By Jeff Belknap

In the past year or so we have heard a great deal about “Biblical putting away,” which leaves the impression that a divorce is only “Biblical” when it is putting away for “the cause” (i.e. fornication).  Brethren who have begun to advance this term contend that, in some cases, a “Biblical putting away” can be employed even after one has already been unscripturally put away (through the civil court system in the USA). However, such an idea deviates from sound Bible exegesis, and is absolutely contrary to what sound men have taught for years.

In an article written by brother Donnie Rader entitled “The Plain Truth About Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage” he stated: “There is a trend towards softening the gospel message. As society and the religious world moves in a more liberal direction, we too are affected. In that effort to be more tolerant, some have made the gospel message more palatable by ‘smoothing it out’ in various ways. Then, under the subtitle, “How Are Men Speaking Smooth Things About Divorce And Remarriage?,” he answers this question with the words, “Allowing some put away people to remarry. Some argue that the one who has been put away (for a cause other than fornication) can remarry if their former mate remarries first. Others argue that if one is put away by a mate who has committed fornication, he can remarry. Neither of these are authorized by the Lord. In contrast, Jesus said, ‘and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery’ (Mt. 19:9b; 5:32b; Luke 16:18)” (emp. jhb). [Reprint from Truth Magazine, XLII, No. 12 (June 18, 1998) presently posted at site under articles - Christian living]

The definition of “Biblical” according to my New Illustrated Webster’s Dictionary (pg. 101) is, “1. Pertaining to, like, quoted, or derived from the Bible. 2. In harmony with the Bible.”  Therefore, any putting away “pertaining to” the Bible, “quoted” out of the Bible, or “derived from the Bible” would obviously be “Biblical,” whether scripturally approved or not.  Unfortunately, some are unable to see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears and understand with their own heart (cf. Acts 28:25-27) that Jesus spoke of the consequences following both lawful as well as unlawful divorces.

In Matthew 5:32 Jesus stated, “…whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” The Master taught regarding unapproved divorces as well as the one which would be accepted. If we remove the exception clause to focus on the only applicable rule in the case of those who put away (and are put away) without scriptural cause, the law of the Lord states: “…whosoever shall put away his wife, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” These are the words that our present day mental divorce advocates totally reject (cf. Jn. 12:48) and utterly deny (cf. II Pet. 2:1-2; Jude 4). It seems that all they can read is the phrase, “the cause of fornication.” They contend that Jesus’ emphasis was on the cause, not on the procedure.  However, the exception clause was not the Lord’s emphasis, neither was His focus on procedure.  His emphasis was on the sin (and consequences) resulting from men putting asunder what God has joined together (cf. Mt. 5:31).

First of all, please carefully note that the spouse who unlawfully puts away his wife is charged with placing a stumbling block in their companions’ way (i.e. “causeth her to commit adultery”). Even though there were civil courts that finalized divorces in the first century, the one who unscripturally divorced his spouse was the only one charged with the sin of the divorce. Likewise, the husband’s lawyer, the judicial system, and/or the judge should not be charged with doing what the disobedient partner has chosen to do (Mt. 19:6).  While in one sense, they do share guilt as a participant in another’s sin, they are only the agency which is employed to carry out what the Bible says is the husband’s wrongdoing. When the erring took his brother to law in the context of I Corinthians 6, the only person charged with “a fault” (v. 7) was the one who pursued his lawsuit in the public eye (not the courts of men). To argue that the civil court doesn’t have the “right” to put away is moot, because neither does the disobedient spouse, yet Jesus acknowledged that men will do so anyway (cf. Mt. 19:6).  The man in Matthew 19:9 who unlawfully puts away his wife violates the Lord’s prohibition by using whatever authorities and/or procedures are applicable and necessary to accomplish his transgression (I Jn. 3:4). 

In Matthew 5:32a, we find the consequences God imposes upon the one who unlawfully puts away and in Matthew. 5:32b, we find the consequences God imposes upon the one who is unlawfully put away!  The Law of God (not man’s law) states, “…and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery”(emp. jhb).  Please acknowledge that this “innocent” woman (who God says is caused to commit fornication by her husband’s sinful divorce) is the recipient of that unlawful divorce action and thus, “is divorced” according to the BIBLE, not (only) the courts of man.  Furthermore, in this regrettable circumstance, the put away woman is banned from remarriage to “another” (by the law of God) as long as her “husband” lives (cf. Mt. 19:9b; Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:11, 39).  Such putting away – sinful behavior which “causeth” another “to commit adultery” – is certainly not “approved” by God; however Jehovah does acknowledge the occurrence of this sin (cf. Jer. 3:20a; Mal. 2:14-16; Mt. 5:32; 19:6, 9; Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:11, 15), as well as impose consequences for such disobedience.

In Matthew 19 we find the same MDR law of Christ that we read in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:32). In Matthew 19:9 Jesus said, “…Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”  Again, if we take away the exception clause, the law of the Lord states: “…Whosoever shall put away his wife, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” This is equivalent to the Divine directive in Luke 16:18 where Jesus declared, “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” The law of God clearly articulates the sin of remarriage to “another” for the one who unlawfully puts away, as well as the one who is unlawfully “put away.”

However, some brethren who would allow for a “mental divorce” if and when the “husband” who unlawfully put away his wife later remarried; argues that such is NOT a second putting away! They justify this argument by ignoring the first unlawful divorce, as though it never happened.  One brother wrote to me and said: “The ‘divorce’ that was obtained in a civil court was no more recognized than the marriage in a civil court where the marriage is not approved by God.” Notice how this brother used the words “recognized” and “approved” interchangeably. This is a recurrent “sleight of hand” that is repeatedly employed by those who contend for a second “divorce.” Although an unlawful divorce may not be “approved” by God, it is ALWAYS “recognized.”  In I Corinthians 7:10-11, the unauthorized divorce 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” unlawfully, is now given a divine reprieve from his/her (physical) marital obligations. This is because the physical marriage has been severed.  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. 

