Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I was a senior in college in the spring of 1991. That year a song by the British punk rock band, the Clash, went to number one, although it was originally recorded in 1981.The song? Should I Stay or Should I Go?

That is the question being asked to Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-24. Should I stay or should I go?

The context is marriage.

Most of us will come to a crisis moment in marriage where we will ask that question. Should I stay or should I go?

What is God’s will for me? How can I know? This is what Paul is going to discuss. Should I remain married or pursue a divorce.

I want you to know that I am fully aware that this topic is really painful for many of us. It’s painful for me.

I remember sitting in church while in high school and hearing messages about divorce that were so condemning, ungracious and lacking empathy. They really bothered me because my mother was divorced.

As we go through this passage, I just want you to know that I understand the wounds and relate to the pain. There is grace upon grace for every sin and place of brokenness and pain.

My desire and prayer is that where a wound is opened, that the Spirit would use this message to bring substantive gospel healing to your soul.

We’ll begin where we left off last week, with verses 10-11.  

 

VERSES 10-11

10  To the married I give this command (not I,but the Lord):

Paul is referring to the teaching of Jesus onmarriage during his earthly ministry in passages such as Matthew 5:32, Matthew19:3-9, and Mark 10:5-12.

A wife must not separate from her husband.  11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.[1]

In verses 10-11, Paul is speaking about two believers who are married.

The words “separate” in verse 10 and “divorce” in verse 11 both mean “to sever and leave permanently”—not a temporary separation, but a legal divorce.

The teaching of Jesus is that when two believers are married they should not get divorced.[2]

However, if two believers do get divorced, they are to remain unmarried or be reconciled to their former spouse, unless the divorce is due to egregious sexual sin.

This is what Jesus says in Matthew 5:32, where he claims that “sexual immorality” is a justifiable ground for divorce between two believers.

The word Jesus uses in for “sexual immorality” is the same word Paul has used previously in 1 Corinthians—the word porneia.

Remember, Paul has gone to lengths to show how the physical union in marriage cannot be overstated in its significance. It is not just a physical union; it is a spiritual union.

Therefore, whatever would be considered porneia is grounds for divorce among believers. Adultery. Prostitution. Internet pornography.

We should be clear that, while porneia is grounds for divorce, it does not require divorce.

Nevertheless, I think that if more of us realized that we are jeopardizing our marriages and our families with pornography, we just might be willing to get help, and start loving our families in a way that might look like the prophecy of Malachi 4:6, “[And the LORD] will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”[3]

This is what pornography does. It turns our eyes away from our children and spouses and leads to relational destruction. But when we turn out eyes back to them in love, really, really good things are possible as the Spirit brings relational restoration within families.

Having addressed two believers, in verses 12-13 Paul turns to marriages between a believer and someone who is not a believer.

 

VERSES 12-13

12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord):

Paul is not saying that his teaching is not authoritative. He is simply distinguishing between his own apostolic instruction and the public teaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry, since Paul is addressing a situation Jesus didn’t specifically address—a believer being married to an unbeliever.[4] The Corinthians were wondering, “If a believer finds himself or herself married to an unbeliever, should he stay or should he go?”

12b If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him [i.e., remain married], he must not divorce 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 him.

Should a believer stay if the unbeliever is willing to remain married? Yes. Absolutely.

Paul adds some additional explanation in verse 14.

 

VERSE 14

14 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.

The word Paul uses for “sanctified” is the Greek word hagios, which means holy—a  word that has two primary meanings.

  • One meaning of holy is “to be pure and blameless.”
  • The other meaning of holy is “to be set apart as unique.”[5]

All members in the Old Testament nation of Israel were considered holy by God in the sense of being set apart as unique from other nations. Being set apart, or holy in this sense, qualified those associated with the community to participate in the ceremonial life of the Jewish community.

This is why Paul brings up the ceremonial language of clean vs unclean. Someone who was unclean was considered outside the covenant community. But those who were clean were considered inside the covenant community, and eligible to participate in the ceremonial life of the congregation.

