The article below deals with 1 Corinthians 7:39 and is one that was discussed at a preachers’ meeting I attended recently. There are three views presented in the article, written by Richard Guill. This was not the first time that Richard had shared this material with me. I was familiar with it from earlier study with him. Richard presents three views of the passage and recommends the third. I could easily recommend views two and three. Richard claims that there is “a major difficulty” with the second view. I do not see it as any MAJOR difficulty. For Paul to emphasize that the widow is to marry according to the Lord’s will and that the same phrase (ONLY IN THE LORD) is not used in the other instructions in the chapter does not seem to me to be any major problem. However, his third view is one that you probably have never considered and seems quite plausible to me. I have heard some of our brethren just summarily dismiss the argument made in the third view, but I have not heard them logically deal with it. I appreciate Richard as a good student of the word of God and one who loves the truth. —DRL
1 Corinthians 7:39
by Richard Guill
There are two predominate opposing views on the meaning of this verse and there is a third view that is not as generally held and accepted as the other two views. let me give you all three and then add some other remarks at the end.
The first and most generally accepted view of this passage contends that the phrase ONLY IN THE LORD refers to the man she is to marry and therefore means that he must be a Christian. However, if this view is correct, there are some tough questions that must be answered and most of those who hold this view are not willing to answer YES to all of those questions. Yet, I believe that to be consistent you have to answer YES to all of these if that is the proper interpretation of the phrase ONLY IN THE LORD. Here are those questions…
- 1. If they marry a non-Christian, do they sin by ignoring God’s restriction?
- 2. If they thus sin, and want to be forgiven, must they repent and break that unlawful union?
- 3. If they refuse to do so, should they be subject to the withdrawal of fellowship?
You can see the dilemma one places himself in if he answers NO to any of those three questions. Most faithful brethren who hold to that view will not answer YES to all three questions. however, if you proposed the situation where she were to remarry a man who had been unscripturally divorced, they would answer YES to all three questions. I do not see how that is consistent.
The second view looks at the grammar of the phrase ONLY IN THE LORD and notes that this is an adverbial phrase and therefore cannot refer to the man whom she marries. The reason is that adverbs modify a verb, adjective, or other adverb by expressing time, place, manner, degree, cause, etc. They never modify a noun or pronoun.
This view has the phrase ONLY IN THE LORD modifying the verb marry, and is thus interpreted to mean that she must marry in accordance to the Lord’s will or teaching. However, there is a major difficulty with this view. The phrase ONLY IN THE LORD is a restrictive phrase applying only to the widow. It is never right for ANYONE to marry when it is NOT in accordance with the Lord’s teaching. Why then is this specifically stressed for the widow? There is no discernable explanation in the context as to why Paul would need to stress that she must marry only in accordance with the Lord’s teaching when he had not done so in the case of the virgin back in verses 25-36.
The third view is not generally known and is held by only a few people. However, I believe it has fewer difficulties and fits the context better than either of the previous two views. This third view is the one to which I subscribe. I believe it to be the correct one. Following is the explanation of this view.
The dividing of the scriptures into chapters and verses and the punctuation are the work of men. The original manuscripts were not so divided and punctuated. Thus the correctness of such division of chapters and verse and punctuation can be re-examined as to whether it is accurate. Most good Bible students through the years have questioned the break of one chapter and the beginning of another right in the middle of a discourse on some subject. The same thing can be said for some verses. This third view is that the phrase ONLY IN THE LORD should not have been included in verse 39 at all. it should have begun verse 40 and the punctuation changed so that the verse would read, Only in the Lord, (but?) she is happier if she abide after my judgment: and I think I also have the Spirit of God.
Some question what you would do with the word BUT, and that it doesn’t make sense if you use it, but it is there in the original and must be translated. However, the word translated as BUT is from the Greek, “alla,” and may be properly translated with the English words, “contrariwise, and, but, howbeit, indeed, nay, nevertheless, no, notwithstanding, save, therefore, year, yet” [Strong’s Greek Dictionary]. Therefore, it could legitimately read, Only (or alone) in the Lord therefore (or yea) she is happier if she so abide after my judgment… Paul’s judgment in this chapter is that because of “the present distress” (v. 26), it would be better not to marry. That was his judgment on the matter (v. 25). Essentially then he is giving the same advice to the unmarried virgin and the widow. You may marry if you feel you must, but I think it would be better not to marry during such difficult times. With this rendering, the adverbial phrase would modify the adjective “happier” and locate the state of her greater happiness. She would be happier in the Lord if she remained unmarried.
I believe this third view is the proper one and that a widow is not required to marry a Christian when and if she remarries. However, let me hasten to add that I counsel every Christian to marry another faithful Christian. If a widow’s former husband was a Christian, she would know what a joy and blessing it is to have a Christian husband. Why would she not want that kind of joy in her next marriage and thus restrict her choice to one who is a Christian? If she didn’t have a Christian husband previously, surely she must remember the difficulties that relationship presented and how much it diminished her happiness in that marriage. Why would she want to get back into the same kind of relationship? Would it not be far better to choose a mate who was a faithful Christian?
However, if because she “loves him,” she is willing to cast all that aside and marry a non-Christian, I do not believe she has sinned, provided he meets all the other scriptural requirements. He must either be a man who has never been married, or whose wife has died, or whose wife was sexually unfaithful to him (guilty of fornication) AND he divorced her because of that sin. Under those one of those three conditions, he would have the right to marry and she could scripturally marry him without any sin.
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