Marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman instituted by God. God intends for marriages to last a lifetime and frowns upon divorce (Malachi 2:16). However, there are some circumstances where separation or divorce may be permissible or even necessary. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore what the Bible says about separation in marriage.
Marriage relationships can become strained and broken for various reasons. Problems like unfaithfulness, abuse, or abandonment may lead spouses to consider separation or divorce. Christians seeking God’s will in difficult marriages often wonder, “What does the Bible say about separation?”
There are a few key principles we can draw from Scripture:
- God designed marriage to be a lifelong covenant (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6)
- God hates divorce as it tears apart what He has joined (Malachi 2:16)
- Separation is permitted in some situations due to hardness of heart or unfaithfulness (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, 1 Corinthians 7:10-16)
- Reconciliation should be pursued if possible (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
- Separation should not lead to divorce except for marital unfaithfulness (Matthew 5:32, 19:9)
- Believers should seek wisdom from godly counselors and focus on spiritual growth during separation (Titus 2:3-5, Hebrews 12:11)
In this post, we will unpack each of these principles in detail and examine relevant Bible passages on separation in marriage. Whether you are currently separated, considering separation, or know someone who is, it is wise to understand what Scripture teaches on this difficult topic.
God Designed Marriage as a Lifelong Covenant
The Bible makes clear that God’s intention for marriage is that it last a lifetime. Genesis 2:24 states that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (NKJV). Jesus affirms this in Matthew 19:4-6, teaching that a man and woman are no longer two but one, and that “what God has joined together, let not man separate” (NKJV).
In Malachi 2:14, marriage is described as a “covenant” that God was witness to. Covenants in Scripture denote lifelong, solemn agreements. So from the very beginning, God designed marriage as a sacred, lifelong bond that should not be torn apart.
Marriage Is a Reflection of Christ’s Relationship with the Church
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (NKJV)
Human marriages are a living metaphor that point to the greater reality of Christ’s faithful, sacrificial love for His bride, the church. So when husbands and wives rupture their marriage covenant through separation or divorce, this distortion of God’s design goes beyond just the couple themselves. It mars the witness of the Gospel lived out through Christian marriages.
Marriage Vows Are Made Before God
Another indication that marriage is a lifelong covenant before God is that wedding vows are made before Him as a witness. Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 warns, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools…It is better not to vow than to vow and not pay.” Breaking marriage vows made before God would be breaking a promise made to Him. Jesus also affirms the seriousness of wedding vows and teaches that divorce should only be allowed in extreme cases because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Matthew 19:8).
Clearly, Scripture presents marriage as a sacred lifelong covenant entered into before God. He instituted it, blessed it, and intends for it to reflect Christ’s love for the church. This is why steps toward divorce like separation should be handled carefully and prayerfully, with reconciliation as the priority whenever possible.
God Hates Divorce Because It Tears Apart What He Has Joined
One of the strongest statements in Scripture about God’s view of divorce is Malachi 2:16: “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,’ says the Lord of hosts” (NKJV). Marriage is an institution God takes very seriously, so He hates it when man violates or tears apart what He has joined together.
Divorce Is Not Part of God’s Original Plan
From the beginning, divorce was not part of God’s perfect design for marriage. Jesus highlights this in Matthew 19:8:
Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (NKJV)
Divorce is only permitted as a concession to man’s sinfulness. It is not the ideal. Therefore, Christian couples should prayerfully do everything in their power to uphold the sanctity and permanence of marriage.
Healing and Restoration Should Be Sought
Despite divorce being against God’s original intent, He is still gracious and able to bring healing even after separation occurs. In Jeremiah 3, even though Israel was unfaithful like an adulterous spouse and separated from God, He appeals to her to return so that He can restore their relationship. “Return, backsliding Israel,’ says the Lord; I will not cause My anger to fall on you. For I am merciful…Return, O backsliding children,’ says the Lord; for I am married to you” (Jeremiah 3:12, 14 NKJV).
This shows that reconciliation should always be pursued when possible. Christians who separate should seek counseling and allow time for healing with the hope of restoring the marriage. However, if one spouse is unrepentant and continues in unfaithfulness, divorce may be the only recourse.
Separation Is Permitted In Some Situations Due to Hardness of Heart
The Bible speaks about separation in both the Old and New Testaments. While not ideal, God permits separation in certain situations because of people’s hardness of heart and sinfulness.