In a Gospel Truths article (November, 2001) entitled “The Case For ‘Mental Divorce,’” brother Gene Frost dealt with this argumentation when he wrote: “To strengthen his position he resorts to further equivocation.  He so uses the word 'recognize.’  Will God ‘recognize’ an unlawful divorce, meaning ‘will God acknowledge with a show of approval an unlawful divorce?’  All respond, no.  Shifting from this definition to ‘avow knowledge of,’ he then concludes that God does not admit that the unlawful ‘divorce’ is a divorce at all.  Therefore the unlawful ‘divorce’ is not divorce at all and ‘divorce’ is used only accommodatively!  The theorist uses his equivocation to misrepresent the opposition  If one says that God recognizes (has knowledge of, views) a divorce as a putting away, even though He may not approve of it, the theorist will counter, ‘Then you are saying that God approves, honors, accepts all divorces!’  And this is a false charge.  But with those who do not detect his equivocation, the charge appears to be legitimate. Such subtlety is hardly honest, and exposes him as one who is set upon defending a prejudiced conclusion” (emp. his).

Brethren, all putting away is “Biblical” in the sense that Jesus and inspired writers speak of it throughout the New Testament.  However, only a divorce “for fornication” is scriptural in the strictest sense. Then again, for this putting away to be absolutely scriptural, it must be done BEFORE one has already been circumstantially bound to Jesus’ revelation that “…whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

Brethren who have advocated the erroneous views outlined in this article argue that the whole issue boils down to the “race to the divorce court.”  They then argue that we are reading “civil” into these verses (Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Lk. 16:18) and that all divorce really means is “to repudiate” or “to send out of the house.”  Nevertheless, even if we agreed with their definition of what “divorce” really entails for “all” nations, by this definition, the innocent put away person would already have been “repudiated” and “sent out of the house” even BEFORE the civil courts approved of the sinful action.  No matter what we boil the definition of “put away” down to, once that procedure (whether repudiation, civil divorce or jumping over a broom handle backwards) has been enacted against a mate, they have been put away.  No, they have not been “loosed” from God’s restrictions, but they have been put away in the sense that the Bible speaks of as “put away” in Matthew 5:32b; 19:9b and Luke 16:18b, and are thus bound by the restrictions Jesus imposed on the “put away.” 

If we were to agree (for the sake of argument) that the Bible’s reference to “divorce” means no more than “repudiation” or “put out of the house,” then would our agreement upon what constitutes divorce solve our differences?  Or would the errorists contend that we are arguing for “a race to the repudiation” or “a race to send one’s spouse out of the house?”  Indeed they would, for in reality, their argument is not really with “civil divorce.”  That is not the real issue.  The core issue behind their argumentation for this doctrine is their belief that an innocent mate cannot be (what the Bible calls) “put away” without his or her (and God’s) consent.  There are variations among mental divorce errorists in the variety and amount of scenarios in which one would allow this core reasoning, but this is the crux of our disagreement. 

Another major flaw of our present day mental divorce advocates is their desire for an elastic implementation of the exception clause.  Although they say they are in agreement with the essential Biblical principle—Marriage is for one man and one woman 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, their doctrine does not follow it. 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, while professing complete agreement with this principle, they fail to tell you that their definition of “mate” and “spouse” are not necessarily the same as your understanding of those words.  Their “essential Biblical principle” misleads the unsuspecting (Rom. 16:18; II Cor. 11:3; Eph. 4:14) by erroneously taking for granted that the unscripturally put away innocent person has never REALLY been DIVORCED. However, the Biblical principle (as stated above, and without perversion of definitions) does not allow for a person who has been 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).

After brother Weldon Warnock articulated the classic mental divorce arguments in Searching the Scriptures, November issue, 1985, brother Connie Adams later wrote the following: “It is my conviction that there are only three classes of people who have a right to marry: (1) those who have never been married: (2) those whose companions are dead; and (3) those who have put away a companion for the cause of fornication. It appears to me that any attempt to find authority for anyone else to marry, must trade on the silence of the scriptures. I realize that brother Warnock's illustration involves fornication but is after the fact of divorce and not before. It is very difficult for me to see how this is not in reality the ‘waiting game’ for one waits until the other sins and then claims scriptural cause. I am also made to wonder if we may have the ‘mental divorce’ then why not at the other end of the marriage have a ‘mental marriage’ before the fact of social and legal requirements being met.” (emp. jhb) - Searching the Scriptures, February issue, 1986.

Dear brethren, we must be diligent to “rightly divide” (handle aright) the word of truth (II Tim. 2:15). It is imperative for the sake of our eternal souls that we do not confuse the law of God revealed in the Bible with what men want to proclaim is only the law of man (cf. Rom. 3:4).  Do not be deceived!  In the Bible, Jesus spoke of lawful as well as unlawful divorces and their consequences.  In no uncertain terms, He also revealed the unfortunate injustice that is caused by an ungodly mate putting away his innocent spouse and stated “…whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”   

If you have not meditated on the studies below, I pray that you will!  The materials listed (regarded as sound for many years) will assist you in a better understanding of this very critical issue. 

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).

Marriage is Honorable (by Gene Frost)

Mental Marriages and Mental Divorces (by Gene Frost).

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