Response to Steven Harper's Article:
"Arguing an Impossible Hypothesis"

by Tim Haile

February 28, 2004

   On February 14th, 2004, Steven Harper posted a Burns Park church of Christ bulletin article to Bible Matters entitled, "Arguing An Impossible Hypothesis." This article is another of brother Harper's attempts to explain how the God-given right for an innocent spouse to put away his fornicator-mate and marry another is nullified by the prior unlawful actions taken by that godless mate. Brother Harper believes that if the innocent spouse is unlawfully divorced by his godless, covenant-breaking mate, the innocent spouse has no right to put that godless mate away for his subsequent fornication. Brother Harper believes that the godless mate's fornication is rendered irrelevant as a result of it being committed after he had already departed from his innocent spouse. Brother Harper has the innocent spouse of this scenario bound to the fornicator for life. Jesus taught that an innocent spouse has the right to put away his bound mate for fornication and marry another (Matt. 19:9a). Brother Harper believes this may be done provided the innocent spouse was not beaten to the putting-away action by the godless mate. Jesus said, "except it be for fornication" (Matt. 19:9a). Brother Harper accepts the Lord's provision but he doesn't think it goes far enough. His position compels him to attach an additional provision requiring the innocent spouse to be the first to put away. This provision is required by Steven Harper, but it is nowhere required by Jesus.

   In this article, though he did not mention our names, brother Harper quoted me and brother Reeves in order to make his arguments. Throughout this response, I will therefore be making references to what brother Reeves and I have either said, or not said. Here are the quotes. The first one is from brother Reeves. The second one is from me.

"If the ungodly spouse puts asunder the marriage relationship, is there another physical marriage relationship that the innocent mate can put asunder? No. Is there anything else that can be done by the innocent mate? Yes, the innocent mate, upon the occurrence of fornication by the ungodly spouse, can certainly do something. He can exercise his God-given right to repudiate the fornicator by renouncing his vows made to him. Upon this action, God looses the innocent one from his vows made to the guilty spouse, thus giving the innocent one permission to remarry without committing adultery."

"One should not be charged with a 'waiting game' position because he says the innocent may repudiate the guilty even when the fornication is committed after the fornicator leaves the marriage first. In most cases, the fornicator does leave his spouse in order to commit fornication. Jesus did not specify how much time may pass between the fornicator's 'departing' from his innocent mate, and the commission of his sin (fornication)."

   Brother Harper attempted to compare our teaching to that done by 1st century Sadducees. He referenced their question dealing with a "hypothetical situation," then desperately and unsuccessfully tried to connect us to those Sadducees. He wrote:

"It seems we have some Sadducees among us once again! These modern-day Sadducees are those who are teaching that a woman who has been put away not for fornication, and whose husband [who has already put her away] commits fornication after the divorce, may now 'put away' this man and remarry without being called an adulteress. The argument that is being proffered is that of the 'repudiation rights of the innocent' - 'rights' that 'cannot be taken away by the ungodly actions' of an ungodly mate. Like the Sadducees of Jesus' time, these men are denying the very words of Jesus: when a woman who has been put away not for the cause of fornication remarries, she commits adultery (Matt. 19:9b; Luke 16:18b)."

   Brother Harper's comparison and conclusion are both false.

   Brother Harper seems to have overlooked the fact that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Sadducees' question! Yes, it was hypothetical, but Jesus answered it (Matt. 22:29-32)! Even though the Sadducees' scenario was not specifically addressed in Mosaic law, their question was entirely legitimate. By answering the question, Jesus attested to its legitimacy. And Jesus' answer put them to silence (Matt. 22:34)!

   Brother Harper's application of this story backfires on him. What about the question of a woman's right to put away her husband for fornication? By brother Harper's standard it would be Sadducaical to ask such a question! He would be arguing "an impossible hypothesis." Right? Brother Harper knows that the Bible doesn't specifically address this question. He knows that this question is answered only by combining and applying the principles of passages that speak of a man's actions in putting away his wife. Brother Harper's argument indicts him as being a "Sadducee" when he answers this question. He is guilty of the very thing of which he charges us.

