Spiritual Perspectives


Gary W. Summers

     Without question, we all like to see people have a second chance. In the Olympics, contestants sometimes get two tries.  Occasionally, those who make a mess of their lives receive an opportunity to begin again; others do not survive their reckless follies. Certainly, we all get one and only one lifetime to determine where we will live eternally (Heb. 9:27-28).


     Several doctrines attempting to rationalize divorce and remarriage have undoubtedly been born of the desire for people to have a second chance.  Some have been badly mistreated by a spouse (although adultery was not committed), and we commiserate with them.  Eventually, the question will be asked, ‘Would it be all right if I remarried?”  Being aware of all the pain and suffering this person has already experienced, many succumb to the temptation to grant approval despite the person’s ineligibility.


     Compassion should not be confused with commandments.  Some lose their marital privileges be-cause they made costly mistakes.  God did not tell His people in Ezra’s day, “You shouldn’t have married those foreign wives, but since you did, and some of you even have children, go ahead and stay with them.”  The fact was they had violated God’s law, and repentance required that they separate themselves from the women to whom they were not entitled (Ezra 10:19, 44).  When John told Herod it was not lawful for him to have Herodias (Mark 6:18), the guilty couple knew that repentance meant separation.


     Some sins yield more tragic consequences than others.  All the sorrow in the world can not bring to life the murder victim.  Once one gives his word, he cannot take it back no matter what the cost (ask Jephthah).  Unscriptural divorce and remarriage cannot be wished away with tearful regrets.  Separation from one another is the painful but correct solution for those involved in an unlawful union.  The people of Ezra’s day recognized their guilt and its solution.


     The sad reality is that not everyone gets a second chance.  Sometimes the innocent suffer, but it is better that a few experience hardship than for God’s institution of marriage to become devalued, which is what occurs when human wisdom is allowed to re-place Divine directives.  Only a few seem to be taking their marriage vows seriously at the current time.  When people develop the “disposable marriage” attitude they have no incentive to be careful about selecting a mate.  Thoughtlessly, they enter into the most intimate union God ever provided for human beings.  The prospective mate may be profane, un-godly, immoral, and completely disinterested in spiritual things, but careless individuals continue in head-strong fashion—regardless of any advice or counsel that family or brethren offer.  They have learned, after all, that there can always be a next time.


Mechanisms of Justification


     The problem for the “second-chanceists” is Matthew 19:3-9, in which Jesus sets forth the truth about marriage and divorce.  Anyone who reads the passage immediately sees its clear meaning.  Understanding it and accepting it, however, are two different things.  Many have treat-ed the steely Matthew 19:9 as rubber so they can twist and contort it into something it is not.  Following is a brief sampling of some of the outlandish efforts.


     One theory is that those inflexible verses constitute a “covenant” passage, which means that they apply only to Christians.  The implication is that Jesus’ teaching would not apply to non-Christians—only to those who have al-ready been baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.  Therefore, once they become baptized, all those past marriages could be dispensed with.  If such were true, young people would probably want to delay being baptized until they found a mate they could be satisfied with.


     The flaw in this theory is that God holds all people accountable to His will—Christian or atheist.  The Bible plainly states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  What law have non-Christians violated?  If God only gives His marriage laws to Christians, does it not stand to reason that He also gives His  laws on every other subject to Christians only?  How do people become sinners?


     Jesus is going to judge mankind (John 5:22, 27; Acts 17:31).  What will He use as a standard?


“He who rejects Me, and does not receive my words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).


     Words refers to the body of teaching which the Lord began and which the apostles completed.  Notice that a person may reject Christ and His words, but he will still be judged by them because all are accountable to Him.  The idea that Matthew 19 applies only to Christians lacks any kind of Biblical support while contradicting other teachings of Christ.


     A second theory designed to explain away Matthew 19:3-9 is the exact opposite of the first, which shows the degree of animosity that exists toward the passage—brethren will run in any direction to try to get away from it. At least one individual has alleged that this teaching of Jesus has no application to the Christian (or anyone else) because Matthew is not part of the New Testament!  The fact is that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life have been considered by virtually everybody to be part of the New Testament for centuries.  Most people understand that Jesus lived during the final days of the Old Covenant era.


