What does the Bible teach about permanent legal separation of married folks, in contrast to divorce or separation for prayer?
Greetings in our risen Lord. In response to your query, the Bible does not in my estimation have a category for “legal separation” that is distinct from divorce. In other words, there is no basis for spouses to separate from one another and still claim married status. In 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul uses the term “separate” it is rather clear this is a reference to divorce: “… the wife should not separate from her husband … and the husband should not divorce his wife” (vv. 10–11). In his book Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible, Jay Adams puts it thusly: “God doesn’t want loose ends dangling about a Christian’s marriage; He wants problems in marriage resolved. He wants peace. Either there is to be a marriage or there isn’t; God will not settle for something in-between. That simply will not do. The matter must be set to rest one way or the other so that there will be peace.”
In terms of your reference to “separation for prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5), Paul is not referring to domestic separation or living in distinct abodes, but rather a season (“a limited time”) in which the husband and wife by mutual agreement do not share conjugal relations and focus on the ministry of intercessory prayer. Because prayer requires single-minded focus and attention, it may be that for a short time the couple agrees to refrain from intercourse to devote themselves to prayer, but Paul is clear that they should “come together again” because otherwise they might fall into temptation.
In extraordinary situations, Jim Newheiser suggests, “there may be some rare cases in which a brief separation is necessary or appropriate. For example, if one or both spouses are extremely angry and there is a risk of physical or verbal abuse, it might be wise for one of them to go to a separate room or, if necessary, to stay overnight with a friend. In such cases, however, the brief time of separation should be used profitably—not merely as an escape from problems.” He goes on to say, “It is sinful, though, when spouses deliberately separate from each other in the long term without biblical grounds, whether or not the separation is legally enacted” (Marriage and Divorce and Remarriage, pp. 268–269).
Sincerely in Christ,
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