Divorce and Civil Law

By Wayne Jackson

In approaching the subject of divorce and remarriage, the conscientious Bible student wants to be as accurate, and yet as compassionate as he possibly can be. It is a serious error to “loose” a restriction that the Lord has “bound.” It is also wrong to “bind” an ordinance that God has not “bound” (cf. Mt. 16:18-19; 18:18).

Out of a zeal for truth, though, some have overlooked certain biblical principles that pertain to the divorce-remarriage controversy. In so doing, they have denied the liberty of remarriage to devout people who very well may have the right to enter a new family relationship.

There are well-intentioned Christians, zealous for the law of God, who have failed to grasp the concept that civil law is always subservient to divine law. It is not that folks openly advocate the idea that civil law is supreme; such is, however, the logical consequence of certain ideas entertained by some in the church, as they attempt to apply the marriage law of Christ to the more complicated divorce situations they encounter. In view of this, let us reflect upon the following.

Principles To Be Recognized

First, it must be emphasized that civil law is human law. Civil laws, of course, are necessary for the maintenance of order in society. When they are consistent with divine truth, they have the backing of God, and the Christian must submit to these ordinances (Rom. 13:1ff).

On the other hand, it must be recognized that humanly-devised laws can be whimsical and arbitrary. Frequently they stand in arrogant contradiction to the higher constitution of God. Accordingly, the servant of Christ is obligated to the “ordinance of man” (1 Pet. 2:13) only insofar as such is in harmony with the revealed will of the Creator (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29). Consider the following.

  1. Civil authority may not legitimize that which is morally wrong, e.g., the abortion of an unborn child, or the practice of a “same-sex marriage.” Laws implementing these evils may be passed in human legal systems, but they will have no divine authority, and Christians must not seek their sanctions or give them credence.
  2. Human law may not demand of the child of God that which is morally or religiously wrong. Early Christians who were commanded to offer worship to Caesar refused, even if such meant imprisonment or the forfeiture of their lives.
  3. Civil rulers may not prohibit that which is right. Should a country outlaw the rite of water baptism (as a means of securing pardon, and entrance into the body of Christ – Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:13), faithful children of God would ignore such an ordinance and continue to immerse those desiring to become Christians.

And why are these things so? Because divine law always takes precedence over the ordinances crafted by men.

Further, it must be noted that civil laws have varied from country to country, and in different epochs of Christian history. But sacred law in the regime of Jesus Christ will be consistent, and it will remain stable. One’s approach to the marriage situation must take this timeless truth into consideration.

The Application to Divorce and Remarriage

Some years ago the highly respected Guy N. Woods aptly noted that “divorce is a civil, legal action having nothing whatsoever to do with determining the moral and religious principles involved. It is the Lord’s edict, not man’s, that governs” (Gospel Advocate, December 7, 1978, p. 771). This factor absolutely must be taken into consideration in analyzing divorce/remarriage cases. Consider some instances that illustrate the application of this truth.

Who rules, God or man?

Jesus Christ, by implication, authorizes a divorce, and subsequent remarriage, for an innocent spouse whose marriage covenant has been violated by his or her partner’s sexual infidelity (Mt. 5:32; 19:9).

Suppose, though, that the state does not allow a person to file for a divorce on the ground of fornication or adultery? What if the only “legal” cause is that ambiguous “irreconcilable differences”? Is the victim helpless in such a situation? Must he or she remain single forever — just because the civil authorities refuse to acknowledge the God-given reason for the severance of a marriage?

Surely not. And why not? Because divine law cannot be negated by arbitrary human law.

Guilty party advantage?

Consider another circumstance. A wife discovers that her husband has been having a sustained adulterous relationship with another woman. She is devastated and begs him to desist. She offers to forgive him, and pleads with him to restore the sanctity of their home. She attempts to be patient, hoping he will return to his senses (cf. Lk. 15:17).

As she lingers, praying for reconciliation, he files for divorce (which he obtains), and then secures his mistress as a new mate.

What, now, is the betrayed wife’s plight? She may not obtain a “legal” divorce, for that has been finalized already. Is she utterly helpless, a pathetic victim of the circumstances of “civil law” — a law that cares nothing for sacred truth relative to the marriage relationship? Is she bound to remain single for the remainder of her life — just because he preceded her to the “court house” while she longed for his repentance?

Some would so argue. They allege that because he divorced her, rather than the reverse being the case, she has no option but to remain celibate. It is claimed that “no divorced person” is free to marry.

The idea is erroneous, because it overlooks the principles set forth above. It does not take into consideration the “sum” of divine truth on this moral-legal issue (Psa. 119:160 ASV).

Here are the facts. The adulterous husband had no cause for filing a divorce. He was the culprit — not his wife. The fact that the civil authorities processed his unscriptural petition means nothing at all. Human law cannot “trump” the law of God!

Moreover, the reality that the civil system would not grant to the wife the option of an “on paper” divorce (due to her husband’s previous action), does not alter the fact that she had the moral right to legally dissolve her marriage. And, if she chooses, to remarry eventually.

Conclusion

It must be emphasized, then, that marriage is a divine institution. The Creator of the human family ordained the relationship. He alone has the right to regulate it.

Civil authorities may seek to revise, annul, or replace sacred law, but truth remains inviolate. The Scripture cannot be broken (Jn. 10:35). Divorce and remarriage cases, therefore, must be judged upon the basis of the facts, and the application of Heaven’s law. No other criteria will suffice.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.