“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:10-16)
The advice from Paul, about staying married, carries apostolic authority. We should appreciate that Paul differentiates his recommendations from the commands of the Lord at the same time valuing his wise and consistent guidance for couples. Here Paul addresses those marriages that are made up of a believer and an unbeliever and gives good reasons why believers should stay married, following God’s command to do so. There are several passages in the New Testament where Jesus’s teaching about divorce is recorded, comparing it to adultery in some cases. (See Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18.)
Jesus’s proclamation in Matthew 19:6, “What…God has joined together, let not man separate,” is consistent with his statute that “a man shall…hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” in Genesis 2:24. Paul’s reasoning, therefore, is also consistent. However, let us not misunderstand two biblical doctrines that may come into question here. First of all, nowhere in the Bible does God encourage believers to marry unbelievers. In Deuteronomy 7:1-4 God forbade the Israelites from intermarrying with non-Israelites whom they had captured in battle. Ezra and Nehemiah both rebuked the Jews who had married Gentiles in Jerusalem during and after the exile. In addition, Paul makes a solid case forbidding intermarriage with unbelievers in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?…What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God.”
In some cases, Christians are married before they are regenerated, and then one spouse may be converted while the other isn’t. The believer is the “temple of the living God,” with the indwelling Holy Spirit who may be used by the Lord to bring the other to true faith. But the second mistake would be to think that their spouse’s regeneration is definite, easy, based on human will, or based on any human effort. I can’t imagine a more challenging circumstance than for a Christian spouse to be married to an unbeliever. I have family members and friends who disagree strongly with my Christian beliefs and biblical truths—this is challenging for all parties. However, in Paul’s example, because the unbelieving spouse is in an intimate relationship with a believer, this “sets them apart” from a completely secular life.
Are you considering marrying an unbeliever? Don’t. The Bible is clear. Are you married to an unbeliever? Stay married. Are you trying to save your unbelieving spouse? Stop—only Christ can save souls, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Do you struggle with how to relate to your unbelieving spouse? God has a plan for you both; trust him and live the gospel with love, holiness, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, for God’s glory, your sake, and your spouse’s welfare.