Not Under Bondage, I Corinthians 7:15

“Not Under Bondage,” a controversial little phrase and one that I have wrestled with perhaps as much as I have with any phrase in the Bible.

Let’s first get the…

Context

 7:1, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote…”

In the first 6 chapters Paul was addressing issues in the Corinthian congregation that he had heard reports about (1:11; 5:1). But here at chapter 7 he begins to address things that apparently the Corinthians had asked about in a letter to him.

It would be nice if we had that letter that the Corinthians sent to Paul. Then we could know exactly what all they were asking about and it might clarify the meaning of some of things Paul says in this chapter. But we don’t have that letter. We can derive from what Paul says here that at least one of their questions was about whether it is better to be celibate or sexually active in marriage.

“… it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

In other words, it’s good to live celibate; it’s good to abstain from all sexual activity even in marriage. This may have been what some of the Corinthians were thinking. And Paul begins this discussion by first agreeing the idea.

Later in the chapter Paul will mention some of his reasons for viewing celibacy as good. In v26 he says it’s good not to make any dramatic changes in your life like getting married right now “in view of the present distress.” Hard times were ahead. Perhaps he means the persecution is about to get much worse. And in difficult times you don’t want to pile on the additional stress of getting married and adjusting to married life. Also, in the time of persecution that lied ahead for them it would probably be easier to stay faithful if they stayed single. Single people have fewer concerns than those with spouses and children. And in v32-35 he gives another reason why it’s good to be single. There he talks about how you can just serve the Lord without distraction. Probably for those same reasons Paul begins this chapter agreeing with some there in Corinth saying, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

v2, “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.

So though there are advantages to a single and celibate life, Paul says it’s unwise for most to try to do that. For most, when their sexual desires are not being fulfilled in marriage, there will be great temptation to fulfill those desires elsewhere in sexual immorality. Paul says that he doesn’t really have a struggle with sexual temptation, which he considered to be a gift from God. So he can handle being single without a problem. But few are gifted in that way like him. So he advises that each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband as a safeguard against immorality, and that husbands and wives should provide sexual fulfillment for each other.

At v8 Paul begins to address different categories of Christians grouped by marital status.

v8, “But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

It’s good to just stay single in view of the present distress (v26) and for undistracted devotion to the Lord (v35). But if sexual purity will be a struggle as a single person, then it’s better to marry.

v10, “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

When he says “not I, but the Lord” he appears to mean that the Lord already gave us this teaching, and this is just what the Lord already taught on the issue during His earthly ministry.

This is in essence the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. Mark 10:11-12, Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” Luke 16:18, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.” So those passages say that remarriage after divorce is an adulterous relationship as far as God is concerned. The divorced are still bound in God’s eyes (Rom 7:2-3; I Cor 7:39). They’re not permitted to go be with anyone else. Now, that’s a general rule. We know in Matthew 19:9 Jesus mentions an exception. He says, “except for fornication” (except when your spouse is sexually unfaithful to you).

So Paul just puts the Lord’s general teaching in different words here when he says “Don’t divorce, but if you do, you’ve got 2 options, (1) remain unmarried or (2) be reconciled to your spouse.” You can’t go be with somebody else because that would be adultery according to the word of the Lord.

v12, “But to the rest I say…

What or who is “the rest“? Some people want to say he means, “But to the rest of your questions”. But that doesn’t fit, because this falls in a list of Paul addressing different categories of people in the church. v8, “to the unmarried and to widowsv10, “to the married”. Now v12, “to the rest“. This is a category of people. And this category of people are clearly from what follows believers married to unbelievers.

This means that mixed marriages were not being addressed in v10-11. In v10-11 he was addressing believers married to believers. Now in v12-16 he is addressing believers married to unbelievers.

“… I say, not the Lord…

What does he mean? Well, if in v10 when he said, “not I, but the Lord,” he meant the Lord addressed this during His earthly ministry, then here when he says “I say, not the Lord,” he means the Lord did not address this situation. The Lord’s teachings in the gospels did not cover mixed marriages, marriages where you have a believer married to an unbeliever.

And I don’t think Paul is saying that his instructions here on mixed marriages are just his own personal opinion, just his advice and not authoritative. But rather he is just clarifying that Lord did not address this situation in His ministry. And so he is giving some new teaching here. But as an apostle of Christ his teaching is just as binding and authoritative as if it came to us directly from the Lord’s own mouth.

