The Corinthian brethren wrote to Paul with questions regarding, among other topics, the marriage relationship (1 Cor. 7:1ff). In response, Paul sets forth some principles covering various aspects of the marriage relationship. Among these principles, the ideas of separation and divorce are considered—both of which are widely practiced in our culture and of great concern among disciples.
Regarding physical separation (without divorce), Paul writes…
"Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.” (1 Corinthians 7:5–6, NKJV)
The rule is that a married couple is not to deprive one another sexually (which is basically what a legal separation accommodates). There is an exception to this rule based on mutual consent for a defined period of time for the purpose of being given to fasting and prayer. The key here is that they “come together again.” This is a far cry from an indefinite legal separation, with no constraints on time, for every reason under the sun and with no intent to come together again. As it is practiced today, legal separation is merely a precursor to divorce.
Some disciples seek to justify legal separation for a variety of reasons, some of which are incredibly compelling. Marriages involving verbal or physical abuse are terrible, urgently need help and are incredibly emotional. While a compelling argument can be made for fleeing for safety, does fleeing for safetyautomatically justify a permanent or indefinite legal separation based on the inspired text? As awful as these circumstances are, no accommodation for legal separation can be found. Should one flee “for a time”? Certainly. But a permanent legal separation cannot be supported from scripture. Likewise, others seek permanent or indefinite legal separation to protect children from abuse, an even more compelling justification in my mind. Based on the same reasoning, this too is not grounds for a legal separation, though one might have to take some action to protect the children. Others seek relief due to financial, emotional or psychological concerns. Some even seek a separation for comparatively trivial reasons. There is simply nothing in the text that removes the qualifier “for a time” and the imperative to “come together again.”
One argument frequently made for indefinite legal separation is based on Paul’s words in verse 10.
"Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10–11, NKJV)
First of all, Paul has switched from the idea of separation “for a time” with the intent to “come together again” to actual divorce or ending the marriage. The result is that they are no longer married, thus the phrase, “let her remain unmarried or be reconciled” (v. 10). He plainly instructs those (both men and women) who are married to not divorce, but instead remain married. His instruction is the same as Jesus’ instruction (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:1-11, Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). Basically, the rule is “what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Jesus offers one exception to this rule, that being, fornication (i.e., adultery – Matt. 5:32; 19:9). To deny this and make an argument for legal separation or divorce from Paul’s words is to have Paul deny the permanent and binding sense of marriage, as he teaches elsewhere and later in this context (Matt. 19:6; Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39).
Thus, within Paul’s words, no exception to the rule of remaining married can be found, though one is frequently and unnecessary implied. When Paul writes, “But even if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband,” some assume Paul is allowing for a legal separation or divorce so long as they “remain unmarried.” They contend these two words grant an additional exception to the only exception Jesus gave, for fornication (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). As already demonstrated, such puts Paul’s inspired words directly in conflict with Jesus’ words.
Secondly, the sense of Paul’s statement is very similar to what he writes regarding ignorance.
"If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant.” (1 Corinthians 14:37–38, NKJV)
Notice, Paul is acknowledging the reality that some are willingly ignorant. He is not excusing it, authorizing it or justifying it. He is simply acknowledging the reality of ignorance. Likewise, Paul acknowledges the reality of those who will divorce their spouse regardless of the cause. In such circumstances, they are to remain unmarried or be reconciled. If they divorce, despite Jesus’ clear command to not separate what God has joined, they sin (even though they remain unmarried). They have done what Jesus has explicitly said not to do. Remember, God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16).
This same type of language is employed later in our context of study. Paul writes…
"But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:12–16, NKJV)
Observe how Paul says, “if the unbeliever departs, let him depart” (v. 15). Yet, did he not just previously say, “if any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her” (v. 12)? Again, Paul is not justifying, permitting or allowing for divorce. That would be defying Jesus’ plain teaching. He is acknowledging that some (unbelievers, in this instance) might pursue divorce regardless of Jesus’ teaching. Like those who will be ignorant, let such a one depart is Paul’s instruction. Still, the Christian is not to divorce his spouse.
Instead of seeking legal separation, why not pursue all means necessary to work through whatever challenges face a marriage? When we vow “for better or for worse” before God, God expects us to stand by that vow and overcome the adversities that can afflict a marriage relationship. When one or both parties seek to put that marriage asunder, God Himself cannot not hold it together (because He gives us free will). Yet, when both parties are desirous to make it work, they will get the help they need and do all they must to honor their vows and the commitment they made together before God and one another.