Giving New Life To Old Error

By Mac Deaver

The Bales-Deaver Debate on marriage, divorce, and remarriage was published by the Firm Foundation Publishing House in 1988. That is twenty six years ago now, and a lot has changed in our world and in the brotherhood since that time including the continuing demise of morality in our country. Many who are young adults now were at the time of the great controversy in the church over marriage and divorce unaware as to what all was being said and done regarding the discussion of the proper application of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 19:9.

On April 19, 1977 Roy Deaver and James Bales met on the campus of Harding College (now University) to discuss the issue of the application of Matthew 19:9. Later Thomas B. Warren hoped that he and brother Bales could debate the issue orally. Bales declined, for health reasons, but proposed a written debate between the two. Warren turned down that offer, and finally an agreement was reached between Bales and Roy Deaver for a written discussion. It lasted about five years. Bales, Deaver, and Warren were all friends and each respected the ability of the others. Bales had the year before moderated for Warren in Warren’s debate with the atheist, Antony Flew. Deaver also had assisted Warren in that momentous discussion held in September of 1976. When Bales learned that I was to teach a course on Acts in Tennessee Bible College in the early 1980s, he mailed me a thick notebook full of his own notes. It was a most generous gesture. He had a great mind and had done a tremendous amount of good through his teaching and his writing. He had been a great force for good. But now his talents had come to be employed in the defense of a position on Matthew 19:9 that was “new ground” for the brotherhood. The question was whether or not the novel position was scriptural.

In his own personal study, Bales had concluded that the church as a whole had misunderstood the application of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 19:9. He had decided that Matthew 19:9 applied only to marriages that were composed of a Christian married to another Christian. The passage did not, according to him, apply to a non-Christian married to another non-Christian or to a Christian married to a non-Christian. This novel approach to the passage he attempted to defend in his time consuming written debate with my father. The reader can still purchase that written account and study it carefully. I cannot here go over everything or even most of what was said between the two participants. Very few things from the debate will be discussed.

In completion of my work at Tennessee Bible College for the terminal degree in Christian Apologetics, I presented to the faculty of the graduate school there my dissertation in January of 1991. It was entitled “Moral Law, The Law Of Christ, And The Marriage-Divorce-Remarriage Issue.” In that paper I discussed the existence and nature of moral law, the moral law and positive law, some implications of denying the existence of moral law, and moral law in some recent discussions on the marriage-divorce-remarriage issue. That last part entailed a critical analysis of the (1) Warren-Fuqua Debate, (2) McClish-Billingsly Debate, and the (3) Bales-Deaver Debate. It was clear to me then, and it is clear to me now that the effort to deny the universal application of Matthew 19:9 to all marriages was completely without evidential support.

It came to pass in time that I debated Dan Billingsly in January of 1995 in Arlington, Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth area). He affirmed: “The Scriptures teach that Matthew 19:9 is not New Testament doctrine.” The following September I debated Olan Hicks on the marriage-divorce issue in Robertson County, Tennessee. Brother Hicks affirmed: “The Scriptures teach that God approves marriage for every person, including all who have divorced or have been divorced by a mate, regardless of cause.” The reader can still obtain a written copy of that debate and study carefully what was said. Then in April of 2004, I engaged Dan Billingsly in a second debate in Bedford (Fort Worth area). He affirmed that the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all a part of the Old Testament. Of course, if he could have proven that (which he could not and which was exposed as false), he could have gotten rid of the “troublesome” passage (Matthew 19:9). The position taken by Billingsly in this debate showed the extent to which some of us were willing to go to get rid of the “bothersome” passage. The morality of the country was degenerating, and Christian families were certainly involved. Surely, there had to be a way to get around the restriction of Matthew 19:9.

At the end of my doctoral dissertation, at the end of my polemic encounters with Billingsly and Hicks, I was convinced that the application of Matthew 19:9 is today for all men, both Christians and non-Christians. I never faced a sound argument that proved the contradiction, and I presented many sound arguments in the discussions to verify that for which I was contending. It was and remains clear to me that fornication is the one and only reason for a divorce that allows the innocent (other) party to scripturally remarry.

Now, why do I at this time bring all this back up to view. I do it because recently a book has been published by Weldon Langfield entitled The Truth About Divorce And Remarriage. It claims to be “A Politically Incorrect View of Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in Today’s Church.” The purpose of the book is to resurrect the idea that 1 Corinthians 7:15 does, in fact, supply the Christian with a reason for divorce and remarriage other than fornication (as provided by the Lord in Matthew 19:9).

