The Continuing Battle Over Divorce & Remarriage

By Ron Halbrook

In May of 1992 brother Olen Holderby of Lakeport, California wrote to the elders of the church of Christ in West Columbia, Texas, commending them for exposing the errors of Don Givens in Hawaii on divorce and remarriage (Guardian of Truth, 7 May 1992, pp. 272-73). He added, “Those of us who fight that same error in California are much in the minority. With those in that error taking courage from the `fence-straddlers’ (or compromisers), it often becomes a discouraging fight.” Brother Holderby suggested that the elders and myself consider the possibility of my making a trip to California to preach during January of 1993. Our elders (Charlie Alexander, James Moore, and J.D. Harris) were sympathetic to this call. Brother Harris had lived in California and was aware firsthand of the need. After we agreed to this proposal, invitations came from several churches in California who wanted to be included on the itinerary. The trip was challenging, educational for me, and productive.

Brother Holderby is seventy-two years old, has spent most of his preaching life in California, and stands for all the truth of the gospel without compromise. In consulting with him and a number of other brethren in the state, I heard the judgment repeatedly expressed that more and more churches which have had a reputation for soundness are drifting in-to apostasy on moral issues (Rev. 3:1). The concerns expressed by many California saints can be summarized as follows. They have seen three groups develop over the years with regard to the subject of divorce and remarriage. Brethren who embrace error have put down roots, spread the error little by little, and made considerable gains. Of the approximately 120 non-institutional churches in the state, about 40 openly embrace apostate doctrines on divorce and remarriage. Through the years, a number of preachers have sown the seeds of error through the pulpit, classroom, tracts and booklets, and private avenues, all the while covering their tracks with the claim, “We do not make an issue of it.”

A second group embraces unity-in-diversity on divorce and remarriage. Approximately 40 churches are included in this number. The local preacher or one called in for a gospel meeting might hold to truth or error, and it would not matter to brethren in one of these churches. Members are accepted in these churches regardless of their marital status or doctrinal stand on divorce and remarriage. Such brethren are very vulnerable to error because it is free to work in their midst with little or no challenge.

The third group includes about 40 churches which basically believe the truth on what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage. Some take a stronger stand than others. Most of these churches would not want a local preacher who embraces doctrinal error on the subject, although some would accept him if he is not outspoken in teaching the error. A number of these churches would not hesitate to invite a preacher for a gospel meeting in spite of the error he holds, but there is an unspoken expectation that the subject would not be addressed. Some preachers who are basically sound in their convictions on divorce and remarriage freely have fellowship with unsound preachers and accept meeting invitations from unsound churches (generally with the same tacit understanding that the subject will not be addressed). Those who participate in this limited “open fellowship” on each side of the issue seem to think it provides opportunities to influence brethren one way or the other. Long time observers say this gives legitimacy to false teachers which they otherwise would not have, and this generally has worked to the detriment of the cause of truth.

The brethren and churches which attempt to uphold the truth on divorce and remarriage are outnumbered two to one. But because of the “open fellowship” policy of many, brethren who speak out for the truth and openly expose error are often an unwelcome minority within a minority. Because of the strong, uncompromising stand they take, they are regarded as “extremists” and “troublemakers” by nearly everyone. Out-of-state preachers who come for gospel meetings sometimes compound the problem by not discussing marriage and divorce, because either they do not under-stand the struggle which is occurring or they do not care. As long as they do not address the subject, they can be invited back time and again to churches of every variety. This gives unsound churches credibility, and is used to put in a bad light the small band of California preachers who speak out.

A Great Door Open

Paul said of his preaching in Ephesus, “For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries” (I Cor. 16:9). A great door is open in California for preaching the truth, but there are many adversaries. A great battle between truth and error is in progress, and the future looks dark and bleak in many ways. Sound brethren need all the help and encouragement they can get. We should be willing to make sacrifices to hold up their hands and to hold high the blood-stained banner of the cross of Christ.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The prevalence of sin and error in California (and elsewhere) makes the future look dark and bleak, but the power of the gospel puts the picture in a different light. Error cannot withstand the power of truth, if only we will preach and press the demands of truth!

“Is not my word like as fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29) Error cannot stand before the searing fire and the hammer blows of truth. Error hides behind a plea for “tolerance and fellowship.” Most of “the fellowship issue” will take care of itself if sound brethren will preach the truth plainly and boldly (2 Cor. 3:12; Acts 4:29). “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1). Error will not sit still under the pressure of truth, but will retreat or attempt to fight. In either case, it will be exposed and defeated.

God’s Law Too Strict, Unfair?

