1 Corinthians 7 marriage divorce abuse virgins

In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul deals with the subjects of sex, marriage, divorce, and singleness, and he reveals his egalitarian views. There is no hint here of the male-only authority and leadership that many Christians assume is part of God’s design in marriage.

Here are some of Paul’s statements taken from the 2011 NIV:

Each man should have his own wife.
Each woman should have her own husband. (1 Cor. 7:2)

The husband should fulfil his [marital] duty to his wife.
Likewise the wife to her husband. (1 Cor. 7:3)

The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband.
The husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:4)[1]

Neither should deprive the other except by mutual consent and for a time. . . (1 Cor. 7:5)[2]

The wife must not separate from her husband, but if she does, she should remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.
The husband must not divorce his wife. (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

If a brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her
If a woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not send him away. (1 Cor. 7:12-13)

The unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife [3]
and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband . . . (1 Cor. 7:14)

If the unbeliever leaves, let him do so.  A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.  (1 Cor. 7:15)[4]

How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?
How do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor. 7:16)

An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs…
An unmarried woman is concerned about the Lord’s affairs… (1 Cor. 7:32-34)

A married man is concerned about the things of the world: how he may please his wife
A married woman is concerned about the things of the world; how she may please her husband (1 Cor. 7:33)

Philip B. Payne comments on 1 Corinthians chapter 7 and writes:

The strikingly egalitarian understanding of the dynamics of marital relations expressed in Paul’s symmetry throughout this passage is without parallel in the literature of the ancient world. It is all the more impressive because it is focused on the marriage relationship, a relationship that traditionalists regard as intrinsically hierarchical based on the “created order.” Against a cultural backdrop where men were viewed as possessing their wives, Paul states in 7:2, “let each woman have her own husband.” Against a cultural backdrop where women were viewed as owing sexual duty to their husbands, Paul states in 7:3, “Let the husband fulfill his marital duty to his wife.” It is hard to imagine how revolutionary it was for Paul to write in 7:4, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does.”
Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009, 106-107.

Some food for thought here!


[1] The NASB translates 1 Corinthians 7:4 more literally as: “The wife does not have authority (exousia) over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise the husband does not have authority (exousia) over his own body, but the wife does.” I have written about the meaning of this verse here.

[2] The idea that the husband is the final arbiter in difficult decisions has no biblical basis whatsoever. The only biblical precedent I can find for decision-making in marriage is here in 1 Corinthians 7:5 where it speaks about husbands and wives making a mutual decision.

[3] “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife” (1 Cor. 7:14a). How do Christians who believe that husbands have some sort of spiritual authority over their wives, or some kind of sanctifying role (cf. Eph. 5:26-27) explain 1 Corinthians 7:14a?

[4] Not being “bound” means, in effect, that the believer is free and released from his or her wedding vows (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). More on Paul’s words on divorce in 1 Cor. 7 here.

© 26th of June, 2010; Margaret Mowczko

Addendum: Someone recently asked me about Paul’s teaching on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 and whether it allows for an abused spouse to leave their abuser. Here’s my response.

The context of 1 Corinthians 7:1ff is men and women who were renouncing sex and separating from their spouses because they believed they were living in the resurrection era and were like the genderless and sexless angels. The instructions given in this passage must be seen in this light.

The theme of ‘not changing one’s status’ because of some pressing situation is another factor to take into consideration. Paul preferred the singles to stay single and the married to stay married, etc. (It is doubtful that this is a valid concern in most societies today.) 1 Corinthians 7 simply doesn’t consider marital abuse. It wasn’t the situation at hand.

Abuse is an acceptable reason for leaving a marriage. Physical abuse and neglect were acceptable reasons for divorce in ancient Israelite society. They were practically a given, which is perhaps one reason why the Bible barely mentions the reasons.

When a couple married in ancient times, as now, there were expectations and promises, either implicit or articulated. When a spouse repeatedly breaks these promises, the marriage contract is effectively broken and divorce is permissible. (In the Roman colony of Corinth, divorce was easy for both men and women; it was common and relatively stigma-free.)

Paul had a high view of the marriage and was trying to prevent divorce. He was not, however, suggesting an abused spouse should stay with their abuser. He does not cover this scenario in his instructions in 1 Corinthians 7.
Update: I now have a blog post on Paul’s words on divorce: https://margmowczko.com/abuse-divorce-1-corinthians-7/

Related Articles

1 Corinthians 7:4, in a Nutshell
Leading Together in the Home

Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
A Suitable Helper
Articles on divorce here.