It has been a few days, but I was asked to respond to a piece here from a friendly critic of my fictional letter to a wife who was preparing to leave her husband. The central thing that I would like to contest is this:
“In fact, this piece straightforwardly reverses what God actually says. Doug’s counsel here is false teaching, because the very scriptures he appeals to say precisely the opposite of what he claims.”
“He is trying to straddle two horses: the word of God, and the feelings of women.”
As I trust I can show below, what I wrote was not an appeal to two authorities (for who can serve two masters?). Only Scripture is the final authority. But Scripture, our final authority, is not calloused toward the feelings of wronged women—or wronged men too, for that matter.
My critic is Bnonn Tennant, and I believe he is misreading me over the meaning of not I, but the Lord and the subsequent phrase I, not the Lord. No doubt I contributed to this confusion when I said in my original piece that v. 11 was apostolic advice. Because many people take I, not the Lord as Paul disclaiming inspiration at that point, reducing it to just advice, it would be easy for them to think that I was maintaining that, and then, being “gobsmacked” when I plugged the counsel of v. 11 into Paul’s “uninspired bit,” instead of where it belonged, in the inspired not I, but the Lord part. When I started this paragraph I was hoping to make things clearer as I went on . . .
Jesus taught on marriage and divorce in the course of His earthly ministry. He was addressing, overwhelmingly, the marriages between covenant believers. That was His context. In that context, He gave one exception that allowed for divorce and remarriage, and that exception was when there had been sexual uncleanness on the part of the guilty spouse (Matt. 19:3-9).
But when the gospel exploded out into the pagan world, a new phenomenon started to develop. It became common enough that it became a pressing pastoral issue, and that was the fact of mixed marriages—a believer married to a non-believer. In our passage, Paul is answering a question the Corinthians had about this very issue—is it a sin to have sex with a pagan? Paul says no, it is not. What about if it results in children? No worries, if at least one of the parents is holy then the children are holy (1 Cor. 7:14).
So I take the phrase not I, but the Lord as Paul first talking about the same context that Jesus was dealing with in His earthly ministry, the marriage of two believers. In that setting, the only thing that could justify divorce and remarriage is the guilt of porneias on the part of the other spouse. Then I take the phrase I, not the Lord as Paul’s apostolic and authoritative law for mixed marriages. If the unbeliever is “pleased to be together with” the believer (suneudokeo), then the believer must not separate simply because of the unbelief of their spouse. But if the unbeliever rejects the believer, then the believer is not bound in such circumstances. And this leads to the second justification for lawful divorce and remarriage—willful rejection of a believer by an unbeliever. This is not Paul’s opinion; it is the law of God.
So then, verse 11 is talking about intractable conflict between two professing believers (not I, but the Lord). And this explains why the separating party does not have the liberty to pursue any other relationships. This is why they must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled. Whether they move across town or not, the marriage vows are still operative.
When I say that Paul is giving advice here, I am not referring to the restriction placed on any other relationship. That is not advice. The advice part is the where he says not to separate, but in the same breath does not require church discipline if she does separate. When Paul says “don’t do x, but if you do x, then you absolutely must not do y,” we are free to assume that the church would not intervene with discipline at point x, but would intervene at point y.
This is why we would allow a woman in our congregation, if married to (an extraordinarily) difficult man, to separate from him. But if there had not been infidelity, that separation would not bring with it permission to begin a relationship with any others.
So here is my amplified and paraphrased version of the passage in question. I am throwing in the extra words to highlight how I read this.
“And to the married I pass on the command that the Lord Jesus taught us, which is that a wife must not leave her husband. But if she does depart from him, then she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband again. She is still bound by the law of marriage. And likewise the husband should not put away his wife.
But regarding these new situations, these mixed marriages, that Jesus did not address directly, I will speak to them as the Lord’s apostle. If any brother has an unbelieving wife, and she is pleased to live with him, then he must not divorce her. And if a woman has an unbelieving husband, and he is pleased to live with her, then she must not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband—otherwise the children of such a union would be unclean. But as it is, the children are holy ones or saints. But if the unbeliever leaves, then let him leave. A brother or a sister is not bound by the marriage vows in such cases—for God has called us to peace. For how do you know, o wife, if you will save your husband? Or how do you know, o man, if you will save your wife?” (1 Cor. 7:10–16).