First Corinthians 7:15, the Marriage Covenant, & the Nature of Desertion: Part 1

By David J. Huffstutler1

Divorce is a difficult topic to address on both theological and practical levels. Even when this topic is carefully studied by the best of Christian scholars, conclusions on the topic and their practical applications can yield a spectrum of beliefs and practices. When discussing divorce, charity is essential.

Realizing the varied beliefs that many have on the topic of divorce, this article seeks to investigate a difficult issue that exists within the position that allows for divorce in certain circumstances, the majority position on divorce within evangelical theology today.2 Additionally, this article will carry out this investigation from the understanding that marriage is a covenant relationship, a position to be surveyed briefly below.3 Whether a reader approaches this article to better research his own position or that of his fellow Christian, all may be edified along the way.

Though Christians who allow for divorce vary as to what circumstances they believe allow for a divorce, all within this position agree that Paul commands a believing spouse to allow the unbelieving spouse to leave a marriage: “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so” (1 Cor 7:15).4 This allowance is commonly termed either the Pauline privilege or desertion in that Paul “privileges” the believer to allow the unbeliever to “desert” the marriage through divorce. What is sometimes unclear, however, is whether the term desertion may refer to circumstances beyond the situation that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7:15.

The purpose of this article is to review the Pauline privilege in 1 Corinthians 7:15, examine the marriage covenant by means of brief survey of the Old Testament, and explore whether or not a theology of the marriage covenant allows for further definition of desertion in 1 Corinthians 7:15.

First Corinthians 7:15 and the Pauline Privilege

In 1 Corinthians 7:1–16, Paul addressed the Corinthians’ view that “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1).5 The Corinthians were apparently advocating that spouses should divorce in order to avoid sexual relations and that a believing spouse would have all the more justification to do so if the other spouse was an unbeliever.6 Paul’s statements were guided by the rule of remaining in one’s present circumstances (cf. 1 Cor 7:17),7 whether as an unmarried believer (1 Cor 7:6–9), a married believer (1 Cor 7:10–11), or a believer who is married to an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:12–16). For the last of these three groups, Paul commands a believer to remain married to an unbelieving spouse if the spouse is content to remain married (1 Cor 7:12– 14). Paul then offers the “privilege” of an exception to his rule in 1 Corinthians 7:15 and states, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so.”8

Examining Paul’s exception further, it is clear that the topic of divorce is in view. He uses the verb χωρίζω (chōrizō, “to separate”) to speak of divorce between the believing and unbelieving spouse, an act which results in an unmarried state for both the believer and unbeliever.9 The middle voice of χωρίζω (chōrizetai / χωρίζεται) indicates that the subject (i.e., the unbeliever, apistos / ἄπιστος) carries out an action towards himself (or herself), indicating that the unbeliever is the one to divorce and thus remove himself or herself from the marriage.10

The believer is then commanded with the imperative, “let it be so,” which, literally rendered, is, “let the separation take place” (chōrizesthō / χωριζέσθω). This instance of χωρίζω is also in the middle voice and again indicates that the subject carries out an action towards himself (or herself). Thus, in response to the act of divorce by the unbeliever, the believer is to allow the divorce to take place and passively permit the termination of the marriage.11

However one understands Paul to justify his statements in 1 Corinthians 7:15b–16,12 and however one understands this passage’s potential (or not) for the permissibility of remarriage after such a divorce, it may at least be said that Paul allows for a believer to remain passive when an unbelieving spouse divorces and deserts their marriage.13

(Next: A survey of the primary Old Testament passages that show marriage to be a covenant relationship.)

From DBSJ 21 (2016). Republished with permission. Transliteration has been added in select locations to increase readability for readers less familiar with Greek.


1 Dr. Huffstutler is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Rockford, IL.

2 For a concise but thorough survey of the various positions on divorce, see Andreas J. Köstenberger and David W. Jones, God Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 223–38 and 363–69. For a longer work, see William A. Heth, Craig S. Keener, and Gordon John Wenham, Remarriage after Divorce in Today’s Church: 3 Views, ed. Mark L. Strauss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). For an older work, see Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, ed. H. Wayne House (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

3 For a brief overview of marriage as contract, sacrament, or covenant, see  Köstenberger and Jones, God Marriage and Family, 69–76.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptural quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

5 William W. Combs, “Greek Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1–7” (course notes, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, Fall 2012), 154–55. Combs points out that the translation “to have sexual relations” is the proper understanding of what could be literally rendered “to touch” (ἅπτω), a euphemistic way of describing sexual relations.

6 Ibid., 153.

7 Ibid.

8 A literal rendering of the Greek (εἰ δὲ ὁ ἄπιστος χωρίζεται, χωριζέσθω) would be, “But if the unbeliever divorces, let him divorce” (author’s translation).

9 John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 629–31. In 1 Corinthians 7:10–11, a believing husband and wife who had divorced (χωρίζω) were consequently “unmarried” (ἄγαμος). One may logically conclude that a believer and unbeliever who divorce (χωρίζω) according to 1 Corinthians 7:15 are unmarried as well (in contrast to remaining married while physically separated).

10 Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 534.

11 Ibid.

12 For a helpful survey of the interpretive options on this matter, see both Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 534–40, and Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 302–306.

13 It should be noted that this is a very specific understanding of the action of desertion, namely, when an unbeliever chooses to formally divorce and leave the believing spouse. Absence from the marriage in any way apart from the formality of divorce is not intended with the term desertion in this instance. Perhaps it is best to use the term divorce when referring to an unbeliever’s termination of a marriage to a believer in 1 Cor 7:15.

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