What Is the Meaning of “Not under Bondage” (1 Cor. 7:15)?

By Wayne Jackson

Would you address First Corinthians 7:15? Does desertion by a non-believing mate grant the abandoned Christian the right of remarriage?

In First Corinthians, chapter 7, the apostle Paul responds to a number of questions that had been submitted to him by various members of the church at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1). Some of these queries had to do with the relationship of a believer who is married to an unbeliever.

For example, should the Christian leave the unbeliever? Paul’s answer was in the negative — not if the unbeliever is content to keep on dwelling with the Christian (7:12-13). The “sanctified” environment of a home in which the influence of the gospel is found could lead to the conversion of the heathen partner (7:14; cf. 1 Pet. 3:1).

But what if the unbeliever should not be content to remain with the Christian, and he “departs” (chorizetai, literally “separates himself”)? What should the Christian do? Paul says that the child of God “is not under bondage” in such cases (7:15).

Some have argued that First Corinthians 7:15 provides a second cause for divorce (in addition to the “fornication” of Matthew 5:32; 19:9), and so, by implication, expands Jesus’ teaching, and authorizes a subsequent remarriage on the ground of “desertion” by an unbelieving mate. This view is commonly called the “Pauline privilege.”

The theory certainly is not a new one; it was advocated by Chrysostom (c. A.D. 347-407), one of the so-called “church fathers.” It became a part of Roman Catholic Canon law, and was defended by Martin Luther. This view, we are convinced, is unwarranted and constitutes a compromise of the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.

A look at the context

First of all, this theory reads into the context that which simply is not there. Here are the facts. Some of the Corinthian saints had been influenced by a proto-Gnostic philosophy which asserted that sexual relations were intrinsically evil. These brethren, therefore, wanted to know the following:

  1. Should a Christian husband and wife separate from (chorizo_) or leave (_aphiemi) each other (10-11)? Paul’s answer was, No; but should a separation occur, celibacy should be maintained, or else a reconciliation effected.
  2. Should a Christian leave his unbelieving mate? Again, Paul’s response was, No; not if the unbeliever is willing to remain with the believer (12-13).
  3. What if the unbeliever initiates a separation? What should the Christian do? Let him go, the apostle says, the Christian is not enslaved to that mate, so that domestic proximity is absolutely required (15). “Divorce” is not under consideration here. The New Testament term for divorce is apoluo (literally, to loose away; cf. Mt. 5:31-32; 19:3,7-9; Mk. 10:2-4,11-12; Lk. 16:18), and that word is meticulously avoided in First Corinthians 7:10-15.

In the second place, Paul makes it clear that the general theme under consideration in this context had not been comprehensively dealt with by the Lord. The Lord had taught concerning some matters — “not I, but the Lord” (v. 10), but not with reference to other matters — “say I, not the Lord” (v. 12). However, regarding divorce, Christ had spoken comprehensively (note the “whosoever” and “every one” (Mt. 5:31-32; 19:9). Thus, the subject being reviewed in First Corinthians 7:10-15 was not that of divorce.

Thirdly, the word rendered “bondage” (15) is the Greek term douloo, which means “to make a slave of.” Observe how the word is translated in Titus 2:3 — “enslaved to much wine.” Biblically speaking, marriage is never viewed as slavery! The “bondage,” i.e., enslavement, does not refer to the marriage union. If the unbeliever departs, that is not the Christian’s responsibility. The brother or sister is not enslaved to maintain a togetherness (note the allusion of v. 5) at the expense of fidelity to the Lord.

Interestingly, douloo (under bondage) in verse 15 is, in the Greek Testament, a perfect tense form, dedoulotai. The perfect tense denotes a present state resulting from past action. Its force here is this: “was not bound [past action], and is not bound [present state].” The sense of the verse thus is:

Yet if (assuming such should occur) the unbeliever separates himself, let him separate himself: the brother or sister was not [before the departure] and is not [now that the departure has occurred] enslaved ….

Whatever the “bondage” is, therefore, the Christian was not in it, even before the disgruntled spouse left. But the saint was married (and is) to him; hence, the bondage is not the marriage!

Let the reader substitute the word “marriage” for “bondage,” giving the full force to the perfect tense (i.e., “has not been married, and is not married”) and the fallacy of viewing the bondage as the marriage itself will be apparent.

