WILLIS ON “BIBLICAL PUTTING AWAY”
By Jeff Belknap
In the last several years or so, we have heard a great deal about “biblical putting away.” Many “applications” are being promoted as “biblical” (lawful) “divorces.” In addition, we are told that to maintain fellowship on the MDR issue, all we have to do is simply agree on the essential principle: “God’s law is one man for one woman for life, with the only exception being that an innocent mate can put away an immoral mate and marry another.” This sounds good until we learn that those brethren contend this “putting away” may take place well after a divorce has already transpired for post-divorce fornication. Although these brethren are close associates and friends of Mike Willis, brother Mike’s teaching related to divorce adds another element to this issue and includes further departures from the rule of the Lord (Matthew 19:6). After reviewing brother Willis’ teaching (regarding his claim that there are several authorized reasons for putting away), it is obvious that the “essential principle” is not really essential, for these brethren to maintain fellowship with brother Willis, who differs with the divorce portion of their stated principle.
In the Spring of 2001, after reading from brother Mike’s writing in Truth Commentary regarding First Corinthians, I had a discussion with him about this subject. Concerning chapter 7, verse 11, brother Willis wrote on pg. 184, “The statement but if she depart (emp. his)…In the event that the wife (or husband) leaves her husband (or wife), then she (or he) must remain unmarried. Paul recognized that, in spite of the commandments, some would nevertheless choose not to live together. In such cases, there were only two alternatives available. (1) To remain single or (2) be reconciled to one’s mate. Let her remain (emp. his)…denotes that this is a command that one must remain in a single state. The reason for this is obvious from Jesus’ command; the marriage is not dissolved by her departing (emp. jhb)…Even though civil laws allow divorce and remarriage for other reasons, such human laws cannot alter the law of God… We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).”
In his commentary quoted above, brother Willis states, “in spite of the commandments, some would nevertheless choose not to live together.” Question: Is it possible for one to “choose” to violate a “commandment” without sinning in the process (cf. I John 3:4)? Are not the wages of sin death, unless one repents (Romans 6:23; I John 5:16)? However, Mike ignores the obvious and then travels farther down the path of error by saying, “In such cases, there were only two alternatives available…The reason for this is obvious from Jesus’ command; the marriage is not dissolved by her departing” (emp. jhb). The latter assertion is also in direct contrast to I Corinthians 7:11 which says, “But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried….” Question: Is it possible for one to become unmarried without first dissolving their marriage?
Ironically, this claim of brother Willis is the very foundation of the present mental divorce doctrine. Those who advocate the post-divorce “putting away” doctrine deny that in every putting away (whether approved or not), the marriage has been dissolved, thus the two are divorced (cf. Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18 and “unmarried” (I Corinthians 7:10-11). These brethren will not acknowledge that although they are still BOUND (obligated) by the law of God (Romans 7:2-3), the scriptures teach that they are no longer MARRIED (cf. II Timothy 2:15; I Peter 4:11). Failing to accept this fact, brother Willis also advocates other errors (cf. Isaiah 8:20). (While, to my knowledge, Mike does not teach that one can put away after the fact of being divorced, he does vehemently contend for the fellowship of those who do believe and teach it.) See Truth Magazine Against Truth Magazine; An excerpt from Ron Halbrook’s rebuttal to Bob Owen
Mike seems to believe that (in divorces for various reasons) remaining unmarried and reconciliation are both ACCEPTABLE alternatives in I Corinthians 7:11. This is contrary to what Jesus declared about an unapproved divorce in Matthew 19:6 (Mark 10:9) and other places throughout the gospel (including what Paul prohibited in the immediate context). Mike teaches that divorces for some causes other than fornication are “lawful” as long as one never remarries. However, please consider that at least SEVEN SINS are committed at the time of an unscriptural divorce:
1.) IT PUTS ASUNDER WHAT GOD HATH JOINED TOGETHER: Mt. 19:1-9; I Cor. 7:10+11
2.) IT DEFRAUDS ONE’S MATE: I Cor. 7:2-5
3.) IT CAUSES ADULTERY: Mt. 5:31+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/EXAMPLE: I Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:3-8 (esp. w. children, Eph. 6:4)
6.) IT IS INIQUITY: Mt. 7:21; II Tim. 2:19; Heb. 1:8+9
7.) IT IS DOING WHAT GOD HATES: Mal. 2:15-16a; Heb. 1:9; (cp. w. all the above)
In light of these undeniable sins committed in an unapproved divorce, we must necessarily infer that repentance demands restitution insofar as it is possible.
