Study Notes for I Corinthians 7:12-24 (click here for Study Sheet)
Paul addresses this passage of I Corinthians 7 to believers who have unbelieving spouses. "If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her," he says. "And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him."
He follows this straightforward instruction with an enigmatic summary: "For the unbelieving [spouse] has been sanctified through [the] believing [spouse]. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy."
In I Corinthians 6:12-17 Paul discussed the fact that our bodies are part of Christ's body, and our spirits are united with him. Therefore, when we have sexual relations, we unite the body of Christ with the body of our partner. If we are involved in non-marital sex, we are involving the Spirit and the body of Christ in unfaithful behavior.
This idea makes more sense when we remember what happened after Jesus' death and resurrection. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit entered its new temple: the human hearts of the Church. Each Christ-follower has the Holy Spirit living in him or her. Each one is a part of the temple of God and the body of Christ.
When a person becomes a believer and accepts Christ, the Holy Spirit seals that person and lives in him or her. (Eph.1:13) If that person's spouse does not accept Jesus, he or she does not receive the Holy Spirit. The unbelieving spouse is not part of the temple of God and the body of Christ.
Paul says, however, that if the unbeliever wishes to stay in the marriage, the believer should not divorce the other one. In a real sense, the unbelieving spouse enters the temple of God by choosing to stay in the marriage. He or she chooses to be intimate with a spouse whose body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The unbelieving spouse becomes "one flesh" with a part of the body of Christ. If the unbelieving spouse is open to growth, choosing to stay in the marriage means he or she is choosing to live intimately with the temple of God. This closeness and vulnerability to the Holy Spirit sanctifies the unbelieving spouse. He or she is marked by this closeness, and the love and the presence of God in the marriage may result in the unbelieving spouse becoming a believer.
Likewise the children of such a marriage are made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit. If the parents divorce, the children become marked, emotionally and socially. If the parents stay together in love, however, the children are nurtured and are in the presence of the temple of the Holy Spirit as well.
Go in Peace
On the other hand, if the unbelieving spouse wishes to leave the marriage, Paul advises the believer to let him or her go. "God has called us to live in peace," he says.
If the unbeliever wishes to leave, he or she is leaving because of discomfort living intimately with the presence of the Holy Spirit. If the believing spouse forced such a marriage to continue, the spiritual battle would be destructive. When an unbeliever wishes to leave a believer, that person is choosing to leave the presence of the Holy Spirit. If that person were to stay in the marriage, the spiritual powers of darkness would be in continual battle with the Holy Spirit, and the marriage, caught in a spiritual battle, would be destructive and full of strife.
"God has called us to live in peace." He has not called us to force ourselves in a situation where we and He are not wanted. We are to honor the unbelieving spouse's decision to leave, knowing that the issues at stake are spiritual, not just practical.
Remain As You Are
Paul also addresses the subject of staying "in the situation" we were in at the time God called us. Specifically he addresses the issue of circumcision. Judaizers we actively trying to get the new Christians to become circumcised as a sign of conversion. Circumcision, after all, was the outward symbol of conversion to Judaisim. It was the mark of belonging to God's chosen people.
The new Christ-followers, however, were not to take a physical symbol of conversion. None was necessary. Jesus now carries the physical symbols of New Covenant belonging. The wounds in his hands, feet, and side are the marks of our belonging to God. Christ-followers are to accept Jesus' wounds as the sign of their adoption as sons of God. No longer is any self-inflicted mark or penance necessary to symbolize our inheritance as people of God. His sacrifice, his marks are for us. "By his wounds we are healed." (Is 53:5)
Conversely, Paul admonishes Jewish Christians not to try to undo the physical marks of their Jewishness. Their circumcisions are as moot a point as are the Gentiles uncircumcised conditions. Paul wants all believers to understand that nothing they do changes who they are in Christ. The marks they bear from their pasts are all redeemed in Jesus.
When we belong to him, those signs of our past also belong to him. He redeems our pasts, and the marks we bear become incorporated into our new identity. Now Jesus defines us. Nothing we do changes or determines our new identities.
Essentially Paul says that we are to stay in whatever condition we are in when Jesus calls us. Becoming a Christ-follower does not necessarily mean changing neighborhoods, careers, or social status. Following Jesus transcends practical reality.
No Man's Slave
Perhaps the most surprising part of Paul's admonition to "remain" is his statement to slaves. "Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you-although if you can gain your freedom, do so."
Often Christians believe they're obligated to agitate for social change and justice. Paul suggests in this passage that social change is not a Christ-follower's direct responsibility. Living intimately with Jesus is our first responsibility. Sharing the gospel is our calling. As people learn to know Jesus, social injustice may begin to disappear. Slave owners or autocratic leaders and politicians or merciless bosses will become new people as the love of Christ flows into their hearts.
People subject to injustice can become truly free when the Holy Spirit fills them. Regardless of their external position, a Christ-follower "is the Lord's freedman." No slavery, no overbearing boss, no unpleasant job can undo the freedom we experience in Christ. Our external circumstances become incidental when we have the love of Jesus inside. Our jobs and communities become our venues for sharing the truth about Jesus and for living the freedom of the gospel. God redeems and transforms even terrible jobs or annoying neighborhoods by giving us transcending peace and reasons for being there.
We were "bought at a price," Paul reminds us. "Do not become slaves of men." As Christ-followers responsible to God, we need to submit to his sovereignty. We are where he wants us, and we will be there as long as he has work for us to do there. When he wants us to move, he will make it clear to us, and he will show us where he wants us to be.
Conforming to Christ
Many times God does show us that he wants us to make changes. Many of us came to Christ out of cultic backgrounds, shaped by deception and cultic expectations. In his mercy God reveals to us the areas in our lives where we need to make changes. Sometimes those changes include letting go of old relationships or even jobs. Other times those changes involve yielding our cherished beliefs to God.
Always God asks us to yield our identity to him. He calls us to let go of all external definitions of ourselves. Our talents and accomplishments do not define us. Sometimes God moves us into places where we can't use our well-developed skills because he wants us to depend on him to give us our work and to give us our identities. Sometimes God strips away everything that feels familiar about ourselves so we will be forced to depend on him and discover the work he wants us to do.
As Christ-followers our calling is to trust Jesus, "the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls." (I Peter 2:25) We are to trust him to love us and to reveal his plans for us. As Christ-followers we are to be willing to speak for God whenever he nudges us to speak. We are to trust him to give us our work. We are not capable of deciding what work we should do for Christ; he will bring it to us at the time we are to do it.
We are to bring to Jesus our feelings of discontent. He will transform our hearts so our contentment comes from him instead of from our surroundings. When our contentment comes from Jesus, we carry it with us wherever we go. Our surroundings lose their power to make or break us.
When our hearts are at rest in Christ, we will live in peace even when chaos swirls around us. Confusion cannot confound us; the Spirit of Christ lives in our hearts.
In Jesus we have meaning. In Jesus we have identity. In Jesus we have rest.
In Jesus we are free.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 23, 2000.