By Jeff Belknap

While Watchman Magazine’s Sheridan – Osborne Debate” was offered for dual publication on this web site, I declined the offer as its focus is not the issue that my web site efforts have centered on.  The topic that I began to expose and examine related to this issue is the scenario taught by brother Ron Halbrook, which allows an innocent put away person in a divorce where fornication was not involved, to “put away” her spouse for the cause of fornication, when it is committed after the civil divorce (see the web site quotes by Ron Halbrook). 

The Sheridan-Osborne debate actually focuses on the case of a person who is already guilty of fornication when he unscripturally puts away his mate. Though I have chosen not to focus on this circumstance, I encourage you to read the debate at <>.  While I cannot agree with the way that brother Sheridan used the term “marriage bond” throughout his affirmatives, I do believe that he otherwise taught truth and raised some good questions of Harry, which were ignored in brother Osborne’s responses and thus remain unanswered.  In addition, he did remarkably well with the proposition that Harry wrote for him (which brother Sheridan eventually accepted as his affirmative when it became clear that brother Osborne would not agree to any of brother Sheridan’s own suggestions).

Nevertheless, the reason I have chosen to write this article is to show the fallacy of brother Osborne’s reasoning, which he offers to prove his doctrine.  Curiously, most – if not all - of Harry’s arguments in the debate were already made (in his 7-11-01 Gospel Anchor article entitled, “Relegating God's Law to Second Place:  Review of Efforts to Bind Human Law,”) and subsequently exposed as error on this web site (in an article entitled “Response to Brothers Haile and Osborne”).

Though it has been worthwhile to examine the fallacy of the arguments regarding the civil divorce vs. “biblical putting away,” it is obvious that the true issue of disagreement some have with the teaching expressed on this website is not really the civil divorce.  It has been clearly shown that even if a civil divorce were not the determinant of what puts away – if we conceded to the argument that civil courts have no jurisdiction where divine liberties are concerned – if we agreed the putting away procedure that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and Luke 16:18 is really just an informal action such as repudiation, then that procedure would have already been done by the one who unscripturally puts away his / her spouse, even prior to completion of the civil divorce.  This is self-evident, for the action of simply filing for the divorce necessarily infers one’s "repudiation" of their marriage partner.

Thus, the real issue here, is the contention of brothers Halbrook, Osborne (and others) that civil law has no power to effect the putting away of a person who is innocent of adultery and who remains true to the “marriage bond.”  This erroneous belief is based upon the unsound contention that civil law cannot take away God-given “rights” - namely, the “right” of an innocent person to “put away” their “mate” for fornication, despite having already been put away.  Hence, at least in certain cases, they deny that an innocent one is really put away when the courts of men finalize an unscriptural divorce.  And that baseless conclusion becomes the basis for their denial of Jesus’ own words which teach that “…he who marries her who is put away commits adultery.”  However, their assertion is easily and obviously disproved by scriptures such as I Corinthians 7:10-11, 15; Matthew 5:32; 19:9 and Luke 16:18, where scripture affirms Jesus’ knowledge that men would obtain divorces (both with and without divine approval), and where Jesus called that purely human action, “put away.”  

In brother Osborne’s First Negative, he states, “Neither disputant contends that one may lawfully remarry following a marriage sundered for a cause other than fornication regardless of who later commits fornication.”  Then, toward the end of Harry’s Second Negative, he states, “I have never taught that sundering marriage is merely a mental act or that one could remarry after a marriage is sundered without scriptural cause, even if fornication was later committed by either party.”  While this claim may be true, Harry vehemently defends fellowship with Ron Halbrook (who teaches exactly what brother Osborne states he has “never taught” and whose writings oppose Harry’s claim that one may not “lawfully remarry following a marriage sundered for a cause other than fornication regardless of who later commits fornication.”)

This is proven by Ron’s own writing which teaches that, “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" (Ron Halbrook, E-mail “discussion with friends about fine-tuning some points of application,” February, 1998). AND “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" (emp. jhb). (Ron Halbrook, Notes for Further Study, 1986.)

