I remember eating lunch with a coworker when I worked at Foot Locker in San Francisco, and the subject began to lean towards faith and religious ideas. My coworker ended his involvement at this point by saying, “My father told me, ‘never talk to a man about three things: his religion, his politics, and his wife.’” And, with these words, he went back to work and never talked to me again about faith.
There is partial wisdom in my coworker’s father’s words. I have seen how individuals may become so worked up that such conversations degrade to unproductive times of “heat”, rather than opportunities of “light” to rightfully illuminate a disagreement and set up a framework for a resolution.
Observing this, leads me to the question at hand, “Is marital separation biblical?” This topic can be one of those heat-rather-than-light scenarios; especially, in the case of the one who has been separated from. Questions may be raised, such as: (1) “doesn’t separation encourage adultery and divorce?”, (2) “isn’t separation a sinful attack upon the marriage bond?”.
These questions are very critical ones, and well deserving of a biblical answer. We will approach this question in the following way. First, a brief biblical foundation on marriage will be considered in order to give proper perspective as the above questions are answered below. Second, we will examine the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians 7 on “separation”. Third, we will outline some biblical responses to these questions.
Foundations of Marriage
The foundation of marriage begins in Genesis when God created Adam and Eve (1.26-27, 2.7, 18, 20-24). Adam was formed first, and Eve was created for him and to complete his human existence as a “helper corresponding to him” (2.18; 1 Cor. 11.7-10; 1 Tim. 2.13). Woman is man’s divinely given complement to thrive in this earthly existence.
Moses comments on this union as the formation of a new relationship. The male and female leave their strongest relationships (father and mother) and join to create a new union – they are “one” (Heb. ehad) in marriage. Marital “oneness” is that of existence, purpose, and exclusivity (cf. Deut. 6.4), being forged together with a “portion” of God’s Spirit (Mal. 2.15). This is the foundation of the permanency of marriage (Matt. 19.6).
The creative order found in Genesis also provides the background for our understanding of headship in marriage. In 1 Corinthians 11.2-3, the apostle Paul reiterates this sacred order: God, Christ, man, and woman. Furthermore, he discusses this order as due to the historical fact that woman was made for the man, not the other way around (11.8-9); nevertheless, man owes his existence to woman for God has made him dependent upon her for his life (11.11-12).
Consequently, in light of this headship there exists a mutual dependence upon each other that plays itself out both in the leadership of the home (Eph. 5.22-33), and in the work of the church (1 Tim. 2.8-15). In Ephesians 5, wives are called upon to fulfill their roles to “submit to their husbands” as the church submits to Christ (vv. 22-24); meanwhile, husbands are called to love their wives sacrificially (vv. 25-29). The husband must be willing to “give” himself for his wife, as Christ did, and to nourish and cherish her as he does his own body. Marital headship exists, then, in an environment of mutual love and respect, submission and devotion.
Finally, it is vitally important to appreciate the principle that God’s ideal design for marriage is that of a permanent union between one man and one woman only to be dissolved by death (cf. Rom. 7.2-3; 1 Cor. 7.39; Mal. 2.16). Still, we would be amiss if we did not observe the teaching of Jesus regarding the only legitimate grounds for a divinely sanctioned divorce, and a subsequent remarriage – adultery (Matt. 5.32, 19.1-9).
Accordingly, if a divorce has occurred upon the basis of any other reason than sexual infidelity, then there is no divine authorization for a new marriage. Marriage is a privilege designed by God, and those who enter into, or divorce from marriage flippantly and ignorantly do so at their own spiritual peril. All are accountable to the Creator’s law regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage; because marriage was given to humanity, not to a unique religious group (Gen. 2.20-24).
There is no recorded discussion by Jesus on the topic of “marital separation”. The Gospel narratives alone reflect his emphasis upon the original intent of marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman (Matt. 19.4-6), and the only divinely sanctioned allowance for a divorce and a subsequent remarriage; namely adultery (Matt. 19.7-9).
It is within the boundaries of this teaching of Jesus, however, that Paul addressed several issues regarding marriage in his correspondence with the Corinthians congregation. Paul received a number of questions which he specifically addresses in 1 Corinthians marked off by the phrase “now concerning” (7.1, 25, 8.1, 12.1 etc).
To summarize, Paul first addresses the need for sexual fulfillment to be ideally found only in the marital relationship, as it is connected to the mutual ownership of the couple’s bodies as found in marriage (7.1-5). This suggests that there was, as many observe, a belief at Corinth that the married should not come together in this way.
Consequently, Paul expounds the ideal will of God on this subject in order to move towards and discuss certain practicalities which are, while not ideal, biblically expedient; especially, in light of a certain “distress” and “troubles” afflicting them (7.26, 28). However, at no time, does Paul contradict the teaching of Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 7.10-11 (and v. 15) the apostle Paul addresses the topic of marital separation. He hints at this problem in verse 5, and affirms that a “fast” on marital intimacy should only occur on the basis of “agreement”, for a “limited time”, and for the dedication of higher purposes (“prayer”). These apostolic injunctions are placed here so that Satan may not tempt the Christian couple to infidelity.
We will continue this article in next week’s bulletin; further examining Paul’s apostolic teaching on marital separation as found in 1 Corinthians. From there, we will outline some biblical responses to the questions raised at the beginning.
Clyde M. Woods, Genesis-Exodus (Henderson, Tenn.: Woods Publishing, 1976), 9.
Claus Westermann and Ernest Jenni, editors, 1976, Theolgoical Lexicion of the Old Tetament, translated by Mark E. Biddle (English edition, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997), 1:79.
Jovan Payes, 2008, “Genesis 2: When Boy Met Girl for the First Time,” BiblicalFaith.wordpress.com. Accessed: 5 Oct. 2011.