By Jeff Belknap

This is written in response to brother Tim Haile’s article in the May issue of Gospel Anchor: “Legally Divorced, But Free to Remarry.” I encourage you to read his article prior to reading this one. In his article (as well as in his other two related articles, posted to the Gospel Anchor web site), he seems to support the right of an unscripturally (already repudiated and civilly) put away spouse to later “divorce” (repudiate) their ex-mate for fornication. While I admire brother Haile’s determination to examine this important issue, I cannot agree with some of his conclusions (Prov. 18:17).

Specified Exceptions vs. Unspecified Assumptions

Jesus revealed GOD’S RULE regarding the remarriage of a put away person in the latter part of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 by stating, “…and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” In brother Tim’s article, he points out some scripturally valid cases in which those who have been put away, are free to remarry (Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:10-11). With those, I am in full agreement. The Lord has indeed revealed specified exceptions to the RULE for those who are put away, as well as for those who put away (Mt. 5:32; 19:9).

Without question, the New Testament allows the remarriage of an unscripturally put away (repudiated) person when the one they are still bound to dies (Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39). How do we know this? The Bible specifically tells us that God looses the bond at the time of physical death. Moreover, an unscripturally divorced (repudiated; “unmarried”) person may be remarried to their (divinely bound) ex-mate (I Cor. 7:10-11). How do we know this? The Bible specifically tells us so! Such an action is simply the righting of a wrong (unscriptural divorce). However, what brother Tim is also advocating in his article is an unauthorized and unspecified exception to that RULE.

In the conclusion of his article, brother Tim wrote:The conclusion is simple - legal action does not determine marital rights. One may be legally divorced and still possess the God-given right to remarry. Civil laws and social customs do not supersede divine law. A put away person has no right to remarry, but before forbidding one to marry, let us examine their circumstances and determine whether or not justice has been denied, and a divine liberty has been ignored…Civil laws must be respected and followed only to the degree that they allow us to obey God. With regard to marriage and divorce procedure, we should follow civil rules and social customs so long as they accommodate us in doing what the Bible allows (Rom. 13:1-7; Acts 5:29). However, when civil law fails to facilitate in such matters, we must default to whatever procedures and mechanisms may best serve us(emp. jhb). (Notice that “procedures” has an “s” on it, indicating brother Haile’s assertion that there is more than one.)

I ask, where is the authority for such an assertion (Col. 3:17, 23; I Pet. 4:11)? Yes, we must “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), however, that is only in the realm of what is required of us. Never has God required that we avail ourselves of “what the Bible allows.” Especially when doing so would cause us to violate scripture, in disregarding the authority of a government that God himself, ordained! Scripture states, “…Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Rom. 13:1-7).

“Liberty” vs. Lawlessness

Brother Tim states that this issue deals with “what the Bible allows” (i.e. a “liberty”) of the innocent person, in an unscriptural divorce. He then seems to contradict himself by saying that we must respect “civil laws” and follow them “only to the degree that they allow us to obey God!” What we need to acknowledge is that there is a colossal difference in our responsibility to what God commands (“divine law”) and what He allows (“marital rights”). God’s will is for us to obey “the higher powers” even though they may nullify our God-given “liberties” (I Pet. 2:16-17; cf. Rom. 13:1-2).

Brother Haile contends that we should recognize the civil authorities until such time as they decree something that would take away divine liberty. At that point, he implies that we may employ another divorce procedure (outside of the civil realm, which is the recognized authority in our country). If such is the case, that makes (at least) two different, “divinely authorized” divorce procedures for the same culture – one for the scriptural divorce and one for the unscriptural. In truth, Jesus indirectly “specified” the divorce “procedure,” for every given culture, by endowing its rulers with the power to decide what constitutes that procedure.

