A Race to the Courthouse
In the January 2001 issue of Watchman Magazine1, Terence Sheridan and Harry Osborne debated the following proposition under the heading, "Biblical Putting Away."
Sheridan affirmed the proposition, while Osborne denied it. In defense of his proposition, Sheridan used an example of a woman who was innocent of fornication, and divorced by her adulterous mate. In order for said woman to have complied with God's law as per Matthew 19:9, Sheridan stated:
While we do not deny that the woman is required by God's law to renounce her bond to the man, and comply with civil law, the claim that she had to initiate the procedure and obtain the civil judgment is a position which cannot be sustained by the scriptures. Osborne did a good job of answering Sheridan's contentions, and those interested are encouraged to visit the Watchman site, and read the entire debate2. Note the following scriptural and logical fallacies to the position:
Subjugates the Divine to the Civil
In the debate Sheridan indicated that if civil government declared a woman had no right to divorce that she could not put away an adulterous husband, (a condition of Jesus' time), though you note that Jesus touched upon that very possibility in Mark 10:12). Sheridan further indicated that in a society in which divorce was totally outlawed, neither man or woman would have the right to put away an adulterous spouse.
Such a position is absurd, and fraught with obvious consequences. Imagine a society that outlaws marriage! (The Nazi regime denied this right to the German Jews, and the same sad condition was present with regard to slavery laws in the United States prior to the Civil War). Would the Christian then not have the right to a mate? Or, imagine the conundrum of the Christian in China who has a second pregnancy. Should she submit to government sanctioned abortion? Would it be sinful to hide the child? How could the Christian repent for violating the law?
In reality, at times civil government goes beyond its legitimate authority. God's law is not to be subjugated to civil law. Though a civil judge may refuse to recognize an innocent's repudiation of his or her mate for the cause of fornication, and may even grant a judgment of divorce to the guilty party, this does not abrogate the innocent party's divine right to put away his or her spouse for the cause of fornication.
Confuses the Cause with the Procedure
In Matthew 19:9, Jesus specified the cause for the putting away, not the procedure. Note that the question in verse 3, asked by the Pharisees, was, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" (KJV). Jesus' answer was that the only cause sufficient for justly putting away a spouse was "fornication." Regardless of the civil procedure, the individual who puts away his or her spouse for the cause of fornication is free to remarry.
Demands a Specific where God Has Not Specified
Sheridan's sole argument resides in a supposed implication of Romans 13, a passage which calls for Christians to heed civil law. He contends the passage implies civil procedure to be the specific requirement of God regarding a lawful repudiation of the fornicating spouse. This is not so. While Matthew 19 indeed indicates that a civil divorce must be obtained, no scripture ever specifies a procedure. Those who claim that the innocent party must 1) file first, or 2) put fornication on the divorce decree, or 3) obtain the judgment "for fornication" are binding where God has not.
Some who hold to this "race to the courthouse" position claim that to teach otherwise is to advocate the "mental divorce" position. This is not true. The Bible clearly teaches that for the innocent party to remarry the cause for the divorce must be fornication. The mental divorce position teaches that the civil divorce can be obtained for another cause, then when adultery is committed, the innocent can mentally put away his or her former spouse. The two scenarios are obviously different.
It may be that an individual could not in good conscience remarry if he or she did not initiate the procedure, or gain the judgment. Another could in good conscience remarry regardless of what the divorce decree says, because he or she knows and God knows the spouse was put away with just cause. Let each respond according to the dictates of his or her own conscience in this matter. "So then each of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12). However, may it be that we do not allow such judgments, where God has not specified, to be matters over which we divide.