In an attempt to keep the newborn church in Corinth from dividing against itself, Paul wrote a letter to them addressing their issues of division. Among these topics of division was the subject of marriage and divorce. Within this subject, Paul gave a charge, with the authority of God, that those who are married should not be divorced. Immediately following that charge, Paul gave another for those who were married to unbelievers in Christ. He told them that as long as the unbelievers were willing to live with them, they should not get divorced; however, he prefaced that charge by saying that he said that, not the Lord. Basically Paul said that he was giving his own opinion, his advice, that the believers should not divorce the unbelievers. This teaching from Paul is in stark contrast to how Ezra handled a similar issue a few centuries earlier, and with Paul being a Pharisee Alum, he knew all about Ezra and his divorce decree. Therefore, the main focus of this blog will be determining Paul’s reasoning in his advisement to the new Corinthian Christians to abstain from divorce from unbelievers as opposed to Ezra who charged Israel to divorce from the unbelievers a few centuries prior.
In 1 Corinthians 7, the marriage between an unbeliever and a believer could come about in one of two ways:
- Both parties were Jews and married, then one became Christian
- Both parties were Gentiles and married, then one became Christian
There was not a third option as, shown in Deuteronomy 7, Israelites (Jews) were not to marry with non-Israelites (non-Jews). What Paul is trying to convey here is that Christians are not hindered by the restraints of the Law like the Jews were. Instead, they are under a new covenant brought about by Jesus Christ. If the same restraints were in place, especially regarding marriage, the number of converts to Christianity would have, almost certainly, not been what they were.
Concerning Ezra and the topic of divorce, a quick summary of the situation is needed. After Zerubbabel led a group of Israelites back to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, Ezra was selected to lead another group of Israelites to Jerusalem. During this time, Ezra, being a scribe, taught the Law to the Israelites in order to strengthen the community and their relationship with God. However, as recorded in Ezra 9, it comes to Ezra’s attention that some of the returned Israelites had intermarried with some of the people from the surrounding area. Now this could or could not be a big issue depending on whether or not these people were Israelites because, as Ezra had been teaching the returned Israelites, Deuteronomy 7 states that God’s people were not supposed to intermarry with the following peoples: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. So Ezra tells Israel that they must divorce from these foreigners in order to renew their covenant with God.
However, as was noted in a previous blog of mine, Malachi, a contemporary of Ezra’s wrote: “’But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:15-16). Ezra’s actions and Malachi’s prophetic words seem to be in conflict with each other. In fact, one can’t help wonder if Ezra could have handled his situation more delicately since there were four who disagreed with his charge of divorce. Even later rabbis disagreed with Ezra’s choice: “As later rabbis advocated, rather than the extreme edict of banishment, embracing sincere converts and encouraging Jewish literacy among Jews are more effective prescriptions for dealing with the contemporary threat of assimilation.”
After noting the two contexts, what is interesting is Paul’s explanation about why this abstaining from divorce is possible under the new covenant as opposed to what was possible under the Law: “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” (1 Corinthians 7:14). Under the Law, there was this concept that uncleanness was transferred from unclean things to clean things by association. Paul says the opposite here. He says that because of the holiness of the Christian within the marriage, the unbelieving spouse and child will be made holy as well. In other words, the marriage, where one party is a Christian, produces a species of sanctification, or diffuses a kind of holiness over the unbelieving party by the believing party, so far as to render their children holy, and therefore it is improper to seek for a separation.
So what changed between Ezra’s time and Paul’s time that caused this changed in imputation of holiness?
Well, about 300 years prior to Ezra, a prophet name Isaiah had a vision in which he saw God sitting on a throne in his temple. Isaiah also saw a seraphim which, when he exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts,” the seraphim came to him and seared his lips with a burning coal saying, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
As a result of his sin being atoned for through the coal, he is able to be in the presence of God. Most scholars agree that this is a messianic prophecy of Jesus Christ. In other words, the burning coal that atones and imputes holiness over to Isaiah, in this vision, is symbolic of Christ. This difference in holiness and how it is gained is the key to understanding why Paul is able to give the Christians the freedom to not divorce their spouses. These Christians had the burning coal of Christ in them (Holy Spirit). Therefore, they would not become impure by association with impure things/people, and, actually, Paul counted this holiness as having two sides to it: not only would the impurity not transfer over to the Christian, but the Christian’s purity would transfer, in a way, over to the spouse. This new covenant is, then, far superior to the Law which Ezra had with Israel in his time (though I, and many scholars, would argue that Ezra went a bit Pharisaical in his application of the Law).