It seems that brother Haile is saying that since there is no specifically revealed divorce “procedure,” we have individual authority to establish another procedure of our choosing (cf. Rom. 10:1-3), when the civil authority “fails to facilitate a given liberty. However, to disregard civil authority in favor of self-determination in “whatever procedures and mechanisms may best serve us, would be lawlessness (I Jn. 3:4). That Jesus did not specify a procedure for divorce is the very reason we must submit to the decision of those whom He has ordained to rule over us (I Pet. 2:13). When we usurp the authority God has delegated to the higher powers by enacting a procedure that looks “good” in our “own eyes” (cf. Deut. 12:8), we reject our Lord’s authority (Rom. 13:1-2). 

“Rights” vs. Righteousness

Along the same line of thinking, wives have the right to a faithful, loving husband (Eph. 5:25; I Cor. 7:5). Unfortunately, Peter tells us that such is not always the case (I Pet. 3:1-7). Both husbands and wives have the right to their spouse’s bodies, to avoid fornication (I Cor. 7:2, 5). However, Paul implies that it is possible for a mate to “defraud” his spouse of this “right.” God did not authorize a spouse to defraud the mate whom he joined them to, any more than He authorized the civil authorities (whom He ordained) to grant an unscriptural divorce. Nevertheless, He concedes that such actions do take place without His approval and that some innocent people suffer (unjustly) as a result.

Jesus (who was defrauded His rights more than anyone) taught that we have the liberty to eat meat (Mk. 7:19). In spite of the fact that this divine right was repeatedly expressed in scripture (Acts 10:11-15; Rom. 14:14, 20; I Cor. 8:8; I Tim. 4:1-6), the Word of God says, “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of your's become a stumblingblock to them that are weak” (I Cor. 8:9, 10:28). In other words, if we are in the proximity of a brother with a weak conscience, our divine “right” in this realm can be nullified (Rom. 15:1-2; I Cor. 8:13; 10:28-29, 32-33).

There are many other examples of divine rights which have been taken from God’s people due to man’s injustices. It is clear that ungodly actions (and even weaknesses) of some men can and do take away our God-given “rights” and “liberties” from time to time. Instead of demanding and emphasizing our “rights,” inspiration teaches us that we need to acknowledge our RESPONSIBILITIES, in spite of man’s injurious actions against us. We are admonished to be more concerned with righteousness than rights (Rom. 1:16-17). To transgress God’s law (i.e. disregard the rulers) by demanding our own “rights,” is unrighteousness (Rom. 10:1-3; I Jn. 5:17).

Marriage vs. Bond

The mistaken position connects the marriage (the physical relationship) to the bond (the spiritual obligation), by teaching that as long as one is bound (by God), they are married. Likewise, they contend that only when a couple is loosed (by God), are they really divorced (at least, in some cases). Therefore, a distinction is made between marriages and divorces that are “real” (in the eyes of God) and those which are “merely” civil (in the eyes of man).

Within his article, it seems that brother Haile confuses the marriage with the bond. These are two totally different things, though they are easily confused by using the term “marriage bond,” as brother Haile often does in his article. The Bible teaches that men and women are “bound by the law” to their spouse (Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39), not by a “marriage bond” (which term leaves the incorrect connotation that there must be a marriage whenever there is a bond). One may be “bound by the law” while scripturally married (Rom. 7:2), or “bound by the law” while unscripturally divorced / unmarried (I Cor. 7:11; Mt. 5:32, 19:9; Lk. 16:18). In the case where a fornicator is scripturally put away, it is clear that the reason he may not scripturally remarry is not due to the “marriage bond,” but because he is bound by the law of God.

