Is There A “Pauline Exception” In 1 Cor. 7?

Jerry C. Brewer

It is postulated by some that when one who is in an adulterous union obeys the gospel, he is forgiven of his sins and may remain in that union. This doctrine has led, and will continue to lead, souls to eternal loss. One who is in such a union and becomes a Christian must leave that union. To remain in it indicates he has not repented, for repentance demands a cessation of sin. Repentance is a change of the will (Matt. 21:28-29) which is prompted by godly sorrow (2 Cor. 5:7) and is manifested in a changed manner of living (Matt. 3:8). Repentance also involves restitution—making right the wrongs one has committed to the extent that one is able to do so. One cannot embezzle money from his employer, obey the gospel, continue to embezzle and fail to pay back money previously stolen. One who so conducts himself has not repented, and neither has the man who is in an adulterous marriage and remains in it after being baptized.

The idea that one does not have to leave an adulterous union upon his obedience to the gospel is based on what some have called “The Pauline Exception”, derived from a false construction of Paul’s teaching on marriage in First Corinthians, chapter seven. Those who claim Paul made an exception to Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage are guilty of arraying Scripture against Scripture and Paul against Jesus. No such “exception” exists. In First Corinthians 7:1-7, Paul deals with the relationship of married persons to one another. He then goes on to deal with other marriage-related matters, including his advice for the unmarried (1 Cor. 7:8-9). He then directs his attention to those who are married and reiterates the Lord’s teaching concerning marriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Then, Paul says in verse 12, “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord.” It is this statement from which many have conjured up the “Pauline Exception.” But Paul is not offering his own advice or opinion. He affirms that the things he writes in this epistle are “the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). Paul is not arraying himself against Christ, but is revealing something which Christ did not personally teach while He was on earth. That’s the exact import of Jesus’ statement to the apostles in John 14:26 and 16:13. He told them that when the Holy Spirit came, He would not only remind them of all things Christ had taught them, but would guide them “into all truth” which at that time they were “not able to bear.” It is not possible that Jesus taught one thing about marriage and divorce and Paul taught another. Neither is it possible that the Holy Spirit would inspire Paul to contradict the teaching of Jesus. The further truth into which the apostles were guided would never contradict truth which Jesus taught while He was among them. That such a “Pauline Exception” does not exist is evident from the subsequent instructions Paul delineates for those in verses 12 through 16. The subject under consideration in these verses is one on which the Lord had not spoken while He was on earth—marriage between a believer and an unbeliever.

Then in verses 17-24, Paul applies the general principles he has just set forth concerning marriage to other relationships, saying, “as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk,” and ends that section saying, “Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.” These two statements are also used by those who believe they see a “Pauline Exception” to Jesus’ law of marriage in Matthew 19. But the key to understanding these statements is found in the phrase, “therein abide with God.” None of the conditions which Paul treats in this section are sinful or unlawful. He says if one is called being a Gentile, he does not have to be circumcised, nor does one who is called as a Jew have to become a Gentile (v. 18). He applies that same principle to bond-servants and free men in verses 21 through 23, saying in verse 20, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” Note carefully, that none of these relationships—servant, free, Jew or Gentile—are in themselves unlawful or sinful. But adultery is sinful and unlawful (Matt. 19:9; cf. Matt. 14:4), and Paul, who exploded the false doctrine that one may “continue in sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1-2), would certainly not urge Christians to continue living in adultery. He simply applied the inspired principles he had given to Christians who are married to unbelievers to those in other civil relations. There is no such thing as a “Pauline Exception” to the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:9.

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4 thoughts on “Is There A “Pauline Exception” In 1 Cor. 7?

  1. If this is your stance, fine. But some people also teach that after leaving the “adulterous marriage” they should to be reunited with their first spouse. However Deuteronomy 24:1-4 calls that an abomination in the eyes of God. So you should also proclaim that.

    1. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was referred to Matthew 19:6-8: “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.”
      That passage of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is part of the Old Covenant. Keil & Delitzsch offer this:
      “Deu. 24: 1-5. Vv. 1-5 contain two laws concerning the relation of a man to his wife. The first (vv. 1-4) has reference to divorce. In these verses, however, divorce is not established as a right; all that is done is, that in case of a divorce a reunion with the divorced wife is forbidden, if in the meantime she had married another man, even though the second husband had also put her away, or had died. The four verses form a period, in which vv. 1-3 are the clauses of the protasis, which describe the matter treated about; and v. 4 contains the apodosis, with the law concerning the point in question. If a man married a wife, and he put her away with a letter of divorce, because she did not please him any longer, and the divorced woman married another man, and he either put her away in the same manner or died, the first husband could not take her as his wife again. The putting away (divorce) of a wife with a letter of divorce, which the husband gave to the wife whom he put away, is assumed as a custom founded upon tradition. This tradition left the question of divorce entirely at the will of the husband: “if the wife does not find favour in his eyes (i.e., does not please him), because he has found in her something shameful” (Deu. 23:15).
      But Jesus went beyond Moses’ Law and went to the beginning saying “but from the beginning it was not so.” He reiterated the law of marriage from the beginning. Deuteronomy was a part of the Law of Moses which “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: (Eph. 2:15-16).

      1. Your reply above to William Roberts is incomplete. Make it plain what you are saying, because, at least to me, it is not clearly stated. Sounds to me like a politician’s answer to a question he/she doesn’t want to answer. Please make it clearer.

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