Notes from our series of bible study in 1 Corinthians on the bible's view of marriage, divorce and remarriage:
I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.” (1Co 7:8)
Verse 8 seems straightforward enough, I would believe that it seems straightforward enough because it is straightforward.
This is teaching given against the backdrop of the ministry already given by the Lord (1Co7:10)
So we come to 1 Corinthians chp 7 with the knowledge which we have gleaned from Matthew 19, Mark chp 10, Luke 16 and Romans chp 7.
Who are the 'unmarried' here?
The natural reading, which would need no special redefinition of words from later on in the chapter yet to come is to see this statement as consistent and compatible with the NT teachings on marriage which had already been given to us; namely that in the New Testament there have up until now only been 2 groups of people who can be married:
Those who have never been married (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18)
Those who have been widowed (Rom 7:2-3)
This simple and straightforward understanding of the verse seems confirmed as we read on through the chapter; in particular this word 'unmarried' is simply the word “agamos” : “ἄγαμος” - not married or without marriage. It has no technical meaning. It is a general word, the precise meaning of which, or the group to which it refers must be judged by the context:
“unmarried” (v8) – unmarried people in general
“unmarried” (v11) – the state following divorce or separation
“unmarried” (v32) – unmarried people in general as contrasted to those who are married
“unmarried” (v34) – the never married virgin
Some here have tried to read into the word, “ἄγαμος” a very specific meaning; that of 'previously married' or divorced people.
John MacArthur, who in a quite uncharacteristic lapse, expounds these verses in what can only be described as masterpiece of science fiction,verses 8 and 9, he claims, is the answer to the question; 'what about the situation of those who have been divorced or widowed and then become Christians?'
'The McArthur New Testament Commentary : 1 Corinthians : John McArthur p162'
'These verses answer the question, 'should those who were married and divorced before becoming Christians remarry?' No doubt that was a key question in the Corinthian church. Formerly married people came to salvation in Christ and asked if they now had the right to marry someone else. Pauls response here is uniquely fitted to those who want to know their options'
To give credit to MacArthur he does spend some time subsequently attempting to justify his translation of 'agamos' as divorced :
He does this by reading forward in the passage; inferring a specific meaning to “ἄγαμος” which you would not initially suspect as a reader fresh to the chapter and then reading that specific meaning back into the verse here in verse 8. That is a doubtful expositional technique. It makes little sense that the beginning of the message cannot be understood until the end of the message; or that the meaning of the beginning doesn't come till the end; which means that the message starts at the beginning and the meaning comes at the end!
MacArthur correctly notes that “ἄγαμος” is used 4 times in 1 Corinthians chp 7, the only 4 times it is used in the NT, it's usage here should define it's meaning argues MacArthur :
“ἄγαμος” appears in verse 11 and there it does indeed refer to either a divorced or separated person, although the use of “ἄγαμος” in verse 11 probably causes him more problems than it solves because in verse 11 it is joined with an injunction preventing remarriage!
“ἄγαμος” appears again in verse 32 and here it inconveniently for MacArthur refers to unmarried people in general, not fitting his translation, he passes swiftly over its usage here; 'verse 32 uses it in a way that gives little hint as to its specific meaning; it simply refers to a person who is not married.' (p162), a tacit acknowledgement that “ἄγαμος” really won't hold the kind of meaning that McArthur would like it to have.
MacArthur is left to bolster his theory with the useage of “ἄγαμος” in verse 34, one of the most difficult to translate verses in 1 Corinthians. There is for this verse 3 alternative Greek texts, and at least 5 ways of translating the verse, with one of the main areas of debate lieing over the precise meaning of “ἄγαμος”, so in looking to verse 34 to support his interpretation, MacArthur is relying on a question to support an answer!
There are 3 main textual traditions for this verse:
The Received Text and Majority Text, reflected in the translation of the AV, RV, Darby, Youngs Literal Translation, Bible in Basic English, EMTV , in which it is clear that the unmarried refers to virgins.
More modern critical texts of Nestlé-Aland and UBS reflected in the NIV, Holmans CSB, ASV; 'but he that is married is careful for the things of the world, how he may please his wife and is divided. So also the woman that is unmarried and the virgin is careful for the things of the Lord.' Also the NRSV; 'but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit.'
