“Divorce And Separation”

By John McCort

There has been a great deal written on the subject of divorce and remarriage in the last few years. The divorce rate continues to spiral upward and, thus, the church has been plagued with more and more problems connected with divorce. I fear that in the coming generation a major battle is going to be fought in the church over this issue.

In the course of discussing issues, there are key passages which need to be studied. Occasionally passages will be misapplied by even those who believe the truth on the subject in general.

In the case of marriage and divorce, I feel that 1 Cor. 7:10-11 has been misapplied and misinterpreted. Many brethren have taken the position that 1 Cor. 7:10-11 does not refer to divorce but to merely to separation. The passages reads, “And unto the married I command, yet not I but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.”

Focus on the word “depart.” It is the same word that is used in Matt. 19:6 for “put asunder.” Jesus said, “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” The subject in Matt. 19:6 is divorce, not separation. Why would the word mean divorce in Matt. 19:6 and only separation in 1 Cor. 7:10-11?

Paul instructs the wife that if she departs from her husband, she is to remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. Two people who are merely separated are still married. The woman in 1 Cor. 7:10 could not be separated and unmarried at the same time. Thus, divorce must be the subject of 1 Cor. 7:10-11.

I do not believe that 1 Cor. 7:10-I1 teaches that divorce for any cause is permissible. In fact, the passage teaches quite the opposite. Paul states very emphatically, “Let not the wife depart from her husband.” Paul reinforces the strength of the statement by saying, “But and if she should depart let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled. . .” (7:11). Paul was teaching that if a married couple divorces for causes other than fornication (Matt. 19:9), they must remain single. Paul is not saying that divorce for any cause is permissible as long as remarriage does not follow but, if a couple makes the mistake of divorcing for unscriptural causes, then they are not allowed to remarry. Jesus also stated in very clear terms, “What God hath joined together let not man put asunder.”

Jesus teaches that divorce is wrong, except where fornication is involved. He said, “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:32). The divorce itself is wrong because, in effect, divorce sets the other mate free. We have no control over whether our mates remarry or not after the divorce. If our mates do remarry, the Bible says we have caused our mates to commit adultery. God holds us partially accountable for the remarriage because we have given our mates the freedom to remarry.

Jesus also taught, “What God hath joined together let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). When does the putting asunder take place? Does it take place at the time of the divorce or in the subsequent remarriage? I think the answer is obvious. Jesus taught that the divorce itself is wrong. Many brethren have taken the position that we can divorce for any cause as long as we do not remarry and when the former mate remarries (and thus commits adultery), then we are free to remarry. The Scriptures do not bear this out. In Matt. 19:9 and Matt. 5:32, there are four people who commit adultery: the two mates who divorce and the two they remarried. Nothing is said about the first couple who remarries committing adultery; the other couple is free to remarry without adultery.

Many brethren have tried to justify separation for any cause. I will admit that there might be a few isolated, extreme cases where separation is justified but I do not believe the Bible gives authority for doing so. In fact the Bible teaches against separation.

The Scriptures teach that each mate has a physical responsibility to the other mate. We are not to withhold sexual privileges from each other (1 Cor. 7:5). When we separate, we are doing exactly that. During a long separation, the same thing happens that happens during a divorce; both mates are tempted to commit fornication. If we separate from a mate and the mate commits fornication, I do not believe we are completely guiltless in the matter; we have contributed to the fornication.

Some brethren have used 1 Cor. 7:5 as a justification for separation for any cause. The passage reads, “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” The passage clearly says not to defraud each other. Periodically we might consent not to have sexual relations for spiritual reasons that we might give ourselves to prayer and fasting. He instructs the couple to come back together again so they will not be tempted to commit fornication. This kind of temporary sexual separation is a far cry from Martha storming home to mom and dad for a month because she and Jack had a fight. Nothing is said about marital incompatibility in 1 Cor. 7:5. Nothing is said about either mate leaving home. The only thing taught is that sexual separation for spiritual reasons for short periods of time is permissible.

The question is usually raised, “What about the drunk who beats his wife and children and is not fit to live with. Must a woman live in unlivable and intolerable conditions?” This kind of extreme situation is not very common place in the church. Separations mainly occur because a husband and wife are squabbling and can not get along. If an extreme case occurs, then separation is the only answer but not because the Bible teaches the validity of separation. For example, David ate the shewbread in an extreme emergency even though it was not lawful for him to eat it. In an extreme emergency, I might forsake the assembly on the Lord’s Day to aid and assist someone who had a car accident. Cases like this are so far and few between that they are hardly worth considering. Most of the time, these extreme hypothetical situations are raised to justify unauthorized practices in the absence of Scripture.

The Bible does not teach or authorize that a couple may divorce or separate for any cause. Many times these unauthorized divorces and separations are a respectable smokescreen for those who are attempting to circumvent their marriage vows to stay with their mates until death. I believe that if brethren would take away the easy option of divorce and separation from squabbling, bickering couples, that the couple might be forced to work out their problems which they otherwise would not have worked out and thus avoid the tragedy of needless divorce and separation.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 40, pp. 648-649
October 9, 1980