      The things He taught, however, belonged to the new covenant. Our Lord lived during a transition period. The old law was not yet done away (which is the reason Jesus kept it), and the new was being inaugurated (but would not be fully effective until the day of Pentecost). Jesus never violated the Law of Moses, but He taught the principles of the kingdom.  Had Jesus’ doctrine been made null and void on the day of Pentecost, the application of John 12:48 would be severely limited, applying to nearly no one.  Furthermore, what are we to make of Deuteronomy 18:18-19?  Moses was told:


I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.


     Jesus fulfilled this prophecy (Acts 3:22-24).  Are we to believe that the fulfillment lasted only the three years of Jesus’ public ministry?  The scope of the prophecy is far too broad for such a limited interpretation.  Jesus was a Lawgiver of the same magnitude as (even superior to) Moses. To insinuate that His law lasted only three years (as compared to 1500 years of Moses) is an insult to the Son of God.


     A third attempt to invalidate Jesus’ teaching is seen in the affirmation: “He was only explaining the law of Moses.”  What would be the purpose of clarifying the Law of Moses when it would shortly be eradicated anyway?  Jesus, in Matthew 19:9, went back beyond the Law of Moses to the very beginning as the basis for His teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage.  Besides, the law was nailed to the cross—not the law plus Jesus’ clarifications (Col. 2:14).


     The fact is that Jesus was teaching New Testament doctrine.  Resolving conflicts between brethren in Matt-hew 18:15-17 is not repeated anywhere else in the New Testament; was that just another clarification of the Law?  No, Jesus was teaching “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23), just as John had done in preparing the way for him (Mark 1:14).


     Most people can read Matthew 19:3-9 and understand it easily enough. Emotion, compassion, and life’s personal tragedies have clouded the vision and good judgment of a great many brethren. The problem is so severe that they will dispense with logic and grasp at any theory of man’s that comes along.  Like Baptists refusing to yield to the force of Mark 16:16 or Acts 2:38, they blindly and irrationally resist the truth, to their eternal shame and condemnation.


     A fourth way "around" Matthew 19:3-9 involves redefining what the word adultery means.  Some argue (vainly) that adultery is committed at the time the new marriage takes place: "Whoever marries another (except for sexual immorality) commits adultery."  Now who would have ever understood a sexual term like adultery to have merely referred to the ceremony itself? Only desperation could concoct such an explanation.


     But the attempt is futile because the Bible refutes this notion just as it does every other false doctrine. Herod had put away his wife, but not for adultery (at least, not on her part).  Then he married Herodias, his brother Philip's wife.  Did John condemn the marriage ceremony?  No, he condemned their ongoing relation-ship. It was not solely the entrance to the marriage that was wrong; it was continuing it that John condemned: "It is not lawful for you to have her."

     Yet we have people today who argue that, although it was wrong to enter such a relationship, it is okay to continue it.  If this explanation were true, John would not have been put to death.  Herod understood John's preaching to mean that he must give up Herodias. Had John permitted them to continue in the "marriage,” they would have had no reason to kill him.  Some members of the church will not tolerate God's Word on this subject today, either.  They have insisted that faithful preachers be fired (capital punishment not being allowed).  But all the disobedience in the world (or the church) will not change the truth taught herein.

     A fifth attempt to negate the force of Matthew 19:3-9 is to say that 1 Corinthians 7:15 (sometimes referred to as "the Pauline privilege") countermands what Jesus taught. "It is true," some will advocate, "that Jesus gave only one reason for divorce, but Paul gives a second one for Christians married to non-Christians."  The first question that comes to mind is that, since Jesus was setting forth the definitive passage on the subject, how is it that He neglected to mention this additional option? 

     This view presumes that Jesus' teaching was not directed at all people.  If Matthew 19:3-9 applies to all marriages, then there can be no further exceptions.  "But Paul says that, if the unbeliever departs, the Christian is not under bondage."  Below is what Paul wrote:

But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now are they holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace (1 Cor. 7:12-15).

     Some observations concerning this passage, what is said and what is not said, are in order.  In Corinth there were Christians married to non-Christians.  Such a situation could be created either by a Christian marrying a non-Christian or by one marriage partner obeying the Gospel while the other did not.  There were some questions that the brethren had asked Paul (1 Cor. 7: 1), which he now answers.