   Brother Harper later charged us with violating the silence of the Scriptures. He alleges this on the basis of our applying New Testament principles to a divorce scenario not specifically addressed by Jesus. Brother Harper has about as much understanding of the principle of the silence of the Scriptures as he does of necessary inference! Perhaps a brief lesson is in order.

   One does not violate God's silence by applying biblical principles to cases, questions, circumstances and scenarios not specifically contained in the Bible. One violates the silence of the Scripture by adding an entirely different principle or practice to what the Bible allows. Brother Harper is inconsistent on this point. I have noticed that on other subjects he has no reluctance to apply biblical principles to cases and circumstances not specifically addressed in Scripture. Using brother Harper's definition, he has violated "the silence of the Scriptures" when he allows a woman to put away her fornicator-husband. Brother Harper condemns me and brother Reeves for doing what he does. He should read Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 2:1 and Proverbs 26:7. "The legs of the lame are not equal."

   Matthew 19:9a teaches that an innocent spouse may put away his mate for fornication and marry another without committing adultery. I wonder if brother Harper has ever considered how we are taught this truth? Assuming that brother Harper does agree that an innocent spouse may put his mate away for fornication and marry another, upon what does he base his conclusion? Does he base it on "the silence of the Scriptures?" No, he (and anyone else who reaches this conclusion) reaches it on the basis of necessary inference. This truth is taught in Matthew 19:9a by divine implication. Activating the fornication exception clause leads us to this conclusion.

   Please go back and read the last part of brother Harper's above quote. He cited Matthew 19:9b and Luke 16:18b to prove that a put away woman "commits adultery" by remarrying. Brother Harper, where did you read this? Where in Matthew 19:9b or Luke 16:18b does the Bible say that the put-away woman "commits adultery?" I wonder which version of the Bible brother Harper is using? Both passages explicitly say that a man commits adultery by marrying the put away woman, but they do not explicitly say that the woman commits adultery. Of course, this woman does commit adultery, but we learn this from necessary inference. Brother Harper repeatedly cites these verses, claiming that a put-away woman "commits adultery" by marrying another. Should we accuse brother Harper of basing his position on "the silence of the Scriptures?" Should we accuse him of being a "Sadducee?" Is he arguing "an impossible hypothesis?" No, he is arguing on the basis of necessary inference. Honesty requires me to be fair and accurate in my assessment of brother Harper's position. I will not make the kind of wild, ill-conceived and baseless charge that brother Harper made against me and brother Reeves. Though he obviously has not considered this before, brother Harper is not arguing from God's silence if he allows an innocent wife to put away her fornicator-husband and marry another. Nor does he argue from God's silence when he asserts that the woman of Matthew 19:9b and Luke 16:18b commits adultery upon remarriage. He argues these things from necessary inference. I do not falsely charge brother Harper on the basis of my own misunderstanding of the principle of God's silence! Though he has been careless in his wording, and hypocritical in his applications, brother Harper is correct when he charges the woman of Matthew 19:9b and Luke 16:18b with committing adultery. By necessary inference, we know that the put-away woman of the particular divorce scenario addressed by Jesus in Matthew 19:9b and Luke 16:18b does commit adultery by marrying another man. However, we don't know this from direct statement - we know it because it is taught by divine implication. By implication, what is true of the man is also true of the woman. Brother Harper is correct when he charges this woman with committing adultery when she marries another, but he is hypocritical when he condemns others for using the same hermeneutical approach in interpreting and applying the principles of these same verses to other cases.

   Luke 16:18a is as much an absolute statement as is Luke 16:18b! Let the reader observe carefully that brother Harper excludes Luke 16:18a from his reference. Luke 16:18a reads:

"Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery..."

   His position demands that he ignore the first part of the verse. Brother Harper's argument ignores the fact that BOTH parties in Luke 16:18 commit adultery upon remarriage. By marrying another, the putting-away man commits adultery just like the man who married the put-away woman. Why? Because the only cause that Jesus gave for putting away and remarrying was fornication and no fornication is in evidence in Luke 16:18! But he applies this passage to a scenario in which fornication IS in evidence. Luke 16:18 says:

"Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery."

