About thirty years ago the teaching of Brother Homer Hailey on divorce and remarriage became a divisive issue among brethren. Some associated with Truth Magazine took the lead in opposing and publicly exposing his position. This was painful to me, because I was a student of Brother Hailey, I still consider him the finest Bible teacher I ever had, he was very good to me when I was a young preacher, and I had deep love and admiration for him. Nonetheless, the Truth Magazine writers were correct, and I supported them.
In recent years these same writers have themselves taken a shockingly loose position on divorce. What deepens the irony is that the very ones who strongly criticized Christianity Magazine for refusing to allow both sides of the issue of fellowship with Brother Hailey to be discussed now refuse to open the pages of Truth Magazine to discuss their position on divorce. For shame, dear brethren!
Divine Law on Divorce
The New Testament is as clear on the subject of divorce as it is on baptism. Many brethren are confused on the subject of divorce because they desire to justify sin, they have been influenced by the evil world in which we live, and false teachers are willing to tickle their ears.
Most of the New Testament Scriptures pertaining to divorce are quotations from the Master during His earthly ministry. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ contrasted the righteousness of the kingdom with the that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20) by forbidding divorce except for sexual immorality, (“ fornication” – KJV), i.e., “illicit sexual intercourse” (Matthew 5:31-32). When the Pharisees asked Him if it was “lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason,” He replied, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate”(Matthew 19:3-6). When they inquired why Moses allowed divorce, the Lord still forbad divorce “except for sexual immorality” (Matthew 19:7-9). His disciples thought this was too strict, and He informed them if they couldn’t obey it, they could remain celibate (Matthew 19:10-12). Mark 10:2-12 is parallel to Matthew 19:3-9, except in this passage the exception, for sexual immorality, is not mentioned. In Luke 16:18 He forbad divorce and remarriage without stating an exception. Thus, the only valid reason for divorce the Lord Jesus Christ allowed is “for sexual immorality.”
The apostle Paul used marriage to illustrate the relationship of believing Jews to the Law by stating the responsibility of the wife to remain married to her husband until he dies (Romans 7:1-4).
In First Corinthians seven the apostle answered questions the Corinthian brethren had about marriage. He prohibited even temporary separation except for spiritual reasons (1 Corinthians 7:2-5). He forbad the wife to leave her husband, the husband to divorce his wife (verses 10-11), and the believing spouse to divorce the unbelieving spouse (verses 12-14), but instructed the believer not to try to force the marriage relationship on an unbelieving spouse who departs (verse 15).
Marriage is for life, until “death do you part.” The only exception is the innocent party may divorce the spouse who is guilty of sexual immorality (fornication).
Divorce Without Remarriage
Usually brethren discuss divorce and remarriage together under the assumption, which is in most cases correct,1 that those who divorce will remarry. But the Scriptures forbid divorce itself. The prophet Malachi declared, “For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16).
The Lord hasn’t softened His attitude on divorce. One who divorces his/her spouse for any reason other than sexual immorality places before the spouse the temptation to commit adultery (Matthew 5:31-32). The Master warned:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
“Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” (Matthew 18:6-7)
The Pharisees didn’t ask Jesus about both divorce and remarriage; they inquired of Him about divorce (Matthew 19:3). In reply, He sternly warned, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6; cf. Mark 10:2-9). Their further questioning was still just about divorce (Matthew 19:7), and the Lord’s only concession was “except for sexual immorality.”
First Corinthians 7:10-11 does not allow separation or divorce without remarriage. The apostle forbids both separation and divorce. He instructs the wife what her options are if she sins or has sinned by separating. The passage is parallel to First John 2:1-2, where John instructs us not to sin, but tells us what to do if we do sin. If the passage allows separation or divorce for any reason, it allows it for every reason, for no reason is given; it is totally generic. If you’re tired of being married, just walk out. If he has halitosis, sayonara! Such a position nullifies everything the Lord teaches about the permanence of marriage. One who sins by leaving the spouse for any reason other than sexual immorality should seek reconciliation if possible, for a penitent sinner must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). If reconciliation is impossible, she must remain single (1 Corinthians 7:10).
A Shocking Development
My brethren associated with Truth Magazine take the position that there are several reasons for divorce as long as the one getting the divorce does not remarry.
