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Written Debate:  "Biblical Putting Away"

Second Negative
Harry Osborne


Brother Sheridan's difficulties with the words "the Scriptures teach" continue. He has produced no Bible text proving that "biblical putting away is synonymous with the civil procedure for divorce in one's respective society." He asserts that Romans 13 sustains his proposition, but fails to make any argument from the text. There is no disagreement about the need to obey civil law. Our disagreement regards whether human law binds God's judgments and defines divine precepts regarding marriage and the sundering of marriage. Terence would have us reinterpret and redefine the Scripture by ever-changing human law throughout history rather than interpreting and defining the Bible term "put away" by principles given in Scripture. Yes, we must obey civil law where it does not conflict with God's law (1 Peter 2:13-17). But Scripture must take precedence in spiritual principles taught in God's word (Acts 5:29).

Furthermore, Terence has not shown where "the Scriptures teach" that "the innocent one must secure that civil divorce in order to have a right to remarry." In fact, his second affirmative resorted to ambiguous terminology replacing his explicit claim that an innocent Betty in a divorce for fornication needed to act "before" guilty Bob. Terence denies believing in the "race to the courthouse," but affirms that "a putting away occurs only when the spouse's intent is fully realized and civil government has officially recognized that intent." When and where does Terence claim that official recognition of divorce occurs? He has plainly stated it is in the courthouse when the judge grants the divorce to the party filing the petition. No, this attempt at obfuscation does not help Terence. In a no-fault divorce state where the guilty husband filed first and that petition is granted by the judge, Terence would deny that an innocent wife could put away that guilty party despite any counter-suit filed, protest of the real cause before the court, renouncing of the guilty party for fornication before the elders or the church, a finding of fault in the child custody case following the divorce action, or any other action taken showing the true cause for the sundering of the marriage.

Though his position was untenable, I respected Terence's effort to openly take the consequences of his position in his first affirmative. The effort to distance himself from it in the second affirmative merely demonstrates the fact that error seeks cover when exposed. Do not be misled. Terence's position necessarily makes biblical putting away a legal "race" judged by man rather than a matter judged on divinely given principles.

By the way, why did Terence fail to answer the questions regarding his Betty and Bob scenario? Whatever happened when Betty protested before the judge and the elders about guilty Bob's fornication as the real cause for the divorce? If Terence conceded that there is another way for Betty to put Bob away if civil law denies her any legal recourse, he would be forced to concede that (a) biblical putting away is not synonymous with the civil divorce procedure in Betty's case and (b) innocent Betty is not required to secure that civil divorce in order to have a right to remarry. Consequently, his affirmation would fail. Terrence's hypothetical case did not help him, but left him with problems necessitating his abandonment of the point most prominent in his first affirmative.

In his second affirmative, Terence cited five passages and examined none of them. We examined numerous passages using the Greek word apoluo, translated "put away" in Matthew 19 and related passages, and showed it has no inherent reference to civil divorce. He said he agrees. We examined the parallel use of the Greek words apoluo, choridzo, and aphiemi in all texts related to this topic, showing those words are used interchangeably and do not imply the civil procedure mandated by Terence. He said he agrees. We noted that the passive voice of choridzo is used synonymously with the active voice of apoluo, thus showing the stress is not on who secures a civil procedure even if the words did have reference to civil action. Terence ignored the point. We noted, paralleling Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12, that a woman under first-century Jewish law could "put away" her husband for the cause of fornication and marry another even though she could not act to secure the divorce by the civil procedure of that society. Terence called it a "moot" point and ignored the Scriptures. In fact, these passages clearly prove Jesus allowed that which Terence denies. Having failed to answer one scriptural argument after another, Terence ignored the rest of Scripture and said that his case "rests upon necessary inference from Romans 13."

If Terence's case "rests upon necessary inference from Romans 13," that passage must necessarily imply all elements of his proposition. Where does this passage necessarily imply that the innocent party must be the one who acts to secure the civil divorce? Where does it necessarily imply that the civil procedure defines the only means by which the innocent party may renounce and depart from the guilty spouse for the cause of fornication? If a fornicating husband filed and secured the civil divorce despite the innocent wife's renunciation before the court, the church and neighbors noting his fornication as the true cause for the marriage being sundered, then civil law has been fulfilled as Romans 13 teaches. However, Romans 13 neither teaches nor implies that the judge has the right to act by civil decree binding God's determination of who "put away" the other.