Why would Paul propose two possible options for one who chose to disobey a direct command: “But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband” (emp. jhb)? The only biblical answer is that when it is not possible for one to repair the sin he has committed, he must look to divine authority for how he can live acceptably (cf. Matthew 19:12). When one embezzles a person’s life’s savings and spends it, he cannot return it to its owners while serving his sentence. Unable to undo the crime he has committed and restore the financial loss, he could still redeem himself before the Almighty. Similarly, because an ex-spouse may not be inclined to accept a penitent spouse back (cf. Matthew 6:15; 18:26-32; Romans 1:31), it may not be possible (at least for a time) for one to undo the damage he wrongfully inflicted upon his mate. In this case, reconciling oneself to their spouse is not possible, therefore such a person must abide by the other option given by Paul (remain unmarried). Jesus told Zacchaeus that the day salvation came to his house, was the day he determined that he would restore what he had wrongfully taken from others (Luke 19:9).
On page 184 of Mike’s commentary he writes, “The statement but if she depart (ean de kai chō risthē) describes an exception whether past, present, or future” (emp. his). While that statement sounds good on the surface, we must stop to consider that for Paul’s instructions (to remain unmarried or be reconciled) to be applicable, one must have already violated the command not to depart. In this case, Paul encourages them not to make matters worse by committing adultery through marrying “another” (cf. Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:2-3).
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus stated, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (emp. jhb). We all understand that we should never do anything unlawful, whereby we cause another to have “ought against” us (including an unapproved divorce). In this passage of scripture, Jesus is pointing out the need to seek reconciliation – to right what we have wronged before our worship will be acceptable to God. There can be no doubt that one who was divorced without scriptural cause has been wronged!
Unless restitution is attempted for wrongs committed by an unapproved divorce, how could one possibly be right with God (Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 17:30-31; I Peter 3:9)? Moreover, how does the love of God abide in a brother who has departed from their spouse unlawfully (cf. I Corinthians 7:2-5 with I John 3:17)? Can they be considered faithful, when continuing to defraud their bound (obligated), wronged estranged-mate (cf. Matthew 5:32; 18:7)?
Nevertheless, if one who had been wrongfully put away will not accept his the offer of reconciliation, at least the penitent brother becomes blameless before God. In I John 2:1 we are told not to sin, but and if we do sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” for even though man may fail to forgive, God never does (I John 1:9). In other words, Jesus will plead our case and we will be forgiven when we are willing to manifest fruits worthy of repentance. However, if the penitent brother has done all that he/she can do, we can apply the principle (general statement in a specific context) which states, “For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not” (II Corinthians 8:12). In this situation (as in the case of the one whose unbelieving spouse departs) the only authorized course of action left for those seeking to please God, is to remain unmarried (I Corinthians 7:11, 16; cf. Matthew 19:12).
Just because two courses of action are stated in I Corinthians 7:11, does not mean that both are equally acceptable regardless of the circumstances (Proverbs 16:25; 18:17). In Revelation 3:15 Jesus said to the Laodiceans, “I would thou wert cold or hot.” Are both satisfactory options? Moreover, in I Corinthians 14:37-38, apostle Paul told the prophets that his instructions were the Lord’s commands, and if any refused to acknowledge his authority he said, “Let him be ignorant.” To those who were bent on doing their own will (as opposed to God’s), the Lord has said to “let them…” (see also Ezekiel 3:27; 20:39; Hosea 4:17; Romans 11:7-10; I Corinthians 11:5-6; Galatians 1:8-9; Revelation 22:10-12).
While God obviously does not sanction divorce obtained by a non-believer, in verse 15 of I Corinthians 7 he tells the Christian to “let him (the unbelieving spouse, jhb) depart.” This allowance to “let him” depart is not a loophole whereby non-believers are released from amenability to God’s law of “depart not.” Instead, it is an acknowledgement that non-believers are not concerned with righteousness and will often follow a course contrary to it.
For those who proclaim to be followers of Christ, divorce should never be thought a viable option unless it is for the cause of fornication (Matthew 5:32; 19:6, 9), for Christ/Paul commanded them not to depart (I Corinthians 7:10). Nevertheless, as is clearly implied in I John 2:1, Christians often stumble and engage in those things which are contrary to God’s word. When this sin has been committed, Paul infers penitence is manifested in one of two ways, to be determined by the one who has been wronged, when an attempt is made to reconcile and restore. It is ludicrous to argue that the Lord approves of Christians divorcing (by the phrase “let her remain unmarried”) when, in both the preceding verse and following verses, he clearly forbade divorce (“let not”).
Brother Mike’s exegesis of I Corinthians 7:10-11 is in direct opposition to the Lord’s COMMAND: “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband…and let not the husband put away his wife” (emp. jhb; cf. Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9), as well as several other orders set forth in the New Testament (also note I Corinthians 7:12-14).
