“Only in the Lord”

by Bob Buchanon

Would you please explain the phrase “in the Lord” found in I Corinthians 7:39? Does this mean that if the widow chooses to remarry, she would only be allowed to marry one who is a Christian or “in the Lord”?

The phrase “in the Lord” is prepositional and must modify either a subject, predicate, or object. Deciding whether it is an adjective (modifying the subject or object) or an adverb (modifying the verb) will help us understand the passage. To help us understand the meaning in I Corinthians 7:39, let us note how the phrase is used in another passage. Paul’s statement in Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.” Now what is to be “in the Lord” — the children, the parents, or the obedience of the children? If we place “in the Lord” as modifying the subject, we are saying that only Christian children have the duty to obey parents. If “in the Lord” modifies the object, then children have a duty to obey parents only when the parents are Christians. If, however, the phrase modifies “obey,” then children must obey their parents in all things where they can without disobeying the Lord. In other words, “in the Lord” is an adverb modifying their obedience.

In I Corinthians 7, if “in the Lord” modifies the subject, it means the woman must be “in the Lord.” But the entire chapter gives marriage instructions for Christians, so that would be rather redundant. If “in the Lord” modifies the object, it means the man she marries must be “in the Lord.” If the phrase modifies the predicate (as it did in Ephesians 6:1), it means the marriage itself must be “in the Lord.” Within the context of the entire passage, and by comparing the reading and meaning with Ephesians 6:1, it seems to me that the last explanation is the correct one. The simple meaning is that the widow must not marry anyone who will prevent her from “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). She is “free to marry whom she will,” but only when such marriage will not interfere with her faithful service to the Lord.