Questions From Readers
● If an unbelieving mate separates from the believing mate, would there not be a basis for dissolving the marriage Scripturally, in view of 1 Corinthians 7:15, where Paul says: “ . . . a brother or a sister is not in servitude under such circumstances, but God has called you to peace”?
No, the apostle is not discussing divorce here, but merely reassuring the Christian that he or she need not feel disapproved if the unbeliever deliberately departs despite the conscientious efforts of the believer to dwell with the unbelieving mate in peace.
Paul had just encouraged the believing mate not to leave if the unbelieving one “is agreeable to dwelling with” the Christian. Why? “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in relation to his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in relation to the brother; otherwise, your children would really be unclean, but now they are holy.”—1 Cor. 7:12-14.
In view of this, the question naturally would arise as to what situation this would leave the believer in, if the unbelieving mate departed despite the good efforts of the believer. Should he or she now feel disapproved by God or feel that the children are unholy because of the forced separation over which the believer has no control?
No, for the apostle answers: “But if the unbelieving one proceeds to depart, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not in servitude under such circumstances, but God has called you to peace.” Having done all that is reasonably possible to avoid a separation, the believing one need feel no responsibility to chase after the unbeliever in an attempt to fulfill a “servitude” to that one. If the unbeliever had stayed and was willing to dwell with the believer in peace, the believer would be in “servitude” to fulfill the marriage responsibilities. But the apostle recognizes that the forced separation makes it impossible for the believer to do so.
The Christian now has a measure of peace in which to serve Jehovah, even though the separation will normally cause some emotional and physical adjustments. Moreover, trying to force a reconciliation would likely increase the strained relations. Perhaps the unbeliever will desire to return in time. This would be desirable, with the goal of living together peacefully and with the hope that the unbeliever will become a fellow believer. This would be in accord with the general instructions given earlier in 1 Co 7 verses 10 and 11, that, in the event of separation, they should “remain unmarried or else make up again.”
Meanwhile, this would not prevent the wife, if she is the believer, from taking legal action for the support of herself and her children, if she felt this advisable and necessary. The Scriptures, and often the law of the land, place upon the father and husband the responsibility to support his family.
Jesus did not say that it would be all right for the believer to remarry if the unbelieving mate departed from the believer and obtained a legal divorce. And the apostle Paul does not go beyond what Jesus said by giving here what Catholic authorities call the “Pauline privilege.” Paul is arguing strongly in favor of preserving the marriage tie, not breaking it. Death obviously breaks the marriage bond. But while both mates are alive, only “fornication” (Greek, por·neiʹa) gives the faithful mate a basis for true divorce and freedom to remarry.—Matt. 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:39.
Thus, contrary to the way some translators interpret them, Paul’s next words, in 1 Co 7 verse 16, are not an encouragement to the believer to view the departure as an opportunity to get completely free from the unbeliever. There he says: “For, wife, how do you know but that you will save your husband? Or, husband, how do you know but that you will save your wife?” These rhetorical questions are not designed to suggest, as some claim, that the believer is taking too much of a risk in trying to preserve the marriage with the hope of aiding the unbelieving one to salvation, and that it would be wiser to divorce the unbeliever while circumstances make it possible because of his departure. To the contrary, Paul is emphasizing the benefits of remaining with the unbeliever.
In 1 Co 7 verse 16, then, he is actually summing up his counsel to those in an unequal yoke by showing that, if a mate stays with the believer, if he is willing, this may result in his becoming a believer and gaining salvation. What a strong and loving reason for not departing! And this is in harmony with the letter and spirit of the rest of the Christian Greek Scriptures, including the admonition of Peter to Christian wives that their unbelieving husbands “may be won without a word through the conduct of their wives.”—1 Pet. 3:1-6.
As living proof that this is the correct understanding of the apostle’s counsel, consider God’s blessing upon the many cases among Jehovah’s Christian witnesses where the believing mate has remained with the unbelieving mate. Yes, there are quite a few instances where the believer even endured temporary separation, only to see the former unbeliever later become a fellow worshiper of Jehovah and now to walk together with him or her on the road to everlasting life.