First Corinthians 7:15 does not expand upon the Savior’s teaching with reference to divorce and remarriage, as much as some wish that it were so.

Note

Some contend that the term chorizo is used in verse 15 of divorce. The word is related to choris which means “separately, apart, by itself.” Chorizo simply means to “divide” or “separate” (cf. Rom. 8:35; Heb. 7:26; Philem. 15).

The term is generic, and thus may include divorce, as Matthew 19:6 indicates, but there is no indication that it means divorce in First Corinthians 7:10-11, 15 (though some lexicographers, leaving their areas of expertise and assuming the role of commentators, have so designated it).

Professor Lewis Johnson notes: “It is true that the verb ‘to depart’ in the middle voice [it is middle in verse 15] was almost a technical term for divorce in the papyri … This, however, really proves nothing here” (The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles Pfeiffer & Everett Harrison, Eds., Chicago: Moody, 1962, p. 1240).

Addendum: Additional Testimony Regarding First Corinthians 7:15

“We are not, however, to suppose … that the marriage was, in such a case, ipso facto dissolved, so that the believing party might contract a fresh one. This is alike at variance with the letter and spirit of our Lord’s decision (Matt. 5:32); and, indeed, with the Apostle’s own words in this Chapter … the conjugal union is not to be dissolved by reason of difference in religion; yet if the unbelieving party be disposed to separate, the believing party may blamelessly submit to such separation” (S. T. Bloomfield, The Greek New Testament With English Notes, Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1837, II, p. 119).

“If the heathen husband or wife is resolved upon separation, they must be allowed to separate. The Christian is not a slave in such matters, although the Christian’s duty is to labor for peace and agreement. The separation here spoken of is not a separation allowing the Christian man or woman to marry again during the lifetime of the heathen spouse. It is separation, not divorce” (J.R. Woodford, “The Epistles to the Corinthians,” Commentary on the New Testament, New York: E. & J.B. Young, 1881).

“In such circumstances, where the unbeliever was unwilling for cohabitation, the believing partner did not need to feel bound to persist in seeking reconciliation since God’s calling was to peace, not discord …” (M. J. Harris, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, Ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971, III, p. 535).

“Many have supposed that this means that they would be at liberty to marry again when the unbelieving wife or husband had gone away; … But this is contrary to the strain of the argument of the apostle” (Albert Barnes, First Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956, p. 119).

“We cannot safely argue with Luther that ou dedoulotai implies that the Christian partner, when divorced by a heathen partner, may marry again … All that ou dedoulotai clearly means is that he or she is not so bound by Christ’s prohibition of divorce as to be afraid to depart when the heathen partner insists on separation” (Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, I Corinthians, International Critical Commentary, Edinburgh, T.&T. Clark 1958, p. 143).

“Paul has not said in that verse (7:15) or anywhere else that a Christian partner deserted by a heathen may be married to someone else. All he said is: ‘If the unbeliever departeth, let him depart: the brother or the sister is not under bondage (dedoulotai) in such cases: but God hath called us in peace.’ To say that a deserted person ‘hath not been enslaved’ is not to say that he or she may be remarried. What is meant is easily inferred from the spirit that dominates the whole chapter, and that is that everyone shall accept the situation in which God has called him just as he is … If an unbelieving partner deserts, let him or her desert. So remain” (C. Caverno, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, Ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939, II, p. 866).

“… What does ‘not in bondage’ mean? The fathers, at least to some extent, the Catholic and older Protestant interpreters, understood it to mean not in bondage to keep up the marriage connection, and hence, at liberty to contract a new one. The interpretation has had wide effects. In the canonical law a believing partner was allowed, if thrust away by an infidel one, to marry again; and as the early Protestant theologians extended the rule, by analogy, to malicious desertion in Christian lands, an entrance-wedge was here driven into the older ecclesiastical laws, and much of the shocking facility of divorce in some Protestant countries has flowed from this source. But we reject the interpretation. We hold … that the apostle means ‘not under bondage’ to keep company with the unbeliever at all events, without having the thought of remarriage in mind. This must be regarded, we think, as settled by the soundest modern exegesis” (McClintock, John & Strong, James, Eds., Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological & Ecclesiastical Literature, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968, II, p. 841).

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.