By Jeff Belknap

I appreciate the kind way in which brother Osborne addressed me in his article, “Do All Applications Equal Doctrine?” However, I fear that brother Harry misunderstood the point of my article. Because I never stated nor implied that ALL applications equal doctrine, I believe that brother Harry’s article and implications are based on a false premise. In this reply, I hope to clarify any potential misunderstanding.

Toward the end of my March 2001 “Differences in Application” article, I stated the “Christian’s motto,” which at the time, I believed was sufficient to cover the idea that there are areas of opinion in which liberty must prevail. Moreover, when I quoted from Brother Osborne’s previous writings regarding the Romans 14 apostasy in my own article, I was agreeing with the fact that some are “seeking a broader application” to the scriptures. I had assumed this implied my acknowledgment of a proper application, as opposed to a “broader” one.

I have never denied the fact that we can agree on a principle while disagreeing on an application as long as that “application” doesn’t violate scripture (Biblical principle). Instead, the aim of my article was to convey that God will not tolerate “applications” which abuse and distort any aspect of His will (Gal. 1:6-9). I simply fail to see how such a doctrine that leads to the heinous sin of adultery (Gen. 39:9; Job 31:11) is comparable to issues such as differences over the eating of meats, the keeping of days, pacifism, the covering, etc.

A Biblical example of an “application” that is condemned is found within Galatians 2:11-14. Paul wrote, “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed…he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation (NKJV, NASV, hypocrisy)…” (cf. Rom. 2:22-23 - emp. jhb).  

It is evident that Peter recognized the gospel “principle” (no distinction between Jew and Gentile - Acts 2:39; 10:28-48). However his mis-application of God’s will (withdrawing himself from the Gentiles in this circumstance) was seriously flawed (Gal 2:11-14). In verse 17, the fact that Peter was in sin (along with the “other Jews”) is obvious, since the text says he “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel” (v. 14). To err in “application” is to violate “the truth of the gospel.” Moreover, when we become party to a mis-application of scripture, we also become guilty of sin (Eph. 5:6-7; I Tim 5:22b; II Jn. 9-11).

Even highly esteemed preachers like Peter and Barnabas were susceptible to being “carried away” with an erroneous “application.” However, recognizing the need and the danger, Paul impartially sought to purge this leaven before it spread any further (cf. Gal. 5:9; II Tim. 2:16-18). He did so, in spite of the probability that enemies of truth would use such an incident to malign and discredit the cause of Christ.  As a wise saying goes, “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing!”

In the first version of brother Osborne’s article that was posted for 10 days to the Gospel Anchor (May 1-10, 2001) website, he states that I did not name “names” or give “reviews” in my original article. (He then requested that brother Haile post a 2nd version of his article, removing this statement on the 10th.)  The reason I did not reveal names was twofold. 1) I wanted to be able to send my completed articles to the brother whose doctrine motivated me to write them, in hopes that he would be encouraged to publicly denounce his erroneous MDR position. 2) I wanted to prevent prejudicial factors from entering into an objective examination of the doctrine. Since that time, I have corresponded with the brother I hoped would be influenced, and we are no closer to agreement on this issue than we had been before.

To be able to understand what “application” I wrote of, there must first be an awareness of what that application is:

The following quote is written by a brother, regarding Matthew 19:9:

“The passage explains which divorces and remarriages God will accept as valid under the terms of his law and which He will not accept. If a person sinfully and wrongfully rejects or puts away his mate, his action is a farce so far as changing the obligations he has to that mate under God's law. In terms of God's law, the man is still bound to his mate so long as he lives. 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.  .…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…”

These words articulate the position (“application”) which I referred to in my article. These words prove to me that the “application” is not just a matter of inconsequential, conscientious difference. It is a matter which involves adultery.

My simple and plain question to brother Osborne is this: Can the above-quoted situation (as it is written) take place at anytime, without involving the sin of adultery? Dear reader, please take note of whether brother Osborne will answer this question with a “yes” or “no,” if at all.

I agree with brother Osborne’s scriptural “Examples of N.T. Differences in Application” and would even include “circumcision” [cp. Acts 15:1 and Gal. 5:2 with Acts 16:3; I Cor. 7:19 and Gal. 5:6)] and Paul’s example of honoring the Jewish customs in Acts 18:18-21; 21:17-26 (cf. Rom. 13:7; I Cor. 9:19-23). However, this focus is not at all related to my concerns.

