Remarriage Right and the Law of the Husband

By Mac Deaver

Recently, Weylan posted the oral exchange between my father, Roy Deaver, and Gus Nichols (listen at: biblicalnotes.com/audio/roy-deaver-gus-nichols-debate). The exchange took place on the campus of the then Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee in 1973. At issue between the two parties was whether or not the “guilty party” of Matthew 19:9 could by scriptural authority remarry. Deaver said that the “guilty party” could not remarry. Nichols said that he could.

Deaver spoke first and gave an argument based on the alleged unfairness of allowing the guilty party to remarry since God disallowed the “innocent party unjustly put away” the option of a remarriage. That is, according to Matthew 19:9, if A put his wife B away, not for fornication, then A and B were still joined in marriage, and so if someone married B after the legal divorce, the second marriage was only legal but not scriptural. The case is such that A’s condition at the time of the putting away is simply that of a non-guilty party who legally divorces his wife but not for fornication. The wife in the now legally divorced condition commits adultery with whoever legally marries her. So, she is stuck in a scripturally necessitated celibacy as long as she remains the “innocent party” unjustly put away by a person not guilty of fornication. She is still scripturally married to her husband regardless of his attempt to get rid of her.

Now, Deaver’s argument that he presented was based on this point. That is, if God necessitated the perpetual celibacy of the “innocent party unjustly put away,” that it would be unfair for God to allow the remarriage of a “guilty party” put away because of his fornication. How could God reward the “guilty” with a new marriage and “punish” the “innocent” by withholding one? Dear reader, it doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? Deaver’s syllogism was:

(1) If it is the case that Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 do not allow the remarriage of an innocent party unjustly put away, then it is the case that Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 do not allow the remarriage of the guilty party justly put away.

(2) It is the case that Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 do not allow the remarriage of an innocent party unjustly put away.

(3) Then, it is the case that Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 do not allow the remarriage of the guilty party justly put away.

This syllogism was based on the principle that punishment is justly related to sin committed. He cited Matthew 12:41-45, Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 12:47-48, and 2 Peter 2:20-21 to identify the principle that the syllogism incorporates.

In response, Nichols declared that we, as a people, have always taken the position that someone who kills his wife has a scriptural right to a new marriage, but that if we say that (1) a murderer can remarry, but that (2) a guilty fornicator cannot, we are allowing, in effect, the more guilty more right and the less guilty less right. Nichols did not use these exact words, but these words represent precisely his point. He was saying, in effect, that Deaver’s position is not fair. That is, if a man can kill his wife in order to marry another woman, but that the “guilty party” cannot remarry, then we are imposing on people a position that is completely unfair. So, he was hitting at Deaver’s argument based on the concept of fairness. I must confess that I had always taken Nichols’ position on the murderer’s right to a remarriage as the correct position, but in this reinvestigation, I think that my father was, after all, correct in his analysis of the situation. And I am very glad to now see what he and Warren affirmed in 1973. As usual I come to the truth as a latecomer.

Now, let me say that Deaver’s position (that the guilty party has no right of remarriage) did not depend upon any argument on “fairness,” though I now agree that the argument is sound. And in all fairness to my father, in his discussion with Nichols, he rightly observed that the contention that the guilty party can remarry is in outright contradiction to the “except for fornication” clause! It was not clear to Nichols at the time, however, that Deaver’s own position regarding the guilty party was fair at all.

When my father later faced James D. Bales (from whom Nichols said that he had learned his position on the “guilty party”) at Searcy, Arkansas he had a syllogism based on Matthew 19:9 that was not based on the concept of fairness. The syllogism was written:

Maj. Prem. If it is the case that Mt. 19:9 teaches that the only scriptural ground for divorce and remarriage is the ground of one’s having put away his companion because of that companion’s fornication, then it is the case that any interpretation of any passage which contradicts that teaching is an erroneous interpretation.

Min. Prem. It is the case that Mt. 19:9 teaches that the only scriptural ground for divorce and remarriage is the ground of one’s having put away his companion because of that companion’s fornication.

