Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Study Material by J.W. McGarvey

By Ron Halbrook

J. W. McGarvey (1829-1911) was recognized in his own time as an excellent Bible student and scholar, and his works have been often reprinted and consulted throughout the years. We are not to think of men above that which is written, but McGarvey’s works are helpful study tools for those who search the scriptures daily (1 Cor. 4:6; Acts 17:11). McGarvey ‘s commentaries have been kept in print and thus made available to brethren, but he also provided a wealth of material in journal articles which are not so easily accessible today. He also wrote individual chapters in scattered books which are hard to find. I have enjoyed and benefited from locating such materials from time to time on a wide range of subjects, and have published some of them in the Guardian of Truth through the years (“True Progress,” Truth Magazine, 4 October 1979, pp. 631-33; “A Devotion on Christ’s Death,” TM, 4 December 1980, pp. 773-74; “Church Government,” GOT, 15 October 1981, pp. 648-51; “The Prayers of Jesus,” GOT, 20 August 1992, pp. 498-500; “Prayer for Those in Authority,” GOT, 1 October 1992, pp. 596-97; see also “The Witness of the Spirit,”Faith and Facts, July 1984, pp.249-58). McGarvey wrote a fair amount of material on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and I am trying to make that material available to brethren by reprinting it as I locate it from time to time.

When he comes to the relevant passages, McGarvey directly addresses the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage in his commentaries on Matthew and Mark (Cincinnati: Chase and Hall, 1875) and The Fourfold Gospel or a Harmony of the Four Gospels (authored jointly with Philip Y. Pendleton; Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1905). He wrote a number of journal articles on the subject including several in The Apostolic Times, one of which has been recently reprinted from the 8 February 1877 issue (“Legalized Adultery Again,” GOT, 15 July 1993, p. 438). The Los Angeles Daily Times for 18 August 1902 carried a synopsis of a sermon by McGarvey on “Divorce and Remarriage” (“Church Conclave Ends at Santa Monica. ‘Divorce and Remarriage’ Discussed by Prof. M’Garvey”), and McGarvey added a few observations about that sermon in a report published in the Christian Standard of 20 September 1902 (“The Convention at Santa Monica”), both of which will be reprinted. It will be clearly seen that McGarvey argued that those who are in unscriptural marriages “are living in adultery” and must “dissolve their guilty relation” as the fruit of repentance. McGarvey repeatedly argued that the innocent party to a scriptural divorce had the right to marry another mate, as he did in an article entitled “Divorce and Marriage” (Christian Standard, 6 January 1906, p. 9), which also will be reprinted.

The Restoration Plea and the Marriage Question

In restoring the New Testament pattern of faith and practice, brethren were generally united during the 1800s in their teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. David Edwin Harrell, Jr. has surveyed restoration literature of the period and says that “the generally accepted standard” on divorce is summarized in the following quotation from one of the periodicals, “There is no release then to husband or wife from the marriage contract unless the other party has been guilty of fornication” (Quest for a Christian America: The Disciples of Christ and American Society to 1866, 1966, p.197). The claim of “desertion” as “a just cause for divorce and remarriage” was rejected by and large.

In general, the churches were probably more diligent in enforcing their code of morality in this area than in any other. Cases abound in the early church records of members being excluded for “bigamy,” “having two husbands living,” and `marrying a man who has a living wife,” as well as such sins as “adultery” and “fornication” (Quest, p. 197).

Even when the division was developing over missionary societies, instrumental music, and worldliness in the churches, Harrell found that “the prevailing opinion in all wings of the church was that divorce was scripturally forbidden except when one party was guilty of adultery” (The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900, 1973, p. 319). Typical excerpts from journal discussions are provided by Harrell, as in the following examples:

When asked about the responsibility of divorced people who were converted, David Lipscomb replied: “I see no way, if they desire to become Christians, except to separate and live as God’s law directs.”

The deep general prejudice against divorce was well expressed by a contributor to the Christian Standard in 1899: “As horrible and debasing as polygamy is, it is no worse than this society-corrupting and soul-damning poison of divorce and remarriage for every cause.’ These two are both instruments in the devil’s hands for corrupting and destroying men’s souls, hindering the progress of the gospel, depopulating heaven and filling hell” (Social Sources, pp. 319-320).

Little by little the most liberal churches relaxed the practice of church discipline on a wide range of matters, including the sins of unscriptural divorce and remarriage. “By the 1890’s the most liberal element of the church had clearly discarded the literal biblical regulations on divorce” (Social Sources, p. 321).

McGarvey on Marriage in His Commentaries

Although McGarvey was inconsistent by rejecting instrumental music while accepting missionary societies, he was clearly very conservative in maintaining a literal approach to the Bible on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. This does not mean that we must regard his every comment as law and gospel, nor that he was always perfectly consistent, nor that he never changed on any point. In fact, as McGarvey continued his studies, he clearly changed on at least one significant point. In one of his earliest published statements on the subject, he surmised that the guilty party in a divorce for fornication might be permitted to marry again. As will be shown in this article, he unmistakably corrected that assumption in print.

