The Voice 4.07: February 16, 2014

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The Voice

Concerns Regarding Terminology in Divorce and Remarriage Discussions

For some time Christians have been discussing and grappling with all sorts of challenges regarding divorce and remarriage. In many of these discussions extra-Biblical terms are used to describe people and situations for the sake of convenience. Paul warns Timothy about disputes regarding words in 1 Timothy 6:4 and 2 Timothy 2:14, and for good reason: people often attempt to subvert the truth of God by changing the meanings of words and attempt to seduce others away from the truth through the skillful use of words. Yet we also do well to remember what Paul will go on to say in 2 Timothy 2:15: we must handle the word of truth accurately. Sometimes inferences are drawn not from what is actually said in Scripture but on the basis of the terms used to describe situations spoken of in Scripture, and such is the concern in regards to some terminology used in divorce and remarriage discussions today.

“Guilty” and “Innocent” parties. Many times people will speak of “guilty” and “innocent” parties in discussion of Matthew 19:9: the “guilty” party is either the person who has committed porneia, sexually deviant behavior, or the one who precipitated a divorce without any sufficient justification, and the “innocent” party is either the person against whom this act was committed, and for whom Jesus grants the ability to divorce their spouse and marry another without committing adultery, or one who did not want their marriage to end but were passively divorced by the “guilty” party. While such terms are only speaking about guilt and innocence in terms of sexually deviant behavior or the act of divorcing, “guilty” and “innocent” are terms loaded with all sorts of connotations. Just because a spouse is “innocent” of sexually deviant behavior or the act of divorcing does not mean he or she is innocent of sin in the marriage. Such terms are frequently used to paint a tragic picture of an “innocent” party who has been unjustly divorced in order to appeal to the heart in direct contradiction to Jesus’ plain statement in Matthew 5:32 that whoever marries the passive put away person commits adultery. Jesus did not describe such persons as “guilty” or “innocent,” and there are many times when such terms can justify deviations away from God’s revealed truth in Christ.

“Scriptural” and “Unscriptural” divorces. When describing various divorce situations many speak of “scriptural” and “unscriptural” divorces. A “scriptural” divorce would involve a man or woman divorcing his or her spouse for their sexually deviant behavior; an “unscriptural” divorce would be a divorce for any other reason. The use of such terminology is understandable but it too can lead to misunderstanding: such provides an opening for some to declare that since so many divorces are “unscriptural,” God does not really recognize them, and use such a claim to justify what is frequently called “mental divorce.” The very way Jesus speaks of divorce in Matthew 19:9 makes it evident that God perceives that people separate what He has joined, and while He perceives it, He does not reckon it as legitimate. If such people marry others, they commit adultery, because they are not becoming one flesh with those to whom God joined them (Matthew 19:4-6). Again, Jesus does not use such terms or any related terms to describe such divorce situations, and there are times when those terms seem to give credence to false arguments.

“Divorced.” A major challenge comes from the way divorces are described in English: both persons are called “divorced,” and not much is made in our culture of who divorces whom. Therefore, in the eyes of many, as long as there is a divorce, and one person has committed sexually deviant behavior, it is assumed that the one who did not commit sexually deviant behavior can marry another without committing adultery. Yet the texts in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 are more specific; the exception clause is spoken of in terms of the one actively divorcing their spouse, and Jesus declares a blanket indictment against all who marry one who was passively divorced: they all commit adultery! If we take Jesus’ words seriously, only those who actively divorce their spouse for sexually deviant behavior can marry another without committing adultery. On what textual basis can it be said that a person passively divorced by their spouse can marry another without committing adultery?