Brother Osborne’s writings seem to indicate his acceptance of the validity of civil divorce law in every case except one: when a person already engaged in fornication is putting away an innocent mate.  However, it is clear that brother Halbrook’s writings affirm it doesn’t matter whether the fornication occurs before or after the divorce.  When one has knowledge of the close relationship / fellowship between these two men, brother Osborne’s seeming words of disapproval (of a post-civil-divorce-divorce in any case other than those put away by a spouse already guilty of adultery prior to the divorce) prove hollow. The inconsequence of brother Osborne’s apparent disapproval is further illustrated by the fact that when I began opposing brother Halbrook’s “application” in writing, brother Osborne immediately began to challenge my teaching (in Gospel Truths and Gospel Anchor) with defense of fellowship and arguments such as the ones offered in this debate. The Lakeland, FL discussion is yet another example of these men’s acceptance of one another, despite any differences they may have regarding those whom they consider to be eligible for a post-civil-divorce-divorce and subsequent “scriptural” remarriage.  Brother Osborne gave the first lesson in the Lakeland two-part meeting (entitled, “What is Biblical Putting Away”); brother Halbrook gave the second lesson (which concerned fellowship of those differing in “application”).            

In the Second Negative of the debate, brother Osborne addresses the subject of submission to civil law:

“To illustrate the point, when two people enter a business contract, it is morally binding when each gives his word and meets the conditions agreed upon by the parties involved. It does not matter who files the legal papers. God holds us to our agreements at the point of our promise, not at the action of a civil court (Matthew 5:33-37). Human law seeks to establish property rights in such cases, but its decisions do not necessarily coincide with God's determination made on divine principles. Yes, a Christian must seek to fulfill the requirements of civil law in business, but civil law does not always determine true rights and responsibilities. If one partner extorts funds, but is exonerated in civil court, he is nonetheless an extortionist as judged by divine principles. Our legal system can and does sometimes fail to find truth. Regardless of the failures of human law, divine principles define and uphold biblical concepts” (emp. jhb).

With the exception of the highlighted words, I agree with that paragraph.  But never in scripture do we find that one’s “rights are equivalent to one’s responsibilities.  Nor are our “rights” protected against the civil authorities which God is responsible for putting into power over men.  We can find scriptural teaching which proves that one’s responsibilities are first to God, then to the governing powers (Acts 5:29).  But when obedience to civil law does not interfere with obedience to God, we must submit to the authorities He placed into power, even if it means foregoing our liberties. 

This vital “principle” is taught in I Corinthians 7:36-38 (ASV): “But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemly toward his virgin daughter, if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requireth, let him do what he will; he sinneth not; let them marry. But he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power as touching in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, shall do well. So then both he that giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage doeth well; and he that giveth her not in marriage shall do better(emp. jhb).

Obviously, a virgin in the first century had been given divine liberty to marry (I Cor. 7:2).  However, I Corinthians 7:36-38 clearly teaches that this liberty could be usurped by another to whom God placed her under subjection (Eph. 6:1). In this case, it was her father who had the divine right to revoke her right of lawful marriage.  Why?  Because God gave him, as the divinely authorized head of his household, the right to make such a decision for those subject to him, notwithstanding God’s authorization of marriage (Heb. 13:4). 

Since children are told that they must obey their parents and all are commanded to subject themselves to those civil governing authorities whom God also ordained (Rom. 13), we cannot claim that God’s authorization of scriptural marriage revokes the right of the civil authorities to rule contrary to a liberty that is in Christ. The subject of authorized divorce is no different. Though God may give divine authorization to divorce for the cause of fornication, the ability of civil authorities (as those to whom we are commanded to submit ourselves) to revoke that right must be respected.  How can the God-given right of divorce for the cause of fornication be usurped by civil authorities?  It is done indirectly, by their action of granting an unscriptural divorce, which makes the recipient of such a divorce the “put away” (whom Jesus taught cannot remarry without sin, Mt. 5:32b; 19:9b and Lk. 16:18b).  The granting of an unscriptural divorce also changes one’s “mate” into an ex-mate, thereby eliminating the ability to put away one’s spouse (“husband” or “wife”, as the verses teach).    

