By Jeff Belknap

We are all familiar with the dramatic increase of divorce in recent years. The devastating effect of it has, no doubt, impacted all of us in one way or another. Unfortunately, as this tragedy continues, further misapplications of the scriptures are made to justify individuals, friends and family who unlawfully remarry (I Cor. 11:19; II Pet. 2:1-2, 17-22).

To defend an adulterous remarriage, a number of brethren are supporting the misapplication that some unscriptural civil divorces are not really divorces at all! In other words, some are making the argument that since the bond remains after an unscriptural divorce, so does the marriage (at least in some circumstances). The next step is to reason that if the unwilling spouse “protested” the unscriptural civil (or customary) procedure and remained true to the “marriage bond,” then her ungodly spouse’s act of civil divorce was nothing more than a “farce.”  This leads to the contention that after such a divorce, the innocent woman is not really “put away” after all. Hence, if the person who unscripturally put away his mate later commits fornication, then the innocent (ex) spouse may (in some unrevealed way) put them away. The defense given for fellowship with this “application” is that it is in agreement with the essential Biblical principle—“Marriage is for one woman and one man for life, the only exception being that an innocent mate may put away a spouse guilty of fornication and have a right to marry another.”

First, observe that this principle states a “mate” may put away their “spouse” who is “guilty of fornication,” necessarily implying that the two are still married. Nevertheless, those advocating the mental divorce position, while professing complete agreement with this principle, include the erroneous presupposition that the unscripturally put away innocent person is still a “mate” and a “spouse,” even after they have been civilly divorced. However, the Biblical principle (as stated above) does not allow for a person who has been civilly put away, whether innocent or not, to “divorce” their ex-spouse when the fornication is committed after an unscriptural putting away (cf. I Cor. 7:11, 15).

Moreover, we are told that this is all a matter of sound hermeneutics because the emphasis of Matthew 19:9 is on the “cause” and not on any society’s civil divorce procedure (law). Thus, they reason that if a divorce is not for scriptural cause, it’s not “Biblical,” and is therefore not really a divorce at all. To accept such “logic” implies that the exception clause may, at times, be employed even after a society’s civil or customary divorce procedure has taken place. Confused? You are not alone! However, after all has been stated to justify this “application,” one question remains: Where is the book, chapter and verse? The entire construction of this doctrinal theory is nothing but a house of cards built on the sand (Mt. 7:26).

The fact of the matter is that God has never authorized an already repudiated (or put away, whether scriptural or not) person to later “divorce” their estranged mate for fornication—an after-the-fact repudiation (i.e. after a given society’s divorce procedure has concluded). The only lawful way one may divorce their scripturally bound mate for fornication is to do so before becoming a put away person. Therefore, this so called “application” does not fit within the Biblical principle quoted above. 

In the case of baptism, Catholics and Christians alike agree with the true Biblical principle that “Baptism is essential to salvation.” However, the Catholic redefinition of the word “baptism” renders their agreement to the scriptural principle moot, because their application results in error. Likewise, when brethren refer to an ex-mate and ex-spouse as a “mate” and “spouse,” they are redefining the words, therefore rendering their agreement to the principle worthless, for their “application” also ends in error. 

When we examine our text in its context it is very clear that the rule, rather than the cause for the exception, is what is of primary consideration. In Matthew 19:3, the Pharisees came unto Jesus tempting him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause (emp. jhb)?” The question has to do with the lawfulness of divorce for any reason. In verses 4-9 the Lord revealed His answer, which can be summed up in two words—absolutely not! For he replied by saying, “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female…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 (emp. jhb). This last statement proves the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching, which clearly states man is not to put asunder what God has joined together. Though the text acknowledges that man can put asunder, Jesus is teaching that it is sinful to do so (just like every other sin that is committed).

As a result, the focus of the Lord’s answer is two-fold: (1) the sin a husband commits if and when he puts away a chaste wife (Mt. 19:6) and (2) the compounded sin of then remarrying another after the unscriptural divorce (Mt. 19:9; cf. Mk. 6:17-18). Jesus not only informed the Pharisees (as well as us today) that an unlawful divorce is putting asunder what God has joined together (contrary to His will), but also that such will lead to adultery upon the remarriage of either party (cf. Mt. 5:32; Lk. 16:18). Furthermore, according to our Lord, divorce was not divinely intended under the Old Testament age. It was merely tolerated because of the hardness of their hearts (Mt. 19:8). Thus, to place the emphasis on the exception, rather than the rule is to altogether miss the purpose of the passage: that a man is not to divorce his wife (a fact which Paul clearly states when reiterating that which the Lord taught – cf. I Cor. 7:10-11).

