“The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believer”? Examining 1 Corinthians 7:13-16 (Part One)

Some time ago I received this letter from a reader:

The scripture that caused more pain, confusion and hopelessness in my two-decade bondage in an abusive marriage was this one from 1 Cor.7:13-16.  

“If you’re a woman married to an unbeliever and he wants to live with you, hold onto him. The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife…otherwise YOUR CHILDREN WOULD BE LEFT OUT; as it is, they also are included in the spiritual purposes of God. . . . For how do you know O wife whether YOU WILL SAVE your husband.” 

Ohhh, the pain, the staggering confounding pain these verses have caused.

*****

The woman who wrote to me used a paraphrase of the Bible, but since I want to study exactly what is being said here, I’m using Young’s Literal translation and a lexicon. (And as usual when I talk about the Greek, I’m asking my Greek expert friend Sam Powell to check my “Greek talk” for me. Thank you, Sam!)

The Scripture: 1 Corinthians 7:13-16

13 and a woman who hath a husband unbelieving, and he is pleased to dwell with her, let her not send him away [or forsake him];

14a for the unbelieving husband hath been sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife hath been sanctified in the husband;

14b otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.

15 And, if the unbelieving doth separate himself — let him separate himself: the brother or the sister is not under servitude in such [cases], and in peace hath God called us;

16 for what, hast thou known, O wife, whether the husband thou shalt save? or what, hast thou known, O husband, whether the wife thou shalt save?

This passage of Scripture has often been put forward as one that promotes full mutuality, and it does, speaking of husband and wife equally, going back and forth between them seamlessly.

But that still doesn’t answer some basic questions.

  • If any unbelieving spouse wants to keep living in the house, does that mean the believing spouse has no choice but to let him stay?
  • Can the believer actually make the unbelieving spouse holy?
  • Does a believer staying with an unbelieving spouse mean the children will be born again?
  • Should the believer persevere with the unbelieving spouse in hopes that she will be the cause of his salvation?

Though the Scripture makes it clear that this passage applies to either husband or wife as believer or unbeliever, since it was a woman who wrote to me, for this post I’ll present the wife as the believer and the husband as the unbeliever.

Verse 13: If the unbelieving husband wants to stay, let him stay

13 and a woman who hath a husband unbelieving, and he is pleased to dwell with her [in companionship], let her not send him away [or forsake him];

Who is the unbelieving husband?

He is a man who holds a straightforward statement of unbelief, “I am not a Christian. I am not a follower of Jesus Christ.” This is a man who is not a hypocrite in his unbelief.

The historical context helps us with this one. In these New Testament days of the new churches exploding in numbers, often one spouse would become a believer in Jesus Christ while the other spouse was still a pagan. That’s the kind of situation this verse refers to. Paul’s point was that non-conversion wasn’t a legitimate reason for divorce, in a culture in which divorce was even more rampant than it is today.

Who does this Scripture NOT refer to?

First, this Scripture doesn’t apply to the two-faced man who pretends to be a holy man of God in public while living in private like he’s controlled by the devil, the kind of man who deceived his wife in order to draw her in and then flipped on the honeymoon into something she’d never seen before.

There are Scriptures to address such men. For example:

1 Corinthians 5:11-13 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. . . . “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Romans 16:17-18 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.

We are to have nothing to do with someone who is two-faced, claiming to be a holy man of God while at the same time engaging in evil behaviors. Even the spouse of such a person should have nothing to do with him. Also . . .

Second, this Scripture doesn’t apply to a spouse (pretend Christian or otherwise) who is harming the other spouse through abuse or adultery. Marriage vows are to be honored as a way of honoring God (and each other), and when a person is being harmed, then that person needs to be safe.

When the evil-hearted attitude of an abuser or an adulterer effectively pushes the victim away, then this creates an actual separation (“I despise you”), no matter what the words may be that are coming out of the person’s mouth (“I want to keep living here”).

More about that . . .

What does it mean to be “pleased to dwell with” the spouse?

The Greek word suneudokeó, translated “pleased” or “consenting,” has the prefix sun, which means “together.” There is a “togetherness” aspect to this word, showing union, loving companionship, being “pleased together” to dwell with the other.

Two people living in the same house without speaking to each other, or two people living in such a way that one is always cowering at the sight or sound or thought of the other . . . there’s no way this word can be referring to that. There is a sense of harmony in the essence of this word.

This Scripture doesn’t apply to those who suffer from one who says, “Yes, I am ‘pleased’ to keep treating you like an annoying insect. I want to stay with you for that reason, and I forbid you to leave me.”

No, there are other Scriptures that address that sort of person.

