what Jesus said about remarriage: “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32). This, again, makes me suspect that we have misinterpreted what Jesus was trying to communicate.