Old Testament Provisions for Separation & Divorce
In the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses allowed divorce and remarriage:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce…then let him write her a certificate of divorce, give it to her and send her out of his house…then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife.” (NKJV)
This passage regulated divorce without explicitly endorsing it. The “uncleanness” here likely refers to sexual immorality, the primary allowed grounds for divorce in the New Testament. This law shows divorce was an accommodation to protect women in a patriarchal society because something immoral had occurred. But ideally, the marriages should have been restored.
Separation Has Consequences
The certificate of divorce ended the marriage and allowed remarriage. So separation and divorce had permanent consequences. In particular, the woman was “defiled” which indicates divorce had a social stigma (Deuteronomy 24:4). This implies couples should not separate or divorce cavalierly.
Moses did make another provision for divorce in Exodus 21:10-11 for a man who failed to provide food, clothing, and marital rights to his wife. So in the Old Testament, the two broad grounds for permitted separation seem to be immorality/unfaithfulness and abandonment. However, religious leaders became very lax over time in allowing divorce for “any cause” (Matthew 19:3). But Jesus clarified God’s heart by emphasizing marriage’s permanence.
New Testament Teaching on Separation
Jesus raises the standard for marriage even higher in the New Testament. Now couples are held not just to the letter of the law but also to upholding the spirit of marriage as God designed it from the beginning (cf. Matthew 5:27-32).
However, the New Testament does make provision for separation in some circumstances. Paul writes:
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)
He says separation may occur, but the first priority by far should be reconciliation. The only other options are celibacy or reconciliation to the original spouse. This implies casual divorce or remarriage after separation is ruled out.
Only in cases of unrepentant sexual immorality is remarriage permitted:
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12 NKJV)
So the New Testament permits separation in cases of immorality or abandonment, but it should be avoided if at all possible, with the goal of restoring the marriage. Separation is a concession to human hardened hearts, not the ideal.
Reconciliation Should Be Pursued If Possible
Scripture makes clear that ideally separation should lead to reconciliation and restoration in marriage between Christian spouses. God’s desire is always to redeem and heal broken situations.
Paul says to those who separate to remain unmarried or pursue reconciliation (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). He later emphasizes that Christians must stay with unbelieving spouses who consent to the marriage because the believing spouse brings God’s redemptive power into the relationship to potentially save their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
Seek Guidance for Marital Restoration
Christians who separate should immediately seek help from wise counselors and implement strategies to facilitate reconciliation. This may include joining a support group, meeting with a pastor, entering marriage counseling, or attending a marriage restoration program.
The body of Christ should surround couples during separation to guide them to godly repentance and provide hope for reconciliation. Seasons of separation can lead to spiritual renewal as spouses refocus on their individual walks with God. But ideally this should ultimately knit their hearts together in deeper unity.
Pray and Actively Work Toward Reconciliation
Prayer is key during times of separation as it opens communication with God. Through prayer, Christian couples can fight spiritual battles, intercede for their spouse, and open their hearts to hear God’s wisdom and direction. They should pray both individually and together if possible.
Along with prayer, both spouses should actively work at reconciliation by identifying how they may have contributed to marital breakdown, repenting of sin, exhibiting forgiveness, and seeking practical ways to rebuild trust and oneness. This requires humbling oneself and laying down selfish desires.
With prayer, godly counsel, and Spirit-empowered effort, many Christian couples have seen God beautifully restore their marriages even after extended times of separation. God specializes in redeeming broken places.
Separation Should Not Lead to Divorce Except for Marital Unfaithfulness
Because Scripture upholds marriage as a lifelong covenant, separation should not hastily lead to divorce except for cases of persistent, unrepentant sexual immorality. Jesus addressed this multiple times.
Divorce Should Only Be for Immorality
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught:
“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 NKJV)
Jesus permitted divorce only for immorality. This is affirmed in Matthew 19:9: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (NKJV).
So the only grounds for divorce is porneia in the Greek which refers to sexual sin like adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, pornography, prostitution, and incest. Persistent, unrepentant immorality breaks the one-flesh union.
Divorce Should Be a Last Resort
However, even in such cases, forgiveness and reconciliation should be attempted if at all possible. Divorce should be a last resort after other efforts have failed.
