Is Divorce and Remarriage Ever Permissible for Christians?
By Eric V. Snow
Dan White’s recent essays on divorce (June 30, 2001 and July 31, 2001) in “The Journal News of the Churches of God” carelessly use Scripture and recent Church of God history when arguing all divorce and remarriage is sinful. A basic, brief reply to his broad claims is necessary, since God plainly allows for divorce and remarriage under certain circumstances.
The biggest hurdle Mr. White faces, and he knows it, is Matt. 19:9: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (NASB throughout, Matt. 19:9). Mr. White says, “No exceptions!” But Christ says there is an exception! We need to use a standard (i.e., “literal”) definition of the inspired words of God, if we are to conduct reasoned exegesis instead of reading a desired narrow meaning into the Greek here or elsewhere. The Greek word translated “immorality” here, of course, is “porneia,” which refers to sexual sin in general, such as bestiality, homosexual sex, adultery, and fornication. Thayer, in his Greek-English lexicon, virtually castigates those who believe “porneia” has a sharply limited meaning: “prop. of illicit sexual intercourse in general . . . that this meaning must be adopted in these passages [Acts 15:20,29; 21:25] will surprise no one who has learned from I Cor. vi. 12 sqq. how leniently converts from among the heathen regarded this vice and how lightly they indulged in it; accordingly, all other interpretations of this term, such as of marriages within the prohibited degrees [i.e., incest] and the like, are to be rejected” (p. 532).
If we use the Bible to interpret the Bible, as Mr. Armstrong himself advocated, we find time and time again “porneia” has a broad general meaning in the New Testament and in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. In the King James Version the word is translated some 26 times as “fornication(s),” including in such places as John 8:41, Acts 15:20, I Cor. 6:13, and I Thess. 4:3. When Paul warned (I Cor. 6:18), “Flee immorality,” he surely wasn’t talking about just incest! It wasn’t just a warning to the unmarried either!
Mr. White reasons, “If the porneia exception included all sorts of sex sins after marriage, then surely Mark and Luke would have included it in their writings, because all marriages would be potentially affect by such a significant factor.” The error here is to assume that one text or passage of Scripture can’t establish doctrine. Therefore, nobody can teach that footwashing is a required part of the Passover ceremony because Matthew, Mark, and Luke make no mention of it. Only the Fourth Evangelist describes it (John 13:3-15). Likewise, we couldn’t be certain that Christ rescued a woman from being summarily executed for committing adultery (John 8:2-11) since that incident was only recorded once. How many other things do we believe Scripture teaches which are mentioned only in one passage? Ironically, Mr. White basically contradicts this procedure by citing such a text as Luke 16:18, and thinking that ends the argument. But we ought to know better: When more than one text is available for study on a subject, we shouldn’t think the whole teaching of God appears in one place in the Bible. Otherwise, someone could cite Rom. 10:4 out of context to prove the law was done away.
Our old friend, the argument from silence, appears when Mr. White reasons, “In the New Testament we find no cases of believers being divorced and remarried.” Likewise, Joe Tkach Junior would reason, “Because the Sabbath command isn’t repeated word for word in Paul’s epistles (or some other Scripture written about Christian doctrine after the crucifixion), therefore, it was abolished.” The argument from silence, as appealing as it may be, really is a logical fallacy, which reasons that a lack of evidence is evidence. The New Testament never mentions bestiality: Does that mean it’s allowed for Christians? The New Testament never records someone being disfellowshiped for homosexual sex. Does that mean it never happened? There are all sorts of things I can think about that “ought” to have been included in the New Testament, but weren’t, such as whether Paul ate eggs and could stand on his head. Does their omission really prove anything? We should be wary of thinking we can know so exactly the mind of God on such matters (Isa. 55:8-9), and why He had certain things recorded (such as who the sons of Merari were, I Chron. 6:19) and why certain things weren’t.
