Bible Solutions to Divorce Problems
by Olan Hicks


What does God require of marriage violators?
Another divorce?
Life long celibracy?
Faithfulness to present marriage?


Some excerpts from the tract...


The "Sacrament of Marriage" Theory

In the year 1545 in the Italian town of Trent a Roman Catholic Council convened and, with interruptions, over the next 18 years rendered decisions that were to have far reaching effects on religious concepts around the world. Although it was not at first thought to be a very important council, this one produced rulings of such a nature that in later years many Catholic historians have referred to the Council of Trent as the most significant of all the councils.

Several ideas that had been under discussion for centuries were finalized at Trent. It was here that "tradition" was ruled to be equally inspired with the scriptures and equally authoritative. But the decree most directly relating to problems of marriage, divorce, and remarriage in our time is the one in which this council "defined" that marriage is a "sacrament."

What this means is that marriage is an institution in which heaven directly participates. It is seen as not subject to breakage by human hands. In effect, what the council decreed is that each marriage contract is enacted in heaven, is entered into permanent records there, and is accessible only to God as far as any further action upon it is concerned. Thus they ruled that a priest must preside for a wedding to be valid, as a representative of God. The council ruled also that at least two witnesses are required and that any marriage contracted otherwise is "invalid," and not legitimate. Further, it was declared that once the marriage contract is solemnized it continues to remain intact in heaven's record regardless ot the will or actions of the involved human parties on earth. The church, represented by its officers, is seen as obligated to protect God's interests in the matter and to impose judgments upon the people in harmony with these premises, including the refusal to recognize any marriage contracted in any other way as being a marriage at all.

Protestantism neither fully accepted nor fully rejected this viewpoint. The basic premises of it seemingly floated around the world and permeated the thinking of all religious groups in varying degrees. Actually there seems to have been little to no examination of the "sacrament theory of marriage" or comparison of its tenets with scripture. Apparently it has been accepted or rejected with little study by most.

In our own generation several prominent brethren have risen up vigorously determined to establish this concept as orthodox and to enforce the judgments demanded by that viewpoint. They imagine that it is in agreement with what Jesus said in Matthew 19:9. Under the press of these very aggressive and dogmatic efforts, the issue now is forced to come to a showdown. Christians now must determine whether or not these tenets are accurate Biblically for to reject them results in being disfellowshipped by many churches of Christ.


Identifying the Issues

In the heat of the battle many false issues have been raised and many mistaken allegations lodged. But as the smoke clears away the real issues to be dealt with are becoming clearer. Christians must make a thorough study of the Bible on the subject to determine whether or not Jesus said what He is interpreted as saying in the traditional theory.

This is not a philosophical question and therefore philosophy cannot supply the answer. It is a Biblical question and therefore requires a "thus saith the Lord" for the answer.

Neither is it a case of people on one side being in favor of divorce and people on the other side being against it. Both sides agree, at least on the surface, that sundering marriage is wrong. Today's great problem is not one of widespread approval of divorce. It is rather a widespread incidence of divorce. Like the high crime rate, everybody is against it, but it keeps happening anyway. Divorce is looked upon as involving sin, even by those to whom it happens, and as an occasion of failure and personal tragedy. Most all religious people regard it as involving sinful infractions against God's law. So it is not in the for or against area that we have the controversy. But when we come to the matter of what must be done about it and to the matter of repairing those damaged lives we find very strong disagreements.

These disagreements revolve around the premises legislated upon by the Council of Trent. It is important to understand what these premises are and what the Bible says in regard to each one. A premise is not proven wrong by the mere fact that it occurs in a human creed. It is shown to be either true or untrue by what the Bible says on the point.


Questions to be decided

1. Is it impossible to destroy a marriage wrongly?

A widely accepted viewpoint which lies at the core of the present controversy is the "divorce in the eyes of God" concept and the "marriage as God sees it" idea. According to this theory there are two kinds of divorce, one that is a divorce in the eyes of God and one that is not. Likewise there are two kinds of marriage, one that is marriage in the eyes of God and one that is not a marriage as God sees it. It is here that the "sacramental" concept comes into play. The reasoning is that marriages are made in heaven in the sense that God actually marries each couple and in fact participates in the contract. It is seen then as a three way contract between the man, the woman, and God.

Since Jesus said that man is not to put asunder what God has joined together, if a man tries to do so God simply does not recognize it, if the divorce is not based on fornication. Thus it is reasoned that in such a case the marriage remains intact in God's eyes and if this man marries another woman he "has two living wives" and is "living in a constant practice of adultery." Is this accuarte to the text of any scripture passages?

