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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...

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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, Classis East's...

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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...

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