By Ron Halbrook
Not Doomed to Division on Every Point
Many questions have come up through the years on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, which have not resulted in division and will not do so in the future. Such questions persist among brethren equally committed to the principle and the proposition laid down by Jesus (one man for one woman, one exception). A few brethren among us doubt the one exception, but generally do not press the point beyond expressing their personal reservation. Some of these questions are more serious than others, some are more theoretical than practical. There are brethren who have a very strong conscience in regard to one or more such questions.
Occasionally, heated discussions or even debates have occurred over them, but not division. Two preachers may lose confidence in each other over such an issue, or two churches may have strained relations over it, but no formal division exists. Sometimes a change of preachers, or some other person involved in a given case moving out of the area, resolves the friction. If some division does occur in a rare case, it remains localized or focuses on a few individuals, but it is not general. It does not spread because both biblical and practical considerations contain its effect.
What is different in the nature of marriage issues that generate inevitable and widespread division, and issues which do not? Before answering this question, I will mention a few of thepoints over which brethren advocating the same fundamental truths on marriage, divorce, and remarriage have differed without dividing in my 30 years of preaching experience. Most of us would have an opinion on some of these or a conscientious conviction on others, and would feel the need for continuing study on still others. It is well that we not jump to rash conclusions (Phil. 1:10; 4:5).
1. Does a woman have the same right as a man to divorce her husband for fornication? 2. Can the marriage of an underage couple be annulled, and if so, are they free to marry again? 3. If a person who is free to many marries someone who is not, is the first person free to remarry after getting out of that marriage? 4. Would the answer depend on whether he entered the first marriage knowing the other party was not free to marry? 5. Would it matter if he had been intentionally deceived? 6. Would the answer depend on how the person got out of this unauthorized marriage: who initiated the divorce, the legal grounds for it, etc.?
7. Can there ever be a separation, and if so, on what grounds and for how long? 8. Does 1 Corinthians 7:5 cover every angle and aspect of that question, or do other Bible principles apply in some situations? 9. For instance, is a wife defrauding her husband if she does not submit to his drunken demands, violent advances, and perverted desires? 10. Must a wife re-main with a husband who beats her and endangers her life and the lives of the children? 11. If she tries to put herself out of harm’s way by filing for a legal separation or civil divorce, with-out considering herself free from the marriage bond, does she cause his sin if he goes to a prostitute or remarries? (In most states, she cannot get a re-straining order for police protection unless she takes such legal steps.)
12. May the innocent and guilty parties be reconciled by remarriage after a divorce if neither has married another person? 13. If the put-away fornicator marries another person, and then gets out of that marriage, may he remarry his original mate? 14. Can the put-away fornicator remarry after his first mate dies? 15. When a man leaves his wife for an unscriptural reason over her protest so that he can marry an-other person, does his adultery give her the ground to appeal to God to dissolve her marriage bond? 16. In either case, does this meet the criterion for her to marry again or does she remain bound to him for life?
17. When fornication is present, does it matter who initiates the legal proceedings if the innocent party is to have the right to remarry? 18. If the fornicator initiates the civil case, must the innocent party counter sue in or-der to have the right to remarry? 19. If the innocent and guilty parties have separate cases against each other pending in the courts of separate jurisdictions, will her right to remarry hinge upon such factors as which case was initiated first or which is ruled upon first?
20. If a man drives his wife out of the house by abusive conduct such as violence and later commits adultery, may the wife divorce him for fornication and marry again? 21. If he had not permitted her to live with him for some period of time when he finally committed adultery, would her right to remarry depend on who got to the courthouse first?
Any number of other questions involving complicated circumstances may arise which would be answered differently, in whole or in part, by various brethren who are equally committed to the words of Jesus on marriage. For instance, “common law” marriage raises its own set of knotty problems. If anyone thinks he can answer all such questions with finality, I will gladly refer all future inquiries and issues to him. Actually, all of us realize that at times we must point out plainly and clearly what the Bible says, and then let the person involved make a personal application of the principle involved. Teaching a divine principle and allowing people to apply it, and to answer to God for the application, is not the same thing as leaving people to create their own principles and perimeters. Neither does it countenance for a moment any flagrant desertion of Bible passages and principles, which must be openly and forcefully exposed and reproved (Eph. 5:11).
Why Division Does Not Occur
Why will such questions and issues as the 21 points listed above generally not generate inevitable and widespread division? The four earmarks of approaching, unavoidable division are simply not present in the nature of these points.
1. Instead of repudiating and re-placing the fundamental rule, base lines, or perimeters given by Jesus, all parties to the discussion make their appeal directly to the rule of one man for one woman for life, the only exception being that the innocent party can divorce the fornicator and marry another person. One or both of the parties to the discussion may be in some measure inconsistent with the principle to which each appeals, but they share equally a common commitment to a common principle. General division is not likely to occur when brethren share a common playing field of truth and differ only as to whether a given situation constitutes an infraction of the rules shared by all. If some inadvertent infraction does occur, it is not likely to spread and eventual correction is likely because all parties continue to uphold the same standard.
