This section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has been used to justify all sorts of marital conditions. 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 has been used to argue that any marital condition one is in when he or she comes to Christ is acceptable and the person is to remain in that marriage. However, there are many problems with this position.
Paul has been very clear about letting the reader know who is audience is as he addresses marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. In verses 8-9 the apostle Paul clearly addresses “the unmarried and the widows” (1 Corinthians 7:8). In verses 10-11 Paul clearly addresses “the married” (7:9). In verses 12-16 Paul clearly address “the rest.” By reading the content of this section, the reader can see that Paul is speaking to believers who are married to unbelievers:
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. (7:12; ESV)
In verse 25 the apostle Paul begins to address “the virgins.” But many come to verses 17-24 and assume that Paul is speaking to all married people. However, the audience never changed. In verse 17 Paul does not say “now to the married.” Paul is continuing to present arguments for why the believer should remain with the unbelieving spouse in marriage. Most of our Bibles place a header at verse 17 and perhaps this is the cause for people to think Paul has changed audiences. But we can see that Paul carefully notes when he changes the audience. Paul does not say he is now talking to all married people in verse 17. Rather, Paul continues to speak to “the rest,” that is, the believer married to the unbeliever.
Further, notice that even in the English the first word of verse 17 is a connector back to verse 16:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. (ESV)
Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. (NASB)
However, each one must live his life in the situation the Lord assigned when God called him. (HCSB)
However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. (NRSV)
But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. (NKJV)
Nevertheless, each of you should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to you, just as God has called you. (TNIV)
Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. (NIV)
Paul has not stopped talking about the believer being married to an unbeliever. He is continuing his argument. The ESV and NASB use the word “only” connecting this verse back to the previous statement in verse 16. The HCSB and NRSV use the word “however” and the NKJV uses the word “but” contrasting this statement in verse 17 to the teaching in verse 16. The TNIV and NIV use the word “nevertheless” to connect this thought in verse 17 back to the teaching of verse 16. Paul is not teaching that everyone in every marital condition must stay in the marriage relationship when they come to Christ. If so, Paul would be contradicting his previous teaching in verses 10-11.
Paul’s argument proceeds as follows: When you became a Christian, did you try to remove the marks of circumcision (vs. 18)? The rhetorical answer is no. Then when you came to Christ, do not try to remove (end) your marriage to an unbeliever. When you came to Christ, were you concerned about being a slave (vs. 21)? The rhetorical answer is no. Then when you came to Christ you do not concern yourself with being married to an unbeliever. Thus, note Paul’s conclusion to this address to the believer married to the unbeliever:
So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (7:24; ESV)
The point: you are remaining in a relationship with God by keeping your marriage to an unbeliever. You do not need to divorce from an unbeliever to be found acceptable to God. If the unbeliever is willing to live with the believer, then remain married (7:12-13). Just as circumcision or uncircumcision does not matter when one comes to Christ, neither does being married to a believer or unbeliever matter when one comes to Christ. Just as being a slave or being free matters when coming to Christ, neither does being married to a believer or unbeliever matter when one comes to Christ.
To apply Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 to any group of people except a believer married to unbeliever is to misuse the scriptures and apply the teachings in a way Paul never intended.