The Grammatical Gymnastics of an Advocate for Divorce and Remarriage: Active Voice

We have seen that the use of the passive (or middle) voice in the Greek of Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and Mark 10:11, 12 (even if we accept the translation in the passive or middle, which we do not) does not justify remarriage after divorce (at most it increases the guilt of the man who divorces his wife, but it does not permit the divorced woman to remarry). Luke records the teaching of Jesus on divorce in a different context, and in the active voice.

Since in Luke 16:18 Christ uses the active voice (and moicheuoo instead of moichaoo), a different argument is required to justify remarriage after divorce. In Luke 16:18 our advocate for remarriage clings to the present tense of the participles and the verbs: “Everyone putting away…and marrying…commits adultery.” This supposedly refers to the Pharisees who “were continually divorcing and continually marrying…The actions of divorcing and marrying resulted in continual adultery, actively destroying the very institution of marriage.”

Perhaps, to capture the fullness of the present tense, we could render it thus, although it would be an over-translation: “Everyone (who keeps) putting away his wife and (who keeps) marrying another (keeps on) committing adultery and the one (who keeps) marrying her who has been put away from (her) husband (keeps on) committing adultery.”

Nevertheless, I do not see how an appeal to the present tense helps the case of our remarriage advocate. In Matthew 5:32a the same phrase appears: “Everyone (who keeps) putting away his wife…” The point of the present tense is that when remarriage occurs the relationship that results (the second or subsequent marriage) involves the remarried persons (both of them!) in continuous, ongoing adultery. This is true whether the remarrying person is a Pharisee on his second or seventeenth relationship or whether he or she is a modern Westerner (even a church member or officebearer) on his or her second or third marriage. If the original spouse still lives, any subsequent relationship (second, third, fourth marriage) is adultery.

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The Grammatical Gymnastics of an Advocate for Divorce and Remarriage: Passive Voice

The first argument concerns the “voice” of the verbs in Matthew 5:32, 19:9, and Mark 10:11–12. In grammar the voice of a verb describes the relationship of the action of the verb to the subject of the verb. For example, “John eats an apple” is in the active voice, for John performs the activity of eating (John is the “subject” of the verb “to eat”). On the other hand, “The apple is eaten by John” is in the passive voice, for the subject of the verb (the apple) does not perform the activity of eating. Instead, the activity happens to the subject, for the apple is eaten.  

Our advocate for remarriage writes,

The verbs in Matthew 5 translated “to commit adultery” are passive. The woman put away and the man who marries her are passive. The original husband is the only active agent in the adultery. He commits adultery against them… To say that the woman commits adultery is as false as can be.

If we attempted to translate Matthew 5:32 with passive verbs, it would read something like this: “Everyone putting away his wife [active]…makes her to have adultery committed against her [passive] and if anyone marries [active] the divorced woman he has adultery committed against him [passive].” This would make the remarried woman (32a) and the man who marries her (32b) the victims (rather than the culprits) of adultery. Our advocate for remarriage writes:

God is principally protecting the innocent. The wife who is put away for any reason other than fornication is wronged. God protects those. Adultery is committed against them wrongfully in that the dismissed woman and the man who marries her are made to appear as adulterers.

We should notice that in the mind of our remarriage advocate, the remarrying people (the divorced woman and her second husband) are not adulterers; they only appear so in the eyes of others. Only the divorced woman’s first husband actively commits adultery. If this were true, it would mean that the guilty party in the divorce is an adulterer and it would forbid him from remarrying. It would not forbid, so the argument goes, remarriage to the innocent parties. Sadly, few advocates for remarriage limit remarriage to the innocent party; they allow remarriage for the guilty and the innocent party.

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The Grammatical Gymnastics of an Advocate for Divorce and Remarriage

Recently I have come across some novel arguments to justify remarriage after divorce while the original spouse is still living. I will not name the advocate of remarriage on the blog: suffice to say that on social media he began commenting on a video link to Prof. David Engelsma’s lecture at the British Reformed Fellowship Conference (2018), “Unbiblical Divorce and Adulterous Remarriage: A Scandal.” He labeled it “proscribed heresy” and called those who agreed with the lecture “hypocritical legalists” who “damage the church and mock the grace of Christ,” adding that we were “perfect illustrations of the haughty Pharisees,” and called us to repent. Then he called our position “false, anti-Reformed, and unbiblical,” as well as “schismatic and destructive of true Christian compassion.” He argued (correctly) that neither Luther nor Calvin agreed with our position, which Prof. Engelsma fully admits in his book Marriage: The Mystery of Christ and the Church. While we admire the Reformers, they were (sadly) not strong on the subject of divorce and remarriage. This is reflected in the otherwise excellent Westminster Confession of Faith.

Because I did not want my answer to be buried in a long Facebook thread where the advocate for remarriage made his novel arguments, I decided to make it public here. I hope it will serve as a witness to the truth of the unbreakable marriage bond. Some of the arguments from Greek grammar are quite involved, so I ask for the reader’s indulgence.

