Is an Indefinite Marital Separation a Sin?
A common solution, employed by some married couples when they are experiencing difficulties in their relationship, is to indefinitely separate from each other. Since they do not have a scriptural reason for divorce, this seems to be a legitimate option. The couple has no plan in place to end the separation and no efforts to even try to reconcile by either one or both spouses. Yet neither have a right to divorce or have plans to ever get a divorce.
How does God (who created marriage) feel about such indefinite separations? Is an indefinite marital separation a scriptural solution to troubled marriages? Is an indefinite separation sinful?
First, it may be wise to define the terms. A “separation” is when a husband and wife stop living together as husband and wife. However, they are not yet divorced. Using the term “indefinite” indicates the couple do not have plans to divorce and do not have plans to reconcile. Indefinite means “lasting for an unknown or unstated length of time.”
Looking for a Loophole
When the Pharisees asked Jesus if a man could divorce his wife for just any reason, He stated very clearly : “NO!” He only gave one reason for divorce and that is for sexual immorality (Matthew 19:3-9). Some spouses hope to remain “faithful” to the letter of the law and will not divorce, but will separate from their spouse. They will argue, “no one knows how terrible my marriage is and surely God doesn’t want me to be unhappy for the rest of my life.” Could this be a loophole some are looking for in an effort to effectively end their marriage without getting a divorce? Why are some intent on finding such a loophole in God’s Will concerning marriage and divorce?
The spouse who separates will claim, “I’m just not happy anymore. I don’t feel like I married the right person or I feel maybe that this was just a mistake. We got married too young. We can never seem to get on the same page and I’m not happy…besides God wants me to be happy.” These same souls thought they would get married and live happily ever after in marital bliss. When the honeymoon is over and reality sets in, they lack the maturity to stick with the marriage. They see separation as their way out – right now.
However, God did not call us to be happy but to be holy. He called us to persevere not to give up on marriage. His will is for married couple to be steadfast in their vows, not separated from the one they vowed to love, honor and cherish. God wants husbands and wives to be conformed to His will, not have their way, so they can be comfortable.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:1-3). Some spouses no longer feel satisfied with their spouse, therefore they seek to end the relationship through an indefinite separation.
A husband got drunk one night. He was known to get a little rough with his wife in this condition, but this time he beat her black and blue and threatened to kill her. She took her son and fled to my home where my wife looked after her. Some might argue with the Lord that this is a legitimate grounds for divorce or to indefinitely separate. However, after working with the husband and getting him some help. The marriage was restored. They were separated for one week. Later after his attempted suicide, he repented of his ways, returned to the Lord, and in time became a deacon in a large congregation.
Another argument that is made for separation involves emotional abuse and/or feeling unsafe. Who has the authority to determine what is a suitable grounds for indefinite separation? God joined the couple together. The only emotional abuse He recognizes is adultery. If a wife burns the toast, is that abuse and grounds for separation? If in a heated argument, the husband and wife exchange a few blows, is that grounds for permanent separation? Jesus, said, “therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6b).
Perhaps the only legitimate reason for an indefinite separation would be in the case of sexual immorality. A husband or wife learns their spouse has been unfaithful. They separate to determine whether or not the marriage can be saved. If separation leads to divorce, okay. After all, Jesus allows for divorce for fornication. Yet if separation leads to reconciliation, better. Reconciliation of the troubled marriage without separation may be the best.
Reasons for Separation
There are several reasons why some couples will separate. First, there is fear. This may be caused by physical threats or emotional distress. Second, many more will abandon their marriage due to fatigue. They just cannot take the rigors of married life any longer. It is far easier for them to escape from a troubled marriage than it is to heal it. Finally, the most common reason for these indefinite separations is facilitation. If a spouse wants to pursue an extra-marital relationship, it is far safer and easier to do so while separated from their spouse. Others want to live the life of a single person where they do not have to deal with the constraints of marriage. The husband does not have to consider his wife, but can feel free to go and do as he pleases. The wife does not have be in submission to her husband. Separation helps to facilitate the free and unrestrained lifestyle, they desire. There is a possibility the choice to separate may involve more than one of these reasons.
Proof Text for Indefinite Separation
The Bible does mention separation in 1 Corinthians chapter seven. In fact, some believe they have found a proof-text for indefinite marital separation. Paul wrote, “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). Note that the New King James Version uses the term “depart” whereas other translations, such as the English Standard Version, uses the term “separate.” Is Paul saying that it is okay for a couple to separate, so long as they do not get remarried? If so, is an indefinite separation a God-approved alternative to divorce?
First, if the passage gives permission for a wife to separate from her husband, what conditions allow her to separate? If her husband does not take out the garbage, can she up and leave him? If he spends money on himself rather than her, can she end the marriage with an indefinite separation?