All through the book, Langfield refers to preachers who hold that Matthew 19:9 is of universal application and gives us the only scriptural basis for a divorce and a remarriage as “politically correct” preachers. He calls them “PC” preachers. Thus, in informing us that 1 Corinthians does give us an additional reason for divorce and remarriage, he is providing the “politically incorrect” view by which, of course, he attempts to endear his position to our brethren (who generally despise “political correctness”). On page 88 he concludes, “A critical examination of the PC position shows it to be without support.” Again, on page 153 near the end of the book he writes, “Two-thirds of denominational scholarship and many distinguished brotherhood preachers and scholars are correct in their understanding that 1 Corinthians 7:15 provides grounds for remarriage.”

If the reader hopes to find conclusive proof for this position, he will be disappointed. If he searches for a sound argument to prove it true, he will search in vain. He will find many gospel preachers of the past quoted to lend support to his position, but he will not find where a sound argument is ever provided by these quoted preachers to prove the contention true. And this is the very thing that Langfield needs: a sound argument (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21; Romans 12:2). We all should know that we prove nothing about the alleged accuracy of a conclusion by citing an approving quotation from someone who also believed it to be true. If the quoted party provided the “proof,” then provide his proof. Langfield couldn’t do this because there was no “proof” from anyone that he quoted to show that 1 Corinthians 7:15 provided an additional basis for divorce and remarriage in addition to what the Lord had provided in Matthew 19:9.

Langfield refers to many preachers on both sides of the issue. He refers to brother Bales several times in the book, but only mentions my father twice in the text, once in connection with his brief debate with Gus Nichols in their 1973 encounter at the Harding Graduate School in Memphis (p. 69) and the second reference (p. 126) is by means of a quotation taken from the July, 1980 Spiritual Sword periodical, the quotation being a description given by my father of the devastating nature of brother Bales’ position to the gospel. However, Langfield never refers to the Bales-Deaver Debate at all, a debate in which my father exposed Bales’ contention that 1 Corinthians 7:15 does provide, after all, an additional basis for divorce and remarriage other than that provided by the Lord in Matthew 19:9.

And this is the very position to which Langfield attempts to lend support in his new book. Brother Bales believed that Matthew 19:9 only applied to Christians married to Christians and that 1 Corinthians 7:15 applied to Christians married to non-Christians and to non-Christians married to other non-Christians. If the reader has not read that debate, I would suggest that he do so. It is indeed interesting and somewhat curious that Langfield, while referring to many books regarding the marriage-divorce controversy, never quotes from this pivotal debate in which Bales himself tried to prove the position to which Langfield in his new book attempts to lend support. Again, I remind the reader that Langfield refers to Bales several times, but he never quotes from Bales or from my father in their debate which was a discussion of the very issue that concerns Langfield in his recently published book.

Bales took the position that the Lord had addressed one group of married people in Matthew 19:9 and that Paul was addressing another group of married people in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15. The Lord had only the “covenant people” in mind (Christians only), and Paul had in mind non-covenant people (non-Christians) and especially Christians married to them, so that Matthew 19:9 did not even apply to the group that Paul was now addressing. It is clear to me that my father exposed this contention conclusively and in several ways. However, among the many things that he taught in the debate, in my judgment, if he had only said one thing that he did to Bales, it was absolutely devastating. And it is something that either Langfield does not know or chose not to notice in his new book. Langfield shows familiarity with some of the crucial material written during the controversy, but for some reason, he never quotes my father (nor James Bales) in the Bales Deaver Debate.

In my father’s second affirmative, he presented his argument on the tense of a crucial verb in 1 Corinthians 7:15. He wrote, “The word ‘bondage’ is the translation of the Greek dedoulotai which is perfect passive indicative, third person singular of the root word douloo. The perfect tense is significant. The force of the perfect tense here is: the deserted believer is not now and in fact never has been under the kind of bondage signified by the word douloo—the kind of bondage which would compel the Christian to give up his or her Christianity in order to preserve the marriage” (p. 61). Bales wasn’t impressed and called for proof that this was the meaning of the tense (p. 90). Of course, all Bales had to do was consult a Greek Grammar and think about the description of the perfect tense (for example, Essentials of New Testament Greek by Ray Summers).