   Brother Harper binds part b of this verse as an absolute statement, but he cannot do this with part a! He knows that not every putting-away man commits adultery by marrying another. He knows that Luke 16:18a is qualified by the exception clause in Matthew 19:9a. (Notice that brother Harper uses necessary inference when it is convenient for him. However, according to brother Harper, others, like brother Reeves and myself, are not permitted to employ this method of determining truth. When we do it, according to brother Harper, we are guilty of violating the silence of the Scriptures!) Brother Harper overlooks the fact that the presence of fornication changes the consequences of the putting-away and remarriage actions (cp. Matt. 19:9a and Lk. 16:18).

   Does Steve Harper believe that Lk. 16:18a teaches: "Whosever puts away her husband and marries another, commits adultery"? I would assume that he does believe this. Now, does the exception clause of Matthew 19:9a apply to HER (as it does to the husband's putting away his wife)? If she puts away her husband for fornication, does she commit adultery upon remarrying? If HE doesn't, why does SHE? Is not an unlawfully put-away wife still the wife of the husband who so put her away? Here is a question for brother Harper: "If a wife, not for fornication, puts away her husband, does he commit adultery upon remarriage?" If he answers yes, how does he know that (without being a "Sadducee" and without "arguing an impossible hypothesis)?

   Brother Harper represented us as allowing a put-away "woman" to remarry. I assume that this was a careless mistake on his part, but the reader may be dangerously misled by his inadequate wording. In the very quotes that he later cited, brother Reeves and I used the word INNOCENT to describe the condition of the unlawfully put-away spouse. Bother Harper failed to attach this important description when attempting to represent our view. Jesus taught that an innocent spouse has the God-given right to repudiate his fornicator-mate and marry another without committing adultery (Matt. 19:9a).

   As I mentioned above, brother Harper produced quotes from me and brother Reeves where we defended the right of an innocent spouse to put away his fornicator mate even in cases where the fornicator had already taken some prior (unlawful) divorce action against him. He then made these remarks:

"No Scripture is offered, however, that would support these hypotheticals and their erroneous conclusions, and we are left to either believe or disbelieve based on...what? One of the men who wrote this - like Homer Hailey when his error was exposed - has been preaching for decades; Is this supposed to be justification? Men who have argued loud and long for decades that we cannot presume to act on the silence of the Scriptures are now doing just that with this subject, and some of these men have even admitted that such a hypothetical scenario cannot be found anywhere within Scripture - but proceed to defend their erroneous arguments nonetheless."

   Where, brother Harper, "anywhere within Scripture," is the "scenario" of a wife putting away her husband for fornication? What Scripture would you "offer" that supports this "hypothetical?" Obviously, brother Harper hasn't thought this through very well at all.

   Brother Harper is wrong when he charges us with offering "no Scripture." I have repeatedly cited Matthew 19:9 in defense of my conclusion. Does brother Harper not classify Matthew 19:9 as "Scripture?" Matthew 19:9 teaches (by implication) that an innocent spouse has the God-given right to put his mate away for fornication and marry another without committing adultery. This verse well supports my position! It is actually brother Harper who lacks scriptural support for his position. He needs a verse that teaches that the innocent person may exercise this divinely given putting-away right provided that some previous divorce action has not already been taken against him. Brother Harper's position requires an additional exception clause. His position REQUIRES Matthew 19:9 read as follows:

"And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and except he be the first to put away, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."

   Harper's version of Matthew 19:9 adds a condition nowhere mentioned in Scripture. He has added to the word of God. He has no Scripture for his proviso, yet he chides us for offering no Scripture!

   My position is not based upon the silence of the Scriptures; it is based upon a necessary inference from the direct statement in Matthew 19:9. Before hurling any more accusations, brother Harper needs to do more study on the subject of the silence of the Scriptures, as well as basic principles of establishing Bible authority.

