From The Editor’s Notebook: Divorce and Remarriage, part 1

From The Editor’s Notebook

W. Ross Rainey

Divorce and Remarriage

Does the Lord’s exception in Matthew 19:9 and Matthew 5:32 “except for fornication” warrant the innocent person in a divorce to remarry?

If a Christian thus divorced marries a Christian equally irreproachable in character, would an assembly be warranted in refusing fellowship, or taking action in any way?

Answer by W. E. Vine and W. R. Lewis, Bath, England.

It is clear that the Divine intent was that marriage should be indissoluable save by death, but when sin came in, and considering that the original ideal had failed of its accomplishment, permission was given under the Law of divorce, owing to the hardness of men’s hearts, and for the avoidance of the corruption that is in the world through lust. The concession was not perfect, ideally, but practically necessary in view of moral conditions.

The Lord in answering the enquiry of the Pharisees whether divorce was permissible for every cause, cleared this solemn step from the trivialities that had become associated with it, and specified the one sin by which the institution of marriage itself was broken, as the only ground of divorce.

There may be grave reasons why a Christian should take advantage of this concession in order to remarry, and in such a case fellowship at the Lord’s Table should not be denied where he or she, as the innocent party, has had recourse to this legal action in order to become free. Seeing that no moral obliquity attaches to a person under such circumstances, any public services rendered previously would not necessarily terminate on that ground alone.

On the other hand, there may be to a soul in real fellowship with God a higher question as to whether it may not be more according to Scripture and to godliness to refuse to take advantage of this concession, and to endure patiently and humbly such an unspeakable trial for the Lord’s sake, especially in a day like this when the tendency is all the other way. Higher interests than their own will, no doubt, prevail with those who occupy any prominence in an assembly and are looked upon as representative in any measure of its life and testimony. On the analogy of Leviticus 21:7, 14 and 1 Timothy 3:2, a high standard is required of those who walk before the saints as ensamples to the flock, and they will be ready, as far as in them lies, to forgo their right in order to preserve their spiritual place and influence. It is a serious thing anywhere, and especially in heathen lands, to close the door forever against the return of a repentant erring spouse. God himself has left the door open in the case of Israel (Jer. 3:1).

The plea that the obtaining of a divorce by the innocent party will enable the guilty one to form a regular union instead of an irregular one, has no force. Human law may legalize the fresh union, but it cannot sanctify it. “Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

A Statement by F. W. Grant. F. W. Grant in The Numerical Bible says: “The Lord peremptorily and on His own authority, restricts the allowance of it (divorce) to the that one ground which plainly destroys the very idea of marriage, and declares the putting away of one’s wife for any other cause to be making her commit adultery by another marriage.”

An Answer by C. F. Hogg and J. B. Watson. The two utterances of the Lord referred to are:

(1) “Everyone that putteth away his wife, save for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adultress: and whosoever marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:32).

(2) Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matt. 19:9).

Both passages teach that the one and only sufficient ground for the annulment of a marriage is that sin, which by its very nature disrupts the union, because it breaks the solemn undertaking given to reserve the “vessel” wholly for the partner. The repeated exception “except for fornication” clearly shows that this sin is recognized by the Lord as the valid ground for divorce.

Both sayings forbid the marriage of persons who have been divorced on insufficient grounds, i.e., for some cause or other than the one specified. The reason for this prohibition is that whatever man’s law may say, the original union stills stands, and a new one would, therefore, be sinful. Where, however, the marriage has been dissolved for the legitimate cause named — fornication, the reason for forbidding remarriage no longer exists. In other words, the excepting clause “except for fornication” limits the operation of the prohibition to those instances in which the divorce has been obtained for some other cause.

We judge, therefore, that the answer to the first part of the question is that the Lord’s words do not forbid the remarriage of the innocent party concerned in a divorce granted because of the sexual unfaithfulness of the other party.

This reply assumes “fornication” to bear the meaning of “sexual unfaithfulness,” without reference to the technical signification of the term in the English law, where it means the sexual sin of unmarried persons. That, in the New Testament the word carries this wider meaning, is plain, when all the occurrences are examined. (See e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1, where fornication is named as sin to which a wife is party.) Those who insist on the narrower meaning (i.e., unmarried unchastity) usually refer the sin to the woman, and to the unmarried days, linking their interpretation with Deuteronomy 22:13-21. As the penalty laid down in that passage for such sin was death, no question of divorce could arise. And as in the following verse (Deut. 22:22), sin of the same kind committed after the marriage met with the same penalty, it is clear that whether the sin were committed before or after marriage made no difference to its heinousness or to the sentence of the law against it.

