By J. W. McGarvey (1829-1911)
Since the publication of my recent article on the unscriptural marriage of divorced persons, I have received a number of communications from different parts of the country, expressing approval of what I have written, but calling for additional light on the subject.
One brother propounds the following question:
“If the husband leave the wife without sufficient cause, and marry again, does this adulterous life, on his part, give the wife a scriptural ground for divorce and the right to marry again?”
I think there can be no doubt that it does; for in this case adultery is unquestionably committed by the husband, and this, according to the Savior’s teaching, justifies the wife in contracting another marriage.
Another brother suggests an inquiry as to the proper method of proving the charge of adultery, when preferred as a ground for divorce. Certainly no man can be permitted to divorce his wife on a charge of adultery unsupported by valid proof. Suspicion, or his own unsupported assertion, is not sufficient. The elders of the church must be satisfied that the charge is true, and the grounds of their decision must be such as to place the fact beyond the reach of reasonable doubt. If, in a suit before the civil courts, the charge of adultery is perferred, and is proved to the satisfaction of a jury, this is ordinarily sufficient evidence, and no further inquiry need be made, except when there is good ground to think that a fair trial in court has not been held.
When this charge is not preferred before the courts, but the divorce is obtained on other grounds, the plan-tiff holding, however, that this crime has been committed, it is the duty of the elders to decide on the truthfulness of the charge and act accordingly.
The responsibility of the preacher who performs the ceremony is an unscriptural marriage, is also made a subject of inquiry. A marriage of a member of the church to a divorced woman once took place in a church where I was an elder. The elders learned from common rumor, some week or two in advance of the wedding, that it was to take place, and they promptly gave the man the proper advice and warning; but he persisted, and was excluded from the church. The preacher who performed the ceremony was a member of the same congregation, and was waited on to know why he had made himself a party to the sinful transaction. He solemnly asserted that he was ignorant of the fact that the woman had been divorced, and on this statement being made to the congregation, he was excused. A preacher who lives in a city, or in a place of common resort for wedding parties, is constantly liable to be led unwittingly to participate in such marriages, and it becomes him to be on his guard. It is very easy, as a general rule, to learn the facts in the case, and when a stranger proposes to be married to a widow, who is also a stranger, the inquiry should always be made whether she is a divorced woman, and, if so, the grounds of her divorce.
Again, I am asked, whether a couple, who are known to be unscripturally married, but who come with letters of commendation from a sister church, should be received into the fellowship of the congregation. Without hesitation, I answer, no. In such a case it is known that the church granting the letter has done wrong in so doing, either intentionally or through ignorance, and if we receive the parties we are participating in the wrong. When a church letter is presented, it furnishes prima facie evidence of Christian character, and it must be accepted in the absence of conflicting evidence; but when the congregation into whose fellowship admission is sought, knows to the contrary, or has good reason to suspect the contrary, she must go behind the letter and judge for herself as to the reception of members into her body.
I hope there will be re-awakening of consciences among preachers, church officers, and church members, on this important subject. The church cannot afford to be stained with the guilt of adultery. If she dares thus to become defiled, her Lord will repudiate her as an unclean thing, and the world will scorn her as a painted hypocrite. It is a shame to Protestant churches that the law of Christ on this subject is more scaredly regarded and more strictly enforced by her whom we sometimes call “The Mother of Harlots,” than by our-selves! Let us be abashed and humiliated, until we reform, and can lift up our heads and declare that the Protestant world has returned to the Word of the Lord on this vital element of social and religious life. (Reprinted from The Apostolic Times 8 Feb. 1877.)
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 14, p. 22
July 15, 1993