Discussions and disputations regarding divorce and remarriage are difficult enough; we must be careful about the way in which we speak of Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9, and in other places. There Jesus speaks of those who actively divorce their spouses and those who are passively divorced by their spouses; the rule is that all such people who would marry others commit adultery, and one exception is given for those who actively divorce their spouse for the latter’s porneia, sexually deviant behavior. Let us affirm God’s truths regarding divorce and remarriage, honoring the covenant of marriage, and exhort everyone everywhere to serve the Lord Jesus and remain faithful to the spouse of their youth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

10 Responses

  1. I was raised in the mainstream Church of Christ. I have noticed this idea of “mental divorce” is more of a concern with the non-institutional Churches of Christ, although there are probably those in the mainstream congregations that believe the same way as the NI churches. However, after a vast amount of research on MDR, I have come to the conclusion that divorce and remarriage for any cause, besides death, is adultery. I do not hold any more to the belief that if a spouse commits adultery, the so called “innocent” spouse can divorce their adulterous spouse and remarry with the Lord’s blessing. This doctrine presents too many inconsistencies when compared to the entirety of Scripture on this matter. I don’t want to get into specifics of why I no longer hold to this traditional MDR doctrine with “innocent” and “guilty” parties. But I wanted to make a statement about your stance that no “put away” person is eligible for remarriage according to God’s laws. You base this on 3 verses, two in Matthew and one in Luke, which state that a man marrying a divorced or “put away” woman commits adultery. You defend your argument on the basis of a literal interpretation of these verses which indicates the one initiating the divorce, on the basis of adultery committed by their spouse during the marriage, is the only person who is eligible for remarriage. I would just like to remind you, since we are so concerned about being literal and exact, where in any verse of the Bible does it state that a woman can divorce an adulterous husband and remarry? Mark 10:12 says that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. However, the “exception clause” is not included in the verse. When you apply the exception clause to the woman divorcing her husband for adultery and being able to remarry, you are doing this solely as an assumption of the exception clause being reciprocal for the husband or the wife, and if we are going to be literal and exact in our interpretation of Scripture, do you really think that is a safe assumption to make?

    • Mark,

      Greetings!

      While I understand the impulse toward considering all marriage to others to be sinful, that exception clause does exist. Yes, it is not there in Mark or Luke; yes, I grant that women putting away men is in Mark but not in Matthew or Luke.

      In the literal and exact interpretation of Scripture, yes, I believe that is a safe assumption to make. The existence of the exception clause in one passage is sufficient authority. The existence of the same rules applying to women divorcing men as men divorcing women in Mark, especially in light of the very broad “whosoever” in Matthew 19:9, is sufficient authority. There’s no need to force contradiction in harmonization and blending Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts on this particular issue. I readily agree that we should first understand each portrayal in its particular context, but when harmonization does no violence but actually illuminates, it is profitable.

  2. Hello Ethan,

    Thank you for your reply. I have been studying the MDR issue for some time and must admit I’m still confused over some things. I am writing this comment as an edit to my previous comment. I am currently leaning toward the position that the Bible seems to have somewhat of a gender bias when it comes to divorce and remarriage. This has come even more to my way of thinking because of a CD I purchased recently by David Bercot called “What the Early Christians Believed About Divorce and Remarriage”. Mr. Bercot has read documents from teachings of various early church leaders such Hermas and Tertullian and is an expert on what the early church taught on many Biblical doctrines. One of the things he states on the CD is that the Bible, when referring to a spouse putting away an adulterous spouse, it only refers to the husband having the right to put away a fornicating wife (Matthew 19:9). Paul also talks about the marriage law of the husband (Romans 7:2-3, 1 Corinthians 7:39). And in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, it says the departed wife is to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.

    So, my main purpose in writing this response is to amend my previous comment where I stated I do not believe there is any cause for divorce and remarriage save death of a spouse. I want to restate, in accordance with Matthew 19:9, there could be a cause given for a husband to divorce a fornicating wife (I’m still not sure whether this “right” of divorce would also allow the husband to then remarry another woman), but I’m not sure this “right” of divorce would apply to a wife who had a fornicating husband. I know this seems unfair especially considering the case of a wife who has a cheating husband. But I have to go with what I see Scripture stating and not jump to conclusions outside that just because I believe it’s justified by my standard of morality or justness. I think you would agree with me that Matthew 5:32 saying a husband divorcing his wife causes her to commit adultery might seem unjust if she was totally innocent and did not want a divorce. So I have to look at other Scripture with the same standard of measurement.

    And I must admit also I’m still not sure the Matthew 19:9 exception clause is referring to consummated marriage ADULTERY when it says FORNICATION.

    Thank you for allowing me to clarify my position on these matters.