Summers points out that the perfect tense “…indicates completed action with a resulting state of being. The primary emphasis is on the resulting state of being…The real nature of the Greek perfect is seen in the passive voice better than in the active” (p. 103). The verb (“under bondage”) in 1 Corinthians 7:15 is in the passive voice. Summers points out that there are three ideas involved in the perfect tense: “an action in progress, its coming to a point of culmination, its existing as a completed result” (p. 103). He illustrates the force of the tense by appealing to the verb gegraptai (“it is written”). [The reader can consult Matthew 4:1-11 and see where the Lord three times uses a perfect tense verb when he says, “it is written”]. According to Summers the meaning is that “it has been written and stands written” (p. 103). If this had been a negative remark (as we have in 1 Corinthians 7:15), it would have meant: “it has not been written and it stands not written.”

Therefore, the meaning of the verb (“under bondage” with the negative word “not”) is that the brother or sister “has not been and is not under bondage.” The force of the tense means that the brother or sister in the case being described has never been in the bondage to which reference is made! That is one way that my father knew that it could not be referring to the “marriage bond.” The brother or sister had been in that bondage (the marriage bond) if they had been joined in marriage by God (Matthew 19:6; Romans 7:2). But the bondage to which Paul refers is one that had never entailed them at all. It is a kind of bondage different from what the marriage bond is. The marriage bond never entails the “slavery” involved in the word used for “bondage” in verse 15!

My father knew that the verb for “under bondage” in verse 15 could not possibly refer to the marriage bond. Furthermore, he knew that in verse 27, we find another perfect tense verb referring to a “bondage” which in the passage is undoubtedly the “marriage bond.” The words “Art thou bound unto a wife” certainly refer to the marriage bond. But, it is a different Greek word! The word in verse 15 is doulao and the verb in verse 27 is deo! Therefore, in verse 15 Paul had said that a believer married to a non-believer had never been, and was not at the time he was writing, in slavery that would compel the believer to pursue the marriage at the expense of his soul. In verse 27 he said that if anyone was married he had been and now remained in that same condition (perfect tense) in a state of “bondage,” but he clearly used a different word for this “marriage bond”!

But, even if we knew nothing about Greek tense, shouldn’t Paul’s last words in verse 15 (“but God has called us in peace”) and the words following in verses 16-24 show us what he had meant in verse 15? If the non-believer has left the believer (“let him depart”), the believer is to remain in peace, and not feel compelled to go after the non-believer with the hope of converting him/her. Paul is anticipating the thinking of the deserted believer. “If I can only find him, I can surely convert him and bring him home.” Paul says that you do not know that you can convert him (v. 16), and you are not (given the fact that he has departed) to feel obligated to go after him.

And please notice that Paul then declares that no one has the right to use his conversion as an excuse to alter a non-sinful state. It was not sinful for a Christian to be married to a non-Christian (see verses 12-14). And it does not matter whether one is converted while he is in the condition of circumcision or non-circumcision (v. 18-19), or as a slave or a free man (v. 21-23). But please notice that each condition is an illustration of a non-sinful state. Paul does not say that it is all right to remain in any sinful condition, including adultery! Repentance precedes baptism.

But now, let me make one more basic point in addition to all that has been said in the past to falsify the contention that 1 Corinthians 7:15 provides an additional reason for divorce and remarriage. My father took the position that Matthew 19:9 was universal teaching covering all marriages today. Brother Bales took the position that it applied only to Christians married to Christians. He took it that when Paul said “to the rest” (v. 12) he was referring to those other than Christians married to Christians, and he took it that “not under bondage” (v. 15) gave the deserted believer the right to remarry without fornication being committed against him/her per Matthew 19:9.

Notice, please, that the passage says that if the non-believer departs from the believer that then “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases” (v. 15). But the question arises, “What if the non-believer chooses not to depart but to remain with the believer?” If Matthew 19:9 applies only to Christians married to Christians, then (1) what is the relationship of the Christian to his non-Christian mate who chooses to remain with him/her and (2) what is that Christian’s relationship to the marriage bond? Notice that Paul did not say that the brother or sister was “not under bondage” in the case where the non-believer chooses to remain with the believer. If anyone today were to take the position that brother Bales did on verse 15, claiming that it was the marriage bond as such, then he would need to face these questions.