2. None of the parties to such discussions argues that divine silence permits people to do anything. Everyone appeals to positive divine authority in the arguments presented. One or both parties might misunderstand the proper application of a text to a given situation, and sin might or might not occur as a result, depending on the nature of the point involved. In any case, even where sin occurs, there is a strong likelihood that the mistake eventually will be discovered because of the constant emphasis upon testing all things by the standard of positive authority. In the meantime, no destructive repudiation of the basic premise of Bible authority has been introduced. All parties agree that we must have positive authority for what we preach and practice, and that silence prohibits, and their method of argumentation reflects their common commitment to that basic premise.
3. The observation of many years confirms that nothing in the arguments of brethren who differ on these matters is breeding looseness on other moral issues. Brethren on either side of such questions are equally strong in warning about the dangers of such worldly practices as immodest dress, gambling, dancing, and drinking intoxicants. This is because there has been no weakening in commitment to fundamental principles of truth, including unpopular truth contained in the hard sayings of our Lord (John 6:60).
4. Fellowship is rarely a problem in an atmosphere which encourages open study and discussion on any issue in the light of God’s Word. God gives us time to grow in understanding and application of truth and brethren generally forebear with each other in recognition that we are all striving to grow. God will not tolerate the persistent practice of any sin and neither can we (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6). Not all issues involve sin, and even where the potential for sin exists, God’s word has a tremendous power to correct our misconceptions and to lead us away from sin. Any number of questions and issues like the 21 points listed above have not created formal divisions because all parties involved have maintained their willingness to patiently study and discuss such matters from time to time in the light of divine truth (Heb. 5:14; 2 Pet. 3:18).
Sharing a common commitment to truth, common Bible principles on specific subjects, and a common willingness to study differences of understanding in some areas of application, we can maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). In this atmosphere, brethren have been united on the subjects, action, and purpose of baptism. Because we share those Bible principles, differences over where people are baptized (running water or pools) and over what to say when baptizing have not divided us. The Bible has united us on the organization of the church with elders to oversee and deacons to serve. Sharing those principles, we discuss without dividing over some of the finer points of elders’ qualifications (must he have more than one child? what if wife dies after appointment?). We are united by Scripture on the day, the elements, and the meaning of the Lord’s supper, but continue to discuss such things as the time of day and whether it can be provided more than once on the Lord’s Day. By the same token, we can be united on the Bible principles laid down in passages such as Matthew 19:9 while continuing to discuss some difficult points of application without dividing. To bear with such differences does not mean we must tolerate sprinkling, women elders, a Tuesday Lord’s supper, or theories that flagrantly violate the doctrine of Christ on marriage!
This spirit of open study also helps us to recognize areas of application in which we may be off the mark. For in-stance, during the years when brethren were studying the whole complex of issues related to institutionalism and centralization, some brethren who basically were standing for the truth gradually came to recognize inconsistencies between the truth they preached and defended and a few points of application. Some who preached the principles of truth had gone along with the church support of orphanages with-out closely examining the matter, and others had participatedin small-scale sponsoring church arrangements such as the Music Hall Meetings in Houston, Texas. Still others had never carefully considered whether the local church was authorized to help alien sinners, but in time they saw that such was excluded by principles of truth they had always preached. Brethren who were preaching the fundamental principles of truth in some cases realized that they were inconsistent with that truth in some points of application, and they had to change either their preaching or their practice. Those who continued to preach the truth corrected their practice, and those who were determined to justify their practice at all costs changed their preaching and went into apostasy. Those who are truly committed to the fundamentals of truth have nothing to fear from open study. While bearing with each other and examining various points of application, they are able to help one another make corrections in their course from time to time.
Where there are open Bibles and open hearts, wherever people sincerely search the Scriptures daily whether these things are so, when brethren truly believe that truth has nothing to fear from investigation, where both sides of controversial issues can be openly examined, we can and will maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess. 5:21; Eph. 4:1-3). Brethren must maintain open pulpits where both sides of controversial questions can be heard and examined. Sin and false doctrine do not thrive in such an atmosphere, and are sooner or later choked out or driven out by it.
False teachers want toleration of their teaching without examination of their theories, which makes division inevitable (1 Cor. 11:19; 1 John 2:19). They want “open pulpits” where virtually anything can be advocated without review and reproof. Brethren who have honest differences within the context of a common commitment to test all things by truth do not thwart the process of study and growth by demanding the right to teach certain things with an exemption from examination. Rather than to divide, they draw closer and closer together in the process of study and growth. Such is the power of God’s word working in our lives, as can be seen when Peter faltered and was corrected (Gal. 2:1-14).
We can maintain the unity mandated by God. We must recognize and expose apostate movements which depart from the faith and divide the people of God. Do not be deceived by the ploy that our opposition to the false doctrines and false teachers of apostate movements will doom us to divide over every difference we may have with brethren who are as genuinely committed to upholding the truth as we are.
Guardian of Truth XL: No. 17, p. 16-18
September 5, 1996