    God bless,
    Mark

  3. Brett Hancock

    I have studied the New Covenant intent of divorce and remarriage a good bit since 2010. I have, in a related matter, studied the 2nd century Christian writings since that time too, with my introduction through David Bercot. Here is my take on the issue. First off, let me state that Jesus did make some slight changes from how things were done in the Old Covenant… making it bit stricter than what Moses allowed. We hear that in Jesus’ words leading up to his conclusion where he said “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” Looking back at what we see in Deuteronomy 22, 24 we see that the husband was allowed to divorce if he found some “uncleanness” in the wife. Over the generations, this got turned into any possible excuse to rid their wives, that by the time we get to the 400s BC with Malachi, the husbands get a strong rebuke by God.

    With Jesus, He is putting into place the ONE FLESH covenant as it should be. With my old church, I never understood what Divorce had to do with adultery. That never made sense. Once I realized it had to do with Remarriage, then it began to make sense. The core part Jesus’ words in both Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-12, that He, the lawgiver, was restoring the ONE FLESH covenant and doing away with it being divided by men. No longer allowed, and only by God. The gospels we see Jesus using “APOLUO” or APOLYSIS (Greek) speaking of physical or geographic separation, i.e. not living together, but not breaking the marital ONE FLESH commitment until death do them part. We see this illustrated clearly in Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39-40 in additional to listening close to Jesus speaking about the ONE FLESH in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. Jesus says “What God has joined let NO MAN separate”. Did we hear what He just said?
    When does God join? When a man (never married) leaves his parents and joins with his wife, they become one flesh. Jesus clearly said in Mark 10 that if a man (with a wife alive)remarries a woman, he is committing adultery. He says likewise for a woman to do that with a man. We can conclude from close examination of all these passages that what Man has joined, let them separate. What God has joined, let no man separate. If the wife is an adulteress, let the man not unite with her, or else he shares in her defilement. If he is a temple of the Holy Spirit (Christian), then he must not share her sleeping around, and must not sleep with her until she repents. Likewise for him it would seem.
    Additional passages: Luke 16:18, 1 Corinthians 7

    — Gotta run Lord bless those who seek hard after truth!
    Brett Hancock

  4. Brett,

    Yes, based on the words of Jesus in scripture such as Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:1-12, Luke 16:18, Mark 10:1-12 and the words of Paul in Romans 7:1-4, 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and verse 39, the one flesh relationship in a God approved marriage continues even after a civil process called divorce. However, we do have the “exception clause” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. This exception has been the source of much controversy for centuries. There have been many interpretations of this exception clause by various Bible scholars. Based on this controversy, I would never counsel anyone who had been divorced to remarry, except if a spouse had died. That’s just my personal conviction and there are many sincere devoted Christians who will disagree with me.

    The issue of Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage (MDR) has been a difficult one for centuries. Interpretations and application of the Matthew 19:9 “exception clause” by Biblical scholars are many and diverse. I sympathize with anyone wanting to follow God’s Will in a divorce and remarriage situation because depending on who you talk to, within the religious community, you are going to get different answers. I know this from personal experience having researched the matter extensively over the last few years. The most “conservative” will tell you there is no scriptural remarriage allowed after divorce from a God approved marriage for any reason, except death of a spouse. This was the predominant view of the Early Church Fathers for the first 500 years after Christ and is still the official view of the Roman Catholic Church, that God approved covenant marriages are basically indissoluble. The Catholic Church does not believe adultery is scriptural grounds for divorce and remarriage, but based on 1 Corinthians 7:15, they believe the so-called “Pauline Privilege” can be used to allow those in special cases who are divorced to remarry.

    I have been made aware that within the Churches of Christ there are differences in opinion on MDR. It’s very frustrating when you as a Christian are trying to do what is right on any Biblical subject and the proper interpretation of the “right” answer is not apparently evident. One must continue to study and pray with the Lord’s help, trusting He will guide them in the right direction.

  5. I wish this website allowed you to edit your comments. I am posting another comment as a edit to my previous comment.

    I had stated in my previous comment: “Based on this controversy, I would never counsel anyone who had been divorced to remarry, except if a spouse had died.”

    Let me restate that sentence as such: “Based on this controversy, I would never counsel anyone who had been divorced to remarry another person. In my opinion, the only certain situation that would allow for remarriage to another would be the death of a spouse while the couple was still in a God approved marriage.”