Paul is not giving married couples the option to separate or divorce, so long as they remain unmarried or reconcile. A parallel would be John’s statement in 1 John 2:1-2 : “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” Does John give permission for Christians to sin so long as they have an Advocate with the Father? Absolutely not! He is commanding Christians NOT to sin. However, Christians will sin. When they sin, they have a solution: Jesus Christ. Likewise, Paul is commanding couples NOT to separate. But what if some disobey the command and sin by separating. Then they must suffer the consequences: remain unmarried or be reconciled.
For example, a father tells his teenage daughter not to drive the family car while he and her mom are out of town. He goes on to warn her, “but if you do drive the car, you will be responsible for any damages or tickets you incur.” Does this give the daughter permission to drive the car? Could she argue, “Dad said it is okay for me to drive the family car, just so long as I do not wreck it or get a ticket”? Absolutely not. He is only telling her, there may be consequences if she disobeys him and drives the family car.
Mere separation is not under discussion by Paul in verses ten and eleven. The same Greek word chorizo (put asunder, separate, depart) in verse ten is used in Matthew 19:6 when Jesus discusses divorce with the Pharisees. The first part of verse ten “a wife is not to depart from her husband” is parallel with the end of verse eleven where Paul says, “a husband is not to divorce his wife.” The “separation” in view in the Corinthians situation is a legal one which finalizes into divorce.
For the sake of argument, suppose Paul is dealing with or including separation in this text. Nothing here permits indefinite separation In fact, Paul uses the simplest prohibition: “depart not” reinforced by the forceful command: “charge” which is done with supreme authority: “the Lord.” Instead of a proof-text permitting separation, this passage is a divine command against separation.
Temporary, Controlled Separation
Verses ten and eleven of 1 Corinthians chapter seven are dealing with divorce and not mere separation, however verse five does come closer to the modern idea of a marital separation. Paul warns, “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” (1 Corinthian 7:5). This passage may be the only time the Bible speaks about a “separation” apart from divorce. It mentions a “fasting” or cessation from marital intimacy.
Unlike the indefinite marital separation practiced by some today, Paul is giving guidelines for a temporary, controlled separation. This may or may not involve couples taking up separate living quarters. This form of separation must be for a definite (not indefinite) period of time and by mutual agreement. The activities involved by both spouses during the time they have consented to is for them to participate in “fasting and prayer.” The purpose behind God commanding such a temporary and controlled separation is to keep Satan from using this opportunity to tempt either one or both spouses to lose self-control and commit fornication.
Indefinite Separation Is Unscriptural
Now the focus of the rest of the article shifts to the unscriptural nature of indefinite separation. Although there may be more, please consider the follow eight ways such an indefinite separation violates the Will of God for marriage.
When a man puts away his wife without her first committing adultery, Jesus says the husband is in fact causing her to commit adultery. On the Sermon of the Mount, He said, “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32). Based on the same principle when a man separates from his wife, he endangers her soul by allowing Satan to tempt her and in her lack of self-control she may commit fornication. The man cannot argue at this point: “look she committed adultery, I am the innocent party. I am free to divorce her and marry another.” The husband in this instance is not an “innocent party” to her lack of self-control. In fact, he helped facilitate her sin by his indefinite separation.
1 Corinthians 7:5 and 10,11 encourage reconciliation of those temporarily separated with mutual consent and those who have unscripturally separated in divorce. However, when a couple are indefinitely separated, one or both spouses will often get comfortable in this state and not even attempt to reconcile. After just a few months they may feel a sense of peace in their new found single (but technically married) status. Their desire to work things out with their estranged spouse dissipates into apathetic contentment. After separation they have a sense of peace. The desire to work on their marriage quickly evaporates. They will start to think, “Well, I am not completely happy, but it feels good not to be trapped in a miserable marriage. Why should I go back to the agony of a struggling and hopeless relationship when I feel happy for the first time in years.” At this point, resolving issues becomes more of a wishful thought than a workable option.
In Malachi 2:16 God makes it very clear how He feels about divorce. “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, For it covers one’s garment with violence,” Says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” What faithful saint wants to be guilty of doing something God hates and is violent and treacherous? With an indefinite separation they at least are not angering the Lord. After all, it is actual divorce God hates. Such thinking is using a humanly divisive loophole to divorce one’s spouse without a legal document. Furthermore, many indefinite separations eventually end up in the divorce courts.
▸Discourages the Purpose of Marriage
When God finished His creation He observed it was good. Yet on the sixth day when He created man He recognized that “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen. 2:18). So God created woman from man and established the institution of marriage, so they could dwell together and the man would not be alone. An indefinite separation of man and wife discourages this Divine purpose of marriage.
▸ Hinders Marital Responsibilities
A mutual duty husbands and wives are to fulfill is their sexual intimacy. Paul commanded, “nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:2-4).
