Doug Van Meter - 10 September 2023
The Shadow of the Cross and the Saving of Marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10–16)
At the front of the main hall of our church building, there is a cross, high on the wall, directly above the pulpit. Many young couples were therefore married, quite literally, under the cross. But if you were married as a Christian, regardless of the venue, you were married under the shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ. In fact, whether married or not, as Paul will explain in the rest of the chapter, every circumstance in which the Lord has placed us is under the shadow of the cross. That is, the gospel informs every aspect of the Christian’s life. As we are learning, 1 Corinthians is not merely a church manual, addressing the various challenges of a local church. Rather, it is apostolic exhortation, imploring a local church to take seriously the gospel of Christ regardless of providential context (vv. 17–24).
People often refer to 1 Corinthians 7 as “the marriage chapter,” allegedly because Paul gives extensive teaching on the marital relationship. It is true that Paul addresses matters of marriage, including its intended permanence, but it is not a chapter exclusively or exhaustively addressing marriage. And, interestingly, though the chapter does address marriage, it does so within the larger context of singleness. Paul’s main emphasis in this chapter is on those who are not married. I think this is significant. First, Paul does not want his readers to absolutise singleness. It is not for everyone. Second, neither is marriage for everyone. It is generally viewed as the norm, but one should only marry having understood God’s rules for this gift. Failure to heed these rules harms spouses, but it harms the church as well. Be careful.
It is helpful to remember, as Eugene Peterson helpfully wrote, that “God, not our marital status, defines our life.” The Christian’s identity is in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is no less true for the married, who might be tempted to find their identity and security in their marriage and/or their children. It is no less true for single Christians, who might be tempted to find their identity and security in their freedom and/or their less familial-distracted life. The message of the cross informs every domain of our lives and will therefore radically portray a lifestyle inimical to the world’s view of both marriage and singleness. And it will do so in the context of the church family.
Speaking of church family, every church member needs to listen carefully to every section of 1 Corinthians 7, not merely to those verses that describe his or her situation in life. After all, being a church family means being concerned about every member of our family: single members and married members. In this study, we will focus on the latter. May each of us be equipped to help our married members to live under the shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ; the same shadow under which every member is called to live.
I have titled this study “The Shadow of the Cross and the Saving on Marriage” because I believe this is Paul’s point. There were some in the church at Corinth who were minimising the gift of marriage through both a hyper-spirituality and scriptural ignorance. Paul desires to rescue the biblical ordinance of marriage from wrongheaded assessments as well as from worldly perversions. He therefore aims to bring the shadow of the cross—the message of the cross—to bear its weighty influence on marriage. And as we will see in future studies, Paul will also bring the shadow of the cross to save singleness.
Concerning the text before us, addressing marriage, my thesis is that the message of the cross informs Paul’s instruction. I trust that we will see how the shadow of the cross empowers an honourable marriage (vv. 10–12), how it assures a holy marriage (vv. 13–14), and how it protects one in a hostile marriage (vv. 15–16).
The Shadow of the Cross Empowers an Honourable Christian Marriage
We learn in vv. 10–11 that the marital covenant matters. The shadow of the cross calls for the permanence of marriage. “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife” (vv. 10–11).
Keeping in mind all that Paul has written thus far, and reasonably assuming that he had addressed these matters during the eighteen months he was with them (Acts 18), we must consider this context behind their questions regarding marriage.
Having warned about sexual immorality, having corrected their erroneous idea that marital intimacy was only for procreation, and having made clear his preference for the single life (vv. 8–9), some, it seems, had jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the best way forward as Christians would be to end their marriage. Sometimes, well-meaning Christians can hold the strangest of views!
We should assume, from what Paul will say later, that he has in mind here two believers who are married.
We don’t know all that lay behind this mentality, but perhaps a hyper-spirituality had led to the fallacious conclusion that those who love Christ will be so loyal to him that it would be deemed disloyal to marry. Now that, having been converted out of paganism, they were seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness—to love God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength—they realised that the distractions arising from marital responsibilities were getting in the way of this goal, and so, with great spiritual zeal, divorce papers were flying.
