"The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord." (I Cor.7:39).

This passage has occasioned a great deal of discussion over the years. Good brethren have differed as to its meaning and application. Some brethren believe and teach that in principle this passage forbids a Christian (any Christian; single, widow/widower. or scripturally divorced), from marrying one who is not a Christian. As this is being written, I have before me a bulletin article by a faithful Gospel preacher in which he takes this position, using this passage as his "proof-text." While it is not our intention, in this article, to deal in great detail with the question, "Is it a sin for a Christian (any Christian) to marry someone who is not a Christian?," suffice it is to say that I do not believe we can take a passage where Paul is specifically speaking about widows, and make general application to all Christians. But in studying this particular passage, let us give attention to a phrase contained therein which has become a focal point of much discussion and difference.


Many good brethren hold that the phrase " the Lord," means "according to the Lord's will;" not necessarily denoting or demanding that one is a Christian. I have never been able to accept this position inasmuch as (1) It does not seem the natural or usual meaning of the phrase (a fundamental rule in good exegesis); and (2) It does not comport with the meaning of the phrase in other passages. For example, I doubt anyone would take the position that in Rev.14:13 the phrase "...Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord...," means "Those which die according to the Lord's will," but rather we teach that it means Christians - those who have been baptized into the Lord and His body, the church (Cf Rom.6:3; 1 Cor.12-13; Gal.3:27), and who are faithful in his service. But someone will surely say, "Yes, but what about the phrase in Eph. 6:1?;" "Children, obey your parents in the Lord . . ." "Does this not mean 'according to the Lord's will?" Let's consider it for a moment. Does it mean that children are to obey only when the parent's commands are in harmony with the Lord's will? I like the comments of Wilbur Fields on this passage in his commentary on Ephesians:

"It is most unlikely that Paul meant that children were to judge whether or not the things their parents commanded were in harmony with the Lord's will. Most children would not be capable of deciding such things. The duty of the child is to obey. Naturally, the Christian child or youth would refuse to sacrifice to an idol, or drink liquor, or do such things, even if told to do them by a parent. However, commands that could be disobeyed because they were obviously sinful would be very rare. In the Lord simply means because you are in the Lord, or because you are Christians. It has always been the duty of children who served the Lord to obey their parents " (THE GLORIOUS CHURCH, p.179)

To my mind, this is the most logical and harmonious meaning of the phrase in Eph.6:1. In sum then, I believe that the phrase "in the Lord" in I Cor.7:39, means what it is generally understood to mean, a Christian.

It's application today

Is it a sin, then, today, for a Christian who is a widow to marry one who is not a Christian? In years gone by, this has been my position; however, further study has forced me to conclude that we can not find this requirement on a widow today. Now, please, gentle reader, before you become emotionally wrought-up and write me off as a heretic, hear me out. Solomon said: "He that answereth a matter before be heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.'' (Prov.18:13).

I am well aware of the fact that at this point. I have already "lost" those who take the position that it is a sin for a Christian (any Christian), to marry one who is not a Christian. That is obviously not my position, of course, because as strongly as I feel about Christians marrying Christians, I cannot find the passage so limiting them. I know that some will say "What about II Cor.6:14?" Most brethren recognize that while we might talk of principle here, Paul is specifically discussing idolatry in this passage, not marriage. But someone might say at this juncture, ''This fellow is encouraging Christians, to marry sinners." Friend, do me not an injustice in this regard, please! I feel so strongly about Christians marrying Christians that I have refused, on more than one occasion, to perform a ceremony for a Christian who was planning union with one not a Christian. I have never been able to understand why a son of the Lord, or a daughter of the Lord, would want to marry a or daughter of the world! But most brethren who hold the position that such is sin (which, I suppose many of us who feel so strongly would like to believe and teach), are not consistent in that they do not withdraw from a Christian who contracts marriage with one not a Christian. What passage/passages would be used? But again, a full and comprehensive treatment of this subject in general, though inextricably related to our discussion, is not the intention of this article inasmuch as we wish to focus attention particularly on I Cor.7:39.

Consider the Context

One of the fundamental rules of good Bible exegesis is "Keep the passage in context!" Consider what goes before and after; circumstances involved at the time of writing, etc. We have taught this for years, and it is right.

Someone said long ago; "A passage out of context becomes a pretext!" But what about I Cor.7:39? Could it be, brethren, that we have excised it from context? Let me elaborate. Why do we generally teach that many of the things Paul said concerning marriage (not all of it, to be sure), should be understood as being qualified by his statement contained in verse 26: "I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress..." but verse 39 is not so qualified? But consider the teaching in the verse preceding and the one following. We do not generally teach, based upon Paul's statement in verse 38, that a man is better off today to discourage his daughter from marrying, yet Paul plainly said: "...he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better" (than he who did). Nor do we generally teach, based upon Paul's statement in verse 40 that a widow is better off not to remarry, yet Paul said: "But she is happier if she so abide" (single). You will recall that he said in I Tim.5:14 "I will therefore that the younger women (widows-NASB) marry..." Thus I believe that for that time ("... the present distress," v.26), these instructions were given for their own good. As he said in verse 35: "And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly . . ." At that time a man who was "loosed from a wife...," should "seek not a wife" (v.27); a virgin daughter as better off not to marry, and a widow would be happier not to remarry (but if she did it was to be "...only in the Lord," i.e., a Christian). It was not a sin for any of these to marry, but due to circumstances they would be better off not to do so at this time. As we read in verses 28-30: "But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice..." (NASB). Thus Paul discouraged any from marrying or remarrying at this time, but we do not do so today because we understand the circumstances and that we would be taking these instructions out of context. I believe this applies to verse 39 also. I certainly recognize that I could be in error, but at this point I believe that 1 Cor.7:39 should be qualified by the context; that for that time a widow who was a Christian could only marry a Christian. But are we not taking it out of context to make it applicable for all time? Especially when we recognize that the teaching in the preceding verse (35) and the following verse (40), was given because of a particular circumstance and is not, therefore, to be understood as binding for all time.

I suppose I may get some strong letters charging that I am "encouraging God's children to marry sinners." But it is not so, brethren. I would like to bind 1 Cor.7:39 today. I would like to find the passage or passages that state it is a sin for a child of God to marry a non-Christian. I feel that strongly about it, but neither I nor you, nor anyone, dare bind where God has not bound. Neither, of course, should we misapply any passage, no matter how strongly we feel!

By Kenneth A. Sterling VANGUARD Vol.3, #6

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