The problem begins with a mishandling of Matthew 19:6. Here Jesus said, "What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder." Does this text say it cannot be done, or does it say it is wrong to do it? Does it say "do not" or "cannot"? Does it say it is impossible to break a marriage wrongfully or does it say it is sinful to do so?

This text is a statement of prohibition, not a statement of impossibility. The grammar of the passage indicates this was something that was being done at the time and was here ordered stopped. A.T. Robertson discusses this kind of construction on page 890 of his grammar and says it is used to "forbid what one is already doing." Dana & Mantey say of this type of sentence structure that it "means to forbid the continuance of an act; it commands to quit doing a thing" (Grammar, page 301).

So the Lord's reference here is to the fact that men were putting marriages asunder contrary to the will of God and he simply said it is prohibited. He did not say man is incapable of it anymore than he said man is incapable of murder, or any other sin. The difference is between "do not" and "cannot." It may seem to some to be only a slight difference, but actually this is one of the most significant misunderstandings of all time.


2. Is the next marriage "an adulterous relationship"?

When the "cannot" idea is carried forward and imposed on verse 9, it changes the entire verse and, in fact, negates every statement made there. In this verse Jesus speaks of a hypothetical case of a man who does this, i.e., "puts away his wife except for fornication." If that is seen as not possible, then the statement of the text is inaccurate at this point. The man in question only attempts to put away his wife. In God's sight he does not succeed. This idea is opposite to the statement of Jesus.

The next statement in the passage is that this man then "marries another." But again the "cannot" idea disputes it. The theory is that he marries the next wife "only as man sees it, not as God sees it." This again is the opposite of the statement of Jesus.

The third statement in the passage is that the man who does these two things commits adultery. But the tradition emanating from Trent insists that the adultery referred to here occurs in the subsequent relationship of marriage. Thus it would not necessarily be true that every man who puts away his wife except for fornication and marries another commits adultery. If adultery can only be a sex act and cannot be committed by divorcing one and marrying another, then the statement of Jesus is again inaccurate, for He says in this text that a man who does those two things does commit adultery.

In this scripture Jesus actually said four things as follows:
1. If a man puts away his wife, except for fornication
2. and marries another
3. he commits adultery.
4. If a man marries a put-away woman he commits adultery.

In ruling that it is not possible for a man to put away his wife except for fornication, as God sees it, man denies number 1, the statement of Jesus that here is a man who does that. In ruling that "in God's eyes" such a man is not married to the second wife, man denies number 2, the statement of Jesus that he marries another. In ruling that the "adultery" in such a case consists in the sexual relationship which follows the two acts of divorcing and marrying, man denies number 3, the Lord's statement that the man who does those two things commits adultery. If adultery cannot be committed by doing those two things, how can it be said that whoever does those two things commits it?

Reasoning upon the same basic premises produces also a denial of number 4 in traditional theology. Jesus said that a man who marries a put-away woman commits adultery. But the traditional view is that adultery is not committed until later, when they cohabit sexually.

Thus the sacrament theory has caused a total mis-reading of the divorce passages. The two central premises of it are two erroneous assumptions:
1. That marriage cannot be broken sinfully, and
2. That adultery can only be committed in a sex act.

A careful reading of Matthew 19:9 itself would dispel both of these mistakes. We have already referred to verse 6, the grammar of which indicates that what Jesus prohibited was something that was being done at the time. This shows it to be possible. Then in verse 9 Jesus cites the hypothetical case of a man who does it, again showing that it is possible. The message of the passage is that it is wrong to do the two things mentioned, not that it is impossible.

To illustrate, take the command "Do not kill." Is it impossible to kill? What if you kill someone anyway, could you say, "He isn't really dead because God forbids us to kill"? No, he is really dead, but you have committed a sin in that you have done what God said do not do. This is precisely what the text says is the situation of the man who divorces his wife without fornication as the cause, and marries another. The marriage is destroyed and the next marriage is actual. But this man has committed a sin in that he has done what God said do not do. The sin he commits, Jesus said, is adultery.

The second erroneous assumption, that adultery can only be committed sexually, is also negated by this verse. Divorce is not a sexual act. Marry does not refer to a sexual act. Since these two things the verse specifies as being what the man does who commits adultery, and neither is a sex act, then obviously it can be committed in ways that are not sexual.