As an aside, this is an example of what can happen when Scripture is not interpreted in accordance with Scripture. After all, in chapter 6, Paul had rebuked the church for going to the law courts to sort out interpersonal conflicts. This would surely cover divorce (which required a legal process in Roman, Greek, and even in Jewish cultures). So, if these believers were considering divorce, they would be guilty of ignoring the principles of chapter 6.
In 6:16, Paul quoted Genesis 2:24, which indicates a profound bond between a husband and wife, created and instituted by God himself. To therefore treat marriage with such an attitude of spiritual dismissal is clearly unwarranted. Brothers and sisters, chapter 6 presents a very strong argument that divorce—even when biblically permitted—should not be rashly pursued.
In summary, we need to learn the whole counsel of God, to think in accordance with the whole counsel of God, and to live in the light of the whole counsel of God. Failure to do so results in all kinds of weird and ruinous living.
Back to the Text
Paul makes it clear that he is not merely giving his opinion. Rather, his charge is backed by the authority of the Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ who has addressed this matter. Jesus taught that marriage is until death parts a husband and wife, and how this was God’s intention from the beginning (Mark 10). The lordship of Jesus Christ is to loom large in every area of the Christian’s life, including marriage. “What is implicit throughout the letter on every subject is made explicit here; the Corinthians are to live under Christ’s lordship” (Ciampa and Rosner).
The words “separate” and “divorce” both refer to divorce. Paul is not thinking of our Western idea of a temporary separation between a husband and wife in order to sort through their issues (which is at times a wise course of action). No, the word “separate” means to divorce. Probably the reason Paul uses two different words is that, in the ancient economy, including the Jewish world, women rarely had the right to divorce their husbands but husbands certainly had the power to do so. His point is that neither has the right to end the marriage covenant, and if they do, then the one divorcing must remain unmarried.
Why, if they wanted to divorce because they thought singleness was preferable, would they even be bothered by the injunction to “remain unmarried or else be reconciled”? I suppose because Paul wanted them to think long and hard about the decision they were contemplating. Breaking the marriage covenant is a serious breach of fidelity, with heavy consequences. They dare not treat marriage as a commitment they can easily run in and out of.
What about the Exception?
At this point we need to address what Jesus taught, and Paul’s silence, concerning the so-called exception clause as recorded in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Jesus made clear that the marriage covenant is violated, broken, breached, in the case of porneia, a generic term for sexual immorality. When a spouse violates the parameter of the marriage bed, then Jesus said that divorce is permissible. It is allowed, but note that it is not commanded. Divorce in such a situation may be the need, but it is not necessarily the necessity.
So, then, why does Paul not mention this here? I think that his pastoral heart is showing as he realises that, after all he has said about sexual immorality, some might be unnecessarily unsettled.
Many of these believers had been converted out of a morally corrupt culture. Sexual immorality had been part and parcel of their lives pre-Christian. Paul therefore was aware that some with either sensitive consciences (see chapter 8–10) or some who were struggling with the temptation to self-righteousness might stumble over this exception. Paul perhaps therefore decided that face-to-face counsel would be a better pastoral approach. David Prior says it well: “To mention porneia [sexual immorality, fornication] without the opportunity for pastoral counsel face to face with each couple might well have imperilled many good marriages.”
Chapter-and-versing situations is not necessarily the most helpful approach to difficult situations. When counselling one another, let us consider one another’s circumstances and stage of Christian maturity, including an understanding of Scripture. Beware of using the Bible as a mere rule book looking for technicalities.
Ellsworth summarises: “Paul says, ‘Stay married.’ They were not to allow themselves to be hoodwinked into thinking marriage consigned them to a life of second-class spirituality. They could be married and still be pleasing to the Lord. After all, marriage was instituted by God himself.”