In his commentary on Matthew and Mark published in 1875, McGarvey commented on Matthew 5:29-30 (“…it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”), “The imagined pleasure of indulgence is con-fronted with the final and eternal consequences in hell, while the self-denial which refuses to indulge is stimulated by the promise of eternal life.” He continued by commenting on verses 31-32:

It is perfectly clear that Jesus here prohibits divorce except for the single cause of fornication. For this cause it is implied that divorce may rightly take place…. In no part of the New Testament is there any relaxation of the law here given. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians vii. 10-15 contains no such relaxation, but merely furnishes directions for a Christian woman who, contrary to the law here given, is abandoned by her heathen husband.

The second husband, in accepting her hand, pronounces against the act of the first husband. But her second marriage is adultery, and her first husband, by divorcing her, indirectly causes her to commit this crime.

The second marriage of the divorced woman is pronounced adultery both on her part and on that of her new husband; that is, her marriage while her first husband still lives. (see Romans vii. 2) Whether the man who puts away his wife because of fornication, or the woman who leaves her husband for the same crime, is at liberty to marry again, is not made so clear. It is clearly implied, however, that the marriage bond is broken; and it is almost universally conceded by commentators and moralists that the innocent party to such a divorce can marry again.

It is much to be regretted that in many protestant countries the civil authorities have practically set aside this law of Christ by allowing divorce and remarriage for a variety of causes. No man who respects the authority of Christ can take advantage of such legislation (pp. 55-57).

In the same commentary, McGarvey addressed Mat-thew 19:3-9, including the following comments:

Third, from these premises the conclusion follows (verse 6) that what God has thus joined together man shall not put asunder. Of course, God who joined them together may put them asunder by prescribing the conditions of lawful divorce, but man has nothing to do in the case except to obey God’s law. Any act of divorce, therefore, or any legislation by State or Church on the subject, inconsistent with the divine law, is open rebellion against the authority of Christ.

Whether it would be adultery to marry a woman who had been put away on account of fornication, is neither affirmed nor denied. No doubt such a woman is at liberty to marry again if she can, seeing that the bond which bound her to her husband is broken (pp. 163-65).

The following observations are in order. McGarvey admits that the right of the guilty party to marry a new mate cannot be affirmed from the text of scripture, which means that there is no positive divine authority for that position. McGarvey himself said in opposing instrumental music in worship, “The loudest call that comes from heaven to the men of this generation is for warfare, stern, relentless, merciless, exterminating, against everything not expressly or by necessary implication authorized in the New Testament” (Bro. Hayden on “Expediency and Progress,” Millennial Harbinger, April 1868, pp. 213-19, see p. 219). Consistency with this premise eventually led McGarvey to correct himself later.

He surmises that the fact that the marriage bond is broken is sufficient grounds for the divorced fornicator to take a new mate, but this overlooks the important point that all divorced people remain under the constraint of divine law. In other words, even when their marriage is dissolved, they must look to God’s law to know what God permits them to do. The innocent party is given positive divine authority to many another person, but the guilty party is not.

It should also be noted that McGarvey was forty-six years old when the commentary on Matthew and Mark was published. It seems clear from some things said in his articles that he soon corrected himself, and there can be no doubt that he had corrected himself by the time he wrote The Fourfold Gospel. At the age of seventy-six, he published the fruit of his mature studies and concluded that, “The innocent party to such a divorce can marry again … the guilty party could not.”

In The Fourfold Gospel published in 1905, McGarvey and Pendleton made the following comments on Matthew 5:32:

The mere fact of divorce did not make her an adulteress, but it brought her into a state of disgrace from which she invariably sought to free herself by contracting another marriage, and this other marriage to which her humiliating situation drove her made her an adulteress.

The law of divorce will be found at Deuteronomy xxiv. 1-4. Jesus explains that this law was given by Moses on account of the hardness of the people’s heart; i.e., to prevent greater evils (Matthew xix. 8). The law permitted the husband to put away the wife when he found “some unseemly thing in her.” But 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 (Matthew xix. 9). Such is Jesus’ modification of the Old Testament law, and in no part of the New Testament is there any relaxation as to the law here set forth. It is implied that divorce for unchastity breaks the marriage bond, and it is there-fore held almost universally, both by commentators and moralists, 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 (pp. 241-42).

In commenting on Matthew 19:3-9, McGarvey refers the reader to his comments on 5:32, although he adds the following thought:

Jesus went back to the original law propounded by God and recorded by Moses, and shows from it…. That by it the pair become one flesh, so that a man is as much joined to his wife as he is to his own body. Now, since a man can only be separated from his parental relations or from his own body by death, which is an act of God, so it follows that the superior or similar relation of marriage can only be dissolved by the act of God. Thus Jesus draws the conclusion that no man or body of men, whether acting in private, civil or ecclesiastical capacity, can dissolve marriage otherwise than according to the decrees of God (pp. 538-40).