That "adultery" does often refer to non-sexual acts in the Bible is also seen by merely taking a good concordance, looking up the word, and reading those passages where it occurs. For instance it is used of idolatry. In Jeremiah 3:9 the prophet says that Israel committed adultery with stones and with stocks. In the New Testament Jesus used this word to describe some people who were seeking after a sign (Matthew 12:39). Certainly that is not a sex act. In James 4:4 we read that friendship with the world made them adulterers and adulteresses. And in our text here (Matthew 19:9) we find Jesus using this word in reference to divorcing a wife and marrying another. That is four different meanings given the word in scripture:
1. idolatry
2. sign seeking
3. friendship with the world,
and
4. divorce and remarriage, besides the passages where adultery is committed sexually.

When we go to the text and just read what it says, it presents no problem. The simple idea that a man who destroys his marriage without due cause and enters another marriage, commits adultery, is stated there. But human opinion has introduced three foreign ideas not written in the text:
1. indestructibility of marriage,
2. invalidity of next marriage,
3. adultery means sex act and that only.

The conflict thus produced between tradition and Jesus is illustrated below:

1. Jesus said, "Whoever puts away his wife, except for fornication"
Tradition says, "Not possible to put away wife except for fornication"

2. Jesus said, "and shall marry another"
Tradition says, "is not married to the next wife in God's sight"

3. Jesus said, "commits adultery"
Tradition says, "adultery not committed until later sex acts"

4. Jesus said, "Whoever marries a put-away woman commits adultery."
Tradition says, "Adultery not in marrying, but in sexual activity which follows."


A More Recent Theory

Some brethren, upon seeing that the three premises just discussed do indeed contradict the statements of the text, yet seemingly determined to deny marriage to divorced people, revised their approach to saying it. These agree that the sinful divorce does destroy the marriage and also that the subsequent union is a marriage, as per the text. But they contend that the second marriage stands in perpetual violation of God's will. They base this contention on the premise that God has not authorized a person in that circumstance to remarry. They grant that God has authorized marriage for the entire human race to the extent of a first marriage. But as respects "remarrying" they insist that God has authorized it only for:
1. those who divorced their mate on the grounds of fornication,
2. those whose mate has died, and
3. those reconciling to their original mate.

They admit that a divorce for fornication destroys the marriage both for the guilty party and the innocent party. But they say that while the innocent party may remarry, the guilty party is forbidden to remarry, not because he remains married to the first mate but because he is "not authorized" to remarry.

This theory is no more scriptural than the traditional one. Like the rulings emanating from Trent, this one also rests upon erroneous premises derived from human assumption. For instance the Bible does not speak of "remarrying" as different from "marrying." It does use the expression "be reconciled" in the sense of recovering a love relationship. But forming a marriage is simply called "marrying" whether it is the first or not. In Matthew 19:19 Jesus spoke of a man who puts away his wife, without fornication as the cause, "and shall marry another." In 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 Paul said of a man who has been "loosed from a wife," that "If thou marry thou has not sinned." Mistake number 1 in this theory then is the arbitrary creating of a distinction between the act of marrying and the act of remarrying.

The second erroneous assumption is the idea that God gave the marriage institution as a sort of special privilege for those who have never sinned against it. Thus God's original appointment of marriage as the way for mankind on earth is seen as not applicable to those who have sinned against it. Their right to participate in marriage is nullified on the ground of an alleged "absence of authority to remarry."

Like the concept issued at Trent, this one also, when examined in comparison with God's word, is found to be without foundation and contradictory to expressly stated Biblical premises. Take for example the Bible premise that marriage is a necessity because of the natural drives and appetites God has built into people. God stated that as His reason for creating marriage in the beginning (Genesis 2:18). Jesus referred to it as God's way for mankind (Matthew 19:4-6) and when the idea of avoiding marriage was mentioned, said, "Not all men can receive that saying" (v. 11). Paul cited this basic premise repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, and concluded that for anyone who is not married "it is better to marry than to burn." But this human theory just sweeps all that aside and rules that in the case of a person who has sinned against marriage at any time in life, it is good for the man to be alone, all men can receive that saying, and it is better to burn than to marry. They overrule God, they overrule Christ, and they overrule Paul on the matter.


One does not have to oppose marriage in order to oppose divorce.