First, the innocent spouse should gently confront the immorality and call the offending spouse to repentance and counseling (Galatians 6:1). If they remain hardhearted, the church should get involved to reprove and encourage restoration (Matthew 18:15-17). If the sin persists unrepentantly, separation may be the only option. Even then, the door should remain open to forgiveness and reconciliation.
Scripture only provides this one narrow exception for divorce because God hates it so intensely. Every opportunity should be given for wayward spouses to humbly return and be restored to the marriage.
Civil Divorce May Be Necessary as a Protection
However, in some severe cases like abuse or abandonment, even after separation a civil divorce may be needed as a legal protection for the injured spouse and children. But the church should still encourage spiritual reconciliation leading to potential remarriage.
So separation does not automatically lead to divorce. It should only be pursued when there is unrepentant sexual sin and after other recourses have failed. This upholds God’s heart for redemption.
Believers Should Seek Godly Counsel and Spiritual Growth During Separation
While separated, Christians should seek out wise counselors to help guide them toward godliness and possibly reconciliation. Separation also can be a catalyst for spiritual renewal if used properly.
Benefit from Good Counselors
Titus 2:3-5 exhorts older women to counsel younger women toward personal and marital growth:
The older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior…that they 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. (NKJV)
Godly mentors can help separated women stand for their marriages, maintain moral purity, care for their kids, and develop gentle, forgiving spirits. Men also need wise counselors to walk them through anger, reconciliation, spiritual leadership, and upholding marriage covenants.
Rely on the Holy Spirit’s Power
Spiritual growth during separation occurs as believers draw closer to Christ for comfort, guidance, strength, and discernment. The Holy Spirit produces His fruit of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NKJV) to help individuals grow in godly character.
The Spirit’s presence also brings conviction of sin which promotes repentance. He gives supernatural power to forgive, soften hard hearts, and mend broken marriages far beyond human ability alone.
Patiently Endure as God Refines You
Times of separation, though painful, can refine believers’ faith and dependance on God. James 1:2-4 exhorts, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience…that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
Similarly, Hebrews 12:11 reminds believers that “no discipline seems pleasant…but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness.” As couples patiently endure separation while seeking God, He uses it to purify and prepare them for reconciliation or service.
Biblical Grounds for Separation or Divorce
To summarize the biblical teaching on permissible reasons for separation:
- Immorality – Persistent, unrepentant sexual sin breaks the one-flesh union and permits divorce as a last resort (Matthew 5:32, 19:9). This includes adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, incest, pornography, prostitution etc.
- Abandonment – When an unbelieving spouse deserts a marriage, the believer may separate and/or pursue divorce if the unbeliever is unwilling to continue the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
- Abuse – When there is repeated physical abuse or threat of bodily harm, separation may be needed. If the abuser remains unrepentant and continues harmful behavior, divorce may be unavoidable (Romans 13:4, Exodus 21:10-11).
- Substance addictions – Uncontrolled addictions to drugs, alcohol, or pornography can damage marriage so extensively that separation is warranted if the spouse refuses treatment.
- Criminal behavior – Felonious criminal behavior that endangers a family may require separation and even divorce if reconciliation efforts fail.
However, Scripture limits legitimate grounds for divorce, not just separation. Separation should ideally lead toward reconciliation whenever possible. But in certain situations such as abuse or abandonment, an indefinite legal separation or civil divorce may be the only option left to protect the injured spouse and children
Marriage is an incredibly sacred, lifelong covenant established by God. He designed it to reflect the beauty of relationship between Christ and the church. However, because of man’s sinful hardness of heart, painful situations arise in marriages that may necessitate separation for a season or in extreme cases, divorce.
Scripture permits separation in instances of immorality, abandonment, abuse, or unrepentant addictions or crime. However, reconciliation should be vigorously pursued through prayer, godly counsel, Spirit empowerment, and patience during the trials. Divorce is only allowed for unrepentant sexual sin, but even then should be seen as a last resort after efforts toward restoration have been made.
Christians who find themselves separated or pursuing divorce should surround themselves with wise believers who will pray with them and walk them through the stormy waters. This time can be used by God to bring deeper spiritual growth if they lean on Him to refine their faith and character.
Even if divorced, God still loves each spouse immensely and has abundant grace to redeem their lives and use their trials for good. In all things, believers must uphold the principles for marriage established in