     Paul makes it clear that, if the unbeliever is willing to live with the believer, there should be no separation.  …..

They are not living in sin; their children are not illegitimate.  Their marriage is valid—even if they became husband and wife as sinners and one of them had since become a Christian.  Paul did not say that the marriage was invalid or that it needed to be done all over again.  Any one who is married before obeying the Gospel is married afterward, also.  Baptism does not change relationships!

     But what if the unbeliever is not happy with the new religion his partner has adopted?  What if he says, "I don't like the new you.  You used to stay home on Sundays and cook my dinner; now you're gone half the day with a bunch of people you never even knew before. Furthermore, you won't join me in the idolatrous activities we used to enjoy.  Then you ask me to quit swearing, and you won't even get drunk with me and go par-tying any more.  What kind of religion is it that won't let you have any fun?  You either give up this new god, Jesus, or I'm outta here."

     Of course there is no such conversation in the text, but there is evidence of a conflict of some kind, and the argument is over Jesus and His influence in the life of one who has been born again.

     A person is either content with the other's conversion to Christianity, or he is not.  If he does not mind, there is no problem; if he does, then there is discord. The solution is to let him depart—a brother or sister is “not under bondage” in such cases.

     The problem here arises in trying to define the phrase not under bondage.  Some have understand-ably concluded that the Christian is free to marry some-one else.  It does seem to be implied, doesn't it?  How can we know that drawing such an inference is incorrect?

     First of all, we know from the fact that Paul had just verified that they were in actuality married.  The two are husband and wife; can Paul then turn right around and say to the Christian, “But if he doesn’t like your being a Christian, go ahead and dump him and get somebody else”?  [If such were the case, a plethora of discontented husbands and wives would become Christians---just to make the change.]  Surely we cannot bring ourselves to believe that Paul would write so much about the importance and sanctity of marriage and then in one verse minimize and destroy all of the noble concepts that he labored so hard to establish.

     The second flaw in concluding that Paul is granting permission to divorce and remarry is that he does not specify anywhere in the text that remarriage may follow the departure.  Many infer that possibility from the phrase not under bondage, but he does not say any-thing further in that regard.

     The third objection to such an interpretation is that it does indeed countermand what Jesus taught.  He said that divorce could be obtained ONLY for sexual immorality.  Is Paul adding to what the Lord said, “AND IF YOUR MATE DOESN'T LIKE THE FACT THAT YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN”?  While Paul might reveal God's will on something Jesus never touched upon, he could not contradict anything the Lord had already specified so clearly.

     The fourth objection is that another explanation satisfies the context: the phrase not under bondage could mean something other than divorce and remarriage, such as "the brother or sister is not under bond-age to sacrifice his or her Christianity to satisfy the unbeliever," which fits the sentiment of the text.  If the unbeliever is content to dwell, there is no problem.  Departure arises from a discontented mate's dissatisfaction with Christianity.  If the choice for a woman involves giving up Christ or her husband, she is free to give up the mate.  She is not "bound" to keep her husband from leaving at the expense of her spiritual health and well-being.  If the unbeliever is content, let him dwell; if not, let him depart. This decision does not automatically free a person, however, to marry some-one else.

     How ironic that all five of these "explanations" of Matthew 19:3-9 contradict one another.  The "covenant" passage explanation excludes non-Christians from responsibility; the "Matthew is not part of the New Testament" idea absolves Christians and non-Christians alike, as does the "redefining of adultery" technique and the "Jesus was just clarifying the Law" gambit.  Finally, we have this strategy for Christians married to non-Christians to divorce and remarry, also.  There are only three categories into which married people fall (as the following chart shows):






      Confident and scholarly brethren have assured us that those in all three categories have the right to divorce and remarry.  Apparently, Jesus was preaching to what mathematics defines as the empty set (no elements in it).  When He spoke the words recorded in Matthew 19:3-9, He evidently made statements which applied to no one.  How unlike the Lord to so waste His time!  Or are some wasting our time in vain attempts to justify that which our Savior defined as sin?


*Send comments or questions concerning this article to Gary Summers. Please refer to this article as: "Whatever the article name from above is (12/14/04)."

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