Apparently it is not easy for some to keep the real issue clearly in mind. As we said earlier, the dispute is not about the wrongness of divorce. It is rather about the rightness of marriage for people who have been divorced. The Biblical focus is on the wrongness of sundering marriage. It is prohibited (Matthew 19:3-9). But in the human theories we speak of here the focus is on prohibiting marriage itself for as many as possible. In most such cases divorce is seen as posing no problem, even an unscriptural divorce, just so long as the violators do not marry. Some of my strongest opposition has come from men who are divorced, and without fornication as the cause. They see the disruption of the marriage as pardoned, cleansed in the blood of Jesus, but marriage itself they see as forbidden to them.

In most cases where a church will disfellowship those who remarry after unscriptural divorce, they do not disfellowship the unscripturally divorced if they remain divorced and do not marry again. Thus the focus is upon forbidding marriage for the divorced rather than upon forbidding divorce for the married.

To see the seriousness of this error notice what the Holy Spirit through Paul said about it in 1 Timothy 4:11:

"Now the Spirit speaketh expressly that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thansgiving of them which believe and know the truth."

Forbidding divorce, or marriage sundering, is Biblical. Jesus did that. But forbidding marriage itself is another matter altogether. The Holy Spirit said that idea comes from devils and consists of lies in hypocrisy. There is a great difference between the two.

Why would the devil want marriage forbidden? For the very reasons God wants it practiced. "It is not good that the man should be alone" and its purpose is "to avoid fornication." Satan does not want fornication avoided. He wants it practiced! So if marriage prevents it then of course he will want to destroy that by getting people to divorce in the first place. Then after getting a marriage destroyed, of course he wants to prevent any rehabilitation or repair of that situation. Satan is simply opposed to marriage. This is why it is very disturbing to see brethren giving heed to theories whose emphasis is upon preventing marriage rather than upon preventing divorce.


What did the apostles teach?

In regard to the statements of Jesus in the "divorce passages," we find two facts which are totally hostile to the human theories we have mentioned:
1. There is no precedent in scripture for anyone being seen as "inelgible to be married" and
2. All apostolic statements on the point say the opposite, that marriage is right for every person who wants and needs it.

Starting on Pentecost in Acts 2, the apostles preached the gospel of repentance and reconciliation to God in an empire whose laws had permitted divorce and remarriage quite freely for centuries, and among a nation of people accustomed to that practice. Yet when the question was asked, "What shall we do? they were simply told to "Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). Nothing was said about their marriages, as far as the record states, and none were required to get another divorce before they could be baptized as some are demanding today.

As evangelization of the empire continued over the next half century or more, the apostolic record never does include any account of such an idea being imposed on anyone in any way. If the apostles had understood Jesus to mean what later traditionalists say he meant, then action upon divorce cases would have had to be a daily occurrence, for divorces were as common then as they are now.

Sometimes brethren offer the case of Herod and Herodias of Mark 6 as an example of someone's eligibility for marriage being denied. But the case, as recorded in the text, does not fit that theory at all. Neither person was told that he or she was "ineligible to have a marriage." Instead John told Herod that it was wrong to have this particular marriage. He said, "It is not lawful for thee to have they brother's wife." If you look to the law under which they lived you see why John said that. In Leviticus 20:21 a man was forbidden to marry his brother's wife while the brother lived. That verse says it is an unclean thing. This is not at all the same as saying that some person may not have any mate at all because of a previous divorce.

The scriptures do indeed give instances of certain specific marriages being disallowed. In Ezra 10, for example, marriages to foreign women were ordered broken up because God had forbidden that. But they were not ordered to have no wife at all! Again, in 1 Corinthians 5:1 a man who "had his father's wife" was told that it had to stop. But neither he nor she was said to be "ineligible to have a mate at all."

Again there is a great difference between what the Bible says and what men interpret it to mean. God's word does indeed forbid certain specific kinds of relationships which might be called "marriage." In the first chapter of Romans homosexual relationships are said to be an abomination to God and are strongly condemned. So we say again, it is important to keep clearly in mind what the question at issue is. What we are contending for here is not that all kinds of marriages are right. That is not so. What we are contending for is that all people have a right to be in a marriage. The Bible does not approve such things as incest, homosexuality, promiscuity, etc. But the Bible does approve marriage between a man and a woman and states expressly that the sexual relationship therein is not wrong (Hebrews 13:4).


Marriage for how many?

When we take the questions in dispute to apostolic writings for an answer we find a repudiation of the answers men have given. On the question of which persons may marry Paul wrote, "to avoid fornication let every man have his own wife and let every woman have her own husband" (1 Corinthians 7:2). On the question of whether a man who has been divorced by his wife would sin by marrying, Paul wrote, "Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. But and if thou marry thou hast not sinned" (1 Corinthians 7:27-28). In this text the word translated "loosed" is formed on the stem word "luo," surely referring to divorce. The statement of Paul here is completely contradictory to the tenets of human tradition on such a case.

