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 Vol. 6, No. 4 

April 2004

Guest Editorial

~ Page 2 ~

Mistaken on Marriage and Divorce

By Lindell Mitchell

In my life society has moved from supporting the code of "one man for one woman for life" to "divorce and remarriage is an individual choice of no moral significance." This shift means Christians live in an entirely different climate. Divorce for any cause and remarriage on a whim is normative with many of the most prominent people. Outside a few religious groups, little is said in opposition to it. Both secular and religious literature supports divorce and remarriage as preferable to being "unhappy." Increasing numbers of Christians are accepting worldly practices. It is imperative that we wrestle with and obey what the Scriptures say concerning marriage. Obedience to God's law of marriage is as important as any other.

Preliminary Considerations

God ordained the institution of marriage (Genesis 2:18-25). This passage reveals the triad on which all families rest. Ultimately it is the foundation upon which civilization stands. Permanence is the first pillar grounding marriage, "therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother..." This does not refer to geographical leaving. It does not mean a complete mental or emotional separation because the duty to "honor" father and mother is permanent (Exodus 20:12). It simply establishes the marriage bond as a permanent, first priority relationship.

Acceptance of the law of permanence is the basis for the second pillar, which is commitment, "and shall cleave unto his wife..." God placed permanence of marriage as the basis for commitment. Men would reverse the order. Studies have confirmed the Lord's wisdom. When people know they have to function as a team, they make positive and supportive accommodations for each other. Survival demands it. Certainly, people joined by the Lord in a permanent union have the greatest incentive for commitment.

Sexual union is the third pillar upon which a marriage rests, "and the two shall be one flesh." This is God's arrangement.

The rich blessings of marriage flow from its permanence. The Lord's attitude toward divorce is clear (Malachi 2:16). Jesus addressed the matter specifically (Matthew 19:3-9):

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, have ye not read that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female. And said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

The Pharisees were anxious to find a way to fault Jesus so they pressed him. A favored tool was to frame a question so that regardless of the answer, they could portray Jesus as out of step with a popular rabbi. It is easy to imagine them sneering as they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" They were probably referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The renowned Shammi said the phrase, "Unseemly thing," means "he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, 'because he that found in her indecency in anything.'" The more liberal Hillel argued, "He may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, 'because he hath found in her indecency in anything.'" Another highly regarded rabbi named Akiba held that "find no favor in his eyes," was the key to interpreting the passage. He said if a man found a woman fairer than she (his wife), he could give her a bill of divorce and marry the other. The views of Akiba and Hillel were wildly popular.

The Pharisees probably expected Jesus to adopt the view of one of these rabbis. When He did, they would discredit him with the followers of the other rabbis. What utter shock when he did neither. Jesus went to the first book of their beloved Torah quoting Genesis 1:17ff and Genesis 2:24, as he said:

Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female. And said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh (Matthew 19:4-6a).

Here the Lord made explicit a truth that had been implicit from the beginning. From the start God fashioned even the bodies of man and woman so that they could be one flesh. The sexual union symbolizes the entire union of marriage. God planned that one man would take one woman and the two would become one. What God joined was not to be separated by man (Matthew 19:6b), "what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." Thus, the Pharisees were repulsed.

They believed they saw an opportunity to cast Jesus in the role of saying Moses contradicted Moses (Matthew 19:7b), "why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?" He made it clear that the laws and customs of marriage accepted under the Old Testament, which were out of harmony with Genesis 2:24, were a Divine accommodation to their hard hearts (Matthew 19:8); "He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so." The highest standard for marriage, in the mind of God from the beginning, was not initially bound on men. However, Jesus came fully revealing the Father to man (John 14:9). Therefore, he was to be their source of Authority (Matthew 19:9); "and I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." Nothing could be plainer. Adultery is a grave sin. It was punishable by death in the Lord's day (Leviticus 20:10). Jesus said the man who puts away his wife for something other than fornication (porneia, any form of illicit sex) commits adultery when he enters another marriage.

Verse nine clearly gives an exception to the rule fornication. One who puts away a spouse and marries another except for the cause of fornication by that spouse commits adultery. The opposite must logically follow -- He who puts away for fornication and marries another does not commit adultery.

Men Reject What Jesus Said and Seek to Dismiss It

Some allege that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are part of the Old Testament rather than the New Testament. Consequently, it is argued Matthew 19:9 is not part of the new covenant and does not apply to anyone today. They claim Jesus was just clarifying the Law of Moses. It is also argued any instruction considered part of the new covenant must be stated after the events described on Pentecost in Acts two.