Interestingly one of the newer critical translations the ESV, draws the newer critical texts into harmony with the older English translations with : 'but the married man is anxious about worldly things how to please his wife and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit.' A translation which seems to do justice to both the newer critical texts as well as the context of this section beginning in verse 25, 'now concerning virgins'
The interpretation of “ἄγαμος” as being a divorcee is thus based upon one possible translation of verse 34.
Irrespective of how we translate v34 “ἄγαμος” here in verse 8 cannot mean divorced people; for it causes 3 contradictions within the chapter and at least 5 out with the chapter in the rest of the NT:
In verse 11 the use of “ἄγαμος” referring to a divorced or separated person seems to bolster the interpretation of verse 8 as also referring to divorced people, but if we take the meaning of “ἄγαμος” from verse 11 we shoot ourselves in the foot because those who are unmarried because of divorce in verse 11 are not allowed to remarry! We cannot have the same group being referred to in verse 8 and verse 11 because the opposite instructions are given to them!
There is a conflict with the general instruction of 7:18-24
Permission in verse 8 for divorcees to remarry contradicts verse 39; “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” (1Co 7:39)
“Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.”(Luk 16:18)
“And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.” (Mar 10:11-12)
“But I say unto you, That 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.” (Mat 5:32)
“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Mat 19:9) of all of these Matthew 19 is the most complex and the most interesting generally going hand in hand with the interpretation of 1 Co 7:8 that marriage is permissible after divorce is the interpretation of Matthew 19:9 that there was in the teachings of Christ already acknowledged an exception to the indissolubly of marriage. For those who see an exception clause in Matthew 19:9 and permission for all divorcees to remarry in 1 Co 7:8 we face a problem; why was it necessary to spell out an exception to no remarriage after divorce in Matthew 19 if all divorcees can remarry anyway by 1 Co 7:8?
“For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; 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)
Perhaps the greatest weakness in MacArthurs argument lies in what he fails to say rather in what he does say. Whilst he spends some considerable time in trying to justify his contention that “ἄγαμος” means divorced, MacArthur gives absolutely no space whatsoever to justifying his contention that verse 8 and 9 is the answer to the question :
''should those who were married and divorced before becoming Christians remarry?' No doubt that was a key question in the Corinthian church...'
MacArthur is of course unable to prove this contention for it is purely a figment of his imagination. This verse could equally be the answer to a number of questions :
What about divorced or married slaves who become Christians?
What about those who once were living together but were never officially married?
Whilst it might be hypothetically advisable or desirable to have an answer to the question, 'what about those who were divorced before they became Christians?' It is difficult not only to imagine how conversion makes a difference here and even more so it would seem very difficult to imagine how clarification on pre conversion widowhood is required? What possible unique scenario do we ascribe to widowhood within and without of conversion? It is difficult to see why a specific injunction is required for pre conversion widowhood as opposed to post conversion widowhood.
In an attempt to make sense of this confusion some would say in verse 8 you are allowed to get remarried if you were divorced before you were saved but in verse 11 if you are divorced after you get saved you are not allowed to get remarried. Apart from this being incredibly unfair and requiring 2 separate standards of ethics and morality; which is a non starter; this all suffers from an utterly fatal flaw; we have just turned the clock back 1500 years for the Corinthians, 3500 years for the Christian today, and we have done with marriage what Lord condemned in Matthew 19. We have legalised it. We have subjected it to rules and laws of divorce. We have taken the:
Divine Priority in marriage “He which made them at the beginning” (Matt 19:4)
Divine Purpose in marriage “male and female”
Divine Prohibition in marriage; “let not man put asunder” (Matt 19:6)
We have gone back to the dealings of the Pharisees, trumping Gods work with rules and law and lop holes and regulations.
This is not the way it was meant to be.
Notes from a sermon preached as part of our systematic bible study series on 1 Corinthians.
Free audio, mp3 downloads available above, of these messages as we expound verse by verse through the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians.
Yours by Grace in Christ
Dr J Stewart Gillespie