When Marriage Ties Are at the Breaking Point
WHEN God united the first human pair in wedlock he purposed that the marriage union should be permanent. The account in Genesis 2:24 states:”That is why a man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh.”
The marital arrangement was to bring together man and woman in an unbreakable union, instituted for their blessing and happiness and for the bearing of righteous offspring, all to the glory of God.
However, that perfect state in the original paradise was disrupted. Rebellion entered the hearts of the first pair and they were cast out from paradise. No longer would they maintain their perfection. Degeneration of mind and body set in, which imperfection or sin they would pass on to all their offspring.
With man and woman no longer walking in God’s ways, it was not long before marriage bonds began to break. How true this has been down through the centuries, and especially so in our times! Divorces and separations have become commonplace and the reasons for such have been many. But, according to the laws of the Universal Sovereign, Jehovah, who makes allowances for human imperfection, there are not many reasons for breaking the marriage tie. His Son Jesus said: “I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another commits adultery.” (Matt. 19:9) Thus, Scriptural divorce was limited. But what of separation, where adultery has not been committed and where a divorce may not be contemplated? What is the Bible’s view on this matter?
PROPER VIEW OF SEPARATION
In the ancient city of Corinth, steeped in false worship and wickedness, this problem of separation arose in the first-century Christian congregation. It prompted an inquiry to be made to the apostle Paul regarding the propriety of separation. The inspired answer of the apostle was recorded in God’s Word for a permanent record. It helps us to understand God’s mind on this matter of separation, where both husband and wife are Christians, also where one mate is a Christian but the other is an unbeliever.
Paul wrote: “To the married people I give instructions, yet not I but the Lord, that a wife should not depart from her husband . . . and a husband should not leave his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10, 11) Primarily Paul emphasizes that Christian couples must do all they possibly can to resolve differences that may arise and not to separate. The reasonableness of this is obvious, because where both mates profess to be dedicated Christians, they are under obligation to perform God’s will, and God’s will for Christian couples is to ‘stick together’ and not to break the marriage tie.
Marriage partners both may claim to be Christians, both may have dedicated their lives to God, and yet they may claim incompatibility and want to separate. What is wrong? One or both of those professing to be Christians are not applying Bible principles. Somewhere these vital principles are being pushed aside, ignored, and personal inclinations have taken their place. Where God’s counsel is applied, the results cannot fail. “My son, my law do not forget, and my commandments may your heart observe, because length of days and years of life and peace will be added to you. . . . In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.” (Prov. 3:1-6) No problem will come up in the lives of Christian husbands and wives that cannot be resolved by applying this wisdom from God and by showing real love for one another as true Christians always should. (John 13:34, 35; 1 Cor. 13:4-7) Are they as Christians showing love by ‘keeping an eye, not in personal interest upon just their own matters, but also in personal interest upon those of the others’? (Phil. 2:1-4) They should sit down together and discuss their differences as dedicated servants of God, making proper allowances for human imperfection. Vital, too, is the need for prayer to be offered regularly to Jehovah for his assistance; they should regularly pray together.
Jehovah has made excellent provision for assistance where differences seem irreconcilable between dedicated Christians. This provision is within the Christian congregation. Here mature overseers and older men who have God’s mind on marital matters may be consulted for counsel from the Scriptures, which counsel married believers experiencing difficulties should apply. Since Jehovah has provided this arrangement, those who take advantage of it will receive its benefits, whereas those who do not seek the counsel of these mature servants are actually ignoring Jehovah’s arrangements for assistance. This consultation can mean the difference between successfully overcoming difficulties and not overcoming them.
Truly, Christian couples should not have to separate. Since they have dedicated their lives to do Jehovah’s will, they should quickly take the necessary steps to bring their lives into harmony one with another, thereby honoring the God who originated marriage.
Nevertheless, Paul recognized that some would separate. He stated: “But if she should actually depart, let her remain unmarried or else make up again with her husband.” (1 Cor. 7:11) Since adultery has not been the basis for the separation and no legal divorce has been obtained, Christians who separate are not Scripturally free to remarry. Obviously they can have no sexual relations with members of the opposite sex. However, because of the prevalence of temptation and immorality, it would be far better to “make up again.”
