Divorce and Remarriage: No Waiting Game

By Ron Halbrook

Man’s ability to justify his sins is amazing. “God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccl. 7:29). In their efforts to justify divorces and remarriages of every description, men have come up with the following concept. When two people cannot get along and they decide to break up their home in the absence of adultery, it is a sinful tragedy, but the result is that they are both free to marry new partners. Some people would add that after such a divorce, both parties are free to marry new partners only after one of them commits fornication. (After already having repudiated their marriage, and waiting for one or the other to fall into immorality, by some mental gymnastics one party puts away the other a second time!)

Still other folks argue that after such a divorce, when one party finally commits fornication, the other party alone is free to marry someone else. (This too requires the mental gymnastics of a person putting away a second time for another cause the mate whom they have already put away!) According to some of these inventions of men, if the first party enters an adulterous marriage after the separation, his bed of adultery can be transformed into the bed of honor-able marriage by the hocus-pocus and mental gymnastics of his original mate.

How long is he guilty? Until his first mate says, “I don’t want to be bound to that adulterous partner.” That is when that man stops committing adultery (Glen Lovelady in [J.T.] Smith-Lovelady Debate on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage [Brooks, KY: Searching the Scriptures, 1976], p. 69).

The mere words of his first mate sanctify the adulterous marriage.

Such cases, scenarios, and variations might be multiplied endlessly, but they all share the common fallacy of “the waiting game.” They all share the concept that all remarriages, regardless of the circumstances, can be justified by waiting. A person can put a stumbling block before his mate, wait for her to fall over it, and then proclaim himself free to enter another marriage. He could do this again and again, just so he tries to “do better” each time. Or, a person in an adulterous marriage can wait for his mate to say some words which free him from the adultery while allowing him to stay in the very same marriage. Such a theory would allow him to move from one marriage to another again and again if he could get the last mate to say the magic words after each new remarriage.

The Teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:32

Jesus prohibited and precluded every possible variation of “the waiting game” in divorce and remarriage.

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 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. 5:31-32).

Let us notice briefly what the law of Moses said and how men misuse it. Then, we will examine more closely what Jesus said.

During the Mosaic Age, when God tolerated polygamy, he also tolerated divorce for a cause short of fornication: uncleanness or shameful indecency (Deut. 24:1-4). The severe limitations and restrictions placed upon such a divorce discouraged it, but it was permitted temporarily “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matt. 19:8). Some very liberal minded Jews perverted Deuteronomy 24 to justify divorce for any and every cause, and some like-minded brethren today misuse the passage in the same way. Jack Freeman claims, “God was allowing . . . divorce if she burned the toast or the biscuits. . He did under the Law that he gave through Moses” (Marriage Series, No. 1, North Las Vegas Church of Christ, Las Vegas, NV, 1988). Maurice Estes claims, “Divorce for any cause under the law of Moses dissolved the marriage,” even for such flimsy excuses as wife going about “with her hair undone,” and this established “the right of both parties to remarry” (Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: The Scriptures Speak [Morro Bay, CA: Meco Foundation, Inc., 1979], pp. 5-8).

That is the kind of foolishness Deuteronomy 24 was designed to eliminate. This misuse of the Law of Moses is utilized today by some brethren to twist Matthew 5:32 to justify freeing both parties for second marriages no matter what the cause of the divorce. Some brethren profess that both parties are free to marry new mates only if the divorce was caused by fornication, but they end up allowing people to stay in adulterous marriages formed after divorces which were not for fornication. Maurice Estes perverts both the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ to argue that “there must be today the same understanding of the effect of a scriptural writing of divorcement: that it frees both parties to remarry” (Ibid., p. 6).

All such arguments lend themselves to “the waiting game” fallacy. It does not matter how or why the marriage breaks up, regardless of how flimsy the excuse, as soon as either party remarries, the other is considered free to remarry. The bottom line is this: All cases of remarriage following divorce for any and every cause can be justified with the help of “the waiting game,” some mental gymnastics, and a little hocus-pocus.

A Rule, One Exception, No Waiting Game

The Law of Christ embodies a rule with one exception. The rule is, “Whosoever shall put away his wife causeth her to commit adultery.” The man who divorces his wife for any and every cause will be responsible for her subsequent adulterous marriage. This man will be held accountable to God for causing his wife to fall into sin. That does not exonerate her from guilt in forming and maintaining an adulterous union. In the case presented by Jesus, a subsequent marriage is assumed as is evident from his reference to the one who marries “her that is divorced.” The subsequent marriage is clearly held to be immoral, adulterous, or impure in God’s sight, contrary to the claim that God recognizes or approves every marriage which is legal according to human law (Heb. 13:4). The rule announced by Jesus forever prohibits and precludes people breaking up their marriage and waiting for their mate to commit adultery, as a pretext for claiming the right to select a new marriage partner!

The exception has the following force. “Whosoever shall put away his wife for fornication is not responsible for her subsequent adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. ” Again, Jesus assumes the case of a second or subsequent marriage and condemns it as adulterous, but the man who divorced her because of her immorality is not the cause of the sin she commits when she remarries. The claim that she is living in adultery in the subsequent marriage until her original mate says he releases her is ludicrous, the vain imagination and wicked invention of men attempting to create loopholes in divine law. Waiting for her former mate to say hocus-pocus will not resolve her adultery. If that would suffice, John could have easily resolved the incestuous adultery of Herod and Herodias by getting Philip to say he did not want her back anyway. John told Herod in no uncertain terms, “It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14:4).

J.W. McGarvey summed it up well in his excellent commentary on The Fourfold Gospel (p. 242):

Jesus here limits the right of divorce to cases of unchastity, and if there be a divorce on any other ground, neither the man nor the woman can marry again without committing adultery . .. and in no part of the New Testament is there any relaxation as to the law here set forth … and it is there fore held almost universally . . . that the innocent party to such a divorce can marry again. Of course the guilty party could not, for no one is allowed by law to reap the benefits of his own wrong.

God’s law on marriage is one man for one woman for life, with only one exception. The exception is that an innocent partner can put away an immoral mate, and marry another person without committing adultery. No theory of man, including “the waiting game,” can nullify or alter one iota of God’s law.

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 6, p. 8-9
March 18, 1993