Attentive audiences in California showed excellent interest in the preaching of the gospel. A wide range of thoughtful questions was asked during the question-and-answer sessions after the lessons. Underlying several questions was the notion that God’s law seems too strict and unfair. Jesus taught the rule of one man for one woman for life, with only one exception, that being that the innocent mate can put away an immoral one and marry another person (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). People in adulterous marriages must “repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance,” which means getting out of the unscriptural marriage with its bed of adultery (Acts 26:20; Mk. 6:18; Heb. 13:4). God’s law is strict and we had better obey it, if we want to be right with him. It is better to give up an adulterous marriage than to “be cast into hell,” even if this seems to be “a hard saying” (Matt. 5:29-30; Jn. 6:60,66). If men consider God’s marriage law too strict, then they should not marry (Matt. 19:10-12).

God’s way is fair and just, but our sinful says are not. When men of old complained, “The way of the Lord is not equal,” God answered,

O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?

Therefore I will judge you, 0 house of Israel, everyone according to this ways, saith the Lord God.

Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin (Ezek. 18:29-30).

Whose fault is it if men have not sought and found God, and therefore end up in adulterous marriages and other sins with painful consequences? God is seeking men with good and honest hearts to worship him On. 4:23). God rules over the nations in such a way that men can find him if only they will seek him, “though he be not far from every one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God is fair and just from start to finish, but men are unfair and unjust toward God in refusing to seek him.

Man’s injustice toward God and his fellowman creates the painful consequences and complications of homosexual marriage, polygamous marriage, incestuous marriage, and other forms of adulterous marriage. The consequences are

“A great baffle between
God and Satan for the souls of men is
always raging. We are warned against the danger
of compromising the gospel in its purity for ‘another gospel:
which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and
would pervert the gospel of Christ’ We are to reject all
such as ‘accursed.'”

more painful in polygamy than in the typical adulterous marriage in our society, because more wives and children are involved in a case of polygamy. If the emotional pain of ending a typical adulterous marriage justifies staying in it, then the many fold pains involved in ending a polygamous marriage justify even more staving in it. No matter how painful the consequences, people must get out of adulterous marriages in order to be right with God.

A Great Battle for Souls

A great battle between God and Satan for the souls of men is always raging. We are warned against the danger of compromising the gospel in its purity for “another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” We are to reject all such as “accursed” (Gal. 1:6-9). Among people professing to be Christians, three groups existed in the early church. 1. There were false brethren, “to whom,” Paul said, “we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (2:3-5). 2. There were faithful brethren like Paul who were determined to uphold the truth of the gospel at all costs (2:3-5,14). 3. There were flip-flop brethren who compromised the truth when under pressure. Peter fell into this trap on one occasion, was rebuked openly by Paul, corrected his sin, and later spoke warmly of “our beloved brother Paul” (2:11-14; 2 Pet. 3:15). Some brethren continued on the course of compromise. Perhaps some protested that Paul had unfairly at-tacked a dearly beloved brother. They may have resented Paul’s efforts and labelled him “a brotherhood watchdog,” “a narrow-minded legalist,” or “a troublemaker.”

The same three groups exist among professed Christians everywhere today in different concentrations and distributions. The combination of false and flip-flop brethren leave faithful brethren badly outnumbered in California, and those who speak out are increasingly isolated and ostracized. Informed Christians know that this battle has spread well beyond the borders of California.

Brethren openly committed to false doctrine are getting bolder all across the country. After teaching his theories in assemblies in El Cajon, California and Belen, New Mexico in 1988, Homer Hailey (of Tucson, AZ) published an 85-page book in 1991 entitled The Divorced and Remarried Who Would Come to God. During 1990, I had two debates on divorce and remarriage with Jack Freeman (of Las Vegas, NV); the second one is being published by the Guardian of Truth Foundation and should be available soon. In 1991 Jerry F. Bassett (of Eugene, OR) published an 149-page book of his theories entitled Rethinking Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, with the help of his brother Don (of Brent-wood, TN). Jerry Bassett had two debates in 1992 defending his error. Don was deeply involved in assisting Jerry.

W.L. Wharton (of San Antonio, TX) shocked many brethren by moderating for Jerry in the first debate and then by preaching this error in the pulpit. In the wake of these events, brother Wharton’s close friend and associate Terry Sumerlin (of San Antonio) publicly identified himself with the same false doctrine by preaching it in the pulpit. These actions by brethren Wharton and Sumerlin have devastated the Highland Blvd. church in San Antonio. J.T. Smith had two debates during 1991-92 exposing the errors of Olan Hicks (of Searcy, AR). Hicks is an institutional liberal, but his theories on divorce and remarriage are well represented among non-institutional brethren. Anyone who does not realize this battle is spreading beyond the confines of the west coast has his head in the sand.

