God’s Provisional Care via Civil Government
By Jeff Belknap
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (emp. jhb). Romans 13:1-7
In the above text, we see that God appointed governmental powers for a purpose: to protect the physical rights, property and safety of His people. His purpose and intent in appointing rulers was for the good of His people.
This is not to say that in certain civilizations and times, governments have not used their power for evil in the unfair treatment of its citizens. [The decree to, “...submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” and to “Honor the king” was commanded when Nero was the Roman Emperor (I Pet. 2:13-17).] Nevertheless, such abuses do not negate the divine purpose for civil government. Here in the USA, while not totally immune to abuses of civil power, God has blessed us with the best and fairest governmental system in the world. In keeping with His purpose for the higher powers, our democratic system guarantees rights not only for its rich and powerful citizens, but equal – and sometimes even preferential rights – for those who are historically disadvantaged (women, minorities, and the disabled).
Even though our laws do not always uphold divine precepts, divorce laws in this country are aimed at protecting the physical rights of both parties. Our divorce laws concern themselves with separation of previously-shared physical assets and custody of children. These laws may indeed finalize divorces that are contrary to the will of our Father, just as the laws of Jesus’ day did. Nevertheless, they still protect the physical rights of all citizens under their control, thereby upholding God’s ordained purpose for them.
In fact, if we did not have such an “unjust” civil government to regulate and ratify such matters, ungodly husbands could “put away” their wives by simply throwing them out of the house – with nothing but the clothes on their back. The stronger spouse could offer a less than equitable distribution of physical property and deny the weaker spouse parental rights, and no higher power would protect the rights of the other spouse.
Such an inequity is apparently why Moses commanded a writing of divorcement for those who sought to put away. Matthew 19:8 indicates that Israelites had been divorcing their spouses prior to Moses’ regulation of it. Their hardness of heart in regard to this issue undoubtedly signified that divorce was an accepted practice among the Jews. Therefore, Moses regulated their putting away by requiring a writing of divorcement, in which the interests of the weaker vessel were somewhat protected:
“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.” Deuteronomy 24:1-2
Regarding the context of the above passage, Matthew Henry’s Commentary states,
“…2 That it must be done, not by word of mouth, for that might be spoken hastily, but by writing, and that put in due form, and solemnly declared, before witnesses, to be his own act and deed, which was a work of time, and left room for consideration, that it might not be done rashly. 3 That the husband must give it into the hand of his wife, and send her away, which some think obliged him to endow her and make provision for her, according to her quality and such as might help to marry her again; and good reason he should do this, since the cause of quarrel was not her fault, but her infelicity. 4 That being divorced it was lawful for her to marry another husband, De 24:2…”
Jameison-Faussett-Brown Commentary states,
“…The usage, being too deep-rooted to be soon or easily abolished, was tolerated by Moses (Mt 19:8). But it was accompanied under the law with two conditions, which were calculated greatly to prevent the evils incident to the permitted system; namely: (1) The act of divorcement was to be certified on a written document, the preparation of which, with legal formality, would afford time for reflection and repentance; and (2) In the event of the divorced wife being married to another husband, she could not, on the termination of that second marriage, be restored to her first husband, however desirous he might be to receive her.”
Here is the crux of the matter: Scripture teaches that it is the ungodly spouse who is ultimately responsible for putting away without just cause (not the civil authorities). Jesus said it was the lawless husband who “causeth her to commit adultery” when he puts away “his wife” without just grounds (Mt. 5:32a). Moreover, the husband is also guilty of putting a stumbling block before a third party, for the Lord added: “and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Mt. 5:32b). [Please read: Recognizing The Reality of Man’s Sin Via Human Agency.]
Our current civil procedure, like Moses’ “bill of divorcement,” slows the process of man’s putting away (providing time for consideration of the divorce’s ramifications, and potential change of heart), and ensures protection of the rights of both parties. Both of these beneficial, built-in by-products of American civil divorce laws are righteous and just.
“Sending away” (divorcement) is WHAT one spouse does to the other (whether lawfully or not). HOW that “sending away” is accomplished is generic and is determined by one’s culture. Each civilization has its own procedure for finalization and confirmation of divorcement (putting away).
Civil process also provides a definitive and recognizable point at which the process of putting away is final; when those involved are divorced, not just separated (cf. I Cor. 7:5). This definitive and verifiable means of establishing when one is divorced preserves the rights of both parties involved and aids in the discernment of those who consider marriage to a person who has been involved in a divorce. Moreover, the finality of civil law is beneficial for maintaining “decency and order” in the church, in determining whether we may lawfully extend fellowship to brethren, or whether they must be disciplined as adulterers (cf. I Cor. 5).
Nevertheless, some brethren would advocate a return to the mayhem and chaos of unregulated pre-Mosaic divorce practices. In so doing, they would actually promote nullification of the benefits that God graciously provided (ordained) for mankind through His ordinance of civil government.
Some brethren attempt to deflect attention away from the Lord’s rule regarding those who are “put away” by denouncing the role of our civil government in divorce as evil, when its purpose is solely to do “good” and offset the violence committed by those who put away. Such accusations are a slanderous smoke screen and rejection of divine teaching regarding the benefits of God-ordained “higher powers” (II Pet. 2:10; Jude 8).
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” Isa. 5:20-21