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J.W. McGarvey

The heading which I append to this article may startle precisely the subject on which I write, and the subject demands, at the present time, a startling method of treatment.

During the last few years I have received many letters asking for advice in reference to the marriage of divorced persons, and I know other brethren who have received many similar letters. It would astonish anyone, not familiar with the subject, to know the multitude of persons who are married in violation of God’s Word; who are, consequently, living in legalized adultery; whose consciences give them unspeakable trouble; but who find themselves moral imbeciles when they think of severing the bonds of sin in which they are united. I have met but one person thus situated who had the courage and the devotion to duty, when the subject had been fairly canvassed, to promise a dissolution of the unholy relation.

If this sin were confined to private and uninformed members of the church, we might be less alarmed at its prevalence, and hope that the united voices of preachers, teachers, and rulers in the church would, ere long, put a check on it. But preachers themselves are being led away by their lusts, and we confess that the aspects of the case are alarming.


I have now before me the cases of two preachers, one in the mountains of Kentucky, and one in the heart of Missouri, who have recently obtained divorces for other than Scriptural causes, and entered into adulterous wedlock. The former case is stated as follows: The man was an ordained preacher in the Baptist Church. For some cause, not stated, his wife left him. He obtained a divorce and married again, taking, as his second wife, a woman who was living in his house when his lawful wife left him. He was excluded, as he should have been, from the Baptist Church, but was received into a Christian congregation, and made one of its elders! The other Christian congregations in the vicinity are scandalized by this procedure, and ask advice as to what they should do. They have no remedy, of course, except to treat the man himself as an adulterer, having no fellowship with him, and to use all possible moral influences to induce the congregation to withdraw from him.

The other case is that of a young preacher who had a Catholic wife, and for reasons which possibly, but not certainly, justified him, left her and took with him all but one of his children. After living apart from her for several years, he obtained a divorce and took another wife. Soon after this second marriage he applied for membership in a certain church, and the question was raised, whether he should be received. It is to be hoped that no church in Missouri, or else-where, will either receive him as a member, or allow him to enter the pulpit until he dissolves the connection and makes an ample provision for the woman whom he has misled. If he was married by a preacher, the church of which this preacher is a member should require of him a hearty repentance and a public repudiation of his part in the unholy transaction.


I am not ignorant of the fact that the parties to these unscriptural marriages affect to find justification for themselves in the instruction of Paul on this subject: He says, “If the unbelieving [husband or wife] depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases;” but he does not say, that after the unbeliever has departed the believer may marry again; nor can the statement that “the brother or sister is not in bondage in such cases,” be construed as implying this; for in the very same context, the apostle says, “Let not the wife depart from her husband; but, and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” (See I Cor. 7:15; 10:11.) He does not hold it to be a crime to live apart from a husband in certain cases, but he does hold it to be sinful to contract a second marriage while the husband lives. Furthermore, the Savior himself makes the sin of adultery consist, not in the separation, but in the second marriage; it is he who puts away his wife for any other sin than fornication, and marries another that commits adultery. (See Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11.)

Just previous to commencing this article, I was looking over the Christian Standard, and was pleased to find, in answer to a query, a clear and strong statement of the truth on which we insist. The query and answer are as follows:

Two young persons were married, both members of the church. After they were married awhile, he thinking he could better himself pecuniarily, located at a place some distance from her parents. They were dissatisfied and wrote to her to come home and leave him. Finally they wrote her that her mother was sick, and if she would see her she must come at once. He sent her immediately; that has now been nearly seven years, and she has never returned. For a good while he wrote to her and sent her money, and when she did not come to him, he went to see her; but she refused to go with or to tell him her reason for not going. Since that time he has gone to see her, and done all in his power to have the trouble settled, and has failed. She has never charged him with anything wrong, and all who knew them while they lived together, will testify that he treated her kindly, and provided well for her. Now, the question: Is he obliged to go through the world alone, or would he sin if he obtained a legal separation, and married someone that would live with him? Please give your views of the Scriptures bearing on this subject. A.O.D.

That the wife is wrong in this case, cannot be doubted. She refuses obedience to her husband, and refuses to perform her marriage vows. She is, in the strongest sense, a covenant-breaker, and the church should deal with her as such, and also with those who persuade her to that course of action, and thus become participants in her sin.

