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1 Corinthians 7:39–40

“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (v. 39).

Paul’s instruction on marriage and sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7:1–38 has covered a variety of situations. From his counsel to married Christians who thought it holy to abstain from sexual intercourse to his words to Christians married to unbelievers to his advice regarding betrothed believers, one consistent idea has emerged. The controlling theme is that whereas marriage is a good and holy option for the Christian and that married couples are to enjoy all aspects of married life, believers are also free to remain single, and it may be better for them to do so in certain instances. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul’s commands regarding divorce as possible only in very select circumstances implies a key truth: marriage is a lifelong union that should not be dissolved for frivolous reasons.

In today’s passage, Paul concludes his teaching on sex and marriage and makes explicit what was earlier only implicit—that marriage is normally a bond that only death should dissolve. Using the example of a woman whose husband has died, Paul says that the widow is bound to that husband only as long as he lives and that if he dies, she is free to remarry (v. 39). In light of the particular difficulties the Corinthian church was facing, Paul still thinks it better for her not to remarry, but this is no universal law (v. 40). Thus, widows may freely enter into marriage with another after their husbands die and are not sinning if they do so. The same applies to widowers as well.

The Apostle does give one restriction on remarriage—that it must be “only in the Lord” (v. 40). Most commentators have recognized that this means a Christian widow or widower may remarry only another believer. It is one thing to find oneself in a marriage to an unbeliever because one is converted to Christ after marriage or if a professing Christian spouse rejects his or her profession of faith. It is quite another for a believer to intentionally marry one known to be a non-Christian. To do so is sin. Some believers have intentionally married non-Christians when they were free to do otherwise, and God will forgive them if they repent, but it is never something a believer should set out to do.

Paul concludes his advice by saying that he thinks he has the Holy Spirit (v. 40). He is not expressing doubt about his possession of salvation, but he is noting that his advice on singleness as better than married life for some is given under the direction of the Spirit. It is divinely inspired wisdom to be applied where appropriate.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

Some Christians date and marry non-Christians because they are hoping they will be converted. Such behavior is unwise and sinful. Nonbelievers can be converted through the influence of a Christian spouse (1 Cor. 7:16), but it is by no means guaranteed. Christians must seek to marry only other professing Christians.

For Further Study
  • Genesis 2
  • Ruth 3
  • 1 Samuel 25
  • Romans 7:2

Doing Well and Doing Better

The Beginning of Marriage

Keep Reading The Christian Ethic

From the March 2021 Issue
Mar 2021 Issue