Instructions for Believers Married to Unbelievers (7:12-16)
Paul has instructed believing couples about divorce. Now he turns to "the rest," the bulk of the Corinthian believers whose spouses aren't yet Christians. Note that Paul qualifies his comments ("I, not the Lord"). He speaks on his own authority as an apostle; he is not passing on direct commands of Jesus as in verses 10 and 11.
"12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce (aphiēmi) her.
13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce (aphiēmi) him." (7:12-13)
Notice that Paul qualifies mixed marriages (believer with unbeliever) with the condition, "If ... he/she is willing to live with her/him." The verb is syneudokeō, "to join in approval, agree with, approve of, consent to, sympathize with." He commands the believing spouse not to divorce the unbelieving spouse, so long as the unbelieving spouse wants to continue the marriage. To be practical, according to prevailing law in Corinth, there was nothing the believing spouse could do to prevent a divorce if the unbelieving spouse insisted on ending the marriage. But Paul does command a believing spouse not to initiate "divorce by separation."
Now Paul gives a reason for maintaining the marriage insofar as it is possible:
"For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." (7:14)
Verse 14 is notoriously difficult to interpret with confidence. What does Paul mean by saying that the unbelieving spouse and children are "sanctified" by the believer. In what sense are the offspring of the marriage of a believer with an unbeliever "clean" and "holy"? The verb "sanctified" (NIV, KJV), "made holy" (NRSV) is hagiazō, "make holy," here, "consecrate, sanctify" by contact with what is holy. Does this mean that the unbelieving spouse is somehow converted by osmosis? Verse 16 excludes this explanation. So what does it mean?
It probably means that, with the Christian spouse in the picture, there is a strong possibility that the children will become believers and that the non-Christian spouse will come to faith. There is no guarantee of this, as verse 16 indicates. But there is the hope, and this is a good reason to continue the marriage, if possible. The believer is not defiled by such a marriage, as some of the Corinthians may have maintained. Rather, the unbeliever is in a sense sanctified by the relationship, and the children will be profoundly influenced towards Christ by living in a household with a Christian parent.
In Malachi, as an argument against divorce, we read:
"Has not [the Lord] made them one? ... And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth." (Malachi 2:15)
The chance that "godly offspring" will result from a mixed marriage goes way up when the Christian does not leave the marriage.
However, Paul is a realist. Sometimes the unbelieving spouse refuses to live with a Christian spouse and just leaves.
"15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?" (7:15-16)
The believing spouse should work to maintain the marriage, but if the unbelieving spouse divorces the believer, be willing to let the unbeliever go, says Paul, for there is no guarantee that you would have saved the unbelieving husband if he had stayed in the marriage.
Paul makes a interesting statement in verse 15b.
"A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace." (7:15b)
"Bound" (NIV, NRSV), "under bondage" (KJV) is douloō, "to make someone a slave," here figuratively, "to make one subservient to one's interests, cause to be like a slave." Here, passively, "to be bound (as a slave)."In what sense is the believing spouse free? Commentators have suggested three possibilities: