The orthodox Christian theology of Hadley Robinson

The Misuse of 1Cor 6:16-17 or
Marriage is a Permanent Relationship that cannot be Dissolved

by Hadley Robinson

Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? 16b  For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."  But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.  1Cor 6:16-17 NIV

A pillar of the modern sexual revolution

One of the pillars of the sexual revolution in the Church is the widespread misunderstanding of this passage.  Sadly, the roots of this can be traced back to the 16th century – the Reformation.  The Reformers' widely held the view that marriage was not a permanent covenant between a man and a woman.  This laid the framework for the increasingly permissive views that we see in all Protestant churches today.

The misunderstood view of these verses goes something like this:

Going in to a prostitute is a sexual act where there is a union with her in body and they "become one flesh” (as in Gen 2:24).  Becoming spiritually one with Christ is in stark contrast of becoming physically one with a prostitute.

All are in agreement that union with Christ and union with a prostitute is unthinkable and a great sin.  It is the understanding of the meaning of Gen 2:24 that is in question.  Does “becoming one flesh” have as its primary meaning the physical union of a man and woman?  If so, much follows including the view that sexual misconduct can dissolve a marriage.

When we speak of the sexual revolution we think of the 1960’s and the widespread rejection of traditional and godly marriage including the purpose of human sexuality.  What is less recognized was the abandonment by an older generation at that time of the belief in the permanency of marriage and the decreasing stigma of the divorced among those in polite society.

As noted above, this cancer in the Church, however, started much earlier when it became an enshrined doctrine of Protestants during the 16th century.  It was not until the last fifty years or so that this error has became so recognizable and metastasized everywhere.

From a Biblical point of view, Americans of the post WWII era began to widely throw aside sexual restraint, including the trading of spouses by those already married.  This was nothing new in history but it was relatively new for the U.S.

When the New Testament Church was just born, the Apostle had to confront immorality.  So, we should expect the same problems today (1Cor 5:1ff.; 2Cor 12:21).  Furthermore, just as in the late 1st century, the Church is largely unrepentant.  The difference between the 1st century and now is that immorality was not a part of the overall doctrines of the Church, as it is today.  Like the time of the Judges, "...everyone did as he saw fit." and that is what too many are doing in the contemporary Church.

The effects of Modernism, rejection of authority (rebellion), widespread prosperity, materialistic egalitarianism, humanism, the dramatic increase in scientific knowledge, and evolution all play a part in the widespread meltdown of the public morals.  Just the same, the depraved and sinful human heart has always been at the root of what sends a people into ruin.

While we expect the pagan and godless culture around us to embrace every manner of evil, the rise of immorality among those who profess to belong to Christ has been alarming.  There has been a sexual revolution among Christians, especially among Protestant evangelicals.

The dark side of the Reformation

Despite the current widespread rejection of the Bible among Christians, it is possible to observe an earlier beginning of the movement away from biblical morality, something that occurred hundreds of years earlier.

The Reformation was not just about the so-called “solas” (sola scriptura, sola fide, etc.) but also incorporated philosophies that were popular at the time including humanism – a freight train that has continued to roll right along into the present era.

In particular, the notion that Man has a right to happiness independent of his relation and obedience to God was to play a major role in Protestant theology from that time on.  A Reformer named Erasmus promoted the humanistic idea that men must have relief from bad marriages.  This view of marriage wormed its way into the teachings of nearly all of the Reformers at the time.

That marriage is dissolvable outside of death was and is a very popular notion.  If we estimate that one half of all marriages are unhappy, the appeal is obvious.  The only major exception was a statement by the Church of England in 1603 (Canon 107) that separation or annulment is authorized but divorce with permission to remarry is not.  But as the Church of England was coming under the influence of the Roan Catholics at the time, we should not, therefore, be surprised that it had a more Roan (and historical) view of the marriage covenant.

Typical of the time was Luther’s legal fiction that an adulterer was “as good as dead.”  As the civil authority no longer punished adultery with death (but should, he thought), the Church should treat the adulterer as “dead.”  According to Ro 7, death dissolves the marriage bond and subsequently allows the surviving spouse to re-marry.

This novel view was enshrined in the creeds, including the Westminster Confession (XXIV:5).  It was a poor interpretation of the Sacred Text that began with the humanistic belief of man’s right to happiness instead of the question, “what does the Text say?”

While the Reformers were experts in Latin, it is evident that their knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew was not as great.  In addition, they did not have at their disposal the extraordinary tools and resources that we have today.  In addition, they did what popular American Bible teachers do: re-arrange the Sacred Text to suit their purposes.

As a result of this enshrinement, modern Reformed theologians (including the scholarly and esteemed Charles Hodge [1797-1878] of Princeton Theological Seminary) did not make an effort to re-examine many of these doctrines.  However, Hodge did note in his systematic theology that the Early Church was unanimous in its view that marriage is permanent without exceptions.1  No Protestant seminary textbook used today notes this important fact.