Con. It is the case that any interpretation of any passage which contradicts that teaching is an erroneous interpretation (“Marriage, Divorce, And Remarriage—Harding Lecture, April 19, 1977, p. 15).

Now, this more wide-sweeping argument covers the “guilty party” issue as well as other matters. But in Deaver’s 1973 confrontation with Nichols, he used an argument that was more narrow in scope or focus and which he thought would do the job in exposing the idea that the “guilty party” did have a right to a remarriage. God is, after all, always fair. That is certainly correct, but it needs to be noted that “divine fairness” is not always easy to comprehend due to human failure to grasp features of a situation that only God can know. What was fair to Deaver didn’t seem fair to Nichols at all.

Fairness” is not always easy to discover. Some issues become so involved that it is hard to determine where fairness lies. And I would repeat that, though we know God is always fair since he is infinite in justice, we are not always able to determine how it is that he is fair when he gives definite positive legislation. At times the “fairness” is somewhat hidden from our view. God kept Cain, the brother-murderer, alive and allowed him to remarry and yet later decreed that all such murderers should be put to death (Gen. 4:9-15, 17; 9:6). And following his humanly undetected adultery, David was allowed to marry the widow of the soldier that David had killed under the camouflage of war (2 Sam. 11, 12). Because we are not privy to all knowledge to which God is, we are not always aware of how something is fair or “fair enough” in the eyes of God at a given time. So, from this angle of examination, “fairness”—though always rightly ascribed to God and to God’s applicable law—can be fair without our being able to explain in what way it is fair or why it is fair at all. The “fairness” of some laws is not on obvious display.

The issue of “divine fairness” has come up many times in marriage discussion. Some have wondered how it is fair for God to allow fornicators (before marriage) to commit fornication for hundreds of times and then be given scriptural right to marriage, while at the same time disallowing a “guilty party” the right of one more marriage. No preacher that I know has ever taken the position that the Scriptures teach that unmarried fornicators cannot enter a scriptural marriage. What about a person who—knowing Bible teaching—purposefully refuses to marry for years, during which time he fornicates over and over again? Let us say that in his 60’s he decides finally to marry. Where is the passage that disallows the marriage? Is the New Testament law on marriage and divorce unfair if it allows an habitual fornicator to get married?

Note carefully that we are not discussing whether practicing fornicators can go to heaven. They cannot (Gal. 5:19). But entry into heaven is not to be confused with marriage rights on earth. Nichols made this point in his part of the discussion. And he was correct. To say that a man has a right, given his circumstances, to another marriage is not at all the same thing as saying that the man stands before God approved and heaven bound. Plenty of people have a right to marriage who at the time of the application of the right are not in fellowship with God. But since God allows all persons guilty off pre-marriage fornication the right of entering a scriptural marriage and yet disallows, per Matthew 19:9, some parties to remarry, it is evident that God looks at the marriage covenant as something to be protected and maintained. After all, God does the actual joining in marriage (Matt. 19:6); he is no party to fornication!

Now, at the 1973 confrontation between Deaver and Nichols, Nichols took the position that if a man killed his wife in order to marry some other woman, that even though the murder was certainly sinful, marriage right still characterized the murderer since his wife was now dead. Evidently Nichols was thinking of Romans 7:1-6, though I do not remember his actually referring to the passage. But when he said that a man could kill his wife and marry again, both Deaver and Thomas B. Warren (who was in the audience and who in the question/answer session asked Nichols some questions) objected and declared that the murderer had no such right. When Nichols called for the passage that prohibited the murderer from remarrying, Deaver cited Matthew 19:9.

Earlier in his own presentation, Deaver had gone over Matthew 19:9 very carefully, presenting the words in Greek and giving a detailed analysis of the passage. Clearly, per Matthew 19:9, someone may and someone may not remarry. If all can remarry, according to God’s approval, then, Deaver asked, why did the Lord address the topic at all? The passage affirms that someone may remarry without being guilty of adultery and that someone may remarry but only by becoming guilty of adultery. “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery.” According to Deaver, the Lord said that only persons who put away their mates for fornication are persons who may marry again without committing adultery. And guilty fornicators are not in that class of persons.