Now, I can imagine the Corinthians had a question about whether believers married to unbelievers should break up those marriages, especially if the Corinthians were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures. Under the Law of Moses Israelites were not allowed to marry pagans. And when they did in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah those marriages had to be broken up. It’s easy to imagine the Corinthians wondering if such was the case with us Christians. If marriage to Gentiles made Jews unholy, did marriage to unbelievers make Christians likewise unholy? Are mixed marriages condemned in the new covenant as they were under the old?

v12, “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, he must not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away.

In other words “Don’t you, as a Christian, initiate a divorce. If your unbelieving spouse is willing to stay with you, then stay married.”

v14, “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.

Sanctified means set apart, made special or holy. This does not mean that the unbelieving spouse or children are saved from sin by just having a believer in the family. There’s no indication anywhere in Scripture that one can be saved simply because they are in the household of a saved person. But the unbelievers in the family are set apart in a special position in some way because of the believer in the family.

The idea may be that the unbelieving spouse and kids have the special opportunity and privilege of interacting with and being influenced by a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit (see 6:19). Or another option here is that they are sanctified in that sort of a “hedge” is put around them because of the believer in the household, like in the case of Job (see Job 1:10). Satan had to ask permission to do anything to Job’s family. But perhaps Satan has more freedom to do as he wants with those who are not believers or in the family of a believer.

Now, the controversial verse…

v15, “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.

But before we get into the meaning of v15, let’s round off our look at the context and notice…

v16, “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?

That appears to be a reason why it’s okay to let the unbelieving one leave. There’s no promise of converting them. The deserted believer might feel they need to try really hard to get their unbelieving spouse back so that they can continue to be a Christian influence in their life and save them. But Paul says, “You don’t even know if saving your spouse is a possibility.”

3 Common Interpretations of, “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases

There are 3 different interpretations that are generally given for the phrase “the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases“.  One is that Paul means…

1. The brother or sister is not so enslaved to the marriage that they have to even turn their back on Christ to keep the marriage together.

It views Paul as only thinking here of situations where the unbeliever refuses to stay with the believer because of the believer’s faith and commitment to Christ, situations where the only way the believer will save the marriage is by being unfaithful to the Lord. And so Paul is understood to be saying, “You’re not so enslaved to the marriage that you have to disobey the Lord to save it.” This view does not have Paul addressing whether or not the brother or sister can remarry someone else.

A second interpretation is not so situationally specific. It views “not under bondage” as just simply meaning…

2. The brother or sister is not obligated to keep the marriage together regardless of the reason for unbeliever’s departure.

This view does not have Paul only addressing situations where the unbeliever leaves because of the believer’s faith. It has Paul addressing situations where the unbeliever leaves for any reason. And it sees Paul as just saying that the brother or sister is free to let their spouse go. They are free to be single. They don’t have to strive to get their spouse back. This view also, like the first, does not see Paul addressing whether or not the brother or sister can remarry someone else.

And then a third common interpretation is that Paul is saying…

3. The brother or sister is not under the constraints of the marriage bond.

The brother or sister is free to be single or remarry someone else. This views sees “not under bondage” as the opposite of “must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled” in v11, and the same as “released from a wife” in v27-28, which means free to marry someone else, and the same as “free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” in v39.

Consider the 1st interpretation, “not so enslaved to the marriage that you have to even turn your back on Christ to save it.”

I think we can quickly eliminate this interpretation as a possibility for several reasons.

First, we can eliminate this interpretation because Paul says “in such cases“.

The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.” The expression “in such cases” qualifies when the believer is not under bondage. It indicates that if it is not such a case, then the believer is under bondage. This is a bondage that the believer is under in certain other cases. But a believer is never so enslaved to a relationship that they should even disobey the Lord to save it. So “not under bondage” cannot mean “not having to even disobey the Lord.”

Second, this interpretation assumes something that is nowhere indicated in the text.

It is assuming that Paul only has in mind a situation where the unbelieving spouse confronted the believer with the options of either giving up Christ or giving up the marriage. But unbelievers can dissolve marriages for many many other reasons than just that they don’t like their spouse’s faith. And Paul does not say anything about why the unbelieving one left. And so it’s just an assumption without evidence that Paul only has in mind the unbeliever leaving because of the believer’s faith.