Moreover, in this historical account, Jesus set forth his restriction regarding divorce—a restriction legislated for all societies. He declared that man who now puts away for every cause is not only responsible for his own sin(s), but also for the sins of others caused by the domino effect of his stumbling block (Mt. 18:7). These sins often include fornication by both the put away and the one whom they marry, discouragement to the brethren, and potential doctrinal compromise by those who desire continued fellowship with the victimized put away person-become-adulterer.

Furthermore, our context of study reveals God’s present law regarding MDR, not man’s law. Man’s law allows remarriages after unscriptural divorces while the previous mate lives, God’s law does not (Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39). We must obey God, rather than man (Acts 4:19; 5:29; Col. 2:8). Those who tell us that an unscriptural divorce is not really a divorce (and hence make allowances for a subsequent putting away) have it all backwards. They argue that “since a couple is ‘still married’ after an unscriptural divorce” the innocent put away person may exercise the “exception clause” if their arbitrary conditions have been met and if their ex-spouse someday becomes guilty of fornication. If we oppose their “application” theory, we are said to put man’s law above God’s and bind where God has not. However, the Almighty never authorized the scenario for which they are contending! Jesus laid down his rule and his law is unchanging (I Pet. 1:23-25), regardless of how men wrest (twist) his words (Psa. 56:5)!  So, who is it that is putting man’s law above God’s law?

Why does the Lord’s rule predominate over his exception clause in Matthew 19:9? It is because the exception clause reveals an optional matter, while the rule deals with that which is binding. Jesus’ emphasis in this text is placed on revealing that which is SIN. What carries more weight: the rule or the exception to the rule? In truth, divorce without scriptural authority leads to numerous sins: 

                        1)  It puts asunder what God has joined together (Mt. 19:6; I Cor. 7:10-11). 
                        2)  It defrauds (I Cor. 7:2-5). 
                        3)  It causes an ex-spouse to commit adultery (Mt. 5:32).
                        4)  It breaks one’s wedding vows (Mt. 5:33-36; Jas. 5:12; Ecc. 5:4-5; Psa. 76:11).
                        5)  It destroys one’s influence and example (I Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:3-8).
                        6)  It is iniquity (lawlessness; Mt. 7:21-23; II Tim. 2:19).
                        7)  Since it is unlawful, it is doing what the Lord hates (Heb. 1:8-9; cf. all the above).

There is yet further evidence that the emphasis in Matthew 19:3-12 is God’s divorce law, not just the exception clause. Sin is “the transgression of the law” (I Jn. 3:4).  According to the Lord, it would be unlawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause” (v. 3). The rule that Jesus set forth is in absolute contrast to what Moses “suffered.”  While the one and only exception to that rule is also given, it is not the emphasis of his teaching. In the accounts of Mark and Luke, the exception clause is not even mentioned; neither does Paul address the exception in Romans or I Corinthians. Although fornication must be the actual cause of the divorce if an innocent party is to remarry without adultery, it is not mandatory that one divorce in such circumstances. Conversely, if an unscriptural divorce has already transpired, the subsequent fornication of one who put their spouse away is inconsequential to the one who has already been put away. In such a situation, NOBODY has a Biblical right to “divorce” (again) and remarry another (I Pet. 4:11). In this circumstance, the fornication is the result of divorce (cf. Lk. 16:18), not the cause (II Tim. 2:15)!

Unfortunately, at the end of this context, we find that regrettable circumstances (e.g., an unscriptural divorce without reconciliation or because of fornication) may require some to become “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.” In such predicaments, celibacy is the only lawful manner of life—thus, Jesus’ statement, “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Mt. 19:12). Dear brethren, we can either receive the truth of God’s word or we can wrest the scriptures to our own destruction (II Pet. 3:16).  Will we, as Esau, be so profane as to sell our precious birthright for the passing pleasures of fornication (Heb. 12:16) or for fellowship with it and its doctrine (Rev. 2:14, 20-23)?  “Buy the truth and sell it not!”

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