Divorce and Remarriage (1)

Should the church allow divorcees to remarry? If the church were a fast food carry-out, this would surely be one of its hottest potatoes! The arguments have been well heated, and the very fact that there are so many arguments and debates shows that clear and unchanging Biblical guidelines do not actually exist. As David Cook said: “Once upon a time, there seemed to be a clear Christian line on most moral issues. Now it seems as if any moral view will be held by Christians. The recent debates concerning homosexuality and divorce and re-marriage illustrate the point.”

It may be said that the church has always been good at making rules, but people have not always been so good at keeping them. Traditionally, the church has outlawed divorce and remarriage, even if some people’s alternative has been interesting. Aas White points out: “Erasmus preferred bigamy to divorce. Some Anabaptists, some Roman Catholics, and some rationalists too, defended polygamy, as common in the Old Testament, not forbidden in the New. Luther, too, is said to have expressed the opinion that polygamy is not prohibited by the New Testament.”

In taking the clear but legalistic line of outlawing remarriage, the church has traditionally pointed back to the account of the Creation and other Old Testament Scriptures, and emphasised the unbreakable nature of marriage and the impossibility of divorce. (See: Deut. 24:1,2: 27:20-23; Ex 20:14,17; 21:10,11; 22:16; Lev. 20:10-21; Lev. 18:6-23; Mal 2:14-16)

Those who arrive at the negative answer to the question of remarriage of divorcees are sometimes seen as legalistic because of the way in which they, like Campbell, express their convictions: “I am also convinced that ‘re-marriage’ is without scriptural foundation, and should therefore be rejected. I, as a minister of God, and born again Christian, cannot, and would not perform a marriage ceremony over a divorced couple.” Such a legalistic attitude will certainly help this minister to curb any trend of excessive numerical growth in his fellowship! 

But will it also alienate people from the church, and therefore from God? Where an individual, a church or a denomination takes a legalistic line such as that of Campbell quoted above, there are inherent risks involved.  In a discussion article in the Baptist Minister’s Journal, Colin Cartwright concluded: “The Church of England’s present policy of generally preventing re-marriage in church risks a greater danger than appearing to condone divorce. This greater danger is more than the pragmatic consideration of alienating thousands of people from the church. It is the more profound danger of misrepresenting God’s nature expressed in the gospel of Christ.”

While it is not difficult to believe that God ordained marriage and hates divorce, it is also clear that God did allow divorce on some occasions, because of the hardness of the human heart. There are, however, some who argue that the Old Testament Scriptures are not relevant, since the church did not come into being until the New Testament. So what was on the menu in the New Testament?

MANY INGREDIENTS, BUT WHAT IS THE RECIPE?

The words of Jesus, amongst other Scriptures, have been often quoted during the long debates about divorce and remarriage, but no standard ruling has been arrived at for Christians in general. (Consider: Matt 5:31,32; 19:3-11; Mk 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Rom 7:1-3; 1 Cor 7: 2,10-15,39)

Perhaps Marshall has a helpful and important point to make, with which few would disagree: “Jesus regarded divorce as an outrage; the idea of marriage as a purely temporary arrangement, easily dissoluble, was foreign to his thought; and the Jewish practice of divorce, often enough on the flimsiest grounds, appeared in his eyes as a scandal.”

Marshall’s words raise the question of what Jesus (and the New Testament writers) held marriage to be. Marshall goes on to say: “At the same time, it must be clearly recognised that Jesus was not framing any law for the statute book of the state. His teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, like other hard sayings of his, is fully applicable only to those who are citizens of the Kingdom of God, who spontaneously accept God’s will as the law of their lives, and who consequently adopt the divine idea of marriage.” This point is also made by Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Surely the view of marriage held by a couple about to be married will have a significant impact on their commitment to that marriage. If marriage is merely a convenience for as long as the partners want it but it can then be walked away from whenever they wish to do so, it is unrealistic to expect them to have a deep and lasting commitment to their marriage. Richard Hays is in no doubt about what the commitment to marriage should be: “Permanent, monogamous marriage is the norm; Christians are called upon to see their marriages as expressions of discipleship and to renounce divorce.”

The debate about remarriage in the church uses the Scriptures and many other words to state the argument from one side or the other. But the words that a person has used must always be taken in the context in which they were given, and the Scriptures are no different. Very often we do not know the whole of the situation in which words were used, and this must surely make it difficult to use the Scriptures in a dogmatic way. If there is no absolute ruling on an issue in the Scriptures, then it is unwise to make an absolute rule that Christians should follow.

For any Church or State absolutely to forbid divorce to all and sundry on the strength of the teaching of Jesus – which is fully applicable only to citizens of the Kingdom of God – would be to turn idealism into legalism, and would ultimately defeat the purpose of Jesus by worsening a situation which he sought to improve.

The witness of the Spirit through the Scriptures in the issues of divorce and remarriage is one of choosing the best, or least damaging, way out of a situation.  The Bible is not to be used as a rule book, but as a reference manual to help to lead people towards the best solution. 

As Frank Law said: “I am persuaded that no moral principle is completely autonomous to itself.  This is why Christians say that God is a God of love and mercy, but also a God of justice and judgment. Complexity, not contradiction, is involved in such instances. In other words, whenever moral laws and principles come into direct and unavoidable conflict with each other, and due to circumstances it is impossible to comply with all of them, it is our moral duty and obligation to choose the highest level of good possible.”