Third, why would Paul even bother to say that you don’t have to turn your back on Christ to save your marriage?

That’s a no-brainer to every Christian. He wouldn’t need to say “don’t forsake Christ to stay with an unbeliever.”

So of the first two interpretations that don’t view Paul as addressing remarriage in v15, the 2nd interpretation is definitely to be preferred over the 1st. Let’s…

Consider the 2nd interpretation, “not obligated to keep the marriage together regardless of the reason for the unbeliever’s departure.”

This interpretation as well as the 1st is sometimes accepted because it is believed that the 3rd interpretation that has Paul permitting remarriage would be a contradiction to Jesus’ divorce and remarriage teachings in the gospels. In the gospels Jesus permitted remarriage after divorce only if your divorce was because of the sexual unfaithfulness of your spouse. So it’s believed that Paul would be contradicting Jesus if he permitted remarriage in the case of one deserted by an unbeliever. But would it be a contradiction?

If Paul permitted remarriage in this case would it contradict Jesus’ teaching?

Remember in v12 Paul clearly separates his instructions to those in mixed marriages from the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. He prefaced this section saying, “I say, not the Lord,” meaning that the Lord did not address this category of marriages during His earthly ministry. And since the Lord’s teaching did not cover mixed marriages, then there would be no contradiction if Paul were to say remarriage is okay for one deserted by an unbeliever.

Now, some acknowledge that Jesus’ teaching did not cover mixed marriages, but still would see Paul conflicting with Jesus to suggest that one deserted by an unbeliever could remarry. They believe that Jesus’ divorce and remarriage teaching covered all marriages that were acceptable marriages in the sight of God. And the only reason His teaching did not cover mixed marriages is because such marriages were not acceptable in God’s sight at the time the teaching was given. (In the Law of Moses Jews were forbidden to marry Gentiles or those outside of the covenant (Deut 7:3-4; Josh 23:12-13). If Jews violated that command of God and married Gentiles, they would need to break up those marriages as they did in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.) But many believe that if mixed marriages were acceptable at the time of Jesus’ teaching then they would have been covered by Jesus’ teaching as well. And they believe that now that mixed marriages are acceptable to God, Jesus would bind the same rules on them as on all other marriages.

But I see a couple problems with that line of thinking. One is that it is an assumption that cannot be proven that Jesus would say the same thing to mixed marriages as He did to others.

And second, when Paul talks here about mixed marriages he doesn’t mean Jews married to Gentiles, he means believers in Christ married to unbelievers. While Jew/Gentile marriages were not allowed in Jesus’ day, it seems very probable that believer/unbeliever marriages did exist and were acceptable marriages to God. Listen to these passages that speak of the great many that were believing in Jesus during His earthly ministry. John 4:39, after the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, it says, “From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.’” John 7:31, “But many of the crowd believed in Him; and they were saying, ‘When the Christ comes, He will not perform more signs than those which this man has, will He?’” John 10:42, “Many believed in Him there.” John 11:45, “Therefore many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him.” It seems very likely to me that some of those many who believed in Jesus were married to spouses who did not believe in Him. And that’s the sort of mixed marriages that Paul is talking about in I Cor 7:12-16. And if such marriages existed and were acceptable during Jesus’ earthly ministry, which seems most likely, and Paul says the Lord’s divorce and remarriage teaching did not cover them, then the Lord’s divorce and remarriage teaching is not universally binding on all acceptable marriages.

Some may object to that saying “But the Lord said ‘whoever’ and ‘everyone.’ He said, ‘whoever’ or ‘everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.'” But the use of the word “whoever” or “everyone” does not necessarily mean the teaching is universally binding on all marriages. The words “whoever” and “everyone” are often used in the Bible in a limited sense, in the sense of whoever or everyone of a certain category. A few of many possible examples:

  • Exodus 31:15, “whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death.” Not universally binding. Only applied to Jews.
  • Ex 12:15, “whoever eats anything leavened from the first day to until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.” Same thing. Only applied to Jews.
  • I Jn 4:15, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God.” Not a universal “whoever.” John is not saying that anybody and everybody everywhere for the rest of time who says Jesus is the Son of God is saved. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to be ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” John is dealing with false teachers who denied that Jesus is the Son of God. And he’s telling his readers that if they are not deceived by the false teaching, if they hold to what they were taught about Jesus, they are saved. But I think we misuse that passage if we make “whoever” limitless.
  • Mark 1:37 when Simon and others found Jesus in a secluded place praying they said to him, “Everyone is looking for You.” Really? Everyone? Well, everyone of a certain group.

