In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul addresses a situation involving abandonment. He says:
“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.”
Some claim that Paul cannot be giving another exception here because this would contradict Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:9. However, as we examine this passage closer, we will realize that Paul was not contradicting Jesus’ teaching. Consider the following logic and reasoning.
The context in which Paul is writing is dealing with a different situation. Jesus was speaking to married persons who were actually doing the divorcing. Paul is addressing someone who was being divorced and abandoned by their spouse. These are two different situations.
It is also interesting to note that the word translated “except” in Matthew 19:9 doesn’t intrinsically exclude other conditions. Consider the word Jesus used in Matthew 19:9 for except.
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except (μὴ) for sexual immorality…” (Mt. 19:9a).
This is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 12:4. In that verse, Jesus is speaking about the Old Testament rule that states only priests can eat the holy bread. Jesus used the same word when He said:
“how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, except (μὴ) for the priests?”
Even though the exception Jesus alluded to is said to be just for the priests, there was another exception in Leviticus 22:11:
“But if the priest buys a person with his money, he may eat it; and one who is born in his house may eat his food.”
Here is the point. Both Jesus and the priests in the days of David realized that there were other unstated exceptions to the rule even though Jesus used the same word translated “except.” If they had no other means of getting bread, they are allowed to eat it. So too, David, without a means of getting bread for himself and his men, deserved the compassion of eating it. That is Jesus’ whole point in the Matthew 12 passage. Sabbath rules, though seeming to be absolute, had unstated exceptions. This is why the statement of “unless” or “except” could also suffer another exception. Such would be the case with Matthew 19:9.
Back to 1 Corinthians 7:15. When considering the context, 1 Corinthians 7:15 mirrors the protective law of Exodus 21:10-11. If a man did not provide for his wife’s food, clothing or her marriage rights, then he was to let her go with a divorce certificate that would allow her to marry another. In other words, if the marriage obligation right was not being fulfilled, the partner could go free to marry another. Paul’s negative formulation of the phrase “In such cases the brother or the sister is not enslaved” makes precisely the same point as the positive formulation in the Jewish bill of divorce of, “You are free to marry any man.”
“Paul’s words recall the exact language for freedom to remarry in ancient divorce contracts, and his ancient readers, unable to be confused by modern writers’ debates on the subject, would have understood his words thus…” (Heth, Jesus on Divorce: How My Mind Has Changed).
The alleged argument(s) against this understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:15 is based upon the Greek word Paul uses for “bondage” and the Greek language. It is argued that the word ‘douloo’ (the word used in 1 Cor. 7:15 translated “under bondage”) is never used in the literature of the day or in the Bible in reference to the marriage bond or to indicate freedom from the marriage bond. Furthermore, it is argued that Paul is saying that, “you were never under this kind of bondage to begin with.” These arguments are faulty for several reasons:
- First, douloo” is derived from “deo.” They are two forms of the same term.
- Second, Paul uses this word (δοῦλος) when speaking of our relationship with Christ (Romans 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Col. 1:7, etc.) and the church is said to be the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22-33).
- Third, in the Old Testament, the counterpart in Hebrew is “amah” which means woman-slave and it is used of a concubine in Exodus 21:7 where a girl is placed in bondage to be the concubine (slave-wife) of the master (v. 8) or his son (v. 9). In Genesis 15, Hagar, a shiphchah, becomes Abram’s wife. That term designates a slave-wife. In 1 Corinthians 7:2, Paul has made it a point to say that each party “owns” the other. That is why they should not deny each other sex in the face of sexual temptation to have it with someone else. The terms used, autos and idios, signify ownership. A slave is owned. Husbands own their wives and wives own their husbands. Furthermore, this harmonizes with the tenor of this chapter as Paul uses the word eleutheros which means ‘freedom from slavery’ in a marriage context in 1 Corinthians 7.39 and Romans 7.3.
- Fourth, the perfect tense of douloo, “not under bondage,” implies that they were under bondage, but that an action has taken place which has been completed and is an ongoing freedom and frees them from that bond. Deo in 1 Corinthians 7:28-29 is a reference to the bond of marriage. “Are you released…” i.e., no longer bound. Were you bound, = were you under bondage? Again, deo refers to the obligation itself. Douloo refers to the condition experienced in that obligation. The partners “own” each other. They are bound to each other. Their condition was one of bondage (1 Cor. 7:4). If the unbelieving partner abandoned them, then they were no longer under bondage.
Paul’s teaching is from God (1 Cor. 14:37). It harmonizes with everything that Jesus taught. When we put the teachings together, we find that if one’s spouse has been sexually unfaithful, then they can lawfully divorce and marry another (Mt. 19:9). If one’s spouse has abandoned them (Ex. 21:10-11; 1 Cor. 7:15), then they are no longer under bondage. The first century readers would have immediately understood what this would have meant.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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