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1 Corinthians 7:39 says,

"A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" (NKJV, emphasis mine).

Does the phrase "only in the Lord" modify "to be married"? If so, the meaning is that she needs to marry "in the Lord" (i.e., in a manner that's in the Lord). Or does the phrase "only in the Lord" modify "to whom she wishes" (i.e., the one she wishes to marry)? If so, the meaning is that the one she marries needs to be "in the Lord" (i.e., a Christian).

What are your thoughts? Thank you!

2 Answers 2

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Does the term “only in the Lord” modify “be married” (how she marries) or “whom” (the one she marries)?

Answer: It is referring to whom she marries.

I would suggest Ellicott's summary (of 1 Cor. 7:39) of the matter:

The question of the re-marriage of widows is here considered. It was probably a matter in which his opinion had been asked, and, in any case, naturally completes the subject of marriage. The widow may be married again if she desire, but "only in the Lord" — [that is], not to a heathen. She, being a Christian, should marry a Christian.

It would, therefore, represent the one whom she marries.

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  • Thanks for the reply! This certainly seems to be the mainstream understanding. One rebuttal I've heard is that if Paul is commanding to marry a Christian, then how could a widow repent if she were to do otherwise? After all, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 that a Christian shouldn't divorce an unbelieving spouse. Therefore, or so the argument goes, "only in the Lord" means that the marriage must be Scriptural (i.e., not violating teaching elsewhere, such as in Matthew 19) rather than saying the one married must himself be "in the Lord." What are your thoughts on this rebuttal? Thanks!
    – The Editor
    May 27, 2021 at 21:27
  • Probably it means "Don't marry an atheist or agnostic".
    – moron
    May 29, 2021 at 5:00
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    @TheEditor I'm not certain that marrying someone unfaithful to God is a sin. It is just not a prudent thing to do. Just as the faithful person may influence the skeptic in the relationship, so too will the skeptic potentially influence the faithful of the two -- even as far as to pull the Christian away from their faith.
    – Xeno
    May 29, 2021 at 5:21
  • @Xeno I see. Whether sinful or not, it's unwise. Thanks!
    – The Editor
    May 30, 2021 at 20:32
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The Greek of the last part of 1 Cor 7:39 is:

ἐλευθέρα ἐστὶν ᾧ θέλει γαμηθῆναι, μόνον ἐν Κυρίῳ = she is free to whom she wishes to be married only in [the] Lord

The OP's question can now be asked this way: Does the adverb μόνον (only) modify the verb θέλει (wishes), or the verb γαμηθῆναι (marries); or both in an extended way?

Note that because we are discussing an adverb, it cannot modify a noun or pronoun such as "whom" or ᾧ in this case. this eliminates one of the OP's options immediately.

The verb "marries" is the most probable one because it is closer to the adverb "only". Further, semantically, "only" modifying "wishes" would be more problematic and so the best way to read this sentence is to have the adverb modify the closest verb. Thus we might paraphrase the translation as:

she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but such a marriage should be consistent with Christian teaching and the Lord's will (Dottard's extreme paraphrase)

Note that it is difficult to explain this without expressing both marriage and the Lord's will. I assume that Paul is alluding to the principle that he states in 2 Cor 6:14 -

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Note the comments of Meyer:

only in the Lord, not apart from Christ as the specifically determining element of the new union; only in a Christian way, i.e. only to a Christian, s.c. let her be married

Barnes also observes:

Only in the Lord - That is, only to one who is a Christian; with a proper sense of her obligations to Christ, and so as to promote his glory. The apostle supposed that could not be done if she were allowed to marry a pagan, or one of a different religion. The same sentiment he advances in 2 Corinthians 6:14, and it was his intention, undoubtedly, to affirm that it was proper for a widow to marry no one who was not a Christian.

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  • Thanks for the informative reply! Some argue that if Paul commands to marry only Christians, how could one repent from violating this verse? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 that a Christian shouldn't divorce an unbelieving spouse. Therefore, or so the argument goes, "only in the Lord" means that the marriage must not violate teaching elsewhere—such as the verses before or in Matthew 19—not necessarily that the person to be married must himself be "in the Lord." What are your thoughts about this? Would the inability to repent through divorce, prevent marrying an unbeliever from being sinful?
    – The Editor
    May 27, 2021 at 21:40

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