Jesus’ use of “whoever” in His divorce and remarriage teachings appears to also be in a limited sense, because Paul says the Lord was not talking about believers married to unbelievers.

Greek term for “bondage”

Another argument that is made in favor of the 1st and 2nd interpretations is that Paul does not use the Greek word that he uses elsewhere to refer to the marriage bond. The Greek term translated “bondage” in this verse, douloo, is not the word used elsewhere for the marriage bond, which is deo (v27,39; Rom 7:2). It is believed that this suggests that he is not talking about the marriage bond in this verse.

Certainly if Paul had used deo we wouldn’t have any question about whether or not he’s referring to the marriage bound. But could Paul have used douloo and deo to be referring to the same circumstance in this marriage context? The highly respected Greek scholar Joseph Thayer said most scholars agree that douloo probably came from deo. Thayer gives this meaning for douloo: “to make a slave of, reduce to bondage.” Thayer says deo means “to bind, tie, fasten.” Not every circumstance of slavery/bondage (douloo) necessarily involves being bound, tied, chained (deo). But certainly being bound or chained (deo) would put one under a kind of bondage (douloo), because it restricts, constrains, limits freedom. Both terms are contrasted with the word free (eleutheros) (I Cor 7:21,39; 12:13). It is reasonable that both terms could be used to refer to the same circumstance. Context determines what kind of bondage is under consideration. We’ll further discuss the context here in a bit.

Tense of the Greek verb for “not under bondage”

Another common argument for the 1st and 2nd interpretations has to do with the Greek tense of the verb translated “under bondage.” It is in what is called the perfect tense, which is commonly defined as action completed in the past with continuing results in the present; past action with abiding results. Many have argued that the sense of it is that the brother or sister was not under bondage even before the unbeliever left and is still not under bondage now that the unbeliever has left. And thus “bondage” cannot be referring to the marriage bond if they weren’t under it even when married. Wayne Jackson makes the argument like this, “the brother or sister was not [before the departure] and is not [now that the departure has occurred] enslaved. Whatever the “bondage” is, therefore, the Christian was not in it, even before the disgruntled spouse left. But the saint was married to him; hence, the bondage is not the marriage!”

But according to several renowned Greek scholars this is a false assertion. They say that the perfect tense here does not point back to before the unbeliever left, but rather points back to the time when the unbeliever left and indicates that from the time of the unbeliever left until now the brother or sister has not been under bondage. Lenski, in his commentary on this passage, says “The perfect tense states more than the present used in our versions. The perfect reaches back to the day when the unbelieving spouse entered upon the desertion and states that from that moment onward the believing spouse has not been held bound. From that day onward the fetters of the marriage tie have been broken and remain so, now and indefinitely. The deserting spouse broke them.” A.T. Robertson writes in his Word Pictures on 1 Corinthians 7:15: “’Is not under bondage (ou dedoulootai).’ Perfect passive indicative of douloo, to enslave, ‘has been enslaved, does not remain a slave…Willful desertion of the unbeliever sets the other free.’” Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, “The meaning clearly is that willful desertion on the part of the unbelieving husband or wife sets the other party free.”

Also, I don’t see how it could possibly mean “has never been under bondage” because Paul says “in such cases“. That phrase implies that if it is not such a case, the brother or sister is under bondage. So there are certain marital cases when one is under bondage and there are certain martial cases where one is not under bondage. What makes it such a case that one is not under bondage?  It’s “if the unbelieving one leaves.” It’s the departure of the unbeliever that releases the believer from bondage.

Does context suggest that remarriage is not under consideration in this verse?

