Associate Editorial

Fellowship and the Divorce Controversy

“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness....Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and You shall be my sons and daughters’ saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:14-18).

Please notice in particular that part of this scripture which raises the question, “What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?” and “What communion has light with darkness?”

Does this scripture teach that we must not have fellowship with all unrighteousness or may we have fellowship with some unrighteousness?

Does this scripture teach that we must not have communion with all darkness or that we may have communion with some darkness?

Is it right to pick and choose which unrighteousness and which darkness we may retain in our fellowship?

Strangely enough, there are prominent and esteemed Christians in our generation who are advocating that we may, indeed, have fellowship with some unrighteous deeds, some works of darkness. Of course, when this is promoted, it is always with a disclaimer that certain rules will allow some sins to be included in fellowship but other rules will keep other sins out. The perplexing question is: “What principle of scripture will allow us to have fellowship with any sin?” Our text lends no comfort to the concept. God says we must not have fellowship with any unrighteousness or any darkness. Do we believe this or give it lip service, like the Pharisees? How much fellowship with sin may we allow?

Is Fellowship Elastic?

The divorce issue, so much a part of the American social fabric, has generated a study of the fellowship question which has (and will) extend far beyond the issue of divorce itself. If faulty principles are espoused which will permit fellowship with those in adulterous marriage, those same principles will be applied to many other areas of controversy. The mental gymnastics which many use to obfuscate and obliterate the definitions of God’s marriage laws, once in place, will also be applied to other areas of unauthorized practice. In fact, it is already being done and those same esteemed brethren who are so willing to extend fellowship in situations which include adulterous marriages are opening doors which will not be closed on this one issue. .Near-sightedness in this one area is blinding many to the obvious applications to fellowship with other deeds of unrighteousness and darkness. Some seem to want fellowship to be elastic enough to expand and include fellowship in areas suitable to their wants and needs, but do not want fellowship to expand for just everything. Yes, they want fellowship to stretch far enough to include those in adulterous marriages, but not stretch out to include instrumental music; stretch far enough to allow the “alien who would come to God” to be in fellowship, but not those who practice institutionalism.

Some brethren have gone so far as to invoke arbitrary rules whereby some sins may be included in our fellowship while denying it to others. Brother Bob Owen would restrict sins to those which would not be “group activity” (congregational action, tr), which would not “shame the group” (as in 1 Cor. 5), which would not be “disruptive” or “destructive” to the group, and which the “local group” might decide to allow. (To read brother Owen’s complete transcripts of these sermons, please go to and look under “Special Studies.”) “In the context of a series of discussions on the marriage question,” brother Owen presented his views on why we may have fellowship with those who differ with us about marriage, divorce and remarriage. But unanswered are the questions that arise about sins of a different sort: individual sins, sins that do not shame the group, sins that are not disruptive. What about the sin of gambling. Can our fellowship be elastic enough to include the gambler who is private in his practice of this unrighteousness, who does not shame the church with it, who is not disruptive with it? What about fornication that is discreet? The practice of homosexuality? The belief of premillennialism? You see, each of these may be believed and practiced without violating the group activity, shaming the group or being disruptive to the local fellowship. A local church may just decide to turn a blind eye to those who practice such things (local autonomy). Does this change unrighteousness to righteousness? Does it turn darkness to light? Do these arbitrary rules permit fellowship to be elastic in some areas but not in others?

Is Truth Not Clear?

Others have suggested that the scriptural teaching about divorce is too complex, to hard to understand. Again, brother Owen (along with others) have taught that there are so many positions on adulterous marriages that one cannot be sure where the truth lies. “I know one preacher that put together fifteen, what he considered fifteen different views on the divorce and remarriage issue....but brethren, there are differences among honorable, sincere, devoted, gospel preachers of great respect and reputation who differ over that matter” (Ibid).

If there is a lack of clarity about God’s law on marriage and divorce (which I emphatically deny), may we also claim that there is a lack of clarity on instrumental music, institutionalism, hermeneutics, baptism, church organization, etc., etc.