The one who achieves a power-induced high that some might call “pleasure” by means of spewing venom on his victims—that person is in the New Testament Scriptures called, for example, a “reviler” (or “railer” in the KJV) as the 1 Corinthians 5 passage shows above, or a “root of bitterness,” as Hebrews 12 describes.  The church of Jesus Christ is told in no uncertain terms that these people are to be removed from fellowship; they are unsafe for the church and will poison the church.

So, when we see 1 Corinthinas 7:13 as referring to an unbelieving husband who actually loves his wife and wants to live with her in loving companionship, then the next verse will begin to make a lot more sense:

Verse 14a: How does the believing spouse “sanctify” the unbelieving spouse?

14a for the unbelieving husband hath been sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife hath been sanctified in the husband;

Does this apply to abusive marriages?

I’m asking that question again, just because it’s so important.

There’s been a good bit of confusion because of this verse, and as the person who wrote to me indicated, a sense that a Christ-follower must stay in an abusive marriage because of the hope that her presence would bring her abusive husband to salvation.

However, that’s not what this passage of Scripture is about.

About a year ago I wrote a blog post called “What if you married a Nazi?” I’ve been thinking about that one a good bit while I work on this passage of Scripture, and I believe it could be valuable to look at as you seek to understand what the Lord is saying here, whose Word we want to follow.

As I discussed in that blog post, there are evil men, whose purposes are to do the devil’s work, even as they pretend to be holy. There are evil men who, for example, marry a woman because they’ve been able to ascertain that either she’ll be an easy subject for their evil or she already has or will bear him children that he can use in his evil. Any Christian is naïve who believes that there are no men (and women) like this in our civilized Western societies. (After all, Germany was highly civilized when it produced the incredibly evil Nazis.)

It’s not difficult to find testimonials online of women whose “Christian” fathers sex trafficked them and used them in child pornography. (Here is just one story of many.) Often their mothers weren’t complicit, but either were oblivious or were even being used as well. Yes, even women who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. (Here is the testimony of a Christian woman whose “Christian” husband used her as a shield for his pedophilia.)

So is there any remote possibility that the Scriptures are saying that the Christian woman who is being trafficked—or starved, or locked in her room, or any of other horrors that she may be too ashamed or too dissociated to ever be able to relate—is there any possibility that the Scriptures are saying she should stay with this wicked, utterly depraved devil-follower because her presence somehow makes the relationship set apart for God?

Absolutely not.

We can know that, because there are other Scriptures that describe how Christians should respond to the wicked man, especially the one who pretends to be good. Some are cited above, but I want to mention another here—one that I expand on at length in Untwisting Scriptures—a passage that is routinely used against the victims of abuse but that in reality applies to perpetrators of abuse. As chapter 4 of that book explains, looking at the context and comparing Scripture with Scripture we can see the “root of bitterness” described in Hebrews 12:15 to be a person who poisons the congregation by

  • turning away from the Lord God to other gods,
  • exalting himself in his heart (essentially treating himself like a god),
  • thinking he will be safe, even though he walks in the twisted obstinance of his heart,
  • valuing the temporal more than the eternal,
  • treating holy things (like the spiritual inheritance) as if they’re valueless.

When the self-exalting “root of bitterness” pretends holiness publicly while doing these evil deeds secretly, the damage done may be a little harder (for those who have never seen his private persona) to trace directly to him, but it will be no less severe. Many will be defiled.

The congregation is strongly urged to guard against the root of bitterness in their midst who might trouble and defile them. This would include the spouse and children guarding against the person who is this bitter root.

What is that “sanctification” of verse 14 talking about?

14a for the unbelieving husband hath been sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife hath been sanctified in the husband;

We already know from the teachings throughout the New Testament that cleansing from sin and salvation comes only by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not by the presence of another person. The most the Christian spouse can do is continue to point the unbeliever to Jesus.

This means it’s important to look at the full meaning of the word “sanctified,” because it sure can’t mean that one person is going to make another person holy. That ain’t gonna happen.

To be “sanctified” means to be “set apart for the purposes of God (which are always good).” Usually in the New Testament this has to do with salvation (by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone) and one’s personal walk with the Lord (again by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), but occasionally this set-apartness is talking about something else. Here are some examples:

John 10:36 says that the Father “sanctified” the Son and sent Him into the world. Obviously this sanctification wasn’t our Lord’s salvation from sin, since He was without sin and was/is in fact the means of our salvation from sin. Rather, the Son was “set apart for the good purposes of God,” i.e., the salvation of His people.

In John 17:19 Jesus says that He “sanctified” Himself, which again cannot be referring to His salvation or cleansing from sin. Rather, it refers to His willful choice to set Himself apart for the good purposes of the Father.

In I Timothy 4:3-5 Paul told Timothy that every variety of meat was acceptable to eat, because it would be “sanctified,” or set apart for God’s good purposes (nourishing His children) with prayer. Again, we see that this has nothing to do with cleansing from sins.