Brother Harry eventually gets to the matter of controversy under Differences Over Procedure of Biblical Putting Away.” However, the issue I am concerned with has nothing to do with whether or not the innocent party “must initiate the civil action in order to have the right to remarry,” or over a guilty spouse winning the “race to the courthouse.” Neither is it related to the argument “that the cause of fornication must be specified on the document.” Furthermore, this examination has nothing to do with what the divorce papers may declare, versus the true cause of a scripturally authorized putting away (i.e. “for fornication”). Though related to the subject of MDR, these points only serve to divert attention and scriptural examination from the specific issue at hand. Again, the reason for my article was to examine the use of this new application / doctrine distinction as justification for continued fellowship, in regards to the right of a civilly put away one (under certain circumstances) to later “put away” their mate.

Brother Osborne wrote, “We must make application of the generic principle…”. Furthermore, he proposes various MDR scenarios, and then states, “While my conscience might not allow me to remarry in some of the above cases, honesty demands that I distinguish properly between matters of doctrine and areas of unspecified application” (emp. jhb). 

Is brother Osborne implying that we have “generic” authority to “divorce” our fornicating mate even after a civil proceeding has already occurred, possibly years later? I would be interested in his public response to this question. While it is true that we must learn to discern between things that are “matters of doctrine, and areas of unspecified application,” I see no aspects in Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and Luke 16:18, which lack specificity. To believe that these passages are so “generic” that we cannot unite upon what is, and what is not adultery, we would have to suppose that man’s modern law and circumstances can actually render a bearing upon God’s law.

Brother Osborne makes the case that God did not “specify a procedure” for the scriptural putting away. However, neither did He “specify a procedure” for the scriptural marriage. Furthermore, it is obvious that the same procedure one must go through in any given society to be scripturally married, is the exact procedure that others go through to be unscripturally married. Likewise, it is clear that the procedure which one goes through in order to get a scriptural divorce is the same procedure that is used to obtain an unscriptural divorce. 

Matthew 5:32, 19:9 (and all other verses that deal with MDR) do not infer more than one procedure for marriages, or more than one procedure for divorces, scriptural or otherwise. The obvious is that while there is one recognized “procedure” which marries, and one that divorces (in any given society), God either binds or does not bind, looses or does not loose upon that act of man.

Even if the putting away were something other than the civil divorce, it would not change God’s decree. For the same word which describes the act of the one who puts away (apoluo) unscripturally, is the same word that describes the consequential state of one who is put away (apoluo).  So whether it is a civil procedure which “apoluos” (puts away) someone, or whether it is another procedure, it is still an act which can be exercised without divine authority (Mt. 19:6), and the same act which makes the innocent person “apoluo” (put away, Mt. 19:9). There is not one Greek word to describe an authorized divorce procedure, and another that describes an unauthorized procedure. Both authorized and unauthorized divorces are referred to as "apoluo."

At the time the New Testament was revealed (when the law of Christ was in effect), there have been divorces involving one who puts away and one who is put away. Therefore, regardless of the culture one is under, it has always been clear who the put away person is (Mt. 5:32; 19:9 and Lk. 16:18). Divorce proceedings in the first century were no more “godly” than some of our country’s most liberal laws today (cf. Mt. 19:3, Mk. 6:17-18)!  In illustration, when Jesus revealed the strictness of God’s rule compared to the easy divorces authorized by the civil law of His day (Mt. 19:7-9), the disciples concluded, “…it is not good to marry” (v. 10). Yet, Jesus acknowledged, “All men cannot receive this saying” (v. 11), and further emphasized that heaven was for those who are willing to receive God’s word, even to the point of celibacy (v. 12). Though the ungodly civil courts granted unscriptural divorces in the first century and still grant them today, it is God’s regulation that precludes put away persons, innocent or not, from remarrying “another.”

In addition, brother Osborne asserts, “So exactly what procedure in current legal circumstances is specified? The fact is that no civil action is specified in the doctrinal examples given by inspiration of God. Yet, it is obvious that we must make application of the doctrinal principle to our circumstances (emp. mine). Conversely, I would ask in return, what modern day circumstance could necessarily prevent us from making the same application that Jesus did – that anyone who is put away (scripturally or not) commits adultery when they remarry another? With all due respect, this is the “new reasoning behind toleration of doctrinal error” that “has emerged among us,” which is “being advanced to justify association with false teaching that leads to adultery,” examined by my “Differences in Application” article.

Regarding brother Harry’s offer “to engage in a public discussion of the issue to examine the matter,” I declined the opportunity.  However, I did reply that “I believe that I could find someone else who would be willing to debate it with you. If your intent is solely to examine the issue, then it should not matter who discusses it with you.” To such an offer, he has yet to respond.