It’s wrong to reason that Matt. 19:9’s exception to the general principle that all divorce is prohibited concerns only sex before marriage. The text reads, “Whoever divorces his wife,” which therefore concerns those already married, not the unmarried. So the text can’t be about fornication before marriage being a ground for divorce after the wedding ceremony has occurred. The same goes for Matt. 5:32, which has no parallel text. We would have to read into these texts the assumption that the act of illicit sex could only have occurred beforehand to draw Mr. White’s conclusion. (Luke 6, the Synoptic analog to the Sermon on the Mount, was clearly given on a different occasion). It may indeed sound strange that the one getting the divorce can cause someone else to commit adultery, as it does in this text, which Mr. White takes mistaken advantage of in order to radically narrow the meaning of “porneia.” But Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their New World Translation, translate this text as “everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of fornication, makes her a subject for adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” As they reasoned in Insight on the Scriptures (vol. 1, p. 642): “By this Christ showed that if a husband divorces his wife for reasons other than her ‘fornication’ (porneia), he exposes her to adultery in the future. That is so because the unadulterous wife is not properly disunited from her husband by such a divorce and is not free to marry another man and have sexual relations with another husband.”
When reasoning that there is no marriage ended by divorce that would prohibit remarriage, Mr. White errs by equating all the reasons people get divorced are because adultery occurred. But, of course, in the world, there are many grounds given for divorce: drug addiction, alcoholism, mental or physical cruelty, abandonment, bigamy, insanity, felony conviction or imprisonment, non-support, impotency, childlessness, fraud, duress, and (of course) “incompatibility.” A person divorced for any of these reasons, or any number of them put together, can’t remarry unless adultery is also involved. Hence, if someone divorces and remarries without having the prior marriage broken absolutely by adultery, then he or she is guilty of adultery when remarrying. Mr. White, for some reason, effectively equates divorce allowed for the reason of adultery only and divorce allowed for any and all reasons the human mind can devise. But as Insight in the Scriptures observes (vol. 1, p. 642): “When Christ said that whoever ‘marries a divorced woman commits adultery,’ he was referring to a woman divorced on grounds other than ‘on account of fornication’ (porneia). Such a woman, though divorced legally, would not be divorced Scripturally.”
As Jay Adams usefully observes in his book on divorce and remarriage, it’s necessary to understand what constitutes a marriage Scripturally first before one can properly figure out what the Bible teaches on divorce. This exposes the fallaciousness of one of the arguments Mr. White uses to narrow the meaning of “porneia” to something that fits his beliefs. Since a marriage is fully formed by the two becoming one flesh after an exchange of vows constituting a covenant, an act of lust (Matt. 5:28) doesn’t end it. There has to be an equivalent physical act in order to end marriage since consummation is what fully joins it, as per Genesis 2:24.
None of Mr. White’s rhetoric about the Churches of God teaching marriages are lifelong except based on certain conditions takes seriously the standard meaning of “porneia” in Matt. 19:9 and 5:32. Scripture indeed reveals that marriages are supposed to be lifelong, except when certain specific conditions apply which are explicitly revealed in Scripture. To attack this teaching violates Deut. 4:2: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it.” Mr. White has leapt from one extreme to another, by believing remarriage is always prohibited, after the Tkach administration watered down the WCG’s teaching by saying if someone acts like an unbeliever, the victimized party who still believes can get a lawful divorce. It’s time to stop going from one ditch, running across the middle of the road, to the other ditch, which is a problem many in the church have had in other areas. (This has happened concerning church government, since many jumped from one-man rule to congregationalism or anarchy, not bothering to seriously consider rule by a tamed, multi-human leader hierarchy under Christ).
Consider: God tells Christians that we have eternal life right now, but we have it conditionally. We know we can’t read one such text, such as I John 5:11, and then proclaim, “Once saved, always saved.” Likewise, Mr. White’s error is “once married, always married.” We know, from looking at other texts, such as Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-29, that this grant of eternal life is conditional. By an act of free will, we can choose to be lost. The same goes for our marriages: We have it in our power to end them, despite all the sin that may have been behind any divorce that occurs. Indeed, remarriage becomes a kind of unpardonable sin in his teaching since it appears even baptism doesn’t erase the stain of a guilty past for someone new to the faith (i.e., “There is not one law for Worldwiders and another for Outsiders.”)