Remember that marriage, like singleness, is God’s gift to individuals and to the church. Therefore, your marital status is for the benefit of the body of Christ. No, it will not make you a better Christian to be single. More on this when we look at vv. 17–24 next time. You are what you where you are and so be what you are meant to be, doing what you are meant to do.
Observing the long shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ, choose to follow Christ, dying to self along with your spouse, serving with your spouse, growing in Christ with your spouse. Choose to use your marriage to point others to the cross-empowered life. Choose to do the hard thing of marriage, following the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for his marriage to his Bride. Choose covenantal faithfulness over covenantal unfaithfulness.
The Shadow of the Cross Assures a Holy Christian Marriage
In vv. 13–14, Paul has in mind a Christian spouse married to an unbelieving spouse. He again counsels continued fidelity to the marriage covenant.
If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
(1 Corinthians 7:13–14)
The marriage covenant matters, it still governs the relationship between a believer and the unbeliever. And the shadow of the cross in such a marriage has a powerful effect. As Thiselton puts it, “One Christian in the family makes it a different family from wholly unbelieving families.” That is encouraging!
Before delving into Paul’s important instructions, we need to understand his statement in v. 12: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord).” Is Paul merely making a suggestion, which his readers can take or leave? No. Paul is saying that what he is writing is something that was not addressed by Jesus or found in preceding written revelation. As Paul concludes this chapter, he makes clear that his counsel was Spirit-given (v. 40). It is, in other words, authoritative.
Of course, we might ask, “Why does Paul address this situation at all?” After all, he just made the point that there is no justification for divorce. What a question! It seems that the concern was one of moral pollution. That is, some had the idea that to be married to an unbeliever was a marriage disapproved by God and therefore the godly response should be divorce. And though this was wrongheaded and required biblical instruction, nevertheless we can appreciate what was a godly concern. After all, living in the shadow of the cross, believers in this situation would wonder if the cross of Christ would be better honoured without them living with someone who rejected that cross.
Now, before delving into this, we need to understand that Paul was not endorsing a Christian marrying a non-Christian. That is both wrong and foolish.
Paul’s view of Christian marriage, including his concern about the potential and very real distractions that marriage can bring to Christian service, would not endorse adding the certain spiritual pressures of being married to an unbeliever. No, Paul was most certainly addressing a situation in which a spouse was converted after marriage while the other spouse remained an unbeliever. Young people, be very careful! Parents, be very alert! It is okay, even responsible, to say no.
Back to the Text
There are at least two issues underlying this matter.
First, most likely when the church was formed, some well-meaning Jewish believers were counselling their fellow members who were married to unbelievers that, as in Ezra 10, it would be acceptable—even perhaps expected by God—that they should end their marriage. Paul counsels, “No!” He says that their marriage is recognised by God. Jackman observes along this line, “‘Torah’ … forbade cross-religious marriages, but this new set of circumstances with the spread of the gospel in the Gentile world, now required new definitive instruction, which the apostle gives.”
Therefore, if the unbelieving spouse is willing to remain in the marriage, the believer is to willingly, and I might add happily, remain in the marriage. But Paul not only envisions a happy marital situation but more so, he envisions a holy marital situation. Which leads to the second issue underlying this question: the matter of moral pollution.
If a saint (a “holy one”) is married to a sinner (an “unholy one”), will not the saint be sinfully tainted? Paul answers, “No!” Using the phrase “made holy” twice in these verses, he argues that the marriage is set apart to God in a unique way. He argues that the unbelieving partner is “made holy” because, whether wanted or not, the shadow of the cross is present in the home.
Paul is not arguing that the unbeliever will be saved by osmosis. He is saying that, by virtue of a believing spouse, the marriage is “set apart” to God in a unique way. The marriage is not fully a Christian marriage, but Christ is more present there than in a marriage without Jesus Christ. Rather than the unbeliever affecting the Christian as a contagion, the believing spouse affects a consecrating impact in the marriage. And that is glorious.
