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Written Debate:  "Biblical Putting Away"

First Affirmative
Terence Sheridan


I want to thank Harry Osborne for offering to debate me and Stan Cox for agreeing to provide space for publication of this debate in Watchman Magazine. I believe the subject under consideration is one of grave importance for the Lord's church. Therefore, I hope that good will come of this debate and that truth will be vindicated by it.

My affirmative is as follows:

    "The Scriptures teach that biblical putting away is synonymous with the civil procedure for divorce in one's respective society and that the innocent one must secure that civil divorce in order to have a right to remarry."

Now, it is customary for a disputant to define his terms as they are used in a given debate so as to avoid misunderstanding on the part of those evaluating his position. Here are some important terms to address and my respective definitions:

Putting away - The act of renouncing one's bond to a spouse.

Biblical putting away - The moment at which the Bible recognizes the act of putting away to be complete, regardless of cause (scriptural or unscriptural).

Civil procedure - A putting away in compliance with the prevailing norms, customs, and laws of one's respective society. It is "civil" in that the "law of the land" must be followed and it is a "procedure" in that certain steps must be taken.

Innocent one - A spouse in a divorce who has neither fornicated nor initiated a divorce proceeding for unscriptural reasons.

Having defined these terms, let us now turn to the matter under consideration: What is a biblical putting away, and why is it important to know what it is?

First and foremost, I should point out that marriage is a social contract. Two parties, a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24), enter into a binding agreement whereby their physical relationship is legitimized. The agreement makes known to others the state of the couple's relationship and defines how others are to view them. This is important to keep in mind. As Gene Frost states:

    Marriage is a covenantal relationship. "Marriage," as defined in the dictionary, is "the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife." (The American Heritage Dictionary.) This definition is useful in that it discriminates between differing sexual relations. Not all unions constitute marriages. Two people just living together are not by that fact married. There must be the aspect of recognition of the union by authority. In the case of marriage, it is the authority established by society, whether legal or custom. ("Marriage and Divorce in Various Cultures," Gospel Anchor, 5/24/2001)

Since human beings live in social arrangements and come into contact with others, marriage must of necessity be a public institution. How else could the activities and affairs of a couple be accounted for and assimilated into the broader fabric of humanity, especially when familial obligations are involved? Hence, one sees both in the Bible and secular history the formation of marriages as social contracts. Nowhere in the Bible is this process per se declared invalid. On the contrary, the Bible suggests that human beings are to submit to the "laws of the land" in this matter (Romans 13:1-7). To quote brother Frost again:

    Marriage is not a secret arrangement; it is an open arrangement in which the man "leaves father and mother to cleave unto his wife," and she to become his companion and helper. (Genesis 2:24, 18; Malachi 2:14.) Together, as "one flesh," they face life in all that it offers. When this takes place, it is an event that is of public notice. It is above the scandal of two people just "living together"; the society in which they live have verifiable evidence of their marriage. They can know when and where the vows were exchanged and how it was ratified. (ibid.)

So we see that marriage by its very nature is a public and civil entity.

Now, what holds true in the formation of a marriage holds true in its dissolution. When the marriage no longer functions, society must be apprised of this fact so that it may know how to conduct itself with respect to the concerned couple. Again, this is because marriage is a civil entity. Certain steps must be taken if a couple is to no longer be regarded as married. Consider what Brother Frost says:

    ...Divorcement requires a legal procedure. There must be a public confirmation, a validation, a record as to when and where the marriage was annulled. It is a matter of public record. To suggest that marriages or divorcements may be forthcoming with disregard to civil action, ignoring the conventions of society and the laws of the State is repugnant. If such were the case, the marital scene would be thrown into utter chaos. (ibid.)

Thus, as my position indicates, it can be said that one has put away his spouse only when he follows the "civil procedure" for divorce in his respective society.

This "civil procedure" requires three elements:

  1. One must renounce the marriage bond. This is self-evident or else the person would not be the one doing the putting away.

  2. One must comply with the "law of the land." He must obey civil government as Romans 13 clearly teaches.

  3. The governing authorities and thus the community must bear testimony to a marriage no longer functioning (i.e., a divorce). Number 3 is a logical extension of Number 2, since if a divorce is not recognized by the state, then the requirements of the state apparently have not been satisfied.

If we grant the above to be true, then we must contemplate the application and ramifications for such a position. Let us consider the following hypothetical situation:

Bob falls in love with Susie and cheats on his wife Betty. He says to Betty, "I don't love you anymore and I'm divorcing you to move in with Susie." Betty doesn't want the divorce, nonetheless Bob files for a divorce. Betty fights the divorce every step of the way, contesting the whole affair. The court finally gives judgement to Bob.

Now what happened? Simple. Bob has put Betty away. He (1) renounced his bond with Betty; (2) complied with civil law; and (3) obtained civil recognition that the marriage is no longer functioning. What about Betty? Simple. She is "put away." It does not matter how innocent Betty was or how reprehensible and unfaithful Bob was. Betty is still the "put away" party and the Bible recognizes this to be true. The Bible has not said or implied otherwise, therefore we are not at liberty to go beyond what is written in this matter (1 Corinthians 4:5-6; 1 Peter 4:11).

