The ideal marriage for Paul is two people who get married and stay that way until “Death do they part.” Paul views marriage the way most Jews in the first century would. Based on Genesis 2:18-24 or Ecclesiastes 9:9-10, people who marry should enjoy life with their spouse. This is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, although there is provision in the Law for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness. But what happens if a believer is married to an unbeliever? Can the believer divorce the unbeliever, so they are not “unequally yoked”?
As I have stated before, this passage is not a comprehensive theology of divorce and there are many situations in a modern marriage may end in divorce not anticipated in the teaching of Jesus or Paul. If a woman is being abused by her husband, she should get out of the relationship as soon as possible, protect herself and her children. There are more ways for a spouse to break their marriage vows than simply adultery.
What is remarkable is that Paul extends the command to both the husband and the wife. The divorce law from Deuteronomy 24 only allows a husband to divorce, Paul suggests a woman could divorce a husband. In addition, the grounds for the divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 is expanded to include abandonment. If an unbelieving spouse abandons a believer, the believer can “let them go.” So Paul is opening up the possibility for a divorce beyond marital unfaithfulness.
Roman law allowed people to divorce for any reason. Divorce was permitted for infertility or infidelity, but more common among wealthy. “The Romans had one of the most liberal regimes of divorce in human history; legally, divorce could be obtained unilaterally, without cause, by either party, without cumbersome procedural obstacles; the strict separation of spousal property, and the prohibition of gifts between the husband and the wife, abetted easy separation” (Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin, 163).
For most people, there was no official marriage with a marriage contract. Since there was no legal contract binding the two, a couple could split and simply start living somewhere else. The situation was more complicated for slaves since a master could transfer one partner to another part of his estate or even sell the partner. This makes direct application to modern (wester, American) marriage and divorce questions difficult because a marriage is as much a legal partnership as a romantic one.
What about people married to unbelievers (7:12-16). In this section, Paul deals with what was likely a common problem for the first generation of Christians. Some women may have converted to Christianity, but their husbands do not. In the Roman world, a wife would convert to her husband’s gods when she married. This would not be a problem in most cases since she would adopt the family gods of her new family.
“A wife’s conversion to Christianity undoubtedly would have created strife, if only as a slap at her husband’s authority over her…. a wife’s refusal to accept Christianity after her husband’s conversion also would have made things quite awkward since the Christian faith was highly intolerant of other religious beliefs and practices” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 284).
The reason wives are addresses is a husband who converted to Christianity would simply force the whole family to “convert” to the new faith. A pagan wife might simply see worship of this “new God” as her natural duty, whether she really believed or not.
It is likely some in the Corinthian church were using their new relationship with Christ as a “ground for divorce.” After all, Paul has taught the church they need to separate from the world and to not be with immoral people. If a Christian woman took that seriously, she might have sought to divorce her idolatrous husband, who was most likely participating in all the immoral things most Roman men would.
I will treat verse 14 in another post, but for now it is important to hear what Paul has said (and what he has not said). Paul does not declare all divorce sinful and anyone who divorces their spouse is damned to hell. He recognizes that marriages do end for good (and bad) reasons. People who find themselves in a marriage that breaks up need the support of their family, in the context, their brothers and sisters in Christ.