It is also argued for the 1st and 2nd interpretations that the context indicates that remarriage is not under consideration in this verse. It’s argued,

“Those who advocate (from this verse) the authority to remarry seem to ignore the context. Paul is not addressing people who want to get into marriage, but who are anxious to get out of marriage… Paul’s response and admonitions to this inquiry about dissolving marriage may be seen throughout the first sixteen verses. Thus, Paul is not really addressing the issue of remarriage since it is not on the minds of his readers. What he says in verse 15 does not explicitly reflect his view concerning the possibility of remarriage. He need not address the issue in this verse because he writes to a group of people who have no desire for remarriage. We might also conclude that Paul’s silence on the issue of remarriage may also be seen as a ‘given.’ In other words, he need not specify the impossibility of their remarrying since it is obvious that they have no biblical authority for it.” (Guy Orbison “I Corinthians 7 No. 3” article in September 2010 Working in the Word).

The beginning of the chapter does make it appear that Paul is responding to the thinking of some Corinthians that it’s better to live a celibate life. But I don’t think that’s a correct statement to say that Paul did not think that remarriage would be on the minds of his readers, because in the first 9 verses Paul advised each man to have his own wife and each woman her own husband, and said that it’s better to marry than to burn with passion. Paul’s advice that it’s probably wiser for them to be married than to try to live single would put remarriage on the minds of the divorced. Those deserted by unbelievers would want to know whether or not it was lawful for them to follow Paul’s advice in the first 9 verses.

And why, if Paul thought remarriage was not going to be on the minds of his readers, did he address it in the case of the unmarried and the widows (v9,39) and in the case of believers divorced from believers (v11)?

Also, I don’t think it’s correct to say that Paul’s silence on the issue of remarriage may be seen as a “given,” that “he need not specify the impossibility of their remarrying since it is obvious that they have no biblical authority for it.” Paul saw the need to address the issue of remarriage in the case of divorced believers (v11), and mentioned that this was covered by Jesus’ teachings (“not I, but the Lord”). But then at v12 he made mixed marriages a different category called “the rest” and said they were not covered by Jesus’ teachings (“I say, not the Lord”). How could Paul tell those in mixed marriages that they have no instruction from the Lord on their situation and then expect them to just know what the Lord’s will is for their situation? If the Lord’s revealed will concerning believers divorced from believers was not too obvious to mention, then how could the Lord’s unrevealed will concerning believers deserted by unbelievers be too obvious to mention?

Let’s…

Consider the 3rd interpretation, “not under the bondage of the marriage bond.”

(The opposite of ” must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled” in v11, same as “released from a wife” in v27, and “free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” in v39.)

We saw already that this passage does not have to be interpreted in a way the fits under Jesus’ one exception for remarriage after divorce, because Paul clarifies that Lord’s teachings in the gospel did not cover mixed marriages.

We saw that while the word used here for bondage (douloo) is not the usual word Paul uses for the marriage bond (deo), it’s reasonable to think that Paul could have used both terms to refer to the same circumstance. Being bound or chained (deo) puts one under a kind of bondage or slavery (douloo). Not being under bondage or slavery (douloo) involves not being bound or chained (deo).

We saw that the perfect tense of the phrase does not tip the scales of favor toward any of the 3 interpretations we’re considering.

The context I think must be the biggest deciding factor for which interpretation we choose.

Is it expected in the context for Paul to address the marital options of “the brother or sister in such cases”?

It is expected because Paul addressed the marital options of the other cases. He addressed what the marital options are of the unmarried and the widows (7:8-9). He addressed what the marital options are of a believer separated from a believer (7:10-11). So we would expect Paul in this context to also address what the marital options are for one deserted by an unbeliever.

It’s also expected for Paul to address this because it would be very much needed instruction, since in v12 Paul said that mixed marriages were not covered by the teachings of Jesus. So the Corinthians had no instruction on whether one deserted by an unbeliever could remarry or not. They had no way to know for sure whether they could follow the advice of verses 2-9 and marry rather than burn with passion, or if their situation was like the divorced believers in v11 who must remain unmarried or else be reconciled. They needed instruction on what their marital options were if deserted by an unbeliever.

Also, it seems to me that Paul would be using very confusing language to say that the believer in v11 must remain unmarried or else be reconciled (which sure sounds like a kind of bondage), and then say that the believer in v15 is not under bondage, if that believer also has to remain unmarried or else be reconciled.

So I go with interpretation 3. I cannot in good conscience bind Jesus’ divorce and remarriage teachings in the gospels on those married to unbelievers. Paul says Jesus was not addressing such marriages. Please let me know if I’ve overlooked something that may change my understanding.

– James Williams

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