Marriage and divorce are only man’s part in joining or separating the physical relationship. Man is commanded not to put asunder what God joined together (Mt. 19:6), necessarily implying that he has the power to do so, even though God commanded him not to. God’s part of binding and loosing is not automatically intertwined with what man does, just as man’s physical part of marriage and divorce is not necessarily in agreement with God’s law, which one is bound by. From the teaching in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, it is clear that God does His part in loosing a person from the bond of His law only when man has fully complied with His law (which includes compliance with the civil laws to which one is subject). Scripture teaches that man only puts away “his wife,” not the bond (something solely under God’s jurisdiction), which is why it is so confusing to use the term “marriage bond.” The bond remains, however there is no marriage when a spouse has been put away and both parties have become “unmarried” (I Cor. 7:10-11). Once an unauthorized divorce is finalized by the authorities which God ordained, there are no revealed means that allow the put away person (divorced, but still bound) to marry another while their ex-spouse is alive (Mt. 5:32, 19:9; Lk. 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39). Matthew 10:28 teaches that man and civil authorities have the power to terminate our physical life, but not our eternal soul. Likewise, it is clear that, even while lacking divine approval, man and the higher powers have the ability to terminate a marriage, though not the bond.

Obedience to God Through Regard for Civil Authorities

Attempting to justify a “putting away” for one who has already been (“repudiated” and) civilly put away, brother Tim first asserts that the “marriage bond” remains. Combining the marriage with the bond, brother Haile goes on to hypothesize that the innocent party who was (first wrongly repudiated, then) put away in the ungodly civil court, may then (after the civil divorce is finalized) appeal to divine law to “put away” (repudiate) their now-fornicating ex-spouse. According to his reasoning, to deny the innocent put away party this “divorce” appeal (subsequent to the civil divorce) makes one guilty of honoring human law above God’s law (also see brother Haile’s article: When Human Laws Collide with Divine Laws”).

The very term “unscriptural divorce” denotes what it is: man’s sinful act of putting “asunder what God has joined together.” In the case of an unscriptural divorce, the court simply enables one to fulfill his sinful desire. To illustrate this point, the willing woman makes it possible for man to fornicate (sin) and the abortion clinic makes it possible for a woman to kill her baby (sin). Likewise, in this country, the civil courts make it possible for man to unscripturally divorce his spouse (sin). Civil authorities become party to and facilitator of the man’s sin upon granting an unscriptural divorce, just as the seducer becomes party to the sin of the one who is seduced. Both are equally guilty of the sin. Thus, acknowledging that an unscriptural divorce (sin) has taken place is not honoring man’s law (which permits the divorce) above divine law (which disapproves of it). This simple recognition of divorce renders a subsequent “divorce” appeal an addition to God’s Word.

God designed the civil authorities to rule over their subjects, just as He ordained the husband to have authority over the wife. In I Peter 2:13, Peter teaches that we are to submit to every ordinance of man. He then draws a parallel in verse 18, to the responsibility that servants have to their masters (“not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward”). When God commanded submission to those in authority, did He believe that every decision the civil authorities, masters and husbands make would be in perfect accordance with His Word? Inspiration, itself calls the civil authorities “unjust.” (In I Corinthians 6:1, Paul states, “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?”) God gave rulers the power to govern their subjects (including Christians) with full knowledge that, at times, they would fail to serve the kind of justice He prescribed.

Did God ever specify that man may disregard the rule of those over us, when respecting such authority would have the effect of revoking our liberties that Christ has given? To the contrary! I Peter 2:16-17 instructs us otherwise, “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of GodHonour the king” (emp. jhb). To claim the scriptural right to disregard God’s law that requires us to be subject to the authorities He ordained, one must first show that by the act of respecting that civil law, they would be in violation of God’s law. No such claim can be made in regards to the revocation of liberties, which we are commanded to forgo, on occasion, for the sake of Christ. Whether brother Tim realizes it or not, his position clokes “righteousness” with “rights,” “law” with “liberties” and rejects our command to honor the authorities.

What brother Haile suggests is that we can disregard the authority that God delegated (to the higher powers) in order that we might secure “justice” and our divine liberties. Does such reasoning hold true in the case of the master – servant relationship (I Pet. 2), the husband – wife relationship (I Pet. 3), or the parent – child relationship (Eph. 6; I Cor. 7:38)?