Paul said, “Yet if the unbeliever departeth, let him depart: the brother or the sister is not under bondage is such cases” (v.15). But what is the Christian’s obligation and what are his rights if the unbeliever remains (does not depart)? Now, if we were to allow Bales to assume that the marriage bond is being referenced in verse 15 (although we have already shown it is not), then Bales would face the following problem. Notice what Paul would be and would not be saying:

  1. Paul would not be saying that a Christian married to a non-Christian is “not under bondage.”
  1. Paul would be saying that a Christian married to a non-Christian is “not under bondage” if the non-Christian departs.

And remember, that Bales believed that Matthew 19:9 did not apply to the case of the believer married to the unbeliever at all, period. Then that would mean that (1) if the unbeliever chose not to depart but to remain with the believer and (2) if Matthew 19:9 never applied to the case of the believer married to the unbeliever, then we would have to face the following facts:

  1. If the unbeliever who remained with the believer later committed fornication against the believer, the believer would have no right based on Matthew 19:9 to put away the unfaithful mate for his fornication and innocently remarry another (since Matthew 19:9 didn’t apply to him/her, according to Bales).
  1. The believer living with a non-believer who chose not to depart was under bondage to that non-believer.
  1. Since, per Bales, Matthew 19:9 had never applied to a mixed married couple, then we learn that Paul is saying for the first time in the New Testament that a believer is bound to an unbeliever if that unbeliever chose not to depart.
  1. Since Paul is telling us, per Bales, that Matthew 19:9 never applied to a believer married to an unbeliever, it would mean that Jesus in Matthew 19:6 was only talking about believers married to believers as well when he said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” [My father made this very point to Bales (Bales-Deaver Debate, p. 133)].
  1. Then if the unbeliever can depart and thus give the believer and himself the right to remarry (per Bales according to 1 Corinthians 7:15), then Matthew 19:6 never applied to unbelievers married to believers and believers married to unbelievers either.
  1. If Matthew 19:6 never applied to anyone in a “mixed marriage” (believer to unbeliever), and if it never applied to a marriage involving unbeliever to unbeliever (per Bales), then the only people whom God has joined in marriage are Christians married to Christians! All other “married” couples are not married at all!
  1. But this conclusion contradicts the position implied at point #2!

When my father engaged Bales in their encounter at Harding in 1977, he referred to a letter that he had recently received from a man in Africa desiring to become a Christian but who was living with several wives. What was he to do? My father asked brother Bales his counsel. Bales responded that the man would need to put away all the wives but the first! But this was completely contradictory to the position that he was taking on the world’s non-amenability to the Lord’s law on marriage and divorce. If God had, in fact, joined the man to these women in marriage (and polygamy has never been against moral law as such), then how could anyone suggest that an alien sinner separate from the wives to whom he has been joined by God?

Brother Bales was no adulterer, but he unintentionally took a position that sanctioned some cases of adultery. I think it is very sad and so unfortunate that we had to go through such a time in the church when there seemed to be so much uncertainty with regard to marriage and divorce.

Years ago, my father and mother were living with my wife and me in Wellington, Texas. I was preaching for the church there, and Daddy was still engaged in his Biblical Notes writing work. Not long before brother Bales passed away, he called the house. I answered the phone. Brother Bales was evidently satisfied to talk with me for he never asked to speak to my father. But he told me that he wanted us to know that he loved us. In the light of that call, I take it that in light of the tremendous battle over marriage, divorce, and remarriage in which we had all been engaged, he wanted us to know that there was no anger or bitterness involved at all. He wanted things to be right between us. He was calling to tell us that he loved us.

I’m sorry brother Bales made this doctrinal mistake. I know he meant well. He was a good and brilliant man. But all of us are responsible to God for our own lives and decisions. None of us can excuse himself for adultery (if he finds himself in that state) because of Bales’ unintentionally sanctioning some cases of it. Each of us must search the Scriptures for himself (Acts 17:11). I once heard brother Warren express himself as he reflected on brother Bales’ situation. He said, “There’s got to be some room for grace.” I hope he found it, too.

The ungodliness in American culture helped to create the situation in the church where we began to think that we needed some relief from the stricture of Matthew 19:9. May God help us never again to allow any cultural condition to weaken our resolve to stand with proven truth (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 15:58). And may God give us the wisdom to reject any current effort at giving new life to old error.