The book of Malachi, the final document of the Old Testament, contains a series of scathing rebukes against the Hebrew people in the post-captivity period (c. 457-432 B.C.) of the nation’s history. The Israelites had drifted into a state of spiritual lethargy and were involved in numerous manifestations of sin, not the least of which involved flouting the vows of their marriage covenants.
Malachi declared that the Hebrew people flooded the altar of God with their tears, yet were puzzled as to why he rejected their worship. They failed to recognize that the moral dimension of their lives was in shambles. Listen to this charge:
Jehovah has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, even though she is your companion and the wife of your covenant (Malachi 2:14).
The term “treacherously” suggests actions that are inconsistent with (unfaithful to) the covenant vow before God. We must emphasize that what applies to the husband applies likewise to the wife.
The Three-Way Covenant
It is a tragedy that most folks in society, and not a few who profess to being Christians, think that marriage is mostly a civil arrangement that they can treat with disdain whenever they please. Irrespective of “civil” law, which ebbs and flows with changing times, and from society to society, there is a higher “contract.” It is a covenant between two eligible people and their Creator — who himself instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden and provided stipulations for the relationship’s regulation (Genesis 2:21-24; cf. Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 16:8).
The marriage arrangement is designated as a “covenant” because it is “contracted in submission to the revealed will of God (Exodus 20:14) and with the expectation of his blessing (Genesis 1:28)” (Verhoef, 274).
The devoted child of God does not treat his/her marriage like the revolving doors of a modern department store. As one scholar has noted: “The loyalty of each partner to the covenant of God [is] a uniting bond which create[s] a lasting companionship between the partners” (Baldwin, 239).
When people enter marriage they promise, before God, to love and honor one another and to be supportive, through whatever adversities, for as long as they both are alive. This is a universe apart from the flippant disposition of many modern couples who pledge togetherness, “for as long as we both ‘dig it’.”
One young lady, in contemplating her probable future marital circumstances, quipped: “I will probably marry, have a couple of kids, and after ten years or so, divorce and find a new husband.”
No marriage is perfect, because the union involves two imperfect people. A marriage between two people who are wholly committed to Christ (in spite of their personal blemishes) is the most ideal relationship within earth’s environment. A marriage where one or both partners are egocentric and worldly, can be a “hell on earth,” and the number of such matrimonial battlegrounds is legion.
It is an amazing thing that sometimes when a marriage experiences troubles, one (or both) of the Christian partners entertains the illusion that he or she (or both) can refrain from earnestly working on healing the problems that disrupt their relationship. The symptoms of this flawed mentality are sometimes manifest in a variety of ways:
- One of the partners decides to withhold marital intimacy from the other as a form of punishment. When sex becomes a weapon, it has been degraded to an animalistic level void of any expression of genuine love.
- Rather than earnestly working to resolve their problems, based upon probing the Scriptures for counsel, and perhaps seeking the assistance of wise and loving Christians who desire their reconciliation, one or both may turn to ungodly sources (“physicians of no value” – Job 13:4b), whom they are confident will “take their side.”
- One may determine that he/she will pursue “some breathing space”; thus disrupt the relationship by “moving out.” Unless there is a genuine danger of one’s safety (not a manufactured case designed to re-enforce a predetermined course of action), leaving one’s mate is a sinful act. Rationalizations, such as, “I feel stifled,” or “I want to feel some freedom again,” can never justify a separation.
Finding a “Proof-Text”
Occasionally 1 Corinthians 7:5 will be cited as a proof-text, justifying a departure from the “together” relationship. Paul wrote:
Defraud ye not one the other, except it be by consent for a season, that you may give yourselves unto prayer, and may be together again, that Satan tempt you not because of your incontinency.
This text does not remotely support a selfish desire to “be alone.” Paul contemplates a situation where a couple may mutually agree to refrain temporarily from sexual intimacy for a spiritual reason during a time of external “distress,” e.g., persecution (cf. v. 26, “by reason of the distress that is upon us”). Other reasons for abstinence (e.g., a medical factor) would have to be justified by biblical principle.
This passage does not sanction a situation wherein a self-centered spouse chooses to leave his/her mate so as to be able to have “space.” Such an attitude magnifies a flaw in the heart of the one who seeks to avoid working out the marital stresses.
Others pervert the contextual meaning of 7:10-11.
But unto the married I give charge, yes not I, but the Lord, That the wife depart not from her husband (but should she depart, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband); and that the husband leave not his wife.
This context clearly contemplates the situation of a Christian woman who is married to an unbeliever; the unbeliever refuses to remain with his believing spouse. He thus abandons her.
She is charged not to leave him. Should she, however, be forced to depart (e.g., by reason of imminent danger), she may not remarry on that basis alone. And we must emphasize again that she may not fabricate some bogus case, justifying her departure, just so she can be a “single woman” again. She is not single!
The Church’s Responsibility
What is the church’s responsibility when a Christian husband or wife leaves his/her mate with no scriptural justification? Wise leaders need to counsel with the troubled parties, pray for them, encourage them to recommit to their “till death do we part” vows.
If the elders observe that one (or both) of the parties refuses to help repair the problems, the church may need to provide assistance in the form of more concentrated pressure.
“Covenant-breaking” is a very serious transgression (see Romans 1:31). It is not beyond possibility that church discipline might be warranted in some situations.