   After quoting me and brother Reeves, brother Harper tried to make a point about the fact that "one of these men has been preaching for decades..." Well, I have been preaching for just over 2 decades, but I really think Steven has reference to Bill Reeves. Brother Reeves has been preaching for six decades. Regardless of which one of us it is, neither of us has ever appealed to our preaching tenure to justify our teaching about the rights of the innocent party! Has brother Harper seen evidence that suggests that some people accept brother Reeves' arguments, or my arguments on the mere basis of how long we have been preaching? Or does he merely surmise that some believe this? Brother Reeves and I have gone straight to the words of Jesus in order to make our arguments. Contrary to this, brother Harper asserts and binds his own opinions. He imagines Jesus limiting the innocent person's putting-away right by the unlawful action taken by his godless, fornicating mate. He certainly hasn't read it in the Bible!

   It appears that brother Harper needs even more lessons in biblical hermeneutics. By comparing brother Reeves to brother Hailey, brother Harper suggests that he doesn't know the difference between law and the application of law! Brother Hailey changed the law. Brother Reeves has not. Like me, brother Reeves teaches that fornication must be present before a lawful putting-away can occur (Matt. 5:32a; 19:9a). As I understand it, this is also what brother Harper claims to teach. If it is not, I hereby publicly challenge him to an oral discussion of our differences. I will affirm that the Scriptures teach that an innocent spouse has the God-given right to put away his fornicator-mate and marry another. Brother Harper can deny this if he is so inclined, and the debate can be scheduled. If, however, he refuses to deny my proposition on the grounds that it is what he also believes, then he admits to teaching what I teach. So, where is our disagreement? Not on the scriptural rule; it must be in the area of application. Brother Harper affirms that Christ's rule CANNOT be applied except when he permits it. He sees himself as qualified to pick the times when Christ's rule can be applied. He is wrong. He is guilty of substituting his opinion in place of the truth, and binding it upon his brethren. By definition, this makes brother Harper a heretic.

   Brother Harper said, "some of these men have even admitted that such a hypothetical scenario cannot be found anywhere within Scripture." Well, brother Harper, what about the hypothetical scenario not (explicitly) found in the Scriptures of the innocent wife putting away her fornicator-husband? Does brother Harper know of a Scripture that explicitly states this? No! He does what he condemns us for doing: he uses necessary inference. On the other hand, if HE can address his scenario by necessary inference, so can WE address the scenario of the unlawfully put-away wife's repudiating her fornicator-mate.

Brother Harper also wrote:

"The aim of this article is to show that this 'second putting away' that these men are teaching is not only without a Scriptural basis to defend it, but by the very word used to describe 'putting away,' such action is impossible! The word we will consider today is the oft-referred-to Greek word for 'divorce' or 'putting away': apoluw [apoluo]. Let me say, first of all, that in no translation I know of is the word apoluo translated 'repudiate' [or any form of that word], so we will stick to the words commonly used in most translations. The insertion of the word 'repudiation' into this discussion is only a diversion to try to get us to forget that what we are talking about is 'divorce.' [Can someone divorce the spouse who has already divorced him or her?]"

   A "second putting away" by whom, brother Harper? You made this statement in quotes. Where did you get the statement? Who teaches a "second putting away?" Not me! Not brother Reeves! Some may use this term loosely, but technically, a "second" putting-away leads to adultery (Matt. 5:32). I have written and preached openly against such a concept. Brother Harper has made a very reckless charge against us. As I have repeatedly stated in my articles, a "second" putting away flatly violates Matthew 5:32. The exercise of the innocent person's divinely given putting-away right is not a "second putting-away." It is simply a putting-away! It is the only putting-away that he does! The innocent person does not put away twice. If brother Harper wishes to accurately represent the position that we hold and teach, let him speak of a lawful putting-away that is done by the innocent party. This lawful putting-away is different from the unlawful one that is done by the fornicator. Both divorces are real, but one is approved by God, and the other one is not. In the case of a lawful divorce, God releases only the innocent party from the restraints of the marriage bond. In cases of unlawful divorce, God releases no one. Jesus was asked if it is lawful for one to put away his wife for every cause (Matt. 19:3). Jesus answered the question, teaching that it is lawful for one to put away his wife for fornication, but for no other reason (Matt. 19:9a). The godless mate's divorce actions are unlawful and unapproved, and so they do not in any way affect the marriage bond! I remind the reader that Jesus was not asked about a scenario involving an unlawful putting-away. He was asked about what was lawful for a man (and woman, by implication) to do (Matt. 19:3).

