This article does not address the subject of marriage and divorce. Rather, it examines the Bible teaching on marriage and separation, that is, what the Scriptures say to those who wish to separate, but not divorce. The Apostle Paul is clear on this matter: “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” (1 Cor. 7:10-11). The Bible plainly states that if a wife separates from her husband, she is not free to remarry. But if she does separate, she should seek to be reconciled.

What is Marriage?

To understand why Paul’s statement is found in the New Testament, let us go back to the beginning. In Genesis 2:18 we read: “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18). The institution of marriage was not created by man. It was created by God and began when man was created. The man was alone, and God determined to give him a companion-a “help meet” if you will. Mankind, therefore, consists of two entities-a man and a woman. One entity alone was insufficient; it took two to make a full complement. The woman was created from the man (Gen. 2:22) and completed God’s supreme creation. The man complemented the woman as her provider and protector. Each was intended to help the other.

Marriage is a covenant agreement. The prophet Ezekiel illustrated this when he described the marriage agreement between God and ancient Israel. “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord GOD, and thou becamest mine” (Ezek.16:8). Marriage, therefore, is a covenant bond-a divine institution entered into by means of a vow. Any marriage ceremony should contain words to this effect: “Since marriage is a divine institution and we are asking God to join you as husband and wife, it is fitting and right that each of you should faithfully promise, before God, to accept the sacred marriage covenant, according to the divinely imposed or ordained conditions imposed by Almighty God. Do you then (his name) faithfully promise and covenant with God in the presence of these witnesses to take (her name) to be your lawful wedded wife, to cleave to her unto death, to love her, to cherish her, to honor her, and provide for her? (He answers). Do you (her name) faithfully promise and covenant with God, in the presence of these witnesses to take (his name) to be your lawful wedded husband for the remainder of your natural life, and, as God has ordained, to submit yourself unto him as unto God; to be subject to him in everything, and to reverence him?” (She answers)

The above words are very sobering, and marriage vows are not to be taken lightly. They contain a solemn promise before God that the participants will fulfill the vows they have taken.

Why Vows Are Important

A man is only as good as his word. One who takes what he promises lightly, and breaks that promise, is a man who lacks character. Since marriage is bound by a vow or covenant, God requires that we keep our vows. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us: “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:4-5). Jesus was much more adamant about the importance of words when He said: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37). “Idle words” are words spoken without foundation. One who takes his marriage vows lightly either does not grasp or does not really mean what he says. His words are without foundation, and he stands accountable before God.

There is an Old Testament text that addresses the importance of vows. It is found in Numbers 30:1-5.

And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded. If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth. If a woman also vow a vow unto the LORD, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father’s house in her youth; And her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the LORD shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her.

What this passage states is that a father may void a vow taken by a minor daughter who is still at home. All other vows stand.

Deuteronomy 23:21-23 adds to this command: “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee. But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee. That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt keep and perform; even a freewill offering, according as thou hast vowed unto the LORD thy God, which thou hast promised with thy mouth.” This is why the Bible admonishes: “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Eccl. 5:2). What needs to be realized is this: When we make a vow, we must be sure we mean what we say. Hasty words can lead to serious consequences, and once a vow is made, it cannot be retracted. We are held accountable for our words. Remember, when it comes to the marriage vow, “Tis perilous to say rashly, ‘This is sacred!’ and then reconsider your vow” (Prov. 20:25, Moffatt).

Separation and Divorce Permitted?

The Bible permits separation and divorce under some circumstances, though such circumstances can be devastating for the parties involved, including the children. Such separations are not necessarily sinful. What is sinful is if one or both of the parties remarry. If this be the case, why did God allow divorce and remarriage during the Old Testament period? Jesus gave the answer to this question: “They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:7-8). Hardness of heart-lack of conversion or carnality-is the cause of most of the world’s ills. Unconverted men resent God’s Way. “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). God never intended couples to divorce and remarry, yet permitted it during the Old Testament period because the earnest of the Spirit had not been made available. This Spirit was not given until after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The Holy Spirit enables one to overcome resentment against God’s Law and to be able to abide by the commandment regarding marriage. Divorce and remarriage are not permitted under the terms of the New Covenant. Separation under certain circumstances is, however.

