Differences In Application

By Steven Harper

In some recent (and not-so-recent) articles published nationwide, brethren have made some misleading statements about the ongoing controversy over the Lord’s teaching on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. These same brethren, and those who are defending them, including (apparently) the publishers of a well-known “brotherhood paper,” have resorted to even mislabeling what the real issue is all about. In an announcement that has since been changed, a web site’s “News” page declared that an upcoming debate “will specifically deal with the issue that the Civil Procedure brethren erroneously refer to as ‘mental divorce’ or a ‘the second putting-away.’” (sic) Here, the deception is getting others — who do not know all the details and have not read all the arguments — to believe that the issue is all about civil procedure (no capital letters needed) and nothing at all to do with an erroneous interpretation and the fact that some have once again redefined terms in order to make their false doctrines palatable to the uninformed.

Yet another online publication has just recently posted a series of articles by one man who purports to deal with the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage without making judgments about some who disagree on the matter of how they may “apply” the same basic principle of “one man, one woman, for a lifetime.” In one of the articles, entitled Fellowship And Controversy, the author states, “Jesus established only one exception to this rule, ‘fornication.’ Anyone who does not teach and practice this doctrine must be rejected by those who love truth, and those who desire fellowship with the Lord (cf. 2 John 9-11).” He further states, “Any doctrine which denies the simplicity of this truth ought to be rejected. Any individual who disseminates such a doctrine should be exposed. Any couple in a relationship which constitutes adultery is not accepted by God, and should not be received into the fellowship of his people.” [Bold letters are added by me to emphasize the points he makes. --- SCH] I would heartily agree at this point, but then he goes on to say, “Some who would champion the toleration of false teachers on this subject equate the struggles to apply the principles of scripture with the rejection of the principle itself. Claims are made of “differences”, and “inconsistency” and “hypocrisy.” Surely the careful reader can distinguish between a rejection of God’s word, and a difference in applying that word.”

Here is where I must disagree, and for good reason. It seems that some, unwilling to admit their doctrines conflict with the very words of Jesus Christ, have turned the matter into not false doctrine versus true doctrine, but “differences in application” of [what they claim is] the same doctrine. Not so! In order to make their false doctrines appear less dangerous to the souls of men and women whom it affects, they have redefined terms and tried to convince us that we may differ in application of the same principle or law and still have fellowship with one another. NOT SO!

While they may argue and they may actually convince others that this is simply a matter of “difference in application,” the reality is, it is a matter of a difference in interpretation — not application. When Jesus said “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9) that was the “one exception” allowed by God for divorce. From this passage, we may know that a man who puts away [divorces] his wife for any other reason than sexual immorality, and who then marries another is guilty of adultery (19:9a). From this verse, we may also know that whoever marries that woman he put away [the one divorced for a reason other than sexual immorality] also commits adultery (19:9b). The situation in this passage deals with a divorce that was done for a reason other than for sexual immorality, and neither party in such situations has a God-given right to remarry; if they remarried, they would be guilty of adultery.

But, some brethren have come along and added teachings not found anywhere within the boundaries of God’s revealed word, and are trying to convince us it is “only a matter of differences in application.” Some seem to be saying Matthew 19:9 really says something like this: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and this woman whom he put away may now publicly renounce him (because she is unable to divorce him through the courts), putting him away, and is now free to remarry.” Those who have proposed this scenario redirect legitimate questions by asking, “Don’t you believe that God gave only the innocent spouse the right to put away?” As if that was the real question here.

Of course, the Bible teaches that God gave only the innocent one the right to put away the guilty party. But do not assume that when they tell you they believe “only the innocent spouse has the right to put away the guilty” that they mean one who has not already been put away. Now, we must ask what they mean by the term “innocent spouse”! In a subtle shift of interpretation and definition [they won’t tell you unless you ask], they have now redefined “innocent spouse” to include one who has already been put away. Even ones Jesus said were guilty of adultery should they remarry (Matt. 19:9b)! Now, you tell me: Is this only a “difference in application”? Did you notice the subtle shift away from the real issue [whether one put away not for fornication may remarry] onto a question about who has the right to put away? Did you note that these men are now teaching a doctrine in plain contradiction to the teachings of Jesus? This is not “just a difference in application”!

To further “muddy the waters” over the real issue, some have resorted to labeling those who disagree as “Civil Procedure brethren” (a formal title, capital letters included), accusing any dissenters of “trusting in the laws of men above the laws of God,” while they subtly avoid answering the real question once again. While some have, indeed, argued that “divorce equals civil procedure” [an erroneous concept], that is not the question at hand.

Because these men redefined who the “innocent spouse” is that has the right to put away, this has changed the entire meaning of Matthew 19:9 [and other passages]. Those who say an innocent spouse put away against his or her will is “not really put away” [i.e., not really divorced], then say she may — at some point in the future [no time limit] — “put away” their spouse and remarry without committing adultery. The scenario is often stated similarly: Joe divorces Jane for no particular reason. Jane protests, but the divorce is finalized. Two years later [or 10 or 15], Joe finds a “honey” and has as sexual relationship with her, or maybe he even marries this “honey.” Now, if Jane publicly renounces her relationship with Joe [before the elders of the church and all who know her], she is free to remarry. If she marries again, she does not commit adultery. [Though Jesus used an example in Matthew 19:9 of a woman who was put away not for fornication and identified both the man and woman as “divorced,” some want to argue against the Lord Himself and say they are not!]

Friends and brethren, it does not take a rocket scientist or a scholarly theologian to see that this scenario does not fit with what Jesus said in Matthew 19:9 — or any other Bible teaching. It is not just a “difference in application,” it is false doctrine.

If I hired a painter to paint my house, I would expect that he would use brushes, rollers, and maybe even a sprayer. But if I came back and saw him tossing paint straight from the can onto my house, would I have reason to protest if he simply replied, “It’s just a difference in application”?

Don’t be deceived, brethren. This is not just a matter of “differences in application” — this is a matter of salvation. One “application” means souls will be saved, while the other “application” means souls will be condemned!

From: The Burns Park BEACON, a bulletin of the Burns Park church of Christ, North Little Rock, AR.
Editor: Steven Harper
June 15, 2003

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