The committee is very conscious of the increasing problems caused by this subject, affecting even the Lord’s people. The following article is expository and explanatory in nature, taking the point of view adopted by many able teachers of the Word of God. The committee also recognizes that such exposition alone cannot deal with the heartache and tragedy associated with these distressing situations should they occur. The handling of such situations, in all their complex variety, is not the subject of this article; spiritual wisdom and love of a specialized nature is then necessary in order to guide, correct, comfort and counsel the parties involved. The article is not published for those who have unfortunately become involved in these matters, but forms instruction in advance for any who may be contemplating such action, and for those who may have to offer spiritual counsel. Ed.
A generation has grown up amongst us that probably accepts without question the standard now adopted by the world with regard to marriage, divorce and remarriage. These standards are now almost normal behaviour, and it behoves the believer to search the Scriptures to be sure there is no lowering of God’s requirements.
The whole history of man is determined by his attitude to the Word of God. In the fall, God’s Word was questioned by addition, “Neither shall ye touch it”; and subtraction, “Lest ye die”, Gen. 3. 3. By adding and subtracting, the Word, of course, was altered. This rejection of the Word by all three methods brought about the fall, alienation from God, broken communion and death.
Israel followed the same pathway after the commandments were given, in spite of God’s prohibition in Deuteronomy 4. 2, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it”. The church also has persisted in the same wayward path, although knowing the solemn words of Revelation 22. 18-19, “If any man shall add unto these things … and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy”. Let us be careful, therefore, in this consideration, that we do not rely on human reasoning, mere expediency, or false tolerance, lest we are found adding to, subtracting from, or altering the infallible Word of the Lord.
In Matthew 5. 31 and 19. 9, the Lord refers to divorce on one ground, fornication (note the term), not adultery. The word fornication means pre-marital harlotry or prostitution.
Deuteronomy 22 gives the background of the Jewish wedding. The espousal or engagement was arranged by the parents, as is common in many eastern countries today. Isaac was joined by Rebekah, neither of whom had seen each other. At the end of the engagement, the marriage took place, and the leaving of father and mother. But if in that time of engagement the woman had secretly become an habitual prostitute, the evidence of this would be apparent on the wedding night, and the man could institute an immediate divorce. In modern language, the white wedding had been a complete mockery, for the white dress denoted nothing of purity and virginity, but was a camouflage for a past life of sordid immorality, now discovered by the unsuspecting husband. In such circumstances, namely fornication (pre-marital harlotry) divorce was suffered under the law of Moses: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so”, Matt. 19. 8. So this verse teaches us, in Jewish context, something which was permitted on sufferance, but which was less than the ideal. Surely there is a hint of this in the troubled thoughts of Joseph in Matthew 1. 19: “Then Joseph her husband being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily”. And possibly another hint of these things is implied, but with malevolence, in John 8. 41 : “We be not born of fornication”.
But so far, in these scriptures from Matthew, it is a “one way traffic only”. It is the woman who is under scrutiny, and who has to maintain her purity and chastity. This has nothing to do with the breaking of marriage vows. It was the persistent and hidden breaking of espousal vows, before marriage, which made the actual consummation of the marriage null and void. We read in Mark 10. 11-12, “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”. Unlike the scripture in Matthew, which refers to the woman only, these two verses include man and woman. If the husband puts away his wife and marries another, that is adultery. If the woman puts away her husband and marries another, that is adultery. But why may the woman here put away her husband? The modern standard, amongst other things, cites adultery. But see the folly of such reasoning, for if the husband puts away his wife because of adultery, and remarries, he commits adultery, and if she remarries she commits adultery. So that she commits in her second “marriage” the very cause that has dissolved her first marriage. If one therefore reads adultery into Mark 10. 11-12 as the cause of the putting away, remarriage is not marriage at all, but a continuation of adultery which caused the putting away in the first place.
In Luke 1 6. 18 we read, “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery”. In this verse a third person is included—whosoever marries her that is put away. So here there is a possibility that the “innocent” party is in mind, and if she remarries, this also is listed under adultery. In Matthew 19. 9, the Lord says, “I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery”. Notice the word “except”. That is, whosoever shall put away his wife for any other reason than that suffered under the law of Moses, and stated by the Lord to be substandard to the ideal commenced in Genesis 2. 24, is guilty of adultery.
So adultery, desertion, incompatibility, insanity, etc., are all excluded from the scriptures as a reason for divorce.
The conclusion therefore from these scriptures is that there is no warrant for divorce on any grounds.
If however, as some suggest, the scripture is adapted, and Matthew 19. 3-9 is seen as a reason for divorce, the following points should be noted: Fornication refers to premarital immorality. Both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 refer to the woman only. It was only allowed on sufferance by Moses, it was introduced because of the hardness of their hearts. It was less than the idea! initiated by God in Genesis 2. 24.