    I am restating this because there are those who believe if you have ever been divorced, you can never remarry another person, even if your former spouse from whom you were divorced later dies. I’m not really sure how I believe on this. Just another point of controversy among the many to deal with on this subject.

  6. Timothy

    Why would our gracious God allow Jesus to make a “new law for all mankind” the same minute He is being tested by the ungodly Pharisees, in which God knows the sinful freewill human being cannot live up to, which is being single and celibate and don’t forget “not procreating”? God would be setting us up for failure.
    Why would God want to set us humans up for failure when He just allowed His only Son to be sacrificed? That failure is the very thing that His Son Jesus Christ was sent here to redeem by allowing His Son to die on the cross. Is God being cruel against only divorced people?? I mean seriously, what kind of God would allow His Son to die on the cross for every single sin but the sin of divorce and remarriage??

    Just think about this scenario; do you really think that our Father would have said this before He sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, “My children are sinning and suffering in so many ways, they need redemption. I must allow My only Son to be sacrificed and not just murdered on the cross, but My only Son must suffer for hours and shed all His blood before there is everlasting redemption. But oh yeah, before Jesus dies on the cross I must allow the unrighteous Pharisees, who are treating their wives like trash and discarding them by divorcing them right and left, to test Jesus on if it’s okay to divorce their wives for any reason at all. I must have Jesus enforce a brand new law at that time. This is ludicrous. Does anyone know anyone that is thinking this is really what God and Jesus did? I have a former friend who is divorcing his wife to repent and saying the reason is he is in an “’adulterous marriage”. If I were divorcing my wife as an act of repentance and know that I am committing a sin by divorcing her, I would seriously think that Jesus must have meant something else when He said, Any man that divorces his wife, except for fornication and marries another commits adultery and the man that marries the divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 19:9 The answer to this is Jesus was answering old law questions from the Pharisees of that day and time who were testing Jesus, wanting Him to be arrested. The Pharisees did that often. Jesus was not creating a new law that leads men to hell because they cannot control their lust. Jesus was not creating a new law that says if you are in a remarriage and have children, I don’ t care if you leave those children and your wife, you must divorce to repent.

    Anyone who divorces his or her spouse for no good reason but to divorce to repent is not being righteous. Jesus said that divorcing your wives was a hardening of the heart. If God hates divorce and called it hardening of hearts, I would think twice about trying to erase a so-called sin by committing the sin of divorce.

    Does Jesus death and resurrection cover all mistakes made and sins committed but not the act of divorce to where no person is ever allowed to remarry? This is the God given relationship (marriage) that is parallel with the love of Jesus Christ. Will God forgive a murderer or even a wife murderer if the killer asks for forgiveness? Yes he will forgive the murderer and the wife murderer AND according to this divorce to repent cult, the wife murderer can now remarry without sin, as long as she is not a divorcee, of course. Will the wife murderer go to hell? No he is forgiven and God will bless a remarriage, since he did not divorce his first, second or third wife, he killed her instead! Will the man that marries a divorced woman go to hell? Well according to you people he will. Get real people. Think again on what actions you are encouraging people to do here. Who would want to become a Christian with this type of so called religion? I know someone because of this doctrine of demons teaching that has fallen away from God. How many people can you bring to the Lord with this kind of ludicrous teaching? ZERO.

    • Timothy,

      Greetings!

      There’s a lot of presumption and assumptiveness in your response.

      God has not set up anyone for failure: everyone has the ability, the chance, and the right to be married.
      What God has not done is provide a concession for multiplying sin.
      What Jesus says in Matthew 19:9 is clear.
      God proves willing to forgive any and all sin of which a person has repented.
      To maintain a relationship Jesus calls adulterous manifests no fruit of repentance.
      In the end we must go by what is actually revealed, not man’s presumption about how things ought to be. What has been explicitly revealed is that whoever divorces a spouse and marries another commits adultery (Matthew 19:9). Divorced people are to remain unmarried or to reconcile (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
      And Matthew 19:8 makes a very clear distinction between what Moses allowed and what Jesus is saying.

  7. Crystal

    Mark,
    Does this mean a wife must be put away for fornication?

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