These contentions are incorrect. Laws are routinely stated before they take effect. In fact, modern authorities use multiple media outlets to make a new provision known prior to its becoming the law of the land. Jesus said many things that did not take effect until the day of Pentecost which are not restated after Pentecost. The Great Commission comes to mind (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16). That was not part of the Law of Moses. Nor was Jesus explaining the Law of Moss.

Consider the Lord's legislation concerning the settlement of personal disputes among brethren (Matthew 18:15-17):

Moreover if thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he hear not thee, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear the, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

Jesus gave this legislation before the church was established. It was not part of Moses' law. No apostle ever repeated it, but the Lord bound it on the church. This demonstrates the error of the theory that all pre-Pentecost teaching is part of the Old Testament. It is no more necessary for Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 to be repeated after Pentecost than for Matthew 18:15-17 to be repeated to be part of the New Covenant.

The argument Jesus was explaining the Law of Moses is absurd. Repeatedly in Matthew 5 the Lord in essence said, "Moses said that, but I say this" (Matthew 5:21-22, 28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). He drew the same contrast in Matthew 19:8-9.

Many have espoused the view that Matthew 19:9 does not apply to alien sinners, but only to those in the church. They contend Matthew 19:9 is a "covenant passage" having no application to non-Christians. Some of them hold that non-Christians are only under "civil law." Others say they are subject to the "law of the heart." Still others say they are under the "great moral law." But when Jesus answered the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3-9, he took marriage back to God's original plan in Genesis 2. When God gave his law in the Garden of Eden, he gave it to the entire human race. It was not restricted to the church that did not yet exist. It was given to everyone. When Jesus legislated concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage, he included and obligated everyone (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). The term "whosoever" includes every individual. No limitations or restrictions are given.

Jesus has all authority (Matthew 28:18). This includes what he said concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage. He will judge saints and sinners (Acts 17:30-31; Matthew 5:28-29). He said, "He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day" (John 12:48).

Some of the Christians at Corinth had been adulterers before obeying the Gospel (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). As non-Christians, they were subject to the law of Christ. It was necessary for them to repent and turn to Christ, leaving immorality behind. Along with Paul, they understood they were subject to Christ's law even before they became Christians.

Mark 6:17ff reveals that Herod Antipas (a non-Christian) took his brother Philip's wife. Her name was Herodias and she was not a Christian either. He married her. They were living in adultery. John the baptizer told Herod it was not lawful for him to have her. Clearly, God's law applied to them.

Some admit the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) applies to everyone, but go on to argue on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:15 that desertion is an additional reason for divorce and remarriage. It is also held on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20, 24 that "the marriage that exists at the time of a person's call to Christ is to be continued with God's approval." Thus, it is alleged that people in unscriptural marriages with multiple divorces for any reason must remain married.

Notice that Paul never mentions divorce with approval in this text. Remarriage is specifically prohibited. Paul says disruption of the marriage is not a thing to be favored. If a couple does it anyway, he says they must be celibate or reconcile (1 Corinthians 7:10-15). As long as another marriage is not entered, it is possible to reconcile with God's approval.

The point of 1 Corinthians 7:15 is the believing mate who is deserted by an unbeliever is not obligated to forfeit Christ to prevent the departure of his mate. He is not required to forfeit his soul. No Christian has ever been under bondage to sacrifice salvation for anyone. Remarriage is not under consideration.

Some argue that Paul "countermands" (1 Corinthians 7:15-24) the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 19:16). Paul was his ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20). Nobody anywhere at anytime countermands anything Jesus says! Paul the ambassador would be the first to reject this notion (Galatians 1:8), "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul was discussing whether one should remain married or single under the prevailing circumstances in Corinth (vs. 8-9, 26-28). To "abide in the calling wherein they were called" means if you were married do not seek release from the covenant (vs. 27a). If you are single, you should not seek to marry (vs. 27b). Paul's illustrations of those who are to "abide in their callings" (i.e., whether circumcised or uncircumcised, vs. 18-19; whether slave or free, vs. 21-23) do not involve sin if they abide. It was not inherently wrong to be circumcised or uncircumcised. It is inherently wrong to live in adultery; a forbidden marriage necessarily involves sin (Matthew 19:9). If you can abide in adultery without changing, why can't you abide in other sins?