To illustrate the point, when two people enter a business contract, it is morally binding when each gives his word and meets the conditions agreed upon by the parties involved. It does not matter who files the legal papers. God holds us to our agreements at the point of our promise, not at the action of a civil court (Matthew 5:33-37). Human law seeks to establish property rights in such cases, but its decisions do not necessarily coincide with God's determination made on divine principles. Yes, a Christian must seek to fulfill the requirements of civil law in business, but civil law does not always determine true rights and responsibilities. If one partner extorts funds, but is exonerated in civil court, he is nonetheless an extortionist as judged by divine principles. Our legal system can and does sometimes fail to find truth. Regardless of the failures of human law, divine principles define and uphold biblical concepts.

Brother Sheridan would have us believe that civil law takes precedence over divine law in all matters except one. He says, "We cannot disobey the law of the land with respect to 'God-given rights' but only with respect to God-given responsibilities." In other words, Terence affirms that civil law has the power to nullify all liberties and rights given by God. Ought we to accept this proposition? First, let us test Terence's theory.

Since having children is a God-given liberty in marriage, what must Christians do in China where the law limits every family to one child? All subsequent or unintended pregnancies must be reported to the government, which then forces the mother to have an abortion. Would it be sinful for two Chinese Christians to have a second child? What would Terence have them do to repent? Would it be sinful for parents to flee or hide the child? No, because the law forcing the situation is not a legitimate use of governmental power.

When civil law forbids marriage, is the God-given right of marriage nullified? Clearly, marriage is a God-given right or liberty, not a command (1 Corinthians 7:6-7). Furthermore, numerous historical cases could be cited wherein civil law forbade some from the God-given liberty of marriage. What would Terence say about the following people forbidden by civil law from marrying? Were they condemned by God if they married?

  1. The 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws deprived German Jews of all citizenship rights. Since Jews had no rights of citizenship, they had no marriage right. All Jewish marriages were considered illegitimate. Those laws were followed by The Law for the Protection of the Genetic Health of the German People, which required all persons seeking marriage to have a medical examination, after which a "Certificate of Fitness to Marry" could be issued. The certificate was required for a marriage license, but certificates were not granted to Jews, Poles and many others (see International Military Tribunal records).

  2. Slavery in the United States was governed by an extensive body of law. All slave codes made slavery a permanent condition, inherited through the mother, and defined slaves as property, usually in the same terms as those applied to real estate. Slaves, being property, could not own property or be a party to a contract. Since marriage is a form of a contract, no slave marriage had any legal standing (American Treasures of the Library of Congress: MEMORY, Slavery in the Capitol; also Francis and Others v. Tazewell and Others, Supreme Court Of Virginia).

If Terence's doctrine is applied in the above cases, it would forbid one to marry in those societies. But how does Scripture view such a doctrine? By inspiration, Paul characterized edicts forbidding the exercise of the God-given liberty of marriage:

    But the Spirit saith expressly, that in later times some shall fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men that speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats... (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

If a government does the "forbidding to marry," does God require Christians to submit to that doctrine of demons? Obviously not! Those who would bind such a doctrine are condemned in clear and forceful terms. If Terence urges submission to the devil's doctrine, he treads a path we dare not follow!

In addition to the foregoing, it should be noted that there are other far-reaching consequences to Terence's teaching that civil law is the absolute determinant of divine terminology (i.e. that "put away" = civil divorce procedure). If that is true, the definition for "put away" varies in every culture with each set of new human laws. We must take human law and then read it into the text to interpret the text. But if that works for "put away," why would it not also work for "murder"? Does God allow civil law in one's respective society to be the absolute determinant of defining murder as used in the Bible? If we must let human law define murder, abortion cannot be called murder because civil law in our society says that abortion is not murder. Would Terence argue that civil law defines and determines the meaning of murder as used in the Bible? A technically legal "con game" artist could not "steal" if civil law in one's respective society determines the definition of the Bible word steal.

Note the parallel to this debate. Jesus granted the right for one spouse to "put away" the other for the cause of that guilty spouse's fornication. It is not commanded that one do so, but it is allowed. According to Terence, this God-given liberty to"put away" must be defined solely by the civil procedure in one's respective society. Thus, Terence concludes that an innocent spouse, taking civil action to put away a fornicating spouse, must secure that civil action before the guilty. However, this puts him in conflict with the teaching of Jesus.

Jewish law did not recognize the possibility of a woman taking the civil action necessary for divorce against her husband (see uncontested citations from my first negative). Suppose a Jewish man committed fornication with another woman and decided he liked her better, then wrote a bill of divorce for his wife and gave it to her. That fulfilled the civil action and the legal requirements. The innocent wife had no civil procedure available whereby she could be defined as the one securing that civil action. No matter what the cause, the civil procedure could not be taken by the wife. According to Terence, this would preclude an innocent Jewish wife from putting away a husband after the gospel came into effect, even if he was openly guilty of fornication.

