DEFINING MENTAL DIVORCE
By Jeff Belknap
Since the time that I began my web site, there have been two brethren who have voiced concerns that I may have misrepresented brothers Tim Haile and Harry Osborne by associating them with the mental divorce doctrine. I believe the reason for that perception was due to a difference in understanding about what mental divorce is.
I do not believe that there has ever been an official definition for the term "mental divorce." Hence, due to the potential difference between my perception and others’ regarding that phrase, I hope that this article will benefit our mutual understanding.
My first article in Gospel Truths (October 2000) on this subject was entitled "Mental Divorce, Revamped and Revisited," and outlines some of the differences and similarities between the mental divorce arguments of today and the classic mental divorce position of the past.
The term "mental divorce" may have originally been coined because of the early proponent's claim that a mental decision was all that was necessary to accomplish a scripturally approved divorce after the fornication of a spouse who had civilly put his innocent (chaste) spouse away. However, I believe that the element making the classic mental divorce doctrine sinful was not that it was claimed to be a purely mental process, per se. What made the doctrine offensive was that it allowed a person who was already put away (Mt. 5:32b; 19:9b; and Lk. 16:18b) to supposedly now become one who is eligible to “put away” for fornication and thus be “free” to marry another, making the law of Christ, "of none effect," and causing brethren to be “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (II Cor. 11:3; cp. w. Mt. 5:32b; 19:9b).
There are many difficult aspects of MDR, but nothing could be simpler than Jesus’ words, “whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." This core issue (and fellowship with it) is the focus of my website and if anything regarding MDR falls under the category of the "milk of the word," this is it. For some, however, this milk seems to be indigestible.
Even though Tim and Harry openly fellowship Ron’s broader application, they themselves have focused their writings on extending this “right” (to an after-the-civil-divorce-repudiation/divorce) to those innocent parties whose (ex)spouses actually fornicated before they secured a civil divorce.
However, if one accepts their premise that some civil divorces which are unscriptural are not real or “biblical,” we can only look to man to make guidelines as to which divorces are "biblical" (“real”) and which are not. There will be no consistent or scripturally verifiable way to establish that any unscripturally divorced person whose (ex)spouse engages in fornication may not "repudiate" their (ex)mate and marry another. In that case, we might as well start sharpening Jehoiakim’s penknife (Jer. 36:23-28) to cut out the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:32b; 19:9b; and Luke 16:18b!
The term mental divorce is appropriate here, because the position of these men is simply an inconsequential variation whose unfounded justification is the same as that of the classic mental divorce position – denial that those who are put away (by societally recognized means) are always really put away and subject to the limitations imposed by Jesus himself, upon the PUT AWAY. Their "applications" are based on the same erroneous premise and foundation as the classic "mental divorce" position, but with a few more arbitrary rules. Even worse, their position is merely the springboard from which others will be able to consistently jump to broader "applications" in the future.
I realize that these men deny belief in mental divorce and a second putting away. However, their denial is not based on a disagreement with the doctrine’s essentially sinful foundation of reason. This is true because the justification for their different “applications” are highlighted by essentially the same faulty and unscriptural reasoning as that offered by the classic mental divorce proponents. From their writings, it is clear that these brethrens’ denial of belief in mental divorce and a second putting away is due to 1) their variations from (and additions to) the classic position, and 2) their belief that some who have been civilly divorced are not really what the Bible calls "divorced" or "put away." [Harry and Tim contend that in at least one circumstance, the innocent’s act of “repudiation” after the civil divorce (repudiation) is the first and only "true," "real," or “biblical" divorce (see quotes below).]
"Can Mary 'loose herself' from her bond to John, because of his fornication, even though he had already won the civil court procedure? Yes, she can. Notice how the presence of fornication changes the outcome of marital rights in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Matthew 19:9 says, 'And I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.' Notice carefully how the exception clause changes the scenario. Without the cause of fornication, no one has a right to marry another. In the presence of fornication, and by activating the exception clause, the innocent party has a right to marry another. Some have mistakenly tried to argue that the civilly divorced innocent person cannot remarry even though they were divorced by a sexually immoral mate. They say the innocent person is still the "divorced" party and as such, cannot remarry. They pretend to have scripture on their side, but they do not. They have actually turned Matthew 19:9 completely upside down!" (emp. jhb). Tim Haile (posted on Mars-List, 08-30-01; also posted on this website under: A Mars-List MDR Question Answered by Jeff Belknap, Tim Haile, and Don Martin).
In his Lakeland sermon (5-29-01), after having claimed particular knowledge of a case of a man who civilly divorced his wife without her knowledge, brother Osborne actually spells out his “application.” Please note very carefully what he stated: “…If civil procedure is the putting away, that woman was divorced, didn’t know about it, and there is no way she can be protected by the law of God. I suggest to you the principles of God would show the very opposite. The principles would show she does have a right to say “here’s why I’m going away from you. I’m expressing that as the reason why. I’m taking action. You get your stuff out of here.” That’s Biblical putting away - and it’s Biblical putting away for the cause, and it’s Biblical putting away after the very principles that Jesus made clear” (emp. jhb). (See The Nevada Strawman on this web site, which proves that such a scenario could not have taken place as brother Osborne described it.)