Paul discusses this in 1 Corinthians 7:15. The subject here is separation, not divorce and remarriage. Paul states: “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.” The word “bondage” is from the Greek word douloo, which means “enslavement” or to “become a servant.” It means compulsory service. Except in Acts 7:6, its usage in the New Testament is always figurative (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromley, Abridged in one volume, douloo). What did Paul mean when he wrote that a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases? The answer: Christians are not under bondage to the heathen desires of an unbelieving mate. What Paul states is that for the purpose of saving the marriage, the believer is not expected to give up the faith in order to please an unbelieving spouse. Compulsory service includes the duties required of marriage, spoken of in verses 3-5. In brief, a Christian should not yield to a spouse’s demands that may be contrary to righteousness. The word douloo, and its cognates, never refers to divorce in the New Testament. However, if the believer chooses to depart, he or she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to the mate (v. 11). Paul makes it clear in verse 39 that marriage is a sacred vow that is nullified only by death.”The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” The fifteenth Psalm tells us that the one who will be allowed in the presence of God is one who ” . . . sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not” (v. 4).This is why making a vow is a serious matter that should never be taken lightly. Yet countless marriages today are entered into without the least thought of the permanency of marriage, or how God looks upon those who treat this sacred institution with contempt and disregard. Divorces are as frequent as marriages today, and, as an individual and a nation, there will be much to repent of. As we shall see, the Lord God of Israel hates divorce, which He regards as treachery on behalf of one or both of the partners in the marriage relationship.

Consider Hardness of Heart

During the Old Testament period, the nation of Israel was unconverted. The people did not have the Holy Spirit and were unable to apply the New Testament principles that Jesus outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew, chapters five through seven, Jesus summarized the spiritual principles that reveal how Christianity should be manifested. The ancient Israelites were unable to apply even the letter of the law, let alone spiritual principles. Their hearts were hardened, and they were unable to obey God. For this reason God allowed them to divorce and remarry. Human nature can be very unyielding and very volatile, filled with hatred, resentful over real or imagined grievances, and unable to forgive. The fault, however, was not with God. It was with the people. “For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Heb. 8:8). Thus, today we have the New Covenant and access to the Holy Spirit.

True Christians, those who have the Holy Spirit, are not at liberty to divorce and remarry. They must be free of hardheartedness. Yet on occasion the pulls of human nature thwart this capability, and couples have difficulty getting along with one another. Paul stated: “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal. 5:16-17). Paul understood this problem, and this is why he stated that if the wife chooses to depart, she must remain single or be reconciled. Converted Christians should be able to work out and solve marital difficulties. In some cases this may require time, and a separation may be necessary in order to think things out. While no time limit is set on the length of separation, the purpose and goal should be that of an eventual reconciliation. Those who cannot solve their marital problems should seriously evaluate their conversion. There is much in the Bible that reveals what God expects of both husbands and wives in order to have a compatible marriage. This may require much prayer and fasting, but if one is determined to obey God he will do what is necessary to achieve the goal-being compatibly married.

Basis for a Good Marriage

To a large extent, what we are as adults is the result of what we were as children. Character is either instilled or not instilled during childhood. Offspring often mirror their parents.A good parental example is absolutely essential, along with developing and preparing a child for adulthood. Yet how many young women today know little or nothing about meal preparation, running a household, or rearing children? And how many men do not know how to secure and maintain a good job or to manage the family budget? Adults who constantly act childish have never outgrown their childishness, which is especially manifested in selfishness and always demanding one’s way. Such behavior can be very damaging to a marriage. Many parents have dismally failed to teach their children anything about marriage.Often children have never been taught to obey and are allowed to constantly manifest an attitude of defiance and rebellion. Many times these characteristics are carried over in the marriage. A girl who is taught to respect her parents will have little difficulty transferring that respect to her husband. A boy who is taught to respect and treat girls kindly will more than likely manifest this attitude toward his wife. It is no exaggeration to state that many marriage problems today can be laid directly at the feet of parents who did not properly rear their children or instill Godly principles into their thinking. The Bible admonishes: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).

Since being married involves serious responsibilities, there are many factors that need to be considered. Such things as economically divergent backgrounds, as well as social and cultural differences, must be regarded. There may be many difficulties that may need to be overcome. The failure to accomplish an understanding in these areas before marriage often leads to separations and many times to divorce. Marriage is a type of the relationship that exists between God and the Church. Since God appointed the husband to be the head of the household (1 Cor. 11:3), a husband should treat his wife like God treats His spiritual wife-the Church. The husband should exercise benevolence, love, and kindness tempered with an attitude of service, sacrifice, and concern for his wife and family.

