This section is divided into three clearly marked parts that contain general instructions relating to family life. As they occur in this tricky section dealing with sex and marriage in response to an inquiry from the Corinthian church that we do not have access to, I, and I’m speaking only for myself, really cannot say much more about the section than that.
The first part begins with verse 8: Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. We know exactly who Paul is addressing his remarks to, the unmarried and widows. Keeping in mind Paul’s comments about celibacy in the last section, we shouldn’t be too surprised at what he says here, and that he rather grudgingly concedes that they should marry if they “cannot control themselves”.
The second of the three parts begins in verse 10: To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. Surprisingly, at least for me, he follows this “must not” by saying “but if she does…” which seems an unusual concession following an imperative statement, as it does. So, if she leaves him anyway, she should remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband, and he shouldn’t divorce her.
The third part begins with verse 12: To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. In the next verse, he gives the same instruction to women, and then tells us that the unbelieving spouse is “sanctified” by the believing one and their children are not “unclean”. This would seem to be an Old Testament metaphor, making a comparison with a Jew being married to a Gentile. I say this realizing that there are several theories out there for understanding Paul’s intentions here. Once again, considering the strange context, I’m loathe to go much further than that, except to remind you that we are in a section dealing with sexual practices. It might just be that Paul is referring to couples in which infidelity has taken place, but there is no way to know for certain. Paul continues in verse 15 to say that if the unbeliever decides to leave the marriage, the believer should let them go in peace, for they are no longer bound together.
The section concludes with a statement that helps us to understand where Paul has been coming from: How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
I don’t know about you, but I sure wish I could find a copy of the letter Paul was responding to!