Conversely, it is clear that the civil authorities have no divine authority to require obedience to a law which requires simultaneous disobedience to God’s law. Neither brother Sheridan or I have ever argued such a point, although brother Osborne shadow-boxes with the point as if we had. 

This is where the scripture, “We ought to obey God rather than men” comes in.  Note that the key word in this verse is OBEY.  It is obvious that one can remain in obedience to God without marrying, as in the case of the virgin daughter.  It is also obvious that one can remain in submission to God without ever divorcing (even if one’s mate has committed fornication) since divorce is never commanded (cf. Eph. 4:14). 

In an attempt to prove his baseless point, Brother Osborne states:

“Since having children is a God-given liberty in marriage, what must Christians do in China where the law limits every family to one child?” (emp. his).  [Such a question is easily answered by the angel’s instructions to Joseph is a similar circumstance (see Mt. 2:13-19).]  Nevertheless, Harry ignores the obvious and continues, “All subsequent or unintended pregnancies must be reported to the government, which then forces the mother to have an abortion. Would it be sinful for two Chinese Christians to have a second child? What would Terence have them do to repent? Would it be sinful for parents to flee or hide the child? No, because the law forcing the situation is not a legitimate use of governmental power.”

The last sentence of the above quote exemplifies one of the flaws in brother Osborne’s thinking. The reason it would be right for parents to flee or hide a child in such a case is NOT because the law is an illegitimate “use of governmental power,” as brother Osborne claims. The reason that civil disobedience in such a case would be justified (yea, required) is because the very act of rendering obedience to that civil law would effect the violation of God’s law (I Tim. 5:22).  Again (as was already shown in my previous web site article, “Response to Brothers Haile and Osborne”), such a claim cannot be made in regards to foregoing a divorce which though authorized, is not commanded by our Lord.

As before, Brother Osborne once again confuses the recognition of civil authority in marriage and divorce (which are rights or liberties), with murder (which is a blatant sin / DISOBEDIENCE to God’s own law).  He uses the subject of a civil requirement of abortion / murder as a valid (?) parallel to the civil authorization of unscriptural divorces and marriages.  In a previous article, brother Osborne also claimed that in acknowledging the power of civil government to effect an unscriptural divorce against an innocent mate, one is “relegating God’s law to second place.”  However, the “right” of a person to put away a mate who is guilty of fornication is not God’s LAW (requirement), but a LIBERTY.  Nevertheless, human laws are to be respected as GOD’S law (Rom. 13:1-7; Tit. 3:1; I Pet. 2:13-17) unless they require disobedience to God’s higher law (Acts 5:29). To my knowledge, it has never been argued by anyone that foregoing an approved divorce and remarriage requires one to violate divine law. 

Moreover, Brother Osborne’s references to the 1935 Nuremburg Race Laws (which deprived German Jews the right to marry), and US slavery laws (which effected the prohibition of lawful marriage for slaves) are reminiscent of his faulty reasoning in previous exchanges he and I have had.  After citing these emotionally – stirring cases, brother Osborne states:

“If Terence's doctrine is applied in the above cases, it would forbid one to marry in those societies. But how does Scripture view such a doctrine? By inspiration, Paul characterized edicts forbidding the exercise of the God-given liberty of marriage:

But the Spirit saith expressly, that in later times some shall fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men that speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats... (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

If a government does the ‘forbidding to marry,’ does God require Christians to submit to that doctrine of demons? Obviously not! Those who would bind such a doctrine are condemned in clear and forceful terms. If Terence urges submission to the devil's doctrine, he treads a path we dare not follow!”  [Brother Osborne also makes this same charge of me in his article, “Relegating God's Law to Second Place:  Review of Efforts to Bind Human Law,” Gospel Anchor 7-11-01.] 

Brethren, was the father of the virgin in I Corinthians 7 “condemned in clear and forceful terms”?  Does scripture teach that he was requiring his daughter to submit “to the devil’s doctrine” by “forbidding” “the exercise of the God-given liberty of marriage?”  Contrariwise, the inspired apostle states in verse 38 that “both he that giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage doeth well; and he that giveth her not in marriage shall do better.”  Though the circumstances behind this situation were unique (“the present distress,” v. 26), it does not alter the fact that an earthly authority had divine approval to deny a God-given right” to one under his authority (I Cor. 7:2).  Who will argue with scripture?