While dismayed at Mike’s answers regarding his commentary on I Corinthians 7, since our discussion in the Spring of 2001, I have read and heard of sermons he has publicly preached which even raises more concerns and opens the door to fellowship with sin even wider (cf. II Timothy 2:16).
On 12/5/01, I was sent a copy of a sermon outline which bears brother Mike’s name. In addition, two of those who heard Mike preach the sermon verified that he distributed the entire outline (a portion of which follows) to the brethren in Danville, IN just before preaching the sermon there. After reading the outline a few times in disbelief, I wrote brother Willis on 12/6/01 to inquire if it was indeed his outline. On 12/10/01 Mike answered my e-mail letter and acknowledged that it was his. Furthermore, he stated:
“I am hereby telling you that you do not have my permission to publish my material on your web site...a violation of copyright law…Should you choose to expressly violate my wishes and civil law to publish this material, I ask you to inform me of your actions.” (Since the time of my correspondence with brother Willis, I have also obtained this lesson on cassette tape, and have found that Mike follows the outline very closely and heard that he has preached this error in Aurora, CO).
Subsequently, I have verified that to copy a portion of a person’s work is NOT a violation of copyright law, so I have opted to only publish the outline portion which is in serious error. Confirmation of the law that I am adhering to can be accessed at the following link (FAQ # 47):
Brother Willis’ sermon is entitled: When Is Divorce A Sin?
Under subtopic number two he wrote:
a. A person may have to divorce his mate to break an unscriptural marriage (Matt. 19:9). In this case, one is divorcing for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.
b. A person may have to leave his mate to become or remain a Christian (Luke 18:29-30; 1 Cor. 7: 15; Matt. 10:34-48; Luke 14:26). In this case, one is divorcing for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.
c. A person may be in a marriage relationship in which his mate runs up bills which he has no intention of paying. In this case, one’s responsibility to God to pay one’s bills would demand that he not be supportive of his mate’s ungodly behavior (Rom. 13:8).
d. A mate may be abusive to the children (beating). A person has a responsibility to bring up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:1-4). To fulfill that responsibility, may require him to leave his mate to provide for the children.
e. There are some cases in which one must leave to have physical and emotional health. One’s obligation to serve God would require him to preserve his physical and emotional well being.
f. Sometimes a couple becomes so alienated from each other, the hostilities have reached such a point, that they must live apart.
(1) Cf. Prov. 21:9; 25:24; 1 Cor. 7:15-16.
(2) We cannot force them to stay together.
(3) The Scriptures do not teach a person that he must become a doormat to his partner to keep the marriage together. A person who becomes another’s doormat will do more to destroy his mate’s love and respect for him than about anything else he can do. A person has to maintain his own self-esteem to have proper Bible love. One is to love his neighbor “as himself” and the husband is to love his wife “as his own body” (Matt. 22:39; Eph. 5:33).
g. Obviously, there is going to have to be left some room for judgment in these matters. (Those who allow a “separation” but not a “divorce” agree that there are some areas of human judgment that we must leave for each other.)
C. Sometimes we place the blame for divorce on the wrong shoulders -- we blame the mate who has reached the end of his rope in tolerating an intolerable situation and in his desperation has filed for a divorce, rather than blaming the one guilty of the ungodliness who created the intolerable circumstances.
D. If one must separate from his mate in order to serve his God, that is exactly what he should do!
Brother Willis has set forth some very loose “case”s to justify divorce under the pretext “in order to serve his God” (see point D above – cf. Deuteronomy 12:8; 13:18; and II Corinthians 5:7). If a divorce will help you to serve God, Mike says, do “exactly” what you “should do.” The door is left wide open by this statement. My question is: what marriage when it has soured, does not hinder a Christian’s service to God? Once attitudes of resignation (which are encouraged by brother Willis’ reasoning) rather than resolve are employed by those in troubled marriages, they are doomed to failure and spiritual stumbling blocks.
Without any authority from the Master (cf. Colossians 3:17; I Peter 4:11), brother Mike employs rank humanism to justify further exceptions to the Lord’s MDR rule, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6; cp. w. Colossians 2:8). It is obvious that a mate may TEMPORARILY flee for his/her life and/or the lives of the children, but to return when things are safe is imperative (cf. I Samuel 18-27; Romans 15:4). Never are we given the right to throw up our hands in resignation when things get difficult, but we are commanded to patiently work through our problems with the help of the Lord (Philippians 4:13). In I Peter 3:1-6, the apostles’ charge to those who are married to harsh mates is the very opposite of brother Mike’s teaching (Matthew 15:14; cf. Isaiah 8:20).
