What Does it Mean That Widows May Marry “Only in the Lord?” – Nana Yaw Aidoo

Nana Yaw Aidoo

The Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman for one lifetime. “The wife is bound by law as long as her husband liveth…” (1 Cor. 7:39). However, since it is appointed unto men once to die (Heb. 9:27), it is very possible for a woman to lose her spouse to death (and vice versa). If so, what next? The Bible teaches that it is not a sin for her to remarry. “…but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will…” (1 Cor. 7:39). Since marriage is an earthly institution, death of a spouse frees a person from the marriage bond and gives him/her the right to remarry.

However, it ought to be obvious to all that the widow being at liberty to be married to whom she will, cannot be a law without restrictions or limitations. Surely, no matter how much the widow wishes to be married to a particular man, if that man is lawfully married, she is not at liberty to marry him. It has to be then that the liberty to be married to whom she will, must have restrictions. That restriction is set forth in the words “only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). In my opinion, since the phrase, only in the Lord, restricts or limits the liberty the widow has to be married to whom she will, then the phrase must mean “only as is consistent with the Lord’s will.” Thus, what the apostle is saying is that a widow is at liberty to be married to whom she will, only as is consistent with the Lord’s will. This seems to me the correct interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:39.

However, the truth of the matter is that the above interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:39 is not the majority view. The majority view is that the widow under consideration may remarry only if she marries a Christian. Woods, who held the majority view, wrote:

On no other matter of biblical teaching known to me is there more agreement among scholars either in or out of the church. With singular unanimity this view has been advocated by writers both ancient and modern, liberal and conservative, the past two thousand years with scarcely a dissenting voice (91).

He was right. Of all the classic commentaries I consulted, only the 1599 Geneva Bible Notes did not explicitly say that the widow under consideration may remarry only if she marries a Christian. It says, “…she may marry again, but that she does it in the fear of God” (1599 Geneva Bible Notes). The reason why this is the majority view is that apparently, it is the natural interpretation of the text. Winters in speaking about this view wrote that it “…seems to be the more natural one (it is the concept one ordinarily gets upon first reading the verse)…” (101). Woods also in telling of those scholarly and respected brethren who held this view quoted brother Gus Nichols who wrote: “The natural and unstrained interpretation of 1 Cor. 7:39 is that the ‘widow’ is to marry one in Christ, a Christian” (95).

While this interpretation might be that which one ordinarily gets upon first reading the verse, it doesn’t necessarily make it the correct one. The natural and unstrained interpretation of 1 John 3:9 is that a Christian does not have the ability to sin. This is the view of all hardcore Calvinists. That however does not mean that interpretation is correct.

I struggle to believe that 1 Corinthians 7:39 teaches that the widow under consideration may remarry only if she marries a Christian for the following reasons.

Reason 1: The widow under consideration

God’s law on marriage and remarriage applies equally to the saint and the alien. Whiles it is the case that Paul wrote to a group of Christians, 1 Corinthians 7:39 is actually stating a general law. The wife who is an alien sinner, is bound by God’s law to her husband as long as he is alive, just like the wife who is a Christian. And it is this same wife who upon the death of her husband is at liberty to marry to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Is God saying the widow who is an alien sinner may remarry only if she marries a member of the church of Christ? It has to be the case, if the majority view is correct.

Suppose the widow were not even a Christian. If (A) this widow is not a Christian and if (B) “only in the Lord” means the man she is marrying is a Christian, then (C) when she marries this man she is marrying “in the Lord” I can’t believe this is what Paul had in mind (as cited by Horner 195).

Reason 2: The word “only”

The apostle wrote that the widow under consideration is at liberty to remarry only in the Lord. The word only means, “and no one or nothing more besides” (Concise Oxford Dictionary (Eleventh Edition)). What this means, if the majority view is correct, is that the widow under consideration cannot marry anyone besides a member of the church of Christ. To violate this law is to sin. Along this line, some questions are in order:

  1. Is it a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian?

  2. Is it a sin for a Christian widow to marry a Southern Baptist widower?

  3. If (2) is a sin, what must the Christian widow do to repent of this sin?

  4. Does 1 Corinthians 7:39 apply to all Christians or only to widows?

  5. If (4) does not apply to all Christians but to widows alone does 1 Cor. 7:12-14 suggest that a virgin (one who has never been married) Christian may marry a non-Christian but a Christian widow cannot under any circumstances marry a non-Christian?

  6. If (4) applies to all Christians then did Paul sin in telling those Christians married to non-Christians to remain with them?

  7. Is there a separate law of marriage for the virgin Christian and a separate one for the Christian widow?

  8. If it is a sin for a Christian widow to marry a non-Christian, why then does the apostle not tell Christian wives with non-Christian husbands to divorce their spouses in 1 Peter 3:1?

Reason 3: No inherent sin in marrying a non-Christian

Yes, it is dangerous for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. While some Christians have been able to lead their non-Christian spouses to Christ, is that really what normally happens? It seems strange to me that any Christian would want to spend life with a person who is not in submission to God’s will. Some years ago, I read an article entitled “I did not marry a Christian” from the Bellview Defender and it was an eye opener. Deaver in fact took the position that “it is dangerous for any person to marry anybody—period!” (in Horner 195). However, saying something is dangerous is very different from saying it is a sin. I once heard a preacher say marriage to a non-Christian is a sin, yet there were many Christians married to non-Christians where he preached this message. He never once attempted to withdraw fellowship from such Christians. I am yet to hear of or read of a congregation that withdrew fellowship from a brother or sister because he or she married a non-Christian. Is this not a silent witness that we believe there is no inherent sin in marrying a non-Christian though we think it’s unwise?