Those who maintain that “fornication” in the two passages in Matthew means “pre-marital unchastity” must also show clearly why, if such sin is sufficient to make subsequent marriage null, the same sin committed after marriage is insufficient to nullify the marriage bond.

As to the second part of the question: it follows that as such a marriage is not forbidden by the Word of the Lord, an assembly would not be warranted in treating the innocent person concerned as morally delinquent.

A Statement by J. N. Darby. J. N. Darby in his Letters, Vol,. 2. pages 155 and 156, and 229, says: “My meaning in saying the tie was broken was this, that God never allowed the Christian to break the tie; but when adultery was committed the one doing so had broken the tie, and the Lord allowed the other party to hold it to be broken and act on it by formal divorce — did not require it but allowed it. The legalization of it is submission to the powers that be, for common order, just as the divorce was in Jewish law .

“On the other hand, according to 1 Cor. 7, I cannot doubt that the Christian, deliberately deserted by the unchristian partner, was in every way free, free, that is, to marry; but it assumes deliberate forsaking by the one who went away. The Christian was never to do it, and if obliged to leave, to remain unmarried or return.

“Mark 10 does annul Matt. 19, a man putting away his wife is looked at as his act or will. If he puts away, he has broken a tie God formed, by his own will; then marrying another is adultery. By act of sin the tie was already broken, and judicial divorce allowed.

“Matthew 5 is to me equally clear with chapter 19, but I think the person should obtain a divorce, otherwise they remain legally married, and the new connection is concubinage. In any case forgiveness is allowed.

“The passage in Romans 7:2, does not apply. The word ‘married’ is not in the Greek at all. The woman is supposed to be in full connection with and under the authority of her husband, and then, ‘is to another man,’ that is, faithless to the existing bond.”

A Statement by William Kelly. In his Notes on Matthew, William Kelly says: “Though an earthly relationship, the light of Heaven is thrown upon it, the sanctity of marriage held up, and the possibility of allowing anything to interfere with its holiness entirely put down by Christ, save only where there was that which interrupted it in the sight of God, in which case the act of separation would be only a declaration of its being already broken.

“There is but one just cause for which it (marriage) may be dissolved; or rather, marriage must be dissolved morally in order to terminate as a matter of fact. In case of fornication, the tie is all gone before God; and the putting away merely proclaims before man what has already taken place in God’s sight.”

The Annual Meeting

On November 3rd, 1979, the Annual Meeting of Food for the Flock, Inc. was held in Toronto. All but one of our committee members were able to attend the meeting.

It was the unanimous decision of the committee to continue to publish Ministry in Focus for another year, the end of 1979 having marked 25 years of continuous publication under the good hand of our faithful Lord. For the current year no changes were made within the structure of the Board, the responsibility of publication being voluntarily shared by the following officers:

President — Russell Took

1st Vice-Pres — Sydney H. Green

2nd Vice-Pres — James T. Naismith

Secretary — Miss Lillian Telfer

Treasurer — Harry Masters

Editor — W. Ross Rainey

Associate Editor — James Gunn

Regretfully, the members of the committee felt that it was necessary to raise the subscription price from $4.00 to $5.00 per year. Even this substantial raise will not enable us to operate in the black apart from additional gifts through the Lord’s people. And for such gifts, which are received from time to time, we are sincerely grateful. Also, through the kindness of one of our committee members, scores of subscriptions are sent free to missionaries in various parts of the world.

Again, we would make a plea to our readers that you notify us when you change your address. Over a year’s time it is costly to both our business office and the editor because of the failure of subscribers to notify us of a move.

Also, it would greatly aid us if, through the business office, you renewed your subscription promptly.

Just a reminder that all matters of an editorial nature should be sent to the Editor, 9257 Caprice Drive, Plymouth, Mich. 48170. All business correspondence should be directed to the Treas., P.O. Box 353, Etobicoke, Ont. M9C 4V3. Questions for “The, Question Column” should be sent to Dr. James T. Naismith, 1121 Hilltop St., Peterborough, Ont. K9J 5S6.

“Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be of courage; be strong. Do everything in love” (1 Cor. 16:13-14, NIV).

“Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25).