A third reason behind the confusion of some in this area is due to what Paul said in chapter 6 concerning the defilement of God’s temple (the believer’s body) committing sexual immorality. Some may have erroneously concluded that engaging in intimate marital relations with an unbeliever would be a defilement of the temple of the Holy Spirit. This instruction was therefore necessary.
Paul is saying something profound here: God is quite at home in a home that is spiritually split. That is, God recognises the legitimacy of the marriage. Marriage is a creation institution that transcends the spiritual status of the spouses. The rules of marriage apply to unbelievers as well as to believers. That is, the marriage covenant stands even when the home is spiritually split.
Again, the shadow of the cross is unavoidable in a spiritually mixed home. The more the believer intentionally lives under its shadow, the more apparent—and inescapable—will this shadow be to the unbeliever. In such a situation, we can say that God has “moved in,” and his presence is very much to be noticed. In some cases, it will be a positive influence as the believing spouse displays a supernatural and sacrificial love.
The believing spouse may bring the influence of the Holy Spirit with his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. This is hard to ignore. Further, the believing spouse will be in a position in which he or she will bring God’s wisdom to bear upon situations. Yes, the marriage is sanctified. Paul argues that, if this were not so, any children would be “unclean.”
We should see here that Paul is both giving dignity to children and providing encouragement that the children also fall under the influence of the shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ. You can raise a godly seed even though the spiritual influence is one-sided (see 2 Timothy 1:3–5).
Less than Ideal, but Holy and Happy
I have known many spiritually divided homes that have been happy, though less than ideal. It has not been easy. After all, to be married to someone who is in one kingdom while you are in another has its tensions. I have heard the testimony, more than once, particularly from an unsaved husband, that living with a believing wife was difficult since it was clear from her prayer life, from her church life, and from her faithful following that there was another Man in the house. Some unbelieving spouses can live with this, and, if they are willing to do so, the believing spouse must do all they can to maintain the marriage.
But next, Paul addresses a situation where the holy marriage is not so happy.
The Shadow of the Cross can Make a Hostile Christian Marriage
Here we see that the covenant is not calloused. God knows that the shadow of the cross can lead to a painful marriage and he provides comfort for such trauma. “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (vv. 15–16).
The apostle Paul did not write from an ivory tower, disconnected from the painful realities of living in a broken world. He was well aware that a Christian spouse, despite doing everything right, is not guaranteed a happy, permanent marriage. He knew that fidelity to Christ may, in fact, result in the dissolution of marriage. Loyalty to Christ may result in disloyalty from the unbelieving spouse. Paul perhaps wrote these words reminiscing a painful experience with tears falling on the page, for he was most likely previously married. If so, he was either widowed, or perhaps his wife proved hostile to the marriage covenant because of Paul’s conversion to Christ. He would not have been the first, and he certainly would not have been not the last.
The teaching is straightforward: If the unbelieving spouse is hostile to the marriage covenant and seeks a divorce, the believing spouse is not held accountable to the marriage covenant once divorced. In the words of Barrett, “It seems clear that the Christian partner is not bound to ‘a mechanical retention of a relationship that the other partner wishes to abandon.’ The innocent spouse is freed from the marriage bond (and in my view, they are free to remarry, ‘only in the Lord’, v. 39).”
As an encouragement Paul adds, “God has called you to peace.” What does this mean?
Certainly Paul is not counselling peace at any price, nor is he suggesting that, when conflict arises in a marriage because of the shadow of the cross, the Christian should resignedly acquiesce. What he is saying is that the Christian spouse, living in a state of constant conflict because the unbelieving spouse is hell-bent on abandoning the marriage, should not feel the burden to keep the marriage together at all cost. He is saying that the Lord wills peace over persecution. Peterson paraphrases, “God has called us to make the best of it, as peacefully as we can.” But if the unbeliever rejects this, then, as Morris concludes, “The certain strain is not justified by the uncertain result.” Let them depart. That is the results are not up to you and neither should you be idolizing marriage.
