Is Marital Separation Biblical? (2)

Posted on September 18, 2011 by


We resume our examination of a question we have received, “is marital separation  biblical?” Last week we introduced Paul’s response to certain questions that the Corinthians had asked him regarding marriage (1 Cor. 7); we will continue this study giving attention to verses 10-11 and 15.

Marital  Separation (1 Cor. 7.10-11, 15)

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.

In light of the “present distress” (v. 26), Paul advises the single Corinthians to “remain” single (v. 8; cf. vv. 26-35). Nevertheless, as before (v. 1-2) he reinforces the teaching of marriage as the divinely appointed environment to satisfy sexual passions (v. 9).

With this stroke, Paul addresses marriages that are struggling. In fact, Paul charges them with apostolic guidance that they are to follow, understood within the boundaries of the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 5.32, 19.1-9).

The text reads as follows:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Cor. 7.10-11 ESV)

As it has been observed, “This is not mere advice”.[1]

In Mark 10.11-12, Jesus clearly reflected the right of either spouse to initiate a divorce; consistently, the apostle Paul teaches this as well here with added allowance for a separation (v. 10, 13). Legally, as well, both Roman law and Jewish law provided either spouse the ability to initiate a divorce.[2]

Paul is therefore dealing with a realistic problem, one that confronts many today – the possibility of separation and divorce. There are a few important points to make here.

First, the phrase that  the wife “should not separate” (Gk. me choristhenai) from her husband is better understood in this way: “the wife should not allow herself to be separated from her husband”.[3] Chorizo is an aorist passive infinitive here, meaning ideally, “she is not to give up on the marriage and marry again” (v. 11).[4]

The very issue at hand is less than ideal; in fact, it is a clear reminder that Paul continues to enforce the biblical foundation of marriage as a permanent bond. No capricious act is to sever this relationship; however, Paul acknowledges that there may be a necessity which forces a wife to separate herself from her husband and vice versa (abuse, etc). This is a mature “last resort” decision with the hope of reconciliation (v.11), not an impulsive one done at the first sign of marital trouble.

Second, the “separation” (Grk. chorizo) under consideration in 1 Corinthians 7.10-11 carries with it here the weight of “separation to the point of divorce”. The phrases regarding the wife being “separated from a husband” and husband “not to divorce” (Grk. aphienai) his wife are two sides of the same coin, and are essentially synonymous here.[5]

It is documented very clearly that the passive phrase “to be separated” (Grk. choristhenai) is a “technical expression for divorce” as it exists in ancient legal documents before and during the apostolic era.[6] Consequently, those that only see a “separation” as we commonly conceive of it as temporary “space” between spouses are unreasonably limiting the meaning of this word here.

To further demonstrate this point, in verses 12-13, Paul addresses a third problem of what to do when a Christian is married to a non-Christian (“an unbeliever”); in which case, if the unbelieving spouse wishes to remain married the Christian is not to seek a “divorce” (Grk. aphieto). In verse 15, the matter is reversed and underscores that should the unbelieving spouse seeks to formally dissolve the marriage by way of a divorce (Grk. chorizetai) the Christian spouse is not obligated to sacrifice their fidelity to the Lord in order to retain their mate.

As will be discussed below, Paul does not grant a second allowance for a divorce and remarriage; instead, Paul clearly emphasizes God’s desire that they “stay together or get back together wherever possible” (vs. 10-11).[7]

Third, in verses 10-11, Paul raises the issue of Christian couples suffering through a legal separation (Grk. choristhenai). Most likely, Paul had a particular case under consideration being part the “matters” sent to him by the Corinthians (7.1). When faced with this challenge, Paul guides the spouses through their options which are: (1) to remain unmarried – legally divorced, or (2) to be reconciled. These options assume that infidelity has not occurred, or that it is not the cause of the separation/divorce.