   Another way for brother Harper to accurately represent our position in such a scenario is for him to refer to the innocent person's lawful putting-away as a subsequent putting-away. It is subsequent to the unlawful putting-away. Brother Harper has falsely accused us. He must do this in order to win his argument. He must use his choice of words in order to bias his hearers and readers.

   Brother Harper said he had seen no translation that used the word "repudiate" to translate the Greek word "apoluo." Obviously, brother Harper is concerned only with English translations. Spanish and Portuguese translations, to mention only two languages, use the word "repudiate" to translate apoluo. Millions of people who read those translations read the word "repudiar" (repudiate) in Matthew 19:9 and elsewhere. Keep in mind that many of our brethren elsewhere in the world do not use English translations. Such do not ever see the English word "divorce" when they read their Bibles! J.H. Thayer used the word "repudiate" to define the word "apoluo." I wonder if brother Harper believes that Thayer was wrong to use the word repudiate to define apoluo "when used of divorce?" Perhaps brother Harper sees himself as more qualified than Thayer on this point?

   Don't be fooled by brother Harper's objection to the word "repudiate." He does this by design. He likes the word "divorce" because of its legal connotation. The Greek word "apoluo" has no inherent legal connotation, and that is exactly why he doesn't like the word "repudiate." It has no legal connotation either!

   Brother Harper cited certain passages in an effort to show that once the action of apoluo is taken, there remains no more possibility of its being done again. Of course, brother Harper was forced to use examples of one-sided action. He spoke of relationships of only one to another, not both to each other! Marriage is a mutual relationship! His examples don't fit the marriage relationship. He wrote:

"Matthew 14:22, 23. Here, Jesus sent [apoluo] the multitudes away. We are not told the exact procedure that was followed in doing this, but we may logically conclude that it involved some measure of persuasion on the part of Jesus to get them to leave, and the people then physically departing. [When He went up on the mountain, He was by Himself, v. 23.] When Jesus sent the multitude away [apoluo] and they departed, this precluded [made impossible] the multitude from sending Jesus away. Since they were already away from His physical presence, it was not possible for them to send Him away [apoluo]. [The same applies for Matt. 15:39; also Luke 14:4 when He 'let go' the healed man.] Are we to believe this multitude could 'send away' Jesus after He had already sent them away and they had departed?"

   Brother Harper's illustration is not analogous to marriage. In marriage, two people vow to each other, and in divorce, two people are able to disavow and repudiate each other. Of course, only one putting-away is approved by God (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Brother Harper's argument has another hole in it. He seems to be suggesting that just because Jesus sent the crowd away He could not have this same action taken against him. The one who sends away can be, on another occasion, the one who is sent away. Furthermore, Jesus was not married to the crowds that He sent away. Marriage involves far more than just a physical togetherness. There is more to put away than just a physical connection. Being repudiated by a fornicator-mate does not keep an innocent party from repudiating the fornicator.

   Brother Harper makes a worse mistake with Matthew 18:27. The passage does not help him at all. He wrote:

"Matthew 18:27. When the master forgave [apoluo] the debtor, the debtor could not forgive [apoluo] the master, for he had nothing to forgive [send away; dismiss]; the master owed him nothing. What was forgiven [sent away; dismissed; apoluo] was the debt of the servant. Once that was completed, the servant had nothing left to do regarding his responsibility to the master on that matter. Are we to believe that after this man had been forgiven [apoluo] the debt, he could go back to the master and forgive [apoluo] him of something? If so, what?"

