Gospel Truths, Volume XV Number 9, September 2004
Posted with permission

Doctrines and Principles
Regarding Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage

 David Watts Jr. 

This article was recently submitted to Brother Mike Willis with Truth Magazine. Despite much urging on my part, Brother Willis rejected it for publication. – David Watts Jr.

Perhaps like many others, I’ve read with keen interest Brother Bill Cavender’s recent series of articles titled: “Observations and Experiences Regarding Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage” as they have appeared in Truth Magazine.

After reading and considering four such articles in this series, I am now convinced that these kinds of articles are not the answer to the problems many brethren and churches face regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. There is something far more needed by brethren than the “observations and experiences” of a man. The solution to the marriage and divorce problems that brethren and churches are experiencing will not and cannot come from human observations and experiences; the solution can only come from Bible doctrine and Bible principles.

Thus, instead of considering “observations and experiences”, let’s consider “Doctrine and Principles Regarding Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage.”

Brother Dennis Abernathy, Barry Pennington, and I visited personally with Brother Bill Cavender in Longview, Texas on April 15, 2004 and discussed in detail with him what he teaches and what he believes about Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage. In our presence, Brother Cavender acknowledged that he believes and teaches that a wife, who was put away by her husband for some cause other than fornication, can remarry with God’s approval when her ex-husband remarries or has sexual relations with another. He teaches that this woman who was put away not for fornication, can remarry with God’s blessing and without committing adultery.

I find Brother Cavender’s views to be without Scriptural basis and his teaching to be in contradiction to God’s word. I told him so when I visited with him, and we have emailed each other about these matters in the interim. Therefore, in order to help brethren turn aside the false doctrine that Brother Cavender believes and teaches, and the emotion-based arguments he is making, I believe the following Bible doctrine and principles need to be stressed.

1. It really is possible for a person to divorce his or her spouse contrary to God’s will.

Jesus presents this scenario in Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18. Matthew 5:32 especially makes this clear as Jesus says, “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality…” Jesus is not discussing a hypothetical situation that can never actually occur.

Contrary to some preachers who tell us that a divorce for a cause other than fornication is not a real divorce – Jesus teaches otherwise. In this place, and in Matthew 19:9, and in Mark 10:11-12, Jesus describes what a person can do, but should not do.

If we are fair and honest with the Scriptures we will see that there are many such examples of things that man can do, but should not do. For example, in Matthew 5 Jesus repeats instructions from the Old Law. Men were commanded not to murder, not to commit adultery and not to swear falsely. Yet, the Old Covenant is full of examples of men who chose to murder, commit adultery, and swear falsely.

A divine prohibition against a thing does not make it impossible for a man to commit that thing. It really is possible for a husband to take unlawful action against his wife and divorce her, in violation of God’s will. And, of course, it is possible for a wife to do the same.

2. Such an unlawful, unwarranted and unscriptural divorce still has real consequences.

Although such a divorce is unlawful, unwarranted and unscriptural it has real consequences. This should not surprise us. We realize that when a man unlawfully murders another, it has real consequences. We realize that it is unlawful for a father to provoke his children to wrath, but that he can do so, and when he does so it has real consequences.

Yet, I’ve seen many preachers of late argue something along these lines: “God doesn’t recognize that unlawful divorce.” If you ask “Why?” they might say something like this: “That man had no right to divorce his innocent wife. What he did was against God’s law and God will not recognize that divorce.”

Let’s examine that thinking for a moment. Take that kind of argument and replace the word “divorce” with “murder.” Does the argument still make sense? Certainly not, because unlawful and immoral actions are still real actions and still have real consequences.

Consider the sin of abortion. When a woman decides to destroy the human life that is developing within her, it is an unlawful and unscriptural action. Yet, it is a real action with real consequences that all can see and understand. Abortion is unlawful. Divorce not for fornication is unlawful. Yet they are both real events with real consequences.

Furthermore, let’s apply this line of reasoning to what Jesus taught about the one lawful cause for divorce. If an unlawful divorce is not recognized by God because it was contrary to scripture, then why is fornication (which is most clearly unlawful) recognized by God as a lawful cause for divorce?

We can’t have it both ways brethren. We must be consistent with God’s word. God’s word makes clear that unlawful actions are still real actions with real consequences. Fornication is unlawful yet it is a real action with real consequences. Murder is unlawful yet it is a real action with real consequences. And divorce not for fornication is unlawful yet it is a real action with real consequences.

