By Hoyt Houchen
Question: Please give your understanding of 1 Corinthians 7. 10, 11. I do not feel that Paul meant that one has the right to separate just because he does not want to live with his spouse any longer.
Reply: In this section of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he is dealing with some matters about which the Corinthian brethren had written to him (7:1). Specifically, he is dealing with some inquiries regarding the marriage relationship.
The verses under consideration read: “But unto the married I give charge, yea not I, but the Lord, That the wife depart not from her husband (but should she depart, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband); and that the husband leave not his wife” (1 Cor. 7: 10,11).
This is a direct simple charge from the Lord. The wife is not to depart from her husband. This is the general rule which is explicitly laid down and must be obeyed. The idea is that marriage was never intended to be on a “trial” basis, separation allowed for any reason upon which the parties may agree. The seriousness of marriage is emphasized. Two people have made a commitment to each other for life and these vows are to be honored. A wife who simply decides to walk out on her husband and no longer fulfill her marriage contract is forbidden to do so in these verses. The wife is not to depart from her husband.
The first part of the next sentence is parenthetical, (“but should she depart, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband”) and then follows the rest of the verse, “and that the husband leave not his wife.” The general teaching of not separating applies to the husband as well as the wife. It is “a two way street.” Jesus had repeated what is said in Genesis 2:24 when He asked, “Have ye not read, that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?” (Matt. 19:4,5). So, the parallel of this basic principle of marriage is simple. The wife is not to depart from her husband and the husband is not to depart from his wife.
The parenthetical clause of verse eleven presents an exception, but Paul in no way is encouraging separation without a cause. Marriage is not always without difficulties; but, when both marriage partners are Christians, they have a common tie. They are both children of God, who can pray together and have the word of God to guide them. When each partner has the proper attitude, problems of the most difficult kind can be solved. Too many married couples fail to respect the teaching of God’s word on marriage. They either fail or refuse to recognize that marriage is for as long as both shall live. “For the woman that hath a husband is bound by law to the husband while he liveth . . .” (Rom. 7:2). So, the exception in the parenthetical clause of verse eleven is to the basic or general principle of marriage. If, for instance, the marriage should reach such incompatibility (severe physical abuse, etc.) that it could no longer be peaceful and harmonious, one may resort to departing; or both parties may agree to separate. However, separation itself does not give either one a scriptural right to remarry. To simply separate and remarry would constitute adultery. The marriage is not dissolved by mere separation. Civil law allows divorce and remarriage for incompatibility and other causes than adultery, however Jesus gave but one exception: “And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matt. 19:9). In the event of separation, Paul declares, “let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:11). She is not to marry someone else. The same applies, of course, to the husband. It is either live a single life or be reconciled.
The idea of the two verses (1 Cor. 7:10, 11) is not to condone the idea of separation simply because one marriage partner decides that he does not wish to continue living with the other. Many marriages fail because couples first think about separation as the solution to their problems instead of first trying to work out their problems and be reconciled. Every effort should be made to continue the marriage, and separation should be only the last resort after all efforts of reconciliation have failed. If this procedure were followed, no doubt many more marriages could be saved.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 15, p. 453
August 2, 1984