Church Matters: Correcting the Corinthians (4)

For the past few weeks we’ve explored the book of 1st Corinthians. If we’ve learned nothing else, we’ve learned this—the Corinthians were a mess. The church in Corinth was plagued with problems ranging from humility to harmony, from immaturity to impurity, and from lawsuits to a lack of sanctification.

Up to this point, Paul has been dealing with the sin reported to be known in the Corinthians congregation. But chapter seven begins this way: “Now about those questions you asked in your last letter…” (1 Corinthians 7:1 TLB). Apparently the Corinthians were confused about some matters and wrote to Paul, asking for guidance. The first issue they ask about is marriage. That shouldn’t surprise us. Marriage can baffle the best of us. Marriage is like twirling a baton, turning handsprings or eating with chopsticks. It looks easy until you try it.

The speaker at a woman’s club was lecturing on marriage and asked the audience how many of them wanted to “mother” their husbands. One member in the back row raised her hand.  “You actually want to mother your husband?” the speaker asked. “Mother?” the woman echoed. “I thought you said smother.”

When asked how he gets along with his in-laws, a husband once said, “Actually, my mother-in-law and I have a lot in common. We both wish my wife had married someone else.”

Once when Mark Twain was lecturing in Utah, a Mormon acquaintance argued with him on the subject of polygamy. After a long and rather heated debate, the Mormon finally said, “Can you find for me a single passage of Scripture which forbids polygamy?”

“Certainly,” replied Twain. “Matthew 6:24 says ‘No man can serve two masters.’”

Someone once said, “Marriage is when you agree to spend the rest of your life sleeping in a room that’s too warm, beside someone who’s sleeping in a room that’s too cold.”

The truth is—marriage is never easy. Most of us had no idea what we were getting into when we first got married. And we’ve probably all got questions about marriage. In fact, few subjects have been as controversial and contentious in the church as the issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Thankfully, Paul offers a carefully reasoned discussion of the subject, in which he describes three types of marriages. The first is a successful marriage.




Valerie L. Bunyan, in Reader’s Digest, wrote: Soon after our last child left home for college, my husband was resting next to me on the couch with his head in my lap. I carefully removed his glasses. “You know, honey,” I said sweetly, “without your glasses you look like the same handsome young man I married.” “Honey,” he replied with a grin, “without my glasses, you still look pretty good too!”

I guess you could call that a successful marriage. But here’s how Paul describes one:

“Because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-5 NLT).

This is the second chapter in a row that Paul speaks in detail about sex (and I promise it’s the last one). In chapter six, Paul decries the sexual sins of the Corinthians, including incest, prostitution, adultery, homosexuality, and sexual immorality in general. But here Paul places sex on the pedestal of marriage and honors it. In fact, this passage identifies two keys to a successful marriage. The first is sexual intimacy. The second is spiritual intimacy.

Some sophisticates would like to deny it, but sex is vitally important to a successful marriage. Willard Harley, in his best-selling book, His Needs Her Need, identifies sexual fulfillment as a man’s number one emotional need. More than that, sex was created by God as marital glue. For some reason, a lot of young people who grow up in the church get the impression that God is down on sex, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sex is a vitally important part of God’s design for marriage. In fact, the very first command God gave Adam and Eve involved having sex. He told them to be fruitful and multiply. There is an emotional, physical, and spiritual bond created by sex that the Bible calls becoming “one flesh.” This term is repeatedly used in the Bible to describe the bond created by sex. When we allow sex to fall by the wayside because we’re tired or busy or stressed or whatever that bond is weakened. The Bible encourages us: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure” (Hebrews 13:4).

Of course, sexual intimacy is just one side of the coin; the other side is spiritual intimacy. Again, Paul said, “Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer” (vs. 5 NLT). Prayer is essential to a successful marriage. Just as sex creates a physical and emotional bond, prayer creates a spiritual bond.

Prayer not only opens communication between you and God, it strengthens the bonds of marriage.  Studies have found the old adage, “Couples that pray together, stay together” to be true. A Gallup study of 657 married couples, which was conducted for Psychology Today found that couples who pray together daily had a significantly lower divorce rate than those who didn’t pray together. Praying together as a couple encourages unity, promotes intimacy, and most importantly, it invites God into your relationship.

