In the midst of a confused church culture influenced by worldly notions, mixed with sexual immorality on the one hand, and ascetic practices exalting abstinence on the other, Paul writes as a nuanced pastor, giving counsel first to the married, and then to the single people in this church he loved so dearly. Some ‘ascetic teachers’ in Corinth went so far as to suggest that it was better for the new Christians in the church to divorce – particularly their unbelieving spouse – in order to live celibate lives, and therefore be more holy and righteous. To put an end to this notion, Paul speaks firmly – even invoking the very words of the Lord Jesus (vs. 10) – to forbid separation and divorce.
His counsel gives specific counsel to Christians who are married to unbelievers. Here the text is very clear – a believer must not initiate separation or divorce, as long as their spouse is content to continue to live with them. He furnishes two reasons for this counsel, first the sanctification of any children and second, the possible salvation of the unbelieving spouse.
Throughout this letter Paul tries to instill in the Corinthians a sense of living in a kingdom age on borrowed time. The already of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the nearness of the not yet of His return, is the basis for his counsel to married and single people, Jews and Greeks, slave and free. The one thing of eternal significance that Christians can do is serve the Lord and proclaim His Gospel. We must eradicate any distraction that would keep us from obeying Christ’s Great Commission in these borrowed hours we have as we await His return.