The Shell Game

 By Jeff Belknap

Many are familiar with the shell game in which a juggler places something underneath one of three shells and then moves the shells around, where we are left to guess which one the object is under.  It could be under any one of the shells, or maybe not under any of them at all!

According to the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition on the internet @ it says:

shell game


“n.…A fraud or deception perpetrated by shifting conspicuous things to hide something else.”


“n: a swindling sleight-of-hand game; victim guesses which of three things a pellet is under [syn: thimblerig]”  WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University

Unfortunately, this same type of game is presently being played with Matthew 19:9 (cp. w. Eph. 4:14).  Men are distorting the sacred text of Matthew 19:9 to appease those who seek to justify what Jesus called adulterous (II Pet. 3:16).  Although some are saying that they're not teaching “the waiting game” (nor a number of other “games,” including a second putting away or promoting emotionalism over divine law; etc.) will they also deny playing the shell game?

When we look at the Master’s MDR law, we will notice that there is only one scriptural (“biblical”) order that Jesus authorized for divorce and remarriage:

“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”  Mt. 19:9

Thus, the one and only sequence authorized for divorce and remarriage is: Marriage, Fornication, Divorce (for that cause) and then (and only then) Remarriage!  Nevertheless, what brothers Ron Halbrook, Tim Haile and others have advocated as a scriptural “application,” switches around those elements and adds a step to the sequence.

Note what brother Halbrook wrote:

“If he has unlawful sexual relations with another (whether before or after he wrongfully puts away his true mate), his true mate has scriptural grounds to reject or put him away. That might involve countersuing in the courts if he has a suit for divorce pending.  But if he has already been granted a divorce by the courts of man, the laws of man make no provision for her to act. So far as the courts of man are concerned, legal issues such as property rights have already been settled and there is nothing else to be said in the realm of human law. But if he commits adultery (before or after his action in the courts of man), there is something else to be said by divine law-by the moral and spiritual law of the court of God.  She now may put away, reject, or divorce him as a moral and spiritual act” (emp. jhb).  Ron Halbrook  (Notes and Thoughts For Further Study).

Tim Haile has also advocated the same position in clear, unmistakable words!  In the next two quotes, brother Haile clearly approves of a second putting away and remarriage in cases which involve FORNICATION which occurs AFTER (NOT BEFORE) an unscriptural putting away.

Speaking of an unlawful repudiation [that which Tim regards as an unscriptural divorce (“apoluo”)] through use of his characteristic terminology, Tim stated:

“Especially if I’m going to leave my wife anyway…I have broken, I have deserted, I have left, I have loosed, I have broken my marriage.  Guess what remains intact?  The marriage bond.  I did absolutely nothing to affect that marriage bond, and guess what? If I go out and commit fornication, I’ve done something that might be used to affect the marriage bond, but I have still by that action, not affected the marriage bond.” Tim Haile [Lesson on “Biblical ‘Putting Away’” (2-12-02) during the All Day Bible Study; The Warfield Blvd. church of Christ, Clarksville, Tennessee].

Tim contends that [because of the remaining “marriage bond” after an unscriptural divorce (in which not even motive” of fornication is implied)] his subsequent fornication could later “affect that marriage bond.” Compare this example (which includes no “motive” of fornication) with his quotation below. 

After brother Haile’s lesson, he was publicly asked a question about a scenario involving FORNICATION only AFTER (NOT BEFORE) an unscriptural putting away.  Tim responded in that forum by saying:

“Brethren like to talk about that a lot.  That is something that is being studied.  I’ll tell you what I’m comfortable speaking on, I’m studying that question with some brethren right now.  It’s a difficult one because it gets into motive.  Did that fella leave in order to go meet up with his new girlfriend?  Did he leave in order to go have an affair with his secretary?  Those are a lot of questions.  If he left, and the cause of the break up—the cause of the break up was fornication, then I’m a little more lenient on that.  But I think it is in the realm of study and we need to be careful and study those things.  But I really don’t want to get into any questions, in fact I won’t answer any questions today, about fornication committed after the break up.  I just won’t do that.” Tim Haile [Question/Answer Session (2-12-02) after his lesson on “Biblical ‘Putting Away’” during the All Day Bible Study; The Warfield Blvd. church of Christ, Clarksville, Tennessee].

After realizing the full impact of his first quotation, it is no wonder that he says he is “a little more lenient” (emp. jhb) with this scenario question.  However, Matthew 19:9 is as silent as the tomb concerning any “motive” prior to the breaking up of the marriage.

Furthermore, although Jesus only authorized ONE scriptural (“biblical”) sequence for divorce and remarriage, these brethren (and others) authorize a SECOND DIVORCE and REMARRIAGE when fornication is committed AFTER THE FACT of DIVORCEMENT!!!

Their order includes: Marriage, Divorce, Fornication, and then a second (post-civil-divorce) Divorce, and Remarriage!  However, such a convoluted arrangement cannot be found in Matthew 19:9, nor in any other N.T. passage!  The only way that such a foreign idea can be supported is to deny the existence and reality of the first (unscriptural) divorce.  The only way that one can deny (as these brethren do) that their arrangement does not include a second putting away is to deny the reality of the unscriptural divorce.  Their theory is easily disproved by Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18; and I Corinthians 7:11, which plainly teach that Jesus not only recognized unapproved divorces, but condemned remarriage for both partners involved in them! 