In addition, in brother Donnie Rader’s book, Divorce & Remarriage; What Does The Text Say?, under the headingMore Arguments On The Mental Divorce Position(pg. 148) brother Rader has offered an answer to Harry’s objection.  Regarding the dispute that, in this case, “Forbidding to marry is a doctrine of the devil (1 Tim. 4:1-ff)," he rightly answered, “That contention could be used to prove that all have a right to remarry. That would allow the guilty party and the one put away where no fornication is involved and the one who puts away for a cause other than fornication to remarry. The fact is that there is not one of the advocates of this argument that doesn’t teach that there is someone who can’t remarry.”

Since brother Rader’s words are true of Harry (as regards his opposition to brother Hailey’s error), will he apply his own charges of “forbidding to marry” and “devil’s doctrine” to himself?

Moreover, brother Osborne also wrote in his Second Negative: “Jewish law did not recognize the possibility of a woman taking the civil action necessary for divorce against her husband (see uncontested citations from my first negative). Suppose a Jewish man committed fornication with another woman and decided he liked her better, then wrote a bill of divorce for his wife and gave it to her. That fulfilled the civil action and the legal requirements. The innocent wife had no civil procedure available whereby she could be defined as the one securing that civil action. No matter what the cause, the civil procedure could not be taken by the wife. According to Terence, this would preclude an innocent Jewish wife from putting away a husband after the gospel came into effect, even if he was openly guilty of fornication” (emp. his).

(Please refer to a factual synopsis of ‘Divorces by Jewish Women in the First Century’ on this web site for documentation which disproves brother Osborne’s claim above). 

As brother Osborne exercised the last word in this debate, he chose to use secular examples of injustices for “proof” (?) that he is teaching biblical truth (cf. Acts 17:11).  Circumstantial arguments such as this have been used for years by Baptists who rest their case on the emotional scenario of a person who died on his way to be baptized.  Such cases, though tragic, prove nothing where biblical teaching is concerned. 

With knowledge that brother Sheridan would have no opportunity to answer the question asked in his Second Negative, Harry inquires, “If Terence's doctrine is applied in the above cases, it would forbid one to marry in those societies. But how does Scripture view such a doctrine?”

[As brother Sheridan was not given opportunity to respond to that question, I will respond by reprinting my reply to a similar question which Harry asked of me in our Gospel Anchor exchange: “After several secular examples regarding the time of ‘lawful slavery,’ ‘Nazi Germany,’ ‘Communist’ regimes, etc., Harry says people were at times ‘forbidden to marry.’ Therefore he tells us...Again, Harry asserts things that the Bible does not ‘affirm’ and builds his case on secular history, without the force of scripture. However, neither history nor present circumstances can modify the Lord’s teaching (Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Lk. 16:18).  According to scripture, authority is derived from the gospel, not past or present situational ethics (cp. w. I Tim. 6:3-5; II Tim. 2:23-25). We are taught ‘not to think beyond’ (NKJV) or ‘exceed’ (NASV) ‘what is written’ (I Cor. 4:6; II Cor. 10:5).  Faith comes by hearing ‘the word of God’ (Rom. 10:17). We are to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it does not speak (I Pet. 4:11). That is a scriptural ‘answer’ to ‘such questions.’” (“Reply to Brothers Haile and Osborne,” Jeff Belknap, this website.)]

In the Sheridan - Osborne debate, Harry resorts to the same emotionally – based and unscriptural reasoning he has used in the past because there are no arguments from scripture which can justify his teaching (I Pet. 4:11).  He has answered neither brother Sheridan’s questions or these arguments which were posed to him before, for he cannot do so with scripture.  Let us study these things with noble minds, comparing them with scripture.  Let us discount human reasoning and emotional scenarios from the issue and search the scriptures to see whether these things are so.  Only then can we hope to discern the truth (cf. Isa. 8:20; Col. 2:8).

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).

Marriage is Honorable (by Gene Frost)

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