I agree with my father and Warren that the guilty party cannot with divine sanction remarry. And it is my view that Deaver’s 1977 syllogism that he gave to James Bales presents the truth on the topic. Furthermore, in the past (although I have taken the position that Nichols took at Memphis with regard to a wife-murderer having the right to another marriage since his wife was now dead), I now confess that such is absolutely wrong. I now see that Deaver and Warren were both correct in their claim that no wife-murderer has the right of remarriage even though his wife is dead. I had taken the position that even though a wife-killer was hell bound, his eternal destiny and his marriage rights were not to be confused. And they should not be. However, as we will see as our examination continues, though a wife-murderer is no longer bound to a wife, he is still bound to God who in the New Testament gives him no more marriage rights.

When Nichols called for the passage that prohibits a wife-killer from remarrying, Deaver, as already stated, cited Matthew 19:9. Now, Matthew 19:9 deals with putting away and marrying again and with someone’s marrying the party put away. Murder either is a form of putting away or is not a form of putting away. If Deaver cites Matthew 19:9 as conclusive that a murderer (who kills his own wife in order to marry some other woman) has no right to a remarriage, then he is saying either that murder is a form of putting away or he is saying that murder is not a form of putting away. But, he cannot be saying that it is a form of putting away, because the last part of the verse contemplates a marriage on the part of the put away party. The “put away party” is not a dead person but a living one. Since we are told that “he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery,” we know that the “put away” party is a living party. If we say that murder is a form of putting away, we are then implying that someone can marry the dead which is, of course, absurd.

So, Deaver must be saying that murder is not a form of “putting away.” So, why would he think that Matthew 19:9 applied to the murderer’s case? How does the passage apply at all to the case of a murderer? Evidently, he thought it did because the only cases of remarriage allowed by Matthew 19:9 were cases involving “putting away” by parties whose spouses or ex-spouses were still living. No one else (no murderer) was being contemplated in the cases that involved “putting away.” Since all that we are to do is to be authorized by the New Testament (Col. 3:17), and since Deaver knew or at least assumed that there was no other passage that gave the scriptural right of remarriage to anyone else, then he cited the passage as conclusive that no man could kill his wife and then marry again. And this would mean that Deaver (and Warren, who agreed with Deaver that no man could kill his wife and remarry) considered Romans 7:1-6 to be inapplicable to the murderer’s case.

And this would mean, then, that Warren and Deaver considered Matthew 19:9 as applicable to the case of murder in the sense that it authorized only cases of remarriage on the part of non-murderers (just as the passages that authorize singing authorize singing only, and because of the complete absence of any other passage authorizing mechanical instruments in worship in addition to singing, then only singing is authorized). Deaver and Warren evidently thought that Romans 7:1-6 was inapplicable to the case of the murderer since, though the passage teaches that when the husband dies, the wife is free from the law of the husband so that death ends the application of the law of the husband generally speaking, it does not terminate the application of that law in cases of murder.

Now, if Romans 7:1-6 does not apply to a wife-killer (thus giving him a right to another marriage), how can we prove it? How was it that Deaver and Warren were both convinced that the wife-killer had no marriage rights? This exact point was not a part of the formal discussion at Memphis. And I do not remember ever discussing this point with my father or with Warren. But if they were right, how could we prove it now? From the discussion it is clear that Nichols thought that Romans 7:1-6 released the wife-killer so that he could remarry; it was Deaver’s and Warren’s contention that Romans 7:1-6 did no such thing. But there was no recording of any elaborate support of the Deaver-Warren position. I want to supply that information right here.

