To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.
Whenever Paul is talking about relationships, I must be honest, I want to run for the hills! Especially in Corinthians, where he puts women in a particular place and hates sex… Or so our traditional Pauline interpretations would make us believe.
Sosthenes is quick to let us know that these not direct commands from Jesus. “I speak, not Christ”. Paul is not stepping into Jesus’ shoes to offer his own opinion about relationships. He is thinking theologically: responding to practical moral issues that the people of Corinth have with living out the Way of Jesus whilst remaining faithful to the radical message of Jesus. This is the exercise of prophetic pastoral care.
The issue is far deeper than believers married to nonbelievers. Paul is addressing Christians who are learning to live with ethnic others considered culturally impure. They are also being taught that their past lives are nothing compared to the glory of following Jesus. Now they have to deal with how being a follower of Jesus affects their family life? Do I give up my partner because of my faith?
But here, Paul is surprisingly and spectacularly radical. In a compassionate way, Paul affirms love relationships over law and order. The charge to “hold on” to each other, the call to keep the love, is a holy, sacred act. Holiness is at play even in relationships.
Rather than a cringing moment, this is a beautiful moment in Corinthians. Paul reclaims families grounded in genuine love as holy unto God.
One of the interesting cultural discoveries in the west of Scotland has been the language of mixed marriages, and how that means different things depending on the dominant cultural prejudices. In American culture, mixed marriages is primarily associated with interracial marriage, which was banned and punishable in most U.S. states until 1967. Speak of mixed marriages in the west of Scotland, and you will hear of unions between Protestants and Catholics and the impropriety of it in the days when sectarianism was most vicious. Prejudice damaged lives and families. Few churches supported mixed marriages in Scotland, including the Congregationalists. How proud we can feel that we are leading the way in the 21st century as we celebrate love amongst same sex couples.
So I don’t have to run away from Paul’s advice, to be delivered from prejudice and focus on the holiness of love.
Prayer God of Radical Love, Help us to hold on to love, but not so tightly that we suffocate life. May all our relationships be sacred, and may we see the sacred in all relationships. May we learn the art of letting go when it is necessary, and see the holiness in making due when love moves on. Amen.
The Rev’d William Young, Minister, Essenside URC Glasgow and Morison Memorial Clydebank