Are We Doomed to Divide over Every Difference on Divorce and Remarriage?

By Ron Halbrook

And Abram said unto Lot, “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren” (Gen. 13:8). “Behold, how good and how pleas-ant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1).

Fervent, sincere appeals for unity based upon truth are always in order, but false teachers seeking tolerance for their errors always raise the specter and phantom of endless divisions over every possible difference. Brethren promoting a false unity-in doctrinal-diversity scare up the same ghost, offering their theories as the only alternative. Some brethren who know the truth on divorce and remarriage will not take an unmistakably clear stand for the truth and will not openly oppose and assail false doctrine. They are intimidated by the fear that to do so will result in division every time a difference of any kind occurs. This article will show that such fears are unfounded.

Are we doomed to divide over every difference of opinion, every conscientious difference, every difference of expression in teaching the truth, every difference in judgment as to the exact significance of a word or phrase in a passage, every difference in application of a common principle, every difference in unravelling a complicated case, every difference over whether or when to withdraw fellow-ship from certain parties, in short, over every difference of every nuance and of every magnitude? No, we are not so doomed! The answer is not that we must embrace and tolerate every possible difference in teaching and practice in order to escape the opposite extreme. Not only does sound, balanced Bible teaching avoid these opposite extremes, but also the general experience of brethren demonstrates the practical avoidance of both extremes.

Unity Mandated

The unity of God’s people is man-dated from heaven. Paul wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “I there-fore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).

This unity is not based on the arts of human diplomacy, crafty negotiation, and political compromise. Rather, it is a unity based upon a plat-form given by divine revelation: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (vv. 4-6). This plat-form embodying the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ was revealed by and is perpetuated by New Testament apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (v. 11). The work of revealing truth was completed in the first century; the work of propagating and perpetuating that truth continues. God ordained this plan “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12). As faithful men continue “speaking the truth in love,” they are able to maintain “the unity of the faith” along with the spiritual health and proper function of “the whole body” (vv. 13-16).

To save the lost and to strengthen the saved, gospel preachers are still proclaiming to all mankind the words of Jesus Christ on marriage, divorce, and remarriage:

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery (Matt. 5:32).

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

Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery (Luke 16:18).

In short, Jesus gave one divine rule for all mankind. God’s law requires one man to be married to one woman for a lifetime. One and only one exception is given. When one mate commits an act of immorality, the innocent partner is permitted (though not required) to put away his or her mate, and to marry another.

No inspired apostle or prophet of the first century ever revealed anything which added to, subtracted from, or otherwise altered this law announced by the Lord of lords and King of kings during his earthly ministry. No New Testament evangelist ever preached any other doctrine. Our task today is to preserve, to preach, and to defend what Jesus and his apostles taught on this matter and on all other matters.

The Bible ground is the unity ground. During the 1800s in America, many people came out of sin, denominationalism, and error of various kinds with a determination to “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). They were dedicated to a restoration of the ancient order of things by demanding positive divine authority for all that they preached and practiced. Speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent led them back to the Bible ground on marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

History records that these Christians generally believed that “no release” could be given to a mate “unless the other party has been guilty of fornication.” The claim of “desertion” as “a just cause for divorce and re-marriage” was rejected. Brethren were “cautious and circumspect in inspecting the marital status of their members and rigorously disciplined offenders. … In general, the churches were probably more diligent in enforcing their code of morality in this area than in any other” (David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Quest for a Christian America [Nashville, TN: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966], pp. 196-97). What brethren did does not prove what we are to do, but it demonstrates that God’s plan for truth, purity, and unity will work if only we have the faith to work God’s plan.

Doubtless, further historical re-search will show that brethren patiently and vigorously discussed differences at times through the years. Perhaps some overreacted and others compromised with error. One thing is certain: Recent history shows the far-reaching implications and wide-ranging applications of error on the divorce issue. The issue has be-come more urgent because divorces and remarriages have become epidemic. History helps us to see the end results of certain courses of action, confirming the exhortations and warnings of Scripture, but our only authority in religion is the Bible and not the record of history (1 Cor. 4:6; 2 Thess. 2:15).

Inevitable, Unavoidable Division

While the system or scheme of redemption gives men time to learn and grow in the truth, the New Testament also warns against the danger of de-parting from the faith by teaching the doctrines and commandments of men (Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Tim. 1:3; 4:1; 2 John 9-11). When this begins to happen, brethren bear with one another as far as possible to permit time and opportunity for issues to be fully examined in the light of God’s word. When that process has been exhausted, brethren embracing error harden themselves in the error, and division becomes inevitable. “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:19).