In Romans 7:1-6, Paul draws an analogy between the relationship that obtained between (1) a man and his wife and between (2) a Jewish Christian and his relationship to Christ. First, he gives the fundamental principle that the law was binding on a person only so long as that person was still alive. The law ceased in application to anyone who had been under it at the point of that person’s death (7:1). Second, after stating the fundamental feature of any law regarding its application, he then applies the binding nature of applicable law to marriage. He states that a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he is living. When he dies, she is free from “the law of the husband” (7:2). If she is joined to another man while he still lives, she is an adulteress, according to marriage law, but if the husband is dead she is not an adulteress though joined to another man (7:3). Third, Paul then draws an analogy between the two cases: that of a woman bound to a husband under the law and to Christian Jews who were once married to Moses but who are now married to Christ (7:4). Paul affirms that Christian Jews are not now in “spiritual adultery” because the first husband was dead (7:4). Moses, (the binding law of Moses) was now dead. And even though they were now joined to Christ, the joining was not “spiritual adultery” because the first husband had passed away.

Now to the very point of contention: how do we know that this passage does not free a wife-murderer to remarry? We know it because Romans 7:1-6 is a discussion of the relationship of the law of Moses to Jews who were now Christians. And these Jewish Christians who were now joined to Christ had been formerly married to the first husband (the law of Moses, or Moses) to whom they were “made dead” by the body of Christ (7:4). And notice: that law (the first husband) to which these Jewish Christians had formerly been married was a law that demanded the death of any murderer! Murderers did not have remarriage rights in Israel. Murderers were to be put to death (Exod. 21:12; Lev. 24:17). The analogy that Paul draws is between (1) the law of Moses and its binding nature on Jews (a law that gave no marriage rights to murderers) and (2) the law of Christ which, unless it be Romans 7:1-6, gives no marriage rights to murderers either). This proves that “the law of the husband” does not give marriage rights to murderers of their wives even though their wives are now dead! Wife-murderers are still bound to God’s marriage law which disallows them a new marriage.

And this serves as proof that in Deaver’s confrontation with Nichols, he and Warren were correct to think that according to Bible teaching, no wife-killer had scriptural right to another marriage. Notice further that if “the law of the husband” (now completely incorporated within the law of Christ) still binds the “put away fornicator” (the “guilty party”) to God so that any marriage attempt on his part in the future will be simply a case of “adultery,” then it follows that “the law of the husband” binds a wife-murderer to God so that any marriage attempt on his part in the future will be simply a case of “adultery” as well. Both cases entail “adultery” by parties no longer bound to their spouses but still bound to God’s marriage law. Nichols had contended that when the handcuffs that bound a husband and wife together were taken off due to fornication or death, both parties were free to remarry since they were now free from each other. Deaver had correctly observed that there were three sets of handcuffs in any scriptural marriage. One set of handcuffs bound the married persons to each other, and one set bound the husband to God’s law, and the final set bound the wife to God’s law.

It amazes me that my father and brother Warren were so clear and correct in 1973 in their contention that not even Romans 7:1-6 gave a wife-murderer the right to remarry. They were far ahead of most of us then and, perhaps, many of us now.

Let me make one final comment concerning the relationship of Matthew 19:9 to Romans 7:1-6. Please note that the precision in language used by Paul together with the precision of language used by the Lord presents to us a striking instance of internal testimony to the profound inspiration of Scripture! Not only does Romans 7:1-6 not condone “murdering one’s way” out of a marriage so as to give the remarriage right to the murderer, but the language is so precise as not to contradict the allowance of polygamy under Gentile-ism and Judaism! Notice carefully that while Jesus restricted divorce right, compared to the most generous divorce allowance by the law of Moses (Deut. 24) in his remarks in Matthew 19:9, that Paul is careful in his use of marriage in his analogy as to protect divine sanction of polygamy under the previous regimes. He says that if a woman is joined to another man while she retains a living husband, she shall be an adulteress, but he does not say that a man joined to another woman while having an already living wife shall be called one under the governance of “the law of the husband.” The “law of the husband” allowed, in principle, both polygyny (one husband with more than one wife) and monogamy (one husband with one wife). The kind of polygamy (many marriages) allowed by God in the previous regimes was only polygyny. It was never polyandry (many husbands with one wife). Thus, Paul’s precision is for the purpose of harmonizing his illustration not only with the permanent New Testament requirement of monogamy but with divine approval of polygyny under Gentile-ism (i.e. Patriarchy) and Christianity. Incredible!