Moreover, in an e-mail letter sent by brother Osborne (Sept. 6, '01) to me as well as to Mike Willis, David McKee, Joe Price, Terence Sheridan, Stan Cox, Tim Haile and Pat Donahue, he wrote: "I do not believe the innocent party in a marriage severed for the cause of the guilty party's fornication is 'the put away spouse' regardless of who initiates the civil action."
Then on September 27th Harry wrote another e-mail letter to myself, Mike Willis, David McKee, Joe Price, Terence Sheridan, Stan Cox, Tim Haile and Pat Donahue, stating: "I believe the vast majority would also affirm that an innocent party in a marriage sundered for the case of fornication has the right to remarry even if the guilty fornicator filed first and secured the civil divorce."
If both Tim and Harry believe that the classic mental divorce position should not be fellowshipped (as I think they would affirm), it would be helpful for them to outline what they view as the essential difference(s) between the classic position and the beliefs outlined (below) by brother Halbrook (whom they both fellowship). A thorough explanation of the differences that make the classic mental divorce position unworthy of fellowship, and why Ron’s “application” (below) does not fit that erroneous pattern could help to clear up some of the confusion among brethren, as to where brothers Haile and Osborne stand on this issue.
I, for one, have been confused as to how Tim and Harry can vehemently deny they agree with the words which brother Halbrook articulated, yet defend him in his position, fellowship him, and contend that this is not an issue we should divide over (cp. w. Rom. 16:17-18). I am confused as to how they can so adamantly assert that they only believe in the ability of the chaste civilly-put-away person whose (ex)spouse fornicated before the divorce, yet defend Ron who wrote, “If he has unlawful sexual relations with another (whether before or after he wrongfully puts away his true mate), his true mate has scriptural grounds to reject or put him away,” (emp. jhb). I am confused as to how they could condemn “mental divorce” as a false doctrine, yet extend the right hand of fellowship to brother Halbrook, who wrote:
“Next, a man may have enough regard for social convention that he will not go to bed with the ‘cute little thing’ he wants rather than his wife; therefore, he may divorce his wife, then marry the ‘cute little thing,’ thus going to the bed of adultery. Once again, the original marriage bond stays intact under divine law until he commits adultery against his wife; his legal steps do not dissolve the bond put in place when God joined them together (Matt. 19:9). Since his true wife remains faithful to the marriage bond, she & she alone has the right to repudiate the marriage under divine law. She may scripturally do so even when she is not able to do so legally because of legal steps taken by the treacherous husband.” (Feb. 8, 1998 letter, in which Ron reveals his “application.”)
“If he has unlawful sexual relations with another (whether before or after he wrongfully puts away his true mate), his true mate has scriptural grounds to reject or put him away. That might involve countersuing in the courts if he has a suit for divorce pending. But if he has already been granted a divorce by the courts of man, the laws of man make no provision for her to act. So far as the courts of man are concerned, legal issues such as property rights have already been settled and there is nothing else to be said in the realm of human law. But if he commits adultery (before or after his action in the courts of man), there is something else to be said by divine law-by the moral and spiritual law of the court of God. She now may put away, reject, or divorce him as a moral and spiritual act.” (Notes for Further Study, Ron Halbrook)
Brethren, once more, please note that the same argument (that ungodly civil laws do not supercede God’s law) which brother Halbrook uses to justify his “application” regarding the innocent put away, is the same basic argument used by both brothers Haile and Osborne to justify their “application.” It is also the same defense used by proponents of the classic mental divorce position. This common foundational element of justification demonstrates the basic error in all of these men’s positions. Once one accepts the reasoning that any case of unapproved (societally recognized) divorce is “not” (cf. Gen. 3:4) what the Bible calls divorce, there will be no end to its potential “applications.” It becomes impossible to find a scriptural dividing line in these “applications” because the brethren who advocate them left the realm of scriptural authority behind when they began to insist that unscriptural divorces (whether one case scenario or many) are not what Jesus spoke of in Matthew 5:32b; 19:9b and Luke 16:18b.
I fully acknowledge that even brother Halbrook’s “application” regarding the civilly put away innocent party is not the “classic” mental divorce position, as it contains a few more arbitrary stipulations than the original. Nevertheless, that does not mean that his doctrine is not a form of mental divorce, based on the same unscriptural reasoning as the original.
Similarly, just because brothers Osborne and Haile’s application may contain more restrictions than Ron’s “application,” it does not mean that the essentially sinful aspect of the mental divorce position does not apply. Nor does it mean that they will not fellowship brother Halbrook’s broader “application,” for they DO! The revamped part (variation) of this new mental divorce position is an alteration from the classic version in the actual post-civil-divorce-divorce procedure. It also entails the addition of more arbitrary stipulations to limit those who would be considered eligible to employ it. Nonetheless, the new version is still a procedure enacted AFTER one has ALREADY been PUT AWAY, and is in direct contradiction to Christ's plain teaching that "whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth ADULTERY." Let us not be deceived: an unsound, sandy foundation with an appealing facade is still the same foundation underneath (Mt. 7:26; II Pet. 2:18-19), with the same inherent flaws and eternal dangers (Psa. 11:3; II Pet. 2:1-2).
note: Please consider the following additional study materials:
Divorce & Remarriage; What Does The Text Say?,
by Donnie Rader,
Is It Lawful?
A Comprehensive Study of Divorce
By Dennis G. Allan and Gary Fisher,
Mental Marriages and Mental Divorces (by Gene Frost).