Sexual intimacy plus spiritual intimacy equals a successful marriage. Sadly, not every marriage is successful, which is why Paul goes on to describe struggling marriage.




Divorced couples in Albuquerque, New Mexico, can take advantage of a new business in town. The company is called Freedom Rings: Jewelry for the Divorced. Founded by jeweler and divorcee Lynn Peters, the company makes custom jewelry out of wedding rings. Each customer at Freedom Rings pays a fee, and the ring-smashing ceremony begins–complete with champagne and music. Just before the smashing the M.C. says, “We will now release any remaining ties to your past by transforming your ring into a token of your new beginning. Repeat after me. With this swing let freedom ring!” She then uses a four-pound sledgehammer to whack her emblem of love and fidelity into a shapeless piece of metal. The fact that women are pounding their wedding rings into pendants and men are grinding theirs into golf ball markers doesn’t surprise me. Bitter divorcees and struggling marriages are nothing new.

Here’s what Paul says to people in struggling marriages:

“I pass this command along (not really I, but the Lord): A wife shouldn’t leave her husband. If she does, she should stay single or make up with her husband. Likewise, a husband should not divorce his wife. I (not the Lord) say to the rest of you: If any Christian man is married to a woman who is an unbeliever, and she is willing to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any Christian woman is married to a man who is an unbeliever, and he is willing to live with her, she should not divorce her husband… But if the unbelieving partners leave, let them go. Under these circumstances a Christian man or Christian woman is not bound by a marriage vow. God has called you to live in peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-15 GWT).

In short: Paul’s instruction to Christians in struggling marriages is—stay together. Don’t get divorced. Don’t look for the door. And if you do divorce, don’t jump into another relationship because then you’ll forfeit any possibility of reconciliation. Christians ought to do everything they can to hold their marriage together. Unfortunately, it’s not always up to us. There are times when the person we love leaves and there’s nothing we can do about it. Paul recognizes that. He says we’re not bound in those cases.

Now some people read this and think that’s not fair. You don’t know my husband or you don’t know my wife. Aren’t there some Biblical reasons for divorce? There are. In addition to abandonment, the Bible also allows divorce in cases of neglect, adultery and sexual negligence (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Exodus 21:10-11, and Matthew 19:1-9). Paul just doesn’t get into those. He stresses the importance of hanging in there and not giving up on your marriage. Jesus did the same thing when he said, “let no one split apart what God has joined together” (Matthew 19:6 NLT). Just because your marriage is struggling doesn’t mean it’s beyond saving.

We’ve all heard the sad statistics about marriage. But in her book, The Good News About Marriage, Shaunti Feldman reveals some startling statistics. Perhaps most surprising, half of all marriages are not ending in divorce. According to the Census Bureau, 72 percent of those who have ever been married, are still married to their first spouse! And the 28 percent who aren’t includes everyone who was married for many years, until a spouse died. Not only is the divorce rate in general much lower than we’ve been led to believe, but the divorce rate among church-goers is 27% lower than it is among unchurched couples. Feldman also reveals that 93% of married people would marry the same person if they had to do it again, and 97% expect to be married for life. That’s good news for married couples.

Most marriages do last a lifetime, just as God intended it. If you’re in a struggling marriage, rekindling the romance and restoring your relationship isn’t impossible.

Psychologist, Dr. George W. Crane, tells the story of a woman seeking counsel from him. She confided that she hated her husband, and intended to divorce him. “I want to hurt him all I can,” she declared firmly. “Well, in that case,” said Dr. Crane, “I advise you not to file for divorce right away. Instead, start showering him with compliments. Lavish your love on him. Treat the way you did when you first married. When you have become indispensable to him, when he thinks you love him devotedly, then file for divorce. He won’t see it coming. That is the way to hurt him.” Some months later the wife returned to report that she had followed his suggestion and all was going well. “Good,” said Dr. Crane. “So are you ready to file for divorce?” “Divorce!?” the woman said indignantly. “Never. I love my husband more than ever!”