In marriage God has given the husband and wife other duties they are to perform in relation to each other. Husbands are to “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:9). In First Peter 3:7 it says, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.” It is hard for a man to “live happily with” or “dwell with” a wife if they are separated. Other commands cannot be fulfilled by men who are separated from their wives. “Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them” (Colossians 3:19). Calling for men to be Christ-like husbands Paul wrote, “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. ..So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:23,28).
Wives also have responsibilities in marriage which are all but impossible for her to fulfill when involved in an indefinite separation from her husband. Paul also calls upon wives to be church-like brides to their husbands. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. …Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:22,24). Paul also wrote, “wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18). Peter commands “wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1). Titus was to teach the older sister in Christ “to admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:4-5).
To sum up their mutual duties in the marriage Paul wrote, “nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph 5:33). It is hard enough for couples to fulfill these duties when they are living together as husband and wife. When they are separated for an indefinite period of time, obeying these commands becomes near impossible.
▸ Hinders Parental Duties
Not only are mothers to love their children and care for them, Paul commanded: “and you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). When parents separate, the children often become weaponized in the on-going attacks against spouses. The children are innocent, and they desire to have a mommy and a daddy just like God intended. One Saturday at lunch, a three year old daughter wanted to say a prayer before lunch. She prayed that her mommy come home, so they all could live with daddy. About the same time, her six year old sister drew a picture. In her drawing, she showed a beautiful blue sky with a bright yellow sun shining over a field of rich green grass with flowers. In the middle of the field were four people: her mommy and daddy with her and her little sister. They were all smiling and holding hands.
▸ Destroys Influence and Sets a Bad Example
Paul tells Titus the reason why older women are to teach the younger women to love their children and their husbands who they are to obey. The reason: “that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:4-5). When spouses separate for an indefinite period of time the message to the world is that marriage is not a permanent commitment before God. It tells the rest of the world that we are not going to let our light shine on the darkness. Instead, the bad example will influence them to either separate or divorce when every they feel their marriage is not working out or they are uncomfortable or unhappy. God’s Will concerning marriage is not being exalted by these Christian couples separating.
If one couple in the church can separate indefinitely without sinning, then why cannot all marriages end in such separations. Is God pleased with a congregation full of married couples who are separated indefinitely without fornication being involved? If this behavior is permitted, it will spread through a congregation like cancer through a body or like leaven through a loaf of bread. Paul warned the church at Corinth concerning a man who had taken his father’s wife. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:6b,7a).
If a couple fails to reconcile after encouragement, admonition, and rebuke; the congregation needs to enact church discipline upon both spouses or at least on the spouse who refuses to work on reconciling the marriage.
▸ Destroys the Permanency of Marriage
The only two reasons for a marriage to come to an end is: adultery (Matthew 5:31,32; 19:3-9) and death. Paul wrote, “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband” (Romans 7:2) and “a wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). During most marriage vows, a couple has promised to remain faithful to their marriage: “till death do us part.” However, many are destroying the permanency of their marriages by separating indefinitely.
In summary, there is no scripture which promotes or justifies an indefinite marital separation. Therefore, those who do so do not have authority from God’s Word. In addition, the commands concerning a temporary, controlled separation or cessation of sexual intimacy are violated by an indefinite separation. The further examples of the sinful nature of these indefinite separations are evident in that they promote adultery, hinder reconciliation, encourage divorce without scriptural grounds, dishonors the Divine purpose of marriage, hinder husbands and wives from obeying their God-given roles in marriage, hinder fathers and mothers from fulfilling their parental duties, sets a bad example and destroys godly influence, as well as destroying the permanency of marriage. The only conclusion that can be arrived at is: indefinite marital separation is sinful.
Perhaps the greatest danger of these indefinite separations is to the souls of those participating in them. What will a husband and/or wife say when the Lord returns. “Yes Lord it is true that against your will I have separated from my spouse. We do not have a reason to divorce and I have not divorced. It is also true that I have not been making any efforts to reconcile or fulfill my duties to my spouse. However, I…” The truth is unless they are striving to reconcile when they face death or the Second Coming, they will be left without a scriptural reason when facing the Judgment of God.
Today, marriage as God ordained is under fire. It is being attacked by the government via the Supreme Court which rules that marriage can consist of a man and a man or a woman married to a woman. Some groups are clamoring for the recognition of polygamous marriages. The transgender and LGBTQ movements have further undermined the foundation of marriage. Not to mention the high divorce rate encouraged by the no fault divorce laws and denominations accepting divorce for any reason.
The New Testament church cannot sit idly by and allow further destruction of the Divine institution of marriage. Christians must teach the truth against indefinite separations. Congregations should discipline those spouses who refuse to obey God’s Will. Christian couples need to set an example before the world to influence them to once more promote the Biblical concept of marriage. Jesus said, “therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6b).
– Daniel R. Vess