Christ and the apostles submitted themselves to the authority of civil rulers to the point of severe injustices (which were contrary to God’s Word). But brother Haile advocates respect for authorities only as “long as they accommodate us in doing what the Bible allows. However, when civil law fails to facilitate in such matters, we must default to whatever procedures and mechanisms may best serve us” (emp. jhb). Does this line of thinking represent Christ’s attitude toward the civil authorities of His day? 

Submission to authorities (in the face of civil mistreatment) exemplifies Jesus’ life of denial (I Pet. 2:21). Furthermore, in the same context, beginning at chapter 3, Peter says, “Likewise, the wife is subject to her husband’s authority, though he “obey not the word,” even when he denies her divinely-given right to a self-sacrificing husband (Eph. 5:25: I Cor. 7:5). Can the same reasoning brother Haile offers to the mistreated civil subject apply to the mistreated wife, when the husband “fails to facilitate in such matters?” “Must” she then “default to whatever procedures and mechanisms may best serve” her? If not, why not?

Brother Tim seems to believe that to deny an innocent put away person “whatever procedures and mechanisms may best serve” them (subsequent to having already been repudiated and civilly put away) is to revoke the exception clause of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. However, he fails to acknowledge that God never gave an exception clause to the one who has been put away (justly or not). When we carefully study God’s law in Matthew 5:32, we find that the departing spouse is the one who causes their ex-mate to commit adultery upon remarriage. This remains true, regardless of whether the departing spouse commits fornication after the divorce is final, or whether he remains unmarried. His sin has become her stumbling block (Mt. 18:7). In spite of this ungodly man’s unfair treatment of his wife, God’s law teaches us that she commits adultery when she remarries. Jesus knew that civil law would facilitate man in unjustly putting his wife away, though she was innocent of any wrongdoing. However, we are taught how to respond to injustices in this life; we must patiently suffer wrong until the new day dawns (cf. I Cor. 6:7; I Thess. 4:6; I Pet. 2:20-21; 3:14-17; 4:15-19).

Consider the hypothetical situation in which an ungodly husband rushes to Nevada to secure a “quickie divorce” by a “tricky lawyer” against the wishes of his “innocent” spouse. In spite of her faithful effort to protest the divorce, a year later, her self-centered ex-husband marries another. Scenarios such as this are cited to prove the unjust, ungodly nature of the civil law regarding marriage and divorce. Such extreme case scenarios only serve to appeal to our own sense of fairness and emotional sympathies (Jer. 10:23), not to God’s Word.

Even so, when reviewing the divorce laws of Nevada (http://www.divorcesource.com/NV/info/legalprocess.shtml), which are often cited as the most liberal and ungodly of all states in the U.S., we find that such an imaginary scenario constructs a straw man. In fact, one must first be a resident of Nevada for six weeks before they become eligible to file for divorce in that state. Moreover, the spouse must be notified of the divorce before it can proceed. If unable to find the spouse to notify them, the filing spouse must show proof that he has made a reasonable effort to find and notify his or her spouse, then a summons is published in the newspaper. Even if the spouse (who was filed against) is agreeable to the divorce, it takes a minimum of one to one and one half months to complete the process (after six weeks residency). If the spouse contests the divorce, it can take up to a year. (Please compare the information from this web site with what brother Haile stated as “fact” about Nevada’s divorce laws in his article entitled: “When God’s Laws and Man’s Laws Collide,” posted in the May issue of Gospel Anchor.)

Nevertheless, regardless of the governing regulations we are subject to, there will always be one who puts away and one who is put away. One who repudiates and one who is repudiated. Therefore, the same scriptures apply, regardless of the custom or law of divorce one is under. 

Unspecified Procedure vs. Anarchy

While it is true that Jesus did not specify a procedure for those from every society and culture to follow for a divorce, it is certain that the procedure He is referring to:

1)       Is a procedure that is used for unscriptural, as well as scriptural divorces (Mt. 5:32, 19:9).

2)       Is a procedure that is openly recognizable to all in a given society, so that there is a definitive way to distinguish “adulterers” from those who are scripturally married (I Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21).