Here is how the Apostle Paul described it:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband. (Eph. 5:22-33)

The duty of the husband toward the wife, and the duty of the wife toward the husband should emulate that which is manifested by Christ and the Church. Paul makes allowances for separation, because he knew that human nature sometimes gets in the way of compatibility. How did he describe unconverted human nature? “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). Paul knew that sometimes space should be allowed for mates to meditate and pray in order to come to a proper perspective. The clear indication is that either one or both of them are unconverted which becomes obvious when couples cannot reconcile.

To Be Successful

A number of principles apply in order to have a successful marriage. The failure to apply one or more of these principles often leads to separations. One important principle is the attitude that prevails in the hearts and minds of those who enter into a marriage. While physical attraction is important, a man who marries a woman because his major interest is physical is likely headed for trouble. A woman whose major interest in a man is his looks is likewise headed for trouble. There is much more to marriage than physical attraction, although that is generally important at the beginning. Solomon wrote: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). Out of the heart pours either good or evil. A wrong motive based on lust will not serve a worthwhile purpose for long. What is in the heart is often reflected by what one says. Jesus said: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). Couples who constantly criticize and cast barbs at one another simply demonstrate what is in their hearts. The mouth of a righteous man or woman will express an abundance of kindness. There will be words of benevolence, courtesy, love, compassion, and cooperation. The heart of a wicked man will express contempt, hurt, injury, condemnation, and fault-finding. Even in the face of adversity a righteous man or woman will make an effort to express peace and hope. Jesus told His disciples: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35). Where is a better place to practice this than in the home?

A second principle is to cultivate a good marriage relationship every day. Often the best response to harsh words from one’s spouse is kindness. A few Proverbs illustrate this principle:”A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness” (Prov. 15:1-2). “Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones” (Prov. 16:24). “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov. 25:11). Words of kindness, understanding, and mercy, as well as being judicious, can work wonders in a marriage. When one has been upset by a mate, a much better solution to resolve the problem is for the hurt spouse to describe how the problem affects him or her rather than criticizing what the spouse has done. Temper control is critical in insuring a successful marriage. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Prov. 16:32). One who has good emotional control is a man or woman of great character, and this is a greater accomplishment in the sight of God than a military victory.

A third principle in a successful marriage is the ability to forgive and forget. The Bible speaks of this as covering a transgression, that is, to put a transgression out of the heart and mind. What should be the reaction of a husband or wife when a fault is discovered? Should one hurl abuse and tell others about this fault? Should one condemn and indict? Does this build or destroy? According to the Bible we read: “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends” (Prov. 17:9). Who should be one’s closest friend? A spouse, of course. All human beings have faults, so it is not good judgment to be critical and fault-finding of others, especially with a wife or husband. Paul said one’s mate is one’s own flesh. “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church” (Eph. 5:28-29). We generally treat our own bodies very well, and this is the way we should treat a husband or wife.

A fourth principle is to maintain a positive orientation. It is depressing to be around someone who is always negative in his or her thinking. Constant carping and complaining can produce nothing but unhappiness. God intended marriage to be exciting, thrilling, and purposeful. People will put forth great effort to achieve success in one thing or another, but often will put very little effort into making marriage a success. Too many couples take their mates for granted and continually ignore them. Love is what binds a marriage, and the first love that one felt at the beginning of a marriage should be constantly regenerated. Maintaining a positive attitude suppresses the negative aspects that are bound to arise in any marriage.We must have the desire to make a marriage work, and being positive is a great asset in achieving this goal. One need not wait for the other party to act.One should take the lead in being positive, and then see how this is bound to benefit the marriage.

A fifth principle in achieving a successful and happy marriage is for couples to emphasize their similarities rather than the differences. Many couples spend entirely too much time arguing over differences, which only breeds tension. Tension between married couples is detrimental for the home and family. Cultural barriers can be serious, so it is absolutely necessary to reduce these differences to a minimum.Arguing over such things is a bad habit because once a stand has been taken; many find it difficult to back down even when proven wrong.Consider this proverb: “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle” (Prov. 18:19). When dissimilarities are emphasized, the bars of resistance are set up, and trying to enter is like penetrating the bars of a castle. Respect for one another is extremely important because respect fortifies one’s appreciation to God for establishing marriage.