What are the ramifications of this fact? If one grants that Matthew 5:32b teaches no "put away" party can remarry, then Betty and those like her can't remarry. This may seem harsh and draconian, but this the logical and consistent application of what conservative brethren have taught down through the years. It is does no good for one to argue that some innocent "put away" people can turn around and do the putting away for fornication, but not others. Either all can or all can't. To teach otherwise is to teach an unscriptural doctrine for which sound brethren must show zero tolerance. Why? Because we are not at liberty to make up new creeds about how marriages are contracted and dissolved, showing respect of persons (James 2:1). We must follow the Bible. Moreover, if one holds to the doctrine that a remarriage on Betty's part is unscriptural, adulterous, and soul-damning, has he not the right to denounce preachers who would allow Betty and those like her to remarry?

How could have the wife in my hypothetical situation fared better? How could she put away Bob for fornication and yet keep herself from being what the Bible recognizes as "put-away"? Simple. She needed to (1) renounce her bond with Bob; (2) comply with civil law; and (3) obtain civil recognition that the marriage is no longer functioning. She needed to do this before Bob did. She needed to do it for the cause of Bob's fornication if she wanted to remarry.

But if it was the husband in my hypothetical situation that did the putting away, then it matters not if his putting away was scriptural or unscriptural. Betty is still the "put away" woman as far as the Bible is concerned. I am certain some will object to my position. But consider the following points:

  1. The Greek word for "put-away" (apoluo) in Matthew 5:32 and Jesus' other divorce sayings is defined as to "let go, send away, dismiss" (Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek Lexicon, 2nd ed.). Obviously in the context of the divorce sayings, the word has to do with what a person attempts against his spouse, justly or unjustly. The word does not inhere in its meaning anything that points to the guilt or innocence of the one doing the putting away. If innocence or guilt was a deciding factor and the Bible only recognized innocent people doing the putting away, then there would be no such thing as an unscriptural putting away. Who can believe it?

  2. Where does it say in the Bible that a guilty fornicator's unscriptural attempt to put away doesn't count, but another man's unscriptural attempt to put away does count? The Bible doesn't make these distinctions, so why do we? On the contrary, I believe the Bible supports the three elements of a biblical putting away that I described above. Once a person has (a) renounced his bond with his spouse; (b) complied with civil law; and (c) obtained civil recognition that the marriage is no longer functioning, then he has put away his spouse! There are no additional elements in Bible that speak to the guilt or innocence of the one doing the putting away.

  3. If brethren argue that there is no set procedure in the Bible for how an innocent party puts away a guilty fornicator, then there is no set procedure, period! That means one can't object to what is known as the "waiting game" (viz., two people in a no-fault divorce wait for each other to remarry/commit adultery in order to justify their own remarriage). A person in such a situation can merely object that the first putting away didn't really count but the second one did. Everyone can do what "is right in their own eyes" and call their own actions the putting away that counts. Who can believe it?

  4. If civil procedure is not necessary, then a put-away woman may discount her husband's civil action (since it doesn't figure into the equation) and then mentally put him away when he remarries. This may be done in spite of the fact he may have not fornicated when he first divorced her. This is the classic "mental divorce" position espoused by some influential brethren, plain and simple. Yet, some brethren will object to my position and yet also claim to object to the "mental divorce" position. Who can believe it?

  5. How can one ignore what civil law dictates in this matter? If a woman decides to put away her husband for fornication, but ignores the civil law, should we uphold the divorce even though she violated Romans 13? If she remarries and the law punishes her for bigamy, do we defy the law and protect her? If we do, we are forced to the conclusion the law should recognize her divorce and remarriage, thus making the law of the land void and useless. Who can believe it?

  6. If civil procedure doesn't count, then does one put away his spouse the moment he says in fit of rage over the breakfast table, "Oooooo! I can't stand you! You're such a total shrew!!! I'm divorcing you." Does he suddenly become an ex-husband at that point? Suppose he later says, "Baby, I was such a jerk. I am so sorry for being ill with you. Please forgive me." Does he have to walk his wife down the aisle again to restore the relationship? If civil procedure doesn't count, then it's anybody's guess. Who can believe it?

  7. If civil procedure and the norms of society don't count in the matter of divorce, what about marriage? Suppose Britney, a pre-teen falls in love with Jason, an older teenager. What if they just declare themselves married in order to satisfy their urges? Who can believe it?

  8. In this society if we want to take possession of a house, car, etc. there are certain civil procedures we must respect. The same goes when we renounce our possession of these things. I know of no Christian that argues with this, and yet some brethren apparently take issue when the same logic is applied to the social contract of marriage. Who can believe it?

One can see from the these points the theological can of worms people open when they reject my position and reject the civil procedure for divorce that I outlined. When one realizes this; realizes that we are to honor the laws of our society (Romans 13); and realizes that marriages have been made and broken in societies for generations according to set norms and laws, then my position can only be seen as the correct approach. To say otherwise is go against the Scriptures and sound logic.

First Affirmative: Terence Sheridan; First Negative: Harry Osborne
Second Affirmative: Terence Sheridan; Second Negative: Harry Osborne

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