Is Desertion a Ground for Remarriage?

by Johnny Stringer
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 5, pp. 137, 141, March 7, 1985

Jesus taught that marriage is permanent. In keeping with God's original intent regarding marriage, He prohibited divorce and stated that all second marriages of divorced persons are adulterous (Matthew 19:3-9; 5:32; Luke 16:18). He made only one exception to this rule: One is permitted to divorce his spouse for fornication, and when he does so, is free to remarry. Some, however, teach that even if he did not divorce his mate for fornication, a Christian is still free to remarry if he was deserted by his mate.

Erroneous Interpretation of I Corinthians 7:15

Advocates of this view cite I Corinthians 7:15 as proof of their position. It says, "But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases." They reason that if one is not under bondage, then he must be free to remarry.

Such an interpretation is obviously false, because it clearly contradicts the teaching of Jesus on the subject. The woman who was described by Jesus as being put away (Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18), would be deserted; yet, Jesus taught that she had no right to remarry.

Contextual Interpretation of the Verse

It is necessary to consider the problem Paul was dealing with when he made the statement under discussion. Some of the Christians in Corinth evidently had spouses who were not Christians. They had been converted to Christ, but their mates had not been. They were concerned as to whether a believer's marriage to an unbeliever was valid; and doubting the validity of such marriages, they wondered whether or not they ought to leave their unbelieving mates.

In verses 12-14, Paul showed that such marriages were valid, so that unbelievers ought to continue dwelling with their unbelieving mates. The Lord had not personally dealt with the specific matter of whether marriages between believers and unbelievers were valid marriages which were to be continued, but Paul would address himself to the subject (v. 12). Of course, when Paul spoke on the subject, he spoke as the Lord's ambassador under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; hence, the authority of Heaven was behind what he said. The point of verse 14 is that the marriage between a believer and an unbeliever is valid. This being the case, the teaching of Jesus applies to such a marriage, for His teaching had to do with marriages in general.

In making the point that the marriage between an unbeliever and a believer was valid, and that the believer ought therefore to continue living with the unbelieving mate, Paul hinted that some unbelievers might be unwilling to live with believers. He instructed the believer to dwell with the unbeliever if the unbeliever was pleased to dwell with the believer. Some unbelievers would not be willing to live with believers.

Because some unbelievers would be unwilling to live with believers, it was necessary to tell believers what to do if their unbelieving mates left them. This is the purpose of verse 15. Paul instructed them that if the unbeliever departed, they should let him depart. The believer should not try to force himself on the unbeliever who desired to leave.

Why should such instruction be necessary? Apparently, some Christians might have been inclined to force themselves on their unbelieving mates because of a deep sense of responsibility to fulfill their marital obligations. The Christian may have feared that if his mate left him, so that he could not fulfill his normal obligations to his mate, his failure to fulfill those obligations would be sinful. Paul, therefore, assured the saints that such was not the case. After saying to let the unbeliever depart, he alleviated their fear, assuring them that if the unbeliever departed, the believer would not be under bondage -- that is, under obligation to fulfill all the normal marital duties.

Some interpret the statement that they are "not under bondage" to mean that they are no longer married. However, the word that Paul used in verse 15 did not refer to the marriage bond. He spoke of the marriage bond in verses 27 and 39; but the word he used in verse 15 was one which was sometimes used to refer to a slave bound to his master; it was not used to refer to the marriage bond. In fact, Paul could not be saying that the marriage bond is broken by desertion; for verse 11 shows that the marriage bond is not broken by desertion. According to verse 11, if a woman deserts her husband, he is still her husband; she must either be reconciled to him or remain unmarried. The marriage bond, therefore, is not broken by desertion. Inasmuch as the marriage between an unbeliever and a believer is just as valid as any other marriage (vv. 12-14), the truth taught in verse 11 applies to it as well as to other marriages.

We must remember the purpose of Paul's saying that the deserted Christian is not under bondage. People today use this statement to prove that the deserted Christian is free to remarry. Paul was not trying to support that idea; whether the deserted Christian could remarry or not was not the problem he was dealing with. Paul's purpose was to support the instruction that believers should permit unbelievers to depart; he was trying to overcome the reluctance of some to let unbelieving mates depart. His point, therefore, was the believers would not be guilty of a sinful neglect of marital obligations if their unbelieving mates departed, for they would no longer be bound to fulfill their normal marital duties. Paul did not say the deserted mate was free to remarry; and, indeed, such a notion contradicts the clear teaching of Jesus on the matter (Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18).