A rationale for unity-in-diversity on divorce and remarriage was presented by Ed Harrell in Christianity Magazine in a 17 part series (Nov. 1988-Aug. 1990). He repeatedly misused Romans 14 as a basis for brethren to tolerate differences of “considerable moral and doctrinal import,” including “contradictory teachings and practices on important moral and doctrinal questions” (May 1989, p. 6; May 1990, p. 6). The paper’s “positive” philosophy forbids anyone to review brother Harrell’s series in the magazine (Sept. 1990, p. 7). Those who have used other forums to review the error have been stigmatized as “reckless,” “irresponsible,” “extremists,” and meddlers who “intend to `line up’ followers or create a party” (“A Report” mailed out by Christianity Magazine, late 1992). Neither the error misusing Romans 14 on unity-in-diversity-of-divorce doctrines nor the “Report” has been repudiated, rebuked, and reviewed in the magazine by any of its editors (Dee Bowman, Paul Earnhart, Sewell Hall, Ed Harrell, Brent Lewis). A revised version of the “Report” appeared in the paper. asserting that no one who reads the paper has any reason at all to doubt its soundness (Jan. 1993, p. 4).

Preserving the Purity of the Gospel

How can brethren in California and throughout the country stop the advance of false doctrines on divorce and remarriage, and how can we avoid compromise with such errors?

I. The only weapon we have is the truth of God’s Word. “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” We must continue this work even when some among us “will not endure sound doctrine.” We must ever “watch,” sound a warning when error approaches, and “endure afflictions” for the cause of truth (2 Tim. 4:1-5). “Reprove, rebuke, exhort” means there must be a balance of positive and negative aspects of the truth in our preaching. We must avoid the temptation to stoop to the carnal tactics of error. We must be confident that false doctrine cannot withstand the constant pressure of the persistent preaching of truth. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

2. We must distinguish matters of the revealed faith from matters of personal faith (2 Jn. 9; Jude 3; Rom. 14:1-15:7). Christ revealed his doctrine on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and said through John, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not” (2 Jn. 10). Where there are differences of personal conscience involving no violation of truth, the Lord said, “Receive ye one another” (Rom. 15:7). Romans 14 is being perverted to justify tolerating apostate doctrines which result in adulterous marriages. The toleration taught in Romans 14 is limited to the realm where “there is nothing unclean of itself,” where “all things indeed are pure” (vv. 14,20). Digressive doctrines resulting in adulterous marriages do not fit into that realm!

3. We must recognize that departures from the faith “wax worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3:13). Dangerous error degenerates, it does not remain static. “They will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker:. . . and overthrow the faith of some” (2:16-18). The denominational dogmas of “grace only” and “faith only” embrace more and more diverse doctrines and departures day by day. The no-patternism of liberalism does the same thing. Apostate doctrines on divorce and remarriage do the same thing.

Those who teach diverse, false doctrines embrace one another, and the ever-widening circle makes it possible for them to justify people remaining in new marriages following divorces for any and every cause. Furthermore, an in-creasing number of these false teachers and those who follow them defend and practice such ungodly deeds as drinking intoxicants, the equivalent of the “strong drink” of Bible times. Other practices which are becoming rampant without rebuke among these churches include dancing, gambling and daily attire. Such sins can be found at times among churches which are sound on divorce and remarriage, because of neglect of teaching or indifference in hearing. But there is a logical reason why there is a definite pattern developing which embraces such sins among many brethren who are committed to error on divorce and remarriage. When moral restraints and convictions are loosened in one area, they inevitably will be relaxed in other areas.

4. False doctrines and the teachers who spread them must be exposed (2 Tim. 2:16-18). Some brethren have erred “concerning the truth,” teaching things contrary to the doctrine of Christ, “and overthrow the faith of some” by justifying their adulterous marriages. The doctrines need to be specified and the teachers need to be identified, whether it be Hymenaeus, Philetus, Alexander, or Demas.

Maurice Estes (West Anaheim, CA) preached a series of lessons in 1990 filled with error at the Sun Garden church in Fresno. His booklet on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage (1979) has been translated into Spanish, as has The Truth About Matthew 19:9 (1990) by Mel Rose (Madeira, CA). Rose publishes and distributes both of them in Spanish. Wayne Partain and Bill Reeves report that these materials have worked havoc among Spanish speaking brethren in the U.S., Mexico, San Salvador, and Latin America generally. Souls have been subverted and churches divided as a direct result of the false doctrines of Estes, Rose and others. We should treat all men with courtesy and dignity, but when the false teacher comes our way, the Apostle of love commanded by divine inspiration, “Receive him not” (2 Jn. 9-11).

Godly elders guarding the flock will not give such men opportunities to gain the confidence of the flock, but will stop their mouths (Tit. 1:10). The Bible says to mark and avoid such men (Rom. 16:17). Past friendships and associations do not alter our duties. We must be friends to God first and to men second. We are “not to think of men above that which is written” (I Cor. 4:6).

There are many lessons to be learned from the course of events among our dear brethren in California. Let us pray for them and help them as we have opportunities. There are many fine brethren there who love the truth. Their hard-ships remind us that we must resist error and those who teach it, no matter who they are, no matter what their past attainments have been. Paul said, “To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal. 2:5). Let us all be “set for the defense of the gospel,” speak “the truth in love,” and “speak boldly,” as we ought to speak (Phil. 1:17; Eph. 4:15; 6:20).

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 9, p. 16-19
May 20, 1993