The sixth principle for a happy marriage is to accept trials as a challenge and not as a defeat. All married couples face various trials throughout life. The building of strong character results from overcoming the trials of life. Marriage is a type of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The Bible tells us that nothing can separate true Christians from God’s love. This relationship should exist between a man and his wife. Yet how often do marriages fail because couples are unable to overcome their trials and eventually end up hating one another. Separation in marriage reflects a serious problem that needs to be overcome. Divorces, on the other hand, reflect failure, though not all are the fault of both parties. The failure to apply the Christian principle of love is often behind these problems and failures. Rather than finger pointing at a spouse, a more important rule is to examine the self. We generally cannot change what others do, but we can change ourselves. Often when one spouse changes, the other will follow suit. Trials are an opportunity to solve challenging problems, an opportunity to build character. The natural thing is to criticize and find fault with the other party, but the book of Proverbs admonishes: “Any story sounds true until someone sets the record straight” (Prov 18:17 NLT)

The seventh principle is that a successful marriage must be based on genuine love. Too many couples do not have a proper understanding of love. They have been misled by Hollywood which confuses lust with love. There is a difference. Lust is self-seeking, self-satisfying, and is manifested by a transitory infatuation. Love, on the other hand, is outgoing concern for the other party. True love is unfeigned, sacrificing, and unconditional. Here is how the Bible describes it in the Moffatt translation: “Love is very patient, very kind. Love knows no jealousy; love makes no parade, gives itself no airs, is never rude, never selfish, never irritated, never resentful; love is never glad when others go wrong, love is gladdened by goodness, always slow to expose, always eager to believe the best, always hopeful, always patient. Love never disappears . . . ” (1 Cor. 13:4-8). How many human beings are capable of manifesting this love? Yet, a Christian who truly loves his or her spouse will be making an effort to attain this goal. If the love of God is not an influence in our lives, and we allow ourselves to manifest every selfish whim found in human nature. In addition, we will refuse to work out our marriage problems; we will stand accountable before God.

The duty of every husband should be to provide for his wife and family and to always keep their best interests in mind. The wife should reciprocate with love and devotion to her husband and family. A wife should be a friend. A man cannot manifest true friendship to those outside his family when he is unable to manifest it within. Love and friendship within the marriage are reciprocal. To repeat: The marriage relationship is a type of Christ and the Church. The Apostle John wrote: “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). A man who loves his wife can expect a Christian wife to love him in return. When we take the marriage oath, we are promising to uphold a serious commitment for the remainder of our natural lives. Marriage is a serious responsibility.

What Is Conversion?

Conversion brings about a change in one’s thinking and behavior. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, those truly converted are able to suppress the evil impulses of human nature. Marriage plays an important part in helping one overcome and conquer these pulls. Conversion means control of the heart and mind-the subjugation of the self. It is a requirement for entering into the Kingdom of God. One who continually blames his spouse for problems within the marriage has not faced up to his own nature. One who constantly criticizes his spouse disheartens and discourages her, making her feel worthless and useless. The solution to any marriage problem is to first examine the self-to take an honest look to see where the fault really lies. Continually blaming one’s spouse can only lead to bitterness, and bitterness can lead to divorce.

The prophet Malachi warned:

This is another thing you do. You drown the LORD’S altar with tears, weeping and wailing because he no longer accepts the offerings you bring him. You ask why he no longer accepts them. It is because he knows you have broken your promise to the wife you married when you were young. She was your partner, and you have broken your promise to her, although you promised before God that you would be faithful to her. Didn’t God make you one body and spirit with her? What was his purpose in this? It was that you should have children who are truly God’s people. So make sure that none of you breaks his promise to his wife. ‘I hate divorce,’ says the LORD God of Israel. ‘I hate it when one of you does such a cruel thing to his wife. Make sure that you do not break your promise to be faithful to your wife.’ (Mal 2:13-16 TEV)

This faithfulness includes love and affection. A husband who is unconverted and allows his nature to run rampant will be self-serving and inconsiderate toward his wife and family. Often, if he does not get his way he will often become abusive. Can a wife be blamed if she becomes bitter? Couples must learn to work together to solve their problems. This often involves a give and take attitude. Those who refuse to do so can look forward to a separation, which can eventually lead to divorce.

The Apostle Peter gave this instruction to wives:

Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any [terror]. (1 Pet. 3:1-6)

Let husbands again be reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church. (Eph. 5:25-29)

The principles in the above paragraphs, if practiced, can insure a happy and lasting marriage, and if there is a separation, it should be for a limited time period only. Then reconciliation and restoring of the marriage should take place. Do not forget what the Apostle Paul wrote: “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” (1 Cor. 7:10-11).