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QUESTION: Re Excommunication of One Violating 1 Cor 7:39


I received the following question by direct email:

A Christian brother wants to know if some action, i.e. disfellowship, should be taken against those marrying the second time ‘outside the Lord’ in relationship to 1 Cor. 7:39. Have you ever heard of anyone being disfellowshiped because of his or her second marriage? I value your opinion.

I don’t know why my opinion is of more value than any other man’s opinion, but I’ll still attempt a Biblical answer to this question.

The Christian brother’s question about withdrawing fellowship from someone who marries a second time not “in the Lord” [as per 1 Corinthians 7:39 – “…if her husband dies, she is at liberty to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (NKJV)] seems hard to reconcile with the response of Jesus to the woman taken in the actual act of adultery in John 8:2-11.

In John 8, Jesus addressed a woman taken in the very act of adultery and refused to condemn her, but did caution her to leave her life of sin (v. 11). Now, it is true that to “condemn” her in this context likely meant to bear witness against her. Deuteronomy 17:6-7 says that for the death penalty to be inflicted, it must only be on the testimony of two or three witnesses and that “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death….” In a legitimate trial, Jesus could not be a witness against her since He had not witnessed her act of adultery. When the potential witnesses excused themselves, He in effect said that He could not bear witness against her – and more than that, He was only one where the Law demanded two or three in a capital case.

In the context of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul noted several instances where he recommended that people remain single, but where he said marriage was permitted. See, for example, vv 7-9 and vv. 25-28. In the first of these, he spoke about “the unmarried” and “the widows.”  In the second, he addressed virgins and those “loosed from a wife.” In each he said that his judgment was that it was better for them to remain single, but “even if you do marry, you have not sinned” (v. 28). There were circumstances that made being single wiser than being married “because of the present distress” (v. 26).

In verse 40 he specifically says the same of the widow: “But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment – and I think I also have the Spirit of God.

Granted, if she marries, it is far better to marry in the Lord. In the context of the other statements in this chapter, I doubt that Paul’s intent here is to say it is sinful for her to marry a non-Christian. Some think it is always sinful for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, but their argument is weak. Most base this position on 2 Corinthians 6:14-15.

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? and what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?

If this applies to marriage, then his instruction 2 verses later (v. 17) would apply:

Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you”

This would contradict what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:12-13.

If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And if a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him.

2 Corinthians says to separate from the unequal yoke; 1 Corinthians says do not divorce the unbeliever if s/he is willing to live with the believer.

So, to take 1 Corinthians 7:39 as an absolute prohibition of a widow’s marrying one who is “not in the Lord” seems to be going beyond what Paul is saying when you look at all he says on the subject of marriage.

I would consider such a marriage to be unwise (because it is much easier for a non Christian to pull the Christian down than for the Christian to elevate the non Christian to full participation in the kingdom of God). I do not think that it is necessarily “sin.” Or, if it is sin, I wonder if it would come to the level of sin that would require withdrawal of fellowship.

As I understand it, there are only three just causes for withdrawal of fellowship:

  1. Gross immorality, as in 1 Corinthians 5. See especially vv. 9-11.
  2. Dividing the body of Christ, as in Titus 3:9-11.
  3. Denying the Lordship of Christ, as in 2 Peter 2:1-3 & 2 John 7-11.

When I see churches with drawing fellowship from people who are covetous, or who split churches over disputable opinions, or who promote themselves instead of Jesus as Lord, then I might be more accepting of similar action toward those who violate a marriage that does not meet the standard of 1 Corinthians 7:39.

Is it wise for any Christian to marry a non-Christian? No, it is not. Is it wise? No, it is not. But there are many things that are not wise that are not sinful. I do not believe it would be wise for me to get into a pasture with an angry bull – but would it be sinful? We must also ask if every sin demands withdrawal of fellowship. I do not believe it does, as I discuss above.

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