Christians sometimes find themselves married to non- Christians, and Paul says that in such cases, Christians should remain married as long as their non-Christian spouses are willing. Instead of rendering the believing spouse unholy, the marital union actually sanctifies the unbelieving spouse and the children born to the marriage (1 Cor. 7:12–14). As we have noted, this does not mean that the marriage in itself saves the unbelieving spouse; rather, the unbelieving spouse is set apart to God in a special way. The nineteenth-century Reformed theologian Charles Hodge explains one way this happens. A pagan husband “assumed a new relation; he was set apart to the service of God, as the guardian of one of his chosen ones, and as the parent of children who, in virtue of their believing mother, were children of the covenant.”
What happens, however, when the unbelieving spouse won’t consent to live with a believer? The Apostle, speaking in the name of Christ, says that the Christian may divorce and remarry when an unbeliever wants out of the marriage—when the unbeliever abandons the union (v. 15). Note that such abandonment can constitute more than just a professed unbeliever’s wanting to leave a marriage. As the church has considered the Bible’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and other matters such as spousal roles and responsibilities, the church has come to recognize that abandonment also includes such things as continual, impenitent spousal or child abuse.
Scripture teaches that Christians may divorce and remarry in the case of abandonment, but it also allows for the same in the case of adultery. When one spouse is sexually unfaithful to the other, the spouse who is innocent of adultery may—but is not required to—divorce the adulterous husband or wife and remarry another. Jesus tells us as much in Matthew 19:1–9. Divorce for other reasons besides abandonment and adultery is unacceptable for Christians.
Our hearts are deceitful (Jer. 17:9), so we should take care lest we seek a divorce for frivolous reasons where these exceptions do not apply. Thus, godly and wise church elders are needed to help consider cases of divorce and remarriage under the authority of God’s Word in order to preserve the holiness of the church and protect the innocent party in a divorce. Life’s complexities can make this difficult, but there is wisdom in a multitude of godly counselors called and trained to keep watch over our souls (Prov. 11:14; Heb. 13:17).