Notice that it is the children who are considered clean—not the unbelieving spouse. It is the marital association with the believing spouse that makes the unbelieving partner sanctified for the sake of the offspring—so that, as children of a believer, they would be qualified to participate in the ceremonial initiation rite into the covenant community, which in the Old Testament was circumcision and in the new is baptism.[6]

Now, in verses 15-16 Paul continues to deal with the mixed spiritual marriage by providing a second ground for divorce in addition to the ground established by Jesus in the gospels.

 

VERSES 15-16

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?

In verse 16, Paul is referring to the hope that a believing spouses influence will lead to his or her partner coming to saving faith in Jesus. That is a noble and understandable motive in wanting to keep the marriage together.

However, in verse 15 Paul makes the case that it may be better to let an unbelieving spouse leave if he wants to leave. In this case, desertion becomes a permissible ground for divorce with the allowance for remarriage.

 

VERSE 17

17 Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.

In Corinth and all over the Roman world, people were being converted from paganism to Christianity.

They were asking: What changes should we make as followers of Jesus?

Should we disassociate from old friends? Should we change jobs? Our appearance? Should we stay in our marriages or leave for new spouses or no spouses? This would have been especially pressing for believers in marriages to those who didn’t follow Jesus.

In verses 18-24 Paul gives some examples of why we typically should stay right where we are—right where the Lord called us when we were converted.

 

VERSES 18-24

18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.

20 Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.

These examples are intended to reinforce the principle that, with limited exceptions, when we ask the question “should I stay or should I go,” God typically calls us to stay.

Not to run from hardship and challenge, but to face it and stay the course.

Like the Washington National Monument Society.

In 1836, the fledgling Washington National Monument Society announced it had chosen Robert Mills to be the architect of a soon-to-be-constructed monument to honor the nation’s first president. Mills dreamed big, envisioning a granite obelisk soaring 555 feet high, which would be the tallest grantie structure in the world.  

However, due to a lack of funding, construction wasn’t able to begin until over a decade later. Then, the engineers realized that the ground for the original site was too soft, forcing them to re-locate and start over.

After six years of work on the monument, the project continued to face challenge after challenge and obstacle after obstacle. It was slow going and it was hard going. In 1854, Robert Mills died and construction stopped.

What remained of Mills’ dream was an unimpressive 150-foot stump.

But his vision would not die. Twenty-four years after his death the project was resurrected and four years later, in 1884, a cast-aluminum cap was placed over the 555 foot granite tip. Today over a million people travel to Washington to see the realization of Mill’s dream.[7]

In some ways, the history of the Washington Monument is a parable of marriage. The dream is born with such hopes. Then we face challenges and obstacles, which cause us to ask, “Should I stay or should I go?” Stick it out or give it up.

We’ve learned that there are times to leave. But we’ve also learned that most of the time, in most of the cases, we are called to stay—with the long view of what is possible in God’s plan.

If a granite dream can be resurrected, so can a marriage.

If we’ll stay.

Isn’t this what the cross is about? Where Jesus shows us what it looks like to stay.

The nails didn’t keep Jesus on the cross. He chose to stay. He chose to suffer the penalty we deserved so that we could be reconciled to the Father—the Father who calls us his very own and has promised never to let us go.

Have you received this grace?

When we experience the impact of the staying power of the gospel, we are endued with the same enabling grace—the grace to stay. The grace to endure and persevere. The grace to love. The grace to show others what grace looks like.

 


[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 456. Some persons have attempted to make an important distinction between ἀφίημι in 1 Cor 7:11, 13 and χωρίζω in 1 Cor 7:15 on the assumption that ἀφίημι implies legal divorce, while χωρίζω only relates to separation. Such a distinction, however, seems to be quite artificial.

[2] One reason is because genuine believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have the resources needed to experience true repentance, forgiveness, and relational restoration.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mal 4:6.

[4] Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), 1 Co 7:11–12.

[5] Cf. 1 Tim. 4:5; Heb. 9:13; 1 Pet. 3:15[5]

[6] According to Paul, the children of even one believer are categorically different from the children of two unbelievers.

[7] Kevin A. Miller, Secrets of Staying Power (Word, 1988).

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