What of the situation where one mate is a dedicated Christian and the other an unbeliever? Said Paul: “If any brother has an unbelieving wife, and yet she is agreeable to dwelling with him, let him not leave her; and a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and yet he is agreeable to dwelling with her, let her not leave her husband. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in relation to his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in relation to the brother; otherwise, your children would really be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbelieving one proceeds to depart, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not in servitude under such circumstances, but God has called you to peace. For, wife, how do you know but that you will save your husband? Or, husband, how do you know but that you will save your wife?”—1 Cor. 7:12-16.
The Scriptures, therefore, lay the primary emphasis on not breaking the marriage tie. If it is to be broken, the Christian should endeavor not to be the one that makes the break. However, if the unbeliever separates, the Christian would let him depart.
There are distinct advantages in remaining together, even if it is one’s lot to live in a religiously divided household. A Christian believer may win his or her mate over to Christianity. Surely the unbeliever is in an advantageous position, for he is in touch with true Christianity as practiced by his mate. Eunice, the mother of Timothy, was married to a man who did not profess Christianity. The Scriptures do not indicate that she left him. Instead, we must conclude that she remained with her husband, all the while imparting instruction to Timothy and aiding the young lad to become a true Christian. (2 Tim. 1:5) The Bible does not say that Timothy’s father ever became a Christian, but apparently separation never blighted the union of Timothy’s parents.
GROUNDS FOR SEPARATION
Paul’s words at 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 show that Scriptural separation is possible, although the unbelieving mate should be the one to institute it. However, because of the actions of the unbelieving marriage partner, a situation may become very serious, even critical for the Christian mate. Because of abusive treatment or circumstances of an extreme nature, the believer may deem it best to depart as a last resort.
One valid ground for separation is willful nonsupport. When entering matrimony, the husband and head assumes a responsibility toward the wife and any children that may bless the union. He has an obligation before God, even if he does not profess Christianity. In fact, if he were a Christian he would be considered worse than an unbeliever if, because of sheer negligence, he did not care for his family. Says 1 Timothy 5:8: “Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” In view of this, the Christian may separate if conditions are extreme and there is willful failure on the husband’s part to support his mate, though this does not free one for remarriage.
Extreme physical abuse furnishes another valid basis for separation. As is often the case, drunkenness may be an underlying cause, resulting in physical abuse. (Prov. 23:29-35) A mate who is not governed by Scriptural principles may fly into a rage and cause physical harm to the believer. This may occur often, so that one’s health and life are actually in jeopardy. After thoughtful and prayerful consideration of the circumstances, the Christian may feel that there is no recourse but to separate from the abusive mate. On the other hand, the Christian may find that there are things she can do to avoid outbursts of anger on the part of her mate, thus making the situation endurable.
Absolute endangerment of one’s spirituality furnishes another basis for separation. The Christian’s relationship with Jehovah God is something to be cherished and protected. If, because of extreme measures, actual physical restraint, or similar treatment, the Christian believer finds it completely impossible to pursue true worship and to serve Jehovah God according to his Word and the dictates of a Biblically trained conscience, that one may choose separation. While the marriage partner is the closest neighbor to whom we must show love, Jesus made plain that love for God comes first. (Matt. 22:37-39) No human has the right to prevent one’s worship to God. “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
When conditions become trialsome, the Christian will not act rashly and impetuously, quickly breaking up the marriage through separation. Instead, there will be a careful analysis of matters, a prayerful consideration. (1 Pet. 4:7) Before ever making a move that would shatter a marriage, such questions as these may be asked with profit: Might it be that what is viewed as failure to provide sufficient support is really the result of excessive demands on the part of the Christian? Is this failure deliberate, or are there extenuating circumstances that should be considered, such as poor health, a financial reverse, and the like? What of the abusive treatment? Is it verbal, or if physical, is it something that has resulted more in hurt pride than in real physical harm? Then, what of one’s spiritual condition? Is it really in jeopardy, or does it only seem to be, due to the Christian’s failure to take full advantage of opportunities that do exist to remain spiritually strong? In essence, is the situation so bad, so extreme, as to require separation? Or could the problems be resolved by a better application of Bible principles?
