What the Bible Says about
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

John Coblentz

What are some practical suggestions
for those in difficult marriages?

Pages 45 - 54

If divorce is not an option what alternatives are there when a couple is having severe marriage problems -- when, for example, a partner is abusive, or when a partner is immoral, or when a partner is involved in illegal activities, or when a non-Christian partner is drawing the children into sinful activities?

These situations ought never to be viewed lightly. Because circumstances vary considerably, it would be impossible to provide specific guidance for all situations. There are Biblical principles and directives, however, which can be applied in very practical and specific ways.

1. In a difficult marriage, a Christian must be committed to honoring the Biblical roles for husband and wife.

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Ephesians 5:22, 25).
A husband is called to a role of loving headship in the home. A wife is called to support and submit to her husband. In a marriage that is crumbling on the verge of divorce, there is usually a breakdown somewhere in responsibility. Indeed, one prime source of trouble in the home is a domineering husband or wife. A Christian husband should attend carefully to the Biblical teaching for husbands, and a wife to the teaching for wives. A husband or wife in a troubled marriage may find it helpful to make a list of personal responsibilities, number them in order of priority, and then discuss this list with his or her companion, noting suggestions for improvement. Certainly, heartfelt love is a better motivation in marriage than a checklist, but a checklist may be a helpful step in restoring love.

2. In a difficult marriage, a Christian needs the security and support of a faithful brotherhood.

"Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it" (I Corinthians 12:26).
Any member of Christ's body should have the security that when he is in trouble, his brothers and sisters understand, empathize, and stand ready to provide care as needed.

This verse taken in context would indicate there are some sufferings which God does not intend that we bear alone, sufferings which actually require the support of the larger body. Unfortunately, people who are having marriage problems often find the problems so traumatic, so painful, and so personal that they do not want to share them with anyone. They want to isolate themselves. There certainly is a place for privacy -- personal problems need not always become common knowledge to all members in the church. On the other hand, a mature body of believers can provide a prayer support, a caring, and a togetherness in trial which is invaluable to suffering members. The more a brotherhood practices mutual love, trust, openness, and humility, the easier it will be for hurting members to seek the support and care of the larger body.

3. In a difficult marriage, a Christian should seek the counsel of spiritually mature husbands and wives.

"The aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded" (Titus 2:2-6).
This Scripture clearly guides the younger to learn from the more mature those down-to-earth duties of married life. The unfortunate neglect of this teaching ministry in most churches is no doubt in part the cause of the breakdown in many marriages. A generation ago, men and women were forsaking the roles God had ordained for marriage. The present generation has not only many marriage problems, but also in too many settings they have few older couples who are able to help them correct their problems and order their homes. The mindset of the day is "go see a marriage counselor." Too many marriage counselors, unfortunately, have been trained in procedures which reject the counsel of God.

An apostate church setting, then, undermines the effectiveness of this approach to marriage problems. There still are churches, however, where the integrity of marriage has been maintained and where the older are able to teach the younger the nitty-gritty of married life. This is God's plan.

4. In a difficult marriage, a Christian should take up the responsibility of rebuilding the marriage as far as possible.

"And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife" (I Corinthians 7:10, 11).
As we saw earlier, in the Old Testament God permitted divorce under certain circumstances. Divorce granted the privilege to marry another but forbade returning to the former partner. In the New Testament, however, Jesus reinstituted God's original purpose and not only forbade divorce but said if one does divorce and marries another, he commits adultery -- the first marriage still stands in God's sight. Paul instructed believers, therefore, not to depart from their companions, but if they departed to remain unmarried or be reconciled.

Since marriage is indissoluble, those who are separated or divorced are called to the work of reconciliation -- restoring the relationship and rebuilding the marriage as much as is within their power. Seeing oneself as a rebuilder can bring a whole new dimension to a difficult marriage. It brings purpose. It is altogether reversed from the victim perspective.

How does one go about rebuilding?

There are seven basic areas where the rebuilding needs to take place:

  • Relationship with God.