But now, as to the husband. He can “let her depart” (I Cor. 7:15). He is not “under bondage” in such a case. He is not bound to continue his suit to her, nor to support her; and there may be good reasons why he should obtain a legal separation, and cut her off from all claim on him or his estate. But is he at liberty to marry again? We think not. See Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11, 12; Luke 16:18. The man who puts away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, “causeth her to commit adultery” by entering into a new and unlawful marriage connection. This is not less true of the woman who puts away her husband. There may be good reasons for separation, which still are not good reasons for marrying again.

This may seem hard in such a case as we are now considering. So is it hard if a wife proves to be insane, or is crippled for life. But they are hardships which must be endured for the sake of righteousness. The marriage bonds must be maintained inviolate, or the purity and permanency of society are at an end.

This is unquestionably a true statement of the Savior’s teaching; and however hard it may appear to a man “to go through the world alone,” as the querist expresses it; or, as it should be expressed, to restrain his passions for the sake of righteousness, the man who will not do it cannot be a disciple of Christ, and much less can he be a preacher of the gospel.

[This is from The Apostolic Times, Lexington, Kentucky, Jan. 11, 1877].



Since the publication of my recent article on the unscriptural marriage of divorced persons, I have received a number of communications from different parts of the country, expressing approval of what I have written, but calling for additional light on the subject.

One brother propounds the following question:

1. “If the husband leave the wife without sufficient cause, and marry again, does this adulterous life, on his part, give the wife a scriptural ground for divorce and the right to marry again?”

I think there can be no doubt that it does; for in this case adultery is unquestionably committed by the husband, and this, according to the Savior’s teaching, justifies the wife in contracting another marriage.

2. Another brother suggests an inquiry as to the proper method of proving the charge of adultery, when preferred as a ground for divorce. Certainly no man can be permitted to divorce his wife on a charge of adultery unsupported by valid proof. Suspicion, or his own unsupported assertion is not sufficient. The elders of the church must be satisfied that the charge is true, and the grounds of their decision must be such as to place the fact beyond the reach of reasonable doubt. If, in a suit before the civil courts, the charge of adultery is preferred, and is proved to the satisfaction of a jury, this is ordinarily sufficient evidence, and no further inquiry need be made, except when there is good ground to think that a fair trial in court has not been held. When this charge is not preferred before the courts, but the divorce is obtained on other grounds, the plaintiff holding, however, that this crime has been committed, it is the duty of the elders to decide on the truthfulness of the charge and to act accordingly.

The responsibility of the preacher who performs the ceremony in an unscriptural marriage, is also made a subject of inquiry. A marriage of a member of the church to a divorced woman once took place in a church where I was an elder. The elders learned from common rumor, some week or two in advance of the wedding, that it was to take place, and they promptly gave the man the proper advice and warning; but he persisted, and was excluded from the church. The preacher who performed the ceremony was a member of the same congregation, and was waited on to know why he had made himself a party to the sinful transaction. He solemnly asserted that he was ignorant of the fact that the woman had been divorced, and on this statement being made to the congregation, he was excused. A preacher who lives in a city, or in a place of common resort for wedding parties, is constantly liable to be led unwittingly to participate in such marriages, and it becomes him to be on his guard. It is very easy, as a general rule, to learn the facts in the case, and when a stranger proposes to be married to a widow, who is also a stranger, the inquiry should always be made whether she is a divorced woman, and, if so, the ground of her divorce.


Again, I am asked, whether a couple, who are known to be unscripturally married, but who come with letters of commendation from a sister church, should be received into the fellowship of the congregation. Without hesitation, I answer, no. In such a case it is known that the church granting the letter has done wrong in so doing, either intentionally or through ignorance, and if we receive the parties we are participating in the wrong. When a church letter is presented, it furnishes prima facie evidence of Christian character, and it must be accepted in the absence of conflicting evidence; but when the congregation into whose fellowship admission is sought, knows to the contrary, or has good reason to suspect the contrary, she must go behind the letter and judge for herself as to the reception of members into her body.

I hope there will be re-awakening of consciences among preachers, church officers, and church members, on this important subject. The church cannot afford to be stained with the guilt of adultery. If she dares thus to become defiled, her Lord will repudiate her as an unclean thing, and the world will scorn her as a painted hypocrite. It is a shame to Protestant churches that the law of Christ on this subject is more sacredly regarded and more strictly enforced by her whom we some-times call “The Mother of Harlots,” than by ourselves! Let us be abashed and humiliated, until we reform, and can lift up our heads and declare that the Protestant world has returned to the Word of the Lord on this vital element of social and religious life.

[This is from The Apostolic Times, Lexington, Kentucky, Feb. 8, 1877].

 Recommended articles:

Introducing the Church of Christ – Ronny Wade

God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey


The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”