I don’t know if Paul would have used that sort of reverse psychology, but I think he would have liked Dr. Crane’s results. If you’re in a struggling marriage I want to encourage you to hang in there and get help. But finally, Paul discusses a third type of marriage—second marriages.




Sadly, Christians who have remarried after a divorce are often treated like second-class Christians in the church. Early in my ministry, I preached for a small church in Lake Station, IN for the summer. The majority of the congregation consisted of women and only two or three men normally attended. One particular Sunday, the guys (elders) who usually helped out with prayers and song leading were out of town, so I asked a quiet gentleman if he’d be interested in praying. He immediately said yes, which surprised me because he’d never spoken during church before. Just before service started, he came up to me and said, “I should probably tell you I’ve been divorced. Shelly is my second wife.” When I gave him a confused look, he explained the elders had instructed him that since he had been divorced and remarried, he could not participate in leading services. He still prayed that day. But I took flack for it the next Sunday.

A few years ago, I received this letter from Steve in Jersey Village, TX:

“Dear Mr. Bayles, I’m a divorced man looking to remarry, and I came across your article on Divorce and Remarriage… I’m part of the Church of Christ, and all too often I feel like I’m being hit over the head with the Bible on how I’m not allowed to remarry because I’d be living in adultery. The situation in our church is so severe that men are instructing and persuading women in the church to not date me or have romantic relations with me for fear of them falling into adultery with me. For a church that promotes love, fellowship, and unity, I often feel the complete opposite when it comes to the topics of divorce and remarriage.”

Sadly, there are hundreds—even thousands—more people like Steve. Thankfully, Paul addresses the issue as plainly as possible. First he says this: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (vs. 8-9 ESV).

The Greeks didn’t have a word for divorcees, but the word translated “unmarried” (agamos) appears only four times in the Bible and all four times are here in this chapter. The Greek prefix “un” (a) normally means to undo something that was previously done (i.e. untie or uncover). In this verse the unmarried are comparable to, but distinct from widows.  In verse 34, the unmarried are comparable to, but distinct from those who have never been married. And in verse 10, a woman who has left her husband is clearly identified as unmarried. Thus, this passage is addressed to the divorced and widows. And here Paul encourages these divorced Christians to stay single, but if they can’t control their sexual desires, then they should marry.

In case that wasn’t clear enough for the Corinthians or for us, Paul states for the record: “Because of the present crisis I believe it is good for people to remain as they are. Do you have a wife? Don’t seek a divorce. Are you divorced from your wife? Don’t look for another one. But if you do get married, you have not sinned” (1 Corinthians 7:26-27 GWT).

As plainly as possible, Paul assures those who’ve suffered the ravages of divorce, if you do get married again you have not sinned. There is nothing second-class about a second marriage.

Charles Swindoll, in his book Getting Through the Tough Stuff, has a word for couples who have been divorced and remarried: “I wish I could say you will find acceptance everywhere you go. I also wish I could guarantee that every church fellowship will throw its arms around you and be happy for you, smiling in affirmation. Don’t hold your breath. That may happen… it may not. Nevertheless, remain grateful to Lord for his provision and his matchless grace.”




Whether you’re in a successful marriage, a struggling marriage, or a second marriage God’s matchless grace is always available to you. It can fix a broken marriage or make an already good marriage even better. With all this talk about marriage, let me say one thing to the single folks here today—the only thing harder than living alone, is living with another person. Paul himself was likely a widower or divorcee, and he says this: “I’m not saying you must marry, but you certainly may if you wish. I wish everyone could get along without marrying, just as I do. But we are not all the same. God gives some the gift of a husband or wife, and others he gives the gift of being able to stay happily unmarried” (vs. 6-7 TLB).

Whether you choose to marry or remain single, I hope you do so happily. Next week we’ll explore some more the problems plaguing the Corinthians.




In the meantime, if you’re married—whether it’s a successful, struggling, or second marriage—I want to invite you to lay your relationship at the feet of Jesus. Invite God into you’re your marriage and experience the difference it can make. If I can help you with that, then please come forward while we stand and sing.

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