Being “under bondage” is not the same as being bound. If it is, all married Christians are “under bondage”, for all are bound to their mate. This is not a happy view of marriage, to say nothing of the Christian view of marriage: “I am in bondage to my wife or husband”.
The deserted wife is not under bondage in the case of desertion. She is still bound to the deserter. The apostle will say so in verse 39 of 1 Corinthians 7: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth, but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will…”
That “under bondage” refers to a guilty conscience is further proved by the apostle’s statement of its opposite: “but God hath called us to peace”. The opposite of being under bondage is peace. It is an important principle of the interpretation of the Bible that one can determine the meaning of a word or concept by its opposite in the passage. For example, in Romans 8:33, 34 the meaning of “justifieth” in verse 33 as a judicial act of God is established from its opposite in verse 34, “condemneth”. As “condemns” is a legal act of the judge, so is its opposite, “justifies”, in verse 33. In 1 Corinthians 7:15, the opposite of “under bondage” is “peace”. This proves that by “under bondage” the apostle is describing the state of one’s conscience, not a liberty to be remarried. (David Engelsma, "A Critique of Divorce and Remarriage in the Westminster Confession of Faith (2)," Salt Shakers 59 (Apr 2020): 8-9)
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor. 7:12-16)
Does the passage of 1 Corinthians 7 allow for a true divorce in the event of a breakdown in a marriage? Within the hardline fringe Dutch Reformed wing, the answer is no. According to David Engelsma and the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America), once two people are married to one another, the marriage bond cannot be broken unless one of the spouses die. In the event of adultery or any manner of serious sin, a formal divorce can be filed, but the two parties are still considered married to one another, in the sense that the bond between the estranged husband and wife continue to exist. The two divorcees still possess a bond of marriage between them, despite the fact that they are legitimately and biblically divorced. Obviously, this means that there can never be a true divorce between the couple at all, for the bond was never broken.
To support his case, Engelsma argued that the term "under bondage" is not the same thing as "being bound." He further argued that "under bondage" cannot be said of the marriage bond because it is "not a happy view of marriage." However, since the original text is in Greek, to appeal to the "weirdness" of the English text is, to put it nicely, unacceptable. Regardless, the way to interpret the text is in context, and it is the passage of 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 that is placed above in order for us to understand what the text is actually saying.
The first thing to take note here is the situation facing the couple is the threat of divorce in a marriage where one party is a believer and the other is an unbeliever. That divorce is in the air is seen in verse 12 whereby Paul counsels the believing spouse not to initiate divorce against the unbelieving spouse. Paul however knows that the unbelieving spouse might be adamant in wanting to divorce the believing spouse. Therefore, he counsels that "if the unbelieving spouse separates, let it be so" (verse 15). The flow of thought should immediately make it apparent that this "separation" is a divorce, since Paul was counseling against divorce just 4 verses back.
A good way to visualize what is going on is to replicate the situation mentally. Let's have a couple Adam and Susan. Susan has just recently came to faith and Adam is upset over that. Paul would counsel Susan not to initiate divorce against her husband. However, Adam insists on divorce and thus he wants to "separate." Now, if Susan was counseled not to divorce, then surely she wants to preserve the marriage, and would attempt to stop Adam from filing for divorce. Tensions would surely erupt if one party wants a divorce, and the other does not want divorce. The marital bond has become like slavery bonding Adam against his will. This then is the context in which Paul's further counsel to the believing spouses like Susan would apply. In such a scenario, the believing spouse is not bound or enslaved to the marriage relationship — to preserve it at all costs. Rather, let the unbelieving spouse go through with divorce, says Paul. Instead of tension and dissension in the household, God has called the believer to peace. In a sense, Paul's counsel to Susan would be: "I have told you not to divorce Adam. But if he is so adamant in wanting a divorce, let it be. Do not continue to fight him over this and put numerous obstacles in an attempt to forestall divorce. Rather, God has called you to peace instead of conflict with Adam who is insistent on getting a divorce."
Having exegeted the text in context, compare this with Engelsma's handling of the text of Scripture. Engelsma asserted that the "under bondage" here must be about the believer's conscience since the opposite of "peace" must be turmoil in the soul. The problem is that that is not the only thing that can be the opposite of peace. Interpersonal conflict and tensions within the home, if not open conflict between husband and wife, is also the opposite of peace. Upon what basis should we understand Paul to refer to the individual's conscience? Engelsma does not say why that is the case, but instead just asserted his position to be true. However, a plain reading of the passage of 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 should make it evident that the context here is social and familial, not individual. As I have shown, when understood in the context of how Paul's advice interacts with an understanding of interpersonal dynamics, one comes away from the passage with an understanding that is far from Engelsma's interpretation of the text.
The key point of 1 Corinthians 7:15 for the purpose of the divorce and remarriage issue is not that 1 Corinthians 7:15 teaches remarriage after divorce, but rather that 1 Corinthians 7:15 teaches that the marital bond is indeed broken in a divorce. Being in a marriage is to be bonded to each other, and that bond can feel like slavery when it is preserved against the will of one of the spouses. Therefore, when a divorce happens, this bond is indeed broken. And if the bond is broken, then one cannot claim that the bond between husband and wife continues to exist after divorce, for that is a contradiction.
In conclusion, on this issue of divorce and remarriage, Engelsma is mistaken in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15, and the Westminster stance on this issue is exonerated. While divorce is a serious sin, we do live in a fallen world where human covenants are breakable. Let us not impose doctrine on biblical texts, but rather derive doctrine from biblical texts, and as we do so, have compassion over the brokenness of the world instead of imposing even more burdens on divorcees.