Immorality is nothing new but the confessions of the Church did not permit adulterous relationships until only recently.  Suppression of the historical views of the orthodox Church, feckless translations of the Bible, a virtually unanimous unwillingness in Protestant seminaries to even discuss the issue or challenge the legal fiction presented in the Westminster Confession, have all perpetuated a dreadful contempt of the Creation account of the marriage covenant.

And so we have today in most of the Protestant church an expanding list of reasons to dissolve marriage, such as viewing pornography, having adulterous thoughts, emotional abandonment, unwillingness to engage in physical intimacy often enough, etc., etc.  Once the typical evangelical man or woman wants out of a marriage, it is easy to find a pastor who is willing to give his enthusiastic approval.

We are in a dreadful state of affairs.

Similarly, the prohibition against men serving as bishops and elders who have multiple wives (1Tim 3:2) has been reduced to a mere prohibition against being a polygamist – another fiction that has no basis in Church history or the legal environment within which the Early Church found herself.  Evangelical moral standards continue to spiral downward with most pastors giving it all a hearty "Amen!"

The view of the Early Church

It is odd that Hodge’s curiosity was not aroused by the position of the Early Church.  All too often, Protestants, including the esteemed Professor Hodge and the Mormons, write off the Church Fathers as hopelessly infected with false and heretical doctrines that appeared the minute the Church was born.  Is this an accurate view?

The Church Fathers are dead so it is easy to have and win arguments with them.  It was a time of brutal persecution for the Church, there were no printing presses, and Christian writings were suppressed at every turn.  Much of what they taught resulted in savage attacks from both within and without the Church.  This is evident in the writings of Paul in 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and elsewhere.

Already, the ancient equivalents of such popular teachers as Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and Robert Schuller were massaging (and changing) the Gospel for popular consumption (2Cor 12:21).  This was, and is, especially true of the critical Biblical doctrine of repentance which is usually missing from modern preaching of the gospel.

Central to the teachings of the Church Fathers was the Biblical doctrine that confession of Christ as LORD and Savior must be accompanied by deeds appropriate of true repentance.  This was nowhere more evident than in their rejection of the still popular notion that God’s people are free from obedience to the moral law.  Men have sought every means and excuse possible to abandon the wives of their youth.

As a result, the Church Fathers made it clear that this kind of sin must not be found among God’s people.  Consequently, adultery was not tolerated by the Early Church and remarriage after a divorce was forbidden.

Was their understanding of marriage some invention?  This is unlikely.  They knew that the toleration of any immorality by the churches would doom them to destruction – as was true with Israel.  Jesus repeatedly warned the churches of the dire consequences of tolerating immorality but such warnings went unheeded more often than not (see Rev 2 & 3).  They are unheeded today by the Western Church.  It is a grave crisis.

More bad fruit...

Another result of the Reformation was the increased elevation in authority of individual men above that of the Church as a whole.  While following charismatic men rather than Christ has always been widespread (see 1Cor 1), the Reformation and its mix with humanism made this error more acceptable.

Holding fast in undeviating loyalty

Before we can properly understand what is meant in the Old Testament concerning “becoming one flesh”, we must consider what is meant by the phrase Gen 2:24, “…and be united with his wife.”

Scholarly works on the meaning of the word “unite” are unanimous that the primary meaning of the word is spiritual.  A good definition of the word as it is contextually used in the Hebrew would be to “hold fast with undeviating loyalty.”

Throughout the Old Testament this word is used to describe Israel’s proper response to God’s covenant love for her:  She is to hold fast to the LORD with undeviating loyalty.

Only in 1Ki 11:2 is it possible that the Hebrew word for “unite – hold fast” has a sexual connotation as Solomon held fast to his wives in love.  But this is most likely an allusion to Gen 2:24 indicating the extremely secure bond that is between a husband and wife – and nothing more.  This secure bond that Solomon had with his harem of women is what brought him down to the adulterous worship of the vile god Molech – and why Israel was forbidden to marry non-Jews.  It has nothing to do with race, sex, or age and everything to do with the temptation to adopt the rogue values of rotten cultures.

Bone and flesh

Virtually all modern Bible teachers and commentaries assume that “becoming one flesh” is sexual in nature.  This is a result of the supposed connection in 1Cor 6 between having union with a prostitute and the “becoming one flesh” of Gen 2:24.  Here are these two verses as translated and parsed in the NIV translation,

16a  Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? 16b  For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."  17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.  1Cor 6:16-172

The first problem is with the verse division – something done during the late Middle Ages and not a part of the original text.  While this greatly facilitated reference work, it also pre-supposed logical divisions of Scripture.3

In 1Cor 6:16, the last half of the verse should stand by itself as it is not logically connected with the first.  Being one body with a prostitute cannot have any reference to the one flesh relationship of a husband and wife.