3)       Is a procedure that prohibits the one who is put away from remarrying another (Mt. 5:32, 19:9; Lk. 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3).

4)       Is a procedure that can be (although may not be in all cultures and times) governed by civil authorities, as God gave them authority to make laws by which we live. Marriage and divorce are issues that affect each society as a whole, and therefore such procedures often need to be regulated by those appointed to serve the society in which one lives. Jehovah gave this authority to earthen vessels, knowing their fallibility (I Cor. 6:1; Rom. 13). Regardless of imperfect decisions made by imperfect men who have been appointed to rule over us, we are to commanded to obey every ordinance of man (Rom. 13:1-7), not for their or our sake, but “for the Lord’s sake” (Col. 3:23; I Pet. 2:13). This divine order remains true as long as in obeying man’s rule, we do not violate any other aspect of God’s dictates (Acts 5:29). The only time we are authorized to disregard the rule of “the higher powers,” is when man’s law demands disobedience to any divine directive. Then, God has revealed to us what must be done! Putting away for the cause of fornication is not a MUST! No person whose mate has committed adultery is commanded or required to put away their spouse for the cause of fornication, nor are they commanded to marry another.

Divorces vs. “Real” Divorces

Although it is true that God does not “sanction” an unscriptural divorce, the presumption that it is not real is problematic (see brother Tim’s article on Gospel Anchor,What Constitutes Putting Away”). In spite of what brother Haile believes, “put asunder” is a generic word (which is Biblically used for both scriptural and unscriptural putting away; Mt. 19:6). In I Corinthians 7:10-11, the unauthorized divorce (cp. w. Mt. 19:6) resulted in each individual being “unmarried.” Moreover, in verse 15, when an unscriptural divorce is carried out against the innocent party, we learn that something significant (in God’s eyes) has transpired. The faithful person, whose spouse “departs” (puts asunder) unlawfully, is now given a divine reprieve from his/her (physical) marital obligations. Why? The physical marriage has been severed, and she is now “unmarried.” However, no scripture is found anywhere for remarriage to another after an unscriptural divorce has taken place. In the same context, verse 39 plainly states that the woman is bound by the law as long as her original spouse lives. Moreover, in Romans 7:2-3, the woman is said to be bound by God’s law (spiritually obligated) to her first husband while unscripturally married (physically) to another. 

The only way that the remarriage of an innocent put away person could possibly be justified while the original mate lives, is to claim that the innocent put away person is not really put away at all. Regardless of the reason for a divorce, in this country, when the civil requirements have been complied with (Rom. 13:1-7), then someone has been put away. Brother Tim’s position assumes that the innocent put away person actually has the power to “put away” a person to whom they are no longer married.  However, at the point in which a given society recognizes a divorce, God either looses (in a scriptural divorce) or does not loose (in an unscriptural divorce).  Whatever man does after this dissolution is inconsequential, if we remain silent where the Bible is silent. When the physical marriage has already been terminated, it has suffered death (separation) and can only be revived by reconciliation. For man to add another condition upon which God will “loose” a spouse from the bond of His law is presumptuous (I Tim. 6:3-5). 

The crux of the matter is this: If an unscriptural (civil) divorce is not a “real” divorce (because God disapproves of it), then logic dictates that it wouldn’t make any difference which party did the subsequent (after the civil divorce) “putting away” for fornication, since the “marriage bond” is still intact. It would all boil down to whoever could hold out the longest (the waiting game). If not, why not? Although I am sure brother Tim would oppose the waiting game, only arbitrary, man-made rules can circumvent the conclusion that necessarily follows.