What Happens at a Marriage. The believing couple who marry meet together on their wedding day “In the sight of God, and in the presence of this congregation”. Before such witnesses, they solemnly declare that they will keep to him/her only, as long as they both shall live. After these solemn declarations and vows, the brother presiding pronounces them “man and wife” adding, “Whom God has joined together let no man put asunder”. Then he invokes the blessing of the Triune God upon them. This is the basis of marriage in this country. Now if we are saying that a marriage can be dissolved under certain conditions, or even for only one reason, then where have the fear of the Lord, honesty, truthfulness and frankness gone? Are we really instructing our young people that they can make solemn vows in the presence of God, before believing witnesses, sealed by the blessing of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, knowing that we do not really mean the promises; that “until death us do part” does not mean that; and that ‘one shall cleave to the other only’ can and may be broken ?
If that is what we want to teach, that let us at least be honest, and change the order of the marriage service, and delete such meaningless and dishonest vows. Ecclesiastes 5. 5 says, “Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay”. The Lord speaks to us in Matthew 5. 37, “let your communication be, Yea, Yea; Nay, Nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”. Surely the believer’s word is his bond.
If Marriage can be Dissolved. Should a believer break the vows undertaken in marriage by unfaithfulness, in addition to the solemn vows broken, he also breaks the law of Exodus 20. 14, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. He also lists himself in the catalogue of the unrighteous who shall not inherit the kingdom of God, 1 Cor. 6. 9-10, a list which advises us not to be deceived. He also places himself under the judgment of God, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled; but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge”, Heb. 13. 4. Such an one has not only broken the law given by Moses, but the higher standard set by the Lord Himself in Matthew 5. 27-28, “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”. In the light of the judgment seat of Christ, when the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is, are we allowing the base and loose standards of the world to infiltrate into the lives of the saints, condoning them by adding to or subtracting from, the Word of God to suit such conditions ?
If Divorce is Sanctioned. Under the laws of the United Kingdom, we as believers are able to “officiate” at a wedding, and such a marriage is legal in the eyes of the State, and thereby we are able to be married without the use of “outside” servants of the law. We should treasure this permission. But no such arrangements are available for dissolving a marriage. Divorce must go through the legal channels. In the light of this, are we prepared to “go to the law before the unjust” in flagrant disobedience of the Holy Spirit’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 6. 1 ? If so, we ask those on the outside to undo for us vows and promises made in the presence of God and those “that are within”. What a condition of things, and may the Lord preserve us from such a step.
Marriage as a Type. In the practical chapters of Ephesians (chs. 4, 5, 6.) we as believers are given instructions for every department of life. As wives, 5. 22; as husbands, vv. 25-26; in marriage, vv. 30-31 ; as children, 6. 1 ; fathers, v. 4; servants, vv. 5-8; masters, v. 9. The verses relating to marriage, 5. 31-32, present it in its highest meaning, ” they two shall be one flesh”, (as also Gen. 2. 24). “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church”. With the wife submitting unto her own husband as unto the Lord, 5. 22, and the husband loving his wife, even as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her, v. 25, such a union is a type of Christ and the Church, v. 32.
Now if the marriage of two believers can be dissolved, where is the type of the Church? Can the Church and Christ be divorced ? Can the believer be separated from the love of Christ? “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Rom. 8. 35; “I give unto them (my sheep) eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand … out of my Father’s hand”.
This is where the elders can really care for the flock. In just these circumstances, when the local assembly has doubtless been shattered by the putting away of the guilty partner, just then are the warm love, intense care and spiritual comfort and insight needed. If we comfort those who mourn in the obvious sense, how much more should we comfort the one left in these harrowing circumstances. But as the Scriptures lead in all the paths of life, so we shall find guidance now. We must not add to or subtract from them, neither bend them to meet human thoughts. The Holy Spirit gives comfort and guidance. If 1 Corinthians 6. 1 -8 regarding going to law before the unjust is wrong for the guilty, then it must also be for the innocent. “Beloved”, says the apostle, “think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you … Yet if any man suffer as a Christian”, 1 Pet. 4. 12-16. The innocent Christian partner cannot resort to the law, and therefore takes no part in divorce proceedings, and is bound in marriage as long as the partner lives, 1 Cor. 7. 39. Such a pathway is contrary to modern thinking, but it is not contrary to the Scriptures. The patient submissive attitude should be something like this: “The solemn vows of marriage were undertaken, and even if my partner has broken them, I will not”. “In the eyes of the law of the land, under the searchlight of the Scriptures, and before God, I am innocent. What I have promised, I will do; where the Word guides, I will obey, and in whatever pathway the Lord asks me to walk, I will follow humbly with Him”.
The fact that the Lord uses the word “fornication” in Matthew 5. 32; 19. 9, cannot include as some assert the act of adultery, else why did He not use the word adultery? Otherwise how could we know that the word “fornication” in these verses stands for or includes “adultery”, whereas in Matthew 15. 19 and Mark 7. 21 “it is distinguished from adultery”?, (W. E. Vine). If we take this as the meaning, then Matthew 15. 19 and Mark 7. 21 are reduced to an absurd interpretation, for the words “fornication” and “adultery” are used separately by the Lord. Should we read “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, adulteries, murders” ? If divorce is scripturally allowed on the strength of Matthew 5. 32; 19. 9, then other scriptures about which there can be no possible misunderstanding must be broken. “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her”, Mark 10. 11. “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. “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth”, 1 Cor. 7. 39. This latter scripture is addressed to the spiritually minded, “If any man think himself… to be spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord”, 14. 37.