In addition, I am not interested in attacking personalities or churches. I am merely interested in the arguments, especially exegetical arguments, for God’s word is the final arbiter on this and all matters.

I should point out right at the beginning, however, that knowledge of Greek grammar is not necessary for the child of God. The King James Version of the Bible is an accurate translation of the original Greek and Hebrew, and no theologian or pastor should give the impression that the Bible cannot be comprehended without recourse to the original languages: we believe in the perspicuity of holy scripture, that is, we believe that the Bible is clear, so clear that, if a child of God has a good translation, he can understand the scriptures; yet the Bible is so profound and rich that the greatest theologian cannot plumb its depths. Moreover, we believe in the office of believer according to which every child of God has the blessed privilege of knowing and understanding God’s word without the need of “experts” or a “priestly class” in the church.

In addition, the main issue is clear. Marriage is a lifelong, unbreakable bond between one man and one woman, in which the two become one, enjoying intimate fellowship with one another, which fellowship, both in the Old Testament and New Testament reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. In scripture God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16); and even when he gives his adulterous, unfaithful wife a “bill of divorce” (Jer. 3:8), he still declares himself married to his people (v. 14), and he never takes another people (i.e., the Lord never remarries).

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Synod 1987 – Response to a Comment

The following was a public comment in response to my post “Synod 1987 (1)”:

I have read this decision from 1987 and think that Synod erred in taking this position. Inferring that the marriage of divorced persons is a true marriage from the mere fact that Jesus uses the word "marriage" in referring to it, is an exceedingly weak argument. Using this reasoning, we might easily infer from Jesus' words that the "righteousness" of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5:20 was a true righteousness, or that the "children of the kingdom" in Matthew 8:12 were true children of the kingdom.

The fact that Jesus speaks of an adulterous marriage should clue us in to the fact that He is not speaking of a true marriage in God's sight, because it is called adulterous for the very reason that at least one of the parties is still espoused to another and is not the proper spouse of the other party in the newly-contracted civil marriage.

But these and other objections were already raised in 1987. I hope that someday this decision will be revisited and corrected, D.V.

In the words of the commenter, “Inferring that the marriage of divorced persons is a true marriage from the mere fact that Jesus uses the word ‘marriage’ in referring to it, is an exceedingly weak argument.”

In response to the commenter, I direct the reader to Mark 6:12-30, where we read the account of the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod. In verse 17 we read that Herod had “married ” Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. Herodias was divorced from her uncle Philip and Herod had divorced his wife, the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia. Both being divorced from their first spouses, scripture calls the relationship of Herod and Herodias a marriage (vs. 17).

It was the occasion of Herod’s marriage to Herodias that elicited John’s rebuke (see also Luke 3:19). Not only were Herod and Herodias both guilty of sinfully divorcing their spouses, but they increased their sin by marrying one another and engaging in an adulterous marriage as Matt. 5:32, 19:9, and Luke 16:18 plainly teach. And Herod knew that he was guilty of adultery of living in marriage with a woman who was another man’s wife. Because of John’s reproof of Herod for this evil and others, Herod added to his sin by “shut[ting] up John in prison (Luke 3:20).

While Herod was afraid to kill John because he “feared the multitude” (Matt. 14:5) and “feared John, knowing that he was a just man and holy” (Mark 6:20), Herodias was furious at John’s condemnation of her sin and wanted him dead. And like wicked Jezebel who deviously saw to it that righteous Naboth was stoned to death for refusing to sell his inheritance (I Kings 21), Herodias cunningly used her daughter to take advantage of the perverse lusts of Herod in order to have the “just and holy” John beheaded. John the Baptist died a martyr for his testimony against the adulterous marriage of Herod and Herodias. In the adulterous generation of today, both in the world and the church, we can expect the same reaction when we witness to the biblical truth of marriage, divorce, and remarriage as it is taught in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

It is especially during the Christmas time of year, the time of family gatherings, that pressure to silence our witness regarding marriage, divorce, remarriage, and fornication is intense. There are those who want a carnal, earthly peace, apart from Christ who, in his coming, brings a sword (Matt. 10:34). So, they are shamefully silent about Jesus’ teaching of marriage and without rebuke welcome into their fellowship those who live impenitently in the sins of adultery and fornication, among others. And as Matthew 10:33 puts it, they “deny” Christ so that they may have the favor of their sinning relatives, as if Christ never came with a sword of division (Matt. 10:34-39).

But like John the Baptist, God calls us to martyrdom; maybe not physical death—yet—but the murder of our name and reputation for Christ’s sake, because of our confession of his truth, including his truth about marriage. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you (for confessing Jesus’ teaching on marriage), and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets (John the Baptist among them) which were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).

For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them…And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:5-7, 11).


Previous articles in this blog series:


This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.


