We conclude our series on “marital separation” with a consideration of the questions we received on this difficult topic. What follows is not all that could be said on the subject, but we believe it to be fair and balanced given our space. Let us, then, consider the following questions.
Basic Question: “Is marital separation biblical?
Up to this point, we have focused principally upon the biblical use of “separation” (vv. 10-11, 15) as discussed 1 Corinthians 7, where the term translated as such (Grk. chorizo) is used somewhat synonymously with “divorce” (Grk. aphiemi, vv. 11, 12-13). The understanding is, then, that the “separation” in view in the Corinthians situation is a legal one which finalizes into divorce.
The apostle Paul does not go into whether or not a matter can be done; in fact, it is assumed that “separation” can be done writing, “if she does” (v. 11). Paul addresses the realistic problem of crumbling marriages. Consequently, while outlining some of the ideal elements of the importance of marriage and spousal responsibilities (7.1-8), he then addresses the imperfect scenario of legal separation.
In such a scenario, there are still divine guidelines to follow. A child of God cannot simply legally dissolve their union, and do as they please and remarry. Paul’s guidance, then, is in keeping with the permanent dimension God intended for marriage (Matt. 19.1-9, Rom. 7.1-3). Only death or adultery can be a basis for the dissolution of a marriage, allowing one to remarry.
It is crucial we understand that “separation” is not biblically ideal, but it is not unbiblical; meaning, that a spouse may separate from their marriage and may still live in such a way to be obedient to their Lord. Paul writes that the “spouses” must remain “unmarried” or “reconcile” with their spouse (v. 11).
We must, however, acknowledge that while Paul addresses a separation which is most likely legal in scope, today many marital “separations” are no so formal. In fact, many of them are quite temporary. The legal or non-legal nature of a separation does not minimize the issue(s) which have pushed the spouse(s) apart; also, the divine guidelines outlined by the apostle still apply.
“Isn’t separation an attack upon marriage?”
The apostle does not describe “separation” (Grk. chorizo) as an attack upon marriage. Paul, nonetheless, clearly teaches that lack of sexual intimacy in marriage caused by a “deprivation” (7.5) can lead to a satanic temptation due to a “lack of self-control”. Consequently, such a deprivation is only to be temporary and based upon an agreement.
Paul emphasizes the importance of marital intimacy as an important element for building up of marital solidarity. Yet, the spouses in Paul’s mind are under attack, not by separation per se, but by the tensions which destroy the harmony of their marriage. These tensions, which Paul does not outline, have placed a wedge between the husband and wife that they taken legal action to separate.
Consequently, marital separation is not an attack upon marriage; it is a symptom of pre-existing problems of marital disharmony which has nowmanifested itself in this visible and physical way. This is the heart of the problem, and it is important to refocus here upon the real issue(s) which divide the marriage. We must not confuse the symptom with the actual disease.
Separation is not to be sought after every “spat-fest” over a poorly chosen word or gesture; instead, as we have stressed previously:
No capricious act is to sever this [marriage] 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.
Nor is separation, according to Paul, a vehicle to leverage their spouse into servitude in order to inflict pain for emotional gain. One is to separate and remain unmarried; or they are to seek a restoration of marital harmony. These are the divine guidelines.
Unfortunately, when some spouses separate it is not to improve their peace of life, but to create more problems in the lives of their ex-spouses (legally). The “I’m going to get ‘em for all I can” mentality hurts each party. But this again, reflects the symptom of the disease which is afflicting the marriage: sin.
“Doesn’t separation encourage adultery and/or divorce?”
Paul, and common sense, is clear that the depriving of marital intimacy can produce an opportunity for Satan to tempt the two to seek such fulfillment elsewhere (7.5).
The dilemma that often is faced is a failure to cope with the facts of nature. There are sexual needs that seek satisfaction just like other needs, but with sexual needs there are no substitutes that can be run in for the fulfillment of these needs without committing sin. Hunger presents a need for satisfaction […] When a person is not intimate with his/her spouse he/she is ready for an affair.
Consequently, one may quickly move to affirm positively, that a separation encourages adultery and/or divorce.
However, Paul does say that such temptation is based upon one’s capacity to control themselves (7.5). We may not be able to draw a clear cut line for everyone has their own “gift” (Grk. charisma) in this regard (7.7, i.e. capacity for celibacy); nevertheless, this passage at least points to the fact that separation does not necessarily imply a desire to commit adultery.
Also, we observe that Paul is dealing with a legal separation which leads to a legal divorce. Therefore, in the context of 1 Corinthians 7, we may answer “yes” (“remained unmarried” v. 11, 15). Yet, are all “separations” legal actions? Hardly. Separation is a pivotal moment in a marriage, where divorce may be a legitimate option. This is not the same to suggest that every separation encourages a divorce.
In fact, there is a case to argue that separation creates an opportunity to bring harmony into a marriage that is ravaged by sin. We appeal to Paul’s guideline to reconcile in verse 11. Separation can be sufficient leverage to improve a marriage by placing the issues in the clear open so that the spouses can address them.
The verb “reconcile” (Grk. katallasso) implies that there are troubles; because it carries the idea of receiving into our favor those we are at variance. As God bestows his favor upon his enemies through the death of Jesus, estranged spouses ought to imitate God by a similar demonstration of ultimate love towards each other (Rom. 5.6-10).
The continued demonstration of mutual sacrifice where genuine forgiveness in love may occur creates the foundation so that whatever dividing issues that exist may be resolved. Marital reconciliation, where forgiveness and grace abound, does not ignore issues but addresses them by acknowledging personal responsibility and seeking mutual forgiveness (2 Cor. 5.17-21).
- Jovan Payes, 2011, “Is Marital Separation Biblical? (2),” Livingstoncoc.Wordpress.com, 18 Sept. See also “Is Marital Separation Biblical? (1)”.
- Elvis H. Huffard, Sr., 1987, Vital Thoughts for a Victorious Marriage (Winona: Choate Publications), 102-103.
- Joseph H. Thayer, 1889, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1966), 333.
A Suggested Reading List
- Glenn Colley, and Cindy Colley, 2007, You’re Singing My Song: Keeping the Music in Your Marriage (Huntsville, Ala.: Colley Publications).
- Elvis H. Huffard, Sr., 1987, Vital Thoughts for a Victorious Marriage (Winona, Miss.: Choate Publications).
- Willard Tate, 1992, Habits of a Loving Heart (Nashville, Tenn.: Christian Communications).
- Thomas B. Warren, 1962, Marriage is for Those Who Love God – and One Another (Jonesboro, Ark.: National Christian Press).
- Ed Wheat, and Gloria Okes Perkins, 1994, Staying in Love for a Lifetime (New York, N.Y.: Inspirational Press). Originally published in three separate volumes, Love-Life for Every Married Couple (1980), The First Years of Forever (1988), and Secret Choices (1989).