The link between the unlawful action and the consequences is clearly laid out by Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 5:32 that when a man divorces his wife, not for fornication, he “causes her to commit adultery…” and in Matthew 19:9 Jesus said that a man who divorces his wife, not for fornication, and marries another “commits adultery…”

These are real consequences of real actions. To be sure, the non-fornication divorce is unlawful and unscriptural. Yet it is real and it has real consequences.

3. A real consequence of that divorce is that the one who does the divorcing commits adultery when he remarries.

Jesus makes the truth of this consequence very clear. In Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and Luke 16:18 Jesus makes abundantly clear that if a man divorces his wife, not for fornication, and marries another, he commits adultery. This is a real consequence of a real, albeit unlawful, divorce.

Nowhere does Jesus say that because the original divorce was unlawful, it lacks real consequences. In fact, this is just the first of several consequences.

I suppose that in the present discussion, this particular consequence is not often challenged. I reckon that it fits our human notions of justice to think that the lousy husband that put away his wife, not for fornication, will be guilty of adultery when he remarries. Perhaps we see that as immediate punishment for his sin.

But let us realize that adultery is that which involves two parties. If he remarries, he may marry a woman that has never been married before. Sadly, she is now also involved in adultery, as she has no right to be married to that man.

This is just one area of real consequences that result from the unlawful and unscriptural divorce.

4. Another real consequence of that divorce is that the one who was put away commits adultery when she remarries.

Here is where a number of brethren are trying to change what God’s word teaches. For example, Brother Cavender strongly believes (and tried to convince me of it as well) that a put away wife (where no fornication was involved) can remarry just as soon as her ex-husband remarries or has sexual relations with another. This is nothing more than the old waiting game and mental divorce repackaged to be more appealing.

Brother Cavender’s teaching simply does not square with what Jesus taught. Jesus spoke on this very circumstance three times:

(1)               “…and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)

(2)               “…and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9)

(3)               “…and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

Who is this woman? Jesus answers that question when He describes this woman as “a woman who is divorced…” or “her who is divorced from her husband…” Contextually, the woman that commits adultery if she remarries is the woman that was unlawfully put away by her husband. It is the innocent wife put away not for fornication.

Thus, the clear reading is simple. Jesus teaches that if a wife is divorced by her husband, a consequence of this unlawful and unscriptural action is that both the divorcer and divorcee, the one who put away and the one who was put away – should not marry any other person while their original spouse still lives. If either of them does, it is adultery.

So what we end up with is this: Jesus said, “whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” I and many others teach the words of Christ. Brother Cavender has told me that when I teach this doctrine I am “fooling with this theory.” Yet I am adding nothing to what Jesus taught.

On the contrary, the claims of the false teaching we are evaluating force the reader to add a new exception to the teachings of Jesus as follows: “whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery, unless her ex-husband has remarried or engaged in fornication with another.” Are the words of Jesus a “theory” or are the additions of men a theory? Let the reader determine whether the words of Jesus are just “theory” or whether the additions of man are “theory.” The answer should be obvious to each of us.

No matter who the man, when a man teaches what is contrary to the word of God, our view should be similar to that of Paul’s. I implore all readers to adhere to the standard revealed in Romans 3:4 where Paul proclaims, “Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar.”

What also happens is that some start to inject their human standards of what is fair and just into the equation. Some start to tell endless stories of sad marriage and divorce situations -- perhaps for the purpose of making emotional appeals. In their articles and preaching they lament the terrible circumstances that some innocent wives have found themselves in when their sinful husbands divorced them without just cause. Are these sad stories offered as an effort to change or obscure the truth of what Jesus revealed? If we collect and publish enough sad stories will the collective weight of their solemnity outweigh divinely revealed Scripture?

May it never be so! All the sad stories in the world don not change what Christ said. Matthew 5:32 and these other passages still read the same. Of course, as loving Christians we ought to embrace such people that have been unjustly put away. We ought to love and comfort such people. But, if we attempt to teach them that they have a right to remarry, when the Lord forbids such, this is not love and comfort. This is cruel deceit that creates false hopes and encourages people to enter into new and adulterous marriages. Such is not love.

Such offering of sad stories reminds me of arguments used by our Baptist friends against baptism. When they fail to overthrow the weight of Scripture that clearly teaches that Baptism is essential for the remission of sins, they trot out their sad stories. There’s endless varieties of stories about the sad case of the man killed in the car wreck on the way to be baptized and the poor chap that wants to be baptized in the desert but can’t find water. Such stories are not Bible authority and in fact are nothing more than emotional appeals. At the end of the day, Scripture still says the same thing. The same has been true of orphan’s homes, sponsoring church arrangements and everything else where man supposes he has a better approach than God.