Moreover, in an article entitled Matthew 19 and Deuteronomy 24: Moses and Christ, (GOT, January 4, 1990) brother Ron Halbrook wrote about the regulations regarding divorce and remarriage. In this article Ron wrote (pg. 6), “The law of Christ would no longer allow the variance tolerated under Moses’ Law. If a man puts away his wife for any reason other than fornication, he causes her to commit adultery when she marries another. The differences between Moses and Christ can be summarized as follows” (emp. jhb): Under the subheading of Moses Ron writes, “Man permitted to put away wife for conduct short of fornication.” In contrast, under the subheading of Christ he states, “Man not permitted to put away wife for conduct short of fornication” (emp. jhb).
The scriptures clearly reveal that there is absolutely no authority to divorce on any other grounds than fornication (Matthew 5:32; 19:6, 9; I Corinthians 7:10-11; et. al.). We must wrest (II Peter 3:16) I Corinthians 7:11 out of harmony with the immediate context (not to mention the entire New testament) to advocate that divorce is acceptable with Jehovah, short of THE CAUSE of fornication. [Please compare brother Willis’ teaching with three other articles on this website: “But and if” in I Corinthians 7:11 (by Don Martin); Is Divorce Without Remarriage Sinful? (by Carrol R. Sutton) and The Seven Sins of an Unscriptural Divorce (by Jeff Belknap).]
The reasons I have posted brother Mike’s erroneous teaching of divorce on the “mental divorce” website are manifold. First of all, it reveals a major contradiction in the claims regarding fellowship among those advocating the new version of mental divorce. Secondly, it illustrates how flippantly some place matters of considerable doctrinal import into the realm of “judgment” (Romans 14). Finally, this posting prompts the question: How long will we tolerate these kinds of blatant departures (cf. Romans 16:17-18; II John 9-11)? See The 14 Camels of Romans 14; Fellowship
Here is the crux of the matter: If we are to accept all of these brothers’ “applications” as inconsequential to fellowship (as they claim), then we must be prepared for BOTH of these “acceptable” doctrines to be combined, as well. According to those advocating the new mental divorce doctrine, the innocent party who was put away against her will is not really put away, but is still married. Hence, when her husband later remarries (thereby committing fornication), she then becomes eligible to put away her husband “for the cause of fornication.” However, combine this scenario with brother Mike’s “acceptable” reasons for a divorce and we have compounded the problem. What if one divorces their spouse for one of the unscriptural “cause”s that Mike espouses, and the one who was put away then commits fornication because of their lack of self control (as per I Corinthians 7:5)? Since they are both “still married” according to these men, why couldn’t the one who has already put away his/her spouse, now “really” “put away” for “THE CAUSE”? This becomes the inescapable conclusion when BOTH of these doctrines are given the stamp of approval. As you can see false doctrine, of necessity, perpetuates further error (II Timothy 2:16; 3:13)! See Two False MDR “Applications” Combined
Moreover, in my exchanges with brothers Harry Osborne, Tom Roberts, Tim Haile and Bobby Holmes, a major focus of their arguments against recognition of some divorces, is that God didn’t specify a procedure for divorce, but that His emphasis in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 was on THE CAUSE for divorce. However, now Mike is arguing for causes for divorce! Will the above named brothers approve of his “causes?” If so, what would be their amended emphasis in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 regarding divorce?
While brother Willis and these other brethren obviously disagree with what the other teaches regarding cause(s) for approved divorces, it is peculiar that the source to which they turn for justification of their fellowship is none other than Romans 14. Since this is the case, why do some make a big fuss about the “innocent” person who remains “true to the marriage bond” (as if that is essential to avoid sin in divorce and subsequent remarriage). Why do they assert that a divorce for a cause other than fornication is not really a divorce because it is not approved, but then fellowship one who gives a long list of those situations in which one can “scripturally” divorce (albeit without remarriage). Will brother Willis be called upon to repent (cp. w. I Timothy 1:3; 6:3-5)??? Mike’s error has been well documented for years, without one single syllable of rebuke by any of his close associates!
Where will this refuge under “matters of judgment” (application) end? How many new departures will be ignored by some and defended by others of this party–before men will stand up and speak out against them, in spite of their close involvements (Matthew 10:34, 37; John 12:42-43)? Brethren, we are not debtors to the flesh (Romans 8:12), but to God who has and will save us if we remain true to HIM (cf. Isaiah 56:10; 58:1). May God bless us with courage and true conviction to keep the faith and preserve the purity of the Lord’s church (I Timothy 6:12; Jude 3; James 3:17)!