Their argumentation, though loosely based on misapplied Scripture references, ignores the several passages that plainly forbid divorce except for sexual immorality. A primary principle of hermeneutics is, if my inference contradicts a plain statement of Scripture, my inference is wrong. Human reasoning is highly fallible; the Word of God is infallible (Proverbs 16:25; Jeremiah 10:23; 1 Corinthians 1:19; Romans 3:3-4). Even these brethren admit the law of Christ expressly commands us not to divorce except for sexual immorality.
First, they contend, “A person may have to divorce his mate to break an unscriptural marriage (Matt. 19:9). In this case, one is divorcing for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Of course this is correct, since the marriage was not approved of God to begin with. It is parallel to the case of Herod.
For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her.
Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:17-18).
The second reason given is “A person may have to leave his mate to become or remain a Christian (Luke 18:29-30; 1 Cor. 7:15; Matt. 10:34-48; Luke 14:26). In this case, one is divorcing for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Now, it is true that these passages sustain the principle that we must be willing to break an unscriptural marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mark 6:17-18), and they also prove we must put the Lord ahead of family ties. But it is patent absurdity to contend that we may disobey the Lord, who forbids divorce except for sexual immorality, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Shall we “do evil that good may come?” (Romans 3:8) First Corinthians 7:15 doesn’t allow divorce, it instructs the believer not to try to force the marriage relationship on an unbeliever who is determined to depart.
Third, these brethren assert:
“A person may be in a marriage relationship in which his mate runs up bills which he has no intention of paying. In this case, one’s responsibility to God to pay one’s bills would demand that he not be supportive of his mate’s ungodly behavior (Rom. 13:8).”
Again, this is simply asserting, “Let us do evil that good may come.” It’s the doctrine that the end justifies the means. If having a spendthrift spouse justifies divorce, why wouldn’t it justify theft?
“A mate may be abusive to the children (beating). A person has a responsibility to bring up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:1-4). To fulfill that responsibility, may require him to leave his mate to provide for the children.”
Once again, shall we do evil that good may come? This is also deeply ironic, because biblical parental discipline is generally considered abuse today, and many Christians share this misguided opinion (cf. Proverbs 13:24; 29:15,17; Hebrews 12:7-9). But, if a parent is causing physical injury to a child, and the other parent cannot personally prevent it, that parent is obligated, out of love for the children (Titus 2:4), to contact the civil authorities and have the violent mate arrested (cf. Acts 25:9-11).
Again, they assert, “There are some cases in which one must leave to have physical and emotional health. One’s obligation to serve God would require him to preserve his physical and emotional well being.” If your spouse is beating you, call the police (Acts 25:9-11). If he/she is shouting, screaming, and calling you insulting names, talk to the elders of the church, if your spouse is a Christian. If not, you may have to endure hardships for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. Christ submitted to death on the cross, even though it brought Him such emotional anguish that he sweat great drops as blood (Luke 22:44). Aren’t you glad He didn’t turn back from the cross for His “physical and emotional health”? Did His service to God “require him to preserve his physical and emotional well being”? And He is our ultimate example of suffering for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 2:21-24). In this immediate context the apostle directs wives to submit to their own husbands, even if the husbands are disobedient to the word (1 Peter 3:1-6). It is this quiet submission that might win the husbands to Christ.
Then our brethren assert:
Sometimes a couple becomes so alienated from each other, the hostilities have reached such a point, that they must live apart.
(1) Cf. Prov. 21:9; 25:24; 1 Cor. 7:15-16.
(2) We cannot force them to stay together.
(3) The Scriptures do not teach a person that he must become a doormat to his partner to keep the marriage together. A person who becomes another’s doormat will do more to destroy his mate’s love and respect for him than about anything else he can do. A person has to maintain his own self-esteem to have proper Bible love. One is to love his neighbor ‘as himself’ and the husband is to love his wife ‘as his own body’ (Matt. 22:39; Eph. 5:33).
There you have it. Forget that “the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth.” Forget “she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” Forget “the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce.” Forget “what God has joined together let not man separate.” Accept the ungodly, immoral, dishonest philosophy of a worldly, unbelieving society. Maintain your self-esteem. Don’t be a doormat. Get a divorce for incompatibility. I am appalled.