5. Innocent people sometimes live with the consequences, for the rest of their lives, of the unlawful and unscriptural actions others take.

When people fail to make a scriptural case that a put away woman can remarry once her husband remarries, they will sometimes make the following argument. Note that this is not a scriptural argument, but again appeals to emotion. From more than one source I’ve heard this emotional argument: “I just don’t think God would have that innocent wife live the rest of her life alone and celibate because of the actions of her sorry husband.”

Friends, when someone starts a line of argumentation with “I just don’t think…” you can be well assured they are making an extra-biblical argument. If they had Scripture, they wouldn’t start with “I just don’t think…” Instead, they would start with “Jesus says…” or “the Bible says…”

The only one that has the right to “think” for God is God. According to 1 Corinthians 2:12 the way we learn what God wants is by divine revelation. Paul says, “Now we have received… the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.”

How are we going to know what God wants? Is it by some man saying, “I just don’t think….” Or is it by means of God’s revelation? Clearly, we can reject the “I just don’t think…” argument and cling to divine revelation instead.

Furthermore, this line of extra-Biblical, emotional arguing doesn’t even hold up to reasonable examination. Consider the following. Do innocent Christians today live with lifelong consequences created by the choices made by sinful scoundrels? Ask the parents of a young lady killed by a drunk driver if they are living with the lifelong consequences of a drunkard’s choice. If a young wife were to be beaten into a coma by a thug, will her husband not live with the consequences of some criminal’s sinful choices? Will a wife whose husband is made a paraplegic by a speeding driver not live with lifelong consequences?

I offer these hypothetical questions merely as a means of illustrating that this emotional argument (“I just don’t think God expects her to live alone….”) is utterly bankrupt and without merit.

Beyond the hypothetical situations, many times the Scriptures show that innocent persons suffered because of the sin of the guilty. Did not the innocent Uriah suffer and die because of King David’s sinful actions (2 Samuel 11:17, 24)? Did not the innocent child of David and Bathsheeba suffer and die because of King David’s sinful actions (2 Samuel 12:14)? When someone claims that God doesn’t permit the innocent to suffer because of the action of the guilty, they’re simply making a non-biblical emotional argument.

There’s another interesting aspect to this argument that some offer. Those who have offered this theory say that she (the put away wife) must wait until her ex-husband has sexual relations with someone or remarries, before she can remarry. Again, the justification for this is that “we don’t think” God would have her spend the rest of her life alone and celibate.

But what happens if the ex-husband does not remarry and does not have sexual relations with another? This certainly is possible. Paul instructs in 1 Cor. 7:11 that those in this kind of circumstance must “remain unmarried or be reconciled.” Suppose reconciliation is not possible. He remains unmarried and keeps himself pure. How long must his wife remain alone and celibate? Even according to their extra-biblical theory, the answer is that she must remain alone and celibate for the rest of her life, or her ex-husband’s life.

But some argue “we just don’t think God would have someone pay that kind of price for the actions of another.” Therefore, if many years drag on, will they seek to allow her to remarry even before the ex-husband remarries? If their argument is evaluated in a consistent and fair fashion – it requires such a view. I am confident that no thoughtful brother in Christ can hold such a position – as it is utterly devoid of Scriptural basis.

Of course, their argument is devoid of scriptural basis in the first place and has no merit.

6. God will permit that put away spouse to marry another only when, and not until such time, the original spouse dies.

God does provide a means for a wife, put away for a cause other than fornication, to marry another. It is revealed in Romans 7:2-3. It is quite simply this: “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband.”

Notice that marriage to another before the death of her husband is strictly forbidden. Notice again what Paul said in verse 3: “So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress…”

We understand from what Jesus reveals in the Gospels that a woman has a right to divorce her husband for the cause of fornication if while during their marriage he has sexual relations with another. In such case she has the right of remarriage.

If she was divorced for non-fornication reasons, can she marry another once he marries another? Jesus and Paul reveal that if she does marry another while her previous husband lives, she commits adultery.

Paul also addresses this in 1 Corinthians 7:10 when he makes clear that when there has been a divorce that is not for fornication, each party has two options: “…let her (1) remain unmarried or (2) be reconciled to her husband.”

There is no third option, as some would have us believe. Paul did not say, “(1) Remain unmarried, or (2) be reconciled, or (3) wait for him to remarry.”