Both commentaries say that the marriage bond is broken by a divorce for fornication, and “that the innocent party to such a divorce can marry again.”

Although McGarvey surmises in the first commentary that perhaps the guilty party could also marry a new mate, he repudiates that view in the later commentary when he says, “Of course the guilty party could not, for no one is allowed by law to reap the benefits of his own wrong.” Some brethren have wondered whether this latter statement might have been an insertion made by Pendleton, contrary to McGarvey’s view. It is very evident that this is not the case. The “Introduction” to The Fourfold Gospel makes it clear that McGarvey is “the senior editor,” and Pendleton is “the junior editor” (p. vii.). Occasionally, the junior editor would record in a footnote his dissent from McGarvey’s view (see p. 85 for the first instance).

“Legalized Adultery Again” Again

While discussing the McGarvey material, I would like to shed additional light on a brief point made in one of his articles. Some of our readers may wonder what was the background of the question McGarvey addressed in paragraphs three and four of his article “Legalized Adultery Again” (The Apostolic Times, 8 February 1877; reprinted GOT, 15 July 1993, p. 438). After writing an article on “Legalized Adultery” (which I am trying to locate), McGarvey received several follow-up questions, including this one:

“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.

Did he have in mind such things as the modem no-fault divorce and similar modem accommodations for people to break up their marriages for frivolous reasons, followed by a “waiting game” to see who will commit adultery first? Or, did he have in mind the case of man who wrongfully divorces his wife against her will and in spite of her protests and efforts to effect reconciliation, and who then commits adultery against her sometime later? No, these were not the questions troubling brethren back then. No-fault divorce was unheard of until the 1970s. These recent questions spawned by the constant liberalization of American divorce laws are discussed in the following articles: Weldon Warnock and Jim Deason, Searching the Scriptures, November 1985, pp. 535-36 and March 1986, pp. 60-62; Marshall Patton and H. E. Phillips, SS, February-April 1987; Ron Halbrook, “Divorce and Remarriage: No Waiting Game,” GOT, 18 March 1993, pp. 168-69. What then was McGarvey discussing?

The study of American history reveals a common and repeated practice during the 1700s-1800s which destroyed many homes, fitting exactly the question posed to McGarvey. A man (or woman) would leave his (her) mate with a new lover, with or without a divorce, then move to another community and marry. For instance, consider the case of the seventh President of the United States.

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) came to Nashville, Tennessee in 1788 and boarded with a widow named Mrs. John Donelson. Mrs. Donelson’s daughter Rachel was the Mrs. Lewis Robards, and she and her recently reconciled husband were also living in the Donelson home after a period of estrangement because of their personality differences. When Jackson and Rachel grew too fond of each other, Jackson found it necessary to move out because of Lewis’ suspicions, and Lewis soon returned to Kentucky without his wife. After a while Rachel joined her husband in Kentucky but soon decided to return to Tennessee. Jack-son showed up on her doorsteps and escorted her back to Nashville, and later on to Natchez, Mississippi when they heard her husband was planning to come for her again.

Jackson journeyed to Natchez again and married Rachel in August 1791. Lewis Robards was granted a divorce two years later on 27 December 1793. The Jacksons’ legal problems were resolved when they rewed on 17 January 1794. Jackson’s contemporaries, biographers, and historians have argued over whether Andrew and Rachel thought Lewis had all the evidence he needed to divorce her, and did divorce her, before their marriage in 1790, but one thing is beyond dispute. “For the rest of his life, Jackson remained sensitive to the charge that he prevailed upon Rachel to desert her husband. He was sensitive to the charge because, to a large extent, it was true. Nor was Rachel entirely innocent” (Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 1966, p. 31). Even in those early days of our republic, such immoralities did not preclude a man from becoming President.

These oft repeated scandals in American society on marriage, divorce, and remarriage provide the backdrop for such questions as the one submitted to McGarvey. This all too common practice of people deserting their mates to marry another without the pretense of divorce occasionally generated discussion among Christians. Some brethren believed that that person’s adulterous life did not give his or her mate a scriptural ground for divorce nor the right to marry again. “Some preachers argued that there was no biblical right to remarry, even when a person had a proper reason for divorce, but this view was generally challenged” (Harrell, Social Sources, pp. 319-20). Some brethren simply believed there was no ground for divorce and remarriage. McGarvey later published an exchange of views with a brother who held that position (“Divorce and Marriage,” Christian Standard, 6 January 1906, p. 9, see above).

McGarvey was subject to err like all of us, but he truly left us a wealth of Bible study materials on a wide range of subjects which can be very helpful to us if used cautiously and properly, like the writings of any man. Just as the Bible is sometimes misquoted and misused, the writings of Bible scholars like McGarvey are sometimes quoted out of context and perverted. Such ought not to be. Some brethren close their eyes to commentaries and religious journals, imagining themselves to be “independent thinkers” a few notches above everyone else, but there is an unbecoming arrogance to such self-sufficiency and isolationism.

Guardian of Truth XXXVII, No. 23, p. 13-15
December 2, 1993