What is meant by marrying “in [the] Lord” (1 Cor. 7: 39)?
It is quite probable that there were many marriages in the early Church where only one of the partners was converted. Some Christians might look on this as a reason for abandoning a marriage but Paul forbids this: “If any brother have an unbelieving wife, and she consent to dwell with him, let him not leave her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to dwell with her, let her not leave [her] husband” (1 Cor. 7: 12–13). According to Romans 7, the marriage bond can only be broken by death, such that if “the husband being alive, she shall be called an adulteress if she be to another man” (v3). 1 Cor. 7 reiterates this: “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).
Thus if a woman entered a marriage with an unbeliever, but was subsequently converted, she ought not to leave her husband if he consented to stay with her. However, if he died, the words “only in [the] Lord” would preclude her from entering into a second marriage with another unbeliever. It is quite clear from Scripture that Christians should not marry unbelievers: “Be not diversely yoked with unbelievers; for what participation [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness? … or what part for a believer along with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6: 14–15). The believing widow of 1 Cor. 7 was free to re–marry, but “only in [the] Lord” (v39, my emphasis). The most basic sense of “in [the] Lord” therefore seems to be that re–marriage was to be with another Christian.
This is born out by examining other Scriptures in which the expression occurs. Verse 22 for example, speaks of “the bondman that is called in [the] Lord”, and the sense there is simply of a slave that gets converted. Again, in Col. 4: 17, the expression refers to the ministry that Archippus had received as a Christian: “Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in [the] Lord, to the end that thou fulfil it”.
However, while this may be the basic meaning of the expression ‘in the Lord’, it does not follow that it encompasses the entire meaning. A related form of words, “in Christ Jesus”, refers to the believer’s position of acceptance and favour with God. Thus, “[There is] then now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1). Whatever my practical state as a Christian is, “in Christ” is my standing before God—He views me in all the worth of Christ. However, the expression ‘in the Lord’ is somewhat different in meaning, for this immediately brings to mind the question of practice. For example, “Wives, be subject to [your] husbands, as is fitting in [the] Lord” (Col. 3: 18)—I claim to be under the Lordship of Christ, therefore is my behaviour fitting for one who makes such a claim? Thus in Ph. 1: 16, a contrast is made between our natural condition of self–will (“in [the] flesh”) and that of being under the Lord’s authority (“in [the] Lord”).
God does not expect us to marry someone we do not wish to. In a culture of arranged marriages, Rebecca was asked “Wilt thou go with this man? And she said, I will go” (Gen. 24: 58). Thus in 1 Cor. 7, the widow is “free to be married to whom she will” (v39). However, her will is not to act alone, but in subjection to the will of the Lord. If we say that all marriages between Christians are ‘in the Lord’, then we are saying that they all have divine approval, which is clearly not true.
We live in days when the natural inclination of our hearts is given almost complete sway, even, sadly, among Christians. Thus the freedom of the woman (or the man, for that matter) “to be married to whom she will” is exercised without restraint, and the Lord’s name brought in to sanction liaisons which He never willed at all. For example, many would have it that Christian divorce is Scriptural and any subsequent marriages are ‘in the Lord’. A plea for grace in such situations is often made, but true grace does not flout the Word of the Lord we profess to serve: “A wife is bound for whatever time her husband lives” (v39). Indeed the Lord put the lack of grace firmly on the heads of those sanctioning divorce (see Matt. 19: 8).
Marriage ought never to be taken up merely on the basis of love and physical attraction. In 1 Cor. 9: 5, Paul states his apostolic right to “take round a sister [as] wife”. Apart from the fact that this reiterates the rule that Christians should only marry Christians, the use of the word “sister” suggests that the spiritual side must form part of the equation. Let us ensure then that marriage is entered in a sober frame of mind, as those “serving the Lord” (Rom. 12: 11) and not merely our own wills.