If any man preaches option 3, let them explain to us from the Scriptures why Paul never gave an option 3. Its time to drop our human additions and stick with exactly what the Lord revealed.

7.  Man’s ideas on what is fair or not fair do not change God’s divinely revealed doctrine.

It is abundantly obvious, that man’s ideas on what is fair or not fair do not change divinely revealed doctrine. Isaiah 55:9 reminds us, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”  We all need the attitude expressed in Jeremiah 10:23, “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” And may we always believe with our whole heart that reverent sentiment expressed in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

God did not ask me or any other man how He should structure His law on marriage and divorce. If He had, perhaps we would have wanted to do some things different. But certainly we can agree that God’s standards are perfect, and our ideas would have fallen far short of God’s wisdom.

8. We must preach salvation to a lost and dying world, but we must also constantly teach Christians to “observe all things.”

Sometimes people who are serious about preaching, teaching, and practicing just exactly what the Lord revealed about marriage and divorce are chided for not getting busy with “preaching salvation to a lost and dying world.” Sometimes it is argued that preachers need to quit studying and discussing what God said about marriage and divorce and get back to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This reminds me of the attacks that were made on some brethren who opposed the false teaching of Homer Hailey on the divorce and remarriage of non-Christians. Were brethren right to oppose Hailey’s false doctrine or were they shrinking from their duties of “preaching salvation to a lost and dying world”?  If they were motivated by love of truth and love of souls, then of course they were right in opposing error. And exposing error is a critical part of preaching salvation and truth:

“Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.” Titus 2:15

Now, some of these same brethren who rightly opposed Hailey’s false teaching are themselves teaching error. When they are confronted about it, they make a familiar claim. They claim that there’s “more important doctrine we should be teaching.” They claim that we just need to get busy saving souls and quit discussing marriage, divorce and remarriage. Never mind the fact that the way one saves souls is by preaching the truth of the Gospel and rejecting all error and false teaching.

Here’s a simple question. Why was it right for some of these men to oppose Brother Hailey’s false teaching, and now it is wrong for us to oppose their unscriptural teaching?

The truth of the matter is that what the Lord revealed about marriage and divorce is indeed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I fear that some have fallen for the old foolishness of that false distinction between “gospel” and “doctrine.”

Jesus makes it clear that we are to preach salvation and preach right living. Matthew 28:19 records these words of Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps, some have then ignored what Jesus said in verse 20: “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” Does verse 20 include the things commanded in Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:10-12 and Luke 16:18? Indeed it does.

A Gospel preacher’s work is not strictly about preaching what is truth on marriage and divorce. But neither is it strictly about preaching the plan of salvation. We must be like Paul, so that we can say, “I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We must follow the instructions given to Titus in Titus 3:8, “This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works….” Constant affirmation of Bible truths to Christians is a part of what God expects of those who preach.

We know that Paul preached salvation to lost and dying people. But we also know that Paul spent considerable time trying to help Christians grow and mature and live according to God’s standards. Indeed, are not the epistles of the New Testament all written with the primary goal of helping Christians bring their lives into compliance with God’s standards.

Let us always be actively preaching and teaching God’s word to the lost. But let us also be actively preaching and teaching God’s word to Christians as well – even God’s doctrine and principles about marriage and divorce. Let’s dispense with the emotional stories and get back to the inspired Word.

9. Anyone who teaches something contrary to what Jesus and the inspired writers taught, must be rejected.

1 Peter 4:11 commands everyone of us to “…speak as the oracles of God.” Is that really happening when brethren teach and preach new ways for divorced people to remarry?

2 John 9 instructs us that “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God…” When men add new ways to remarry after a divorce, are they really abiding in the doctrine of Christ?

Paul writes to the Thessalonian brethren in 2 Thessalonians 3:14, that “…if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.” If a preacher preaches what Jesus did not authorize and will not change his views, doesn’t this passage have application?

Paul reminded the Corinthian brethren in 1 Corinthians 4:6, “…not to think beyond what is written…” Isn’t it time for some to cease thinking beyond what has been revealed?

The consequences are high. The dangers are before us. Some are teaching false doctrine and are giving cruel false hope to men and women that have been divorced. More than that, they are encouraging them to sin by entering into adulterous marriages.

Let us each hold true to the divinely revealed standard about marriage, divorce and remarriage. Let us reject the emotional stories and experiences. Let us reject human additions and convoluted arguments. We must hold fast to the plain simple teaching of our Lord. Jesus Christ so plainly taught:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Luke 16:18.

You’ve got to work pretty hard to get around that kind of simple Bible teaching.


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