God’s original law of marriage might be summed up simply as “one man, one wife, for life” (Genesis 2:24; Romans 7:1-4). Because of the hardness of their hearts, God permitted His people in the Old Testament to deviate from His plan. Polygamy was practised and divorce was permitted (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Malachi 2:14-16). When our Lord Jesus Christ came, He restored God’s original plan for marriage (Matthew 19:3-9).
The general law of Jesus on marriage and divorce is found in Mark 10:1-2 and Luke 16:18. The Lord allowed only one exception to this general law: “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery” (Matthew 19:9).
If one puts away his marriage partner, and marries another person, he is guilty of adultery (I Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21: Hebrews 13:4). If one marries a person who has been put away by another, he also commits adultery. The exception is “except it be for fornication.” If one’s marriage partner commits fornication, the one who has not committed fornication can divorce the fornicator and marry another. Divorce for any other cause is sinful!
1st Corinthians chapter 7 contains Paul’s answers to questions which were asked by the 1 Corinthians (7:1). These questions were not about God’s law of marriage and divorce. The church was under persecution. Under those circumstances, was it best for a person to be married at all? Verse 26 is the key to understanding Paul’s answers to the questions: “I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.”
Considering the “present distress” (time of persecution), Paul states: “It is not good for a man to touch a woman” (7:1). Even though it would be easier to be unmarried during a time of persecution, yet, it is better to marry than to commit fornication. Sexual activity outside of marriage is sin (7:2-5). Paul wished that everyone had the strength to remain unmarried and not be tempted. Because everyone was not that strong, he said they should marry (7:6-10).
Those who were already married should not separate. If a separation did take place, they did not have the right to marry another (7:10, 11). Concerning a believer married to an unbeliever, Paul said the marriage was a holy union. If it were not, then the children would be illegitimate. If the unbeliever in such a marriage refused to live with the Christian, the Christian was not bound to keep the marriage together (7:12-17).
Some may have become Christians after their marriages and wondered if they should remain with an unbeliever. One can be a Christian in any relationship as long as it is not sinful. If one is a slave or a free man, a Jew or a Gentile, married or unmarried, he could still be a Christian (7:17-24).
“What about virgins? Should they marry?” Because of persecution, it would be better not to marry. But if they married, it was not wrong (7:25-28). One who is married will have care and concern about his marriage partner and children. It will be more difficult for him in the time of persecution. Instead of marrying, Paul says it would be better to give oneself fully to the Lord’s work (7:29-35).
“What about a man who has a daughter who is old enough to marry?” It is all right if the daughter is married, but it is better for her not to marry (7:36-38).
“What about a woman whose husband is dead?” She is free to marry again, but she must marry a Christian. If a woman’s marriage partner dies, she would bring trouble upon herself to marry a pagan when pagans were persecuting Christians (7:39, 40).
In order to understand first Corinthians seven, we must remember several things:
1. God’s general law for marriage is “one man, one wife, for life.” There is only one exception to this.
2. Paul is answering specific questions asked by the Corinthians.
3. What Paul is saying is because it was a special time of persecution. He was not stating general rules dealing with the general laws for marriage which are found elsewhere in the New Testament.