To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 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. 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? – 1 Corinthians 7:12-17 ESV
This is an extremely difficult passage and there are as many opinions concerning it as there are commentaries written about it. First of all, when Paul says, “To the rest I say, (I, not the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:7 ESV), he is not implying that what he has to say concerning these matters is simply his personal opinion and not divinely inspired. He is merely indicating that this is not something he heard taught by Jesus Himself. But as an expert in the Old Testament and an apostle of Jesus Christ, and due to the fact that he was divinely inspired by the Spirit of God, the words he writes must be considered as coming from God.
His emphasis in these verses shifts from addressing married couples who are comprised of believing husbands and wives. Now he is addressing those who find themselves married to an unbeliever. This was probably a very common issue in the church in Corinth. There were likely a good many who had come to faith in Christ apart from their spouse and who found themselves in a potentially difficult and compromising circumstance. If there were children involved, the situation was even more complicated. There were obviously those who were counseling that it would be better for a Christian to divorce their unbelieving spouse than to remain married. Paul would even give what appears to be similar counsel in his second letter to the Corinthians:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? – 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 ESV
And while this passage has been used to defend the ban on Christians marrying non-Christians, that was likely not Paul’s original point. He was addressing the need to avoid the kinds of relationships with unbelievers that might lead to spiritual defilement. This obviously applied to marriage, but was not restricted to it. Paul was not counseling or sanctioning that Christians separate themselves completely from the world. That would be impossible. In fact, earlier in this letter he referred to another piece of correspondence to the Corinthians in which he told them, “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (1 Corinthians 5:9 ESV). But he clarified what he had meant by saying, “not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). So Paul was in no way a proponent of Christian isolationism.
So what is a Christian to do who finds themselves married to an unbeliever? The main point here has to do with divorce, and Paul would say that it is wrong for a believer to divorce their unbelieving spouse. Rather, they should see themselves as a godly influence on their home. Their very presence within the home sanctified it or set it apart. This is where some of the difficulty comes about when interpreting what Paul means when he says, “the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:14 ESV). It would be inconsistent with the rest of Scripture to say that Paul means the believing spouse “saves” the marriage and converts the unbelieving partner. The lost spouse is made “holy” only in the sense that he or she finds themselves benefiting from the presence of a believer living within the same walls. Living in close proximity with a Spirit-filled believer could not help but have an influence on them. And this is true of the children in the home as well. They are not automatically saved as a result of having one believing parent, any more than those children who have two believing parents would be. But in a sense, they would be set apart by God by virtue of His having called one of their parents to saving relationship with His Son.
The real point of these verses seems to deal with what a believer is to do if their unbelieving spouse chooses to divorce them. The truth is that the very presence of a Christian in the home could drive the unbelieving partner away. As Peter indicates in his letter, there is a chance that a godly wife could have a positive impact on her unbelieving husband.
In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives. – 1 Peter 3:1-2 NLT)
But there is also a good chance that her presence could result in conviction and conflict. The same is true of a believing husband. There is no guarantee that a lost spouse will be led to the Lord by a believing partner. I think that is what Paul means when he asks, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:16 ESV). So Paul’s counsel is that if a Christian finds themselves served with divorce papers by an unbelieving spouse, they should not fight it. But at the same time, they should not be the instigators of it. Paul simply says, “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15a ESV). His bottom line goal was peace, not conflict. “God has called you to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15b ESV). God receives no glory from a marriage in which two unequally yoked individuals fight and feud with one another. If the marriage is relatively conflict-free and the unbelieving partner is willing to remain married, the Christian should in no way seek divorce. As Paul will write in the following verses, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called” (1 Corinthians 7:20 ESV).
These are difficult words. But they deal with the reality of the gospel entering into a difficult and depraved world. When light shines in the darkness, there cannot help but be conflict. When believers come into contact with the lost, there will be tension, testing, and the potential for trouble. Jesus warned us that the world would hate us. Our redemption as believers places a target on our back and makes us prime candidate for persecution by the enemy. The life of a believer is not an easy one. Our call to live set apart in a world that is set against us will not be a cake walk. We will be misunderstood. At times we will be mistreated. But we will never be abandoned by our God.