If God is not clear with his precepts, who is to blame or who can be held accountable? Shall we just throw up our hands and say, “Who can be sure about anything, so let’s have fellowship with all?” Many have taken this approach and it is abroad in the land of denominationalism. Will it become the modus operandi for churches of Christ as it has for the Christian Church? Does the lack of understanding on the part of some indict God for not speaking distinctly? Is it right for me to make the quantum leap from ignorance of truth to fellowship with error, unrighteousness and darkness? Why then the statement by Paul, “Hereby when you read, you may perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). “Be not foolish, but understand the will of the Lord” (Eph. 5:17). “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32).

It is shameful to hear brethren claim that the truth is not clear. This caveat opens the door to other issues even greater than the fellowship issue! If the revelation of God’s truth is not sent to guide us in our beliefs and practices, what is our claim about being God’s people all about? Shall we just take our seat on the Ministerial Alliance and play games with religion? Was the Law of Moses not distinctive to Israel? Is the gospel of Christ not distinctive to New Testament Christians? If truth is not knowable, then we are spinning our wheels in the sand pit of ignorance and have no reason to criticize those of any denomination who claim honesty and sincerity while practicing denominational theology.

Are Adulterous Marriages “Unrighteous” and “Darkness”?

Is it possible to know the truth of God about approved marriages and adulterous marriages? Are we doomed to be forever unsure of the teaching of Christ?

Let me suggest that the truth is clear and distinctive. The babel of voices that claim exceptions beyond the law of Christ are loud and weighty. But they all have one thing in common: each of them may arrive at their error in a different fashion, but they all believe that men may do exactly what Jesus has forbidden. If the law of Christ is so unclear, why is it that all error claims that the guilty put-away fornicator may remarry and be right with God? Is error so clear and truth so unclear?

John the Baptist had no trouble seeing the will of God. He told Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Mt. 14:4). Is an unlawful marriage righteous or unrighteous; darkness or light?

Jesus had no trouble stating the will of God. “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality (fornication, KJV) causes her to commit adultery; and whosoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Mt. 5:31-32).

“And I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Mt. 19:9).

Paul had no trouble teaching the same truth as Jesus. “Or do you not know, brethren, (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is not adulteress, though she has married another man” (Rom. 7:1-3).

This is clear and unequivocal truth. Though men may create havoc and confusion by attempting to re-define adultery to exclude sexual activity, claim “Pauline privilege” for another exception, attempt to make another law for aliens, confuse the covenants, etc., all such attempts are but efforts to escape the clear light of truth. All faithful preachers have had to go down these “rabbit trails” after the false teachers who hop around trying to find a loophole for their infidelity. The sheer number of rabbit trails has led many to believe that it is truth that is complex and not understandable. But let it be known that every error can be met and the truth of God has not changed. The truth of God about baptism has met with the same infidelity among those who seek to escape the force of truth. But baptism still remains exactly where God put it in the plan of salvation and all the confusing tactics of error will not change it one whit. Likewise, God’s law on marriage (one man, one woman, for life, with one exception) remains the same regardless of all the machinations of those who want to give error the appearance of truth.


The scriptures teach clearly that we must not have fellowship with fruits of unrighteousness or darkness. While some brethren apply this uniformly to sinful practices like instrumental music, institutionalism, etc., they are willing to forsake truth and extend fellowship to unrighteous divorces. Is it any less sinful to live in an adulterous marriage than it is to worship God with an organ? May we play “hopscotch” like children and include some sins in fellowship while excluding others? If so, who has the definitive list of which sins may be included but which sins must be excluded? Who has the rules which permit such arbitrary action toward righteousness and darkness?

Dangerous times face the people of God. Some are so intent on extending fellowship to those in sin that they will be sweet and merciful to those who believe and practice error but speak in vilest of terms to those and of those who hold to God’s truth. Let us determine to be patient and longsuffering to those who differ with us in these areas while we continue to communicate and study God’s word. But let us not lose sight of the fact that, to have fellowship with God, we must “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord.” I love my brethren, but I love God more and my allegiance must be to him without a moment’s hesitation.

Email Tom Roberts

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