The second problem is created by the first:  The common Protestant interpretation of this verse suggests, therefore, that going into a prostitute defines the meaning of "becoming one flesh" vis-à-vis the reference in verse 16b to Gen 2:24.

The Biblical meaning of becoming "one flesh" is that the man and woman become united in such a way that it is like their being brother and sister – but even more so.  Examples of this correct meaning of the phrase are found in Gen 29:14; 37:27.  There is not any case in Scripture where "one flesh" refers to something sexual in nature.  One modern scholar noted correctly that, “To be someone’s ‘bone and flesh’ (cf. [Gen] 2:23) was a common expression to denote kinship or blood relations (Gen 29:12-14; 37:27; Ju 9:2; 2Sam 19:13).”4

Not only is the misunderstanding of 1Cor 6 a pillar of the modern sexual revolution in the Church but is also one that supports the widespread notion developed during the Reformation that immorality dissolves a marriage.

For a married man to be with an unmarried or married woman is always adulterous.  It is doubly so for the latter as he commits adultery against both his own wife and the husband of the married woman.  This is Jesus' teaching in Mt 19:9; Mk 10:11;12; and Lk 16:18.  But Jesus never taught that such a thing could dissolve the bonds of marriage no more than the spiritual adulteries of Israel could dissolve her bond with the LORD (cf. Hosea).

What Protestants have done is make Jesus Christ a party to adultery.

Is it any wonder that the Church continues to shrink in both size and influence in the United States just as it has in Europe?  Does not His wrath burn against His faithless and impure bride?  Will He not punish her as her deeds deserve, just as He did to Israel?  During the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah, God blessed His people with prophets who speak the truth and still does today through the Bible, His Word.  The lesson for us is that, despite the spiritual adulteries of His bride, He will always love her and treat her faithfully – even in Judgment.

But who wants to experience God's justice?

The correct interpretation of 1Cor 6

If the typical understanding of this difficult passage in 1Corinthians is in error, what should it be?

The overall theme of the second half of 1Cor 6 is that Christians are to have nothing to do with sexual immorality.  This is because the body is meant for the LORD (vs. 13) and, as such, our bodies are members of Christ Himself (vs. 15).  Therefore, going into a prostitute is joining a member of Christ with a prostitute (vs. 15), something unthinkable.

The Apostle then discusses in verse 16b the deep unity there is between a believer and Christ which is inviolable and spiritual in nature.  On the other hand, there is not a deep spiritual unity between a man and a prostitute.  This is why v. 16b must go with v. 17 and not with v. 16a.

Although v. 16b is connected by the Greek causative particle "gar" to v. 16a, its use here is not the common mode of expressing the reason for what has been before, implied, or affirmed.  Instead its likely use is the less common elliptical construction.  That is, the clause to which "gar" refers is omitted and must be supplied in thought.  Translating the passage in this manner avoids its conflict with the general teaching of Scripture concerning the nature of marriage. The passage should be divided and translated this way:

16a  Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?

16b But, as it is written, 'The two will be one flesh [like brother and sister – permanently and firmly related and joined together]'  17 so he who unites himself with the Lord, in the same way, is one [permanently and firmly related and joined together] with him in spirit.

The parallel between a man's relationship to Christ with that of a husband and wife is a striking and well established metaphor throughout Scripture.  Christ demands our exclusive love just as a man demands the exclusive love of his wife.  For the man to love other gods or for the wife to love other men is always adulterous.5

With respect to Paul's understanding of the connection between Christ and the Church and a man and his wife, Eph 5 is of great help:

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."  This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church.  Eph 5:31-32

This suggests what Paul had in mind in 1Cor 6:16b-17.  The mystery of the union of Christ and His Church is paralleled in creation with the mystery of the union of a man and his wife.  What appears to be so incomprehensible is that the man and the woman (as previously separate and often unknown to each other) become bonded together in such a way as if they were brother and sister but more so.

So also it is with Christ and His Elect.  Not only is Christ unknown to the unconverted man but he is also His enemy.  For the Gentile, he is even further removed as he has no relationship by blood to the Father of faith, Abraham.  How does the Creator of the universe bond Himself so tightly – even beyond death – to His bride?  This is the Holy Mystery of which we benefit so graciously.

Marriage is a permanent relationship that cannot be dissolved

The marriage relationship, as Gen 2 teaches, exceeds in strength and permanency any other relationship on earth, including the relationship between father and son.  For example, if the father dies, is not his son still his son?  If the father is a cruel tyrant who unjustly beats his children, is he still not the father, as bad as he may be?  Even if the father is imprisoned for his crimes (as would be the righteous duty of the state to do), does this make him any less his children's father?  How is the relationship changed by anything?  Even if a father disowns his son, he is still his father's son.