Some of our brethren say adulterous marriages are justified on the basis that "Christianity does not abolish such relations, it sanctifies them." The argument is based on a misapplication of 1 Corinthians 7:14; "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy." But Paul is not discussing an adulterous marriage in this passage. He is discussing a marriage in which one partner is a Christian and the other is not. That is not inherently wrong. His point is the unbeliever is "sanctified" in the sense that he is fit to participate with the believer producing children so that they are not "unclean" or "unholy" (i.e., illegitimate). He does not say an adulterous marriage is sanctified when either partner obeys the Gospel.

Misguided brethren argue it is impossible to "live in" adultery. It is alleged that adultery is an act. If you seek forgiveness from the act, they say all is well. This is popular with many people in difficult situations. However, notice what Paul told the Colossians (Colossians 3:5-7).

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: in the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.

Fornication includes adultery. If you can "live in fornication," (and you can), you can "live in adultery."

A prominent preacher said, "Adultery is not some later remarriage following a divorce. Adultery is failing to keep covenant...Remember, adultery is not a sexual work." One brother even debated this proposition: "The action of adultery in Matthew 19:9 is the action of divorcing and remarriage, and the parties remarried do not continue in adultery as long as they are together." In considering these assertions you must remember God's law: "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law of her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband" (Romans 7:2). Though Israel broke the covenant with God on many occasions, it was never released from the covenant. The covenant continued in force (Acts 7:2; Amos 5:25-27; Jeremiah 3:6-10). The Israelites were still God's people under obligation to abide by the terms of the covenant. God's marriage law is binding as long as the two people live who entered the covenant (Romans 7:1-4).

You should understand that adultery is an illicit sexual act. In Ezekiel 16:25-32 God described the spiritual adultery of Jerusalem as one that committed adultery against her husband. She "taketh strangers instead of her husband" (vs. 32). She had "opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied thy whoredoms" (vs. 25). The prophet drew from the sexually repugnant nature of adultery to describe the level of violation committed when Jerusalem engaged in idol worship. Without the sexual content the imagery is void of meaning!

On one occasion, the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus (trying to entrap him) they said had been "taken in adultery, in the very act" (John 8:4). What act was she caught in? Was it covenant breaking? Did they catch her tearing up her marriage license? Clearly, it was illicit sex.

The Hebrews writer admonishes us to let "the bed be undefiled: for fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4). Exactly how does an adulterer "defile the bed?" the Bible answers; Reuben, the son of Jacob, went up to his father's bed; then defiled it (Genesis 49:4). What specifically was his sin, designated as "defiling the bed"? He "lay with Bilhah his father's concubine" (Genesis 35:22). Remember the writer of Hebrews calls this adultery. The Greek term is moicheia. When this term is used in a literal sense, it refers to illicit sexual conduct of a married person.

Another preacher affirmed the proposition: "The guilty party in a divorce (i.e., the fornicator) has the scriptural right to remarry." Advocates of this view insist if the marriage is dissolved for one mate (the innocent) it is dissolved for both (including the fornicator). They reason the guilty party cannot be subject to the marriage bond while the innocent party is free from it.

This is false on several grounds. The guilty party is not free from the covenant to God who nowhere grants the right of remarriage for one in his position. God stipulated who has the right to divorce and remarry. It is the mate who put away his partner because of fornication. This doctrine reduces Matthew 19:9 to nonsense. According to this view, neither the guilty nor the innocent party becomes an adulterer when he remarries. Therefore, no one is guilty of adultery by remarriage. If the guilty partner is equally free to remarry, the Lord's words are double-talk and nonsense.

Some argue that baptism transforms the nature of an unjustified marriage. That is, when one is forgiven in believer's baptism, his marriage is sanctified regardless of its original status. If that is true, homosexuals could remain together following baptism. If baptism sanctifies an unauthorized heterosexual union, why doesn't it authorize a homosexual union? This sort of argument is not made for any other sin problem. No one argues that a man may continue to make his living by thievery after baptism. No one argues like that because it is obviously false. It is clear that baptism does not mystically transform an unauthorized covenant of marriage into one that is authorized. If it was not scriptural before baptism, it is not made scriptural by baptism.

Jesus teaches God's marriage law is universal (Matthew 19:9). All of us will face that law in the judgment (John 12:48). Let us zealously teach God's law to his people, lest they find themselves in horribly burdensome positions. When people ignore God's law divorcing and entering new marriages, they bring terrible consequences down on themselves. We must not go there. We must care for our families and we must honor God's marriage law. We must not neglect to rebuke sin out of misplaced compassion. God still says one man for one woman for life.Image

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