Question:My question is on marriage. I am married to a non-Christian. Is this marriage regulated by God, but not approved by God because I did not marry in the Lord? Does this mean that I am living in sin until my husband obeys the gospel?
I Corinthians 7 deals with questions about marriages and I Corinthians 7:12-16 deals with the issue of mixed marriages -- marriages where a Christian is married to a non-Christian.
"But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?" (I Corinthians 7:12-16).
The section starts out with "to the rest" because the first part of the chapter (I Corinthians 7:1-9) deals with single Christians and the next verses (I Corinthians 7:10-11) deals with married Christians. The last group to be considered are the Christians married to non-Christians.
"I say, not the Lord" means that this is a topic that Jesus did not deal with while on earth, so Paul must explain it in detail. This is in contrast to the topic discussed in I Corinthians 7:10-11 which the Lord did speak on in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19.
Paul starts out with the general rule: there is no need for a Christian to end a marriage simply because he is married to a non-Christian. Where would the Corinthians get such an idea? Well, under the law of Moses the Israelites were forbidden from marrying with people from certain nations (Deuteronomy 7:1-4; Joshua 23:12-13). The reason was simple, these were nations who were being driven out of the land of Canaan because of their idolatrous practices (Leviticus 18:24-30). God did not want Israel to pick up their practices. Thus these nations were utterly destroyed within the borders of Israel to prevent the corruption of true worship (Deuteronomy 20:17-18).
If someone violated these laws, the children of such mixed parentage were excluded from ever becoming Israelites, along with descendants of certain nations. "One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you" (Deuteronomy 23:2-4). "Illegitimate" here does not mean "born out of wedlock" as we use it today. It means children of an illegal or forbidden marriage.
It is specifically mentioned that this sin was what lead to Solomon's downfall (I Kings 11:1-4). And in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites repeated the same sins. To counter it, the people who returned from captivity made a vow which included a term not to intermarry (Ezra 10:1-5; Nehemiah 10:28-31). However, it was a vow that they did not keep.
"In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people. So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, "You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless pagan women caused even him to sin. Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?" And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; therefore I drove him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites" (Nehemiah 13:23-29).
Notice that the Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites were particularly mentioned. These were among the nations the Israelites were forbidden to marry. Worse, it was members of the priesthood and other leading Jews who were foremost in violating this law (Ezra 9:1-4). Priest were particularly forbidden to marry women from other nations (Leviticus 21:14-15). And the people knew they were sinning. "On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God, because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel" (Nehemiah 13:1-3). Their violation was no accident.
Because they had broken their oath, Nehemiah forced the people to renew their vows. The end of book of Ezra lists out the people who refused to put away their foreign wives and children. Their families were marked for life.
The impact of Nehemiah and Ezra on Israel lasted for centuries (John 4:9). But as people typically do, they went overboard. "Then he said to them, "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). Doing what God said wasn't enough. They went beyond by isolating themselves from people of all other nations and not just those God had told them to avoid.
Thus returning to I Corinthians 7, we can see how some reasoned that if the problem was the corrupting influence, then won't leaving a non-believing spouse be the best solution? Paul's response was, "No." The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the Christian. This does not mean a person becomes saved by marrying a Christian. "Sanctification" means being set apart for a holy or God-approved purpose. It can refer to salvation (I Corinthians 1:2; Acts 26:18; I Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26), but it can also be applied to other things: The Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8), holy gifts (Exodus 28:38), or even food (I Timothy 4:4-5). Thus Paul is saying that the union created between an unbeliever and a Christian is sanctified, set apart for a God-approved purpose, because of the Christian.
If a person wanted to argue that the marriage must be dissolved because the union is unholy (disapproved of by God), as per Ezra and Nehemiah, then the logical result is to conclude that the children of that union must also be considered unclean by the same reasoning. Some translations use the word "illegitimate" here, but in the Greek the word is "unclean." Paul is alluding back to Deuteronomy 23:2. If a person claims the marriage is unholy because it is mixed, such must come from the Old Law. But the Old Law also said that children of unholy marriages could never be a part of the covenant, even to the tenth generation. Therefore, the natural conclusion is that if a marriage must be dissolved because it is unholy, then the children are unholy and they can never enter into a covenant relationship with God. In other words, if there are unholy marriages, then there are people who cannot become Christians because of their lineage.
But that leads us to a contradiction. Christ died for all men, not some men (II Corinthians 5:14-15). One purpose of the New Covenant was to open the way for Gentiles -- all Gentiles -- to enter into the covenant (Ephesians 2:11-13). This is because God wants all people to be saved (II Peter 3:9). What leads us to a contradiction must be false.
Working backwards then, if the children can be set apart for a purpose of God (to become Christians), then the marriage is also fulfilling a purpose of God. "But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth" (Malachi 2:15). Therefore, there is no requirement that a Christian must divorce a non-Christian spouse.
Of course, that leads to another question: What if the non-believer doesn't want to remain in the marriage? A person who isn't a Christian isn't motivated to keep the laws of God. This doesn't mean the non-Christian isn't going to be held accountable by God regarding His laws. It is man's duty to keep God's commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Even the lost must give an account of their actions (I Peter 4:4-6; John 12:48). So are non-Christians accountable to Christ's marriage laws? The answer is clearly, "Yes." How can we be certain of this? Because even non-believers acknowledge the sanctity of marriage in their own actions (Hebrews 13:4). Even today, people recognize that a person can't have a new spouse without dissolving the first marriage, so they recognize the bonds of marriage and the obligations that go along with it (Romans 2:12-16).
But Paul said, "A brother or sister is not under bondage." The word here is for slavery. Marriage is never viewed as a form of slavery in the Bible. In fact, there is a subtly lacking in our English translations which appears in the Greek. When Paul said, "not under bondage" or "is not in slavery" the phrase is in the present tense in the Greek. That tense is used to state something that is true in the past and continues to be true to the present. In other words, Paul said the brother or sister wasn't a slave before in their marriage and continues not to be a slave to this day. Therefore, since marriage is not a form of slavery, a Christian is not forced to keep a marriage going when the non-Christian wants to leave. To do so would cause discord, but God called us to peace.
This doesn't imply that the Christian who is abandoned by their non-believing spouse has the right to remarry. The general rule found in I Corinthians 7:10-11 still remains.
A mixed marriage is not an ideal marriage, but you just never know. The odds are that in a mixed marriage the unbelieving spouse will pull a Christian into unfaithfulness. But there is hope that the Christian can be an influence for good (I Peter 3:1-2). But such depends on the steadfastness of the Christian (II Peter 3:17-18).