  • Relationship with oneself.

  • Relationship with one's spouse.

  • Relationship with the children.

  • Relationship with the extended family.

  • Relationship with the church.

  • Testimony of righteousness.
The rebuilder should develop goals in each of these areas, acknowledging where he is in relation to where God wants him to be and projecting realistic steps to arrive there. Using a pencil and paper can be helpful in listing specific goals and steps. A trusted person who can serve as a spiritual guide can offer invaluable help as well. Let's consider each area briefly.
  1. Rebuild a relationship with God. The rebuilder needs to seek the Lord daily to experience the purity of soul and the courage to face the difficulties of rebuilding his marriage. Daily fellowship with God not only strengthens and purifies the spirit, but it also keeps the rebuilder aware of his need to rely on God. "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it" (Psalm 127:1). "For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him" (II Chronicles 16:9).

  2. Rebuild a relationship with oneself. One of the greatest areas of conflict in a difficult marriage is the inner conflict in one's own heart and mind. This conflict is often subconscious. It revolves much around the unfulfilled longing for love and security and the nagging consciousness of failure. A proper relationship with oneself requires being in touch with one's real thoughts and feelings. It requires being honest. And often it requires being open with a mature friend to discuss these inner feelings. Reading the Psalms can help one toward this inner honesty. Inner peace comes further as the broken and contrite one allows the Lord to renew a right spirit and rebuild character qualities such as meekness, compassion, faith, temperance, gentleness, and godliness. Consider the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) for steps to rebuilding an inner peace.

  3. Rebuild a relationship with one's spouse. This may have its limitations. The spouse may have left, may even have remarried. According to I Corinthians 7:15, the believing partner in such a case is to let the unbeliever depart. Nonetheless, to the extent that he can, the rebuilder should clear up all past failures and sins against his partner. He should further open himself to hearing his spouse's viewpoint, listening without justification, trying to see it from his spouse's perspective. He should refuse to belittle or condemn his spouse either in his own mind or to others. If there are injustices, he should choose to respond according to the teaching of Jesus: "Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44).

  4. Rebuild a relationship with the children. God intends that fathers and mothers be involved in teaching and training their children in His ways. "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7). Children further need the nurturing and caring, the correction and discipline, and the love and provision of their parents. Where separation has already occurred, this will be more limited, but the rebuilder must take whatever steps he can in the responsibility of loving his children and training them in the ways of God.

  5. Rebuild a relationship with the extended family. Most marriage problems spill out into the larger family. Alienation, hurts, and misunderstanding on the broader scale contribute to the problems in the marriage relationship. A rebuilder needs to take down the walls and rebuild the bridges so that the extended family is working together and praying together toward the restoration of the marriage. Even as pride often lies at the bottom of conflict, so humility is often the key to rebuilding. A rebuilder may need to confess his faults in brokenness and humility to rebuild such relationships, but it is that very humility which releases God's grace. "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble" (I Peter 5:5).

  6. Rebuild a relationship with the church. We noted earlier that the rebuilder needs a solid relationship with a mature brotherhood to bear the burden of a difficult marriage. The brotherhood, on the other hand, needs the testimony and ministry of those who choose to live for God in difficult situations. Sometimes people in difficult marriages believe they are being a burden to the church because they need so much prayer, encouragement, and help. In reality, however, the church needs every member who seeks after God. "Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary" (I Corinthians 12:22). Furthermore, the church can often supply the counsel and support for difficult decisions a person faces in working through a tangled marriage situation. "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14).

  7. Rebuild a testimony of righteousness. The rebuilder needs a clear testimony of righteousness. Everyone knows that marriage conflicts are unpleasant, but few people, especially among the ungodly, know that the commitment to work through tough marriage problems is a better choice than the practice of breaking commitments. When those involved in conflict, separation, or divorce are seen cooperating with God in the difficult task of rebuilding, their lives trumpet a testimony of God's grace. There ARE alternatives to divorce. There IS a way to restore broken relationships. There ARE right ways of coping with very difficult human problems.

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