How can we recognize an inevitable and unavoidable division coming? We live in a time when false theories on divorce and remarriage are being preached, pressed, and practiced. Four key earmarks of approaching, inevitable division can already be seen.

1. The theories being advocated and advanced directly contradict the fundamental rule, base lines, or perimeters given by Jesus (one man for one woman for life, the only exception being that a moral mate can put away a fornicator and marry another person). Some other rule is substituted for the one given by Jesus. It is not that brethren share the common playing field of truth given in such passages as Matthew 19:9 and differ only as to whether a given situation constitutes an infraction of the rules shared by all. No, the playing field itself is changed!

Totally new playing fields are created by these theories: The fornicator can marry a new mate; desertion in the absence of fornication permits subsequent marriages; alien sinners are not amenable to Christ’s law on marriage no matter what it means; baptism sanctifies adulterous marriages; and, adultery is non-sexual covenant breaking. All these theories openly advocate that people can stay in marriages contrary 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. That is why division is inevitable.

2. Brethren defending these false theories almost invariably appeal to the premise that divine silence permits people to remain in marriages contrary to what Jesus stated. The absence of a specific prohibition is cited as authority, contrary to 1 Peter 4:11 (“If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God”). This reflects and reinforces a departure from the fundamental precepts of Bible authority. Rather than appealing to positive di-vine authority for their position, falseteachers make such arguments as, “Where does the Bible say certain people cannot remain in their marriages?” As we have learned from past apostasies, when one practice is justified by appealing to a perversion of divine silence, other practices are soon justified on the same basis. This makes division inevitable.

3. Because these theories involve an open departure from the rule of morality given by Jesus, and appeal to silence, they breed looseness on other moral issues as well. Error is a progressive and degenerative disease (2 Tim. 2:16; 3:13). As time goes on, more and more people under the influence of these theories participate in such worldly practices as immodest dress (in mixed swimming and daily dress too), gambling (lottery tickets and Las Vegas too), dancing, and drinking intoxicants (beer, wine, mixed drinks, etc.). This carnality will increase. Worldly-minded people and spiritually minded people inevitably separate themselves from each other (2 Cor. 6:17; Eph. 5:11).

4. Ninety percent of the fellowship question takes care of itself when the truth is consistently taught. False teachers will not tolerate the preaching of the truth, though they plead for toleration toward their teaching of error. This is generally true both of those who teach error on divorce and remarriage and those who claim the truth but want unity-in-doctrinal-diversity on the matter. People who cannot abide sound doctrine simply cannot abide the open examination of controversial issues and cannot stand the searchlight of truth (John 3:19-21; 2 Tim. 4:3-4). Such people eventually and inevitably go out from us (1 John 2:19).

(For further study on passages and principles directly setting forth fundamental truth on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, see my following articles: “Matthew 5:31-32 On Marriage and Divorce,” “Matthew 19:3-12 . . .,” “Luke 16:18…,” and “What Shall We Do With Christ’s Law on Marriage,” Guardian of Truth, 7 July, 18 Aug. 1983, pp. 397-99, 426-27, 431, 459, & 489-90 respectively; “David Lipscomb on Marriage and Divorce,” GOT, 1 Dec. 1983, pp. 707-709, 726-27; with Harry R. Osborne, Lee Stewart, and Tim P. Stevens, “Re-cent Studies With Homer Hailey on Divorce and Remarriage,” GOT, 17 Nov. 1988, pp. 689-91; “Matthew 19 and Deuteronomy 24: Moses and Christ,” GOT, 4 Jan. 1990, pp. 3-6; “Married for Life, With One Exception,” Searching the Scriptures, Sept. 1991, pp. 491-92; “Divorce and Re-marriage: No Waiting Game,” GOT, 18 Mar. 1993, pp. 168-69; Ward Hogland, “Comments on 1 Corinthians 7 by Ron Halbrook West Columbia, Texas” and my “Commendation of Gospel Truths’ Open Door Policy,” Gospel Truths, Aug. & Oct. 1993, pp. 175-77 & 223-24; “Temporal Consequences of Sin,” GOT, 16 Sept. 1993, pp. 558-59; “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Study Material by J.W. McGarvey,” GOT, 2 Dec. 1993, pp. 716-19, 730; “`Marriage Is Honorable:’ A Study of Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” GOT, 20 June 1996, pp. 368-371. See also the Halbrook-Freeman Debate recently published by the G.O.T. Foundation.)

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 16, p. 16-18
August 15, 1996