   Brother Harper's bias prevents him from seeing the basic truth that is expressed in this passage. Jesus is teaching about forgiveness (see also Lk. 6:37, where apoluo is also used). Does brother Harper believe that two people who have wronged each other cannot forgive each other? Is only one allowed to forgive? Being forgiven does not prohibit one from forgiving. In order to make this passage analogous to marriage, brother Harper needs to have both parties forgiving each other. Brother Harper has made a very poor application of the principle in this passage. He ignores the fact that just as two people can wrong each other, two people can forgive each other.

   Brother Harper also cited the example of Pilate releasing (apoluo) one from captivity (Matt. 27:17). But the relationship between Pilate and Barabbas was not parallel to the marriage relationship. Surely brother Harper can see the difference. Marriage is an equal, bilateral contract between a man and a woman. Does brother Harper see marriage between a man and a woman as an equal relationship, or does he see it as a Pilate/Barabbas type of relationship? If so, in brother Harper's own personal marriage, is he Pilate or is he Barabbas? If he sees himself as Pilate, then I sure do feel sorry for his wife!

   After failing to prove his point by these non-analogous uses of the Greek word apoluo, brother Harper said:

 "Some would now want to go to Matthew 5:32 or 19:9 or Mark 10:11, 12 and say this is somehow different. How so? The Greek word apoluo - [translated as divorce, put away, sent away, dismiss, forgive, release, let go, let depart, loose, set free, but not ever as repudiate] - by its usage in every other passage in the New Testament precludes [makes impossible] any further action regarding the action or relationship under consideration. The one sent away could not then send away the one who had sent them away. The one forgiven had nothing to forgive the other party. The one set free had no authority or ability to then set the other free [nor did they need to do so]. 'But what about the 'God-given' rights of the innocent?' Jesus further precluded him or her from remarrying when He said, 'whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery' (Matt. 5:32b), and 'whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.' (Matt. 19:9b)"

   Again, brother Harper, "apoluo" is translated by repudiate in some translations, and millions of other people know it because they read it in their Bibles! You are simply wrong about this. J.H. Thayer used the word repudiate to define apoluo when the word is "used of marriage."

   There is a simple explanation for brother Harper's position denying the repudiation rights of a repudiated innocent party. He sees only a physical relationship when he thinks of biblical putting-away. He does not see the relationship suggested by the terms "wife" and "husband." He does not see a marriage bond! Herodias was "married" to Herod, but she was Philip's wife (Mk. 6:17), which emphasizes the bound relationship. The "departed" woman of 1 Corinthians 7:11 was "unmarried" with regard to the physical relationship, but the man from whom she had "departed" was still called her husband. She was still bound to him. Matthew 19:9 says one puts away (repudiates) his WIFE, not his physical marriage relationship! The Scriptures teach that a wife may put away her bound husband for the cause of fornication. Brother Harper has no argument at all.

   The put-away woman of Matthew 5:32b and 19:9b was by implication prohibited remarriage. But this was not because she had now been classified as a put-away woman! It was because her husband had not committed fornication! Jesus stated two consequences of a man doing what the Pharisees asked Him about in Matthew 19:3. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" Jesus answered that question in Matthew 19:9 and cited two consequences of the man's unlawful repudiation action:

  • The man who divorces his wife not for fornication commits adultery when he marries another.
  • The man who marries the put away woman commits adultery.


   I know for an absolute fact that, when fornication is committed, the innocent spouse's repudiation action relates to the marriage bond. It is implied by the fact that the innocent party is free to marry another following such putting away action! God does not free one to marry another unless He has released that one from the marriage bond. And if the innocent spouse's repudiation rights are indeed related to the marriage bond, then what difference does it make for the innocent spouse if his godless mate has already "departed" from him before committing his fornication? Brother Harper completely misses it when he bases the innocent person's repudiation right upon the status of the physical marriage relationship.

Tim Haile
7693 Russellville Rd.
Bowling Green, KY 42101

Review of Joel Gwin's Debate Charts | Home Page