Peter as has already been stated does not teach that there is anything inherently wrong with marrying a non-Christian. Paul also in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 teaches that there is nothing inherently sinful in marrying a non-Christian. However, the view that says 1 Corinthians 7:39 teaches that a widow may marry only a Christian implies that there is something inherently wrong with marrying a non-Christian and thus for the widow to not marry a Christian is sin. Some who hold the majority view, might not accept this implication of their teaching but it is implied in their teaching the same. Since there is nothing inherently wrong with marrying a non-Christian then 1 Corinthians 7:39 cannot possibly be forbidding a widow from marrying a non-Christian.

Reason 4: The difficulty in practicing it universally

Winters wrote:

The first view seems to be the more natural one (it is the concept one ordinarily gets upon first reading the verse), but further consideration soon reveals the difficulty in practicing it universally. For example, on the mission field Christians are often so few and so far apart that any available Christian man suitable for a Christian widow might not be found for hundreds of miles (maybe not until another country or continent) and the chances of them meeting are remote indeed. Yet the widow, for purity’s sake, may have a pressing need to marry (v. 9). I knew of one such widow. After she had married a non-Christian (who by her influence later became a strong Christian leader) she said, “There were no Christian men available and I decided that if marrying a non-Christian was wrong, I would rather be lost for marrying than for lusting.” Of course apparent impracticalities do not change what the verse teaches, but they do weigh heavily against one interpretation if there is another that appears to be just as reasonable. And in this case, I believe the second view offers us, not just a reasonable alternative, but a more reasonable and harmonious one. The context is concerned with the responsibilities of marriage in distressful times, not with the mate with whom one might choose to share those times. It stands to reason then that Paul means that the widow (or any other Christian who must make the choice for himself) must marry as a Christian, recognizing that she is in union with Christ, that she belongs to the Lord, and that all her actions must reflect this fact. This does not deny that such actions might require her to marry only a Christian, but (if the second view is the correct one, and it seems to me that it is) the Lord has not bound that upon her as an invariable law (101).

Answering an Objection

An objection to the foregoing position is that “in the Lord” is almost always a reference to being in the church or being a Christian. Woods affirmed that “…the phrase, ‘in the Lord,’…is a periphrasis for a Christian” (92). I agree that there are instances in the Scriptures where in the Lord or “in Christ” means “in the church.” In the first chapter of Ephesians when Paul spoke of the Christian’s wealth or blessings “in Christ” and ended the chapter with the idea that the church is “the fullness” of Christ, he was without a shadow of a doubt saying that to be in Christ is to be in His spiritual body, the church.

However, there are other instances that make me skeptical of the view that in the Lord always refers to being in the church or being a Christian. For example, Paul tells children to obey their parents “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). While it is possible that Paul was dealing with a situation where both the parents and the children were in the church, we have many instances today (and even very likely the case at the time Paul wrote the letter. Imagine a 16-year-old Christian child with non-Christian parents) where children have obeyed the Gospel and been added to the church, while their parents are not members of the church. In view of this command, what are they supposed to do? I really doubt Paul meant to say that if the parents are non-Christians, then the child is exempted from obeying them. Clearly, here as in 1 Corinthians 7:39, in the Lord is a limiting phrase and thus, Paul meant by this that children should obey their parents “as far as their commandments agree with those of God, and no farther” (Barnes). Some of the best expositors across the ages, both in and out of the church, have held this view. I note some of them.

John Chrysostom (A.D. 349—407):

Children,’ saith he, ‘obey your parents in the Lord,’ that is, according to the Lord. This, he means to say, is what God commands you. But what then if they shall command foolish things? Generally a father, however foolish he may be himself, does not command foolish things. However, even in that case, the Apostle has guarded the matter, by saying, ‘in the Lord’; that is, wherever you will not be offending God. So that if the father be a gentile or a heretic, we ought no longer to obey, because the command is not then, ‘in the Lord’ (Homily XXI).

Charles Spurgeon also wrote: “Yet observe there is a limit—children are to obey ‘in the Lord,’ that is to say, so far as the commands of parents are not opposed to the laws of God” (Spurgeon Devotional Commentary).

Finally, David Lipscomb affirmed this of the phrase: “This limits the submission. That is, whatever can be done in obedience to the parents without violating the law of God, that do…” (118).

Therefore, since the phrase, in the Lord, is sometimes used in the Scriptures in such a way as to mean something other than Christian, then to argue based on that very phrase that a widow must marry only a Christian seems to me an untenable position.


Again yes, it is dangerous for a Christian to marry a non-Christian and also yes, the position I take isn’t the majority view. However, as God’s children, we are not obligated to follow the multitude but to “speak as the oracles of God.” The majority view of 1 Corinthians 7:39 being fraught with problems, I think that what the apostle was saying to the widows is this: “Marry in harmony with the Lord’s will, and be faithful to the Lord regardless of the cost” (in Horner 196).

Works Cited

Barnes, Albert. Barnes’ New Testament Notes. Power Bible CD, 5.1, Online Publishing Inc., 2006.

Chrysostom, John S. Homilies on Ephesians. PDF file.

Horner, C.M. “WVBS Course Notes.” 1 Corinthians, 2011, World Video Bible School.

Lipscomb, David. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles. Vol. 4, Gospel Advocate Company, 1958.

Spurgeon, Charles. Spurgeon Devotional Commentary. Power Bible CD, 5.1, Online Publishing Inc., 2006.

Winters, Howard. Commentary on First Corinthians Practical and Explanatory. Carolina Christian, 1987.

Woods, Guy N. Questions and Answers. Vol. 1, Freed-Hardeman College, 1976.

1599 Geneva Bible Notes. Power Bible CD, 5.1, Online Publishing Inc., 2006.

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