The question I have for brother Osborne in this forum is, will he agree or deny that BEFORE the civil procedure of “putting away” is finalized, a wife or husband must “repudiate” their spouse for the “cause of fornication,” if they are to have the right to remarry another? There is NO authority for a subsequent putting away, even for fornication (after the civil divorce has transpired). It would be “lawlessness” to practice otherwise. “Lawlessness” is not comparable to an “application” that does not “equal doctrine” (II Tim. 2:19; I Jn. 3:4). 

Brother Harry has pointed out to me that I misrepresent his views by implying that he believes in a “mental divorce” and a “second putting away.” It certainly is not my intent to impugn a position to any brother which he denies. I will concede that he does not believe in “mental divorce” or a “second putting away,” with the following stipulation. The position he espouses equates to a second putting away for those who believe (as I do) that God recognizes the unlawful putting away, even while He does not condone it (Mt. 19:6; I Cor 7:10-11). 

To further illustrate my point, please note what brother Rader wrote in his book Divorce & Remarriage: What does The Text Say?, Lesson 8 Mental Divorce (May Some Put Away People Remarry?), pg. 83:

“A second putting away: According to the position under review the put away one now puts away his mate. That is two putting aways. Jesus didn't know anything about a second putting away. If a man puts away his innocent wife and then remarries, what more can she do in "putting him away" that he has not already done? If he has already terminated the marriage and the covenant what more can she do? She can't put him away if they are no longer married.” 

In addition, on page 78 of the same chapter, brother Rader wrote,

“Not only does the Bible not authorize any put away one to remarry, but it emphatically forbids it” (emp. mine).

Toward the conclusion of brother Osborne’s article, in the section titled “Differences Over Procedure of Biblical Putting Away,” he writes: “We must make application of the generic principle, but we cannot require our applications in these limited areas to be a test of fellowship without adding to the doctrine of Christ” (emp. jhb). In this statement, does brother Osborne imply that it is not an addition to Christ’s doctrine for a civilly (already) put away person to “put away” a fornicating ex-spouse, thereby giving her the “right” to remarry another? (cf. I Pet. 4:11; I Cor. 4:6).

Since I contend that there is no authority for any put away person to remarry “another,” (after the “ungodly” civil procedure is complete), it appears that brother Osborne (as well as some of his associates) perceive my stance as binding where God has not bound. However, I contend that to condone a subsequent “putting away” after a civil divorce, is loosing where God has not loosed!  If there are those who would disagree, please share your scripture (Col. 3:17; I Thess. 5:21).   

Brother Osborne’s conclusion points out that the Romans 14 error has progressed further than inclusion of the MDR issue, and “has even been used within the past couple of years to justify acceptance of those denying the literal account of creation.”

To paraphrase, some say, “Yes, the Bible says the world and the things in it were created in six days, but we cannot be sure that God meant six literal days, for God never specified literal days.” Brother Hailey said (in essence), “Yes, Jesus gave regulations for marriage and divorce, but His teaching on that subject does not apply to those who have never obeyed the gospel.” Now, some brethren say (in essence), “Yes, Jesus says that the ‘put away’ commit adultery when they remarry. However, some who are civilly, but unscripturally put away are not included among the put away that Jesus addressed in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.”

From my perspective, the progression of “ongoing fellowship with those who teach doctrinal error” that brother Osborne wrote of can also be witnessed in respect to the “application” theory that leads to adultery. Brothers Harrell, Owen, et al teach that we should include doctrinal issues in Romans 14. Brother Osborne (and some who espouse the same belief on this issue) rightfully contend they are wrong, but then deny that this “application” is doctrinal. Nonetheless dear reader, what is the practical difference in the end? Both doctrines lead to adultery, as well as fellowship with adulterers and false teachers (cf. Rom. 2:22-23). Let us seek to uphold the “simplicity that is in Christ” (II Cor. 11:2) by acknowledging the uncomplicated truths stated in Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18 et. al. Let us also acknowledge that this issue is a determinant as to whether our fellowship will be “in Christ,” or “with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11).

Special note: Please consider the following additional study materials:

Divorce & Remarriage; What Does The Text Say?, by Donnie Rader,

  • Chapter 8 Mental Divorce (May Some Put Away People Remarry);

  • Also consider pages 145-149 in the APPENDIX

Is It Lawful? A Comprehensive Study of Divorce By Dennis G. Allan and Gary Fisher,

  • Chapter 13 What Constitutes Divorce? (by Bob Waldron);

  • Chapter 38 Can You Put Away the Put-Away? (by Gary Fisher);

  • Chapter 39 The rights of an Innocent Put-Away Person (by Kevin S. Kay).

Mental Marriages and Mental Divorces (by Gene Frost)

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