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“Not Under Bondage” – 1 Corinthians 7:15

But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15; ESV)

I really like the ESV translation of 1 Corinthians 7:15. Most translations read, “a brother or sister is not under bondage.” The Greek word means, “to enslave, bring under subjection” (NAS Greek). This verse has many difficulties, particularly trying to understand how a believer is not enslaved in such situations. Many take this passage to teach that a person is not bound/enslaved to the marriage and are free to remarry. Similarly, others teach that the apostle Paul is teaching that a person is not bound/enslaved to the rules given in 1 Corinthians 7:11. That is, if an unbeliever divorces a believer, the believer must not remain unmarried or be reconciled.

I also find this text to be a tremendous challenge. But, in learning about Greek parsing and using my new ESV Reverse Interlinear, I have come to a conclusion that resolves my previous doubts about the text. The interlinear says that the Greek word for “enslaved” (or “bondage”) is in the perfect tense. The perfect tense of this verb means “an action completed at a specific point of time in the past with results continuing into the present” (Greek Verbs Quick Reference; http://preceptaustin.org/new_page_40.htm). Therefore, when Paul says that “a brother or sister is not enslaved,” the tense means that the brother or sister is not enslaved because he or she has never been enslaved.

It is not possible for Paul to be referring to the marriage bond because the believer and unbeliever were married. Paul could not be saying that you are not bound in marriage because you never have been bound in marriage. This mixed couple has been married. So, to interpret the text we must ask the question- what is the nature of this marriage that the apostle Paul could say that the believer is not enslaved because he or she has never been enslaved?

The only answer I can conclude is that Paul is speaking about being enslaved to the marriage at the expense of one’s faith. The unbeliever is not content to remain married to the believer. The only way the marriage will remain intact is if the believer renounces his or her faith. Otherwise, the unbeliever will depart. The apostle Paul argues that the believer is not enslaved to keep a marriage at the cost of losing one’s faith. In fact, using the tense of this Greek verb, the point is that a believer is not enslaved, nor ever has been enslaved to sacrifice one’s faith in an effort to keep the marriage together. Therefore, Paul’s instruction is NOT that a believer can divorce and remarry if an unbeliever abandons the marriage. Rather, Paul is teaching the believer to let the unbeliever depart rather than sacrifice one’s faith to keep the marriage together. Paul does not explicit teach any allowance for remarriage if an unbeliever departs. This couple is still bound to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7:11.