The Marriage Covenant and the Definition of Desertion in 1 Corinthians 7:15
As reviewed earlier, Paul clearly allows for a believer to remain passive when an unbelieving spouse divorces and deserts their marriage according to 1 Corinthians 7:15. From the explanation above, though a spouse may actively divorce a spouse who has broken the marriage covenant in some way, the command in 1 Corinthians 7:15 is to be passive when being divorced. This contrast implies that the marriage covenant has an indirect bearing on the Pauline Privilege in 1 Corinthians 7:15 at best. Nonetheless, it is still helpful to see how the marriage covenant can better inform a believer to carry out the command of 1 Corinthians 7:15 in a number of situations.
The Marriage Covenant in the Context of 1 Corinthians 7:1–16
As seen above in 1 Corinthians 7:1–16, the Corinthians were deliberately avoiding sexual relations within the context of marriage. From the definition of a marriage covenant given above, this refusal could be regarded as a breach of the covenant (cf. Exod 21:10–11; Ezek 16:8, 16–19, 59). However, Paul does not encourage spouses to end the marriage but instead to fulfill this aspect of their marriage and to not deprive one another (cf. 1 Cor 7:3–5).
Applying Paul’s commands in 1 Corinthians 7:3–5 to 1 Corinthians 7:12–16, a believing spouse was not to deprive the unbelieving spouse of sexual relations and certainly not to divorce the unbelieving spouse in order to do so. Were the believer to abstain from sexual relations, it could even be that the unbeliever would be justified in divorcing the believer for breaking the marriage covenant in this way. Were the believer to divorce the unbeliever when the unbeliever desired to maintain the marriage and had not violated the marriage covenant, it would actually be the believer who was sinfully divorcing and deserting the marriage.
In this passage, Moses sought to regulate the informal dismissal of one’s wife by requiring the husband to give his wife a certificate of divorce. She was apparently entitled to require official documentation that the marriage had ended and not simply been abandoned. The difference, however, between Deuteronomy 24:1–4 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 is that the abandoned wife in Deuteronomy 24:1–4 was the first to sin and that the abandoned spouse in 1 Corinthians 7:15 is a believer who is innocent.
Realizing the differences between the passages, it would be valid to conclude that an unbeliever who divorces and deserts a marriage with a believer should necessarily provide documentation of divorce to the believer. If the unbeliever does not do so, an abandoned believer has
precedent from Deuteronomy 24:1–4 to formalize what could be described as an abandonment of all of the marriage’s covenant obligations and a functional divorce. If the sinning spouse was entitled to such documentation, an innocent believer should be entitled to this documentation all the more.
Exodus 21:10–11 and Ezekiel 16:8
As seen above, a woman was allowed to end the marriage if the husband failed to provide food, clothing, and sexual relations (Exod 21:10–11). He did not actively pursue a divorce with her and was even physically present in some sense, but his failure to uphold these obligations was tantamount to breaking the marriage covenant, allowing her to actively end the marriage. Just as the wife has precedent to end the marriage in Exodus 21:10–11, so also does the husband have precedent to do so in Ezekiel 16:8, 16–19, 59. As with Deuteronomy 24:1–4, these passages, too, would give precedent for a believing spouse to formally end a marriage in which these provisions were neglected (thus breaking the marriage covenant) even though the unbeliever had not formally terminated the marriage. It should be noted, however, that a believer’s actively ending a marriage in which the covenant has been broken by the unbeliever is not the same as passively allowing an unbeliever to carry out a divorce as in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
A Word of Clarification
The passages above involve a broken marriage covenant that is formally ended by divorce. In Deuteronomy 24:1–4, an indecency that has broken the marriage covenant allows for a divorce. Both Exodus 21:10–11 and Ezekiel 16:8, 16–19, 59 involve innocent parties who could divorce the spouse that had broken the marriage covenant. To be clear, these situations are not completely parallel to 1 Corinthians 7:15. Paul does not command the believer to actively divorce the spouse. The situation in 1 Corinthians 7:15 involves a broken marriage covenant, to be sure, but it is the unbeliever who both breaks the covenant and actively ends the marriage at the same time. The believer has done neither.
Stated another way, one must distinguish between the marriage covenant and the marriage itself. A marriage covenant may be broken, but repentance, forgiveness, and restoration can allow for the marriage to continue. However, to break the marriage covenant is to allow for the possibility that the innocent spouse could formally divorce the sinning spouse. This divorce by the innocent spouse is grounded in both a theology of marriage covenant and the precedents given in some of its supporting passages but not Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
Answering the question, then, as to whether or not the marriage covenant allows for further definition of desertion in 1 Corinthians 7:15, even if one assumes that Paul had an understanding of the marriage covenant and its possibility for divorce as explained above, the context and constraints of 1 Corinthians 7:15 exclude the possibility for
the marriage covenant to further define the action of desertion by an unbelieving spouse.33 In other words, the theology of a marriage covenant as explained above may allow for the believer to actively divorce an unbeliever who has broken the marriage covenant, but this is not the same as a believer fulfilling the command of passively allowing a divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
A Word of Caution
Though the explanation above allows for a believer to formalize a divorce against an unbelieving spouse, a safe application of this belief would be to limit the grounds for divorce to what is explicitly mentioned in Scripture and to expand this application in principle only with great care. At the most, failing to provide “food, clothing, and sexual relations” could perhaps be expanded in principle (i.e., the neglect of a spouse’s basic needs) to include the intentional failure to provide a necessity of life such as shelter. Perhaps it could be expanded as well to include the active endangerment of life by means of physical abuse. Yet still, even when a spouse breaks the marriage covenant in some egregious way, the believer should remember God’s example in showing forgiveness and seeking restoration with Israel. Unfortunately, however, a believing spouse cannot pour out God’s Spirit in the heart of a persistently sinful spouse to guarantee the sinning spouse’s future repentance and faithfulness. In such an instance, a divorce may be a wise though sorrowful last resort.
Marriage is a beautiful relationship created by God that allows for a husband and wife to enjoy all the pleasures intended therein. The majority of evangelical theologians who address the matter would clarify that divorce is never desired but allowed by Scripture in certain instances and may be necessary in desperate circumstances. An understanding of the marriage covenant above allows a believer to carry out a divorce when a spouse’s most basic needs are grossly and intentionally neglected.
As seen above, 1 Corinthians 7:15 contains Paul’s command that a believer must remain passive in the event that an unbeliever divorces and deserts the marriage over the matter of the belief of the believer. In this context, desertion was described as the act of divorce by an unbeliever against a believing spouse, resulting in the termination of their marriage. If one allows for divorce in certain circumstances, divorce in situations in which a spouse somehow “deserts” the basic obligations of marriage is better understood as a violation of the marriage covenant and not the type of desertion that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
Though the understanding of the marriage covenant above allows for divorce in certain circumstances, the proof-text for initiating a divorce in the event of a broken marriage covenant is not found in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
33 Feinberg and Feinberg state, “Paul presents…a circumstance that allows a marriage to be terminated, but it is a very narrow kind of situation” (Ethics for a Brave New World, 630).