Remain Unmarried.  It is noteworthy to observe that civic legalities regarding marriage and divorce do not rewrite God’s marriage laws (Acts 5.29). Paul’s treatment of the legally divorced assumes that they are still very much “connected” despite the civic instruments employed to dissolve their legal union (Mark 6.18). Consequently, they are not permitted to “move on” and find a new spouse; instead, they are to remain legally divorced and sexually pure. However, this is not their only option.

Marital Reconciliation.  There is an endless list of things which may  divide a home ancient and contemporary; however, the Lord’s apostle does not view that reconciliation as impossible, especially among Christians who are aware of “the reality of God’s reconciliation of the world through the mystery of the cross of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5.10, 2 Cor. 5.18-20).[8]

If  God reconciled humanity to himself through Christ, is it all that impossible  for a Christian spouse to reconcile their spouse to themselves through the same  means? Reconciliation is about bringing harmony into a relationship between those  who are at variance with each other.[9] For those who have separated, reconciliation brings together what once was one; therefore, they will take what practical and legal means necessary to remarry or reunite.

Fourth, separation –  even legal divorce – by itself is not a supplemental basis for divorce and remarriage. Neither “irreconciliable differences”, or “no fault”, nor abandonment may serve as reasons acceptable to God for remarriage. The only ground for a formal end of a marriage, and a subsequent remarriage to another person is sexual immorality (Grk. porneia; Matt.  19.1-9). That the departing spouse may abandon the marriage for no reason and form other sexual relationships appears, in this writers judgment, to fit with the teaching of Jesus allowing the abandoned spouse the right for divorce and remarriage.[10]

Concluding next week… 


  1.  Wayne Jackson, 2011, A New Testament Commentary (Stockton, Calif.: Courier Publications), 313; Earl D. Edwards, 2001, 1 and 2 Corinthians: Class Notes (Henderson, Tenn.: Freed-Hardeman University), 34; Carl Holladay,1979, The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, LWC, New Testament Series, edited by Everett Ferguson (Repr. Abilene, Tex.: Abilene Christian University Press), 93.
  2. Holladay,1979, The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 94; Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, 1981, “The Divorced Woman in 1 Cor. 7.10-11”, Journal of Biblical Literature 100.4 (Dec.): 602; Edwards, 2001, 1 and 2 Corinthians: Class Notes 34. Holladay writes, “Roman law made it far easier for a woman to file for divorce than did Jewish law, although it was not impossible under Jewish Law”. Murphy-O’Connor writes, “In oppositin to 7.13, which supposes a Greco-Roman cultural setting in which a wife could initiate a divorce action, 7.10b reflects a Jewish milieu in which the right to divorce belonged exclusively to the husband”, adding however, that the “wife could only petition the court, which had not authority to dissolve the marriage, to oblige her husband to give her a divorce” (footnote 5).
  3. Murphy-O’Connor, 1981, “The Divorced Woman in 1 Cor. 7.10-11” JBL: 601.
  4. Edwards 34.
  5. Edwards 34; Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, editors, 1989, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semaneic Domains, 2d edition (New York, N.Y.: United Bible Societies), 34.78. Louw and Nida note that while there is an attempt to make a distinction between chorizo and aphiemi, “Such a distinction, however, seems to be quite artificial”.
  6. R. L. Roberts, Jr., 1965, “The Meaning of Chorizo and Douloo in 1 Corinthians 7.10-17″, Restoration Quarterly 8.3: 179-80; J. D. Thomas, 1977, Divorce and Remarriage, The Way of Life, No. 159, edited by J. D. Thomas (Abilene, Tex.: Biblical Research Press), 74-75.
  7. Edwards 34.
  8. Marion L. Soards, 1999, 1 Corinthians, NIBC, New Testament Series, edited by W. Ward Gasque (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), 147.
  9. Joseph H. Thayer, 1889, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1966), 333.
  10. Thomas, Divorce and Remarriage 93, footnote 32. We agree with Thomas’ reflection on this point: “If an innocent person hs has been put away, NOT for fornication but unjustly, and his [or her] separated spouse later commits adultery or remarries, he would himself then have scriptural grounds for divorce and remarriage.”