They are telling us that as long as fornication is committed at anytime during the existence of “the bond,” the “innocent” mate can “put away” the guilty mate “for fornication” (whether it’s before or after an unscriptural divorce).  Thus, they want us to overlook the Lord’s order of things (cf. I Cor. 14:40) in Matthew 19:9, and to only look at the BIG picture, where their arguments make the unscriptural divorce magically disappear.  However, Jesus’ condemnation of the put away person’s remarriage to “another” was not based upon the existence of the bond, but rather on the circumstance of “divorce.” 

In addition, Ron wrote:

“Next, a man may have enough regard for social convention that he will not go to bed with the ‘cute little thing’ he wants rather than his wife; therefore, he may divorce his wife, then marry the ‘cute little thing,’ thus going to the bed of adultery. Once again, the original marriage bond stays intact under divine law until he commits adultery against his wife; his legal steps do not dissolve the bond put in place when God joined them together (Matt. 19:9). Since his true wife remains faithful to the marriage bond, she & she alone has the right to repudiate the marriage under divine law.  She may scripturally do so even when she is not able to do so legally because of legal steps taken by the treacherous husband.” Ron Halbrook (E-mail “discussion with friends about fine-tuning some points of application”)

Moreover, Ron also wrote the following:

But divorce in civil court + fornication = socially acceptable ADULTERY!  It is still adultery against the innocent mate just as described in Mk 10:12. According to this argument, if the fornicator can get his legal papers before fornicating, he can preclude the innocent mate from exercising the divine prerogative of putting away the guilty party & marrying another. By this argument, the innocent party would thus commit adultery!?!?” Ron Halbrook (hand written comments on an article written by Windell Wiser, sent out with other materials a year and a half ago.)

However, if these men can take the word “fornication” out of its “biblical” arrangement and place it one notch over to the right (on the other side) of “put away,” than why can’t we take the same word and place it one notch over to the left (on the other side) of the marriage?

For example [and I actually heard of a preacher (member of the church) who believed this idea], what if a man committed fornication before he married? Could his wife someday choose to “put away” her husband “for fornication” because he fornicated sometime within the BIG picture (scheme) of things??? 


Those advocating the post-civil-divorce putting away would likely disagree with that doctrine (because of the absence of a bond during the time of fornication).  Nevertheless, such an idea is no less foreign to scripture than these brethren’s advocacy of a second putting away, which is a perversion of Christ’s order for scriptural divorce and remarriage. 

Therefore, if some can have:

            Marriage, Divorce, Fornication, Divorce (for fornication) and Remarriage contrary to Matthew 19:9,

Why can’t others have:

            Fornication, Marriage, Divorce (for fornication) and then Remarriage contrary to Matthew 19:9??? 

If some brethren can switch the Lord’s words around in Matthew 19:9 to allow for a remarriage when fornication is committed AFTER THE FACT of DIVORCE, why can’t other brethren play this same shell game and allow for a remarriage when fornication was committed BEFORE THE FACT of MARRIAGE?



Just as ridiculous and unscriptural as the above scenario looks, the circumstances over it are no different!  Yet some are contending that the post-civil-divorce putting away is nothing more than a matter of “application.”  However, if we can fellowship the convoluted “application” that Ron and Tim have advocated, why not this other “disorder” too???  The Lord’s order regarding those who are put away is the one and only rule, irrespective of the bond.  This is why any (and every) remarriage to “another” AFTER THE FACT of having been PUT AWAY, is ADULTERY (while the bound partner is still alive – Rom. 7:2-3)!

God’s Order vs. Man’s Disorder

God’s Order For Salvation

(Mk. 16:16)

1.) Believe  2.) Baptized  3.) Saved

Man’s Disorder

1.) Believe   2.) Saved   3.) Baptized
1.) Baptized   2.) Saved   3.) Believe


God’s Order vs. Man’s Disorder

God’s Order For A Scriptural Remarriage

(Mt. 19:9)

1.) Marriage  2.) Fornication  3.) Put Away  4.) Remarriage

Man’s Disorder

1.) Marriage  2.) Put Away  3.) Fornication 4.) Second Divorce  5.) Remarriage
1.) Fornication  2.) Marriage  3.) Put Away (For Fornication) 4.) Remarriage



Please Consider God’s Order AFTER An UNlawful Divorce:

God’s Order vs. Man’s Disorder

God’s Order For The Put Away AFTER An UNlawful Divorce

(Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Lk. 16:18; I Cor. 7:11)

1.) Marriage  2.) UNlawful Divorce  3.) No Remarriage Allowed to “Another”

Man’s Disorder

1.) Marriage  2.) UNlawful Divorce  3.) Fornication  4.)“Biblical” Divorce  5.) Remarriage


“…let God be true, but every man a liar” Rom. 3:4


Special note: Please consider the following additional study materials:

Divorce & Remarriage; What Does The Text Say?, by Donnie Rader,

  • Chapter 8 Mental Divorce (May Some Put Away People Remarry);

  • Also consider pages 145-149 in the APPENDIX

Is It Lawful? A Comprehensive Study of Divorce By Dennis G. Allan and Gary Fisher,

  • Chapter 13 What Constitutes Divorce? (by Bob Waldron);

  • Chapter 38 Can You Put Away the Put-Away? (by Gary Fisher);

  • Chapter 39 The rights of an Innocent Put-Away Person (by Kevin S. Kay).

Mental Marriages and Mental Divorces (by Gene Frost).


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Last Updated:  Thursday, January 26, 2006 12:41 PM