What Does Paul Mean by Unbeliever in 1 Corinthians?

What do the expressions, "does not believe," "unbelieving" and "unbeliever" mean in 1 Corinthians:7:12-15?

What do the expressions, "does not believe," "unbelieving" and "unbeliever" mean in 1 Corinthians:7:12-15?

There are three categories of marital situations mentioned in 1 Corinthians:7:8-16. The "single" in verses 8-9, the "married" in verses 10-11 and the "rest" are mentioned in verses 12-16. The Church has come to understand that Paul is speaking in verses 10 and 11 to couples where both mates are believers, but in verses 12 to 16 to couples where one mate is a believer and the other mate is an unbeliever.

Paul tells those in category A—where both are believers—that they are not to separate, but if they do, they are to reconcile. What if one or both of these people cannot or will not reconcile? That is, if one, or both, isn't pleased to dwell with the other? Paul says they are to remain unmarried. This is a hard saying, an unpleasant thought for most. Jesus' disciples found it so disturbing to think of being permanently bound in an unworkable marriage that their initial reaction was that it was better to never marry in the first place (Matthew:19:9-10). But those in category B, those who have a mate who is an unbeliever, are free and not bound if the unbeliever is not pleased to dwell with them.

Who would want to believe that he or she fits into Category A and be unable to remarry—that he or she might have to remain single the rest of his or her life? Isn't it logical to reason that if one's mate were a deeply converted believer, there never would have been a separation in the first place? Or, even if there were a separation, that reconciliation would have been easily achieved? Do serious problems in the marriage relationship mean that one or the other partner—or both—are unbelievers?

What did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians:7:12-16 by the term "unbeliever"? The Greek word used is apistos, an adjective. Apistos is the negative of pistos , another adjective. Pistos is usually translated "faithful," "believe," "believing" or "true." The same root when used as a noun, pistis , is usually translated "faith." The negative noun, apistia , is translated as "unbelief." The verb form of the word is pisteuo , and is usually translated as "believe." In all forms, this word-group is found over 600 times in the New Testament, 560 times as a positive and 42 times as a negative. But like the English words "believe," "trust" and "faith," it was used in a great many ways, both religious and civil. Homer used it to show the gods vouching for a treaty. Only by context can we tell what a writer means by these words.

What does Paul mean by "unbeliever" in the context of 1 Corinthians? Does he mean someone who displays carnal and unconverted traits? If that were the case, it would appear that a large percentage of the Corinthian church would be unbelievers. Note 1 Corinthians:3:3: "For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?"

They were divided, some of Paul, some of Apollos, etc. In several places Paul told them that they were puffed up. They were puffed up about a fornicator in their midst. They were puffed up about their knowledge. Brother was taking brother to court. They were eating meat that had been offered in the idol's temple, not caring about offending their brothers. They were eating in front of hungry brothers at the Passover—even getting drunk.

It's no surprise that couples were arguing and separating. It certainly would have been easy to accuse one's mate of being an unbeliever in this crowd. Yet Paul seems to set a very low standard for people to be called believers, saints and brothers: "But brother goes to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers [ apistos ]" (1 Corinthians:6:6).

We assume that when one Church member was suing another, at least one of these "brothers" had to be behaving carnally and in an unconverted fashion. Perhaps it would be easy for one to claim that the other was, by his actions, an unbeliever. Third parties might think both members in the lawsuit were unconverted. Yet Paul called them brothers. And he said that they went to law before "the unbelievers."

The word translated "unbelievers" is the plural of apistos , the same word Paul would use in the next chapter concerning the unbelieving mate. It seems obvious that when he uses apistos in 1 Corinthians:6:6, Paul means someone who is totally in the world—someone who is not called in any way. Of course, the Church recognizes that one who has rejected his or her calling and returned to the world is also an unbeliever. In such a case one turns from being a believer to become an unbeliever again. Paul uses the word apistos 11 times in 1 Corinthians and three times in 2 Corinthians. In none of these places does it refer to a person who could be called a member of the Church. To Paul, people who are apistos are of the world. Here are a few examples:

"Whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe [ apistos ], lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them" (2 Corinthians:4:4).

"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers [ apistos ]. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever [ apistos ]?" (2 Corinthians:6:14-15).

In context, Paul was using the term "unbeliever," apistos, to refer to a person who is of the world, whether never having been called out of it or having returned to it.

Church members can be divided as to whom they follow, "I of Paul, I of Apollos," and still be believers and hence be bound. Perhaps today it might be "I am of United" or "I am of this or that chosen one." Members can have a drinking problem, even at the Passover, and still be believers. Believers can refuse to reconcile or be suing another member of the Church. Believers can be puffed up like toads. Yet they can still be believers. A member can behave very carnally yet still fit Paul's definition of a "believer."

And so we can be bound to "a carnal believer." This may be a hard concept to accept. As mentioned above, Jesus' disciples felt it to be a difficult concept.

The disciples didn't want to believe that they or others might have to be bound to a disagreeable person for the rest of their lives. Perhaps separated or divorced, unable to reconcile, yet never able to remarry. Here's what Jesus said to them: "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it" (Matthew:19:11-12).

Some will be eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. That is, if they can't reconcile with their mates, they will live singly for the rest of their lives. They will not commit adultery by divorcing and remarrying.

Why would God want such a thing? Surely God wants everyone to be happily married. That is true. But God also wants us to be true to our promises. God says that He hates divorce (Malachi:2:16). The importance of being faithful to our promises is forcefully addressed in the Psalms.

"Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?... He who swears to his own hurt and does not change" (Psalm:15:1, 4b).

Here are some other translations of that last statement:

"And is true, come what may, to his pledged word" ( Knox ).

"One who will keep a promise, even to his own detriment, and will not retract" ( Psalms for Today ).

"Who stands by his pledge at any cost" ( Jerusalem ).

"He keeps to his oath, though he may lose by it" ( Moffatt ).

"If he has sworn to his harm, he does not change" ( American Baptist Publication Society ).

In 1 Corinthians, Paul used the term "unbeliever" to refer to people who were at that time not even being called by God. The principle extends to and includes those who have abandoned their calling and returned to the world. God, through Paul, is telling us that if we are married to a believer we are not to separate from that believer, or if we must separate, we are to work toward reconciliation. God requires two believing mates to remain faithful to their promises. If that is not achieved, they are to remain single for the rest of their lives. If a believer is married to an unbeliever—someone who isn't called or who has rejected his or her calling—and that person is not pleased to dwell with him or her, the marriage isn't bound. The believer is then free to marry, and it is strongly recommended that he or she marry a believer.

God is testing us to see if we can be faithful. When we marry we promise to be faithful for the rest of our lives—"till death do us part." This physical life is very short. Life in God's kingdom will last forever. May God grant us the wisdom and strength to be willing to look past our short-term goals in this life and instead look to the life that will last forever. UN


tenderlove's picture

sure it is very hard to comprehend the writting of paul on such a theme. Paul said a brother is not under bondage in such circumstance - that is to force the unbelieving part to stay - for God has called us to peace. Yet this does not justify that the believer could marry again. Nothing proves this from paul's writting. Many questions on this pauline theology are still unanswered and are not clear.

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