I Peter 3:15 tells us that we should in fact, “sanctify” the Lord in our hearts. Again, this is to set Him apart in our hearts for His good purposes, and has nothing to do with our—or His—salvation from sins.

So the unbelieving spouse who is pleased to live in loving companionship with the believing spouse is then “set apart for the purposes of God (which are always good).”

What good purposes could this be referring to?

The first and most obvious thing that comes to my mind is raising children in a safe and loving home.

I get the impression Paul was thinking about this too, because he talked about the children next.

*****

Part Two of this study can be read here.

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Rachel Nichols
Guest

Spouse abuse mocks the image of God and the love of Christ for His people.

Bonnie
Guest

I have never thought that this passage referred in any way to staying with an abusive spouse. I wonder big the abuse we suffer impacts our thinking so that we read too much into the scriptures. After my abusive ex fiance fiasco, I have had a hard time reading the Bible. He used the Bible to abuse me and accuse me. How can we get out of our minds that the Bible is not the one abusing us? Do you have articles on that?

L
Guest
L

As I read your analysis and explanation, I felt comforted and edified several times, as well as enlightened. Thank you so much for this article, and for your ministry. Your sharing of the love of God brings healing to my soul. I sincerely appreciate you!

Sonia Acioli
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Sonia Acioli

Rebecca, I praise God for your sound mind.

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lorirodeheaver
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lorirodeheaver

The reply button is not working so I had to post my response here.

I think I have been clear in addressing the things here. Just to clarify, though, I have not stated that one stays with an abusive spouse, “no matter what” as you say I have. I have sited the only valid, biblical reasons for separation as death, physical abuse, and adultery.

I did not point any fingers at the victim, I simply stated what the victim’s duties are according to scripture regardless of how they “feel.” If we disobey scripture based on whether it more difficult to obey, we still disobey. If we are, in your words, “scouring” or otherwise hating our spouse for their poor treatment of us, we then are also sinning. That is very clear and very true according to scripture in this case or any other broken relationship.

To answer your question, let’s first admit that this is the same “rare exception not the rule” argument that pro-abortionists use when they say, “What if the pregnant girl is raped?” The vast majority of abortions are not a result of rape, and likewise, the vast majority of divorces are not a result of a man who is trying to sex traffic his wife.

But, since you asked, this would obviously fall under physical abuse. In cases of danger and physical abuse, as I already stated, separation is acceptable and indicated. Both the spouse and the church leaders must expose and deal with this type of man/woman according to church discipline as outlined in scripture and law enforcement as the situation calls for.

lorirodeheaver
Guest
lorirodeheaver

I agree that the church is not a safe or wise place to tell about abuse. I know firsthand how sadly true that is. But that’s not what I’m pointing to. I’m pointing to the what it is the scriptures calls us to do in these situations. I pray daily that God raises up leadership in the church who aren’t afraid and complacent about abusive domestic situations. In the meantime, I advocate for those victims as well as exposing the hypocrisy, I concern, and carelessness of corrupt authority within the church. None of that changes what the scriptures call us to do in this situation though.

Victoria York
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Victoria York

Thank you SO much for this two part article. It seems lately the Lord has been leading me to these types of Godly articles to help me in my dilemma…whether to stay or go. My hubby told me 17 years ago he was saved and baptized, but the numerous hurts I have suffered have me wondering. He is withholding affection now, for years, and the yelling has gotten worse. I never know what to expect from him and he doesn’t takes responsibility for anything he does, just twists it around to be my fault. Leaving at my age (62) seems daunting though, with our finances so entwined. This is very difficult…

Melinda Taylor
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Melinda Taylor

I think that a christian woman can live with a non-christian man if he is not abusing her or forbidding her or their children from going to church and believing. Lots of times something in his life will have to make him realize that he needs God in his life. I know a lot of good men that are not Christians and living with a Christian wife. Just saying. I lived with a man who could spout all kinds of Christian words and yet he was like living with the devil. He abused me physically, mentally and sexually. When I became a Christian I prayed for him and hoped he would change but I had to leave him when I realized nothing would change.

anony
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anony

“The one who achieves a power-induced high that some might call “pleasure” by means of spewing venom on his victims—that person is in the New Testament Scriptures called, for example, a “reviler” (or “railer” in the KJV) as the 1 Corinthians 5 passage shows above, or a “root of bitterness,” as Hebrews 12 describes. ”

This was so helpful to read as I worried i was becoming a reviler in my growing rage over what has all been done to me. But even when I eventually burst and lash out at those who are reprobates, abusers, criminals, etc. who have greatly harmed me, I still feel badly afterwards…..false guilt.

Whew! I was really worried about whether or not I was now a reviler and if I was then I was no longer a child of God and that is about the only thing worthwhile in this life — one’s care of their soul, their grace-filled relationship with God, and coming to know Him more and more with time and experiences.