Much as the Pharisees made the Sabbath a burden by over-regulating it, the (nominal) Roman Catholic teaching on divorce (which HWA effectively accepted at one time) made marriage a burden for many. Alfred Carrozzo, when he left the WCG in 1974, told Time magazine (March 4, 1974, p. 50) what were the results of the old total ban on divorce and remarriage that HWA enforced before 1974: “I have watched many a man and his wife and children weep when I told them they must separate in order to enter the faith.” Joseph Martin Hopkins (Christianity Today, April 15, 1977, p. 23) wrote about the poisonous fruit of the old D & R rule: “Throughout WCG history no policy has occasioned more grief and bitterness than that requiring members to dissolve postdivorce marriage unions, branded by the church as adulterous regardless of the circumstances. Over the years hundreds of marriages were terminated and families broken up because of the ruling.”
So then, did the ban on divorce and remarriage cause more family breakup than it prevented? The bad fruit of such a rule (cf. Matt. 7:17-20) makes it reasonable to question it when Scriptural grounds exist for doing so. The claim that no Ambassador College graduates got divorced and remarried before 1974 is an empirical claim that needs to be verified by more than (apparently) HWA’s say-so. Do any readers of “The Journal,” having a much longer length of time in the church and having known many more AC students/grads than I have, know of any exceptions? Claiming all the divorces of recent years in the church resulted from this ban being lifted ignores (as unpleasant as it may be to face this) how Western society in general, and America in particular, had sharply rising divorce rates in the 1970s. This trend the COG (alas!) eventually ended up mirroring, the church often being a generation behind the world’s trends. Mr. White here commits the logical fallacy of “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” that is, “After this, therefore because of this.” Just because something follows something earlier event doesn’t prove the earlier event caused the later one. Otherwise, a death row prisoner’s last meal could be judged the cause of his execution!
Mr. White uses the “slippery slope” argument to attack all divorce as prohibited by God. But the slippery slope argument, that a little of something being allowed has to lead to all of something happening, and thus no middle ground exists between two extreme conditions, is yet another logical fallacy. If the Tkach loosening of the criteria for divorce is rejected, which maintained a baptized believer who behaves like an unbeliever may be more readily divorced by another believer, we arrive back at the 1974 decision by HWA, which was scripturally correct. Matt. 19:9, cited above, provides the only grounds for divorce and remarriage in Scripture, other than fraud (cf. Deut. 22:13-21). I Cor. 7:15 authorizes divorce for desertion by an unbelieving spouse, but it can’t be used to authorize remarriage without contradicting Matt. 19:9 unless Christ was considered (as Jay Adams does) to be discussing marriages between believers only. The exception clause of Matt. 19:9 hardly opens the floodgates to any and all divorces.
Mr. White laughably sees all troubles the WCG had in the liberal years of the 1970’s and afterwards through a curse coming from loosening the old D & R rule. The real reason for the unrest was the failure of HWA’s 1972-75 predictions concerning Christ’s “rapture” of the church to a place of safety on earth and Christ’s Second Coming. This opened the doors for criticism on other fronts, such as on the date for Pentecost (Monday vs. Sunday), and helped lead to the schisms of the Associated Churches of God and the Church of God, Eternal in the mid-1970s. There were also the problems caused by the power struggles under HWA between Garner Ted, Stanley Rader, and Roderick Meredith, and those associated with each of them. It’s absurd to think changing the divorce and remarriage rule caused all the WCG’s troubles in succeeding years, including (apparently) the Tkach-led apostasy. The recently announced UCG-IA policy restores the right balance this issue since it (effectively) affirms the outcome 1974 decision by HWA, although its reasoning apparently is somewhat different. Those interested in a careful traditional Christian analysis that ends up affirming a position highly similar to HWA’s 1974 decision should consult Jay Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Zondervan, 1980).
Here I won’t deny the evils and heartache that flow from divorce. Besides illegitimacy, it’s the main source of social and moral decay in contemporary American society. Furthermore, I know some of this from personal experience. I come from a home in which one parent filed for divorce and moved away to another state from the other before the latter died. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). But despite it’s never an ideal condition, since it’s born of human sin and folly, God does allow for it and even remarriage under certain conditions as revealed in Scripture. To deny otherwise will hold some of our spiritual brothers and sisters to bondage, “but God has called us to peace” (I Cor. 7:15).