Yes, it’s difficult to live with a “contentious woman” (Proverbs 21:9; 25:24) or man. But, if placed in that situation, we must do so for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. First Corinthians 7:15-16 doesn’t tell anyone to depart. Of course we can’t force them to stay together, as if anyone claimed we could, but we must not condone unscriptural divorce. Where, pray tell, do the Scriptures commend “self-esteem,” i.e., pride (Proverbs 3:4; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). Yes, it is precisely by humble submission, even to unjust and harsh demands, that we let Christ shine in our lives and win unbelievers to Him (1 Peter 2:13 – 3:6). That is not a failure to love ourselves, but it is the willingness to lose even one’s life to serve Christ (Matthew16:24-27; Mark 8:34-37; Luke 9:23-26).
Then they observe:
“Obviously, there is going to have to be left some room for judgment in these matters. (Those who allow a ‘separation’ but not a ‘divorce’ agree that there are some areas of human judgment that we must leave for each other.)”
There’s no difference (in this regard, ptd) between permanent or long time separation and divorce, so this is irrelevant. There is no more room for human judgment in this than in baptism. The Lord God commands baptism (Acts 2:38). The choices are to obey or disobey. The Lord God forbids divorce except for sexual immorality (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). The choices are to obey or disobey.
My brethren assert:
Sometimes we place the blame for divorce on the wrong shoulders — we blame the mate who has reached the end of his rope in tolerating an intolerable situation and in his desperation has filed for a divorce, rather than blaming the one guilty of the ungodliness who created the intolerable circumstances.
Both spouses may be guilty of sin, and maybe a wronged mate is justified in calling the police, but the Lord won’t allow Satan to tempt us beyond our ability to withstand (1 Corinthians 10:13), and the only justifiable reason for divorce is sexual immorality (Matthew 5:32; 19:9).
Then they claim, “If one must separate from his mate in order to serve his God, that is exactly what he should do!” So, if you need to sin to serve God, by all means sin!
One of these brethren, a longtime friend of mine, corresponded with me privately by e-mail concerning divorce and stated his messages were not for publication. I will respect that and not include what he wrote. I did inform him that I am willing to debate the issue, so if anyone thinks I have misrepresented his position or that I am doctrinally wrong, I will be delighted to have either a written or an oral exchange with him. I will affirm, “The only scriptural reason for divorce from a scriptural marriage is sexual immorality.” I will not presume to write the proposition for my brother.
He plainly contended that the law of love trumps the divine law concerning divorce. This is simply “Situation Ethics.” The philosopher Joseph Fletcher popularized this philosophy with his 1963 book Situation Ethics. Wayne T. Galloway wrote of this philosophy:
According to Fletcher we should approach a situation with the Bible in mind but be able to disregard or compromise it if we find the Biblical way in contradiction to the most loving thing to do. In other words we can disregard the laws of God if we think it wiser or more loving to do something else (“Situation Ethics,” “Truth Magazine” XXIII: 41, pp. 665-666, October 18, 1979).
He admits God’s law is that fornication is the only reason for divorce (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) but argues that the law of love gives other causes, primarily abuse, if the situation demands it. This is precisely the “Situation Ethics” position of Joseph Fletcher.
His sophistry (Situation Ethics) places love for myself and my neighbor above love for God. The first and greatest commandment is to love God (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31). We express our love for God by obeying Him (1 John 5:3). He commands no divorce except for fornication (Matthew 5:32; 19:9).
In fact, to divorce one’s mate for a cause other than fornication is a failure to love your neighbor as yourself, for it places before the mate the temptation to remarry, and the one who divorced that mate is responsible for the resultant sin (Matthew 5:32; cf. 18:6-7). Those who advocate divorce for reasons other than fornication share the blame.
My friend parallels leaving a bad job or escaping an unjust prison confinement with leaving an abusive marriage. The law of Christ does not forbid leaving unjust prison confinement (Acts 5:17-20; 12:5-11) or a bad work place (1 Corinthians 7:21). It does forbid long term separation or divorce (biblically the same [in this regard, ptd]) for any reason other than fornication (Matthew 5:32; 19:9).
The most disturbing statement by my brother was his application of Isaiah’s condemnation, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil”(Isaiah 5:20) to those who insist that sexual immorality is the only reason for divorce. Brethren, the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who so stated (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). Did He call good evil and evil good? That is blasphemy!