Email Author
Return to this issue
Return to Current Issue

A Review of the Neubauer-Maxwell Debate on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage
Steve Wallace

On August 25-26th, 2000, two of our institutional brethren squared off in a discussion on marriage, divorce and remarriage. The two disputants were Holger Neubauer, assistant to the president at Tennessee Bible College in Cookeville, TN, and James Maxwell, vice-president of Southwest Christian College in Terrell, TX. The debate took place in Monroeville, AL and was sparked by differences among brethren in a church there.

The propositions and content of the debate are pertinent to issues facing conservative brethren. On Friday evening, the proposition was,

    The Holy Scriptures teach that Non-Christians in an adulterous marriage can repent and be baptized and continue in the marriage, being sanctified and justified.

Brother Maxwell affirmed and brother Neubauer denied. On Saturday afternoon, brother Neubauer was in the affirmative on the following proposition:

    The Holy Scriptures teach that repentance requires that Non-Christians in an adulterous marriage sever the marriage before being baptized.

Hopefully, this review will be a helpful contribution to the study of this issue. Brother Neubauer was well prepared and thorough in both the negative and affirmative. In his defense of error, brother Maxwell made some arguments worthy of attention if only for the purpose of preparing brethren to answer them. This review is intended as an overview of the debate, rather than a point by point report.

  1. Those baptized on Pentecost. Brother Maxwell argued that, among the converts in Acts 2, were those who had divorced and remarried according to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, i.e., that had not divorced their mates for the cause of fornication. While affirming from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 that Non-Christians must get out of adulterous marriages before being baptized, brother Neubauer pointed out that there were problems in Acts 2 of overlapping laws. He noted that we do not have that problem today.

  2. The definition of adultery. Brother Maxwell's handout on the first night included the statement that, "The adultery in Matthew 19:9 is not sexual sin, but putting away a spouse and remarrying." Brother Maxwell believes this definition only applies to Non-Christians in adulterous marriages. Hence, he opened himself to a two-pronged assault from brother Neubauer. Brother Neubauer asked how adultery could be figurative in Matthew 19:9 and fornication physical. He also noted how a word ought to be understood according to its normal definition unless the context demanded otherwise. He further showed the consequences of brother Maxwell's position by pointing out that one might argue that his wife had committed fornication in a figurative way, by apostatizing and joining the Baptist church, and divorce her for this reason. He pointedly asked if adultery and fornication could be figurative, then why could not marriage be also? With regards to brother Maxwell's saying the non-sexual adultery in Matthew 19:9 only applied to Christians, brother Neubauer made the following observation: If brother Maxwell believes Matthew 19:9 teaches a Christian in an unscriptural marriage must divorce, he has answered his own argument with regards to the Non-Christian in such a marriage. (Matthew 19:9 regulates all marriages as proved by brother Maxwell's own appeal to it.)

  3. Those under God's marriage law. Brother Neubauer noted that a covenant is not binding only on the condition that all parties agree to it. All are under the covenants mentioned or implied in Genesis 9:12ff and Mark 16:15 whether they agree to them or not. He cited, "What things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law" (Rom. 3:19) and, citing Mark 16:15, asked if Christ's law speaks to Non-Christians today. He made another point from 1 Corinthians 5:1, noting that, according to brother Maxwell's doctrine, all the fornicator in that text would have had to do was convert his father's wife and he would have then been able to keep her! He observed the "whoso- ever" in Matthew 19:9 is not any more limited in application than "all" in Romans 3:23. He made a further argument based on Onesimus. He noted that Onesimus was an alien when he ran away from Philemon, had done wrong as a Non-Christian (vs. 11, 18-19) and that his conversion did not rectify his wrong (v. 10). Therefore, as an alien, Onesimus was subject to God's law and repentance required him to rectify his wrong.

  4. What does repentance require? Predictably, repentance was kicked around a lot in this debate. Brother Maxwell believes it simply requires the alien who has been unscripturally divorced and remarried to resolve to never do such a thing again. One of brother Neubauer's charts dealt with Herod and Herodias' marriage (Mk. 6:17-18). He noted both John's commanding those who came to his baptism to "bring forth fruits meet for repentance" (Matt. 3:8) and his rebuke of Herod's marriage to Herodias. He then asked if their marriage could have been made right by John's simply baptizing Herod and Herodias. Brother Maxwell later noted that their marriage was contrary to the Law of Moses and that Herod was a Jew. Brother Neubauer noted this dodge and pointed out that, at Pentecost, repentance would require Herod and Herodias to leave their marriage.

  5. The force of implication. On the first night, brother Maxwell's handout to the audience included two places appealing to "command, approved example, and necessary inference." However, as the debate wore on, he seemed to sour on the latter of these three. He objected that brother Neubauer was "resting his whole case on necessary inference." Brother Neubauer answered by asking how one knows that a command is a command or that an example is an example but by implication. He asked how James Maxwell knew that he could be a Christian, noting that his name was not expressly written in the Bible.

  6. Restitution. Brother Maxwell admitted he believed in restitution but believes it is not always required. One of the high points of the debate was when he made the following argument from Matthew 18:23-27: He noted that the Lord forgave the servant his great debt, that restitution was not required, and that he could keep his wife! (v. 25) Brother Neubauer responded that it was not up to the individual who owed the money to forgive the debt, but to the person to whom it was owed, thus showing God's part in matters involving forgiveness. He also noted that there was a second man in the parable. If the parable applied to keeping adulterous mates, then the one hundred pence man could have stolen the ten thousand talent man's wife, and the ten thousand talent man would have been forced to accept it.

  7. Terms in the debate. As with many debates some terminology came to the fore in this one. One case of this was brother Maxwell's arguing that God does not regulate marriages in the world while admitting that God recognizes adulterous marriages in the world. Brother Neubauer cited 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and noted Non-Christians were regulated by God's word from the fact that some Corinthians had turned from the sins listed therein. In answer to brother Maxwell's further questions, he further noted that a person in the world was obligated to worship God but not qualified to do so. (A non-Christian is qualified to marry. Hence, he is qualified and obligated to get out of an unscriptural marriage.) Another case of this came up when brother Maxwell asked him if he would tell Non-Christians to fast and pray (1 Cor. 7:5). Brother Neubauer answered that, just because such a one is not qualified does not mean he is not under that law, in the same manner that all men are obligated to be baptized, but not qualified until they believe and repent.


While this brief review does not do justice to the debate, hopefully it has helped contribute to the study of marriage, divorce and remarriage by furthering the material it contains. We are thankful for the willingness of these men to discuss their convictions and for their good deportment during the debate. Debates can do good.

(Audio and video tapes of the debate are available through Tennessee Bible College, P.O. Box 865, Cookeville, TN 38503-0865)