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Desertion (1)

I Corinthians 7:15 speaks of the wilful, physical desertion of a believer by his or her unbelieving spouse: "But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace."

Many argue that "not under bondage" means that the deserted believer is no longer married and so is free to remarry. However, there are insuperable problems with this view.

First, the text says nothing about remarriage, as such. Remarriage, while one’s spouse is living, has already been ruled out in the preceding context. Two, and only two, options are given to the divorced person: either "remain unmarried" or "be reconciled" to your husband or wife (11). Also at the end of this great chapter on Christian singleness and marriage, the apostle forbids remarriage while one’s spouse is living(39).

Second, Christ teaches that fornication is the only ground for divorce: "whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (Matt. 5:32; cf. 19:9). Desertion is not a ground for divorce, for Christ permitted only one ground and not two.

Third, this view presents marriage as bondage and the husband and the wife as two slaves in servitude. For, if the deserted Christian is able to remarry, "not under bondage" must mean that he or she is no longer married. Yet the Bible teaches that marriage is a "one flesh" union between a man and a woman (Gen. 2:24), a covenant of companionship (Mal. 2:14), which pictures Christ’s bond with His bride, the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Through human sin, marriage may be experienced as a sort of bondage. However, if this experience (and not the marriage itself) is said to be the "bondage" of I Corinthians 7:15, then the text is merely saying that the hardships of living with an unbeliever are over once he or she deserts you. Then the text would say nothing about the bond of marriage itself being broken nor would it allow remarriage.

Fourth, Scripture teaches that God breaks the bond of marriage only at death. "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth [even if she has been deserted!]; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord" (I Cor. 7:39). "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth [even if she has been deserted!]; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man" (Rom. 7:2-3).

The correct interpretation lies in the right understanding of the key phrase "not under bondage" (15). Those "under bondage" are slaves, those reduced to servitude. Deserted believers are not enslaved to their spouses and so do not have to pursue them and pressurize them to return. Thus "not under bondage" does not mean "not bound to your wife." "Bound" and "bondage" are two similar looking and similar sounding words, but they are markedly different. The Greek words which we translate "bound" (I Cor. 7:27, 39) and "bondage" (15) are likewise different. Never does God’s Word describe the holy state of matrimony as "bondage!" "Bondage" is slavery, whereas "bound" speaks of a connection, here, that of marriage, a one flesh union (27, 39). The RSV and the NIV, probably in order to promote the misinterpretation of I Corinthians 7:15, twist God’s Word. The deserted believer, they mistranslate, "is not bound [in marriage]."

Being "not under bondage," the deserted believer is called to "peace" (15). He or she is not to feel guilty or ashamed or anxious. The deserted believer has been forsaken for his or her faith by his or her unbelieving spouse and so he or she has done nothing wrong and is not to blame. The child of God, in such circumstances, is to accept and acquiesce in God’s providence and not go chasing his or her spouse all over the country. After all, the believer has peace with God through the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1), and the fruit of His Spirit is peace (Gal. 5:22). God calls deserted Christian spouses to peace because He, in Jesus Christ, is our faithful husband who loves and provides for us. He will always be with us and He will never forsake us.

Next time (DV), we will consider the tradition of the church’s interpretation of I Corinthians 7:15 and desertion.

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 10
  • Issue: 9
Stewart, Angus

Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)

Ordained - 2001

Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001

Website: www.cprf.co.uk/

Contact Details

  • Address
    7 Lislunnan Road
  • City
    Ballymena
  • State or Province
    Co.Antrim
  • Zip Code
    BT42 3NR
  • Country
    Ireland
  • Telephone
    (01144) 28 25 891851

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