Consider, too, the possible consequences. Your course of life will be altered. Think of the pressure of the separation. What if it resulted in your falling into immorality? What a disastrous effect! Possibly there are children. Is the care and love of only one parent going to be sufficient? Will you be able to handle matters from a financial standpoint, or otherwise?
Naturally, if the circumstances are extreme, one may choose to resort to separation, but it should be a step taken only as a very last resort, after all other efforts to correct the situation have been exhausted, and after prayerful consideration.
When problems arise with an unbelieving mate, a kind and considerate discussion will frequently produce good results. For example, it might tactfully be pointed out by a Christian wife that she is according full religious freedom to her husband. It is only proper that she receive the same consideration as a Christian who wishes to pursue godly devotion. She does not interfere with her mate’s religious pursuits; therefore, she should reasonably receive similar treatment. (Matt. 7:12) While a good Christian wife is in subjection to her husband (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22-24), she realizes that God comes first, for the “head of every man is the Christ; in turn the head of a woman is the man; in turn the head of the Christ is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3) So hers is a relative subjection, and where there is a conflict of wills, God’s will must be obeyed.
How should the Christian wife married to an unbeliever view the obligations of the Christian ministry? Meetings of Jehovah’s witnesses are held three times a week. This is not excessive, since many women are out to church functions and social gatherings often during the week. But if the Christian wife is out the other nights also, then the crisis may come when she wants to go to meetings. As for her service in the field ministry, that does not have to be performed during the hours her husband is home and wants the company of his wife. He may not object if she is gone a few hours on the weekend to congregation meetings, but if she is gone all day, first to service and then to meetings, the husband may object. Many dedicated women arrange their affairs to engage in regular field ministry during the daytime when the husband is busy with secular work and children are at school. Hence, the Christian wife living in a religiously divided household may find it necessary to curtail activity somewhat, but she does not forsake meetings and service altogether. (Matt. 18:20; Heb. 10:24, 25) A person’s spiritual health can be maintained in a divided household if good planning is carried out and the Christian does “not give up in doing what is fine.”—Gal. 6:9.
A person has a right to the religion of his choice, and also to personal property in the way of Bibles and Bible-study aids. This does not mean, though, that a Christian wife should necessarily place these things in full view in a part of the home where the unbelieving husband might object. Such things can be kept among personal effects. Time can be spent studying the Bible and Bible literature in private. In this way, arguments or conflicts may be avoided. Of course, when it comes to principle, one should not compromise, but neither should a person unwisely cause unnecessary difficulty.—Matt. 10:16.
Sometimes the problem centers around the religious instruction of children in a divided home. Where the mother is the believer, she can tactfully arrange to have her children accompany her to meetings and service. But if her husband objects and forbids the children to accompany the mother, then as head of the house, his wishes must be acceded to. Since it is his responsibility before God, it would be unwise for the believing wife to try to force the issue. At home she can patiently teach the children Bible principles, so when they grow up and leave home they will be able to pursue true worship.
What happens regarding the training of children if the husband is the believer and his wife is not? The believing husband, as the head of the home, has the right and obligation to God to have his children raised as true Christians. He will take the lead in bringing his children to Christian meetings, teaching them in the field ministry and studying the Bible with them in the home.
Wisdom displayed in connection with material things can also aid in strengthening marriage ties. A wife may have some preference regarding furnishings for the home. The husband also has his thoughts and, as head of the house, may choose to make a different decision. But in that event should the wife harbor ill-feeling just because certain things do not suit her taste? If a problem arises because of this, the Christian wife should not think she is suffering for righteousness’ sake. In fact, she is failing in her Christian duty to be submissive and in subjection. Or the unbelieving husband may desire to move elsewhere. The Christian wife may realize that this will pose problems, but she should yield to her husband’s wish, for he has the right to choose where the family will live. Contention that might result because of displeasure over living quarters could become so grave that there would be a desire to resolve the problem by separation. In this case the basis of a separation would not be due to religious differences. In fact, by applying Bible principles, such problems would be averted entirely.
