Doesn’t 1 Cor. 7: 15 prove that a spouse who is abandoned by their partner is free to remarry?
Those who think that desertion is grounds for divorce in the sight of God usually quote the middle part of this verse as their proof text: “let them go away; a brother or a sister is not bound in such [cases]”. Of course, with a highly emotive subject like divorce, people are apt to clutch at any Scripture they see as favourable to their cause, but sound interpretation of God’s Word requires that we look at the Bible as a whole and not merely at isolated texts. What those who support divorce on grounds of desertion seem oblivious to is that they make the words of Paul contradict the words of Christ! Thus in Matt: 5: 32 the Lord says: “whosoever shall put away his wife, except for cause of fornication, makes her commit adultery, and whosoever marries one that is put away commits adultery.” Thus divorce on any grounds apart from fornication is completely unacceptable to the Lord. In His eyes, such divorces are invalid, the partners are viewed as still married, and any subsequent unions are adulterous. Thus unless the apostle is at variance with his Master, he cannot be teaching the annulment of marriage on grounds of desertion in 1 Cor. 7: 15!
As a matter of fact, 1 Cor. 7 does not mention divorce––indeed, apolouo, the Greek word for divorce, is not found anywhere in the epistle. Remarriage is mentioned once, but only in terms that do not include divorce: “A wife is bound for whatever time her husband lives; but if the husband be fallen asleep, she is free to be married to whom she will, only in [the] Lord” (v39).
What 1 Cor. 7 does say is: “Let not wife be separated from husband; (but if also she shall have been separated, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband;) and let not husband leave wife” (v10, 11). Separation yes, but nothing about divorce. Reconciliation yes, but nothing about remarriage. Some point out that the separated wife is called “unmarried” as if that meant she was free to enter a second, fresh marital union. Not so, for rather than remaining separated it is better she is reconciled to one Paul calls “her husband”. Clearly “unmarried” here is in a physical rather than a legal sense––to all practical purposes she is living as a single woman. The apostle encourages a physical reconciliation, but even if that does not happen, he gives no support whatsoever to a legal annulment.
When we come to verses 12–16 the apostle is dealing with the specific case of a marriage in which one of the spouses is unconverted and this must be taken account of when interpreting verse 15! However, despite the unbalanced nature of such a marriage, the apostle will not countenance any measure of breakdown in the tie. Hence: “If any brother have an unbelieving wife, and she consent to dwell with him, let him not leave her” (v12). The unbelief of the one is not grounds for separation, let alone divorce. However: “if the unbeliever go away, let them go away; a brother or a sister is not bound in such [cases], but God has called us in peace” (v15). So does this mean that if the unconverted spouse departs that the one left behind is free to remarry––“not bound” in the sight of God to the marriage? Not at all. There are two Greek words translated “bound” in the chapter, and the difference between them is instructive. Attention has already been drawn to verse 39: “A wife is bound for whatever time her husband lives”. The Greek word for “bound” there is deo and means to be tied together. The sense is that only death can undo the marriage bond (see also Rom. 7: 2). Compare this with verse 15: “a brother or a sister is not bound in such [cases]”. Here the Greek word for “bound” is douloo, and means to be enslaved or under bondage. Thus if the unconverted spouse goes away, the one remaining is “no longer under bondage”. The question is, under bondage to what? Marriage involves certain responsibilities. Thus, for example: “Let the husband render her due to the wife, and in like manner the wife to the husband” (v3). When a man or woman get married, they put themselves “under bondage” to those responsibilities. Of course the husband is “head of the wife” (Eph. 5: 23), but headship does not mean that the responsibilities of the husband to the wife can be ignored. Both are obligated to look after one another. However, if a spouse runs off, then the remaining spouse is freed from those responsibilities and is no longer bound in that sense. For example, in Biblical times a wife was totally dependent on her husband (hence the provision given in Scripture for widows). If, however, she went away, then her husband was no longer bound to discharge his duty to her. Thus when 1 Cor 7: 15 speaks of a brother or sister not being “bound” it means they are freed from the duties of marriage––not marriage itself.