In I Corinthians 7:10 Paul says, ” To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”
You might find it curious but not confusing until you read v. 12 where he says, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)…” What is Paul doing here? Is he saying that one piece of teaching is his own, less authoritative opinion? Are Jesus’ words more important and authoritative than Paul’s? After all, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit and inspire people like Paul to continue teaching the church and evangelizing the world? He didn’t say that those words somehow be less important.
However, I’ve often encountered the opinion that this is exactly the case, namely, that because Paul distinguishes his instruction from the instruction of “the Lord” he is subordinating his personal opinion in one area of life to the express opinion of “the Lord”. This would mean that verse 12 and, consequently, the whole of verses 25-40 are less authoritative and inspired than the rest of Scripture. Is this the case? If it is, it would seem we are permitted to take this passage far less seriously does it not?
Well, to be quite blunt, I don’t think this passage is any less inspired or authoritative than the rest of Scripture and I think Paul explicitly tells us this. Let’s unpack what it means for Paul to say things the way he does here.
Paul is responding to a variety of questions regarding Christian relationships. He’s talking to married people, divorced people, single people, widowed people and probably more. In some cases, Paul is able to provide answers that came straight from Jesus’ mouth while he was here, teaching and preaching on earth. So, in the case of v. 10, as he advises married couples not to get divorced, he is able to say, basically, “Jesus (the Lord) talked about this already. He said, no divorce (Matt 5, 19; Mark 10; Luke 16). So, case closed.”
However, Paul is also faced with advising married Christians whose unbelieving spouse wants to divorce them and leave. Jesus never spoke about this during his 3 year ministry. So Paul, in giving his advice to these people, wants to make it clear that he’s not adding to the oral tradition of Jesus’ teaching nor submitting teaching that the Gospels neglected to include. This does not mean Paul’s teachings at this point don’t come from Jesus. It means that Jesus never taught on the subject while he was preaching on earth.
Paul says explicitly that he is speaking from the Holy Spirit at the end of this passage to avoid the very conclusion that so many people assume about this passage. He says in v. 40, “Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.“
It’s noteworthy that the Apostle Peter thinks this is the case too. In II Peter 3:16, Peter refers to Paul’s letters this way, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
The Apostle Peter clearly thinks Paul’s letters are God-breathed Scripture and are authoritative for us today. Let us be wary of abusing God’s Word in a way that might perpetuate our disobedience. Instead, let the words of I Corinthians 7 be to us as the Psalmist declares in Psalm 19,
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.