A couple of observations are in order.
First, Paul assumes that the one abandoning the marriage is an unbeliever—regardless of profession of faith.
Christians are what they are because of the covenant faithfulness of their Lord, and therefore it is a given that Christians will be covenantally faithful. The lordship of Jesus Christ is to be honoured in how one treats his or her spouse. If the message of the cross does not inform how you treat your spouse, then you have not yet been saved by the cross and therefore you cannot live under the shadow of the cross.
When you threaten to divorce your spouse (assuming a non-exception clause situation), you are behaving like an unbeliever. You have ceased to be either honourable (vv. 10–12) or holy (vv. 13–14).
Second, if you are married to an unbeliever who is hostile because of your fidelity to Jesus Christ, do all you can to alleviate the tension while never compromising the truth. Taking up your cross to follow Jesus in such a situation will be painful, but it will be pleasing to the Lord. Again, the results are not your responsibility. Seek help in this. Seek wise counsel. Rely on your church family to help you within your family.
Third, as Paul makes clear in the closing words, if you are married to an unbeliever and your marriage has turned hostile, seek to be a peacemaker. Not a peace-lover but rather a peace-maker. That is, keep following Christ, letting your light shine before your spouse and in your home. This may lead to your spouse’s conversion, being reconciled to God, experiencing peace with God (1 Peter 3:1–2; Romans 5:1).
But being a peacemaker may mean that the marriage ends. Though the unbelieving spouse does not experience he who is our peace (Ephesians 2:14); nevertheless, if he or she ends the marriage, there will be the peace of the absence of conflict.
Fourth, with reference to the previous point, there are no guarantees. Though the wording is debated as to whether this is a positive or a negative possibility, Thiselton helpfully suggests it is both, “Paul may well be addressing both sides, with the encouragement ‘you never know …,’ and the warning ‘you cannot assume.’” Either way, trusting God is your responsibility.
Fifth, if your marriage has turned hostile, ask for help—and don’t delay doing so. I know of a church that has signs in its building, especially in the women’s bathroom, saying, “If you are experiencing abuse, please speak to someone in this church.” In these days of varying forms of gender-based violence, this offer of help is increasingly important.
We would be dangerously naïve to assume that this is not a reality represented in our churches. Statistically, there are wives in churches every Sunday living in hostile marriages, where husbands injuriously hurt their wives, whether physically, verbally, emotionally, or even spiritually. Speak up by speaking to someone. You may feel ashamed, but you do not need to be. This church family is here for its family. The address “brother” or “sister” is not mere window dressing; it is an identity that carries with it a biblically mandated responsibility. If you have children, they need to know that this church family does not endorse what is happening in their family.
Perhaps you are in a biblically healthy marriage. Perhaps you are in a tense because spiritually mixed yet relatively happy marriage. Or perhaps, sadly, you are in a hostile marriage. Regardless, the shadow of the cross looms large, powerful, and essential.
In a healthy marriage, thank God for the message of the cross. It is because of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return for his bride that you can love your wife sacrificially. It is because of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return that you can submit to your husband. And equally, it is because of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return, that, as a single person, you will enjoy the love, care, provision, and promised wedding day when he returns.
In a tense, spiritually-mixed marriage, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and powerful intercession empower you to persevere in your marriage covenant despite being on a completely different spiritual page than your spouse.
In a hostile marriage, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and certain commitment to you provide the strength you need to love the one you’re with. And if the one you are with chooses to no longer be with you, this same message of the cross will provide you with all you need to experience his peace.
Brothers and sisters, the message of the cross saves souls, and it also saves the gift of marriage from compromise, from confusion, and from collapse.
However, it will not save marriage from conflict, not in this sinful world, at least. However, by looking to the ultimate marriage of Jesus Christ to his bride, we are empowered to handle those conflicts with grace, wisdom, strength, and patience. So, if married, persevere under the shadow of the cross. And if not married, persevere knowing that the shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ does not discriminate. Rather, the gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes. Do you?