It is easy to see what the other person is doing wrong. But the Christian wife should ask herself, What can I do to contribute to the success of the union? If my husband does not come home at night and goes out drinking, is it because there is something about the home to which he does not like to return? Do I nag him? Am I always lecturing him? Are the children out of hand? Such honest self-analysis can be extremely revealing and valuable. The wife’s responsibility is to try to make the home one to which the husband will want to return at night.
Nor should the believer ignore the interests of the unbelieving mate. When the man and woman were courting each other before marriage, each made an endeavor to cultivate interest in what the other liked. The believing mate should do the same after marriage. Even though she may not be interested in some activities the husband likes, a believing wife, for example, would do well to cultivate an interest in such things for the sake of her marriage. It is difficult to make love grow when man and wife do not do things together. Where there is no compromise of principle involved or Biblical issue violated, the believing mate will subordinate personal desires and spend some time doing what the unbeliever wants, thus demonstrating Christian reasonableness. This is the loving course and may turn the unbeliever to inquire into a faith that results in such consideration for one’s mate.
A Christian husband should not be harsh and demanding. This will surely cause unhappiness and may lead to separation. Think of the joy experienced by both the man and his wife when they entered wedlock. Why not work to preserve that feeling? Why should a God-fearing husband emulate the ways of worldlings who thoughtlessly dominate their wives and subject them to cruel and unloving acts or words? True, because of sin, the woman was to experience the fulfillment of God’s words, “in birth pangs you will bring forth children, and your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” (Gen. 3:16) But the mature husband will not become dictatorial. (Col. 3:19) He will take his wife’s feelings into consideration. And, while he has the responsibility of making final decisions, he will consult with her, not to receive directives, but to know her problems, so that he may take them into consideration in making his decisions. He will exercise proper, loving headship. He will wisely follow Paul’s counsel: “In this way husbands ought to be loving their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hated his own flesh; but he feeds and cherishes it, as the Christ also does the congregation.” (Eph. 5:28, 29) Show love for the woman you asked to share your life with you. Even if she does not now embrace true Christianity, spend time with her, consider her, compliment her. Show her your concern. Never be too busy with other pursuits to devote some time to her and to reassure her of your love. Proper conduct in this respect may mean a happy life and may result in one’s mate accepting Christianity. Failure to do such things may be disastrous.
Christian husbands and Christian wives have real advantages. They have God’s holy spirit. With it, there can be a cultivation of its fruitage of self-control, love, mildness, kindness, and similar qualities. (Gal. 5:22, 23) What a wonderful effect this will have on the marital union! The Christian united in wedlock with an unbeliever should realize, of course, that the unbeliever may not know of God’s requirements and is not in position to apply Biblical principles. Hence, there may be some difficulty, but the Christian should continue to produce the fruits of God’s spirit. Doing this and keeping up one’s courage and hope in Jehovah God can produce gratifying results indeed, as Peter said to Christian wives: “In like manner, you wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, in order that, if any are not obedient to the word, they may be won without a word through the conduct of their wives, because of having been eyewitnesses of your chaste conduct together with deep respect.”—1 Pet. 3:1, 2.
In this world of turmoil, separation and divorce are common, with their attendant problems and grief. True Christians look forward to the new world of righteousness in which such heartrending separation, sorrow and hardship will no longer plague mankind. But now, during the closing days of this old world and amid its tumult, you may be faced with a situation that raises the question of whether to separate from your marriage mate. With you must rest the final decision. But, first, consider the Scriptural grounds for separation. Think, too, of the possible consequences. Subject yourself to personal scrutiny. Consult with mature Christian overseers for sound counsel. Meditate upon the possible good effects of continuing with an unbelieving mate, even under hardship, as someday he or she may become a fellow worshiper of Jehovah. Just think of the joy that would be yours then because you resolved not to depart! In any event, do your utmost to be found blameless in the sight of God and receive his blessing and reward.
Love is long-suffering and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, does not get puffed up, does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests, does not become provoked. It does not keep account of the injury. Love never fails.—1 Cor. 13:4, 5, 8.