Marriage is the same.

As the Apostle writes, it is better for the widowed to stay as they are (1Cor 7:8).  Therefore, remarriage for the widow, for example, is simply not adulterous – that is all that can be said about it.  Why would the Holy Spirit declare celibacy preferable to re-marriage if it were not so?  Most Protestants have this backwards, despite the explicit teaching of Scripture.  It is unthinkable among Protestants (John Stott excepted) that anyone would sacrifice the married life for devoted service to Jesus Christ.  If I am single for Jesus, I must be a closet homosexual or have some endocrinal disease.  If there is a false god of this culture, it is sex.

The prohibited relationships of Leviticus 18 – incest

The marriage bond even survives death in some ways.  This is illustrated in Lev 18 where sexual unions are prohibited among those who have new horizontal relationships that were created by marriage,

v.6 `No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD.  v.7 `Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her. v.8 `Do not have sexual relations with your father's wife; that would dishonor your father. Lev 18:6-8

The sin of the man noted in 1Cor 5 was of the nature mentioned above in v. 8.  Having sexual relations with the wife of one's father (one's stepmother) would, of course, be adulterous if the father was alive.  Such a union is not addressed in Lev 18, as we would expect.

The prohibitions in the verses above are based on the prohibition against incest (v. 6), not against adultery.  How is a son's sexual relations with his father's widow (his stepmother) a form of incest if there is no blood relationship with her?  It would only be so if the father's marriage to the otherwise unrelated woman created a bond that is as strong or stronger than a bond by blood.  One's brother is always one's brother, even if he is dead.  One's wife will always be one's wife even if she is dead.6

Conclusion: Man’s right to be happy is a false hope

In sum, the current notions concerning both adultery and the grounds and consequences of divorce are largely based on poor interpretations of Scripture motivated by the sinful desire to loosen the bonds of marriage.

American seminaries ban discussions of this because – as often as not – some student would raise his hand and ask a divorced and remarried professor, "Sir, are you, then, an adulterer according to the Scriptures?"  One can only imagine the repercussions.  As in the church at large, the immoral and the adulterer long ago wormed their way into the seminaries.

The roots of this seismic shift in the teachings of the Church can be traced back to the Reformation and, in particular, to Erasmus who mixed his humanistic views with the Christian faith: "man has a right to happiness."  This, in turn, has provided an excuse for the widespread immorality overtaking the Church in the West.

We should keep in mind the Savior’s words,

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  Mt 3:8


By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.  Mt 7:16-20

The godly fruit of the Christian is faithfulness in marriage regardless of the behavior of the spouse.  Men who have left the wives of their youth for whatever reason and subsequently married others have more than one wife and are adulterers.  They are poor examples to both the Church and the world, regardless of whether or not they have repented.  As such, they are prohibited from being in Church leadership (1Tim 3:2).

Even heathen governments know that men who have been traitors should not be appointed to offices of high trust – if they are lucky enough to be alive.  But most of the American Church has this backwards:  We explicitly appoint the adulterous, the incompetent, the proud, the greedy, and the ambitious to the highest offices in the Church.  Is it any wonder that Jesus Christ and His Church are a laughingstock and the latter is in ruins?

"For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you." - Ro 2:24

1Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (3 Vol.; Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, 2001) Vol. III 392.
2The NIV here follows the KJV version of the Bible so we cannot necessarily blame modern translators for a lack of clarity in this passage.
3An example of where this division is awkward and illogical is 2Cor 7:1 which really belongs to chapter 6.
4 Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry, 20.  Cf. BDB, ‘bāśār' , 142 (4); F. Baumgärtel, ‘sarx’, TDNT 7 (1971) 106; N.P. Bratsiotis, ‘bāśār' , TDOT 2 (1977) 327-8; Footnoted by Wenham and Heth, Jesus and Divorce (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2002) 101.
5The Biblical doctrine of monogamy also applies to the LORD’s relationship to His bride, the Church.  Contrary to the modern teaching known as Darbyism (or Dispensationalism), Jesus Christ does not have two wives – Israel and the Church.  There is but one Bride who is the Church, the Israel of God (Eph 2:14ff; Gal. 3:29; 6:16).  Just as the nature of man’s relationship to his wife is confused, so the greater relationship between Christ and His Church is confused.  The misunderstanding of both go hand in hand.
6There are limited exceptions – we are not married in Heaven (Mt 22:30) nor do those who remarry after the death of a spouse commit adultery (Ro 7:2-3).  The amusing idea of the "virtual death" of a living spouse is enshrined in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 24:5 – such were the extraordinary but vain efforts of some Reformers to legitimize adulterous remarriages in the church.