However, Jesus affirmed a woman in that society could "put away" a man even though no civil action by the woman was permitted by the law then governing Judea (Mark 10:12). If the "putting away" was for the cause of fornication, Jesus' teaching of Matthew 19:9 would affirm her right to marry another. If she "put away" the man in this case, it would have to be by a procedure other than her securing the divorcement under Jewish law. Despite repeated appeals to this teaching by Christ, Terence has failed to answer it. If Terence's teaching is right that "put away" must be defined by the civil law in one's respective society, a woman could not do what Jesus said she could do. If Jesus is right (and He is), Terence's teaching is false. Whether he understands it or not, the plain teaching of Jesus devastates Terence's position!

One additional element in Terence's affirmative calls for review. My first negative noted that the procedure of writing a bill of divorcement per Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was specified in Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9 and related passages. Terence was asked why he did not require the procedure specified in the text if a procedure was being mandated by Christ. Terence replied that he was "not binding a specific civil procedure," but was "saying one must abide by the procedures in place in one's respective society." Terence also said:

    The Bible teaches by necessary inference as well as by explicit command. So even though there is no explicit "civil procedure, no filing, no judicial proceeding, no court or civil institution, no judge, no legal record, no judgement," etc. these are nonetheless implied by Romans 13.

Do we see what Terence is doing? He finds a specific procedure where it is not specified, and ignores the procedure where it is specified. He requires that human law define and control biblical "putting away" by whatever civil procedure it determines, then elevates that humanly devised procedure to a biblical necessary inference on equality with an "explicit command" of God. In the meantime, he rejects as non-binding the very procedure specified by Jesus in the context. Why? If one admits that Jesus abrogated the provisions of Deuteronomy 24, the associated procedure must also have been abolished. That leaves us with the principles given by Christ which focus on the cause for putting away. Where no cause of fornication exists for sundering a marriage, neither has the right to remarry. Where the scriptural cause of fornication does exist for sundering a marriage, the innocent spouse with a scriptural cause or reason for departing from the marriage has the right to remarry. Brethren, it is just that simple. Jesus did not legislate a procedure for sundering marriage. He legislated a cause. Let us leave it there and not add to God's law.

Brother Sheridan closed his second affirmative by noting that brethren are experiencing "alienation" over this issue. Sadly, I must agree. If brethren heed Terence's plea for severing fellowship from those who cannot concur with his views, more alienation will result. Sadly, Terence is not alone in this plea. Though some may be bent on division, there is another path. It is the Bible path of forbearance and open discussion in seeking to apply principles left generic by God. Some brethren who would urge the innocent party to file the civil action of divorce cannot agree with those subordinating God's law to human edicts. Brethren who agree that fornication must precede biblical putting away if the innocent has a right to remarry are being divided because they will not submit to binding an additional test of fellowship which is neither commanded, exemplified nor implied in Scripture. I count myself among that number. I have never taught that sundering marriage is merely a mental act or that one could remarry after a marriage is sundered without scriptural cause, even if fornication was later committed by either party. Terence's effort to attribute such positions to me is refuted by the fact that I have publicly opposed those ideas for more than twenty years.

Current tensions over this issue threaten to make us lose sight of the real battle we face and leave us side-tracked in needless division. In the institutional division, we did not allow the liberals to divert us from the real issue of who (the church or benevolent societies) to the "how" of caring for needy saints. It was wise of brethren then not to allow such a diversion from the overall issue. In the same way, let us not allow some to divert us from the real issue, namely, that one may sunder a marriage and remarry only for the cause of fornication. Let us keep our focus there. Those who promote unscriptural and adulterous marriages are getting away "scot-free" and are caricaturing us as fractious fanatics. They know the pressure is off of them as long as we focus exclusively on this area of discussion. They are using present alienation over this issue as an occasion to claim that we cannot agree on "divorce and remarriage" in general, thus, throwing the door wide open to total unity-in-diversity. Let us not aid, even unwittingly, that evil agenda. May God help us to seek unity in matters of truth, liberty in matters of opinion, and open discussion in an effort to reach that goal. My right hand of fellowship remains extended to those holding as matters of personal conscience views similar to Terence's. If division comes, I will not initiate it. Dear brother or sister, are you ready to initiate division over this issue? Can you honestly say it pleases God to bind the decrees of man as if they were the law of God?

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

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