Synod 1987 (2)

In the last post I quoted from several sections of the Protestant Reformed Churches’ (PRC) 1987 Synodical decision regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. In this post I want to point out that Synod 1987 explicitly spelled out the way in which there is “freedom from the sin of adultery” and the conditions under which one would be received into the fellowship of the church having lived in the sin of adultery. We read from the 1987 Acts of Synod,

  1. Classis East's decision is not the acceptance of a remarried couple (one or both of whom have been previously divorced) into the church upon confession of the sin of adultery.
  2. Rather Classis East's decision would lead us to accept into the Church only individuals upon their legal divorce (separation) and confession of the sin of adultery (p. 33).

And what did Synod 1987 declare about “freedom from the sin of adultery?”

One is free of the sin and guilt of adultery in this matter of an adulterous marriage, when: 1. He ceases to live (co-habitate) with his spouse in the adulterous marriage. 2. He confesses his sin of adultery before God and publically renounces his evil vows of marriage to a divorced person (Acts, p. 35).

The decision of Synod 1987 is the official, biblical and binding decision of the Protestant Reformed Churches on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. This decision is binding on all Protestant Reformed officebearers and governs their preaching, teaching, writing, polemics, advice, and all their ecclesiastical labors. This decision is binding upon every Protestant Reformed consistory, both the Foreign and Domestic Mission Committees and the Contact Committee.

And this decision is a governing principle in all of our ecumenical relations. It is decisive in our relations with sister churches. It is decisive when we make new contacts around the world and when these contacts ask for advice. It is decisive when we send observers to NAPARC. There is not one member church of NAPARC that agrees with the Protestant Reformed position on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Indeed, all NAPARC member churches approve the adultery of remarriage after divorce. Protestant Reformed observers to NAPARC may not be silent on this issue.

Finally, this decision governs the lives of every member of the Protestant Reformed Churches. It governs the marriages of the members of these churches. It is an encouragement to those who have been abandoned by unfaithful spouses and must remain unmarried for the rest of their earthly lives. And this decision gives instruction as to our proper response to those, perhaps among our relatives, who live in the sin of adultery.

Luke 16:18: Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.”

I Corinthians 7:10, 11: “And unto the married I command, yet not I but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.”


This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.


Synod 1987 (1)

There has been some discussion lately about the Protestant Reformed position on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Those who are younger (perhaps 45 years old or younger) may not know that the Protestant Reformed Churches  have an official, synodical decision on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Let's go back to 1987.

I quote from Article 14 of Synod 1987 regarding the history of how the matters of marriage, divorce, and remarriage came to the Synod of that year (1987 Acts of Synod of the PRC, pp. 28).

      1. In May of 1986 Classis East took a decision in regard to marriage, divorce, and remarriage in which it decreed that one married to a divorced person is indeed married and not at liberty to remarry as long as the spouse lives.
      2. The decision of Classis East was protested by several individuals... and one consistory.
      3. Classis East, after considering these protests, sustained their original decision of May 1986 in October 1986.
      4. Synod has before it seven appeals against these decisions of Classis East. Synod 1987 sustained “the decision of Classis East of May 1986 as explained and supported by Classis' decision of October 1986” (Acts, pp. 29). The decision reads,

       “That the marriage of divorced persons is a marriage before God and the Church, and though a sinful marriage, it is a legal union established by the State, as the servant of God” and that “a man divorced from a woman previously married and divorced has not the right to marry another for he is married and a proposed marriage would constitute remarriage while one's spouse lives.”

In sustaining Classis East, Synod grounded its decision on a careful explanation of several Bible passages. Grounds b. 2., b. 3. and c. read:

        b. 2. Jesus Himself calls the relationship between a divorced woman and the man whom she remarries, marriage, in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9.
        b. 3. Jesus, therefore, speaks of an “adulterous marriage."
        c. Because Jesus defines the union of a divorced woman and the man she remarries as marriage, in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9, the Biblical prohibition of remarriage applies to the man who was married to a divorced woman, as long as this woman lives (Luke 16:18) (Acts pp. 29, 30).

Grounds e. and f. of this decision are worth remembering as well.

        e. The decision of Classis East applies basic Biblical truths about marriage held by the Protestant Reformed Churches, viz. the life-long permanency of marriage and impermissibility of remarriage while a former spouse lives, to the case of one formerly married to a divorced person.
        f. The decision of Classis East in this exceptional marriage case serves well, practically, to guard against any weakening in the fellowship of the Protestant Reformed Churches of the stand that a person once married may not remarry during the lifetime of the one to whom he was originally married (Acts, pp. 30, 31).

This decision of the Protestant Reformed Synod of 1987 also set forth the conditions under which those living in an adulterous marriage would be received into the fellowship of the church and the way in which one is free from the sin and guilt of living in an adulterous marriage. These binding decisions have very practical implications for all of the officebearers and members of the Protestant Reformed Churches.

More on this in the next post.


This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 


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