But someone will ask, "What about verses 10-11? Is that not an order to remain unmarried if one separates from a mate?" No. She has the option of being reconciled to her husband. This order is not given to divorced people, here or elsewhere. The passage starts out, "Unto the married I command..." This is an order to people who are married. And the order is do not depart from your mate, but if you do, remain unmarried and be reconciled. This is what married people ought to do. But the problem comes about when men try to take this passage, written to the married, and apply it to the divorced. "Depart" does not mean "divorce." This is "choridzo," not "apoluo." The obvious intention is to place a number one priority on saving the marriage, not to place a sentence of permanent celibacy upon divorcees. The command "remain unmarried" is never given to divorced people in the Bible. In human theology that occurs.


She shall be called an adulteress

Romans 7:1-3 is sometimes offered as proof that God holds a person bound to their first mate for life regardless of a divorce. But this again represents a careless and inaccurate reading. The reference is to the woman's situation under the law. Five times in these three verses Paul states that his reference is to a law situation. How many times would he have to say it before we would accept that he was referring to a situation under the law? Women had no divorce provision in the law. But men could divorce wives.

Verse 4 says that the purpose of his reference is to illustrate that someone can marry again, not that they cannot. The fact is the Jews had been unfaithful to God in Old Testament times and God had divorced them (Jeremiah 3:8). So what Paul spoke of here was a case of guilty divorcees, put away for adultery. And in verse 4 he said, "Reckon yourselves to be dead to the law that ye should be married to another, even him who is raised from the dead." So these verses do not fit at all with the theory that sinfully divorced people are ineligible to marry again.


Atonement or restitution?

In some of my debates on this subject I have asked my opponent this question: Once a person becomes ineligible for marriage by sinning against it, is there anything he can ever do to change that? The answer was always, "No."

In effect this makes sin against marriage another unpardonable sin. A man who murders his wife has the way of repentance and reformation open to him. The deed can be completely cleared from his record. But if he divorces her instead, no amount of repentance, reformation, application of the blood of Jesus, nor anything else can ever remove that sin from his record. It stays with him to the grave!

This is one of the most frightening aspects of the theories forbidding marriage. They rest on a concept which sets aside the atonement idea and substitutes restitution in its place. When you stop to realize that the entire ground of hope underlying the gospel message is the availability of the atoning blood, then you see that to cast this away is to throw out the bulk of the New Testament. Any doctrine of redemption by restitution instead of atonement is indeed a great evil. In some cases of sin restitution is the only right thing to do. In other cases it is not even best for all who are involved. But in any case the blood of Jesus is the only thing in the universe that can remove sin.

Jesus said, "All manner of sins and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost..." (Matthew 12:31). Seeing sins as forgiveable does not mean condoning them. It is still a fact that from the beginning God has never approved marriage breaking (Matthew 19:3-9). Neither has he approved any other sin. But He has arranged for all who are guilty of sins to have opportunity to leave the practice of sin and to be cleansed and given a new start, to find "the land of beginning again." The tremendous price for this was paid in the death of God's own son on the cross. It is the only way sin can be dealt with effectively. The sins are destroyed but the sinner is saved.

For the person who has been guilty of marriage destruction, regardless of the number of times, God's word calls upon you to realize the wrongness of that and to turn in repentance away from it. In obeying the gospel (or rededication if you're a fallen Christian) the blood of Christ is applied and the sin no longer exists. If you were unfaithful to marriage vows, that is what you must repent of and resolve never to do again. But the practice of marriage itself is not sin. To repent of that is to turn against the basic way of God for men and women on earth and to reject the one and only arrangement in which sex is approved.

Men may ridicule and say, "You think all one must do is say 'I am sorry' and continue sinning." But it is still a fact that faithfulness in marriage is the opposite of unfaithfulness in marriage. It does represent a complete turn around, or repentance. God is not against marriage. He is against sundering marriage, or sinning against it in any way (Hebrews 13:4). Let us strive on behalf of moral purity, God's way, one man and one woman -- committed to each other in a marriage until death, regardless of past conduct. Let's avoid fornication God's way, by letting every man have his own wife and every woman her own husband, including those who have sinned against it in the past.

May God help us to put away sin from among us -- His way!



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