With this posting I will begin a series of articles discussing an issue that has troubled the "Primitive Baptists" for many years. It is the issue of accepting members into the church who are judged to be "living in adultery" because their present marriage is judged to have been unscriptural. The Hardshells are not united on this issue. Some, like my beloved father, was very strict on the issue. He believed that if a person divorced and remarried, without a just cause, then that person was judged to be "living in adultery" and had, by this situation, committed the "sin unto death," i.e. was "dead" to church life and membership. Of course, he, like other Hardshells, would accept the idea that such a person could divorce his or her unlawful spouse, go back to his or her lawful spouse, and then be allowed to become members of the church. Sometimes advising prospective members to do this was no simple thing, since many of them had been married for years to their unlawful spouses, even having children by them! Also, the spouses that had been illegitimately put away, had oftentimes remarried themselves. So, going back to that spouse became even more impractical. Yet, it was insisted, this was the only way to stop "living in adultery."
Further complicating this issue is the fact that Hardshells cannot separate baptism from church membership, and so the fact that a person is judged to be in an unscriptural marriage not only bars one from membership in the Lord's church but from baptism also. Further, since persons must repent before baptism, persons must renounce their illegitimate marriage, and dissolve it, before they can be baptized and become members of the church. In other words, no person is judged to be worthy of membership in the church if they are in a marriage that was begun as a result of previous unjust divorce.
As I said, this was a big issue with father. I recall a loving brother, "brother Myers," who was a faithful supporter of the church. He could not be a member of the church because he and his first wife had divorced years ago when he was a young man, and before he became a Christian. Now, it is possible that brother Myers, in spite of this illegitimate divorce, had a legitimate marriage to his second wife. How? Perhaps his first wife married first! Which, in such a case, she "committed adultery" and thus this would have given him the right to remarry. But, the problem was, brother Myers did not know anything about his first wife's whereabouts, nor that she had remarried, or if she had, whether she had remarried before he did. Thus, not being able to know this, father and the church he pastored (and where I was a member at the time) would not baptize him or take him into church membership.
To this day I think of the faithfulness of brother Myers. He was as good a member, without actually being a member, as one could be. I weep when I think about his case. I don't believe he should have been kept from baptism and church membership. It was, I believe, an error in understanding this issue that led father to take the actions he did. I use to talk to father about this issue, years later, but to no avail.
Father was so strict on this issue that he was often confronting fellow ministers about it. This was because not all PB ministers agreed with him on it. And, of course, father would attempt to straighten them out on it. He would often remark about another church - "they take adulterers into the church." And, with father, a church with lax discipline was not a church in good order. To my knowledge, I would guess that father's view represents the majority view, unless things have changed since I was with them in the 1970s and early 80s.
Among the Hardshells this issue was often discussed under this question - "does regeneration take one out of adultery?" The issue was whether an illegitimate divorce, effected when a person was not regenerated, allowed the person to become a member? Some argued that it did, some that it did not. Father was of the latter opinion.
In closing out this first posting on this issue, I want to first state my own views, then, in upcoming postings, lay out the scriptural reasons for my view. In stating my own views, I want to quote from Dr. Phil Johnson (see here), for he expresses my views perfectly. Johnson is associated with Dr. John MacArthur and is a well known lecturer, one I have followed for many years.
Wrote Johnson (emphasis mine):
"Are people who remarry after a divorce on grounds less than sexual infidelity or abandonment living in adultery? The answer seems to be no. The words of Christ— “Anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32)—are in the aorist tense, indicating action specific in time, completed when it occurs. A couple divorced on less than biblical grounds commit adultery when they remarry, but their new marriage is valid.
The New Testament never instructs divorced and remarried people who become Christians to break up their latest marriage, something we might expect if people who remarry after a divorce are considered to be living in a state of perpetual adultery. In fact, Paul definitely instructed married Christians to remain in their present state if at all possible (1 Corinthians 7:15-24). Jesus acknowledged that the Samaritan woman had lived with five husbands, recognizing each marriage contract as a bona fide union (John 4).
Christians commit the sin of adultery when they remarry after a divorce that’s not based on infidelity, but once a new marriage begins they do not live in a continuing state of adultery.
Jesus is saying that the act of remarriage is an act of adultery. He is not teaching that the ongoing conjugal relationship with the new spouse is a state of “perpetual adultery”--as if God refused to recognize the remarriages legitimate in any sense.
If that were the case--if the ongoing physical relationship between the remarried couple constituted one long, continuous, adulterous affair—the proper remedy, and the only way to end the chain of adultery, would be to dissolve the second marriage and insist that everyone return to his or her original spouse. On the contrary, Scripture teaches that the new marriage is now binding. In order to avoid further acts of adultery, the remarried person needs to remain faithful to the new spouse.
As a matter of fact, in the same passage where Moses permitted husbands to issue a certificate of divorce, the law added this restriction: “When she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD” (Deuteronomy 24:2-4, emphasis added).
Clearly, the second marriage—whether biblically justified or not—becomes as binding as the original marriage was supposed to be. A return to the original spouse is strictly forbidden.
So Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 (and Mark 10:11-12) mean simply that entering into an illegitimate remarriage is an adulterous act. Nevertheless, once that new marriage covenant is sealed, the remarried couple needs to remain married and be faithful to one another. Their ongoing physical relationship is not to bethought of as “perpetual adultery.”
On the other hand, as long as they remain unrepentant about the illegitimate remarriage, they cannot expect God’s blessing on their marriage. Like all sins, that unauthorized remarriage must be confessed and repented of.
Because marriage entails a covenant that God deems holy, any remarriage (even remarriage after an unbiblical divorce) cannot be—and should not be—forsaken as we would forsake virtually any other sin. But people who have entered into such a relationship do need to seek God’s forgiveness with sincere repentance.
Again, these views are in accordance with the scriptures.