Scriptural Order vs. Disorder

As brother Donnie Rader aptly pointed out in his book, Divorce & Remarriage; What Does The Text Say?; (pgs. 81-82), the Biblical order is: marriage, fornication, divorce (for that cause), and remarriage. Yet, the position under examination would include: marriage, divorce, fornication, (different procedure for) divorce / repudiation (for fornication), and remarriage. Just as the order in Mark 16:16 is to be maintained, so is God’s order regarding this subject! As stated very eloquently by brother Wayne Partain in the February 2001 issue of The Preceptor, “One thing is for sure: if Matt. 5:32; 19:9 is not clear, then neither are Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38. No scripture is clear to the person who is determined not to accept it.” 

Consider Luke 16:18: “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” Here, when the unjustly put away person remarries even after the fornication of her previous spouse, she becomes guilty of adultery nonetheless. Regardless of who marries first, adultery is still the result for both when they marry another. There is simply not one shred of Bible authority for any put away person (whose legitimate ex-mate remains alive) to remarry another!

Limited Exception Clause vs. Unlimited Exception Clause

My exchanges with brethren on this issue have mainly focused on the situation created when one puts away their spouse unscripturally (no fornication involved prior to the civil divorce). This is of special significance, especially since the statistics in the article, Seven Myths of Divorce (http://www.divorcesource.com/CA/ARTICLES/peter1.html) Peter Orli, Ph.D., show that fornication has not always been committed before the (civil) divorce. Myth #1 states, “Most men cheat on their wives.”  Dr. Orli then answers this mistaken belief by saying, “Actually, the best designed study to date indicates that nearly 80% of men report that they have never cheated on their wives.” Moreover, it is evident that Jesus knew divorces (where fornication was not a factor) would be obtained unscripturally, since it is included in His teaching (cf. Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Lk. 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3; et. al). Nevertheless, in each instance of my exchanges, those advocating the position under examination have twisted the scenario into one in which fornication was actually committed by the one filing for divorce, prior to the civil putting away. This contrived situation becomes the emotional springboard for the next step, in which the unwilling, innocent put away person can exercise the exception clause even years later, if her husband waits until after the (civil) divorce to fornicate. From brother Haile’s articles related to this issue, it becomes clear, that since he reasons the “marriage bond” was still intact after the unscriptural civil divorce, he would also advocate this “God-given liberty” for the unwilling, innocent put away person to divorce for fornication committed even after the civil divorce. Such an idea gives deeper meaning to the title of his article, “Legally Divorced, but Free to Remarry.”

In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus was imposing consequences on a husband who puts away his wife for a cause other than the authorized exception (for fornication). In unscripturally doing what scripture callsput away his wife,” is the husband indirectly severing the physical marriage, or the spiritual bond? Obviously, since his act of divorce was not for the cause of fornication, he did not meet the condition upon which God ensures release of the spiritual bond. Nevertheless, scripture says he “put” his wife “away.” Therefore, when the husband then sinfully “put away” his wife, she became the “put away” one whom Jesus, himself spoke of as being “put away,” in the latter half of these verses. The exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is not extended to those who have been put away, regardless of the cause. It is only for those who put away for the cause of fornication (necessarily implying there is still a marriage, not only a “bond” to be put away).  


The divorce proceedings at the time of Christ were no better than some of our country’s most liberal laws today, probably even worse (cf. Mt. 19:3; Mk. 6:17-18)!  When Jesus revealed the strictness of GOD’S RULE for us today, compared to the easy divorces of His day (Mt. 19:7-8), the disciples concluded, “…it is not good to marry” (v. 10). Yet, Jesus acknowledged, “All men cannot receive this saying” (v. 11), and stated that heaven was for those who are willing to receive God’s Word, even to the point of celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (v. 12). Though the ungodly actions of many societies may grant the unscriptural divorce of an unwilling mate, it is God’s regulation that precludes the put away person, innocent or not, from remarrying while their original ex-spouse is still alive (Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39). Peter wrote, “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (I Pet. 2:19-20; emp. jhb). We cannot remain true to such Biblical teaching while advocating “default to whatever procedures” and “mechanisms” will “best serve us.” We must instead serve the will of the Almighty (Mk. 8:34). 

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Last Updated:  Thursday, January 26, 2006 12:41 PM